Paragons & Pantheons

Disclaimer: Any views indicated here are from my own amateurish lay study of the subjects. Please consult an appropriate theologian or appropriate lore source for more accurate information on real-world religious and cultural beliefs and practices.

On Twitter Kiel Chenier asked:

One thing I struggle to do in #dnd5e is use gods effectively.
Gods and pantheons never really interested me. Chalk it up to growing up around abusive zealots. As a consequence I often use fantasy religion as an evil force in my rpg writing, which feels limiting now.
How fix?

In response Erik Jensesn suggested:
Hang out with some people of faith (who you get along with) who don't have those same scars and chat about how their religious practice intersects their daily living.

As someone "of faith" who has been largely insulated throughout my early life from abusive zealots, this is something I've struggled with myself over the years, at least in the way that D&D clearic-type-magic works.  It probably took at least a decade between the time I cracked a D&D book, and the day anything about a cleric really held any appeal for me. In my mind, the whole cleric class was just a way to limit a character's behavioral options and spell choices without really reflecting my own religious experience in any meaningful way.

Part of the issue is that clerical magic relies on external benefactors or "patrons", and in the real world there's a reason that those believing in supernatural benefactors rely on faith:  Because, however much you might think you see patterns of divine action and guidance in your life and the world around you, however you might be convinced that the vision you had contained the Truth, even the most positive results of your belief can't generally be tested in an objective and repeatable way.

In Christianity at least, one might pray for something and a miracle might happen. But whether it happens or not isn't yours to decide, it's divine providence and up to God alone.  Even Jesus Christ, viewed by Christians as fully God and man, reputed to fling off miracles at the drop of a hat, would not have been doing so at his own whim, but only in response to the will of the Father.

This stands in strong contrast to D&D clerics who clearly know the reality of the deity they revere, and can routinely choose when to channel the being's power in a predictable way.  In D&D there is no faith, no trusting that this is the right use of power at the right time, no feeling of surety that (despite prior experience to the contrary) an unlikely thing will happen this time in adherence to divine will.  In D&D it all just works, just like the cleric knows it will, and the cleric knows pretty much for sure what their deity expects of them.

I'm not sure anything can perfectly emulate the feeling of faith and the miraculous in a game. But over the years I have found some satisfaction in speculating about and playing with alternative takes on the idea of deities and external sources of magical power:

