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

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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

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
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).


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.


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.


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.


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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