ASH/INFO: Demons, Demigods and Gods
Dave Van Domelen
dvandom at eyrie.org
Mon Dec 13 13:19:24 PST 2010
Demons, Demigods and Gods
The Nature of Divinity in the ASH Universe
An ASH Universe Information File
copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen
One of the many problems with poorly-understood phenomena is that it's
hard to have a consistent terminology for discussing it. If only a handful
of people know about a certain distinction, then whatever terms they use to
describe it are unlikely to come into common usage. And so it is with the
menagerie of nigh-omnipotent entities in the ASH Universe. The terms used to
describe them are often wildly inconsistent simply because too few mortals
know what's going on and don't realize that they're incorrectly labeling
someone. (Although, if the entity being mis-labeled takes offense, the
mortal in question may find out the hard way.)
This file is intended mainly to clarify the "behind the scenes"
terminology I use when I think about the nature of these beings. A handful
of people, like Peregryn or Q'Nos, may correctly use these terms, but
otherwise don't assume that just because someone is described as a demon or a
god that they "really" are one.
For all practical purposes, all of the entities described here are
omnipotent, but since they're intrinsically limited by both their internecine
struggles and the resistance of the universe to their actions, they're not
truly "all powerful". After all, if you want to be pedantic about it, at
most one entity in the universe can be omnipotent, with everyone else being
limited by their inability to thwart the one all-powerful entity or their
non-omnipotent peers. And as far as the gods themselves know, no one is
omnipotent (although the characters in "Wall Street Angels" believe one
entity is). Rather, the on-screen gods of ASH are really really powerful, or
"grandipotent" to abuse the Latin.
Grandipotence means that you can do whatever you want to...but. The
more you break physical law, the harder the universe resists. If you stop
concentrating on an active violation effect, it will fade. If another
opposes your actions, they may be undone or even retroactively never have
been done. The Cosmic Cube in the Marvel Universe is an example of the
lowest level of grandipotence, a wishing talisman that makes whatever you
want come true so long as you can maintain your concentration, albeit in a
limited range (i.e. the universe pushes back on your bubble of unreality).
Gods, demigods and "greater" demons are all grandipotent, and most of
them are "fullbloods" with a complete portion of the Magene. No mortal can
stand against even the least of them in a straight fight. Fortunately,
mortals tend to get help from other grandipotent entities in such struggles,
which is a nice way of saying that gods often use mortals as proxies in their
disputes. The world is just one big MMO for the divine, and mortals are
either the characters they play or the mobs they have their characters slay.
But just as some animals are more equal than others, there's all sorts
of degrees of grandipotence. When your raw power already hits the "anything
I want to happen, happens" level, your standing among the gods depends more
on your ability to resist the meddling of others, to keep changes stable over
a long time, and to manage multiple tasks at once. Having a reservoir of
external power is very useful in managing this sort of thing, so you don't
have to devote your personal energies to keeping all your balls in the air.
It's even more effective if you can get another god to handle things for you,
which is one reason why so many families of fullbloods organize into
hierarchies and portion out specific portfolios.
How, and if, a grandipotent entity gains this external power defines
them as a full god, a demon or a demigod. There's some vagueness about the
definitions, of course, for several reasons. Entities may be in a
transitional state from one to the other. They may be playing two separate
games and need to keep their power sources segregated. Or it could just be
that the nature of a multidimensional incomprehensible divinity is beyond
The Power of Prayer
The core element that separates the "true" gods from other fullbloods is
that they are able to draw power from worship. Learning how to do this is
what elevated a society of sorcerors in the distant past to the status of
gods, and this talent can be blocked in or removed from those who are on the
losing side of deific power struggles. Of course, just because you can draw
power from the faithful doesn't automatically grant you worshippers, you
still have to build that up. Rebus may be a full god or he may be a demigod,
but until he manages to gain some worshippers the distinction will be purely
academic. And given that he managed to draw the wrong kind of attention
before he was ready for it, Rebus may never get the chance to exercise his
Not only are mortal worshippers useful as batteries, they can be used as
processors as well, maintaining the very effects they may be praying for, or
simply running gambits that are low priority for their god. Generally,
though, they will only be used in this way if they are faithful to a single
god. If they split their worship among many gods, it's like a public
server. No one's really going to want to put anything important on them.
