D&D General Deities in D&D: Gods as Tulpas versus Gods as Progenitors

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
Disclaimer: I know religion is a touchy subject, so out of respect, I've tried to stay away from naming active real religions in the real world. Hopefully I didn't overstep anywhere in this post. While I'm probably not going to mark this as a (+) thread because I want there to be a discussion of identity of deities in D&D, please remain courteous to other people and stay away from discussing real world religions as much as possible.

Gods have been a part of D&D for a very long time. According to Wikipedia, the first D&D product to officially detail gods was Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes, published by TSR in 1976, about two years after D&D was first published. The book heavily focused on mechanically translating gods and mythical creatures/heroes to the game, some from real-world pantheons and some stolen from the worlds of Elric and Conan. It gave short descriptions of the gods and their abilities, typically around two paragraphs in length, and the book assumed that the gods existed and could be interacted with in worlds other than Earth. Not much was said about the nature of godhood and how the gods existed, as the focus was on providing rules for the gods, not explaining how to include them or why they would exist in your game. It wasn't until AD&D's Deities and Demigods was published in 1980 that D&D's pantheons and rules of worship were codified in a form that has stayed relatively consistent through the editions (please correct me if I've missed something or made a mistake).

Deities and Demigods introduced the idea that divine powers were divided into different levels: Greater Gods, Lesser Gods, and Demigods. It also introduced the idea that clerics at least partially gained their power from their faith, not purely from deities rewarding them with spells, and that worship is required to achieve and maintain apotheosis. The book even recommends taking the control of a character away from a player if they somehow become a god or demigod. Thus began the "Gods as Tulpas" phase of D&D, where worship itself had inherent power, which was further detailed in the Planescape setting.

However, these ideas are not completely true in all D&D worlds. In Dragonlance, the gods went without mortal worship for over 350 years after the Cataclysm without losing their status as gods. In the Forgotten Realms, Ao the Overgod doesn't need or want worship, which is proven in the Time of Troubles. In Eberron, the existence of the gods is debated both by scholars and theologians in setting and fans of the setting. In Exandria, the pantheon (which uses the Dawn War Pantheon plus a goddess from Pathfinder) seems to have mostly been around since the beginning of the world, and worship doesn't seem to be a necessary part of godhood (evidenced by the fact that the Raven Queen become a goddess by usurping the former god of death with a magical ritual). In Theros (originally a M:tG setting, but is still an official 5e setting), gods do gain their power from worship and mortals can become gods if enough people worship them, but there seem to be some gods that have been around forever without the need of mortal worship (Kruphix and Klothys).

However, there are settings where most gods seem to be Tulpas, but most of the fantasy races were created by gods, causing chicken-and-the-egg question that a lot of settings do not address. If the gods created the D&D races, and the gods only exist because worship gives them power . . . how did the gods exist to create the races? Or how did the races exist in the world to create the gods? Some D&D worlds don't even give an answer to the question if the gods exist, much less answer this question. This issue is what spawned the idea for this thread; finding a way to reconcile the "What came first, the God or Mortal Races?" question, taking inspiration from a lot of different worlds to find a possible answer, and delving into the definition of deities in the many worlds of D&D. This is largely an issue with worldbuilding, but also could be brought up in games among philosophers, theologians, and other scholars that have disagreements on the answer.

Category #1: Gods as Tulpas​

"I don't hold with paddlin' with the occult," said Granny firmly. "Once you start paddlin' with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you're believing in gods. And then you're in trouble."
"But all them things exist," said Nanny Ogg.
"That's no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages 'em."


In this type of world, the gods are tulpas (magical creatures that were originally imaginary, but became real due to people believing in them enough). Humanity (and/or the other fantasy races) existed before any gods, created religions and started worshipping gods that didn't exist, until eventually the worship became powerful/potent enough for the gods to actually start existing as extremely powerful, sentient, magical creatures. Theros, Discworld, and Planescape more or less fit into this classification, where most of the gods and god-like entities were created by the worship of mortals, not the other way around. As for how the sentient mortal races came into existence before the gods did, the answer can either be through natural evolution, or they could have been created by other powerful creatures that aren't technically gods (like the Primordials from D&D 4e).

