Monday, March 16, 2015

Divinities in Fantasy Fiction and Games

I have some problems with how divinities (gods and goddesses of all sorts) work in fiction. I'm not speaking of God or Allah or Vishnu or anything else worshiped within the real world; what I mean is fictitious pantheons of deities. Mainly the problem is, I don't think they come across as making any sense (which is a problem for real world gods, too, but that's another issue.) In fantasy realms, the most common idea is that divinities, however they exist, are real things: they really act in the world(s) depicted, sometimes wandering about as the Greek gods were thought to do. But they don't make much sense when they do it, and so I'm going to lay out a few thoughts as to the various different types of divinities that could exist, and what each sort means, how they would impact the world, that sort of thing.

The first question is what sort of divine power we're dealing with. A deity could be either all powerful (omnipotent) or not all powerful; this is a clear and easy distinction. So we can split all deities along that line: either the entity has power to do anything it wishes to, whenever it wants, in whatever manner it wants, or it does not have that power (though it may still be extremely powerful, capable of destroying worlds and the like; just not all powerful.)

So, to omnipotent beings. If you're dealing with a fantasy world, these beings are the ones who move and shake in it; they create the worlds, they grant powers to their followers, they make miracles and/or magic occur and exist. And if your deity is all powerful, everything in the world is exactly as they wish it to be. Or is it? I posit there's several varieties of omnipotent available. One is narratively not interesting: the actual and complete omnipotent being. This goddess is such that she controls, without effort or possibly even thought, everything. The world, the universe, reorders itself at her whim. There can't be a plot or a challenge that will satisfy either your readers or your players, because you've made it clear that this particular being is shaping everything. So let's set her aside, because while she's interesting in a vague sort of way, she's not practical for a creator. Instead, it's possible to imagine other kinds of omnipotent beings.

First is one much like the Christian God, a being so greatly powerful that nothing can be said to be beyond him. And yet, he barely intervenes in the world, and when it happens, its vague and uncertain. This is because of Free Will, or some other reason why the deity is hands off. Though they certainly could intervene and do whatever they want, they have chosen not to do so; in fact, they are so greatly limited by their choices, that they might as well not exist as an influence on the world. What they do is generally subtle and uncertain, because anything more breaks their own rules. A subset of this is represented by the question, "Could God make a stone so heavy he couldn't lift it?" My answer is, indeed he could, as he's omnipotent; it has to lie within the scope of his abilities to do anything. But with a moment's notice, he could change the rules once more so that he could lift the stone again. So that's another possibility with the all powerful deity: they've set themselves some limitation that they will not break, as if they were playing the game of godhood at a higher degree of difficulty. And of course, there's the possibility they're too powerful: their least intervention might undo everything, so frail and weak are humans (or whatever you're using in place of humans.) While this god can create the world, and can smite cities or continents, or blot out the sun, he may not have the finesse to cure one sick child's measles. Perhaps a select few could survive being granted the slightest portion of his power, to become his avatars on the world, but perhaps not. Even if they could survive for a time, holding too much strength (for humans, omnipotence must always be too much) would probably prove fatal.

So it's possible to think that omnipotent gods would completely control their creations; would limit themselves because of philosophical stances; would limit themselves because they wished to challenge their abilities; or would be unable to limit themselves enough for day to day intervention. Each of these is at least a usable possibility, but I don't feel any of them has truly great potential for narrative strength.

Instead, we come to the sort of gods, like the Greek or Roman deities, or even the Hindu gods or Shinto divinities, who are not all-powerful for one reason or another. And here is where we come upon choices that can promote interesting stories and creations.

There are many reasons your particular set of divinities might not be all powerful. We can classify them into two broad areas: limited gods and opposed goddesses. Limited deities are those that can access great power perhaps, but have an upper limit, or a narrow focus, something of that sort, which prevents them from being omnipotent. Opposed goddesses are those that, though their power might be thought of as nigh-omnipotent, have to face off against at least one other being who is similarly powerful, and thus can stop their actions as quickly as they take them. Let's look a little more closely at our options here.

Limited divinities can be limited in almost any way one could think of. But there are a few prominent ways. Maybe they're just weak: very minor gods who can do what seems like a lot to a mortal being (we have no real power, you know) but who are quite frail on the scale of massive power. Gods of very small aspects, goddesses of little rivers, or worn and ancient deities of forgotten times would all fit into this sort of category. While their power is in theory unlimited, in that they never actually run out of it, they can't do much at any moment. Heal a believer, roil the waters of their stream, cast a healthy glow from their immortal bodies; but confronted by a powerful enough mortal (a great wizard, a destined warrior, a fated baroness) they might be defeated or even destroyed. Which is a sad ending for a god, but we're talking very minorly powerful beings here. When all your gods are of this sort, the mortals are able to take action pretty freely without divine intervention always appearing and mucking up the works.