Demigods and greater demons cannot draw on worship as a power source,
but they can still outsource their tasks to the faithful, making worshippers
more than just an ego stroke for these lesser divinities. But without the
"prayer batteries," demigods and demons simply can't compete directly against
full gods, and tend to be relegated to low positions. For instance, after
his fall from power, Q'Nos was used as an errand boy and enforcer by numerous
gods. Without the power from his former Cretan faithful, he could no longer
impose his will on other gods. Nor could he afford to draw their attention
once he freed himself from their service, hence the lack of grand displays of
power prior to losing still more puissance to the Eye of Purity.
A Darker Route To Power
One of the oddball things about the Causality Wars is that they bounce
around through time. 1998 was actually one of the earliest full conflicts
between pantheons, from their point of view. It was their World War I, if
you will. And where WWI had poison gas, 1998 had life consumption.
It had long been known how to drain another's spirit for raw power, of
course. Sorcerors figured that one out centuries before cracking the riddle
of faith-based power. But what Odin discovered in 1998 was how to convert
that power into the same sort of power as was granted by worship. It was far
less renewable, because even if you didn't pig out and take an entire life,
it was rough on the faithful. It's also harder to maintain worshippers if
they can feel you snacking on their souls...they tend to find other gods to
worship. In general, the full gods decided that soul-conversion was a bad
idea and made various compacts agreeing not to do it anymore.
Of course, it didn't stop entirely. Soul-conversion is a rush,
addictive in its own way, and some of the less savory gods continued to
practice it when they thought they could get away with it. Additionally, the
agreement only really applied to full gods. Demigods tended to fall through
various loopholes, and some of them realized that if they couldn't benefit
from the prayers of their worshippers, they might do well to devour their
A greater demon is a demigod who has made a habit of soul-conversion, or
sometimes a full god who evades the bans on the practice. Worshipping a
greater demon is very dangerous, because they demand sacrifice, and when they
offer power it is usually only because you want to use it in ways that will
advance their agenda. Worship practices will tend towards things that make
it easier for the demon to devour tiny bits of one's spirit, such as blood
rites that willingly split off a piece of the soul or even ritual murders (of
the faithful to allow complete soul-conversion, or of the innocent in order
to fragment the souls of the killers).
Note that greater demons need not have traditionally demonic
appearances, it's more a matter of behavior than appearance. That said, the
traditional ideas of what looks like a demon do tend to come from legends
about the greater demons. The bestial Naobata is the greater demon largely
responsible for "big, hairy and fanged" being considered a demonic
appearance, for instance. Lesser demons are simply supernatural creatures
who fit a particular morphology, and they rarely have their origins among the
fullbloods. Most are created entities, semi-divine at best and usually quite
With Strange Aeons
Can a grandipotent entity die? Well, yes. But it takes some pretty
special circumstances, and a rather lot of other gods have to want you dead.
Usually, defeated gods are reduced in stature and humiliated rather than
outright killed, in large part because gods can be petty and vindictive and
prefer to see their enemies suffer for an eternity. Additionally, given that
the power in a god resides in their spirit, conventional death means little
to them. The death of a god requires total destruction of the spirit,
elimination from existence. Otherwise, loss of physical life may be merely
an inconvenience, like totalling one's car.
Phaeton clearly ticked off a lot of other gods, which is why Baal Samin
was able to turn him into a thin layer now known as the K-T Boundary (iridium
is particularly useful a component in sun-related magic as a result).
Santarus, on the other hand, was simply rendered functionally non-existent
without actually dying...possibly worse, all things considered. And Q'Nos
fell from god to demigod and was allowed to further fall to a state of mere
semi-divinity (see below). So, odds are good that Rebus is still alive in
some form or another, but it's unlikely in the extreme that he's enjoying it.