In these worlds, the gods are basically glorified imaginary friends. They're figments of the imagination that got enough worship that they became real. A lot of the times in worlds like these, gods will actually change over time based on how people worship them changes. In the real world's history, the identities of gods changed as they were worshipped in different ways. For example, Poseidon was originally worshipped as the god of the underworld, the leader of the Mycenean gods, and husband of Demeter, but how he was worshipped changed so much over the course of several hundred years that he stopped being the Top God of the pantheon, became the god of the seas and earthquakes, and was married to one of the Nereids instead of Demeter. The same thing would happen in a world where gods are tulpas, causing certain gods to completely change in their divine portfolios over the course of hundreds of years. Tharizdun could become a god of alcohol and partying. Tiamat could become a goddess of trade and merchants. Pelor could become an evil god sunburns and skin cancer. The identity of gods would be as fluid as culture is. Their religions, identities, and lives could change as easily as the people that worship them do, just like in the real world. So, while gods in this type of world can often be very powerful, they're ultimately also dependent on the worship of mortals. So they're less likely to commit any acts that would destroy the world or kill a bunch of their worshippers (Eberron's Mourning, Exandria's Calamity, Krynn's Cataclysm), because that would make them less powerful, potentially even killing them. At best, they try to gain worshippers by being benevolent. At worst, they're energy vampires that feed off of your worship in order to make the world a worse place.

I enjoy worlds where the Gods are Tulpas, because it feels familiar to how religions and mythologies from the real world evolve and gives a clear definition of what a god is: a being of divine power created by mortal worship. The fact that mortals get to influence gods in these types of worlds is an idea that I've been meaning to play around with for awhile now. I just think that it's a fun balancing force to have in the world that can echo some aspects of the real world (churches could have religious "unions" that negotiate with their gods and even make demands).

Also, I just recently read Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, so these types of gods have been on my mind and inspiring my worldbuilding a lot lately.

Category #2: Gods as Progenitors​

These truths the Maker has revealed to me:
As there is but one world,
One life, one death, there is
But one god, and He is our Maker.


In Category #2 worlds, the gods are progenitors. They existed before and created humanity and the other fantasy races. They probably created the planets and other planes of existence, too. And, unless there's some in-world justification, don't need worship in order to continue existing. Humanity and the other sentient races often worship their patron gods as parental figures, some races choosing the god(s) that created them as the main deity that they worship (Gruumsh for the Orcs, Moradin for the Dwarves, etc). Worlds that fall into this category are Exandria, Krynn, and maybe Eberron if you count the Progenitor Dragons (otherwise, Eberron firmly falls into Category #4).

In these worlds, the gods can feel more similar to how gods from real world religions have been worshipped. They're magical creatures of immense power that have been around longer than basically everything else in the world. Their word is absolute, mortals normally have no power over them, and since they aren't giant energy vampires, they can nuke all of the people that worship them without any major personal repercussions (barring stuff like "divine contracts" that restrain the gods of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance).

I enjoy worlds where the powerful entities that are worshipped were involved in the creation of the world (and its people). It helps evoke myths from a lot of real world mythologies that I grew up with. And having the PCs meet or talk with the god(s) that created the world will never not be cool.

Category #3: Gods via Apotheosis​

I am, unfortunately, the Hero of Ages.
Holding the power did strange things to my mind. In just a few moments, I became familiar with the power itself, with its history, and with the ways it might be used. Yet, this knowledge was different from experience, or even ability to use that power.
For instance, I knew how to move a planet in the sky. Yet, I didn't know where to place it so that it wouldn't be too close, or too far, from the sun.


Most D&D worlds do have some way for mortals to become gods, but don't choose this approach as its main source of gods. As far as I'm aware, it's only been built in to the core identity of a single official world (the Immortals of Mystara), but this answer helps evoke a different theme and stories than the other types of worlds. Dark Sun might count, but becoming a Dragon or Avangion doesn't really count as becoming a god, even if it is ascending to a higher state of being.

