Updated: Jul 21, 2020
When I was less than a month from my 10th birthday, Andrew Jackson invited me over to his house to play D&D. It was a sensual experience because I was so young, and my family didn't have money. So when I went to his house and he had the whole basement to himself, with a bar, a jukebox containing Men At Work, Journey, etc.; a pool table...it was overwhelming.
His older brother went the University of Minnesota (50 minutes away) so Andy had access to all kinds of things we country bumpkins never heard of: Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and D&D among them.
Some experiences we had during those first few sessions were frustrating and threatened to derail my love of role playing, likely owing to the tender age (of us all)----and our inability to fully grapple with the details and arguably adult themes presented in the AD&D books.
The artwork was practically subversive for its time and the content of those books and modules was just so vast and dizzying. If I imagine my 5th grade teacher, Ms Meglic, ASSIGNING me to read that much material it's laughable...
And this sense of being overpowered by the rules (the amount and complexity) was augmented by the way Andy threw gods at us in those early days. My first battles weren't against orcs, or kobolds. When I went to Jackson's house, I saw this on the back of the book he pulled out:
Needless to say, combat didn't go well for us.
These were misguided, often adolescent-charged forays into strangeness I was completely unprepared for.
Yet, there was this nugget of mystery. This ineluctable seed of power and creativity and vast cosmic design that went hand in hand with the back woods landscape of rural Minnesota in which I lived (where we, my friends and I, routinely explored and got lost in seemingly endless woods and hills and supposed that everything from angels to aliens was probably real).
This in turn fed our imaginations, stoked by the cover of the Player's Handbook and nurtured by the vague perception that nearly every D&D module had a perverse altar or cult that needed crushing.
'Twas the gods (many of them down right sinister) that made the dungeons truly frightening and bestowed upon or withheld spells according to their whim. It was the gods, dizzying and multi-form and just as often hideous [or] beautiful that elevated D&D from knights and dragons to civilization against the darkness...against the Lovecraftian.
The vast dark horrors beyond the dimension where the player characters lived was INTEGRAL to our experience at the table and so, yes, our paladins clung to Pholtus' Light desperately...because without it, Demogorgon was going to eat their face.
Growing up happened later and is a thing that's boring and outside the scope of this post. But when I came back to role playing in 2014, I also returned to the exact tropes that worked so well in the 80's.
Having a strata of power that is beyond contestation is not only good for drama but good for mechanics. Sure the king is a powerful guy, and the empress can have you beheaded, but if you are playing AD&D by the book, these individuals become peers after a while...practically begging you to save their lands. The game almost demands a bigger bad, a more ineffable reason that things have gone sideways and some of your powers don't work in this dungeon, dimension, etc.
Not that I'm for nerfing powerful characters in any way. But it's OK to have a pit trap that's laced with anti-magic to negate Feather Fall (just once in a hundred times) to keep players on their toes and to justify it with the sphere of influence overseeing the dungeon. If the dungeon is aligned with some elemental earth power that binds characters to the floor or makes flight difficult, then the pit trap becomes less about the DM "jobbing" the PCs and more about players apprehending a theme of potential hazards. Plus when the magical key your players have been relying on to open doors doesn't work on "this door"...because This Door was sealed by a being far more powerful than any of you can comprehend...again, OK.
Anyway, when we started playing again in 2014, there were some characters that were rolled up as Atheists. Fine by me. It wasn't that I punished them. Or that they suffered disproportionately to characters that had gods. It was just the way things worked.
It was like saying that you don't believe in internal combustion engines and then watched folks driving around...or worse case, you got hit by a car.
So eventually, I think the players relaxed into it because the system they experienced wasn't telling them to believe in gods, it was having an Archdevil show up when they broke a seal and maliciously demand that they select two of their number for him to take back to Nessus [or he'd be happy to kill them all if they didn't make up their minds].
Or, it was a god showing up in disguise for two years of gaming before the players realized it was Mizraim and that they owed significant thanks to his devices and guidance.
As it became more and more clear that this was simply the way of things, and that there were good and bad powers that could not be met with blade or spell, it stripped some of the overly-simplistic murder hobo mentality away. If, no matter how much you plan, combat is NOT a solution then you must think in other terms. Yes, I understand this is antithetical to the bullet storm FPS genre and the my way or the highway self-empowerment fantasy proffered almost universally now days.
You: Anthony, are you just trying to justify oppressing your players?
Me: I would defer you to my players for that answer. If you want to query them I can arrange it.
Something you can learn from hard core Asian MMOs [that are not War Craft] is that deep, deep stratification of power = longevity of play. That's why hitting level 105 was impossible in Perfect World until the Frost dungeon glitch. You had to play for years. By design.
AD&D has a similar concept without micro-transactions.
You: Uh, Anthony, every time I expand my dice collection, it's a micro-transaction.
Me: You are so, so right.
Point is, AD&D's rules *begged* to be played for years and years without getting stale and allowed PCs limitless leveling (yes, it's true, there were no level limits at all) and it is to my knowledge the only game that has BROADLY succeeded in this regard: in many cases there are campaigns that have now been played for decades.
This vein of thinking (limitless progression) wherein PCs can actually ascend to godhood, is not novel. It's pitched in the first few pages of Deities & Demi-dudes (as my good friend refers to the legendary tome) but none of us had much idea how that could actually work.
