Last night, we watched “Thor: Love and Thunder” (2022). While there’s plenty of action to enjoy, I was struck not only by the poor writing but also by the attitudes to deity that were reinforced throughout: the gods as failing to protect their people, the pettiness of their actions, and the pointlessness of religious commitment. It was a veritable lecture on Epicurean atheism.
Polytheism gets a tough ride in the Marvelverse. Putting aside the assertion that deities are really just super-powered despots who lord it over the populations they are supposed to protect, there is a definite sense that might makes right. Without spoiling this film, it’s interesting to see the villain be arguably the most understandable character.
It got me thinking about how to present deity in my fantasy worlds. Being a student of theology and deeply interested in spiritual traditions, the way in which post-modern writers trivialise the relationship between humanity and deity makes me wince. But the repeated assertion that gods should protect their people, especially the children, was one that got me pondering.
In many ways, the behaviour of the average D&D party of player characters parallels the presentation of polytheistic deities in film: they are petty despots, power-hungry and greedy, and seeking to aggrandise themselves at any cost. They rampage across the fantasyscape slaying and looting their way to glory.
I can’t help wondering what might happen if the gods really did turn up to protect their people. Can you imagine how players would react to the Orcish Thunder God rocking up to smite their characters for burning down that settlement they raided last week?
Religious traditions are far more nuanced and complex than the presentation of deity as super-heroes with outdated values. In my own Mystamyr, there is a deep ambiguity about the reality of deity expressed through the Temple of Ten Thousand and the way in which an inclusive expression of religious faith is presented.
I prefer to imbue the player characters with the responsibility to express their deity’s goals and values. I find it rewarding to watch players find ways to live out the ideals and legends of their character’s faith. It’s interesting to see the traditional murder-hobo transformed by a serious consideration of moral questions in-game.
What if there was a very good reason why the god and goddesses prefer to stand aloof from your fantasy realm? What kind of intrigues might they inspire in their followers to expand their influence and raise up new monuments to their worship? Those are the kinds of questions that I find interesting.