In Category #3 worlds, "godhood" is a status to achieve, not a consequence of mortal worship or constant fact of existence. So many settings include some form of apotheosis that it's just not worth mentioning all of them. However, this option is kind of built-in to the core of D&D in some editions, where the PCs eventually gain godlike abilities at higher levels. It would be pretty easy to make a world where all of the gods used to be heroes or villains that gained enough magical power to achieve apotheosis. As I said earlier, similar stories have happened (or are in the process of happening) in a lot of D&D worlds (the Raven Queen, Mystra 2.0/3.0, Vecna, Raistlin, etc). This style of world could be good at making the players feel like they have a long-term goal and reason to keep playing after the main quest is finished (assuming that the main quest doesn't already involve their apotheosis). D&D could do better at supporting high-level play, and building in options for apotheosizing the PCs and allowing them to punch the other gods in the face and take their stuff is a logical evolution of a lot of D&D campaigns.

Category #4: Gods as Unknowable​

Also known as, "the Eberron approach", Category #4 worlds are where the gods are not known to exist. As I've said, Eberron is the main example of a Category #4 D&D world that comes to mind, but there's at least three other D&D settings where this is true: Ravenloft, 2e Dark Sun (I know 4e Dark Sun had gods in the ancient past), and Ravnica (yes, I'm counting Ravnica). This category isn't much like the others, because the other categories are objective answers in the setting about what gods are. Category #4 is just The Shrug of God about whether or not gods exist in the setting. The Deity Dilemma in these worlds has an answer, but the answer just isn't known, and is up to the DM to decide. Clerics, Paladins, and other religious characters in Category #4 worlds, like in the real world, have never seen their god and don't know if they exist. In Ravnica it's stated that there used to be religions that worshipped gods, but whether or not those gods were real is up for debate. In Ravenloft, it's speculated that Ezra's clerics actually get their spells from the Dark Powers. In Eberron, even the angels that claim to serve members of the Sovereign Host admit that they've never met the gods they follow. Keith Baker has even said that if a god from the Forgotten Realms were to travel to Eberron, most people on Eberron would reject their claims that they're a god and refuse to worship them, because they disagree on the definition of deities.

There are obvious benefits to this choice. It makes for more diverse types of religions to be possible/common in the world. It's familiar. You can still have stories about the gods and religious characters in the game without confirming if the deities exist or not. There are some trade-offs made when you choose to make a Category #4 worlds, but depending on the execution, it can be well worth it.

(Sidenote: I've had this idea recently of a setting where gods get power from their worshippers, but only once the worshippers die, as their souls are then absorbed into the god and assimilated into their consciousness. Like the Mindhive trope, but on godly proportions. I'm not aware of any D&D worlds where the gods are actually just the amalgamated souls of dead people, but I think it would be cool. If there are any old D&D settings or 3rd party settings that use this model of gods, please let me know. If there aren't any yet . . . I might have to do something about that.)



To conclude, D&D settings don't have a consensus about how religion and the gods work. It tried to for awhile, but that was made permanently impossible with AD&D having settings with diametrically opposed takes on religion and deities, which was further cemented by Eberron in 3.X. Core D&D's take on religion has changed a lot through the editions and some settings have blurred the lines between the categories. Some were always in-between two or more categories (Dragonlance seems like it should easily fall into Category #2, but it has aspects of Category #3). Some settings started in one category, but shifted into another later on (the Forgotten Realms started in Category #2, but shifted into Category #1). D&D's information on religion started out as a "here are some gods we took from the real world and some stolen from IP that we don't own, use them as you wish in your games", and eventually evolved into a complex, nuanced, and often infuriating mess of contradictions and overlap that adamantly refuses to fit into nice and precise classifications. D&D 5e's DMG guidelines on the topic just tells you about different types of religions, gives you a bunch of examples, and tells you to figure out how it works in your world (which is good for supporting different views and options, but probably not good at accommodating new DMs and players that just wanted to know how religion works in D&D).

