Friday, January 31, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Religion in the Realms (Part Two)

The main deities and demigods of the Realms are listed hereafter, including notes on less-major powers, Elemental Lords, Cults of the Beast, and nonhuman deities.
This is a big section, and it's going to have to be split up still further - looks like Religion in the Realms merits a three-part post! In an effort to keep things brief (ha!), I'm just going to focus on the points that jump out and capture my interest or elicit some sort of comment. As this is a First Edition-era publication, we don't get spheres of influence, but we do get an indication of each god's "portfolio" and alignment, so if one were using specialty priests in their campaign, it would be pretty easy to adapt.

Here we go...

Okay, wait, hold on a second. I'm looking over the deity entries, and aside from portfolio, alignment, home plane, and symbol, almost the entirety of most of their notes is given over to the deity's personal abilities, as if they were an NPC. Now, in the first part of this post, I did talk about how the setting is pretty straight-forward about the highly personal role its gods play in the affairs of mortals, but holy cow. The individual entries really ram home this idea of PCs going toe-to-toe with a deity. Why else would I really need to know that Auril the Frostmaiden has "personal powers [that] include double-strength cold spells such as ice storm, and Otiluke'’s freezing sphere, and an icy breath (effect of cone of cold) that kills plants on contact (saving throw if applicable), and has the effect of a successful crystalbrittle spell on all metal it touches"?

Here's the thing: personally, one of the elements I really do loathe about old school games is the practice of giving stats to deities. Call of Cthulhu gives its namesake stats; its modern-day cousin, Trail of Cthulhu, gives us a handful of theories on what the hell Cthulhu is and that's it. He's a friggin' god as far as humans are concerned, and ain't no one got time to be fighting a god toe-to-toe. The whole "if it has stats, you can kill it" thing has never appealed to me.

On the other hand, I have no issue with high-level PCs going up against an avatar of a god (viz. the "Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man"), but the impression I get from these entries is that we're talking the actual god here, not an avatar. Applying my knowledge of future's past, I know that this gets backed up with the whole "Time of Troubles" storyline (and many more storylines thence) in which gods are killed off by mortals and replaced by same ascending to godhood.

I don't know. I'm of mixed feelings on this. I guess if I was running a Gray Box campaign using the BECMI rules, there'd be no issue (and I'm now seriously thinking that the Realms would make a very interesting BECMI setting), as those rules explicitly lay out a path of progression meant to literally make PCs into gods eventually, and presenting gods as ascended Immortals. That certainly seems to be the cosmology that's being laid out here, as well. I guess it's just my Lovecraftian side that prefers my gods a bit more on the cosmically unknowable end of things. But hey, when in Rome... Maybe I can learn to love this much more personalized take on deities.

Okay, with that mini-rant out of the way, let's get back into it. I'm going to be looking at each god from a personal perspective of how they strike me now, as well as any memories I may have of them from my Realms campaigns as a youth.

