Worlds of Design: RPG Gods - Benign or Malign?

Most RPG settings have some form of godhood. Yet there are some age-old questions that come into play as you create religions.

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By Unknown author - Os Deuses Egípcios – IMAGICK, CC BY-SA 4.0, File:Deuses Egipcios.png - Wikimedia Commons

Gods and “hokey religions” (to quote Han Solo in Star Wars a New Hope) are usually part of fantasy and science fiction role-playing games. From a world-building standpoint, you can approach religion as a form of philosophy, a way to guide one’s life, but a lot more people are into religion than philosophy. Rather than using a religion that resembles a modern day equivalent, let’s start from scratch by asking some fundamental questions:

How Many?​

How many gods are there? In human history, ancient gods often were members of a pantheon, a group of gods. So it is with many RPG campaigns and settings. Gods from these ancient pantheons (Greek and Roman most prominently) were superpowerful and immortal, but otherwise behaved much like humans. Less common was a single god, or a god who has an oppositional aspect (effectively another god) as in Manichaeism or Persia’s Zoroastrian religion (Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman). It has been uncommon to think that only “my” gods exist, and no others. The belief is more likely when there is only one (or two) god(s) in a religion rather than a pantheon. After all, if you can have a bunch of gods, why can't someone else, and those gods compete with one another?

Gender?​

Male vs female? Virtually all the ancient religions were heavily male-oriented, just as societies were heavily male-oriented. Some did have powerful goddesses often related to fertility. But male orientation is not necessary in a fantasy world in which women are often treated much differently than women in the ancient world. There is some notion that in prehistoric times, some religions were heavily female oriented.

Belief?​

Do you believe? Just as in the real world, some characters are going to want nothing to do with gods, while others will devote their lives to them. Some will assume that gods are only bad for humanity, others that gods provide great good for humanity. A GM/World-Builder can influence this strongly through the actual behavior of the gods.

Do You Have a Choice?​

Is there State Sponsorship (forcing everyone to conform)? In the real world, sometimes people are free to choose their religion, other times they are required to conform to the state religion. And you have cases where the laws are devised to encourage someone to convert (as when non-Muslims paid an additional tax in the early centuries of Arab expansion). The Roman Empire changed state sponsorship from their pagan religion to Christianity in the fourth century CE. And so on. The player characters could be religionists resisting state-imposed religion.

Divine Right?​

What about men/women worshiped as gods? There have been many times in human history that rulers justified their right to rule by declaring themselves to be gods. Among these are the Pharaohs, the later Roman emperors, and many medieval kings of Europe. For some it was just an excuse, but others seem to have really believed it.

Manifestations?​

How much do gods manifest in (appear or directly influence) the world? Some ancient gods, e.g. Greek, were thought to constantly meddle with the world. Egyptian gods were less present in the world. If gods do meddle with the world, how do they do it? Provide direction for worshipers (even holy war?)? Give boons to their most prominent worshipers?

Fear or Love?​

Do characters fear their god(s) (and for that matter, rulers), or love him/her/it/them? This depends on the priesthood, or on the behavior of the “actual god(s)”. It also depends on what the ruler thinks is best. It’s easy to make people fear him/her/it when the gods themselves are involved.

The Old Gods?​

What about the “old gods,” the ones who no longer have worshipers? Do they fade away entirely, or do they hang out in the background, so to speak—perhaps providing quest material for players? If they hang out, do they become neutral, or benign, or malign?

What Are They Really?​

"Gods" as Aliens - or Monsters. What are the gods, really? Perhaps they're all part of a big scam?

For an in-depth exploration of different ways to implement religion in your campaign (and answers to some of these questions), see Andrew “Corone” Peregrine’s excellent series of articles on the topic.

Your Turn: What questions did I miss?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

In a world where the gods are real things would be very different. Equality would have sustained for longer ( females were much better off when they had their own deity and weren't crushed by the One God).
With magic being real as well it is really quite hard to imagine what a world would be like.
Luckily we can play games in these world's without overly worrying!;
 

Missing questions:

1. How many divine origins are there?

That is, you can have a true monotheistic setting (there is one ultimate creator, even if that creator makes helpers like Eru Ilúvatar does in The Silmarillion), or a hyper-polytheist setting where there are numerous distinct pantheons and each of them has their own creation myth and origin and creations, or anything in-between.

2. Can divinity be proven?

Sometimes, divinity is just an obvious thing, or can be tested or verified through the use of historical records or (more commonly) magical investigation. Other times, divinity is ambiguous--the difference between "merely an extremely old and powerful supernatural being" and "a true deity deserving of worship and obedience" may be quite wide. This has huge impacts on the nature of faith and belief in any setting.

