Elric of R’lyeh: Gods (and Magic)

  1. Who are these God persons, anyway?
  2. The Other Gods
  3. A Word On Magic

There are (allegedly) a number of things Moorcock was not happy with in Chaosium’s representation of his world, and magic is one of them. Much as I like Stormbringer as a game, some of the passages make me wince. The notion that “the Gods of Chaos actually created the Young Kingdoms but the Gods of Law managed to establish a toehold in it” (Stormbringer p62) is a very humanocentric way of interpreting two primal forces at odds with each other, if not flat out wrong:

“for Earth alone was lawful and constituted of ordered matter, drifting in the sea of Chaos-stuff as it had done for aeons.”
M. Moorcock, Earl Aubec

See? No gods, just Law and Chaos. No God-founded origin for Earth. It just is, in the words of Jhonn Balance.

Our fantasy pantheons have always suffered from bland humanisation, and unfortunately all of the RPGs based on Moorcock continue this tradition. And at this point we should acknowledge that yes, Moorcock’s deities do appear as human, for the most part (yes, I know Pyaray is a tentacled whisperer of impossible secrets, but he’s still presented in a very human context — laying claim to a sunken fleet of humans). But they are Lords. Arioch is a Duke of Hell. He didn’t build the place, he just lives there.

There will be no quicker way to underline the weirdness of this alternate 1920s than to hilight the many cults that people attach themselves to. Law, Chaos, Beast Lords or Elementals — everyone wants to belong, to show that they’re a member and their cult is better than yours. It should be subtle but ever-present — tie pins and fascinators with Chaos symbols, glyphs on doors, even the appearance of demons in public.

Who are these God persons, anyway?

Lovecraft and Moorcock’s approach to deities may seem diametrically opposed; Lovecraftian entities are unknowable, horrible monsters for whom Humanity is irrelevent, and Moorcock’s Lords are supremely interested in perpetrating a cosmic “great game” with humans as their pawns.

Or to put it another way, in Lovecraft humans spend all their effort trying to attract the attention of higher powers that do not care, and in Moorcock the higher powers spend all their time trying to attract the attention of humans who are at best a bunch of secular opportunists and only in it for the demon summoning and communion wine. Ho hum.

Gods in the Elric’s society feature in daily life, almost as if they were local personalities. There is no faith; temples to the different Lords of Chaos exist where one may make direct appeals and be answered. The ensemble of godlings reminds me of Shinto, in that it’s a collection of local mythologies rather than a cohesive pantheon. This is certainly the case when the likes of the Elementals and Beast Lords are on an even footing with the Dukes of Hell, and the extent of their power mainly comes down to territory.

Furthermore Moorcock’s books emphasise the direct relationship the gods like to have with humans. Maybe not just any humans — Elric is the Eternal Champion, after all — but for all their caprice they’re potrayed as being fairly understanding of humans.

I prefer to think of the Lords of Law and Chaos as more like the sons and daughters of Amber; they are allied to one of two cosmic forces, and they are fantastically powerful and are able to exist in multiple versions of reality, possibly simultaneously.

But they’re not gods, they’re magicians.

Local Gods for Local People

In Elizabeth’s Empire there is virtually no separation of church and state. The Lords of Chaos are political positions; they are the Variable Eight Lords who are appointed by Elizabeth herself, and bear grandieuse titles like Lord Arioch, Lord Slortar, etc. Whether actual gods or human pretenders (at the moment it’s ambiguous) they’re clearly powerful entities but also in touch with the human population, and they hold a seat on Elizabeth’s council for as long as it suits her whim.

The Variable Eight and the Church of Chaos also has local representation. In any major city the Gods are represented, and priests act as the mouthpiece for Arioch and the other gods when worshippers seek his council. Whether this is just a metaphor (q.v. Catholic absolution) or the ability to channel the mind of the actual Duke of Hell is up to you. Certainly there’s a lot of ceremony involved, and while the priest is channeling Arioch they are assumed to be Arioch. But, it could be trickery. There’s a lot of that about.

In the Young Kingdoms the representation of gods is even more corporation-like, with the various Dukes as CEO of each Church. Each competes with the other for the most devotion from the population; at the same time the population will worship whatever Lord is appropriate for the occasion, and will freely mix it up between Law and Chaos as well as the more primal deities. Religion is a free market.

Of course when the existence of gods is proven, and when they function as politicians and service providers, worshippers expect something in return.

Agencies and Cults

The Stormbringer/Elric! RPGs mention the ability of PCs to become Agents of deities. In 4e Stormbringer Agents are placed above priests and have literally promised their soul to the deity. They get to try Divine Intervention and they get a special amulet/decoder ring/mcguffin that keeps them in contact with their deity. This gets watered down a bit in 5e/Elric! where Agents are just on the payroll and get financial reward for doing the work of Law/Chaos.

As mentioned earlier I favour the Elric! style of separate ratings for Law and Chaos (and the Balance) over 4eSB‘s “Elan”. I do prefer the latter’s approach to Agency and control, however — including the amulet schtick. As for actually giving up one’s soul — how would you tell?

Whatever you choose, suitable rewards for serving could include money and status (a contextual boost to Credit Rating similar to the benefits of being high born), spells/demons/magic items, even divine intervention and other powers. Elric! has a nice section on benefits of being a Champion, though the epic scale may not quite fit with the low-key nature of an investigative game. Cults of the Young Kingdoms (Mongoose) has a long list of gifts and compulsions, though I don’t really like the “taint of chaos” effect (a la Warhammer FRP) that it exudes, as if being an agent is like contracting an infection. YMMV.