As stated earlier, please be kind and respectful. Feel free to correct me on anything that I got wrong or add more categories that you think I missed (I cut out some because they had too much overlap with the other categories or just weren't common in D&D). Oh, and if you've made a world or played in/DMed for a setting that uses one of these "divine classifications", please feel free to share your experience here and how it affected things.
 
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grimslade

Krampus ate my d20s
Good topic. I have used all of these in different settings over the years. Apotheosis is fun. Especially with long-lived and immortal races, having people who knew a god before their ascension would be fascinating. Imagine an ancient elven seer who talks about Grognar, hero-god of competition, who had horrific lactose intolerance but a love for elven cheese. Or a lich who changed the newborn god's diapers.

I also like the concept of souls as currency/power to the divine and profane. Why do Vrocks and Night Hags trade in souls? What is the market for them? What if souls are what power the gods' acts of creation or reality-bending magic? With enough souls, you can bind a god to a plane or specific place. If you collect enough souls you can create a species in your own image. If Tharizdun collects enough souls he can end reality. Makes all those devil contracts mean something.
 

I think that the best way to make a playable setting that supports a variety of characters is to either use method #4 or a mix of methods 1-3, with sub-variations. More variety means no interesting idea is excluded ahead of time.

My own unused homebrew (currently) has five sets of gods, and they work differently (including a mindhive).
 

For my own part, I guess I appreciate a sort of...inversion of the tulpa concept, one that still recognizes change and development?

That is, "tulpa" implies that a particular manifested thing gains power and significance until, eventually, some critical mass is reached and that mind-manifestation transcends the limits of those minds. It is, for lack of a better term, a thought(/network thereof) which gains apotheosis by accumulation (time, attention, fervor, adherents, etc.) It's loosely a "materialist immanent" theology:t gods arise purely from discrete material causes, existing only "inside" empirical experience.

I prefer deities with a more transcendental nature. That is, deities who have some form of inherent or "outside" existence/meaning, separate from pure materialism. I like it when Justice itself is, in some sense, innately divine. Such transcendental deities are more interesting to me because...well, to be blunt, people can think up anything. As a world-builder, it's much more of a statement, and induces much more texture, to have some particular thing or things be inherently sacred. That and, well, I have a pretty dim view of eliminative materialism and other uncompromisingly materialist philosophical stances.

This is part of why I love the 4e pantheon as much as I do. There, the gods exist and have transcendental natures, but that doesn't mean they are impossible to affect or overpower. Indeed, the primal spirits (an inherently immanent power!) drove out the gods in the wake of the War of Winter. Yet by slaying Tiamat, some of the books explicitly say it's possible to weaken the concepts that she represents: greed, envy, tyranny. Gold coins become no more than a medium of exchange, a tool to be used for benefit. Envy coils less around mortal hearts, transforming into appreciation or even aspiration, and jealousy softens into its own kind of appreciation or even generosity. Evil doesn't die, but it does recede in the wake of slaying a transcendent entity thereof.

I'm also not opposed to having the two meet somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the mantle of godhood is transcendental, but immanent beings can take it up. You see stuff like that in the Elder Scrolls games, where "Mantling" a deity is one of the forms of apotheosis.
 

Bitbrain

ORC (Open RPG) horde ally
Gods in my settings fall into group 2 (progenitors) or are absent entirely, because at present all of my players are Baptist Christians who reject the ideas that “gods need followers”, “you can ascend to godhood” and “gods are unknowable”.
 


Quartz

Hero
Have you had a look at religion in RuneQuest? People actively sacrifice mystic energy - POW - to their gods. Divine intervention is a real thing. Etc.