But keep in mind, grandipotence means that whatever you want to happen,
happens. And most entities want to keep living...any with even a hint of
suicidal tendencies tend to get themselves killed long before attaining godly
stature. Even the ones that seem mopey and depressed are really just putting
on an act, playing to their portfolios. Suicidal worshippers may be handy
for gods with a tendency towards demonic soul-conversion, but at the core of
their being the gods themselves want to live. And so they do, even when it
might be better to just die.
A Feat Of Clay
I've mentioned that all of the grandipotent can set up external
"processors" for their actions, particularly the use of worshippers as
tools. After all, while waving your hands and making a statue appear may be
impressive, it's a more efficient use of power to get worshippers to build
you a statue. Gods advance by finding ways to get the most effect for the
least investment, so that they can fight battles on many fronts at the same
time (or many different times, as the case often is).
But worshippers are only one way to do this. Another, related way is to
create lifeforms with the power to do the job, like the clay statue given
life as a golem. Binding a spirit to a violation effect tends to make it
more durable, as it can defend itself from being dismissed. Willing a castle
to float above the landscape means that it might fall once your attention
wavers. But creating a wind spirit to hold it aloft means you can largely
forget about it, so long as you occasionally check in to make sure the spirit
hasn't abandoned its duties.
These created lifeforms and spirits occupy an odd place in the spectrum
between "physical law" and "violation effects". They do not have the Magene
themselves, and while some may look human, they are not human. An Anchor
can't simply dismiss them, but can usually suppress their abilities. The
magical effect bound to them simply retreats inside the creature's spirit
until the Anchor goes away. So, for instance, the ox spirit known as Niu
didn't vanish while under the Anchor effect of China's Premier Xu, but he was
limited to the abilities of a powerfully built normal human (the form he had
been wearing when he got Anchored) until Xu died.
The advantage of created life is that it's really just an extension of
the god's will. It is no more and no less than what it is made to be, and
there's little chance it will decide to change its allegiance. This makes it
a safe place to store external "processes" if the god in question is short on
dedicated human worshippers, as often happens in hierarchical pantheons. The
true purpose of a created lifeform need not be obvious, even to the lifeform
itself. A dragon sleeping in a cave may be maintaining dozens of its
creator's mystical effects without knowing that it is doing so, as might a
three-eyed monk in an isolated temple.
The overt appearance and purpose of created life is largely a matter of
aesthetics, like the desktop image on your computer. So, maybe the fact that
the ogre is moving boulders from one stack to another actually serves some
sort of purpose (realigning ley lines, perhaps), or maybe it's just an
expression of its creator's twisted sense of aesthetics. "Well, the ogre is
really maintaining the weather patterns over southern Peru during the
mid-850s to keep my worshippers there happy, but isn't the boulder pile thing
a delightful metaphor for mortal endeavors?"
The greatest weakness of created entities is that they aren't human.
Their devotion cannot empower their creators. They have no more capacity
than what they are specifically given, and often have curious holes in their
talents because they were carelessly made. While they can be made almost
entirely human in terms of creativity and free will, this can be dangerous,
especially if their overt tasks are important. You want your castle-
supporting wind spirit to be a complete slave, but the dragon running your
spells as subconscious background processes can probably be allowed the
illusion of complete freedom. Unless he figures out what's going on, of
Since they're not physically part of their creator, the created entities
can be attacked without immediately drawing their creator's attention,
weakening whatever effect they were made to maintain. Goading one's
worshippers into hunting down a rival's creations is a common kind of proxy
battle between gods. For example, dragons may be a particularly effective
sort of semi-divine creature, and therefore a common choice for proxy
attacks. Eventually, despite a later absence of actual dragons, entire
cultures have an instinctive fear of them because "kill the dragon" has been
worked into so much of their cultural history.
