Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Creating Like A Creator: Pantheons

Creating Like A Creator

Art by Chris Scholten


Even before I'd become familiar with role-playing games and GMing, I'd been enthralled with building my own worlds. Drawing maps and inventing cultures has always been a lot of fun for me, and was a tremendously fun exercise to help me practice fleshing out my fiction. Today for Creating Like A Creator, we're going to examine the different ways in which you can use deities in your world to not only create a more ripe and flavorful world, but add tangible tools to use to stimulate your players imaginations and minds. Now, I'd like illustrate the point that this is not a comment on the spiritual weight of including deities in your game.

Generally, with most roleplaying game systems that have deities as a defined mechanical element  simply include deities for flavor and to add mechanical diversity to the magic rules, character creation rules, etc. This is all well and good, but I feel that there are more interesting ways to harness this concept.

Since 1st edition's Deities & Demigods, there had always been deities that governed various domains and had a portfolio of various aspects of the world under their control but what purpose did this serve? The concept of including deities in the game has become so ubiquitous that clerics and paladins merely fill out the forms to join their Deity's clubhouse. Matching alignment? Check. Hate the undead? Check. Congratulations, you're now a cleric of Pelor! Theoretically, deities operate differently and carry different levels of power, but a cleric of the deity of justice will mechanically function the same as a cleric of the deity of necromancy.

I'm not opposed to this clubhouse style of dealing with deities, mind  you. I just want to see something more, something different that my players aren't accustomed to. So I'd like to share with you the different ideas I've tried and more importantly, I want to hear your ideas. As it stands, I have two examples I'd like to share with you. Perhaps I'll detail more in the future, but as it stands, 60 hour work schedule puts a distinct limit on my writing.


This is my favorite idea that I've been toying with. Presently, I am devising a world which is not watched over by a pantheon of deities. Rather, it is governed by a council of Arbiters. These Arbiters are powerful personas that maintain balance in the world. While they do not hold the near-omnipotence of traditional fantasy-pantheon deities, they are more akin to manifestations of the natural laws of the world.

This concept was inspired by the Judges of the Old Testament, blended with a hint of inspiration from the Daedra of The Elder Scrolls, the gods of the Bastion video game for flavor, and the Judges of the Final Fantasy Tactics/Final Fantasy XII series (who, in turn, were inspired from the Judges of the Old Testament anyways). I wanted to create a supernatural power structure that was not uniform with the traditional struggle of good versus evil. Instead, the rules that have been set in place at the creation of the world are manifested and maintained in the form of these Arbiters.

When a lich tries to spread undeath to all life, or a tyrant seeks world domination, Arbiters arise to uphold the balance. They enter the physical world through human vessels who become transformed into the Arbiter that holds them (Think of the Smiths from the Matrix, only not so malevolent). Arbiters, while not omnipotent, are vastly powerful and, given the manner in which they enter the world, can be nearly anywhere at any given time.

Many mortal creatures give homage or even worship various Arbiters, but by and large their tributes are met with silence. Arbiters do not seek worship, only the preservation of the world they steward. There are, however, those that swear fealty to the Arbiters, dedicating their lives to the values and laws the Arbiters govern. Those who swear fealty are given in return the responsibility to uphold these values. Some are said to have even served the Arbiters directly for a time, fighting in battle, preventing catastrophes, or responding to disasters. There are many orders that have been formed around a common fealty to one ore more Arbiters; Paladins, Clerics, Monks, many sects from many cultures devote themselves to these ideals, independently of each other.


Primarchs are a concept I devised in an effort to run a traditional Dungeons and Dragons game for some of my friends who weren't comfortable with having a cadre of fictional deities that their character might worship. The idea came to me when talking to my pastor about the characteristics of God; the three chief qualities that determine God's vastness are omnipotence (having all power), omniscience (having all knowledge), and omnipresence (being everywhere at once). At this point I had read the Deities & Demigods handbook for D&D and according to their stats, the deities were none of these things.

This gave me an interesting idea. Perhaps the deities detailed in the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide indeed were not deities. Rather, they were powerful beings mandated by an entity that was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. So, like archangels at the service of God, I decided that Moradin, Bahamut, Obad-Hai, and the others were in fact Primarchs (a portmanteau of 'prime' and 'archangel'. I'm clever right? :P ) that served the Overdeity. 

Making the pantheon more allegorical and 'C.S. Lewisian' (Sorry J.R.R. Tolkien), made the world more approachable to my friends who were more sensitive about the subject of fictional deities. Plus, it allowed me to include the traditional pantheon for my other players who wanted a regular game of Dungeons & Dragons.

