Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fighting The Gods: Supreme Beings As RPG Enemies

Any time you apply stats to gods for your RPG, you're playing with fire. Most fantasy games with an epic component allow for this sort of representation of any game's most powerful beings, but we as designers and Game Masters have to be a little careful when it comes to implementation. If we're not, we often end up with a big letdown as the endgame comes to a close.

What are the pitfalls and possibilities? Read on for more. In the meantime, if you want to check out a minor ocean goddess, fully statted out in d20 for low, medium, and high-level games, you can download Complete Characters #3: Brandy, the earthbound Sea Nymph, for free at

There are times when our player characters advance sufficiently in both experience and along the path of the campaign's plot, that the time comes for them to meet an ultimate challenge. I'm sure I'm not alone when I think about these end-game scenarios as epic, nigh-impossible battles between the entire cast of player characters and some being of incredible might, in a setting that dazzles the imagination. I can see my players, huddled around the kitchen table, describing the plots and machinations of their characters as they seek to overthrow this final villain. What sort of final boss-battle sets the page better than a bearded master of Olympus, a horned giant who rules over souls in Hades, or a tentacled ruler or a thousand dimensions? In my head, it looks great, but it seldom works out that way.

Pitfall #1: Too all-powerful

The problem with applying stats to a supreme being and placing it on the grid with the player characters is that you have now subjected this all-powerful being to the rules and systems and luck-of-the-roll of the gaming mechanics. You're forced to apply dice codes to their abilities, affix ability scores to their traits, and list powers, feats, advantages, and hit points. As these are gods, we naturally can't set this bar too low, and honestly would be hard pressed to set it too high. This can tragically end in a devastatingly terrible loss for the player characters, as they are wiped off the map by unholy fires and the opening of fissures to the underworld beneath their feet, all while the characters are unable to pierce its incredibly thick hide, magical armor, or massive damage soak. Players losing is not a crime, but it leaves a bad taste when the struggle is futile. That's no fun.

Pitfall #2: Not godlike enough

Just as bad, and maybe worse, is the dreaded Game Master miscalculation that places the god as an easy victim at the hands of a skilled party of adventurers and warriors. Aim too low with a god's stats, or overlook some weakness or a particular player character's skills, and they become fodder for the players, who always find some wrinkle in any GM's perfect plan, and ultimately an unsatisfying end to a long and arduous campaign. No amount of in-game treasure or accolades or experience points can make up for the players looking toward you, defeated behind your screen, with eyes that say, "That's it?"

Pitfall #3: You give your players too much credit

Maybe, as the architect of this final battle, you have employed the old standard of the Achilles Heel. Somewhere in the final temple, or dungeon, or whatever, is some object or combination of objects that turn an impossible battle into a winnable one through trickery and strategy, rather than strength of arms. However, while players always seem to be able to foil our best-laid plans, they so often seem to miss out on these clues and have to be nudged into the right direction. This, also, falls quickly into the category of "not fun."

Other roads

For the record, let me state that all of these problems can be avoided. There are tons of you out there, reading this, that have experienced a great epic fight with a supreme being of some sort, and come out the other side having really enjoyed it. All I'm saying is that caution is something to be desired in this instance.

As an alternative, I've often employed in my games the idea of the "one step down" method. Even in cases where some dark, all-powerful creature was pulling the strings, I like to employ my final battles with a lesser being, acting on behalf of my true villain. This is the all-powerful wizard who serves a dark master, or the demigod whose deific parent he or she is trying to bring to power, or the ancient demon who, while not a god, is nearing that level of power. I prefer all of these because they represent the full might of an eternal being, but still have that sliver of mortality that makes for a great final conflict.

I think this search for a sufficiently powerful, yet realistically beatable foe is why we, as gamers, are so drawn to dragons in our games. Here you have a perfect example of a nigh-immortal and supernatural being who is, traditionally, far beyond the reach of the average player character. They are like lesser gods, and are built up in our collective imagination as being an ultimate test for any adventuring party, treasure hunters, or knights errant. The fact that they cut such an iconic figure in a game that bears their name doesn't hurt, either.

In conclusion

However you choose to go about including gods or goddesses in your campaigns, proceed carefully. By keeping in mind the things that can go wrong, you'll be better prepared with a backup plan, or just the ability to wing it, if it does go wrong.

For a lesser goddess for use in your game, check out Complete Characters #3: Brandy, the cursed Sea Nymph. She's up for free download, complete with three different sets of d20 stats, now at DriveThruRPG.


A.L. said...

This is where I like the idea of duels. Eastern mythology is full of it, and even the Greeks have it to an extent. When is a god not an all powerful, all wrathful thing? When it is in direct challenge with a mortal.

In the L5R story, this is how Hitomi defeats the moon. Say what you want about Hitomi (*cough*broken*cough*), but it does fit with eastern lore. Some of the Greek god's greatest cruelties come from facing a mortal in direct competition. Such as Apollo beating that poor sop in a music competition by playing his lyre upside down, while the man could not do the same with his flute.

The real thing here though is that these are personal, and also bring with them the idea that the god is stepping down to the mortal's level. For this one contest, the god will play by the rules, and not pull out all the stops. It is a decent solution to the problem.

Aside from that, I agree with your tweet before. In a true "kill or be killed" fight, how do you beat a character with the feat "do anything"?

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