Interventionist Gods and Limited Narrative

When I set out to develop a fantasy campaign world, about fifteen years ago, I hadn't really had the chance to run proper long-term campaigns before. Sure, I'd run games that lasted up to a year, maybe even more, which in the tempestuous world of false starts and abandoned games that constitute table-top roleplaying, are quite long. But I hadn't done multi-year games, and I certainly hadn't done sequels, prequels, or other campaigns in the same worlds. So there were a few places where I shot myself firmly in the foot, and one of these was in the area of gods - specifically, interventionist gods.

I knew I wanted lots of different religions, and interesting interplay between them. And the game I was then playing - AD&D 2nd Edition - had gods as interventionist, real, definite entities. There were even stats for them, and a lot of the stories told in the published campaign worlds depended on gods, demigods and other divine creatures getting in and messing with the world. This has precedence in myth, of course; Odin and Zeus spend a lot of time playing with mortals, Christ walked among humans in Galilee, and the Aztecs expected the return of Queztlcoatl anytime soon (yes, I know that's dodgy as all get out; I didn't know then).

So I wrote in about six hundred interventionist gods, and detailed about forty of them.

Down the road, this gave me serious headaches, because it prevented me from exploring a number of areas I wanted to explore. To be fair, it also gave rise to some stuff I did want to poke at in more depth, and had a lot of fun poking at; ideas around individuality, predestination, the nature of memory, and immortality. But this article is more about the blocks it placed, because I want to remove them when I get to the next campaign world.

The major, major problem is that interventionist gods cannot have duplicitous followers. If a god is capable of coming into the world and smiting all around them, then the first person they're going to smite is a person pretending to be one of their priests. Indeed, someone even deviating from the gods plans and intentions is liable to get a solid nudge. And there are whole rafts of story that are thus removed - there can be no infiltration of an opposing order, no interference in the politics of a kingdom by supposedly neutral priests, and no doubt as to the sincerity of a high priest, let alone a proxy. Cardinal Richelieu could not exist in this world.

It also does away entirely with schism and sectarianism. If you have doubts on a matter of theology, you can ask the gods. Anyone who has the wrong end of the stick will have to back down. There might be a short, entirely justified manhunt, and a short conversation between the heretic and deity, and that would be about it. New religions are right out; there's only one way to look at the gods, and that's the way they say to do so. Martin Luther would not have a hope.

If there are conflicts between gods, there's not much value in them throwing followers at each other. It's much more useful to hire some sort of divine assassin, and get the offending deity taken down directly, one way or another - whether that's a wholesale slaughter of their followers in one short burst, or someone armed with a mistletoe spear. This makes for some interesting effects in the world, but not good stories in the long term.

There's not really any place in a world with interventionist gods for fire-and-brimstone type preachers, or indeed, any kind of religious fanatic. There are people who are reasonably doing what their gods require of them, and there are nutters who get corrected quickly, and that's it. The degree of madly frothing faith in something that can't be proven that you get in fanaticism in the real world isn't going to float.

Considering all of this, I am very certain that my next world will have distant, mysterious, very non-interventionist gods. Their existence will be in doubt. That is, of course, going to wreak havoc on my beloved Planescape cosmology, but I think, for the sake of narrative, I need to give that up.

[ETA: It seems that I'm far from the first to run into world-building problems impacting my plots; Charles Stross had the same issue.]

Posted by Drew Shiel at May 27, 2013 3:40 PM

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