One important note: Agents need handlers. Put them in touch with their supernatural masters (either via a mouthpiece or direct visitation). The point of being an Agent is not the free stuff, it’s the being in someone’s secret club and doing their shady jobs.

It’s not entirely clear if Agents are supposed to be out in the open, or a secret force. The notion that each Church of Law and Chaos has a secret police fits right in with the political and corporate setting. Whether these “agents” wear their allegiance like a badge, or it’s just rumoured, or even secret is a decision for the GM. Personally I favour the middle option. Speculation about allegience adds to the paranoia.

The Other Gods

Now, let’s tackle the 80 tonne shoggoth in the room.

CoC is a game where humans leave their safe cocoon of humanocentric beliefs and realise just how uncaring and frightening and alien universe is.

This means that however unpleasant, depraved or unfair the various gods of Law and Chaos are, they are the norms that humans insulate themselves with. And, there is something worse.

The broader mythos includes Outer Gods, Elder Gods, Other Gods, and Old Ones (Great, and not-so-great). In the Post-Lovecraft mythos the Elder Gods are pitted against the Outer Gods and are generally considered slightly less awful than the Outer Gods. The RPGs (e.g. CoC and Trail of Cthulhu) are a further source of confusion (4e CoC calls Nodens an Outer God… but different; ToC calls Nodens an “Elder One”). But whether these Outer/Elder gods really are at war is irrelevant, at least on that cosmic scale; humans don’t matter to them. Hereafter I’m going to lump them into a single category of Old Ones and hope for the best.

Since Elric (or Ylrhc) replaces Cthulhu in this setting, we need to consider not only the relationship between the Old Ones and the Lords of Law and Chaos, but also the relationship of both with the true Melniboneans. In the history section we suggested a myth where Elric defied “the gods” and with a weapon called the Horn of Fate, and was entombed in R’lyeh for his trouble. The question is, which gods? There are a few possibilities:

  1. The Old Ones are an original pantheon, and their power (“hell”) was usurped by the Lords of Chaos. Elric was an Old One, but the usurpers foiled his plans before he could bring his weapon to bear.

  2. Elric was a sorcerer, and challenged the power of the Old Ones with his weapon; he managed to deploy his weapon before they could stop him completely, and the result was that both he and the Old Ones were banished from the Earth. The various Lords of Chaos then occupied the power vacuum and set themselves up as the new pantheon.

  3. The Lords of Chaos and the Old Ones are one and the same; Law and Chaos as personified are simply the acceptable face of the Old Ones. For some reason the Old Ones felt the need to remodel themselves and hide from humanity. Elric is either a renegade who was punished, or the Horn of Fate is irrelevant and he slumbers along with the other Old Ones.

Option 3 is the least appealing to me — I’d rather keep them as seperate entities — however it could work if the Old Ones need humanity to rend the veil of time and space and bring them back to the Earth, and in the meantime need a way of communicating with the population without driving their followers completely insane. There is the potential for institutional politics where the majority of the Church is unaware of its origins.

What about Law and Chaos itself? I don’t believe the Lords of Law and Chaos actually are those forces; they’re just opportunistic godlings who have allied themselves with one side or the other. But the description of a “monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space” (Lovecraft, The Whisperer In Darkness) is fitting and inclusive of both Chaos and Law, as immutable primal concepts. This would mean that the Old Ones et. al. are simply the older beings who gravitate around these concepts and the descriptions of Azathoth and its servitors may be allegorical.

Or maybe not. Whichever version we choose, the humanocentric Churches must be aware of the Old Ones on some level. The situation is unchanged from stock CoC except now we have a public and organised religeon who are fully aware of the tenuous situation the mortal civilisation is in, and not only that, they almost certainly filter the true horror of Law and Chaos for public consumption. The best the Churches can hope for on a spiritual level is to hang for as long as possible, which means they will have strong motivations to both keep the existence of the Old Ones from the public while tackling their attempts to break into reality in secret.

A Word on Magic

You can’t have a Stormbringer-style setting without overt magic. But you can’t have CoC without magic being dangerous and esoteric.

If myth and the nature of Law/Chaos are being filtered for public consumption, it stands to reason that the same is being done for Magic. Magic is an apolitical esoteric science that can cause great harm in the wrong hands; for this reason magic is probably licensed for use.

Depending on which ruleset you wish to follow, there are various ways of drawing the line between regulated and illegal magic. Stormbringer 1e-3e use demons to express magical power exclusively, and these are divided into categories such as “Demons of Combat”, “Demons of Knowledge”, etc. Later versions take a toolkit approach to demons, add spells, and all sorts of other items. CoC has its own spells, many of which are predicated on summoning and controlling things.

I prefer to abandon the minor, magic missile style spells that crop up in Elric! and make demons the only “legal” source of magic. Demons are a kind of container or filter for raw magical energy; the formation of that filter is by state-approved manufacturing processes. By comparison casting spells directly is irresponsible and dangerous, and therefore illegal. So, choose whichever demon creation method you like (I mostly prefer the earlier approach) and make that available to PCs, and make the CoC spells “raw” magic.

That’s not to say the other forms of magic in the games don’t have a use. The various runes and glyphs from the Bronze Grimoire are cool, also. But the message is that for magic to be safe, it should be packaged for consumption by a regulator.

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