Who Accumulates Power?
What kind of person accumulates power, generally speaking? A good person or an evil person? In the current context of rising inequality as well as the resurgence of vile ideologies from the recent past, we see demagogues holding onto power despite movements like the Arab Spring and rising to greater power in Europe and the United States. And while inspiring to many, movements like Occupy have done little to slow the accumulation of wealth among fewer and fewer oligarchs; similarly Black Lives Matter has yet to see significant victories as they continue the fight for Civil Rights.
It’s been said that the last person who should have power is the kind of person who seeks power out, and we can see how our political systems reward wrongdoing and make doing what’s right all the more costly and difficult. How much more so might this be true of gods, and how they gather power to themselves?
I think that in many ‘standard’ D&D campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, the good-aligned gods are too powerful. There is this sense that there should be a balance of alignments in the world, most explicitly in a setting like Krynn, and so you often have good gods facing off against their opposite number while neutral gods move back and forth in allegiance, or go off and seek their own ends.
The problem is that the balance offers too much hope. I understand, it is fantasy after all, but for me a more compelling story can often be found when the protagonists are underdogs, fighting against overwhelming odds. Add that to what seems to be true about the nature of power in the world we know, and I think that our game settings should feature more overwhelmingly powerful evil deities.
In the Midnight setting, published in a first and second edition by Fantasy Flight Games, first for D&D 3E and then for D&D 3.5, there is only one god – the Dark Lord Izrador. All other deities have been shunted out of the material plane entirely, leaving only the occasional nature spirit and no good-aligned outsiders at all. The only deity available for clerics (or their Midnight equivalent, Wisdom-oriented channelers) is a god of evil, and it is a genuinely scary thing in a game to have what is usually the most over-powered class, the cleric (especially in D&D 3.x), as exclusively antagonists. Your enemies will have supernatural healing available to them, and waves of undead at their command.
Midnight is a superb setting to explore issues of resistance against a dystopia that is not only political but metaphysical as well. Is there any hope at all against overwhelming odds? If not, what meaning can you find? Where are the places for heroism? Midnight forces these questions on players precisely because the power of the evil deity is overwhelming.
Idea to steal: the setting is monotheistic, and that deity is evil.
Example: Call of Cthulhu
The obvious flagship setting for overpowering, terrifying deities is clearly the Cthulhu Mythos. (Even though in the original story, Cthulhu is taken out by being rammed by a ship) For the most part, there are no gods of good – they are illusions, or impotent when compared to the seething cosmic horrors gazing hungrily at Earth and its inhabitants.
The Mythos can be an example of this idea taken too far, however, because so often one of the core themes of a Mythos-based setting is helplessness. And I don’t want to go that far. I don’t think movements for justice in our world are hopeless – it’s just that they are perpetually outgunned.
Idea to steal: there are gods, but they are overwhelmed by all-powerful cosmic horrors.
Classic Example: Middle-Earth
For almost all of Middle-Earth’s history, including its mythic history, the Valar, equivalent to the benevolent gods of a pantheon, are at worst balanced out by Melkor in influence, and if anything, Melkor has a far greater influence on how history unfolds. Similarly in the Third Age, Sauron has a much greater influence than any of the Valar, and those who resist him are always doing so as underdogs, or in secret, or as part of a desperate ploy.
Unlike the other Valar, Melkor takes up residence in Middle-Earth itself in Utumno, guarded by Angband, the Hell of Iron. The same is true of Sauron in Mordor of course (well Mordor, then Dol Guldur, then Mordor again). The caricature of Middle-Earth is that it coddles its protagonists (to which we get responses like Moorcock and Martin), but it is hard to describe a setting where the deity of evil has a physical address anything but frightening.
Idea to steal: the most powerful of the various deities is an evil deity, and s/he rules a physical realm in the world while the deities of good are distant and can only intervene indirectly.
Un-Balance Your Gods
I think that the gods of good in a fantasy setting should be overwhelmed, limited, and in a word, scrappy. They should face overwhelming odds, always feel like they are outclassed and fighting from behind, and sometimes have to fall back on luck to survive.
Just like the heroes.