Steven S. Long is a writer, game designer, and all 'round great guy. According to the secret files of the KGB, he once singlehandedly defeated the Kremlin's plot to attack America with laser-powered Godzillas.

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Cthulhu's Hit Points

A gaming industry friend of mine (name withheld to protect the innocent, though I have thanked him for inspiring this blog entry) recently posted something on his Facebook feed that caught my attention. He said, in effect, “Once you give Cthulhu game stats, you make him into nothing more than a source of Experience Points.” (He said it much more colorfully, of course, as is his wont, which is one reason we love him.)

One of the people who posted a comment agreed, stating (and again I’m paraphrasing here) “whoever statted out Odin for the first time way back when ruined it for everyone.” I’m not sure exactly what “it” is, or how it was “ruined,” but I think I know where this guy stands on the issue.

In both cases the message seems clear to me: providing quanitified game information (“stats”) about gods for RPGs is a Bad Idea. With all due respect to both of them — they’re great guys renowed for their kindness to children and animals, and one of ’em saved my life in ’Nam — I couldn’t disagree more.

My Game Versus Your Game

My disagreement comes from several sources. First, this seems to me an expression, direct or indirect, of an abhorrent philosophy that creeps into gaming circles (and other aspects of geekish hobbies in general) all too frequently: My Way Of Gaming Is Better Than Your Way. Since, unlike sports such as baseball or golf, there’s no 100% “right” way to play RPGs, gamers have found countless ways to play them. Some prefer combat, others social interaction; some “crunch,” others “fluff”; some broad-scale conflicts, others small-scale problems; some prefer to use Rules X, Y, and Q, while others ignore those rules entirely; and some like it all thrown together into one big, glorious mess.

So what authority does any one gamer have to say this way of playing is right, and this other way is wrong? Not even the creator of the game has that authority, so I’m damned if I can see why any gamer, regardless of his expertise or experience, should say something like that. We’re all perfectly entitled to say what we will or won’t do personally (“I don’t allow Rule W in my campaign,” “Lots of combat isn’t the sort of thing I prefer in an RPG campaign”). But to try to tell other people how they should game, or that what they’re doing is wrong or harmful, strikes me as the very definition of gaming hubris.

Assuming “ruin[ing] it for everyone” means “made the play of this game measurably worse for the majority of people who play it,” you might have a case that such-and-such product, or rule, or practice is objectively “bad.” But I don’t think you can make that case, whether for the issue of “game stats for gods” or for just about any other element of an RPG (or RPGs in general). Even if it were possible to make the case, I suspect it would take far more effort than most of us are willing to put in. ;)

But beyond that, even if we accept it as true that “stats for gods” has worsened a particular RPG (or all RPGs) in some way, guess what? You can ignore them. You don’t have to use them. If you don’t want gods to have stats in a campaign you’re running, then they don’t. It’s as easy as that. But at least if the stats are available, gamers who do want them (for whatever reason) have them. Claiming this is a bad thing strikes me like saying it’s bad for another person to have a piece of cake just because you don’t feel like eating your piece.

It never fails to amaze me how many fans, critics, and even professionals don’t seem to grasp the most fundamental rule of all RPGs: if you don’t like something, don’t use it in your game. But having it available’s no skin off your nose.

Mortals Versus Gods

Second, the objection to having game stats for gods seems to me to overlook an awful lot of mythology. Conflicts between mortals and gods don’t occur in every myth, but there are a helluva lot of ’em. To take the most common example known to most gamers, you’ve got mortal Greek and Trojan soldiers fighting one another and the gods right there on the Plain of Troy in The Iliad. But there are plenty of other examples of conflicts physical, social, mental, or mystical between the divine and the mundane. To claim that “mortals shouldn’t fight gods” (an opinion I’ve heard from more than one gamer over the years) is absurd. If you don’t want that in your campaign, that’s perfectly cool with me. But don’t try to tell everyone else they shouldn’t do it either. After all, we have plenty of precedent on our side.