And don't forget the false gods - entities that people think are gods but are not. Paranoia, anyone?
 

payn

Legend
I like #4 the best. I think the Gods being an unsolvable mystery is ideal. I also like the Gods being more like forces than actual "people" with personalities. It aligns better with my love of alignment, which I know is probably not popular, around here at least. Actual living people make symbols and imagine the Gods in their own images, but that is solely their own doing.
 


el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
In my current setting I guess the gods are Tulpas - or at least Tulpa-like with a mix of what you describe as Apotheosis in item #3. Anyone or anything can become a god through their actions in life and resultant worship. But ideas also become the focus for such worship. So for example, one NPC cleric is a traveling priest of the god of dogs, something achieved by elevating the positive qualities attributed to dogs and practicing them (while also taking care of dogs), so this god is also god of friendship and guardians, etc. . . Another character they met is a monk/cleric who follows a kind of peasant hero boxer who was once a mortal. In theory a character could worship an ancestor who took in cats and make cat worship and qualities into the focus of their spiritual beliefs. At the same time, however, such figures also tend to syncretize or be subsumed into other customs of worship over time. So for example, a family who worships their great-aunt the cat lady, might in time decide that she was actually an avatar of Bast made mortal and incorporate some of her rituals and beliefs into their own.

In this setting organized churches exist, but are not are common or central as they are in other settings, having more local influence than national or cultural influence.

Two PCs in one of my games are in the process of trying to separate their martyr-prophet former leader who introduced generosity and compassion as central tenets of the religion from the older god he was associated with, who was much more about law and justice and meting out punishment.

EDIT to add: As for the question of the origins of the gods if their worship helps make them, I tend towards @payn's position, this is a mystery to reflect on in worship or by mystics and cannot be known.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
In my homebrew, the gods are all apotheosis-based (as well as mostly based on Marvel heroes and villains, but I digress), but the primordials they mostly replaced are/were progenitors. There's also a Eru Iluvatar figure who created the world and the conditions for the primordials to arise, but that's just deep background.

There is one exception, in that one of the gods was killed in the battle with the primordials, and their essence drifted into the earth, creating the Rockborn (from Level Up Dungeon Delver's Guide) heritage. All the other heritages either arose naturally from the planet, were created by the primordials or other powerful beings in later ages, or came from outside (like the elves).
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Cool write up.

I have a setting with all 4.

The Unknowable created the Progenitors. The actions of Progenitors created the mortal races. The mortals then created the Tulpas. Then as gods died or morphed, the gaps were filled by Apotheosises.

The Creator (The Unknowable) sparked the universe or didn't. From there Void, Matter, Energy, Law, Chaos, and Time (The Progenitors) due to the Universe existing. Then when Matter and Energy created living beings the gods of Life, Death, Peace and Nature as Tupa. as well as the gods of Earth, Sky, and Seas for life to live on as both Progenitors and Tulpas. Then as mortals with intelligence emerged, more emerged as Tulpas. Then some mortals ascended to godhood as Apotheosises.

Void, a progenitor, morphed into Old Man Winter. And with this, the Sun Son sprung from the desire of mortals for an opposing deity. Then 2 mortals ascended to fill the gaps of Autumn and Spring.
 


D&D could do better at supporting high-level play, and building in options for apotheosizing the PCs and allowing them to punch the other gods in the face and take their stuff is a logical evolution of a lot of D&D campaigns.

Working on it...just need a few more months before I have the 5E Immortal's Handbook ready. ;)

As regards your breakdown of divine origins it all boils down to power sources:

#1 = Power solely from Worship
#2 = Power solely from "a higher source"
#3 = Power from #1 and #2...whichever gets results
#4 = Any of the above

Luckily all covered in the book; which is partly based on one of my previous 3.5E pdf's from 2007 (Immortal's Handbook: Ascension) where I outlined three* different methods for obtaining divinity.

* you missed MacGuffin-based divinity as a source, which is probably the most superhero-y of the trio.
 

However, there are settings where most gods seem to be Tulpas, but most of the fantasy races were created by gods, causing chicken-and-the-egg question that a lot of settings do not address. If the gods created the D&D races, and the gods only exist because worship gives them power . . . how did the gods exist to create the races? Or how did the races exist in the world to create the gods?
This depends how it's done. It's not a contradiction to say:
  1. Most Gods were extremely powerful progenitors before they were gods
  2. What enables ascension to godhood is worship
So, for example, many of the Demon Princes are as powerful as the gods were before they became gods and could spend some of their power to create new races; a few may even be as powerful as actual gods. But without worship they aren't actually gods and can't pull a number of divine-only tricks like some forms of manifestation or empowering clerics.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
For my own part, I guess I appreciate a sort of...inversion of the tulpa concept, one that still recognizes change and development?

