The (Protagonistic) Gods Must Be Lazy

I’ve noticed a lot of stories in which the evil gods (or at least, the antagonistic ones) are the only ones who ever seem to do anything. Either both sides aren’t allowed to intervene and they’re ignoring the prohibition, or they’re just the only ones who seem willing to do anything, period (except maybe tell some random protagonist “Hey, you’re my chosen, here’s a problem, go do something”).

So from a world-builder’s and plot-writer’s perspective, what is up with these gods of goodness, light and non-intervention? Note that these are things that can go wrong, not things that will; there are always workarounds.

The biggest problem I see most people having with good gods that actually do things is that they’re generally going for a power level somewhere between Greek pantheon and Abrahamic religion god. Note that I said power level, and not necessarily personality (which, in the case of the Greek crowd, actually makes a difference). It’s pretty easy for one of these types, particularly the goddesses, to pretty much personify God Mode Sue. They’re sweetness and light and always making the right decisions, too powerful to be interesting protagonists in their own right, so good at dealing with the problems they’re dealing with that if they were to actually pop in and make an effort the real protagonist would be out of a job before you could say deus ex machina.

On the other hand, there are those who figure that if the god can and does intervene once, that means that by necessity she’s going to keep doing so any time the situation warrants it, particularly if we’re dealing with one of those omnipotent or just absurdly high-powered types. Or at least, that once the protagonist gets a way of contacting her, she’s going to be a miracle on call, balance and plot be damned. Deus ex machina in a box, and not much else. (In my opinion, this, and not an excuse to never do anything at all, is why good gods should be so interested in That Free Will Thing.)

Part of it is a worry that whether the god is actually going to cause these problems or not, people are going to assume that she is the moment she steps on stage, or in some cases, the moment it’s implied that she exists. They put the deus in deus ex machina for a reason, after all. And in this time when there are so many books and games that some people think they’ve read them all or even try (consciously or subconsciously) to try to find reasons not to read some because they think they’ve seen it before and it didn’t work that time (and yes, I’ve been one of those people, I know this stuff), there’s a strong risk that people will jump to conclusions and give up without waiting for the payout, or will start warning you against something you’re not even doing. For instance, back when I was on the old site, one of the comments I got on my original post about prophecy god Lysha was essentially telling me “Your people are working with a god? That can’t possibly end well.” (I chalk it up to unfamiliarity with the setting, as gods are a dime a dozen and a lot weaker on average in the Exalted world, and Lysha is most definitely not one of the really big ones.)

And then there’s the fact that opposing a god without being bolstered by a god at one’s own back makes one seem more impressive—I think this, more than the whole “evil doesn’t keep its promises” thing, is what leads to the tendency for evil gods to intervene so often when good gods keep it to a minimum. A god at your back might engulf you in her shadow, but a god in conflict with you just gives you more chances to be awesome.

Because of all this, is it any wonder that so many people think that in any given fantasy story, the gods must be lazy?

7 comments

  1. Brickwall says:

    Just remember that the Good gods are not always Protagonist gods, and can even be Antagonist gods while still being Good, because ineffability is fun and stuff (recommended reading: any book in the sci-fi/fantasy section that involves a monotheistic religion of any kind).

    Also, Lysha is one of the gods in Yu Shan who warrants that kind of reaction, if you ask me. I still can’t understand it.

  2. UZ says:

    Ah, sometime I’ll have to write my essay about the First Rule of Weather Control… in any case, there are plenty of reasons why good gods might not intervene:

    1) Paladine, as I recall, didn’t intervene much because he thought that humanity (and demihumanity) were all hubrisy as a unit and didn’t deserve the gods’ unleavened help.

    2) Any god with a sort of functional limitation on their power will probably want to avoid taking responsibility for anything they don’t absolutely have to (see the Dune series on abdication of personal responsibility to an authority figure).

    3) Fantasy gods are almost always gods of This or That, which makes it kind of surprising that jurisdictional collisions are almost never addressed (other than G vs. E, which is not really painted as a matter of separate domains). Still, no evil god ever tells their minions not to burn the crops, lest they upset the Goddess of Corn who is currently neutral.

    4) Good gods never meddle in the affairs of evil, which is a shame.

    Glabogoth: I specifically wrote in the letter that you should kill the chieftan of Somburg!

    Slime monster: You should practice your handwriting. Your Ls look like Ss.

    Glab: What? Let me see that. Aaaah! Curse you God of Penmanship!

    Slime monster: Um, I have to go, I have a date with the chieftan of Somburg…

  3. Sean Holland says:

    Generally, I have gods be as active as they need to be for the setting. I ran an Ancient Greek themed campaign for awhile and their were always things going on set in motion by the Gods, good, bad and indifferent, but mostly just for the Gods’ own purposes. After all, no one wanted to destroy or conquer the world, just get one up over their fellow Olympians.

    In my current campaign, the gods really are not involved, most of them being dead and all . . .

  4. Ravyn says:

    Brick: My commenter was assuming there were going to be power issues and the god was going to steal the story, not “Did you understand that? I didn’t.”

    UZ: Hey, that was supposed to be tonight’s post! I can’t just go through all my material in one night, I’ll never make it to Year 3 that way!

    Sean: Excellent.

  5. UZ says:

    Curse you God of Internet Updates!


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