Review of Deities & Demigods

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

March 26, 2007

by: Lev Lafayette

Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 1 (I Wasted My Money)

An inspirational work to that attempts to combine historical polytheistic faiths and literary sources to the AD&D world, but is riddled in errors and presents the gods as combat stat-blocs.

Lev Lafayette has written 127 reviews (including 11 AD&D reviews), with average style of 3.18 and average substance of 3.17. The reviewer's previous review was of A4: In the Dungeons of the Slavelords.

This review has been read 10053 times.

Product Summary
Name: Deities & Demigods
Publisher: TSR
Line: AD&D
Author: James M. Ward, Robert J. Kuntz
Category: RPG

Pages: 144
Year: 1980

SKU: 2013
ISBN: 0-935696-22-9

Review of Deities & Demigods

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Deities & Demigods is the fourth supplement in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e line. There are essentially two printing lines available, one which included the Cthulhu and Melbinonean mythos (via Chaosium) and those without. The history of the various printings and the reasons for the difference is well known. This review assumes the inclusion of the two, not least in part to cite further admiration to the surreal genius of Erol Otus in his two portrayals of Shub-Niggurath - and for the Egyptian composite piece in later editions. Otus is also responsible for the excellent cover art, and is nicely supplemented by eight other artists in the volume all of whom provide quite acceptable pieces, with a notable quantity of naked breasts on display (huzzah!). The physical standards of production are at the same excellent height as the Players Handbook and Monster Manual. The layout is mainly two column justified throughout, the writing quite clear and the organisation quite acceptable.

The book effectively consists of three main components; a short introductory bloc, the various pantheons, and an appendicies. The first bloc includes the editor's introduction, divine abilities, clerical relations, omens, and reaching divinity. The pantheons are presented in alphabetical order; American Indian, Arthurian, Babylonian, Celtic, Central American (i.e., Mayan and Aztec, no Incan), Chinese, Cthulhu, Egyptian, Finnish, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Melnibonean, Newhon, Nonhuman, Norse and Sumerian. The final section consists of further elaborations on the Planes, a useless random chart of temple trappings, a useful clerical quick reference chart and a short reference collection of very average quality (which explains a few things...) . It's a pretty good range, but immediately noticeable is the absence of some major cultures (the Slavs, the Inuit, all of sub-Saharan Africa, the Indochinese region, the Austro-Pacific), the monotheistic religions (especially given the description of Clerics in the Players Handbook) and shamanic or druidic traditions.

The editor's introduction denies that the book is like the Monster Manual, despite appearances to the contrary, rather it is for expanding DMs campaigns. This is instantly largely contradicted by the Explanatory Notes that follow. The expansion to the ability scores is undoubtably highly desireable, but the range of 19-25 is pitifully weak in terms of scale. Hastur the Unspeakable is described as being some 600' tall, but because the scale tops out at such a low level, he still has a 10% of failing to open a stuck dungeon door. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that the scale is perhaps better for high-powered human and demihuman characters rather than deities themselves. Some of the nicer touches include the immunity to illusions at high Intelligence, charm-spells with a high wisdom, and the awe/horror power from high and extremely low charisma. Following this is a list of standard divine abilities, some rather overly verbose notes on DMing divine beings, and some good notes on the role of clerics (especially the capacity to grant spells). The notes on omens is more confusing that useful, however the material on mortality, immortality and divine ascension is both clear and useful.

Whilst the preface states the work is "a simple statement of historical and literary details", it must be strongly stated that the historical pantheons are so full of errors to be virtually useless as any sort of document of that sort. Whilst many of the details are have been obviously made up to suit the game (e.g., assigning character class levels on abilities), there are numerous errors in the non-game details in each and every chapter. There are so many that one will have to take it on trust that I have checked each and every historical deity in Dieties & Demigods and found it extremely wanting. Let me at least cite some of the biggest problems:

The American Indian deities, a homogenised group, provides no input from major cultures including the Hopi, Ottowa, Sioux, Iroquois or Cree (there are a few Navaho gods). The Arthurian legends chapter makes no attempt to deal with the rather important issue of Christianity, let alone its various sects and heresies. The Babylonian/Sumerian chapters confuse Anu - the Sumerian deity ("An" = sky, heaven) and father of Enlil - as a Babylonian deity and neglect their magnificant contribution to the invention of astral theory. Dahak in contrast is neither Sumerian or Babylonian, but rather is Zoroastrian. Also among the Sumerian deities, the inclusion of Ki is dubious at best. There is no evidence that this being was ever worshippped (sort of a requirement to be a god, really) and her inclusion in creation texts is inconsistent at best. Although this said, the authors did state that their Babylonian/Sumerian chapters may have errors.