  • Ineffable Dice Rolling - Certain doctrinal principles within the characters' religion may be assured, but since the divine plan is largely unknowable, players must roll dice to see if each spell works.  This makes some sense to give the feel of divine presence with space for doubt. But it feels a little flawed in that the player is still dictating the miracle they want, when in theory the patron may feel a different one is appropriate. Or the miracle provided by the dice may have catastrophically the wrong ultimate effect in a way that's difficult to rationalize, which is understandable for lesser deities, less so for those approaching omnipotence.
  • Powers Innate Once Granted - This seems to be a staple of the Exalted RPG:  Basically, the divine beings pick and empower their champions. But, once chosen, those champions may stray from their patrons' principles without any reliable way for the divine patron to remove their new abilities. The only reason for a champion to continue in their patron's service is because they really believe in the thing their patron stands for, but no reason for them to become corrupt or disillusioned.  Maybe there are even hierarchies of clerics in it for their own selfish ends, being covertly opposed by those who really adhere to the same patron's true intents.
  • Powers Innate Once Granted, with a Catch - Same as previous:  A divinity raises up a champion, who gets their powers for life, but...  there is some specific task or obligation on the champion's part which they need to fulfill TO THE LETTER.  Even if the divinity disagrees with the champion's actions, the patron is bound by their word to keep empowering the champion as long as the the stipulation is fulfilled. Conversely the patron may be obligated to stop empowering the champion if the rule is broken, even if the patron wants to keep granting power.  The primary example that comes to mind is the biblical Sampson.  Warlock pacts might also fit this bill, with good people trying to wiggle their way around the specifics of Faustian bargains.
  • Cosmic Principles - The divine "patrons" are less people, and more like innate aspects of human nature or the universe at large. Clerics aren't really making a deal with them or requesting things from them, so much as aligning their lives around them. To some extent the forces themselves are amoral:  Some definitions of "Beauty" may focus purely on specific standards of external attractiveness or mannerisms, while others focus on more internal character qualities.  Within the clerical schools, different orders and philosophies may arise, empowered by the same "gods", but with completely different ideas as to what constitutes a patron's "luminous" and "shadow" aspects, and how one should be devoted to them.
  • Norse-ish Gods - Recently I'd been reading, though I can't remember where, how the old Norse pantheon has been viewed not quite as much as a set of moral truth givers. But more as powerful allies and relatives, who one might respect, admire and petition for help, but who are not without their mistakes and failings. One might even be justified for taking one or more of the gods to task for having done you wrong. The relationship has a lot more give and take.
  • Squabbling Gods - The pantheon is not at all unified in it's principles and morality, though some gods align with others in part or in whole.  Clerics should state their personal principles and code of ethics ahead of time, or what ambitions they have.  Based on this, the deities with at least some similar interests will grant a cleric spells while those with noted indifference or antipathy toward the cause won't.  This might also work for animism, as forces and spirits within nature respond differently to a shaman's reputation.
  • Own Personal Patron - A bit like Avatars from Mage: The Ascension, or Holy Guardian Angels (in the Crowley view, less so the Catholic tradition).  Each cleric has a patron personally associated with them whom they might even converse directly with.  These might have great insights or be very fallible. They might represent one's connection to others and the world at large, or be the embodiment of an egocentric and solipsistic world view.
  • Saints - Your patron may be something like a patron saint:  a less than perfect being once who nevertheless really grasped or devoted themselves to some piece of the divine good in a manner approaching perfection. But outside of this focus, your patron had their failings and flaws. They will try to help you, but are not the perfect thing themselves.
  • United We Stand, Divided We Fall - Each patron (or emanation or angel) is only a part of the whole.  Individually they are powerful but only partially infallible. They often seem at cross purposes. But when viewed together from a certain perspective (maybe not a human achievable perspective) their actions mesh to represent something incredible.
  • The Adversary - The gods may be squabbling or at cross-purposes, but there's some specific thing they'll drop all their bickering to do or fight against.  This is usually some being or force which represents an existential threat to the gods themselves or all existence in general, though it may be more varied or specific (enmity to the colors Jale and Ulfire). When The Adversary rears its head, communities and species adhering to different patrons who've been at war for generations will find themselves suddenly united in earnest fellowship against the threat.
  • After The Fall - Once all things divine were one or at least perfect in their interactions.  But something broke. The spiritual prototype of all sophonts chose poorly. Angels abandoned their tasks and rebelled. The divine unity separated into Sefirot and Qliphoth. A symmetry breaking event occurred.  How things were was good.  Pieces remaining: the patrons, reflect this earlier goodness in some now imperfect way.  From mortal perspective, on this side of the Fall, it's impossible to see how all the pieces could ever have fit together. It may be impossible to put all the worms back in the can, or maybe it will be possible only at the ending of an age. And there may be forces at trying purposefully to fracture things further.
  • Yes, now there is a God - There weren't any gods to begin with.  What are considered gods now were once some simpler systems (AIs, vast mutualistic life forms, planetwide ecosystems, psychic collectives, memetic patterns spread across entire cultures, etc.). These raised themselves to a certain level of complexity. Their goals may be obvious, alien, mercurial or ill defined.
  • Devout Scientists - There is no divine magic as such, or at least any truly divine magic that exists comes only unpredictably (truly unreproducable miracles).  Or maybe spiritual magic only works toward certain intangible ends (banishing demons and undead, removing curses & magic jars, etc.).  But despite the lack of everyday tangible divine magic, belief in the divine endures:  Just look at the structure of the world, the order there, surely some great mind set it in motion!  The abbeys, monasteries and academies are full of natural philosophers using rational thought and experimentation to harness the inherent forces around them: Wizards who can even heal or do nearly anything one of the reputed prophets of old could.  There are different outlooks of course.  Factions include:
    • Those who strongly extrapolate human morality based on specific perceived examples in nature. The dominance of certain male ungulates should be a seen as indicative of  human gender relations, etc.
    • Those who seek out harmonies and interplays in nature with less preconception. Viewing all creation as both poetry and textbook, always revealing new marvels. Human nature and the divine Provider should be seen in light of whatever new knowledge divinely given Reason provides.
    • Those who look at the world and see no reason to infer a guiding intelligence from the patterns found there.  The patterns may be beautiful, but are satisfying in and of themselves without the need for greater minds ordering things. And the suffering in nature, while sometimes eliciting compassion in the human heart, does not suggest a compassionate creator.
    • Those who see how the world works and similarly see no reason to infer divinity from it, but who further don't care one whit about the beauty of patterns and harmonies.  They may talk the talk of another philosophy, but in their hearts they care only for the gift of Reason in so far as it grants them power and convenience in this existence.
Some of these may work better for specific settings, or with various tweaks to the standard D&D magic systems.

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