Thoughts of Gods and Outsiders

The warlock is an interesting class.

Let me back up and explain about the four other spellcasting classes of D&D: wizards, secular scholar-technicians you gained the ability to cast spells through years of study; clerics, armored warrior priests that gain their powers through their connection to the gods; druids, whose magic comes from their mystical connection with nature; and sorcerers, people born with power in their veins due to a quirk of ancestry. There are also the half-casters, the paladins, the rangers, and the bards, but I’ll leave them aside for now.

Warlocks are the story of Faust as a class: people have made a deal with a fiend (or an archfey, or something else) and gained magic in exchange for their soul. In the original Christian context of the story, powers from Mephistopheles and God were quite different, but when translated to the fantastic context of Dungeons & Dragons, the difference between them become blurred.

The main reasons for this is that the gods of fantasy pantheon are not singular, and they are not always good. In fact, some can be outright malevolent, in much the same way the fiends can. So the question becomes what separates and evil god from a fiend, or a god of any alignment from any outsider of the same alignment, for that matter.

One possible way to make a distinction between gods and outsiders (the inhabitants of the Outer Planes: angels, demons, and such) is that a god is omnipresent. Or rather, to say that a god is present in an area or not present in an area doesn’t even make sense. There are, at most, places where their influence is weak.

Outsiders, meanwhile, can be present in a location in the same way a human is present in a location. Summoning involves building a gateway between worlds, and the spirit has to step through the gate and physically manifest in the mortal realm in order to affect that plane directly.

I’m not sure I explained that well, but the end result is that a god can communicate mortals through signs and visions, while an angel has to come down from the heavens and meet with someone.

What does this have to do with the warlock? Well, it has to do with clerics and druids using divine magic, while warlock use arcane magic like wizards and sorcerers. If gods are treated as nothing more than unusually powerful and singular outsiders, there’s little reason for the powers they grant to differ from the powers other outsiders grant.


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A Plane Misnamed

I feel as though that the Material Plane from Dungeons & Dragons is misnamed.

Allow me to explain. In traditional DnD cosmology, there are four types of planes: the Material Plane, the sphere of mundane reality, the Transitive Planes, which must be traveled through to get from on plane to another, the Inner Planes, consisting of the Elemental Planes of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, and the Negative and Positive Energy Planes, and the various combinations of them, and the Outer Planes, consisting of Heaven, Hell, and every afterlife in between.

First, I’ll describe the Transitive Planes, consisting of the Astral Plane and the Ethereal Plane. The Astral connects the Outer Planes both to each other, and to the Material Plane. It is a world wear time does not pass, and the where the corpses of dead gods float between the world. The astral plane is a concept from real life esotericism, incidentally. More on that later.

The Ethereal Plane connects the Inner Planes to the Material. It is divided between the Border Ethereal, where the traveler can see into another world, Material or Elemental or otherwise, as if through grey mist, and the Deep Ethereal, where the traveler can reach one Border Ethereal from another, and where the demiplanes – worlds to small to be planes themselves – exist. Ghosts exist in the Border Ethereal of the Material Plane. In the same way that travelers do, they can see the mortal realm, and sometimes, whether through great effort or simply being in the right place, reach out and touch it.

I suppose I should also mention the Plane of Shadow. It doesn’t have much to do with either the Inner or Outer Planes, it just happens to connect to every point on the Material Plane. This means that it can be used to get from one part of that world to another, and as such, is also called a transitive plane. The Plane of Shadow is dark and formless, as the name suggests.

The Inner Planes consist of worlds based on the four elements – fire, water, earth, and air – and the two energy planes, based off of Positive Energy (which makes living things move) and Negative Energy (which makes dead things move). The Inner Planes also include worlds based on various combinations of the first six planes, for example, the Lightning Plane is based on the combination of fire and positivity. Later editions collapsed the combinations into a type of meta-plane called the Elemental Chaos, where the elements are all mixed up, and you can simply walk from the water part to the fire part. It seems the fifth edition also kept the distinct planes for the four elements, however.

The Outer Planes are the various afterlives a person can go to after death, and in the Great Wheel cosmology, are dominated by the concepts of Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos. The general idea of the outer planes is that they are to be dominated by abstract concepts. They are the worlds of gods and spirits, angels and demons. These are the worlds that mortals are reborn into after a lifetime of deeds and beliefs, where their morality and ethics determine if they spend eternity in bliss or suffering.

