Sunday, 17 August 2008

Defiance in D&D

When it came to Planescape, it often seemed that everybody's favourite faction was the Society of Sensation - a group whose philosophy was loosely based on Epicureanism, and whose factol was not incidentally a hot, nubile young woman. It thus appealed directly to the two main urges of teenage boys: sex, and, er, sex. (I think that after the Society of Sensation the most popular were the Doomguard, whose factol was also, not incidentally, a hot nubile young woman.)

My favourites, though, were always the Athar.

The Athar, for those who aren't familiar with the Planescape setting, are a faction who effectively reject the gods (who they call 'powers') as the holders of truth, justice, and power in the multiverse. They aren't Atheists, note. Many of them believe that true gods may exist, or believe that true gods do exist but are unknowable. They just reject the current set of powers as objects of worship, and look on them as essentially just big uber-powerful bullies.

What I like best about that philosophy is that it spits in the face of the current order, and does so in spite of the fact that the 'powers' could quite easily squish the Athar like so many house flies if they wanted to. It takes a special kind of bloody mindedness to refuse to believe in somebody who, god or not, is certainly as powerful as a god - and moreover, certainly exists. It seems like a particularly perverse way of living your life, and much more appealing than the boring old hedonism of the Sensates.


  1. Here here!

    I'm exceedingly interested in the upcoming Mouse Guard RPG. I also love the comics. I also really liked Redwall (for a while, anyway). I also love Reepacheep from Narnia. Why? Long thought has helped me to realize that I am specifically enamored of the idea of tiny mice looking at the (relative to them) staggeringly immense threats and problems of the world, squinting, and pulling out tiny axes and swords to have a go. Of course, that's just a cute sub-case of the general thesis:

    When some people think of a being or circumstance as immense, permanent, beyond their ken, but then some few other people look at the same thing and say "Okay, but seriously, what crap," then we call those latter people Awesome.

    I wouldn't call them "perverse," though. There have been plenty of cases in history where people stood up to things that might as well have been gods (empires and emperors, hysterias and fanatics, accepted 'wisdoms' and self-interested beliefs). It's just like Socrates, right? If you want your decisions to be guided by Wisdom, then you don't waste your time with Zeus, since his decisions, when wise, are also guided by wisdom. But you could replace "Wisdom" with "whatever you value most besides, for the sake of this example, your life, safety, comfort, etc." and "Zeus" with "thing the defiance of which will make your life bad."

    Actually, this reminds me of one of the most annoying (to me) tropes of popular science fiction. See, you find this guy, right? And this guy can kill with a gaze, revivify with a kiss, shatter the earth with his footsteps and the sky with his shout, fly, the whole deal. And he tells you "Hey, I'm a god." And some wise-ass has to say "Nuh-uh! You're a false god, you're not like the real god at all!" What?! I always imagine the guy saying "Interesting. Tell me more of this idea of a 'real' god, where I am a 'false' one. What are you attributing to this property of 'realness?' I am here, yes? I can have real effects on the world, and can be effected by other things. What do I lack?" And then the heroes, of course, say nothing intelligent, because there's nothing intelligent to say besides "Yes, you are definitely a god, but WE WILL STILL JUDGE YOU. Being powerful does not catch you a break from our opinion. Which, by the way, isn't good. We're going to figure out how to kill you, and then we're going to do it, because gods like you, we could do without." And they can't say that of course, since it would cast an unwelcome light on all the 'real' theistic religions of the world, with their distant deities who claim to dispense morality by definition rather than by accordance to the meaning of the word, and then they'd get angry letters, and they'd be cancelled. Except of course, they're Stargate, and they're already long finished.

    Anyway, yeah. The Athar are heroes. Down with Outsiders! Prime Material for the Mortals!

  2. I liked the Athar too, although I have to admit I tended to leaven my portrayal of them with a heavy dose of comic fundamentalism of the street corner preacher variety. One well-beloved NPC of mine was an Athar who'd enlisted large numbers of people to go through old books from across the multiverse and excise all references to the gods. It was silly, of course, but the NPC had an oddly convincing explanation of her particular take on the Athar philosophy, so she didn't come across as being a bad joke so much as weird and even a little bit creepy -- always good.

  3. Nick: Yes. Although Reepicheep was of course the most theistic of all. Defiance can work both ways.

    James: There's always room for characters who are weird and a bit creepy, I feel.

  4. Is that accurate, though? The gods couldn't enter Sigil - that was kind of the whole point of the city. Which lends some support to the theory that they're not all-powerful.

  5. Patrick: True. I was mainly thinking of Athar adventurers who go off gallavanting around the planes. The ones who stay in Sigil are pretty pathetic in some respects - hiding behind a big wall and saying "Yah, boo, I don't believe in you!" while fully aware that without that wall they'd be crushed like bugs.