Friday, May 15, 2015

Brainstorming: Monotheism in a D&D World

Taiia from Deities & Demigods

An interesting aspect of fantasy literature is the use of a creator deity.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series did not overtly state their world’s cosmology, but there were implications of a single god responsible for the creation and oversight of reality.  This is not a surprise as both men were very religious Christians.  Deliberate or not, it’s quite common for a writer’s personal beliefs and experiences to feature in their work.

There is a lot of appeal to polytheist settings, in part because multiple deities offer a lot of variety for players and thus more potential character concepts for Cleric PCs.  But in recent days I’ve wondered about ways of creating a monotheist D&D setting which does not simply replicate the Abrahamic God.  The goal of this is not to create a religion which demands only worship of one deity or who believes in one deity, but a setting cosmology where the existence of but one deity is an objective truth.  Even in settings where one entity is responsible for the creation of reality itself (Ao from Forgotten Realms or the High God of Dragonlance), such “overdeities” are often distant figures who are not worshiped.

True Monotheism vs. Monolatrism and Dualism

Many campaign settings for Dungeons & Dragons attempt to go the polytheist route, but this doesn't always feel genuine.  As mentioned in my earlier Pantheist Priest post, true polytheism is rare.  A lot of fictional religious traditions acknowledge the existence of multiple deities but clerics and mortal populations choose to honor one.  This practice is actually monolatrism, for monotheism is both the belief and worship of one deity.  There is also the case of dualism where both divinities are equally strong and divine.  While Christiantiy and Islam have a Satanic figure and enemy of God, his power and wisdom is but a fraction of the true Abrahamic deity.

In some rare cases there are deities (such as Lolth of the Forgotten Realms) who keep their followers in the dark about the existence of other gods and goddesses so that they can consolidate their power base.  This is a more accurately monotheist, but it is often a constructed lie which flies in the face of cosmological evidence in the campaign setting.  In this case, the setting is still polytheist and monotheism is objectively false.

Nature Spirits, Demonic Cults, and the Granting of Spells

Oath of Druids by Daren Bader

In some settings divine magic can come from non-godly sources.  Druids draw their power from nature itself, while demon lords and archdevils can grant spells to mortal followers despite not being true gods.  While most D&D settings have divine spells as an essential part of deity worship, in a monotheist setting this may not necessarily be the case.  Below are a list of options for one to use in a monotheist setting.

Option One, Lesser Servitors and Patrons: A monotheist deity may act through divine intermediaries such as angels and saints to commune with the faithful.  Perhaps the One God’s wisdom is too great for any mortal mind to handle, so they instill an infinitesimal fraction of their essence into numerous servants to carry to the mortal realm.

Or maybe so-called “divine” spells are merely a powerful entity sharing its gifts with another; a powerful dragon or nature spirit may be able to instill spells, but they are not gods because they can fall prey to the vices of arrogance and short-sightedness.  They are merely children of the One God, like everything else in the universe.

Option Two, Stealing the Gift: An individual’s communion with the One God results in holy gifts in the form of spells, meant only for the most virtuous of servants.  Demons, devils, and false prophets might have found a way to tap into this universal consciousness of divinity and take the spells which rightfully belong to the One God.

This is an especially vile form of spellcasting, for it allows otherwise good men and women to be tricked into following selfish and wicked folk who wield divine magic as “proof” of the One God’s favor.

Option Three, the Nature of Magic: Arcane magic is ill-described in most settings as-is.  It is an irreligious form of spellcasting which comes about via study or a supernatural entity in one's ancestral bloodline.  Christianity and Islam (I cannot say for sure about Judaism) posit magic as a negative force granted by demons, evil spirits, and the like.  One could go this route, although in this case this can be very restrictive on party dynamics if clerics and mages are expected to be mortal enemies.

The Adversary

Eye of Sauron from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings

As a monotheistic setting requires an unorthodox reworking of the cosmology, this raises the ever-important question of the deity's status and why evil occurs.  The true god might be equivalent to a wise parental figure who seeks to guide mortal kind to greater awareness and prosperity.  In many cultures the presence of evil is caused by a fallen figure, a malevolent force which seeks to lead the righteous away from the oneness of God.

Or perhaps the deity is entirely beyond morality, equivalent to a force of nature of the cosmos which simply is.  That very same deity might have multi-faceted personalities, the creator and the destroyer, bringer of harvests and plagues.  Different cultures might worship and prize different aspects as befits their circumstances.  In a way it is similar to druids who revere different aspects of nature, or religious denominations who share certain core assumptions but differ on several key issues.

Or a potential idea is that the deity is actually malevolent, a cruel tyrant who cares more for loyalty above all and will inflict a host of plagues upon nonbelievers.  This is more common in some Japanese Role-Playing Games, where the mortal priesthood is not just corrupt but the creator of the world itself is a tyrant who the heroes must destroy or seal away.  This Game Theory video has a good article on Final Fantasy's religious symbolism.  Such a campaign is the most unorthodox one, as it puts heroic PCs against the power structure of not just established religious orders but the cosmology itself.

Going for a classic fantasy trope of good vs. evil is a ready-made trope common in fantasy media as well as our own culture.  But making the leader and/or originator of evil a deity or equivalent power would make the cosmology a dualistic one instead of a monotheistic one.  If the monotheistic deity is truly good, why does she/he not vanish evil from the world?  Is the creator omnipotent and/or omniscient?  Why are mortal heroes and good-aligned outsiders relied upon as intermediaries?

As these very questions have yet to be answered in a satisfactory manner in the real world and spawned centuries of debates among philosophers and theologians, you don't need to concoct an answer in your own campaign immediately.

Monotheism for Pathfinder

The 3rd Edition book Deities & Demigods had an entry on designing a monotheist cosmology for D&D.  It also contained the sample deity Taiia, a universal entity of creation and destruction with major denominations honoring different aspects (and thus a different set of domains).  The guidelines were that a monotheist deity should have at least 20 domains, which at the time there were 22 domains total in the Player's Handbook.  In Pathfinder's Core Rulebook, that number has almost doubled to 35 domains!  This is not including the myriad new domains provided in supplements for either game.

As the vast majority of domains govern aspects of the world (artifice, fire, war, etc) with only a few specifically devoted to morality (chaos, evil, good, law), one should allow Clerics to pick 2 domains of their choice as a sufficient option.  A Cleric with Chaos and Liberation might be drawing upon the One God's teachings of overthrowing tyranny and fighting unjust social structures, while another Cleric of that same deity derives inspiration from Artifice and Fire to build great creations and temples.  Evil, Madness, and Void might be a little too macabre for a "fair and just" deity of light, but otherwise 32 domains is more than enough for most character concepts.

Further Reading

This idea has been bandied about before, so here's a list of articles and threads:

Although it's purely in the idea stage, I'm also hard at work on writing up a sample monotheist fantasy setting.  I might explore it in future blog posts if this one generates enough interest.