Aug 17, 2020

Advanced D&D Deities and Demigods Review

Deities and Demigods for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was billed as an essential book to play the game, but is it really that necessary? 

First published in December 1980 it went through essentially 3 major versions, and 8 printings with minor variations.

The original 1st & 2nd printing had 144 pages, with 17 mythologies. 13 of which were real world like Greek and Norse while 4 are fictional from fantasy literature. This included the famous (notorious?) Cthulhu and Melnibonean myths.

Due to copyright issues these two were cut from the book and it was reduced to 128 pages. The author Jim Ward claimed he had a letter from Chaosium granting permission to use those mythos but that TSR administration lost it. At first TSR simply credited Chaosium, but then decided to remove them altogether so as not to provide any attention to their competitor. A real loss since they were two of the best chapters in the book.

In the 5th printing TSR rebranded the cover with an illustration by Jeff Easley of Odin wielding his spear Gungnir charging through the sky on Sleipnir accompanied by his wolves Freki and Geri. Other than that there was no material difference from the previous 128 page version.

The book is largely organized in three sections, the first being an introduction and some new rules and guideline to manage the divine in your campaign. The middle section is the pantheons themselves. The last section are appendices detailing the outer planes and some additional info about adventuring in the ethereal and astral planes. Of these three sections it is perhaps the pantheons themselves, the bulk of the book, that are the least useful in actually playing the game. Unless you are using the gods as high level monsters, not much is provided in the way of practical application to your campaign.

The first section expands ability stats. At the time abilities were capped at 18. And strangely Strength had a clunky additional percentile system added to give extra bonus to fighters who were seen as underpowered as compared to the other classes, particularly magic-users. To accommodate divine beings this 18 cap was raised to 25 picking up right from where the Player's Handbook left off. Why the designers couldn't have the imagination to see beyond 25 is a mystery, it seems obvious to us now in hindsight that the numbers should be able to progress indefinitely. This cap causes problems in some of the stat blocks of the gods described as we'll see clearly in the Norse section where many gods have the same 25 strength score that Thor has so they have to give him a special little nudge instead of just giving him a higher score.

Perhaps the best useful game mechanic associated with the expanded ability scores is Negative Charisma. Something that seems to have been left out of later editions of the game. This negative score had the effect of instilling horror in lesser beings. Very Cthulhuesque in its implications for game play.

The pantheons serve as little more than a survey of each of the specific mythos. And not a particularly scholarly one. TSR was experiencing a huge boom and certainly had the financial ability to hire qualified freelance writers knowledgable in the field. Imagine this, middle school and high school students everywhere were intensely interested in the game and reading the rules book, this would have been an excellent source to educate on history, legends, and beliefs from around the world. Instead the task was left to a staff writer who did the best he could under the circumstances, no doubt there were intense deadline pressures, what we get is closer to what you'd find in comic books and popular media of the day. And it carries over the problems from the original Gods, Demigods and Heroes from the original edition. Trying to give tangible stats to divine beings. Making this more of a high level Monster Manual than a resource for developing the mythos in your own campaign world and fleshing out the Cleric class.

The highlight of the book has to be the four fictional mythos, in particularly the non-human pantheon which gives us such memorable deities as the orc god Gruumsh, the demon queen of spiders Lolth, and the disturbing lobster headed goddess of the kuo-toa Blibdoolpoolp. This is the only pantheon that is uniquely particular to Dungeons and Dragons.

Of the chapters that do make the book worth having: Cthulhu, Melnibonean, Non-Human, and Nehwon mythos half were removed. The treatment of the Outer Planes is interesting, but doesn't provide enough detail to really use. The divine ascension rules are nearly useless.

Deities and Demigods introduces the gods of myth and legend to AD&D by providing combat statistics for them and very little to promote actually using them as something other than high level monsters in the game. It is ultimately a book of missed opportunities, and fails to be that essential for playing clerics or for helping DM's to create their campaign world. It is an interesting artifact of its time, but the poor scholarship and general lack of creativity and useful information makes it a pass for most. Perhaps it was just too big a task for one book. Each of these pantheons needed to be a source book of their own, in a sort of Mythic Earth series. There are better sources for each of them. Chaosium's outstanding Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, and Pendragon RPG's gives those topics the treatment they deserve. For the other pantheons a basic Mythology Encyclopedia provides more authentic and useful information if a DM wanted to make a Mythic Earth style campaign.

I didn't set out to give a negative review, I have quite a fondness for this book, if only for the nostalgia of having read it, played it, and killing half the gods in it in our gonzo middle-school gaming sessions. I still think much of the artwork holds up.

The long gap between this video and the previous review video was a fluke, I have a lot more lined up. I originally recorded this months ago and was in editing hell. I finally threw it away and recorded a new version last night. I learned I do not enjoy editing and it is better to do a straight forward video and cut out the most egregious mistakes and then let it go. Unfortunately once uploaded to YouTube it sounds like I recorded it with a grapefruit in my mouth, even though it sounded fine on the original. I don't know why its so muffled and quiet. In the future I'll have to pump up the gain on the microphone more, if it comes out too loud it is probably better than being too quiet.