Sunday, March 3, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Divine

 We're in a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy world. What does it mean that there are gods? That they can grant their followers magic powers? That it's possible for a mortal to become a god? That it's possible for a god to die?

Complete Divine (David Noonan) doesn't even pretend to address those questions. It's mostly just a pretty decent magic book. I shouldn't fault it for taking the Cleric, Druid, and Paladin classes for granted. It would be unreasonable of me to expect it to overturn 30 years of D&D failing to understand religious magic (or even, really, Christian miracles).

But I can't entirely get past it. The gods are just these guys, you know? There's a god of slaughter. Why is there a god of slaughter? And to be clear, I'm not saying there shouldn't be. But you've given this guy a bunch of priests and made those priests the same class as the Van Helsing-inspired priests of Pelor and the total nerds who worship Boccob, and . . . why is that? What is Erythnul's role in Dnd-land's culture? What stories do people tell about him? There's a historical precedent with man-slaughtering Ares, who was often scorned, but also a part of the fabric of Greek life. Does a farmer with a shrine to Pelor in their fields call upon the dark curses of Erythnul when the militia is in pitched battle with bandits or goblins?

No, of course not. The gods all run separate and parallel organizations. The situational evocation of different deities based on the needs of the moment is too complex. It doesn't let you put people into neat little boxes. Erthnul is an evil god, and so he has a bunch of evil followers who just want to do evil all day long.

I find it kind of hard to care about this style of worldbuilding. The Church Inquisitor prestige class has an alignment restriction of "Lawful Good or Lawful Neutral." Not only do we have the priests of slaughter setting up a tax-exempt religious organization, we've also got the good kind of Inquisition. And . . . I just . . . can't.

I mean, I guess I could, if I wanted to. There's some good flavor here. I really liked the Stormlord prestige class. Again, not sure why they're priests, but "cool lightning powers" is something I can get behind. It might be possible to break down the D&D pantheon and whip up a myth cycle that puts them all into a coherent cultural context.

How would I do it, exactly? As is traditional, the first thing to go would have to be alignment. After that, I'd go after the redundancies between the human and the non-human gods. Consolidate the overlapping roles under the more interesting of the two characters - so Erythnul becomes Gruumsh, Heironeous becomes Bahamut, etc. Then I'd try to work them into a creation story - an allegory for humanity's relationship with the natural world. 

Okay, so we've got Bahamut, who represents the force of law and that can be generalized to a benevolent organizing principle. So his counterpart, Tiamat, should represent base physical matter, the primordial elemental forces that make up creation, as befits her five dragon heads. It is the union between these two (a marriage? a battle? both?) that results in the current physical world - senseless, intractable matter brought under the rule of cosmic law. That, incidentally, suggests a metaphysical basis for magic. Perhaps a branch of theurgy that seeks to recreate this fusion in the microcosm.

Then we lead into the other gods. I keep thinking about the fact that Corellon's got two major antagonists - Gruumsh and Lolth. It makes me think that maybe he's the problem, that antagonism is part of his whole deal. If we approach him from that angle, I think we can roll D&D pantheon's other big antagonist pairing - Garl Glittergold vs Kurtulmak - into him as well. Corellon is GG now too. This screams "culture hero" to me. So let's define the pantheon around Corellon's rivalries. The eldest gods are the trio of Gruumsh, Lolth, and Kurtulmak, the original children of Bahamut and Tiamat.

What I want to say here is that Guumsh, Lolth, and Kurtulmak should represent a thematic triad. Specifically, they are the natural world as it is before it was tamed by human(oid) industry. What we know is that Gruumsh is all about battle and slaughter, Lolth is a trickster who is associated with darkness and spiders, and Kurtulmak . . . is kind of a joke, actually, though his associations with traps and kobolds offers some possibilities. Let's call them, collectively, the law of pure survival. The ancient terrors. The animal emotions - rage, fear, and hunger. Civilized people want to deny them, but they are always there. They will save your life when all your arts and knowledge and values have failed you. They are invoked into secrecy and desperate times, when there is an enemy you must destroy, a secret you must hide, or an object you must possess. 