A second way is that the deity might have a portfolio: goddess of storms, god of cities, that sort of thing. Within their field, they might be incredibly powerful, possibly unlimited. The goddess of storms might have giant hurricanes that travel the world at her will, wreaking havoc; the god of cities might cause settlements to spring up anywhere at least a dozen people camp, and just keep growing around them. But they cannot really change the world as a whole, and they will almost always be part of a group of gods, who each have their own field, and each oppose one another in so far as they wish to keep their aspects in existence: the god of cities doesn't wish his cities destroyed by the storm goddesses eternal hurricanes, and makes them proof against her attacks, except that he cannot simply cover the world in cities: the newest and weakest bits are forever being destroyed by the wrath of the storms. And of course the goddess of nature and the god of war have their own influence. But each of these divinities is truly mighty in their own field, and none is likely to be challenged by any mortal hero except under barely possible terms: destined heroine with significant companions and god-killing spear, at the proper moment in the most meaningful place. Still, their activities can be foiled and compromised by exploiting their limits, and involving the other gods.

Or they might be quite strong, but easily distracted or possessed of very mortal foibles. The Greek gods were powerful, but they had all sorts of limitations: they were full of themselves, they were spiteful, they were lusty, they were lazy and could be confused by circumstances. These sort of divinities work well for both stories and games: easy to involve, but easy, as well, to use as and when needed. The problem with more powerful gods, as noted above in speaking of truly omnipotent beings, is that they can always solve problems, they can always act as deus ex machina, and in fact what makes less sense is if they don't do so. So having flawed, cranky, flighty mortal-acting beings of great power gives you freedom to have the divinities not intervene for personal reasons: they'd save the world, only they were offended. Or they're in hot pursuit of something lovely. Or they're off being drunk. So many reasons to avoid interference; yet when they are needed to interfere, their great power and their nearly mortal personalities allow for clearly understood reasons for their truly meaningful actions.

And of course, the goddess might be almost omnipotent, with the one exception: so is the god. Both of them strong enough to shake the heavens and remake the world, only the other one prevents it simply by existing. They may, as with the category of omnipotents above, have rules and guidelines for when they can intervene; they may be intervening constantly, but almost all their interventions are blocked or mitigated by their opposite number(s); they may operate only through mortal agents who are granted great power and opposed, more or less, by the other divinity's agents. This sort of divine situation is perhaps the hardest to work with: how do you avoid escalation, how do you rationalize the limits and the form of the "conflict" between the divinities? It's a sort of Cold War, only one that goes on forever and ever...until, like the Cold War, it doesn't? There's the potential for interesting stories there, but they become as much about the deities as their followers, and these sorts of deities should be hard to write: if they were almost mortal like the Greek gods, the world would have probably ended in holy conflagration long before.

Lastly, a god could be a being of limited power, like a battery. That power might be inherent: the goddess was created with so many miracles, so much force, and once it's gone it's gone. Or it might be dependent on other factors: winning at games of chance with other gods, or the number and fervor of the faithful. In the first case, the amount of power might be enough that the goddess could be all powerful for a moment: reshaping time and space entirely, destroying the current world to create another, but then running out of power and dying. Or just shaping bits and pieces of history for hundreds of thousands of years, slowly decaying but remaining vastly powerful, until at last the well runs dry and the goddess fades to nothing. In the second case, gods would have to compete in one way or another for the limited "currency" that exists. That currency might be nothing more than "divine money" which represents power, and for which their could be endless games changing it around, all the gods always wanting a little more and willing to risk what they have, with possibly a mortal able to "buy in" by getting some small amount of it (a great sorceress or a hero of legend who has found a godly relic might challenge a lesser goddess for some of her strength); or it might be faith, and then the gods are always competing to impress/intimidate/win over the mortals, in order to draw on their strength. This provides for interest in that the mortals have actual power over the gods, if they realize it; but of course they have very little reason to be fully aware of this: their faith has no visible strength (or does it?), but the power that the deities gain from that faith is certainly noticeable, so it might be dangerous to oppose them. Or might not: smiting your worshipers might turn them against you, to another goddess.

There are in the end an infinite way to depict your gods and goddesses, but thinking of them with a framework of the possibilities will give them more realism and make them work better as aspects of your world.

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