You can find examples of it in literature, too. A comment about good ol’ Cthulhu got this whole conversation started, but guess what? In “The Call Of Cthulhu,” mortals attack Cthulhu. They run a boat through his face! For some gamers, it’s enough to narrate what happens in that scene and not worry about any quantification (I’ve run a campaign or two like that myself). But there are others who’d like to know what was involved in that encounter in rules terms — because, after all, they may have to try it again if things get bad.

If nothing else, having the Hit Points and Armor Class for Cthulhu does what RPG rules always do: it establishes the “laws of physics” of the game world, making sure everyone understands exactly what’s involved and that all characters are treated in a fair, consistent manner.

Gods Versus Gods

Third, even if you don’t like the idea of mortals fighting gods, there may be gamers out there who want to have gods fight gods. That, too, happens all the time in mythology. It sounds like a helluva fun campaign: the Godswar; or the Clash of the Pantheons; or whatever you want to call it. Kind of hard to do if the players don’t even know what their Deity PCs are capable of in game terms, though.

And So, In Conclusion...

...I just don’t see how statting out Cthulhu — or Odin, or Zeus, or Shango, or Huitzilopochtli, or Shang-Ti, or Vishnu — is a bad thing. Having a character sheet for a god is helpful for some GMs and players, and those who don’t want it, or think it’s a bad thing for their game, can just ignore it.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go kick Loki’s ass and take his stuff. ;)


Disclaimer: This blog post is in no way influenced by the fact that I am currently researching and writing a book called Mythic Hero, which is going to have character sheets for more gods, heroes, and mythological monsters than you can shake an ankh at. ;)


P.S.:  Quick reminder:  The End Was Not The End, an anthology of Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy stories featuring my story "Blade Of Fire," is now on sale! Check out the "Fiction" link to the left for more information and links to where you can pick up a copy. ;)

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  • Response
    Lovely post: and interesting domain by the way!

Reader Comments (2)

Some of that is more a function of the D&D mentality which runs that if something has stats, then you are meant to kill it. This can lead to player frustration because if the stats are genuinely too massive for the player level (which gods generally will be for most games) then the players feel like they've been given an expectation that they can do something and are then not being allowed to do it. Alternately, the players will eventually level up to the point where they can take out the god as written up and this can lead to GM frustration because now he has a broken setting.

If you're dealing with players who have gotten past the "if it's not a PC, kill it and loot the body" mindset, or if you're running a game where killing gods is ok, then god stats are not a problem. As a generalized statement about the way a lot of games fall out, I do see the original poster's points.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKit Kendrick

I'm with you on this one. I think telling someone else they're having "bad fun" is one of the silliest things imaginable. That being said, there are certainly campaigns I don't want to be in. But I don't judge the people who enjoy them.

My feelings: personally, I get incredibly annoyed when things don't have hard stats. And that includes gods. I want the game to treat each of the players as fairly as possible, and I always feel like GM's who just make the numbers up as they go either think they're smarter than they are, or assume the players are dumber than they are. Most players, in my albeit limited and anecdotal experience, can tell when a GM is fudging, even if the players are too polite to call the GM on it.

The GM needs a framework to work within. Otherwise, the GM has no realistic limitations, and victory or defeat becomes an arbitrary determination based on that particular GM's sense of drama. Forgive me for saying, but I don't have an ounce of respect for *most* GM's innate sense of drama. At least in regards to an interactive story-experiencing environment.

It's the same way I feel about, say, magic in a novel. The magic has to be defined for me. The joy is in the limitations of the magic system, not the sprawling, all-encompassing power of it. What's interesting about infinite power? Such is, at best, a masturbatory fantasy, and, at worst, completely incomprehensible to sensible and rational people. We, as humans, don't understand infinity. But we do understand limitations. We work within them everyday. And therein is where we struggle for meaning, develop goals, find conflict, reach climax, and resolve our tales. And that, to me, is what story telling is about, interactive or otherwise.

May 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJo Bird

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