As a STAUNCH advocate of the tenability of high-level play, I think it's finally time I talk about a seldom discussed jewel in the history of the game. It arrived after the Golden Age, which cast it in doubt I think, for it was post-Gygax; authored by what could be argued (irrationally) at the time "the enemy camp" Wizards of the Coast, and featured terrible cover art (mullets hadn't been cool for a long time). So it arrived too late to be of use----I think----when the world was already moving on to other editions; or perhaps just growing up.
Nevertheless, The Primal Order, by Peter Adkison & Steve Conard is one of the most brilliant pieces of role playing game development to grace Earth. If you disagree, I release you to perform the only rational thing left for you to do: sacrifice yourself to Old Gods by leaping into a volcano.
The book was first published in 1992, which is the only edition I'm interested in because it is also the only edition that contains the KEY (p193) to implementing the entire book in accordance with AD&D rules.
The volume is otherwise written in a vague manner, speaking of "points" of primal energy throughout and of "resistance rolls" etc. In the back of the book, there are appendices that then key those terms to various systems of the day, so that you can use The Primal Order with Ars Magica, The Arduin Grimoire, and so on.
Once you realize that 1 point of Primal Flux deals 10 hp dmg, you're off to the races.
You could theoretically, with this book, roll up "1st level" godlings and run a campaign AS gods.
In such a game, you would create servitors, minions, seek alliances, disintegrate armies, choose a better hair style, laugh in the face of 18th level magic-users and ascend your own godlings once you reach Lesser Deity status: having conquered several planes and secured a home plane of your own.
Really. Despite the hair, this book is no joke.
Its bibliography and historical reference page is serious college course stuff. And it pulls so many recognizable elements of myth (including those you saw in modules from the 80's) into a cohesive system where suddenly, miraculously, the crazy shit the gods are doing makes sense.
This is the book that can finally answer all your religious questions (with regards to gaming) and confirm that divinity is just as bad and good as you imagined.
Caveats: I'll admit The Primal Order suffers from the same problems you're familiar with from the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide; namely lack of codification for many important ideas and terms and general disarray, such that piecing the system together takes several readings with notebook and highlighter.
This journey is completely worth your time. Adkison's & Conard's sincerity in the text is just as refreshing as his humor. And as you'd expect, most God vs God face to face throw-downs result in a kind of glorified rock paper scissors known as the Dominance Check or the Conflict of Power Roll...which only underscores why the gods behave as they do: going through their minions, toying with machinations and politics.
But it's not boring stuff. The ideas presented provide for divine quests, the foundations of the god's story, and the reason for his/her fame and power.
It also provides avenues for mortals to ascend [or] with the support of a divine ally, challenge the deities themselves. Basically, The Primal Order is what Deities & Demi-dudes should have been and it is a supplement that you can integrate whole or piece meal according to your preferences.
You: Why is this your blog topic, Anthony?
I met Peter at Gary Con IX (though I'm sure he doesn't remember me) and he's a really likable personality. That meeting was what prompted me to finally, finally order this book from ebay.
You see, I'd heard how good it was for some time. But like any cultist initiate who's faith is weak, I doubted and demurred because, god...that mullet! How wrong I was. And I want to express that I was wrong in case anyone else has ever brushed off notions that The Primal Order is something special.
More relevant to current events, however, has been my pulling out and dusting off of the book as I re-familiarize myself----this because of my efforts on the Dream House of the Nether Prince. I have thus far provided Primal Order variants for the Dream House heavy hitters as well as minor ways to affect their Flux during the adventure. On the off chance this is of interest to anyone, I've also made sure to keep it as a variant in the text so that it in no way interferes with standard AD&D rules.
My purpose here is to be able to run the adventure the way I want to, while also allowing for the 20 people that buy copies to have it their way as well. Still, I wanted to advocate for this system because I know its going to wow my players when they realize suddenly and for the first time what it really means to go up against a god.
I also wanted to provide you with a spreadsheet (Primal Order God Maker) to help you fashion gods while utilizing Adkison's & Conard's book. Here's a screen shot of the excel sheet (which is very much a rough sort of thing you can expand on):
The vanilla-colored fields are where you enter data. The other fields will do calculations for you so it becomes easier to tell how much Base and how much Flux your Demon Prince has on hand.
In order to make sense of this spreadsheet, you'll have to go on the same journey I did: reading and re-reading The Primal Order while taking notes. I'm not breaking the book down for you here. But you can click on the image (or this text) to download the spreadsheet which will make your life a lot easier once you know what you're doing.
You'll also be able to pit one god against another with considerably more ease and see what the actual hell would happen if Asmodeus and Geryon had a dust up; why clerics are both a pain in the ass and necessary to kingdoms of divinity; and why Orcus might want to steal Tiamat's egg.
The Divine Ability Score enhancement chart (where the godling basically gets to burn base to set her STR, WIS etc. to whatever she wants (so long as she pays) is a departure from the book that I thought was better balanced; but the rest is, I think, in line w/ the text.
You should be able to play around and quickly understand why spending base is SUCH a big deal to a deity, which in turn further clarifies the vision of how and why deities do the things they do. It's a FASCINATING interplay of investment and returns and gambles. Plus you get to make your own holy days! What power hungry PC doesn't want to be worshiped just for being born or for vanquishing their worst enemy of all time?
I hope you can get your hands on a copy of this wonderful book and that you have as much fun plotting and planning as I did after reading it.
Peace, stay healthy, and