Sunday, April 14, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Champion

Dungeons & Dragons is an odd beast, because I have a lot of D&D books. It was my first game. It is, by dollar value anyway, my most-collected game. It was, for a long time, my most-played game (I've got an inkling that Exalted may have surpassed it, though I don't have precise figures). It's probably the game I'd have the best change of recreating from memory, if that was ever required of me for some reason. Hell, I chose the d20 system as the basis for Ukss Plus, the most elaborate rpg shitpost since Dungeons: the Dragoning 40k 7th Edition, and even as a joke, you don't write a quarter of a million words because you hate the subject matter. 

And yet, despite all that, I'm permanently at war with the game's implied setting. It never fails. Every time they show me something from the blobby, half-formed recesses of inchoate D&D-land, my first thought is "well, that's something I'm going to need to fix." I think it's because, more than any other rpg setting I own (including approximately half a dozen official D&D campaign worlds), D&D-land has that "designed by committee" feeling. It's a consequence of being the first and the biggest. So many ideas, from so many sources, get dumped into the trough and in one sense, everything that makes its way into a book is D&D, but in another sense, people will write the books in an attempt to fit in with existing D&D, and the result is that you begin to treat paths of least resistance as if they were some kind of grand master plan. So the implied D&D setting, the product identity of the brand, if you will, is half made up of weird one-off ideas so memorable that they were preserved long after the death of their context and the other half is areas of smoothness, where ideas passed from hand-to-hand have been polished into a kind of flatness that betrays deep biases and cultural assumptions.

Case in point: Complete Champion. This is one of those late-period 3.5 books where they're just really good at making Dungeons & Dragons supplements. The edition changeover is just a few months away, and at last they know how to write for 3.5. You want to play a character who is a divine champion of one of D&D-land's various default gods? You're going to find a lot of useful material for doing that, some of which is even competitive with just taking extra levels in cleric or druid (on the lower end of optimization, let's not go wild here).

But it's also about the religion of D&D-land. And the religion of D&D-land is . . . well, not Christianity, exactly, but like . . . various extruded substances poured into a Christianity-shaped mold, and the final result is . . . something. It's like, religion without theology, without culture, without history, without art. A thing in the shape of a religion, but without substance.

Maybe that's fair. Maybe we aren't going into D&D for stories of great substance. Slap a cassock on that guy, give him an Aspergilum (a new vocabulary word that I'm likely to immediately forget), and have him shoot lasers at a zombie. That's enough for the game's limited ambitions.

It just feels a little off. Halflings have tent revivals. What are they reviving? The eternal and unanimous worship of Yondalla, the goddess of halfling supremacy?

No, that's unfair, all of the "racial" gods are offputtingly militant. Corellon's "church" (every god has a church, which I'm choosing to interpret as a broad term for "any religiously motivated form of social organization") has an absolutely hair-raising approach to Drow: "killing Drow is holy work, because each dark elf soul sent to the Abyss is another step towards completing the work begun by Corellon Larethian so long ago."


All told, Complete Champion is a competent execution of an area of the implied setting that I have particularly little use for. It comes from being an atheist, I think. My approach to fantasy religion is culture-first. This is an activity that human beings (and human-like creatures) engage in, and so it's always something the society needs, or wants to express about itself, or, in my more cynical moments, is burdened with. The truth or falsity of a particular belief is irrelevant.

Digression: this is another reason that I favor doing away with the arcane/divine split. Wizards are often theurgists who use spiritual and religious reasoning and people who work divine miracles often wind up being a lot like secular magic users, whether the theology is on their side or not. In either case, the validity (or "truth" if you prefer) of a religious belief is orthogonal to the pragmatic power of a magical practice. There's a very thin line between binding a demon to servitude by speaking its seven secret names and gaining power from a god by prayer and a pledge of service. The notion that the relationship between god and worshipper must be one of genuine reverence and not a transactional bargain for services rendered is characteristic of modern monotheism and not necessarily something you even want to translate into an rpg.

Anyway, D&D throws a serious wrench into religion-as-worldbuilding-element by insisting that each and every religion must be associated with a literal god that definitely, truly exists. So religion in D&D-land isn't primarily a cultural phenomenon and does not necessarily serve human needs.  Not only does this lead to shallow worldbuilding on the face of it, it also places an incredible amount of pressure on the gods themselves to be charismatic enough (IRL, to the readers) to make an organization staffed by their flunkies seem like a vital part of a living world. Not all of them are able to pull this off.

I was probably never going to love Complete Champion, but I do respect it. The prestige classes take some interesting chances, design-wise, such as having multiple different classes for a single NPC organization, so that characters with different classes can approach the same concept from different starting positions. As a reader, I prefer it when the Prestige classes are all distinct, but having two or three different interpretations really helps when centering a campaign around a particular organization. You don't need to be a spellcaster to benefit from membership in the Paragnostic Assembly. You can simply be an Initiate instead of an Apostle (although, the main ability of Initiates is "assist casting", which I kind of hate).

I've now read all of the Complete* books, many of 3.X's most prominent supplements, and a bunch of obsolete 3.0 material. All I have left is specific campaign settings - Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Eberron. Looking back at the edition as a whole, I think I love it, but in a really backhanded way. I enjoy what it might (and will) become, but a lot of what it actually was, doesn't really hold up. The math (and the balance issues created by that math) undermines the game's ambition to become a universal toolkit, but I absolutely adore that it had that ambition. This was an edition that did not recognize its own limitations, even when it really should have, and I think that energy is infectious. 

Ukss Contribution: Dragon Rubies. A dragon eats a gemstone. Later, it shits that gemstone out. Thanks to its harrowing journey, the gem has magic powers now. Be sure to wash your hands after handling one.

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