Friday, November 24, 2023

Gods are high level PCs

Listening to Between Two Cairns about Caverns of Thracia, and I was thinking about Greek-mythological elements in the hodgepodge mélange of D&D. 

I realized: Greek gods are just high level PCs. 

Greek elements in D&D

A preponderance of fantastic elements in vanilla D&D are Tolkien-esque, North/Western European. Old-school D&D is definitely more of a melting pot, with a Saturday morning cartoon blending of dinosaurs, samurai, and spaceships thrown in the mix. But even in the most vanilla D&D have these decidedly Greek mythological elements: hydras, harpies, medusa, minotaurs. 

Gods in vanilla D&D have a Greek pantheon vibe. They have these very Greco-Roman spheres of influence - Raylor is the god of the sun, good, human fighters, and archery. There's usually a ruling hegemony of major gods and dozens of minor gods. In major cities, you can find temples to any god. Gods can be patrons to a particular race or people. When you say, "I worship the god of the sun and you worship the goddess of the moon," nobody blinks.

(This is often very boring. The endless iterations on this theme, with vaguely different names and groupings, are so tedious to read. Not to yuck anybody's yum, but there should be public decency laws  where you go to jail if you make me read your re-coloration of the Faerun pantheon.)

It would be more interesting if the gods in D&D acted more like the gods in Greek mythology. And the gods in Greek mythology act like high-level player characters, overloaded with magical items, zipping around and causing trouble for everybody.

Rethinking the gods

People say "Greek gods are more human." I guess that's true. But they don't act rational, like normal humans. They act irrational, like a 14 year old boy playing "Mars, God of War" who asks for his PC to bang every bar wench the adventuring party encounters.

They are not omniscient. When you pray to them, you hope they or their messengers are nearby in shape-changed form or invisible. You offer them things not abstractly, but in the deliberate hope that you're luring them to your altar.

They are not omnipotent. They are powerful beings who wield technologies invisible to humankind: weather, seasons, disease, emotions, birth, death. 

When gods act for or against you, they do so very directly:

  • They give you magical items - a helm of invisibility and a mirror shield - to slay Medusa. 
  • They summon a monster to devour you.
  • They summon veils of mist to obscure you from your enemies in battle. 
  • They cast Clone on you so that your eidolon can take your place in an unpleasant situation.

Gamifying this

Anybody can pray. When you make a prayer to a god, you have a 1-in-20 chance of having your prayer fulfilled. 

  • +1 if you make a significant offering (at least 10% of gold value to advance to your next level)
  • +1-3 for doing something awesome that that god likes (feats of battle for war gods, clever plans for wisdom gods, good deeds for good gods, etc.) since your last prayer

On a successful prayer, call a friend that's pretty good at RPGs but isn't part of this particular game. Tell them they have a level 20 PC, with any build they want. Tell them they're given a quest to do X (where X is the other PC's prayer). Ask what they do.

That's how the god reacts to your prayer.


  1. There's a (sometimes misused) word for that!

    1. Very happy to learn this word, I did not know it (but had heard of the theory before).

      Just for clarity, I'm not really arguing that "the gods are just high level PCs who now call themselves gods," as much as saying "Greek gods ACT like high level players"

  2. If I remember correctly something similar to this is baked into the setting for BX/BECMI, where the gods of Mystara are just powerful individuals who achieved immortality. Also just in a larger sense divinity seems an appropriate archetypal end-goal for an adventurer. Makes sense for the gods act like high-level adventurers when many literally were at one point