Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Divine Right

"It is difficult to decide whether translators are heroes or fools.  They must surely know that the Afrikaans for 'Hamlet, I am thy father's ghost' sounds something like, Omlet, ek is de papa spook."

Paul Jennings, The Observer

The divine right of kings was popular as a doctrine at a time when monarchs were under siege ... right around the time of Shakespeare and afterwards.  The sentiment is as follows: it is wrong to kill a king, it is wrong to usurp a throne, and ultimately holy justice shall be served on a tragic platter for those who propose to instigate themselves in such a manner.

As England and France reeled with the development of independent states in Germany through the latter half of the 16th century, and as their authority was challenged by sweeping events such as the barbarous 30 years war between Protestants, Catholics, kings and commoners, word was cast around for some philosophy which would enable the status quo to restabilize itself as power in Europe.  Concessions were made by kings to their people, which worked in France but did not in England.  Charles I of the latter kingdom was a strong believer in the divine right of kings ... he lost his head to it, lopped off by Cromwell and his alternate religious doctrine: that kings needed to be expunged from this earth.

Prior to all of that, divinity in the sense of one man being a representative of God on Earth had been drifting around since the rise of the Catholic Church, even before it was accepted by the Romans.  Romans 13, verse 1 to 5, reads:

"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience."

Lovely stuff.  Didn't really work, though.  Though the Pope in Rome spoke the words with supreme authority, it did not stop other men from poisoning popes, it did not stop the schisms that produced two, and even three popes, and it did not stop secular kings from deposing popes for their own purposes.  It did not stop soldiers and other nobles from usurping thrones (particularly the endless stream of usurpations which marked most of Byzantine history) when the opportunity came about.  We respect our kings and queens better today than once upon a time, since they have no power now.  When they did have power, all the words of exhortation from god provided little restraint upon the willfulness of ambitious men.

Civilization VI rewards the first player to obtain Divine Right with the founding of Islam.  It should be said that Mohammed's heirs fared no better than did the heirs of Christ.  Ambition, murder and usurpation swept its way through the Arab world just as fastidiously as it did through the Western.

"God," if truth must be told, doesn't seem to mind so much.

But once again, how does the actual existence of divine beings in D&D influence the presence of kings on thrones?  I can't recall ever having read anything suggesting that the standard rag tag group of players and NPCs in a given campaign ought not to bring down the authority of a despotic king due to the threat of a God or Goddess who might not like it.  The various fantasy films and novels which conveniently incorporate the presence of divine beings for their gift-bestowing convenience (like Perseus getting his magic items) never have said divine beings showing up at the moment the king's head rolls.  The gods in fantasy may be real; but they're just as apathetic.

What if they were not?  What if an evil king were supported in turn by an evil god, leaving the awful atrocities committed in the king's name to go on with divine sanction?  How would a party feel knowing that ending those atrocities wasn't merely a matter of slipping in and knocking off King Fred, but somehow getting a little divine back-up in the form of Good Kyle the God to step in just in case Morx the Seeping Ooze, the Great Phlegm God, doesn't like that Fred's gone?  Too complicated?  Not much fun?  Much better if all the gods would kindly get off the playing field and leave us mortals to get on with things as we like?

I wonder if there's any room in D&D for Divine Intervention in the sense that those who are in authority have real authority going beyond the Prime Material Plane.  It would certainly require some new thinking where it comes to a lot of standard "little guy against the big guy" plots.  In this case, the big guy is a potentially BIG GUY.

My world, as I'm running it, features as one of its largest entities the Ottoman Empire.  It is a vast, sprawling empire reaching from Hungary to Iran, and south Egypt to the steppes of Russia, with more than 25 million people.  From history we know the Empire had legs ... it withstood a steady seige against its authority for nearly 300 years after my world takes place, 1650.  It was only by means of superior western technology that it was eventually ground down, and even at that it survived the First World War before crumbling under the nationalism of its various ethnic groupings.