Corellon represents the ability to operate outside that rubric. He is the rebel against the rule of survival, the Author of Joy, the god of skill and knowledge in the abstract and he has a thousand stories about things he invented, tricks he played on the first gods, victories against hatred, ignorance, and greed that he won through applied cleverness. I think he's an ascended mortal. And in true D&D fashion, I think the other major demihuman deities are an adventuring party he recruited to oppose the three. Kord was chosen to counter Gruumsh - strength used for protection, self-improvement, recreation, and honest competition, as opposed to "defeat means death, and thus victory at any cost." Yollanda has most of Pelor's purview now, and she is bright and honest and nurturing, in contrast to Lolth's tendency to horde secrets, hide in darkness, and look out only for herself. And Moradin is a counter to Kurtulmak. The cunning god of hunger uses his intellect to accumulate and consume and prey on others, but Moradin is about using craft to multiply blessings, to make the whole community richer than it was before.

All the intelligent species honor the entire pantheon, but there are nuances. Collectively, they are called "the Four, the Three, and the Two," and there's disagreements about what the emphasis for mortal devotion should be. Like, most organized settlements will say that the Four are the only suitable objects of worship. You call upon Kord when you've got hard work you have to do, Yollanda when you have an injury that needs healing, a child that needs to be cared for, or a crop that needs tending, Moradin when you are trying to build or create something, and Corellon when you need to do something really well. The Three are frequently invoked under this paradigm, but furtively. It's dark magic, and technically forbidden, but people do forbidden things all the time. The Two are considered too abstract to be much concerned with mortal affairs. There's a paladin order that's dedicated to Bahamut, but he's more of an ideal than a patron.

(Incidentally, the demihuman gods work a bit differently here. Instead of various peoples being created by particular gods, they all just sort of emerged at the birth of the world. Corellon is associated with elves, because it's believed that Corellon was an ascended elf, likewise, Kord is traditionally an ascended human or orc, Yollanda an ascended goblin or halfling, and Moradin an ascended dwarf or gnome, though honestly, each of the gods has a hundred different depictions - the centaurs believe that all of the Four were originally Centaurs and that humans and horses came about because Corellon lost a bet with Lolth).

Although, that's not the only way people relate to the gods. Some people, not even particularly wicked people, put the Three at the heart of their religion. They are ultimately the terrible gods of nature that connect humanoid creatures with their animal roots. They are the law of survival, and groups that honor the Three often make the case that it dishonors their ancestors to act like the urges they relied on are somehow dark or dirty. They view the Three in a more naturalistic light, admiring Grummsh's fearlessness, Lolth's adaptability, and Kurulmak's pragmatism, and don't necessarily agree that surrendering themselves to the primal emotions automatically means they plan on victimizing other people.

Some people put the Two at the forefront, but it's considered a particularly intellectualized brand of theology, and thus mostly appropriate to theurgists, wizards, mystics, and dragons.

There's even a religion that speculates that there must have been a One, to precede the Two. Most people have a hard time denying that it would fit the pattern, but conventional wisdom says that if there is a One, it can have no particular properties because it has nothing to contrast itself against.

Well . . . um, I guess I wandered pretty far off course when talking about Complete Divine. That's because my overall opinion of the book was that it was pretty okay, provided you're willing to spot it D&D's ridiculous portrayal of religion. It's got a bunch of useful prestige classes, even if some of them borrow too much from medieval Christianity. The collection of feats and spells is attractive. I think the relic system has the same basic problem that crops up whenever D&D tries to do a new, themed category of magic items - the extra backstory behind the items makes them so much more interesting than default magic items that I wind up thinking I'd rather just change how magic items work than use this new category and the old-style items side-by-side.

In other words, I had very little to complain about, so I had to make something up.

Ukss Contribution: Armor of the Fallen Leaves. I just think it's a cool image.

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