Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain. – Friedrich Schiller
In the Before Times when life was good and complex financial instruments unimagined, Gods operated at a small, local scale. All religions were local religions. Religious institutions serviced their local villages and Guilds and provided members with the essential services and high quality brand marketing people needed in their lives: wedding, funerals, various feast days, soul-filling sermons, access to the occasional Cure Light Wounds from a dreaded sheep-based accident, Cure Disease (or Cause Disease depending on local religious views), high quality religious collectible tchotchke sales, and a salvation at relatively affordable prices. People gave their local temples money and devotion. The temples gave them goods and services in return. The circle was complete.
It was a good system largely divorced from any kind of economic pressures.
Murder Hobos who matriculated from their various local village groups brought their local religious brand-marketing with them on their various adventures. The blacksmith from the mountains, now a Fighter of great renown and levels, dedicated his silver hammer to Thor. The Elven Druid wore dozens of Ehlonna-based clinking silver and bronze medallions around her neck and exhorted the party, in her Goddess’s name, to hug the badgers. And the Llolth-worshipping Thief, once a proud dues-paying member of the Dark Elven Milliner Guild (“a good black gentleman’s hat will last a lifetime!”) left those damn little spider-embossed berets at every Inn.
Then, as all things do, the fire started with the tiniest of sparks. One small, nearly forgotten Sheep Goddess needed more worshippers or else she faced the worst in God-based bankruptcy: fading away into irrelevance. Other Gods she knew had faded and died. She was not letting it happen to her, sheep or no sheep.
To gain more worshippers, the Sheep Goddess, with great grit and determination, decided upon a new and aggressive business strategy. Instead of simply offering better services through her clerics at lower prices and polishing up her brand marketing position, she went on a different track. She was debt financing business growth.
The Sheep Goddess ordered her clerics to execute a small acquisition at the next village up the street.
Unused to this sort of activity, considering the Clerics were sheep-based Clerics, and lacking money to bribe the local people, the Clerics approached the Transmuter Bankers (“Available at any red colored table in any reasonably sized municipal square near you – look for the tassels!”) for a loan. The bankers provided the Clerics surprisingly low and reasonable rates on a generous repayment schedule.
“Incorporate and acquire,” the Bankers urged the Clerics. “It will serve you well.”
The clerics wheeled up the street and offered their fellow nearby Clerics a deal they couldn’t refuse. They were buying them out. Merging. More worshippers meant more money meant bigger temples meant more aggressive marketing to further villages. Together, their two Sheep Goddesses would grow – and together, sell t-shirts. It would work, the Clerics said. Their Goddess said so.
She was right. It did work.
In the name of the Sheep Goddess, now two Sheep Goddesses under one united Sheep financial banner, the Clerics closed on the first great God Merger and Acquisition. As Sheep United grew, it acquired more rural Sheep Goddesses and Sheep Clerics. In a burst of sudden financial excitement, Sheep United open its temples to non-Sheep-worshipping religious-based investors. (“Invest now for your salvation and delicious lamb kabob dinner!”) The Clerics of Sheep United, once simply shepherds to the souls of their flock and ministers to the sick, sat in board meetings deciding this season’s new line of sheep-based mystical amulets while strategizing diversifying their Sheep God portfolio into a more Global Harvest Brand.
The other Gods watched the Sheep Goddess grow. And they did not sit this one out.
Mergers, Franchises and Co-Ops
Religious business growth exploded. Those who could, merged. Those who did not, withered and faded. After the shakeout, this intense business growth took three major forms.
Mergers and Acquisitions
The most common form of religious business growth, Gods found if they merged their temples, heroes, brand strategies, and worshippers together they walked away stronger as a collective unified with a clear menu of expected services while maintaining separate loose brand division identities. Mergers were popular, projected a clear message to the religious customers, and produced stronger God-based brands.
For example, Zeus (far West), Thor (far North) and Indra (far East) were all independent Thunder Gods with their own aims, wishes and desires. They had their own unique form of branding, services, temples, stories and worship even though they offered clerics with the same essential service: blowing up enemies with well-placed lightning bolts. When these Gods merged into Thunder, Inc. (a Zeus Co Company), they homogenized their religious and clerical offerings while keeping the same quirky feel in their local services the worshippers knew and loved. One knew what one was getting when a Thunder, Inc. Cleric joined the party: a fine offering of healing and weather spells, thunder-bolt based iconography, and some serious hurt meted out to the undead.
This lead followers of Thunder, Inc. (a Zeus Co. Company) to wonder, after a while: if two Gods merged their religious businesses and began providing the same menu of goods and services to their worshippers under the same general brands, did they become the same God? Was there a day when two Gods, merged into one big company, sat down in two chairs and only one God got back up?
Did it matter? They provided the same spells. And look at all this money Thunder, Inc. (a Zeus Co. Company) made!
The Franchise Model
Popular largely with Neutral and Evil Gods but by no means devoid of Good Gods, the Franchise model allowed a number of Gods to maintain their entire brand identity and continue to merrily compete against one another while sending their profits to an overarching holding company. This arrangement provided the Gods and their worshippers the freedom they desired in running their franchises while taking advantage of the extensive financial services provided by the holding company and unified branding identity.