  • Auril the Frostmaiden: That's just a damn cool name, right out the gate. Greenwood's always had a way with names, I think. During my adolescent romps through the Realms, I can't say I really remember Auril ever featuring as a patron deity or adversary (she's neutral-evil), but, what with Age of Winters and all that serving as contemporary inspiration, I'd have to say that if I were running a campaign set in the Savage North, I'd have Auril be a major player. I could even see using Auril to do a Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones/Hellfrost rip-off campaign in which she brings a years-long winter down and initiates a new ice age...until the PCs go and kill her ass. Okay, I'm starting to see the appeal of having defeatable gods.
  • Azuth the High One: "Patron of magic-users." A demi-power, Azuth is "venerated as the most powerful of mages". Interesting. Another deity that hasn't gotten much play in my campaigns. I like the idea that arch-mages might have their own god. Again, lots of potential here from a deicide standpoint - why not have a mage character whose goal is to become powerful enough to kill Azuth and assume his place?
  • Bane the Black Lord: R.I.P. One of the reasons I could never really get with the whole Time of Troubles storyline is that it killed off the god with the coolest name. I mean, come on! You know you're tangling with some serious shit when you go up against a god named Bane. I love how over-the-top high-fantasy that name is. Really doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it? Also, this bit: "Lord Bane is never seen, although there are tales of a freezing black-taloned hand and eyes of blazing fire." Metal. As. Fuck. Interestingly, the text notes that Bane enjoys a "powerful church in the Realms".  That's a change from the usual fantasy trope of the evil god being worshiped in secret. It's sort of like having a setting where the Church of Satan is a major religion.
  • Beshaba, Maid of Misfortune: Also called "Lady Doom" - wow! "The Maid of Misfortune appears as a beautiful white-haired face, laughing hysterically. Ill fortune falls on those who behold her." Double-wow! I have got to use her in my current campaign. Also of note: no combat-related stats are described. She seems more like an impersonal force of doom and curses, which I can definitely get behind.
  • Bhaal, Lord of Murder: Okay, so you've got an openly-practicing Evil Church, so I guess Bhaal fulfills the role of covert dark cult lurking in shadows and being all Thugee-ish. "It is said that every murder done strengthens Bhaal." Definite adventure fodder right there - I'm seeing  a Waterdeep police procedural, with cultists of Bhaal as serial killers running amok in Waterdeep.
  • Chauntea the Great Mother: one of the things I love about D&D cosmology is giving different gods different styles of sacred space; the description here notes that Chauntea's "temples are often small caverns and modest chambers filled with greenery." My mom worked at a greenhouse when I was a wee lad, and I used to love wandering around inside the hothouse (and only in part because there was a Coke machine in there). I have to think that entering a temple of Chauntea would have a similar earthy, humid quality to it. Coke machine optional.
  • Deneir, Lord of All Glyphs and Images: A god of art and literature. I really like this idea, a god of glyphs. Not much else to say about this guy, though.
  • Eldath the Quiet One: A goddess of waterfalls, pools, and druid-groves, she is the deity for you if you're a pacifist: "She guards all druids'’ groves and when she is present in any grove, that place becomes a sanctuary where no blows land and no one feels angry. The elven war-hero Telva is said to have camped in such a grove and never taken up arms again afterward." Love it.
  • Gond the Wonderbringer: His holy symbol is a toothed wheel, and he represents the "power of invention." Hmmm. This sounds a little too tinker-gnomish for my tastes, but I'll defer judgment until I get to the section on Lantan, which this entry notes makes Gond-worship its state religion.
  • Helm, He of the Unsleeping Eyes: I just want to get it out of the way here and now that Helm has my favorite holy symbol among all the deities of the Realms. There's just something about that vaguely Egyptian-style eye on a metal gauntlet that's very graphically appealing to me. At any rate, Helm is one of those gods that always managed to show up in our old Realms campaigns. I think someone ran a paladin of Helm, and I recall an adventure locale from a different campaign that featured a temple to Helm that was sheathed in riveted iron. It figures the powers that be killed him off, the bastards - all my favorite gods ended up getting shanked, it seems.
  • Ilmater, God of Endurance: The Realms have a handful of deities cribbed from real-life pantheons, and I'd long assumed Ilmater was one of those, taken from Finnish mythology, but it turns out I was wrong. Ilmater was based more off of Fritz Leiber's Issek of the Jug, which makes sense. A sort of Bodhisattva- or Christ-like deity, Ilmater "has the power to manifest himself in creatures being tortured, relieving their pain, but only if such creatures are of good alignment and have not done anything to deserve such treatment." I dimly recall as a teenager wanting to work that into an adventure somewhere by having a PC get captured and gratuitously tortured, but never finding the chance to do so. Ah well. Fun fact: whenever I read the name "Ilmater" I inevitably start thinking about Paul McCartney singing "Ah Mater, want jet to always love me?" Ilmater save me from my torment!