The description of Arawn as a "greater god" in the Celtic chapter is ludicrious; he was only noted in Wales, and even then a minor agricultural deity stole his prize possessions (a bird, a deer and a dog) and bested him in combat. On the other end of the scale Brigid is described as a lesser goddess with no high holy day, which is pretty impressive for one worshipped through continential Europe during the Celtic period, and even today is venerated every Febuary 1st ("Imbolc" in the old language) as St. Brigid by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and many Anglicans. In that same mythos, the relationship between Luggh and Nuada, the king of the Tuatha De Dannann isn't mentioned, let alone the "trivial" royal title. Dunatis is oddly described as a destroyer of forts, when actually he was a protector of forts, the important Cernunnos has to be interpreted as the Master of the Hunt, and the Romanised name is given to Secellus (Silvanus).

Although the claim is that the Central American gods are Aztec and Mayan there are exactly zero Mayan-specific gods described. Tlazoleteol's role as the midwife and final confessor before death is neglected in favour of an emphasis on vice which is the extent of the importance and number of deities in Aztec culture dedicated to sensuality and excess. In the Chinese pantheon none of the common deities or immortals are present with the exception of Shang-Ti. The representation of Ma Yung as a god-killing chaotic evil humanoid lizard is particularly odd; in reality, he was a mortal general who achieved fame - and indeed apotheosized in S/W China and northern Viet Nam - for his military endeavours. Even more strange to the point of being surreal is the presentation of Shan Hai Ching as a greater god; as a matter of fact, this is a two-thousand plus year old book of mythologies and something that should be obvious from the title; it translates as "Book of the Mountains and the Sea".

Even in a pantheon as reasonably well known as the Egyptian mistakes are abound. Bes is described as god of luck when his domain was protector of the household. Nephthys had a fiery breath, not twin death-rays from her eyes. Perhaps understandably, the role of Ra - or more specifically Atum-Ra - in creating the universe is neglected. Rather than light, Seker was the god of the necropolis and the separation of body and soul. Set was originally the god of the desert; when the Hyksos invaded Egypt they adopted Set as their own and following that he certainly achieved a bad name among the locals, even displacing the evil Apep (perhaps it would be more appropriate to describe him as the "god of imperialism"). In the Finnish mythos, Hiisi is described as the god of evil, when in actuality they were a tutelary race of minor malignant spirits, rather like Anglophone goblins. Loviator is described in the Kalevala as the bringer of the nine diseases and is described as the "ugliest of Mana's children", but in the text both these features are ignored; indeed, she is given a Charisma of 24! Surma, described as the demigod of death is actually as Ceberus-like figure, Ukko uses a hammer as his primary weapon (not a sword) and it is renowned for striking with lightning (not fire).

Among the Greek pantheon, the punishment of Atlas is not mentioned, and he's described as being absolutely honest which is utterly contradicted by his notorious dealing with Heracles. Of the twelve Olympians Hestia is quite forgotten, and Demeter is described as a lesser goddess despite being prior to the Olympians and worshipped throughout the Hellenic world. Tyche is incorrectly described; it was a tutelary city-deity of many forms. Among the Indian deities Rudra (aka Shiva) is in a much-reduced role, as is Vishnu the Preserver who is, in some interpretations the Supreme Being. Krishna, his earthly avatar, is quite absent, as it Brahma, the creator deity in the Trimurti. Indra is given a sword when, according to the Vedas, his weapons are a thunderbolts and bow. Poor old Yama is described as merely a demigod, which is impressive given that he also appears in Buddhist, traditional Chinese and even in Japanese religions as well.

