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Deities & Demigods (2002)
April 30th 1988. My 15th birthday. A Saturday if I recall correctly. One of my presents, indeed the only one that mattered, was TSR’s Legends & Lore (I was to find out the added delights of the two extra chapters in the books earlier Deities & Demigods incarnation many years later). Probably not that often you can say a book changed your life. But with hindsight I can see that book did indeed inspire me and is without a doubt one of the key elements in why I am here before you today. I always loved mythology and here was a book which expounded on the subject to the nth degree; 186 deities, 60 monsters (mostly unique) and 47 heroes were detailed within a mere 128 pages. Suffice to say the book was the cornerstone of our escalating campaign and for me pretty much represented the holy grail, to the extent that at one point I virtually had the book memorised.
14 years later…
April 30th 2002. My 29th birthday…I don’t remember what day it was.
Deities & Demigods (henceforth D&Dg) is Wizards of the Coasts 224 page hardback update of one of its major classic brand titles. The primary designers are Rich Redman, Skip Williams and James Wyatt. I am generally not a great fan of Skip Williams work (notably because of the 2nd Edition High Level Campaigns Sourcebook) but I think James Wyatt did a fantastic job on Oriental Adventures (I thoroughly recommend that book), so I had mixed expectations. Though WotC had the wisdom to bring back stats for gods so that was at least one ray of light.
First impressions were mixed. The cover was neither inspiring, nor cleverly constructed (contrast with the v3.5 Dungeon Masters Guide cover which I thought was an excellent mock tome cover). I don’t really like the covers that are betwixt or between, part mock tome cover/part illustration, they seem somewhat half-hearted. Make it one or the other, don’t muddy the waters. The interior text is very dense, similar to the core rulebooks. Usually this would be a great thing but it does lead to a few problems which I will explain later.
Chapter One gives a general overview on religion and divinity. It should also be noted that this chapter raises a number of interesting points within sidebars that it would have been great to see expounded upon (divine power sources for instance, nature of deity/demon relationship). There follows a brief and disappointing section on building pantheons which has virtually no practical merit. We also get some pages taken from Manual of the Planes about Divine Realms.
Chapter Two is really the meat of the book. It starts by explaining the concept of Divine Rank. While the actual mechanic is okay I believe having individual divine ranks trump lower divine ranks within the same divine status (ie. Demigod) is somewhat redundant. It makes the system less flexible, since rival deities must always be of the same exact divine rank (note Bahamut/Tiamat, Heironeous/Hextor etc.). When this doesn’t happen we get major holes in the continuity (such as Corellon/Gruumsh).
The book also lets us know that overpowers won’t be defined mechanically or even addressed philosophically, which I thought was something of a cop-out. Nor that epic material from the Epic Level Handbook (ELH) will be used in anything but the most basic mechanics. This is a major disappointment. If anything, they should have released the ELH before releasing D&Dg and then used that material as a springboard for this book. It’s a natural progression and its omission really hurts D&Dg.
This chapter also outlines the basic qualities of divinity in such a way that I was curious why they didn’t openly make it a template. Though that presumably would have meant determining challenge ratings for them; another area where the book is lacking.
Portfolios are touched upon and then pretty much ignored thereafter. Another wasted opportunity. Portfolios are effectively the prestige classes of the gods and can be used to really differentiate such beings.
The main portion of this chapter is devoted to the list of (99) Salient Divine Abilities. These are essentially super-feats that deities can gain. Many are not really unique abilities but rather repackaged collections of (typically epic) feats. Many others are simply logical extensions of epic feats. None of this is a bad thing, but there is little which really springs off the page at you. Balance is however, generally pretty good, with only a few stinkers (including Alter Reality, Annihilating Strike and Avatar) causing real problems.
There follows an interesting (though unfortunately brief) discussion of how to role-play deities. I would have liked to see this expanded. Then a very short section on divine minions and the descriptions of how to read the deities stat blocks which segues us conveniently into the Pantheons themselves.
Unfortunately the layout and composition of the stat blocks themselves must be addressed. The positioning on densely packed stat blocks is irregular, which means you inevitably have to go hunting to find exactly what you want. This is compounded by the fact that fully half the text for any deity is simply regurgitated mechanics. This blatantly wastes virtually a full column of text for each and every deity entry. Meaning that 40 pages of the book are not only squandered but actually distract from when you are trying to find the useful information.
Also is there any actual point to the Avatars stats in this book!? They are virtually identical to the deities they represent. There is no way Avatars in this book could be used in a non-epic campaign, making them wholly redundant.
Chapter Three details the main deities of the D&D (Greyhawk) Pantheon. Unfortunately we don’t get a good spread of deities, so there are no Quasi-deities or Demi-deities. Its at this point we also see another of this books weaknesses. The rather bland nature of the stats. Virtually every deity has the same amount of levels and items taken only from the Dungeon Masters Guide. The former destroys any verisimilitude, whilst the latter portrays the deities themselves in a mundane context. Both conspire to make reading the stat blocks a chore. Piling on the misery is that many of the class levels don’t even make sense Boccob, Vecna and Wee Jas are mere 20th-level Wizards.
Chapters Four through Six detail the Olympian, Pharaonic and Asgardian Pantheons. After an interesting start to each pantheon discussing its own cosmology and detailing a generic temple. There is no mentioned inter pantheon or intra pantheon politics to garner interest. No personality. No goals. No surprises. No inspiration. There are very few surprises here.
Chapter Seven outlines a monotheistic, dualistic and mystery cult religion and deities. Ignoring the previously mentioned faults intrinsic to the book, this section was actually quite interesting, and included a couple of Prestige Classes.
Appendix One gives us 13 new Domains and 13 new spells within those domains, which were (I think for the most part) taken from the Forgotten Realms Campaign setting.
Appendix Two comments upon Divine Ascension, but as with much of this book, explains the why but not the how.
The art within this book is generally outstanding it must be said. Wayne Reynolds is fantastic (as always), however even he is upstaged by some breathtaking pieces by Glenn Angus. Contributions by Mark Cavotta, Rebecca Guay and Arnie Swekel are also superb. I was somewhat disappointed by Sam Woods art. Usually I am a big fan, but his pieces here seem rushed. I am also not fond of the impressionistic styles of Mark Mitchell and Richard Sardinha, compounded in this book by their more naturalistic (and therefore mundane) styles representing deities who should really be larger than life characters. But overall, art is of course a subjective element and I think the good certainly outweighed the bad in my opinion.
In conclusion, when addressing this book I keep asking myself the question, who is this book targeted at, and what does it actually accomplish. It’s not a book for players – because there are no rules for becoming a deity. It’s not a book for DM’s – because there are no mechanics for creating pantheons or deities. It’s not a book for non-epic campaigns – because the deity (and even avatar) stats are too far beyond any physical interaction. It’s not a book for epic campaigns – because it doesn’t draw upon the information within that book.
I think this represents one of the books major flaws in that it doesn’t know what it is, or who it’s for. It exists in some sort of mechanical and philosophical limbo. To say I was disappointed with this book is an understatement.
Deities & Demigods 2…would I buy it? Almost certainly (I am a glutton for punishment after all). Would I actually want to see it? Probably not, unless they corrected all the gross faults of the first book: the layout, the regurgitated material in the stats blocks, the bland statistics, lack of epic reference and pointless avatars.
Unless stated otherwise, all content © 2001-2005 Craig Cochrane. All rights reserved.