My own home game hasn't strictly answered the first of these questions yet (we have only seen two real religions, and a third that is sort of a synthesis of those two, so there could easily be other conceptions/divinities that haven't been brought up yet.) One of those religions asserts absolute monotheism, that there is only ONE true deity, The One, and Their will is what created all of existence etc. However, it is a known fact that these claims cannot even in principle be conclusively proven. The One COULD just be an extremely powerful spirit (which is what one of the two aforementioned religions claims), or They could be the true creator of the whole universe. It is not possible to find proof of these assertions, nor is it possible to objectively disprove them. Magic cannot look back that far, and no being that is old enough to have firsthand info is 100% unequivocally trustworthy.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Jane Goodall in her studies of the Apes in Gombe noted the animals repeatedly performing the same ritual behaviours in response to waterfalls, storms and fires. These included domination displays, heightened sense of agitation and arousal followed by calm contemplative spaces. while she never called it religion per se, she did speculate that there was a sense of Spirituality being displayed by the Chimps- an awe of natural phenomena that might have developed in early hominids into full formed religious feeling.

so even before the consideration of gods happens the question needs to be asked regarding primitive Pantheism v Animism v Theism.
Pantheism - is there a pervasive spiritual reality beyond the physical, phenomenological world?
Animism - is everything possessed of a vital, presonal spirit?
Theism - do gods exist as distinct beings seperate from the physical world?

Its then that considerations of Gender and Omnipotence can be developed. Not only is there an old theory that religion was originally Matriarchal (focussed on the Mother goddess birthing the world) there is also theory that religion was originally Monotheist with a single source/demiurge. This sometimes became Dualistic with either a Male-Female pair or a Good-Evil pair, examples of this can be seen in Ao-Bahamut-Tiamat and of course in the many Middle Eastern faiths.

Patriarchy itself has often been linked to the move from subtropical into more arid and colder climates, in particular the middle east and northern/central asia, where agriculture had to become more dependent on hard labour and the plough. In subtropical regions food grew abundantly and thus women and men could both contribute to family survival, in the desert hard work meant male strength was emphasised, alongside greater need for aggression to defend winter food stores.
Indeed there is another theory that the first temples were set up as grain storage centers in arid regions, the leaders elevating themselves not only as protectors of the food stores but as ritual leaders too.
Polytheism arises later as other gods are added to parallel the ‘family dynamic’ of tribal elites or to incorporate the specific myths of new allies or vassals.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Generally speaking I find the published world building for divinities focuses way too much on the personhood of the deities and not nearly enough on the relationship between the mortals on the ground and the deities.

What does worship look like? What do the followers of the deity actually do and when do they do it?
What does the deity care about in followers worship? Do they care what the celebrant actually feels or believes or do they only care that the ritual is performed and the sincerity of it is irrelevant? Are the public acts of worship the most important or the private matters of the heart? Does the deity care about the person's daily activities or do they not give a crap about what the follower does with the rest of their life? What role are clerics expected to have in the daily life of a community? What does the communities communal worship look like? What does the community treat as heresy or blasphemy if anything? How does the community view worship of deities that aren't in its normal permitted and accepted deities?
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
My questions usually go in the reverse.
What kind of feel do I want religion/the gods to be in my campaign?
Which serves the mood of the campaign better multiple religions or a single religion?
Are there evil Gods?
Are religions true, and have a knowable right and wrong for the world, or are there competiting views, or corruption?


Others are some of the above, what point to they play in normal life, can you be an agnostic or atheist - that sort of thing.
 

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
Good Questions for further consideration:
  • How do the people know about the gods? Is it oral tradition, scripture, preachers?
  • How are the gods worshiped? Public rituals, privately with the family, the temple?
  • Is worship unified or decentralized? Who holds the power?
  • What dogmas exist for the faith tradition? What diversity exists?
  • Is the cosmology presented by the faith the true, eternal fact of the setting? Or has the religion and cosmology changed over the course of history?
 


Celebrim

Legend
Sometimes, divinity is just an obvious thing, or can be tested or verified through the use of historical records or (more commonly) magical investigation. Other times, divinity is ambiguous--the difference between "merely an extremely old and powerful supernatural being" and "a true deity deserving of worship and obedience" may be quite wide. This has huge impacts on the nature of faith and belief in any setting.

It also can be meaningless. In fact, this is another question that is subtly influence by modern religious conceptions.