The Material Plane is the world most like our own, except for the elves and wizards running around. This is the world where people are born, live, and die. In short, it is the plane ‘closest to earth,’ so to speak. The reason I don’t like the name ‘Material Plane’ has to do with the ghosts.

Ghosts, as I said, exist in the Ethereal Plane, specifically, in the Border Ethereal. From there, the spirits of the dead can see the world of the living, even as they pass through the solid objects of that world. However, they still cannot pass through solid objects on the Ethereal Plane. Furthermore, any traveler to the Ethereal can pass through Material objects in the same way that ghosts can.

Those of you that remember my piece Subtle Matter will know that I noted that this idea of ghosts getting their ability to mass through solid matter from the plane they’re on is unusual. As if being a spirit doesn’t arise from being fundamentally different from matter, but from simply being ‘over there,’ in a sense.

This is why I don’t like the Material Plane being called the Material Plane – every plane is material. The material of the Ethereal Plane is ethereal matter, the material of Hell is hellish matter, and the four elemental planes are made out of one particular kind of elemental matter. Perhaps a better name for this place would be the Terrestrial Plane, to emphasis that it’s the plane ‘closest to earth,’ or the Temporal or Mortal Plane, if the important thing about it is that it is where beings live and die. However, terrestrial would surely describe the Elemental Plane of Earth better, and even in the Outer Planes, time passes and things die, if only so that it’s possible to adventure there.

But in older editions, the Material Plane had a different name: the Prime Material Plane. This name change has interesting implications, now that I think about it. In the switch to fourth edition, when the world ‘Prime’ was lost from the name, it seems to have been because the designers didn’t think the word was important. After all, in real life esotericism, there is no such thing as a prime material plane, just a material or physical world.

Prime, then, would simply look like a way of emphasizing the importance of the plane. The Material, as the place where mortals live, is where the ultimate conflict for the fate of the multiverse is played out, rather than some afterlife between heaven and hell. But this does not explain how there can be multiple Prime Material Planes, as there were in certain early publications.

The answer is in this concept of ethereal matter. The planes of the esoterics, after all, are not simply ‘over there,’ they are completely different states of being. People and objects could not be said to be made of any kind of matter. The original designers quickly realized that such a world would be difficult to play in, however, and to simplify things, they decided that the other planes would also be made of their own kinds of matter. This is why the plane that was inspired by what the writings called the material plane gained the word ‘prime’ to it’s name. It’s not a material plane that is prime, but a plane made of prime material.

A Problem of Approaches to Magic and Gods

I’ve developed a bit of a writer’s block with one of my stories.  It’s a story about different kinds of magic, mostly inspired by the various magic classes of Dungeons & Dragons.  It’s largely based on the difference between the wizard’s spellcasting and psionics.

I’ll start with the psychics and how they fit into things.  Psychic powers were introduced into DnD as a weird subsystem that frequently didn’t act like anything else, and when they did, they mostly acted as a kind of magic that wasn’t technically magic.  This idea of magic-that-is-not-magic made me think of a scene where a wizard was cut off from his magical power, and the villains, thinking themselves safe, were surprised by his assistant’s mind bullets.

As I thought about how to cut off the wizard from his magic, I began to think about what magic was in that universe, and how it differed from the mind bullets.  The first thing I thought of was the internal/external divide, that is, the wizard’s power was external, and the psychic’s power was internal.  Part of the reason for this is that I need the villain to believe that whatever it was that disabled the wizard would also disable his assistant, and cutting off all magical power in an area seemed like a good way to do it.

I started to write a story for such a scene, but I realized there was something off about the magic system, and I’m not sure what it is.  I have an idea of the wizard’s spells being like weaving currents of air together, like streams of magic float in the sky and you can control them if you know the trick, while psychic powers are done by forming a vision in your mind, and letting your inborn talent do the rest of the work.

I suppose that the problem is that I don’t know what the difference means thematically.  The obvious choice is the difference between academic study and simply acting, but that doesn’t speak to me.  I think I’ll have to think about this harder, about what the difference is, and how the two forms of magic fit, or don’t fit, into the world.

Clerics, Druids, and the Mosaic Distinction

I’ve been reading Of God and Gods, a book by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann.  One of the concepts mentioned in it is the Mosaic Distinction, that religion concerns a singular truth and that religion, especially the Abrahamic religions, require all other systems of belief to be rejected.  Throughout the book, Assmann contrasts monotheistic religions with polytheistic cultures like Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia (he doesn’t consider them to have religions so much as theology), including how Judaism attributes its law to God rather than a king, and in doing so, makes the law sacred.

