Thursday, 20 October 2016

Ministers of grace defend us

Ursula Vernon. Despite the rest of this post, I do love this image. 
What is an angel, in terms theological and gameological? Traditional angels, as expressed in the MM in their threefold types, are very boring - magic giants, basically, or self-righteous djinni. There is something viscerally satisfying about the physical reality of devils as spiny little fightable fuckers that is not satisfying about angels. The tangibility of sin is what makes it interesting: but we tend to think of virtues as intangibles (as well as inherently less interesting).

Theologically there is a great deal of interesting latter-day folklore attaching to angels but when get down to it angels are agents - and, above all, messengers, not least etymologically, in English and most other Indo-European languages and in Hebrew before that. Obviously this is Gabriel’s deal and to some extent those of the cherubim and seraphim in Ezekiel’s famously trippy visions (a tip-off that angels of deeply strange embodiment have a long history) but among other angels this is not necessarily so. The destroying angel of Passover and the angel who wrestles with Jacob all night are not obviously messengers: they are actors. They are the angels on which D&D appears more obviously to draw: vectors of celestial intervention armed with sword and stern enchanted word. As noted, they are boring: but angels as toga-wearing messengers are boring too, since being a ‘messenger’ in a campaign is to be condemned to a life of boring info-dumping.

The solution - philosophically and mechanically satisfying, at least to me - is somewhere in between. Angels as bearers of divine words and angels as agents of divine deeds can be one and the same when word and deed are one - and why would they not be, for a god? The arrival of the angel of death at your un-blood-smeared door is both the news of your death and its enaction.

But an angel being both actor and messenger is still boringly personifying. We can go further - think of the Biblical ideas of the word made flesh, and of word in the beginning, and of the teachings of the Apostle McLuhan - and say that to be divine the angel must not just be the messenger but the message, not just the actor but the act. also that an angel is not just a messenger and an actor (still boringly personifying) but a message and an act. And if that is true, angels are free to be whatever you want them to be, as long as it’s weird and disruptive to the fabric of reality.

I have posted a couple of Faerun angels here lately - I’ll do some more probably - which take as their jumping off point the idea that the symbols of these gods are not arbitrary. Does the symbol define the angel or the angel the symbol? Unclear and unimportant: but this kind of high-symbolic, nigh-surrealist angel is the kind that brings home the appalling strangeness of the moment when a god touches its finger to the surface of the world. Angels should only

Seen elsewhere illustrating elementals, I think? 
But even better as an angel.
be embodied in this kind of alien manner: the Faerunian symbols are a nice nudge towards this, but angels could be a shower of ash or a white-hot whisper of wind or a spreading drop of blood on a flower-like fold of snow-white parchment.

In the same spirit, mechanically, angels should not have hit points and a spell list and a dex score. They should be category-breakers, phenomena that combine aspects of spell and monster and NPC and environmental hazard, like in Turner’s legendary ruleset. They are engines of divine intention, delivering themselves as retribution or protection or deliverance itself, to be DMed as an imperative and implacable force, intersecting suddenly with reality. Which is not to say they cannot be opposed.