Keep an eye on your towel, hoopy frood, and don't panic! The headline of this week's blog may seem inflammatory, but bear with me! This is a role-playing blog, not a theology class, so kick back, put on your mustache, and let's take a look at yet another deep think to tap the big brain and make your game table a little bit mo' betta.
First off, a little context. The chest-beating title above, titular as it may be even today, most famously appeared in Friedrich Nietzsche's books, The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the early 1880's. 'Gott ist tot' later became its own book. Nietzsche, a widely misunderstood philosopher whose longevity outlasted countless misspellings, did not originate this concept. In fact, the phrase was cemented by theologist Jean Paul as far back as 1797. Victor Hugo and Gerard de Nerval also used the phrase and concept in their work. Even earlier, the concept appears in a 17th century Lutheran hymn by Johann von Rist titled 'Ein Trauriger Grabgesang' ("A mournful dirge")... a terrifying hymn about atonement, and the terror of life without God's presence. The idea of life without God (or Gods, as many fantasy worlds have entire pantheons of gods), is used by most of these authors as a nightmare call to appreciate faith and pious life. For Nietzsche, though, 'the death of god' has an entirely different meaning, and that is our focus here.
Nietzsche, seen here with bad lasso selection (Photoshop was terrible in 1882) practically invented the mustache.
Without diving into a technical exploration of Nietzsche, idealism, humanism, Hegel, Pascal, Rothe, and the entirety of secularization, let's get back to what we care about: rollin' bones and tellin' tales. 'The death of god' is a titanic and shocking phrase that speaks to each of us, no matter our beliefs. Why? Put simply, without God, there is much to answer for. The easy reason is gone, and we are forced to consider far more complex truths. This cold-water-dunk of reason is what I invite every role-player to consider, especially GMs creating worlds and devising adventures. I invite you to jump into the cold pool with me... take a moment to consider it... to consider the utter absence of god(s).
Ok, let's pump the brakes again. Before you skewer me, remember my new pledge as an RPG writer and thinker: I write retrospectively. I put these words to paper because of what happened at MY table. We dared to confront a god, we laid our reasons and motivations on a dark God, and its 'no further explanation needed' absolution. Against this thing we strove, and were (barely) victorious. But when teh dust settled, something was missing... something was gray... I have now learned my lesson. So, for me, in our world, for the sake of writing what comes next, GOD IS DEAD.
This freakin' guy. Also a God. Also dead. I have to lol.
How many RPG books include a section about gods? Too many to easily list. Why is this so pervasive? We all know the answer: we need cultists! Gods offer a 'buck stops here' explanation for people and creatures doing weird and terrible stuff. Gods create shrink-wrapped factions, weird architecture, strange rituals, misguided wars, built-in conflicts, and cool symbols found on shields and iron doors.
"Why are these jerks so intent on destroying our village?"
"They worship Memnon, God of chaos."
"Ohh, yeah, that adds up."
Now that we have that in the open, I invite you to face the terrifying void that the secularists and German idealists dared to plumb: whether or not there are gods in your campaign world, they are unknown, formless, and explain nothing. Secularisim (back in the real world, stay with me) and Nietzsche take this exact stance: consider the world, yourself, all that we see and strive for, without god as a final explanation. Consider far more nuanced and gray explanations, whose doing lies squarely, entirely, existentially on the shoulders of mortal individuals.
As a GM, you're probably feeling a chill of fear right now. "Without Memnon, without Sett, why are these wizards being such dicks?" Short answer? Greed, madness, unresolved trauma, terrible wrong-doing, peer pressure, extortion, tragedy, disillusionment!
Thesis: The complex motivations of mortals and their failings make for a far more interesting quilt of story, so-called evil, and the struggle to see villains undone than gods and their arbitrary influence.
Portrait #3: Jobu Tupaki represents a complex, misguided, wounded villain we can all learn from.
For fun, let's just say you totally accept my thesis. I've successfully distracted you with historical facts, dead people, and internet photos. So what?
"Sounds cool, Hankerin, can I go to lunch now?"
"No! No lunch for you until you level up!" -grabs sandwich-
It's time for the hard part: take a look at the big story arcs, bad guys, imminent dooms, too-certain paladins, diligent do-gooders, dark prophecies and blood-thirsty cults in your campaign world or next adventure. Remove the deus-ex-machina of gods and ask "why would this be happening if not divine influence?" My guess, you're going to get some weird, convoluted answers that border on Wes Anderson scenes and piano-music flashbacks. Here are the top three dividends I promise for the hard work:
Dividend 1: A BBEG you may not want to kill.
If the motivations of the villain are no longer absolute, no longer explainable by THE OTHER, then there may yet be good in there. Anakin killed the younglings, but there was never a god to blame, redemption was in sight and achieved! This is far more interesting, ripe with dilemmas and tough decisions, in comparison to the red-eyed zealot who must simply be put down.
Dividend 2: Defectors.
Without the convenient reason of a god's omnipresent influence, each individual is responsible for their choices. As such, there are those who refuse to do evil deeds, despite their entanglements. These NPCs make awesome allies, monkey wrenches, and super-sad cannon fodder (come on, we're all thinking it).
Dividend 3: The odd faith of the faithful.
Without the obvious reality and effect of divine beings, the faithful in your world; good, evil, or somewhere between; gain a strange realism. They believe in a thing unproven, unseen, unknowable. The paladin seems credulous. Divine magic seems like common spell casting. The question of 'are the gods even there?' becomes ever-present. In this question, characters and enemies seem more real, more quilted with history, more salvageable... and that adds depth to every exchange ahead.
Without a provable, present god, how can Xenk say stuff like 'Ill-begotten booty' without cracking up?
So I invite you to consider one piece of what drove Nietzsche incurably insane (besides the syphilis and animal brutality), that GOD IS DEAD, we are on our own. If there are gods, they are too far to be seen, too subtle to blame, and all that transpires lands squarely in our mortal laps. Once you get past the discomfort of it, your fantasy world will seem far deeper, far more perilous, and in the dubious care of mortal minds.