Monday, October 13, 2014

Least Priests, Pantheism, and God-Prisons

Isn't it cool how gods all seem to conflate power, worship, mythology, immortality, and a moral system?  What happens if a god is lacking one of those elements?

That doesn't have to be the case, though.

A Partial History of Religion in Centerra

Before Hesaya became the dominant religion of Centerra, the continent was mostly pantheistic.  One city-state would worship Magnificent Yakul, while the neighboring one would worship Grandfather Count-the-Days.

It is important to realize that, prior to the Advent of Hesaya, religion, ethnicity, and location were all tightly interrelated.

Every Land had a People, and every People had a God.

Some People had several Gods, sometimes People worshiped their neighbor's God, but each God was localized.  Each one had a home.

It is also important to realize that a temple wasn't just a place that you go to worship your god, but is literally where your god resides.

Every temple has an inner sanctuary where the god lives, and from which the entire religion flows.  And while a People/City/Relgion might have smaller, satellite sites of worship, there is never confusion that these are just shrines to the god, but not actual connections to the godhead.

In those days, most people didn't know what sort of land was over the next mountain range.  It was understood that each land was a new one, with a new people and a new god.  And each city's clerics performed miracles, so how could the divinity of their god be denied?  And so most people were pantheists.

Religion wasn't something personal.  There was no such thing as one's faith informing one's morals.  Worship was a matter of politics and politeness.  When in the city of Yakul, you worshipped Yakul.  When in the city of Grandfather Count-the-Days, you worshipped him.  And if a common man abandoned his city, his land, and his people, he rarely took his gods with him.  How could he, when Yakul lived in his shrine in the mountain?  And even if he did insist on worshipping Yakul in his new city, he would be far from the mountain, and Yakul would have difficulty hearing him.  And so immigrants would always adopt the religion of their new city, at least partially, so as to avoid offending the god.

Religions didn't dictate morality.  Or, if they did, it was usually couched in non-judgmental language, such as "Yakul is disgusted by thievery and the wearing of the color blue.  Those who practice either will suffer his displeasure."

Likewise, old religions didn't have much truck with ontology.  Although they often include creations myths or divine lineages for their people, they almost never attempt to explain the creation of the earth, nor what came before the world, nor the the afterlife.  A religion was simply a formal system of observances that formalized the interaction between the god and the people, usually based on respect.

Old gods did not want worshipers.  Why would they?  What worth is the chatter of a few monkeys?  Old religions did not proselytize, did not seek new converts.  Your religion was your skin color.  Your religion was your home.

And that was the state of the world until the Prophetess received the Command.

Honor the Authority, the God of Gods, from Whom all Truth flows.

The Authority is the One True God, from whom all authority and truth flows.  The Authority does not caution us from a sin because it is harmful for our souls, but instead a sin is harmful because the Authority has cautioned us against it.

<digression> The name of the Authority is Akatom, but it is only invoked in the most sacred of ceremonies.  A more common name for him is Dumadiyei.  But most folks call him the Authority.</digression>

The Birth of the Church

Unlike the other religions in the world, Hesaya worshipped an abstracted god.  The Authority didn't have a shrine.  The Authority didn't have a location, or a people.  It was a perfect circle with no center, that encompassed everything.  (This symbolism is why priest of Hesaya have black circles on the backs of their hands, either through a tattoo, henna, or a carefully embroidered glove.)

And while several other cults had emerged that had a similar theme of decentralization, Hesaya was the first one that actually caught on.  Part of this had to do with how Hesaya treated other religions.

Most gods are jealous gods.  Conquering a neighboring city-state invariably involves destroying their temple and destroying the idol in which the god lived.  As you could expect, this was dangerous business.  Genocide requires swords, destruction requires fire, but killing a god requires another god.  And even then, the iconoclast is at risk from curses, infirmities, insanity, and death.

Hesaya was remarkable because the Prophetess taught that all gods were merely aspects of the Authority.  Competing gods should be worshipped, rather than destroyed.  It was a sin to kill a god, even one that opposed the Authority.

With this message of peace and assimilation, Hesaya quickly became the dominant religion on the continent.  (Also banking and prophecy, the two most profitable industries in the world.)

This isn't to say that the early church was peaceful (their paladins filled many mass graves) or that they assimilated all the gods they came across (the Hammer of Iconoclasm has supposedly killed 777 separate gods by smashing their idols).  But tolerance was the rhetoric, anyway.


The city of Coramont was where the Prophetess was born, and now it has become a metropolis of its own, an economic and military powerhouse.  No king is crowned except with Coramont's permission.  There is a street in Coramont called the Street of Lesser Gods.  This is where all of the defeated gods reside.

(It's also where the living reincarnation of the Prophetess Essa lives, may we be worthy.  She's ten.)