That's all for this week, my friends. Please, tell me about your games! What sort of supernatural power structure does your world contain? Does it contain any at all? I want details ladies and gentlemen. And please, feel free to use any ideas here on Casting Lots for your campaign. That's why I'm doing it after all.

Remember friends, heroes innovate, but GMs duplicate!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Morality & Magic (Part I: What is Magic?)

Art by Jeremiah Morelli
If magic isn't the most tentative subject in tabletop role-playing games, then it certainly encroaches as second best. There are many, particularly among us Christians, that regard the concept of magic as a fictional element to be somewhere between unpleasant and blasphemous.

Whether it be Harry Potter, the Wheel of Time, or even Christian-inspired works such as Narnia and the Lord of the Rings, a lot of us find the idea of magic daunting. Certainly a valid concern; the Bible specifically condemns magic several times and there have been decades of generally subversive connotation associated with the topic in our culture here in the United States. As both a Christian and a fan of fictitious fantasy, I have put a large degree of thought into the subject over the course of my life. So, with the advent of the Casting Lots blog I decided to delve into the research of magic as a concept; as it relates to culture, scripture, and the games we play.

Now, while I have tried to be thorough in my research of the topic, I do not want to turn this article into a thirty page technical essay (though having said this, know that this article will still be a long one). Instead, I thought it best to break down the subject over multiple articles. So while I will discuss in varying lengths how different forms of magic translate in the Bible from English to Hebrew and Greek, the moral and ethical implications of its use in fiction, and the effects of using it in the game, this is (and I imagine will continue to be) a topic of immeasurable complexity and discussion. So whilst you read this article, keep in mind that different people can have different opinions without being wrong.

Definition & Context
Now to consider the implications in the use of magic in fiction, it is imperative that we first take a step back and look at what magic is; what it means in our culture and in the Bible. Magic is a word that encompasses a very wide scope. Here in the real world, the word magic most commonly used to describe a concept, event, or atmosphere which is extraordinary or cannot be conventionally explained. Consider Harry Houdini, David Blaine, Penn & Teller; while they hold no supernatural power, they use misdirection, props, and legerdemain to make the impossible seem possible.

This, however, is not the kind of magic we have come to deliberate over. What I refer to instead, is the manipulation or affiliation with supernatural elements.Typically, in this context we think of wizards and sorcerers manipulating some arcane energy to create balls of fire or conjure up illusions. This idea of wizardry and magic, which I shall call 'Merlinistic' magic, manipulates fundamental forces of their fictional world, rather than calling upon outside entities as a priest, or a druid, or a witch might.

Were we to draw parallels from this Merlinistic magic to our real world, it would be more appropriate and more accurate to compare it to science. These wizards harness the natural laws and forces of creation through the manipulation of their properties. Of course, there is no source of arcane energy here in the material universe, but much like a wizard in the fantasy world draws arcane power through a magic wand, Nikola Tesla might harness the power of lightning through a wound coil (And yes, my comparison of Nikola Tesla to a wizard was quite deliberate).

Now, the magic we see in the Bible refers instead to the calling upon of external forces for perceived power. Whether it be Joshua, petitioning God to suspend the sun and moon in their place, that they might continue to fight in the daylight, or the priests of Egypt calling upon their gods in a display of power. To draw parallels into fantasy, we see this presented not in wizardry, but in the form of priests, clerics, and paladins; these characters who act as a medium or conduit for supernatural forces or spirits. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to this as 'Mediumistic' magic.

Merlinistic vs. Mediumistic
These two ideas of magic appear in fiction in a variety of different ways. Most commonly, the differences are illustrated as arcane (Merlinistic) and divine (Mediumistic) magic. In the Bible, both Old Testament and New, the strictures regarding magic are imposed against seers, augurs, and diviners, which is to say, Mediumistic magic. God's followers were commanded not to seek council with these prognosticators, as this act in its very nature was offensive to God; to seek out power and council from a spirit other than God, even through a medium. Naturally, there is no mention of this 'Merlinistic' magic in the Bible, as it does not exist in our world.

The moral question does not lie within the act, but in the source. God himself has performed 'Mediumistic' magic, providing us with prophets and miracles throughout the Bible and beyond. To barter power with a spirit other than Him would be a betrayal of His trust and a hurtful thing to do to one's relationship with Him. On the other hand, one could not affront God with the use of 'Merlinistic' magic, as it does not exist and therefor cannot be harnessed. Even so, should 'Merlinistic' magic exist, it would have no greater moral bearing than lightning or gravity. It would exist as part of the creation God breathed into existence.