Thursday, January 13, 2011

Epic Level Campaiging - Idea #3: Godlike

The last of my Epic Campaign Trilogy ideas is the New Gods campaign.

  • What if the reason that the gods have no stats is because they have faded away?
  • Why do we assume that the gods are more powerful than the Level 32 or 33 demon prince, or a level 34 elemental lord?
  • What if upon assuming an Epic Destiny the character is actually filling an empty slot in the pantheon? Or what if they are all empty?

One of the posts in the thread that inspired this series of posts mentioned the Norse myths that feature Thor and Loki going out on adventures - drinking with giants, etc. Some of them read very much like what D&D characters might do. So what if the "Gods" are really just level 30 characters? Norse, Greek, and even Egyptian gods exhibit very human behavior, interact with mortals in some very direct ways including getting caught up in their politics. They also wander the land and the planes at times, fighting mortals and monsters and getting wounded and occasionally killed. That doesn't sound much like the modern concept of a "God" as an immortal all-powerful entity - that sounds like a high-powered mortal.  Star Trek and numerous comic books and probably many other sources have postulated the idea that ancient gods may have been advanced alien beings worshiped as gods by primitive peoples - why not use all of that?

My proposal for using this in Epic pretty much requires that you be OK with using the planes as an adventuring option. If that's OK then let's roll forth. Some  assumptions:

  1.  As long as there are intelligent beings inhabiting the world then there are divine forces driven by their thoughts and passions and beliefs - this is a "gods are powered by belief" point of view, not a "gods are powerful in and of themselves" point of view. Each of these things combines to create an energy in the universe - Divine Power (think white light). Each of them also empowers its own specific power source - War, Music, Sky, Sea, Motherhood, Love, Wisdom - pretty much anything you could be a god of, has a separate stream or "color" of the divine spectrum.
  2. The energy created by each of these individual forces looks for a focal point, and that focal point is a always a particularly powerful mortal that is attuned to that particular energy. A Barbarian who chooses Demigod as his epic destiny at level 21 becomes the focal point for War. A Paladin who chooses Glorious Spirit becomes the focal point of Honor. A Wizard who chooses Lorekeepeer becomes the focal point of Knowledge. They don;t have to be divine characters, that's just how it works. To put it in more D&Dish terms, the epic level character becomes an Avatar or that force, kind of like how gods in older editions could send an avatar off around the planes to take action. In this world, one of these forces is what allows a mortal to proceed beyond level 20. Without choosing an epic destiny, mortals top out at 20, so by definition (again - for this world) an Epic level character is a god, the personification or anthropomorphizing of a belief. It is this extra power that pushes him beyond what mere mortals can achieve.For whatever reason, this tops out at 30 - you can go no farther in your current form. Beyond level 30 the character becomes one with their force and no longer has a physical form - all they can do is manifest as a spirit and give warnings or advice - think "force ghost" like Kenobi in Empire Strikes Back and you have the right idea. Another angle: "Strength" is eternal, the God of Strength is not.
  3. There are physical beings in the universe more powerful than level 30. Some of these are Elemental Lords and they powerful because they were born with the universe and have been in it since day 1. Some of them are demon or devil lords, and they are powered by the souls they claim from foolish mortals when they die - mortals who worship a particular force (in the guise of whatever god they believe in) join with that force, but those who fall to evil outsiders go to power them instead. Long ago (say, in 1st edition ) they were weaker but over the centuries they have grown immensely in power and now may be strong enough to overcome the gods themselves. In any case, 30 is a mortal limit, and these beings are not and never have been mortals.
  4. People worship the gods who long ago ascended to become one with their force because they don't know any better - mortals are not  educated in the technical details of life beyond level 20. These old gods can still appear to their worshipers and they can still see what's going on in the universe but they can no longer affect it directly, which is why mortal followers and champions are so important. The gods tend to rise in groups (aka pantheons aka adventuring parties), remain in power for a time, then grow more distant from or less active in the world (as they hit level 30 and begin to fade out). This explains the different representations of gods over time but since it is tied to a particular force much of the religion remains consistent over time, with only the physical representation really changing.
  5. This means that the power of a religion, or a group of religions, or even Divine Power in general, tends to be cyclical - Heroes ascend to Epic, take a very active role in the universe damaging things, repairing other things, and just making waves in general. Then they hit level 30 and though they may hang around for a time they will eventually merge with their force and then things quiet down for awhile. Until a new set of gods arise. Often, the spirit of the previous god of that force will take a very active role in selecting a new one through prophecy, dreams, and direct communications with priests and champions of the faith. Maybe the reason those new gods come about is in response to some Demonic or Chaotic stirring in the universe - Orcus starts to upset the balance of things and heroes begin to ascend in response (which is why there's a plot waiting for them at level 21). In short gods arise to solve a problem, but once that problem is solved they tend to get bored and eventually merge with their force out of boredom if nothing else.
Just to state it clearly, my goal with these ramblings is to come up with a system of divinity that fits the game mechanics rather than trying to reconcile two existing, set things. If the gods are "Level Infinity" or off the scale, then a demon prince at level 34 can never really be a threat to them in any way within the game system. That means the reasons for the whole "we have to stop Orcus or the universe dies" start to look a little contrived and it relegates the players to sidekick status at best, even at Epic levels, which is exactly when they should NOT be sidekicks. Instead, if it's "Nope, you're the God of War now, good luck" then they have a whole new level of responsibility and might even feel something of a burden and fear of dropping the ball. That's how Epic should feel  - there is no higher authority.You can't radio Starfleet and ask for help. You can't wait for Superman to show up.You can't assume Elminster is going to clean up your mess.  Using this approach, if the universe dies it truly is your fault.