The Greater Death Corporation (known as “Death,” a customer-focused multi-national enterprise providing the best in Death and Underworld-based services) held a large number of smaller Death Companies with popular Death Brands: Hades and his Underworld, Izanami and the Yomi, Baron Samedi, Orcus, Anubis, Ereshkigal, Donn the Dark One, a small collective of Dullahan, and the Grim Reaper. Clerics might be hit or miss depending on which brand holding company they served for their spells. But Clerics part of a greater Death Franchise always provided identical base menus of Death-based Clerical services for any Murder Hobo, village, Guild or city needs with some contextual sugar as a differentiator in their provided basket of products and services.
Of course, two Clerics of competing franchises under the same major multi-national enterprise might not exactly get along in a party context. It’s best, when working with a franchise model of Godhood, to stick with one preferred brand.
Not as common as the merger or the God Franchise, the Co-Op was the “boy band” version of the God business collective. Organized mostly by Gods with no interest in finance, money, business, or Transmuter Bankers, Co-Ops emerged as a basket of various Gods all tied up into one subscription-based offering. The religious worshipper could join their local Co-Op God Collective and receive the services of a harvest god, a death god, a weather god, a war god, and a sky god in one package. Worshippers not interested in the “corporate versions of God,” which they claimed was soulless, empty, and only motivated by money, could rest assured their soul, when they died, was going “somewhere not sure where but wherever it goes it will be rad.”
Of course, this made other things complicated. It was never entirely clear where the Cleric of a Co-Op got her spells from, what form they would take, and which God from the Collective would grant them that day. Paladins received conflicting commands on whom to exact vengeance. And worse, worshippers often had to sing sermons in 5 part harmony with an elaborate dance number to cover the needs of a God Co-Op.
Always, the Co-Op faced the risk that one of the Gods would “break out” – offer their worshippers clearly better goods and services than the rest. They would “go it solo” and either fade after an explosive rise and fall or get gobbled up in a buy-out by one of the many Zeus Co. Companies.
Big God, Inc.
“Before I administer to you this Cure Light Wounds spell,” the Cleric said to her party member, the dying Thief, “I must break for a word from our sponsors.”
The Thief nodded and held his intestines in with his left hand. Blood gushed between his fingers. He tried to wait thirty seconds but man, this hurt.
The Cleric stood and sang the jingle. The party, except the Thief, applauded. For a Cleric, her singing voice was excellent.
Then, the Cleric cast the bright branding-embossed holy spell on the Thief’s wounds. Sheep United, satisfied with this commercial placement, would grant the Cleric another set of spells the next day.
The corporatizing of the religious services provided by Clerics and those vicious traveling salesmen, the Paladins, did not overly change the Murder Hobo method of killing goblins and rolling bodies for stuff except for the occasional need, while on Campaign, to stop for a helpful commercial break or religious station identification. Halting action for a commercial in the middle of battle or while escaping some heart-stopping death trap was annoying, but the ultimate trade-off was worth it. Prices for Clerical goods and services were low. Clerics had predictable sets of spells. And Clerical Gods were unlikely to suddenly go out of business while on the road – a risk when the Gods were small, weak, and financially strapped. Yes, a God could get “bought out” while the party was on campaign and disappear, but parties hired Established Corporate Clerics.
Sure, now the party Cleric was a walking billboard advertising the services of Sheep United and wore that ridiculous gigantic sheep head covered in corporate logos, but Clerics dressed silly before the great corporatizing of religious faith. Life was good. No, life was better.
The Bard particularly enjoyed the change. The Clerics kept trying to get him to sign up to their form of corporate loyalty. They bribed him with t-shirts, magic rings, amulets, potions, illustrated books, statuary, and other bits of mass manufactured but highly appreciated swag. He figured he would just sign up for ‘em all. He had picked up 27 new corporate t-shirts in the last village alone.
The Thief, still wearing his spider hat from his days as a Milliner for Lloth, resented the change. He preferred it when Lloth was the globally hated stand-alone Spider Goddess. She Sold Out.
The Thief received more respect back then. Sure, Llolth hats were suddenly, inexplicably, globally fashionable. Before the merger, few fashionistas experienced the wonders of Dark Elf fashion. Now everyone had to have a hat. He was making a mint on gothy spider-web-like sinamay hats on his downtime.
But Lloth was pure, man. She was evil. She was cool. Now she was just another part of Big Evil, Inc.
And now the goddamn Cleric was going to sing the Thief another happy harvest jingle because he needed a second application of that Cure Light Wounds spell. Goddamn it Cleric!
The Thief swore he was going atheist.
And so life in the Planes went on. Under the Big God Inc corporate scheme some Gods lived. Some Gods grew. Some Gods changed. And some Gods withered and disappeared under the great corporate homogenizing of their spheres. But the question no one asked: just how much money the Transmuter Bankers made off all this?