When a city/people/god bends its knee to Coramont, and swears eternal loyalty to the Authority, the Church consolidates that pledge.  The god's church is taken apart, stone by stone, and shipped to the capitol of Coramont.  The defeated god's idol is taken into the city, where it is honored.  It is paraded through the streets and anointed with oils.  Huge banquets are held, and at the head of the table is placed the idol (and therefor the god who lives inside it).  Even the patriarch bows to the least idol.

And then the defeated god's temple is rebuilt on the Street of Lesser Gods, and the idol is returned to it's place inside the sanctuary.  The temple is reconsecrated.

But there are still people that say a god belongs with its people, and that it is blasphemy to remove a god from his land.  Those people are quietly executed and buried in unmarked graves far from Coramont.

The purpose of this is political as well as religious.  The defeated god has become a hostage.  If the defeated city wishes to worship their god, they must come to Coramont to do it.  Aside from the taxes and levies imposed on the client state, the Patriarch can now keep a close eye on the lesser priests.

And in the space of a few generations, the priestly family of their client states became urbanized.  The priests dressed, spoke, and socialized as if they were from Coramont.  Any further rebellions from the outlying cities would have no support from their own churches.

In the 800 year history of Coramont, the city has managed to collect quite a number of gods.  The Street of Lesser Gods contains no less than 1404 "official" gods.

(Digression: for most of it's history, "Coramont" was synonymous with "The Church", but now a very quiet schism is dividing the church.  Coramont and the Prophetess frequently disagree with the Patriarch in Kaladon.)

But years are long, and memories short.  As incredible as it may seem, entire temples and gods seem to have disappeared over the centuries.  After a bloody war with Coramont, after thousands of young men have been laid in the earth, after noble speeches about pride and patriotism, entire cultures have vanished without so much as a whimper.

And the idols turn up in the most unlikely of places.  If you go into the Lucky Duck tavern in Coramont and sneak into the basement, you'll find a small shrine to Devonura, Who Makes the Green Things Grow.  And at the intersection of Bassinet and Bane, you'll find a snow-white boulder whose surface has been carved out into a maze of alcoves and short tunnels filled with figurines.  This boulder is the home of Rashimar, a river god associated with towers and poisonous fish.

(Digression: In Hesaya, lesser gods are respected, and they are sometimes even honored by ritual or song.  It is even permissible to pray to a lesser god, with the understanding that the lesser god will act as an intermediary.  But only the Authority has the authority to grant prayers, and only the Authority is worshipped.)

The religions of these client gods have withered.  Their priesthood has atrophied.  Sometimes, a lesser temple will be tended by a shriveled old man and his inbred nephew.  Or it will be tended by a toothless immigrant, who doesn't speak a word of Common.  But just as commonly, the lesser temple will sit empty.

Least Priests

But every god must be worshipped.  This was the covenant that the Patriarchs made so long ago.  And so the empty shrines are tended by least priests.  Their job is to go to an abandoned temple, perform the rituals, pray to that forgotten godling sincerely and fervently, and then go on.

Least priests are bit like those home care workers, who go around bringing groceries to retirees too fragile to leave the house.  It's a tough job.  They need to clean the place up (no one else will do it) and explain to the god that it's okay, your grandchildren are probably just very busy--it doesn't mean that they don't love you and think about you.

It's a bit sad, but it's also a bit weird, because of the diversity of gods involved.  It's also sometimes exhausting.  Example:
  • On Monday, you spend ten hours imbibing hallucinogens and writhing in ecstasy beneath Hakum-Keth, the snake god.  You spend your day's earnings on a massage afterwards.
  • On Tuesday, you cover yourself in honey and walk figure eights between the stone hives of the Nameless Insect.  Although there are no insects (apparently), you still wake up with bites covering your body in auspicious patterns.
  • On Wednesday, you meditate at the bottom of a well while tolling a bell every six minutes, for three hours.  You would have finished quicker if you didn't fall asleep and have to restart.
  • On Thursday, you meet up with your partner to glorify Hasdrubal the Pugnacious with five hours of valiant combat (with padded swords).  By nightfall, you'll have a new crop of shiny bruises.
  • On Friday, you meet up with the same partner for six hours of tantric sex atop a wooden elephant.  You curse the priest you decided that sex-day should come after combat-day.
  • On Saturday, go to the Grand Cathedral to worship the Authority directly.  Before you can go to sleep, however, you must light six candles made from six different substances for six different forest spirits.    
  • On Sunday, you stay in bed, because you're exhausted.  But what can you do?  The gods must be honored.
Among the clergy, becoming a least priest is considered a bit like being exiled.  There's not much to look forward to, except being put in charge of more forgotten godlings.  Quite a lot of them become adventurers.

Metagaming: Since a least cleric might find their prayers answered by any of the various gods that they worship, a Hesayan cleric PC can be snake-themed or sex-themed or whatever.  The Authority has many incarnations in the world.  It also explains how you can have a snake-cleric and a sex-cleric in the same party together.  Players can even make up their own client gods.

