Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Clerics and their pet gods

I've never been happy with the way divinities are handled by role-playing games. For a cleric / priest / choirboy in any D&D inspired computer game a choice of deity, if present at all, is purely cosmetic. There is no fundamental difference between the religious and the nerdy approach to spellcasting, and there is so much that could be done to change that. The biggest issue is that players get control over the deity they like. They are not subject to the whims of a cosmic force, there is no interaction and 'gods' are merely tapped as a resource for spellcasting on the player's terms.

I'm reminded of one particular example of an alternative style which vastly improved the game experience.
Once upon a time, there was a delightful little browser strategy/RP game called Aventia. Long-time players could apply to the game's designer to become deities, god of what-have-you, founding their own religious orders. Regular players would choose to worship this or that god. Occasionally, your god might smile on you, gifting you with a bonus to your resource harvest, a unicorn or demon to lead your army, etc. You could also pray to the player-deity and be rewarded for your roleplaying with divine favour.

There is no practical reason why this could not be done in other games, especially in persistent-world games. Game-masters, if they're paid staff whose salary would give developers more leverage in policing their actions, would be decidedly preferable to actual players but there are a number of ways in which players could 'ascend' and have their divine actions limited through game mechanics.

I'll try to separate the possibilities and possible issues into bottom-up and top-down mechanics to deal with player-god interaction.

The main duty of a 'god' or other superior being would be to drive player activity. Ideally the GMs or whoever fills the role of gods could be trustworthy enough to be given free reign in their actions, limited only by gameplay mechanics in enriching the game world through various events. More realistically, there would have to be hard-coded limits. Plagues, blights and other buffs or debuffs could be handed out from a mana pool. In this respect a divinity would be a spellcaster who interacts with the game world mainly through effects on other players.
Manifestations would be another possibility, with the divinity having limited time in the game world as a gigantic monster like a dragon or an otherworldly demon being summoned by cabals of many players faithful to him. A manifesting deity could be limited by a simple timer, a "war hunger" mechanic requiring it to kill players in order to remain in the game world, a constant supply of spellcasting reagents, etc.

The main concern for players interacting with a deity would be the cost/benefit estimate. While gods will get much of their satisfaction simply from being placed in the socially enviable position, their faithful must see some profit from the arrangement in the immediate future.
Interactions would most likely take the form of worship and sacrifices. Building temples, performing rituals, sacrificing goods, trying to summon manifestations of a particular deity, all could make for very entertaining group activities and could also form the basis of a divinity's mana pool.
These activities could also easily be leveraged into PvP scenarios. Have players build a shrine to a particular god in a city full of unbelievers, have them sacrifice the high priest of another deity, become high priests and open themselves to assassination, require holy water to be made from the hearts of heathens, there are endless possibilities.

The most important aspect isn't even making gods interactive. It's giving them a bit more personality. A god of the sun or moon should get stronger or weaker as the day drags on, and his influence should be weakened by cloud cover. Disciples of different religions shouldn't just get a couple of different spells, but have their spellcasting work by different rules. "Good" gods should force players to do noble deeds to get divine rewards. Evil gods should occasionally turn on them.
Most importantly, players shouldn't get to cast whatever divine spells they want whenever they want. Acts of god(s) should be powerful, impressive, useful or dreadful, sure, but they should not be subject to the whims of the faithful. When a player sacrifices a boar and prays for lightning to strike down his enemy in the next fight, he shouldn't have the certainty of success.

There are two main ways in which gods could be made a more important part of a game. One would be a faction-based game where gods define each faction. The other is a standard fantasy MMORPG, and here it's trickier making sure the gods do not become factions. The emphasis should still be on player-run societies. Limitations would have to be placed on the number of players or land area which can be affected by divine powers so that player guilds worshipping the same god are encouraged to vie for his favor, preventing the god from being the focus of a faction. The ideal situation would be something like the Trojan war myth, with gods taking sides in human conflicts.

Other ideas:
Demigods! In a game with some sort of permanent death and a birth/lineage system, gods could party down like Zeus and Odin scopin' hotties at a kegger.
Divine death! Ok, so gods don't generally die in the same way as everyone else, but they do get retired from play sometimes. See Uranus, Ymir and most every other god associated with a creation myth. You could have entire sections of a game world built on the corpse of a god.
Oracles! There were constant scandals in the older attempts at true persistent worlds about GMs giving away information to player guilds. So make it part of the game. Have players becomes oracles of a particular deity and get inside info or celestial spy reports by huffin' some peyote.
Prophecies! Remember all those fake wishes given out by genies and all the double-entendre prophecies that trick mortals into wagering their fortune on living forever as a potted plant? When you've got a computer game's development team on your side, you could dream up all sorts of tempting promises to make players chase pots of gold over rainbows or give them a scare. Example: "the kingdom of Leetkidburg shall fall" - turns out it gets made into a cave city and gets access to unimaginable wealth of metal ores, and the mayor of Leetkidburg gets to curse whichever rats abandoned the sinking ship instead of meeting their fate.

That's about all i have for now, but there is so much to be done with the idea.

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