Avatars are a special weird case, straddling the line between human and
created entity. They start human, but are remade in the image of their
patron god. They are power sinks rather than power sources...even if they
are utterly devoted to their god, the energy used to empower them exceeds
what their worship would grant, making them more like created life in terms
of energy budgeting. They're still more efficient than doing things
directly, but they're an investment. A worshipper who has been granted some
small amount of power (like most of the "godpowered" supernaturals of the
Godmarket) are at worst self-powered, and usually are chosen because their
faith is strong enough to make them a net source of power. Avatars go beyond
that break-even point, which is why it was so unusual for Set to empower two
in the same era (Set the ASH member and Sutekh the villain).
The Gap Of The Gods
So, among the grandipotent, demigods are the weakest, relying entirely
on internal power. They lack the ability to draw power from worship and
refuse to become demons who feed on the lives of their worshippers. But even
demigods are still able to do pretty much whatever they want so long as no
one tries to stop them. There's a big drop-off in power between demigods and
even the strongest "superhero" mortals. But that gap is far from empty, and
many entities can be classed as "semi-divine".
There are three basic groups that populate the semi-divine range, weaker
than demigods but clearly more than mortal. The strongest of the created
entities are semi-divine, including Taoist spirits like the Western Dragon.
Gods who have fallen so far as to lose their grandipotence, like Q'Nos or the
Leviathan, are semi-divine. Mortals who have found a path to godhood often
become semi-divine on their way to their final goal (although most are
thwarted short of godhood). Lord Ebon attained such semi-divinity shortly
before his demise, but Rebus jumped directly from mortal to grandipotent.
In addition to the truly semi-divine, the grandipotent often limit their
power on purpose when acting among mortals in order to avoid the attention of
their rivals. Many figures of myth who would seem to be semi-divine were
really disguises worn by gods who were acting covertly.
In short, the semi-divine ranking is like minor league or semi-pro
baseball. Some of the players are on the way down, some are on the way up,
some are major leaguers slumming it for a couple of games for some reason,
but most are pretty much where their level of ability is going to keep them
for their entire career. For every Lord Ebon seeking godhood or Q'Nos
salvaging what he can, there's dozens of powerful created entities or
avatars that straddle the line between god and man.
The Pitfalls of Puissance
From a narrative perspective, grandipotent beings are a nightmare. It's
very hard to write a conflict when one or more participants is capable of
doing whatever the heck they want, and if they're also immortal and
disconnected from the timestream you can't even do much in terms of moral
dilemmas or character studies. The gods may not be crazy, per se, but
they're certainly way too abstruse to be at center stage very often.
Fortunately, for all their odd evolutions, the gods in the ASH Universe
were human to begin with, and they can't shake certain indelible traces of
their origins. Among other things, this means that they're the proverbial
basket of crabs, pulling down any one of their number who might look too
ready to climb out. When they interact with the mortal plane, they have to
be terribly sneaky. Even if it looks to mortals like they're being flashy...
trust me, they're cloaking themselves in some fashion from the eyes of their
fellow gods. So a protagonist faced with a divine threat doesn't need to be
strong enough to defeat the god, they just need to find a way to blow the
god's cover, or tip the politics a little, or otherwise ensure that the god
is dealt with by other gods.
While this may look on the surface to be a deus ex machina, it's really
just the usual puzzle plot writ very large. As long as the protagonist has
to honestly work at it to arrange for the interference of other gods, it's
okay from a storytelling point of view. Getting Rebus to drop his cloak in
anger, shoving Devastation into the view of the gods, or getting Phaeton to
fall prey to his own pride are all dramatically the equivalent of luring the
Terminator into an industrial press and then hitting the "smoosh" switch.
A Parting Thought
H.P. Lovecraft's view of the gods is pretty appropriate to the ASH
Universe. It doesn't matter if they're full gods, demigods or demons...
you're probably better off if they never notice you. Heck, it's hazardous to
your health to notice *them*, because they're probably trying not to be
seen. It's kind of like Monty Python's "How Not To Be Seen" sketch, but with
the announcer exploding rather than the bush.
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