What God, if the gentle reader might take time to imagine, is the authority that ensures the constant survival of that Empire?  Presuming my players were to gather more levels and a greater army, and assume authority over a state of their own (foreseeable), would it be possible for them to gather Poland, Austria and Hungary together to wage war against the Ottomans without that war also being waged on the scale of the gods of the various nations not also battling it out?  Is it worth taking any of that into consideration?  Does it create circumstances like those of Homer, where Diomedes shares a blow or two against Ares, protected by Athena?

Who plays D&D this way?  Where are their voices?  It seems to me that Homer ought to come up more often in chatter ... hm.  I haven't read the Iliad in awhile.  Perhaps I'm due.


Beedo said...

I prefer "aloof monotheism" - perhaps there is a creator, but he certainly doesn't involve himself with the day-to-day. Meanwhile, the monotheistic faiths are busy battling it out over who owns the truth.

In your situation, where perhaps there are multiple gods with large human empires worshipping them, I would treat it like the cold war. Neither side directly intervenes because of the threat of escalation (doomsday, armageddon, the apocalypse, whatever) so they work through intermediaries. Of course, that's all a fiction to keep the resolution of the action focused on the mortal plane.

I just think most campaigns treat the gods as aloof and polytheistic, and picking one is usually about as important as choosing a sports team for which to root.

Lasgunpacker said...

I think you can have the aloof cold war of the gods, as described by Beedo, and still have room for some Homeric action... just make the gods that break the ban petty gods with ambitions.

So Hungary, Poland, and Livionia get together to fight against the Ottomans, but they are not aided by their great common god(s). However, they are added by Nagarsh the Necrographic, who sends power to his clerics, and creates an avatar to battle in the final fight.

Arduin said...

I go for the aloof polytheism, myself, but mostly because my polytheistic deities are more akin to ancestor spirits, worshipped and venerated as a matter of honor.

I think in general, as a more or less secular society/world now, or at least the parts that roleplay, religion is considered too "uncomfortable" to touch upon with great depth.

This is too bad, because clerics could be very influential and interesting characters if they had an actual framework from which to build, rather than a power suite.

Anonymous said...

Kingdoms of Kalamar has "divine right" in the form of mechanical blessings for titled nobility, increasing with rank. From memory, they are things like bonuses against charms and eventually protection from non-magic weapons and assassination.

I like the concept. It stands fleshing out in play with some oath of allegiance and advancing the goals of the patron.

I can see going even farther. Many non-cleric characters I've seen are a-religious, when I would expect a world with active gods would see those gods competing for the allegiance even of mid-level fighters and wizards, but especially rulers and name level characters, and granting boons for their loyalty. I haven't worked out what that would look like, to be meaningful but not mandatory and not just a shopping list.

Tahotai said...

Having played in a campaign that featured openly interventionist gods, the main problem comes after the god intervenes in situation X the players start asking why he isn't intervening in situation Y.

The real reason is because the players need to be doing something whatever in-game excuse the DM comes up with. But when you know that, it sort of made the game less fun when the god could and would have done what we're doing but we're doing it just so we have something to do.

I don't think the characters need to be special snowflakes and the only ones capable of saving the world every tuesday, but I think they should feel what they're doing has a point.

Shieldhaven said...

Tahotai is absolutely right in pointing out the problems of interventionist gods in gaming. The other problem, of course, is the tendency for divine action to represent completely overwhelming, unstoppable force - not great for games in which you want to preserve PC agency.

The counterexample that I think you might be overlooking is the concept of divine right that exists among the drow. Those who rule do so because of Lloth's favor as one among many competitive advantages. Lloth is famously fickle, of course, and PCs who are fighting drow are fine with opposing the will of an evil deity.

Also, I've played in a Romance of the Three Kingdoms D&D game (3.0, with OA) that spent a lot of time on how the existing Han dynasty had (possibly) lost the favor of Heaven and a new dynasty had (possibly) gained it. The will of Heaven was in this case strictly non-interventionist, but was treated as a point of religious doctrine or a useful political argument.