  • Lathander, Morninglord: I'm sorry, but "Morninglord" is just way too close to "Morningwood" for my taste. Nonetheless, I suppose I should be paying tribute to Lathander, as he's the "commander of creativity." There's a nice little detail here, too: "Offerings are made to him by those who worship other powers upon the occasion of beginning a new venture or forming an alliance or company." Lathander is very much a pink god: his (or I should say "its" as that's the pronoun the book uses in this instance) priests wear scarlet or pink robes, and bear a holy symbol of pink wood. In my current campaign, I placed a temple to Lathander in the party's home town, and had it built of rosy marble.
  • Leira, Lady of the Mists: A "demigoddess of deception and illusion, both natural and magical." The setting's definitely showing its first-edition roots here; we've had a god for Magic-Users, so naturally we need a god for Illusionists as well! Again, we have indications of cross-deity worship: although she has few worshipers outside of illusionists, "many pay her homage to ward her off or placate her before important decisions and judgments are made."
  • Luira, Our Lady of Joy: I should note that each deity's name in this section has a phonetic pronunciation after it. Leira is pronounced LAIR-ah and Luira is pronounced LEER-ah. As Luira is the goddess of carefree feeling, I'm not going to dwell too long on that. Interestingly, all it takes to drive away her laughing, joyful presence is an unsheathed sword. Nice bit of social commentary, there.
  • Loviatar, Maiden of Pain: In addition to being a great zine that had a nice little run, Loviatar is the first actual Earth-derived deity on the list. This adds another wrinkle to the Realms' cosmology: we've got deities as ascended people, fine, but now we've got deities coming in from our own world, too. Or do we? Is the Loviatar of Faerun the same as the Loviatar of Earth? I'm pretty sure this question has been answered in Realmslore, but as far as the Gray Box is concerned, I'm not sure if it is. (I've always found the Deities & Demigods thing a bit strange anyway, especially when you've got, say, the Greek pantheon co-existing with a made-up pantheon in a game world. It's always struck me as a bit half-assed.) At any rate, there have got to be some myth cycles in Faerun linking Loviatar and Ilmater, and I'm sure some of them are quite kinky.
  • Malar, the Beastlord: Now this is an interesting deity. He embodies nature red in tooth and claw, and is propitiated by game and sport hunters before setting out, but he's also said to manifest in berserkers and "in that type of frenzied human killer that men deem 'mad.'”" As if anticipating my question, the text points out that Bhaal is the god of cold, calculated murder, whereas "Malar is the patron of those who exult in it endlessly, sensually". I still like my Bhaal-cultist police procedural idea, though. Maybe the cultists try and throw off the investigation by making it look like they're Malar-worshipers? Ho ho! The entry finishes off by noting that Malar is "preferred by adventurers over professional warriors," which seems like a tacit admission that PCs are batshit crazy.
  • Mask, Lord of Shadows: The god of thieves, this seems another very Leiber-esque deity. "The worshippers of Mask tend to hold their services in dimly lit vaults, and the worshipers and priests all wear heavy garb and masks." Creepy!
  • Mielikki, Lady of the Forest: Another Finnish god, and patron of rangers. We're referred to Legends & Lore for more details. Pass.
  • Miul, God of Poetry: Patron god of bards, he "has been known to provide sudden inspiration to his followers, often in the form of a handy means of escape or treasure buried in the area." At last, a use for bards!
  • Myrkul, Lord of Bones: Interestingly, this is a god of death but not the undead (short of being able to animate skeletons and zombies). He's the guy what sends the grim reapers out to do their jobs, flunkies called "Deaths" which the text explicitly links to the adversary who appears in the deck of many things. Myrkul's location (the "Castle of Bones"), and his appearance (a bony top half leading to a fleshed lower body that ends in gangrenous rotting feet) and voice (a high whisper) are all spelled out, leading me to believe that Greenwood and Co. are recognizing the fact that PCs may well have a very up-close and personal run-in with this guy at one point or another. And hey, if you're going to kill a god, why not go after Death itself?
  • Mystra, the Lady of Mysteries: We've had deities specifically for Magic-Users and Illusionists, but Mystra is the goddess of magic itself, which is a pretty cool concept. She is "a manifestation of the Cosmic Balance" and "is said to have given the first teachings that unlocked the forces termed “magic” to the races of the Prime Material plane (and, some say, has forever after regretted the deed)." There's a nice bit of wizardly superstition given here, in which mages believe that Mystra determines the success or failure of spell- and scroll-creation and potion brewing. I'm definitely picturing wizards and their ilk burning votive candles in Mystra's name while they stir their cauldrons. Also, wasn't she Elminster's lover or something? A purely rhetorical question - if it's not in the Gray Box, it didn't happen in my world, and thank the gods for that!
I'm going to end Part II on that note. Tune in next time, when we'll round out the deities and take a look at Elemental Lords, Beast Cults, Non-human and "Other" Gods, and see which gods get along and which just can't seem to make it work.
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