A Debt to Orcus

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe’s Faust

Of all the ways people report handling raise read, my favorite response came from Gavin over at The City of Iron:

Courtesy of your friendly local Temple of Orcus.

Following that link (and continuing to quote Gavin):

As luck would have it, following a recent suggestion from Alex, I’d decided several days previously that Orcus is the main cosmic power to whom adventurers may turn when seeking to raise a dead companion.

So, on the spur of the moment I was presented with the task of deciding how that works. Visiting the temple of Orcus in S’raka, here are the choices the PCs were presented:

  1. Pay 5,000gp for the ritual.
  2. Pay 2,000gp and provide a bunch of live sacrifices to “butter up” the lord of the dead. A total of 17 humans or 32 “little people” were the figures recommended.
  3. Accept a group quest to return the favour.

I really like the feeling of dark gods being accepted as part of the world, though still feared. There is a danger here of domesticating the darkness, so setting details like this should be handled carefully. Perhaps cultists of Orcus could be major campaign antagonists as well. Perhaps being raised brands one as an untouchable or immune to normal curative magic.

The monotheistic tradition has to some degree done away with the ambiguity of scary-but-cosmically-necessary (present, for example, in the Greek fates or the fickleness of Poseidon). Monotheism does, however, has an analogue that could potentially be leveraged, which is a deal with the devil (see the Faust legend for some inspiration, though it does not involve the desire for a second chance).

12 thoughts on “A Debt to Orcus

    1. Brendan

      I look forward to seeing the priests of Orcus making an appearance in Gothic Greyhawk. (Those session recaps are some of my favorite play reports to read, by the way.)

  1. Steamtunnel

    If someone thinks that monotheism does away with scary-but-cosmically-necessary they have no idea who and what exactly they are dealing with. You (I am using second person cause its scarrier) are dealing with somthing on the scale of, and possibly bigger than, Azathoth. Indeed, in HPLs mileu Azathoth is the only true “god.” The abrahamic assumptions say that something in this order of magnitude is observing you, and indeed judgeing you, all the time. Which is scarrier? The one that does not care and is not really paying attention, or the one who observes you and attention you can’t accidently get because you already have it?

    1. Brendan

      To rephrase: assuming you are not wicked (i.e., on the side of God) there is no reason to keep the devil around if you can get rid of him. Evil, in this tradition, exists to be vanquished, not bargained with. The degree to which this is true does vary throughout the history of the Abrahamic tradition. It is less true (a believer would probably say less revealed) than the later instantiations including Christianity and Islam.

      It’s like, in the natural world if you wipe out killer bees that is probably going to have some nasty side effects on the environment (for example, plants not getting fertilized). You might not like killer bees, and they might do bad things to you sometimes, but they have a role to play; they are not evil.

      Storms are like that. You might like calm seas and no cyclones, but maybe that means ships can’t sail and crops don’t get watered. That’s why you make offerings to Poseidon even though you might not want to attract his attention most of the time.

      It is true that the God of the Old Testament can be a jealous and terrible God. See the Book of Job. I also might argue that this God is more of a tribal god, the god of the Israelites. Other gods (Baal) were the patrons of other people and cities. This does not preclude Jehovah from being the true, omnipotent (though unrevealed) God, but it does create a dynamic closer to polytheistic assumptions (and a fantastic Sword & Sorcery setting, I might add). I have a great desire to become more familiar with the Old Testament in particular (really, the whole Bible), but alas there are only so many hours in the day.

      I’m not a theologian, and don’t claim to be an expert on these things, so feel free to correct any of my misunderstandings.

      I don’t think the HPL mythos really counts as monotheism, though the only story that mentions Azathoth I have read is The Whisperer in Darkness, and the nature of Azathoth in that story is (unsurprisingly) ambiguous.

    2. Steamtunnel

      The assumption that someone on the side of God is good is why it does not seem to work well when compared to polytheism. Take for instance Saul. He starts on God’s “side” but eventually he is resorting to necromancy. One could even say that polytheism is the denial of the one true God and the acceptane of the rebelious angels (Baal, Moloch, Zeus, Apollo) as powers in their own right, even if they are not. The terror of the idea that Apollo is a light deamon and really not-your-friend is more terrifying than the soft fluffy Edith Hamilton alternative. You think you are good, you think your god is good. But think about the shock and awe on the face of the player when he discovers that the reason the High Priest of Apollo is the serial killer is because Apollo really did order the human sacrifices and killings.

      Close examination does reveal Lovecrafts mythos to be monotheistic very much in the same way as Christianity (most specifically among the Abrahamics). Azathoth is described in the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath as:

      “Outside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.”

      The logical conclusion of this is that Azathoth is a creator entity that has created the universe. All the other “non-gods” Cthulhu etc. are simply creations, just like in the Abrahamic religions. Though Azathoth does not care because by nature Azathoth really can’t.

    3. Brendan

      The assumption that someone on the side of God is good is part of the monotheistic tradition. I get what you are saying, and I personally agree with the sentiment. And I also agree that finding out you have actually been serving a monster rather than a just god could be a cool campaign twist (depending on the players). The point I was trying to make was more sociological: the monotheistic tradition has to a large extent done away with this kind of ambiguity. At least IMO.

      Regarding Azathoth: I don’t see any implication in that paragraph that Azathoth is a creator entity. Boundless need not mean primary (the nature of infinities is that there can be any number of them, and some can be bigger than others; compare the set of integers to the set of real numbers, for example). Perhaps Azathoth is actually Satan, and the center of the universe is Hell (some Christian cosmology situates hell in the center of the earth, which is also the center of the universe).

      Many interesting ideas in your comment. Thanks for pointing me to Dream Quest, which I should go ahead and read before having any more opinions about it.


  2. RedHobbit

    Beseeching dark gods to bring back the dead is a fairly common recurring theme in fantasy literature. It’s quite a good idea to involve the PC’s with the dark gods rather than the typical: bad guys worship these bad dudes. Kudos to Gavin!

  3. richard

    Abrahamic assumptions cover a broad range, including predestination, clockwork universes without free will for
    mortals, where all act only and precisely according to the will of god, and various sorts of divine games with varying degrees of human autonomy, including some versions where you effectively cannot lose the game or can only lose by believing it does not exist. Some of these are clearly supposed to be scary.

    But I think what Brendan’s getting at here is that supernatural entities which you might or might not wish to contact – which you might have to contact even if you would rather not – aren’t typical of monotheism.

    1. Brendan

      Yes, exactly. Unless you are scared of God (like the rebel Lucifer). This is not, ahem, common among adherents of the Abrahamic tradition, as far as I can see. I think this idea might be partly what Steamtunnel was trying to get at, but is really an orthogonal issue.


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