On the topic of the Japanese, the distinction between Taoism and Shintoism is not made. Even then, only two of the main seven Tao gods of fortune are mentioned and only two of the three main deities of Shintoism. Poor Hachiman, the Shinto god of war, protector of all of Japan and the Japanese people receives only the status of demigod according to D&D - never mind the fact that even today there are thirty thousand shrines dedicated to him. In the Nordic section, there were three Dwarven tribes, not two. Baldr being the son of Odin is not mentioned and it erroneously suggests that he is the father of Forseti, the Lawgiver, who is one of the oldest of the Norse deities. Hel's realm is incorrectly described as nilfheim (hel is within nilfheim), Sutr's realms is incorrectly located as Jotunheim (that's for frost and stone giants - his is Muspelheim, the fire giant's realm), Tyr was actually the deity of heroic single combat and Vidar the silent was the God of vengeance. Also, any mention of the runes of these fatalistic people?

I have less expertise in the contemporary literary (Lovecraft, Moorcock, Leiber) pantheons than the historical although I did notice straight away that Dagon and Hydra were absent in the Cthulhu section, but Deep Ones, whom they rule, were included. Likewise absent were the magnificant Dholes, and the delightful Hounds of Tindalos. In the Melnibonean section, Elric's lover Cymoril is absent as his companions. Others will no doubt note serious absences in the Nehwon mythos, of which I have had very little exposure to. The Non-Human deities section isn't anything special although I do note that Dispater isn't listed as one of the lesser gods among the demons and devils. Lolth is notable for receiving one and half columns of combat abilities.

Now whilst it is obviously not possible to include everybody and everything of note, this is a matter of textual efficiency; and this brings to issue one of the most-maligned features of Dieties & Demigods.... Sweet Jesus, it's full of stat blocs - like the spiritual expressions of billions of people over the past thousands of years are just another monster to kill. The only thing that's missing is their treasure type and the experience points. Rarely is there any mention of genealogical relations, personality and the like, although conflicts do get a guernsey at times. There is a little that needs to be said about this; sure it's OK to say "this god specialises in war and magic" and even "they are the equivalent of nth level in these abilities", but there is no excuse for the MM-like presentation. On this note; the levels strike one as being, well, a bit low. Even to minimise cultural contexts and suggest, for example, that Raven is was the creator of the lands and the bringer of sunlight starlight, water and fire of the NW region of North America rather than to all, doesn't that seem rather more than what the levels indicate?

Finally, moving on to the Appendices there's the evocative planes of existence elaborated from the tantalising hints in the previous publications. Of particular interest is the allocation of outer planes according to alignment with cultural titles. Olympus, the historical Greek pantheon is chaotic good, whereas Nirvana, the historical Buddhist state of being, is Lawful Neutral. The titles are questionable at best, but even more to the point the homes of the deities are alignment-based rather than according to pantheon, although there are evident cultural biases. It just reads rather odd that the Japanese Oh-Kuni-Nushi resides in Gladsheim. This is followed by random encounter tables and planar combat notes which would include some nice environmental effects as plot devices, rather than strictly random encounters.

Deities & Demigods is a source of joy and frustration; it is both grandiose and terrible, a work of imaginative genius and myopic idiocy. If the purpose of the product - as explicitly in the Forward and in the Editor's Introduction - is to provide information on deities, their relationship to clerics, religion and the multiverse, then nearly all this information is contained in pages 8-11, the introductory paragraphs to each pantheon, most of Appendix 1, and an edited Appendix 3 (a grand total of less than twenty pages, even if you include the higher characteristic charts). If the purpose is combative challenges for a party of characters from levels 25 or higher with a religious flavour (and a cavalier disregard for history) then the book is extremely useful. Despite Schick's self-conscious denials this is a Monster Manual of Gods and it certainly fulfils that role quite well (assuming a Monster Manual should be just about martial combat opponents). In terms of what was being attempted here there is nothing short of a standing ovation; the combination of the world's polytheistic gods and heavens into a roleplaying game supplemented by literary contributions. It is magnificent that such a text was produced. In terms of the actual execution the work simply does not deliver by any stretch of the imagination. For its stated purpose Dieties & Demigods is, at best, an amazingly inspirational work to encourage readers to take an interest and learn about other history, cultures and religions - but not to be used as it as written.

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