Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 2: The Destroyer

The name Asmodeus does not appear in the NT or in the Masoretic text of the OT; however, it does show up in the Septuagint OT in the Book of Tobit:
Sarah, daughter of Raguel...was married to seven husbands, but before they could be with her as a wife, Asmodeus, the evil demon, killed them.
According to the Orthodox Study Bible, the name Ἀσμοδαῖος means "the destroyer" and links this with the description of "the thief" as Christ claims the title of Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abudantly. I am the good shepherd.—10:10
The name Ashmedai appears in the Talmud and has been linked to the Zoroastrian demon of wrath, Aeshma of the Bloody Mace.

Though later Medieval writers would link these names to lust and even the title Prince of Lust, the Book of Tobit does not attribute any special status besides "evil demon" to the name Asmodeus. This bears little resemblance to Gygax's entry on Asmodeus in the 1e MM, with the possible exception of his glowing rod of pure ruby, which might be a play on the bloody mace of Aeshma.

To fully understand the portrayal of Asmodeus in the Book of Tobit in context of the megadungeon, I must first highlight one the main ways Orthodox Christianity is different from both Catholicism and Protestantism. Orthodoxy has always insisted that there is a distinction between the Essence and Energies of God. The word ἐνέργεια (energy) is often translated in English as work, but in many cases is better understood as activity. The activities of God are made manifest in the three persons of God — we experience the energies, or activities, of God personally. 

There is, however, an essential aspect of God which we can never know and which the Fathers of the Church use apophatic language to describe — ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, etc. This distinction can be illustrated with the 33rd chapter of Exodus where:

The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. — 33:11

Yet, when Moses, seven verses later, asks to see God's glory, the Lord responds:

You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live. — 33:20

These two events are difficult to reconcile unless we acknowledge the Essence/Energy Distinction. Moses is able to encounter the Lord face to face in His energies/activities/person; however, when Moses asks to see the Lord's essence (His glory), the face of God becomes something no man can survive.

For the purposes of this post, however, the most important consequence of the Essence/Energy Distinction is that all the activities of God — Creation, Truth, Life, Love, Hope, Mercy, Forgiveness, Long-suffering, Magnanimity, etc. — are God Himself:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. — John 14:6

Death is introduced into creation when Adam eats the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge Good and Evil because he introduces a separation between humanity and Life itself — the energies of God.

This separation also exists in all the fallen angels, also known as demons. They have no access to the energies/activities of God. This is illustrated in the Book of Tobit with Asmodeus. He kills Sarah's husbands before they can consummate the marriage, thus cutting off the co-creative power of the marriage bed. All Asmodeus has power to do is "to steal and kill and destroy."

This all paints a very different picture from the Gygaxian Naturalism found in the 1e MM. Gygax's description of an orc lair would not, and arguably could not, exist:

Orc lairs are underground 75% of the time, in an above ground village 25% of the time. There will always be the following additional orcs when the encounter is in the creatures' lair: a chief and 5-30 bodyguards (AC4) 13-16 hit points, attack as monsters with 3 hit dice and do 2-8 hit points damage), females equal to 50% of the number of males, young equal to 100% of the males.
Pig-faced orcs, along with other hybrid creatures like gnolls, harpies, owlbears, satyrs, etc. are mere manifestations of Chaos "stealing" their appearance from other creatures and are incapable of producing their own offspring.

Asmodeus as depicted in Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal.
Notice how he is a hybrid.

Thus, the megadungeon is a manifestation of the fallen nature of Baalzebub, Asmodeus, etc. Whatever order exists within has been stolen from humanity — ancients destroyed by the introduction of the demonic into their cultures. As one goes deeper into the dungeon, this order begins to break down until there is nothing left but the Chaos embodied by caves and caverns.

Another implication is that one of the primary characteristics of the megadungeon is the undead. Having no ability to create life, Chaos must depend upon the bodies of the dead to provide vehicles for their abortive and monstrous attempts at the creative act.

Finally, this also speaks to something early D&D instinctively got right: randomness. Wandering monsters, randomly generated dungeon levels, random treasure, etc. all speak to the Scriptural understanding of the megadungeon far better than Gygaxian Naturalism. In some sense, the only things that should make sense inside a megadungeon are:

  1. Order is something stolen from Law 
  2. Chaos is randomness 
  3. The lower a party goes, the less order and more randomness there are

In this sense, Holmes got it right: he has Wandering Monsters as important features of dungeon exploration along with traps, doors, secret doors, and surprises.

Please note that I am a fan of Gygaxian Naturalism and take great pleasure in creating various ecosystems within a dungeon complex. As fun as creating a dungeon that "makes sense" and is "realistic" can be, it misses the opportunity to have Chaos, Randomness, and Theft the very things that "make sense" of a megadungeon. Besides, what better way can we simulate that "Oh Crap!" moment of the Balrog in the depths of Khazad-dûm?


JB said...

Really great stuff here, Padre. Thanks for writing it up!

A.F.W Junior said...

Pure gold in this post.

Grymlorde said...

From an AD&D (9-point alignment) perspective then, the megadungeon, Asmodeus, Hell, et al. are best represented by the Chaotic/Evil alignment?

If I recall, you have a preference for the OD&D 3-point alignment system. But I'm sure there are many of us who are interested in your perspective on the 9-point system.

For myself, I vacilate between ultimte Evil as being C/E or N/E and ultimate Good as being L/G or N/G. Logically it would seem that Neutral (Evil or Good) would be the ultimate expression, being free from both Law & Chaos. However, intuitively it seems to me that ultimate Good has a very strong tendency towards Law and ultimate Evil has a very strong tendency towards Chaos. Thus I am left with an identification of Ultimate Good being between L/G and N/G and ultimate Evil being between C/E and N/E. The proof being is that N/G is better than L/N and C/E N/E is worse than C/N.

But I am very keen to hear your thoughts!

FrDave said...

Yes, I have "settled" on the 3-tier alignment system of 0e and B/X because it is the most flexible and useful way I have found to use alignment at the table. It has not, however, stopped me from spilling a lot of digital ink on the subject. Rather than trying to re-hash it all and do my former mediations injustice, you can peruse my previous musings here:


pi4t said...

This makes me think of Tolkien: in his mythology, evil is incapable of creation and can only make mockeries of things which already existed.

I'm a bit puzzled about the theological section. You say that "all the activities of God...are God Himself". Do you mean by this that any instance of one of those things is in some way God, or "part" of God? For example, if I were to write a story (an act of creation) that this act would in some sense be God himself? Or do you just mean that [i]God[/i] doing those actions is fundamentally tied to who he is, to the point that we can say that he [i]is[/i] those things? (I am the way, the truth and the life, God is love, etc.)

PS: I've just had my vaccine and am dealing with the side effects, so apologies if I'm a bit incoherent in this post.

pi4t said...

Sorry, I'm not sure why I thought forum markup would work here! Please disregard the [i] tags!

FrDave said...

No worries about the [i] or your "incoherence," you actually ask a very good question. Orthodoxy insists that when God acts, what we experience is God Himself in His energies. As you pointed out, God's love would be God's energy, therefore God Himself. As to your example of writing a story, it is very possible that you could experience the energies of God through inspiration. The act itself, however, would be yours.