Digression: Training to be a Hesayan cleric often includes praying to all sorts of client gods, in order to find out if any of them can answer your prayers with appropriate miracles.  Or, technically, relay the Authority's miracles.

The Desmoterion

While cooperative gods are given places of honor on the Street of Lesser Gods, and rebellious gods are shattered by the Hammer of Iconoclasm, sometimes neither of those solutions is ideal.  Every god is unique, after all.

Sometimes the Church fears the retribution that would arise from destroying the god's idol.

Sometimes the Church wishes to punish a god for rebelling, or for heresy.

Sometimes the Church wants to keep a god isolated until it can be convinced to join more willingly.

Whatever the cause, there is a place beneath Coramont called the Place of Chains, Desmoterion.  It has been built in secret over the centuries, bits and pieces.  Some parts are precise and carefully engineered.  Some parts are haphazard and chaotic.  All of it was built under the orders of different Patriarchs, in different eras, in order to imprison gods.

The Desmoterion is secret and it is full of traps, treasure, forgotten gods, and even a few political prisoners.  This dungeon contains the Hammer of Iconoclasm, immortal paladins, and a tentacled monstrosity that you can't help but feel sorry for.  I want it to be a dungeon for level 1 PCs.


Only a fool mocks a god.

Whenever a player openly insults a god by cursing them, doubting them, or ridiculing them, they have a chance to suffer a curse.  The chance of suffering this depends on how close they are to the god's location.

  • In god's own temple: 70% chance of curse
  • In god's own city: 50% chance of curse
  • In god's own land: 30% chance of curse
  • Anywhere else in the world: 10% chance of curse.

The the blasphemy was insincere or accidental, the chance of suffering a curse is halved.  There is also no chance of suffering a curse if the speaker is currently protected by another god.  Therefore, clerics can curse other gods without fear of repercussion, and any who is inside Yakul's shrine can curse the enemies of Yakul.

If a person is in Yakul's shrine and curses a god that Yakul doesn't feel strongly about one way or the other, they will not be protected against the insulted god's wrath.

Curse Table
1 Baleful Polymorph
2 Blindness
3 Crippled Leg
4 Withered Arm
5 Marked (no religious person will help you, sell to you, buy from you, or serve you)
6 Cannot Gain XP
7 Permanent Insanity (traditionally, this is a thematically appropriate phobia)
8 Leprosy (or other horrible, permanent disease)
9* Loss of All Wealth (occurs in the next 7 days, even if wealth hidden or transferred)
10* Loss of Favorite Family Member or Animal (traditionally death)
11* Attacked by Divine Agent (occurs in the next 7 days)
12* Save or Die (traditionally, this is a lightning bolt)

*Results 9-12 are not permanent curses but instead single, horrible things that happen to a PC.  They don't linger.

This curse can only be lifted by a cleric.  The cleric can see that the curse is divine in nature, and that the person incurred it by blasphemy.  The cleric will also know that they can invoke the punishing god's anger by extension if they remove the curse, and although Yakul will not strike the cleric dead for removing Yakul's curse, this expenditure of divine currency will echo in the spirit realm.  Remember that the cleric didn't remove Yakul's curse--the cleric's god did.  This has political implications between the two gods, so the cleric may be unwilling to remove a divine curse.  Remember that all clerics respect all gods, even the gods that they hate.

A cleric can also be cursed by their own god if the offense is large enough.  This doesn't necessarily mean that the cleric loses their powers--sometimes a god needs to punish its agent without removing it.

Clarification of Terms

For the purposes of this discussion, I've used the word "god" to mean anything that is worshipped and has the capacity to grant clerical powers.  In Centerra, that's a pretty loose definition.  There are even nature spirits who meet those definition.  Hell, there are even mortal humans who can meet that definition.

Outsider of the scope of this article, there's much weirder stuff in Centerra there that could be called a god.  Some of those things shun worship.  Some of them shun clerics.


  1. Have you read the Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz stories by Garth Nix? Some similar ideas, as well as some fuel for monsters and weird stuff.

  2. Neat, I've got a similar thing with the Nonanists in my world except that there are 9 high gods of whom all other gods are but aspects.
    I have a vague idea that there is some sort of singular higher power above even the Nine, but I think it might just be Law Itself as a metaphysical agendaless force.

    Since I'm planning to use Dwimmermount it's probably going to turn out that the Nine are orbital gods.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Not to be terribly pedantic, but you've described henotheism, not pantheism. It's basically a god for every tribe. Other tribes' gods are acknowledged, but only worshipped when you're traveling in foreign lands, else those gods get offended. A particularly rude tribal god might curse you for saying a prayer to the deity whose lands you're passing through, but gods can be jealous sometimes.

  5. A god without power is a sage. A god without worship is a hero. A god without mythology is new. A god without immortality is an event. A god with no morals is a force of nature.