One fun thing to do - and I would be tempted to wait until the players ask about it - would be introducing them to their Astral Domains. Every god has one, right? So one day they wake up and they just know how to get there. When they do they are greeted by their angels or archons or elementals or whatever type of servants they have, led around the realm by their majordomo, taken to their citadel and shown their throne, and generally made to understand that this is real - they are now the god of X and this is their place. They can learn to reshape it in the form they see fit (maybe as a skill challenge the first time they try) and they can decide who to allow to enter and leave.

There are some problems with this idea. For one, it pretty much means you can't use any of the published campaign worlds as written. I'm thinking if you want to go whole hog with the idea that the Spellplague REALLY messed up the Forgotten Realms you could try it there - the gods faded with it and no new ones have arisen but it's time now. Purists in your game will probably scream, but they probably already screamed when the 4E Realms came out anyway so why not? The default D&D world could work too - maybe one of the reasons  the Empire of Nerath fell was because Erathis faded out and no one replaced her. It might also work in Dark Sun too, but you're talking major changes if you run a campaign set after the ascension of these new gods. Secondly you want to keep it secret from your players, or at least I would. The look on their faces when they hit 21 and pick a destiny and you tell the wizard "OK, you're now the god of magic" should be priceless.  However it means the gods can never physically manifest in the campaign prior to the big moment and for some campaigns that might not work. Thirdly it is quite a different take on things than most Divine hierarchies in D&D so it may not work for your group - that's OK I'm not sure it would work for some of mine. The idea that Thor is someone's 28th level barbarian and Loki is a 26th level rogue might blow too many synapses. But I'm going to do it, sooner or later.

As always comments and criticism are welcome.


Grendelwulf said...

Great post!

I've often considered the "gods" as high-level avatars or angels/demons of greater GODS. The AD&D Dieties & Demigods book lists their stats like characters anyway.

I've taken a Tolkien approach, of sorts. One great GOD who started the whole multiverse. The direct AVATARS of this GOD were called The Valar by Tolkien. These AVATARS had servants, called Maiar, which are compatible with AD&D gods like Thor, Loki, etc. Gandalf was a Maiar.

Over countless ages, much of this knowledge has been twisted and forgotten by mortal beings. They see the AD&D powers as Gods, not knowing there are ones older and more powerful then these.

The real chain of command:
1. Eru, the ONE (aka Iluvatar = GOD)
2. Valar (Avatars)
3. Gods (any pantheon imaginable)
4. Angels/Demons/Devils (servants of pantheons)


Blacksteel said...

I'm OK with the idea of the over-god most of the time. I think in this scenario you would have to be careful as I don't want the PC's running to a higher authority for help. As long as the Big One is out of reach or distant and unconcerned then it should still work.

It's definitely not standard D&D play but I think it would be a lot of fun.