That is, "tulpa" implies that a particular manifested thing gains power and significance until, eventually, some critical mass is reached and that mind-manifestation transcends the limits of those minds. It is, for lack of a better term, a thought(/network thereof) which gains apotheosis by accumulation (time, attention, fervor, adherents, etc.) It's loosely a "materialist immanent" theology:t gods arise purely from discrete material causes, existing only "inside" empirical experience.

I prefer deities with a more transcendental nature. That is, deities who have some form of inherent or "outside" existence/meaning, separate from pure materialism. I like it when Justice itself is, in some sense, innately divine. Such transcendental deities are more interesting to me because...well, to be blunt, people can think up anything. As a world-builder, it's much more of a statement, and induces much more texture, to have some particular thing or things be inherently sacred. That and, well, I have a pretty dim view of eliminative materialism and other uncompromisingly materialist philosophical stances.

This is part of why I love the 4e pantheon as much as I do. There, the gods exist and have transcendental natures, but that doesn't mean they are impossible to affect or overpower. Indeed, the primal spirits (an inherently immanent power!) drove out the gods in the wake of the War of Winter. Yet by slaying Tiamat, some of the books explicitly say it's possible to weaken the concepts that she represents: greed, envy, tyranny. Gold coins become no more than a medium of exchange, a tool to be used for benefit. Envy coils less around mortal hearts, transforming into appreciation or even aspiration, and jealousy softens into its own kind of appreciation or even generosity. Evil doesn't die, but it does recede in the wake of slaying a transcendent entity thereof.

I'm also not opposed to having the two meet somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the mantle of godhood is transcendental, but immanent beings can take it up. You see stuff like that in the Elder Scrolls games, where "Mantling" a deity is one of the forms of apotheosis.
That's kind of a mix of Category #2 and Category #4, isn't it? Where the gods kind of "transcend human understanding", but objectively exist and have probably been around for a very long time. That version of deities is definitely intriguing to me, it would be cool to see a world that was designed more like that. That is similar to what the worshippers of the Sovereign Host believe to be the nature of the gods of Eberron, but that isn't confirmed.

On the point of mantling from the Elder Scrolls, I never understood why someone would want to do that. Sure, you get the powers of a god for awhile, but your personality is eventually more or less completely consumed by the god's identity, as shown with Sheogorath in Skyrim. Which is basically the same thing as dying.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I like the gods as Tulpas approach. But once they are created and strong enough, it is difficult to change them on a whim by just changing belief. When powerful enough many will become very invested in ensuring proper belief, rituals, and practices. They will demand adherence to ridged rules and rise up clerics and paladins to root out heretics. Not all goes will approach this in the same way and some will be more flexibile than others. But many/most, once they are well formed and very powerful will likely want to retain or increase that power.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I've always liked how AD&D 1E had shades of gods as progenitors and gods as...not tulpas, but as entities that don't show up until after their preferred race of worshipers are on the scene.

Which is to say, if you look at the original listing of deities in 1980's Deities and Demigods, the various demihuman and humanoid races all have a single progenitor deity, and that's it. The elves have Corellon, the dwarves have Moradin, the orcs have Gruumsh, etc. No full-on pantheons (those would arrive in 1982 in a series of Dragon articles by Roger E. Moore), just single progenitor deities who – according to the racial level limits in the PHB and the DMG's rules about shamans and witch doctors, along with the notation that gods only personally grant spells of 6th-level and above (with spells of 1st- and 2nd-level being gained from faith and religious mysteries alone, and spells of 3rd- through 5th-level coming from their god's divine minions) – don't seem to care about their creations very much, since they barely even care enough to have their servitors grant them divine magic.

But humans? There are entire pantheons out there who are desperate for human worshipers, with even the strongest deities just waiting to offer 7th-level spells in exchange for their worship. And yet none of them claim to be the creators of the human race.

Coincidence? I think not.
 

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