Another point of distinction the author makes is how the two systems conceive of God relating to the world.  Polytheist conceive of the gods in two different ways, implicitly and explicitly.  The implicit theology is the theology of the myths, the stories people tell of the gods and how they interact with each other.  The explicit theology begins with the observation that other nations had gods of the sun, the storms, love, and other such concepts, and even though the gods of different nations are different from each other, they can still be translated between languages (Apollo is also Ra, Neith is Athena, etc.).  This leads to the belief in written documents that every god is an extension of a singular, greater being.

The Abrahamic faiths, in contrast, portray God as coming from beyond the world.  The creator, here, is completely distinct from, and of a different nature to, the creation.  While the polytheistic God is the source of the world, the world is also the manifestation of God.  The God of Abraham exists outside of world, only rarely coming down from heaven to declare laws to His creation.

It’s that last bit that makes me think Dungeons & Dragons got something backward.  In DnD, there are two classes that can use divine magic, druids and clerics.  Druids draw their power from nature, are usually portrayed as practicing an “Old Faith,” and have the ability to turn into various animals.  Clerics draw their powers from the gods, who are usually portrayed as spending most of their time in the afterlives, and have the power to repel or control the undead, depending on their alignment.

Druids and clerics are obviously stand-ins for the pagan and Christian priests of medieval romances, respectively.  An interesting fact about this contrast is that the druids abilities connects them to the world they live in, while the clerics abilities connect them to death.

I want to talk about the clerics’ connection to death.  It’s thematically linked to Christianity’s own connection with death, with Jesus coming back from the dead, the rewards for being good coming after death, and the world becoming right only after it ends.  This seems strange, coming from the class best known for it’s ability to heal.

I’m not actually going anywhere with this.  I mostly just wanted to talk about how the priest classes of role-playing games differ from their inspiration.  The paganism-inspired druids are monotheists (granted, in a pantheistic way), while the Christianity-inspired clerics are associated with polytheism (although they usually pick a particular god to associate themselves with).  It’s like they took an aspect of their inspiration that was least associated with the words ‘polytheism’ and ‘monotheism’ that was least associated to take their inspiration from.

Actually, both of these aspects are found in polytheistic systems.  They are the two forms of monotheism-in-polytheism, and neither of them invoke the Mosaic distinction.  Interesting.

Anti-DnD-ism

Traveling across the internet, in the parts that I am wont to wander into, you sometimes see people railing against popular things.  That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with not liking popular things, there are a lot of things that make me wonder about humanity at large, but what prompted this essay is comment by a TTRPG player that didn’t like Dungeons & Dragons.

The material part of the comment was that the poster did not like that DnD was a class-and-level system, rather than a point-buy one, nor did they like alignment.  I’ve seen other, similar opinions across the internet, lumping together classes and alignment, and citing them as problems.  It makes me wonder, how are these things similar?

In class-and-level systems, characters are divided into several distinct professions called classes, and have a number called a ‘level,’ roughly corresponding to how powerful and experienced they are.  Classes have a set of abilities that are unlocked as level goes up, so that members of the same class at the same level will have roughly equal abilities.  In point-buy, by contrast, a character’s abilities are determined by a variety of skills, attributes, advantages, and other quirks, paid for out of a central pot of points.  Class-and-level systems can be constraining, not allowing much overlap between the various classes, while point-buy can be bewildering to newcomers and allow the experienced to create characters that incredibly overpowered for the number of points they have.

Alignment is DnD dividing every creature and society into nine groups, theoretically based on their ethics and morality.  It’s ultimately descended from Michael Moorcock’s use of “Law” and “Chaos” as cosmic forces that can be allied with and served, with Dungeons & Dragons treating “Good” and “Evil” in much the same way.  This creates the odd effect of reducing the question “How should a person live and act?” down to team colors.

Both of these mechanics are gamey as fuck.  Classes and levels exist to keep people from accidentally creating characters that can blow through any challenge presented to them, and alignment exists because the original designers wanted enemies that the players could fight and kill, without bringing up any of the usual questions that would arise from such actions in real life, with the occasional bonus of letting people be defined as morally pure enough to wield certain magical weapons.  These things aren’t appropriate for all games, or for all groups.