Saturday, May 25, 2024

Encyclopedia of Angels

You do any job long enough and you're practically guaranteed to see something utterly bizarre, bordering on the inexplicable, that maybe the average civilian wouldn't even think to question, because they have little intuition for the boundaries of the possible. Encyclopedia of Angels is just such a mystery. It's a series of baffling decisions, and I'm not sure how it came to be. 

Let's start at the beginning, with the cover.

This cover has nothing to do with anything. And maybe you're chiding me right now, for having an embarrassing lack of cynicism. "Oh, John, we all know why they put a pretty, half-naked lady on the cover. Why are you pretending not to understand this transparently sweaty marketing?"

And I guess the reason for my willful naivete is the fact that the book is called Encyclopedia of Angels. No one who's interested in that title is going to give two shits about a cheesecake cover. In fact, it would be an active detriment, because there's nothing happening on that cover that at all resembles what you hope will happen when you add an angel to your D&D game. And, indeed, the cover is a poor representation of the text, which, with maybe one or two exceptions, is barely sweaty at all (and to the degree that it is, that's more down to the fact that 9 out 10 of these angels are depicted as hot guys with wings).

But it's weird, right? The target audience for this supplement is going to hope that the cover is a lie. And, in fact, the cover is a lie. But it was also a choice. It makes me wonder, did the person who picked this cover have any idea at all what would be in the rest of the book?

It's a question that would occur to me many times throughout the reading.

Like, it was a choice to include monster stats for Ahura Mazda and the Gnostic Demiurge. And if you're screaming at your screen right now, accusing me of making up utter nonsense in lieu of doing real writing - congratulations, you're starting to get how surreal an experience this book has been.

My working theory is that Encyclopedia of Angels has eight credited authors and maybe they all got different memos about what they were trying to do. Some of the angels have very tight d20 stats that seem in line with the Monster Manual celestials, others feel more freeform, where they have a couple of unique traits, but none of the underlying celestial chassis. Sometimes you'd get a long list of spell-like abilities and other times you'd get "casts spells as a 16th level sorcerer." Most confusingly, some of the entries read like they're trying to adapt real angelology for a fantasy setting and some of them seem to assume that your D&D game is going to be set in the real world (Pope Honorius I gets name-dropped in Hochmel's entry). At no point is it clear how you're meant to be using these stats.

But the strangest part of the book, to me, is that it doesn't seem to be lazy, or even careless. Each individual entry shows definite signs of effort, particularly in the realm of research that would have been pretty tough to do in 2003. It's just effort that doesn't seem to be pointed towards any particular end. Like, is it possible to assemble an rpg supplement without doing any sort of designing at all? Because that's what Encyclopedia of Angels feels like - a book assembled by a group of very smart people who nonetheless did not understand the assignment.

Overall, I found this book interesting to read, but I don't think I'd get much use out of it, even if I were running a D&D 3.0 game. Everything in here is highly specific, but not in a way that feels like you could just drop an isolated angel into a random fantasy world. Even the ones that made some effort towards acknowledging the existence of D&D land felt like they were carrying the sort of theological baggage that you'd have to build your setting around. I could see a niche for a book that talked about angels in the abstract and offered advice on how to build a form of fantasy monotheism supported by an elaborate celestial hierarchy. But this book was not that. I could also see the value of a book about gaming in a fantastic version of medieval Earth, where Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism explicitly exist and players engage with their major mythological figures. But this book wasn't quite that either. In the end, it's something that you could maybe mine for ideas, but only if you already had strong ideas of your own going into it.

Ukss Contribution: Kadmiel, one of the few female angels, assists people who are giving birth. By itself, it's a little on the nose, but the way she assists is hilarious. "Kadmiel can shrink a baby to enable it to pass from the mother with more ease."

It's blowing my mind a little that I have never once imagined this application for the reduce person spell, despite the fact that it's something every village wizard could easily do and it would have an immense positive effect on a medieval-type world. I have to find some way to work this into Ukss.

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