My own campaign is animistic and polytheistic. So while 'god' is a class of being with a certain origin and nature, 'gods' are far from the only thing that is worshiped and given homage. A household shrine might have figures of deities important to the family at the top in a prominent place of honor, but it's also going to have figures of important ancestors, notable local spirits like the big oak tree on the village green, and possibly that 2HD turnip spirit in the garden that is really important for this particular house's annual income despite not being any brighter than the families 5 year old. Or perhaps because he's not any brighter than the families 5 year old. When the family patriarch or matriarch offers sacrifices and homage, the distinction between the big gods and the little gods is unimportant.
 


RoughCoronet0

Dragon Lover
I only really have time at the moment to answer the first two but I hope to come back to this when I’m free.

How Many?
There are about 40 some odd immortal beings in my world that are considered actual gods, as well as several that are god-like in power.

Gender?
I have several gods that are definitely male or female, as well as several that are non binary, genderfluid, or agender. For some gods, their gender is a subversion of common tropes like my moon god being male and my sun god being female. For others their gender may match the theme of their portfolio, such as my god of love and beauty being not only genderfluid but also amorphous as they always take on the appearance of what the viewer finds most beautiful regardless of sexual attraction or lack there of.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A few more questions:

What does each deity represent within the society of its worshippers? That is to say, is the deity strongly associated with a specific area of life or society (e.g. the sun, home-and-hearth, war, music, etc.) or is its influence more broad-based (e.g. nature, an entire culture, an entire element, etc.) or is its area of influence, in effect, everything (i.e. a monotheistic set-up)?

Determining this will greatly inform who within a society is most likely to worship each deity either exclusively or as part of the overall pantheon, and to some extent what form said worship might take.

What does each deity represent in the greater universe? That is to say, in a universal sense does a deity represent or look after something specific (e.g. time, Dwarves, females, water, etc.) or is it more generalist; also, is a deity hard-tied to a specific alignment or ethos? (or taken a step further, is a deity the divine embodiment of its alignment?)

What is each deity's "place" in the greater universe? That is to say, how does each deity relate to/with all the other deities both within its own pantheon (if applicable) and externally? Are they all just different aspects of one or a few (e.g. is the deity your Elf calls Corellon in fact just a well-disguised aspect of some other deity?), or are they all truly independent beings? Where does each deity fit on the divine pecking order - which ones are more powerful than others, or are they all the same?

The above questions are, I think, best sorted out in reverse order when designing one's own cosmology - figure out the universal stuff first then fine-tune it to determine how it's all seen and-or interacted with by each society in your setting.
 

Bitbrain

Glory to Ka!
I ask the cleric player what kind of God he would like to worship. We arrive at a consensus. I build around that afterwards.
God, I envy your cleric player.

The last time I played a cleric, the DM literally broke out in a nervous sweat when I asked him what kind of religion/gods existed in his world. He literally had not given the question of religion in his world any thought and could not answer even the simplest question about it.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I ask the cleric player what kind of God he would like to worship. We arrive at a consensus. I build around that afterwards.

I do that quite a bit too. I've got several score already known and important deities in the setting if players would like ideas, but there are supposed to be "1000 gods" in the setting so I don't mind enlisting a player to either flesh out an existing deity or to invent a new one.
 

Mezuka

Hero
God, I envy your cleric player.

The last time I played a cleric, the DM literally broke out in a nervous sweat when I asked him what kind of religion/gods existed in his world. He literally had not given the question of religion in his world any thought and could not answer even the simplest question about it.
That is sad. The cleric is one of four basic archetypes of D&D. Gods should be taken into account.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I ask the cleric player what kind of God he would like to worship. We arrive at a consensus. I build around that afterwards.
Yup. And sometimes the player doesn't really want to worship a god. So we'll come up with something (the old fall back of the cosmic forces of Law and Chaos being sources of divine power is handy as a starting point there). It's much like the process I go through when a player wants to play a warlock.

The last time I played a cleric, the DM literally broke out in a nervous sweat when I asked him what kind of religion/gods existed in his world. He literally had not given the question of religion in his world any thought and could not answer even the simplest question about it.
I've encountered more folks than you might think who don't want to engage with fantasy religions in their worlds for a variety of reasons. Sometimes its just because it doesn't interest them, which fair enough. Outsource it to the player who wants to play the cleric and let them do what they want within reason. But sometimes it's because they come from a religious background that makes them uncomfortable with the idea of making up gods. One guy I played with decades ago replaced the cleric with a healer class (essentially the same class, just with no reference to religion) because he didn't want to deal with gods in his games (or demons for that matter - he wasn't really religious himself, but he'd been raised in a very religiously conservative house just preferred to not deal with it).
 

Oofta

Legend
I loosely base my gods and cosmology for the main region my campaigns take place in on Nordic lore + Greyhawk deities for demihumans. So you have all the standard Norse gods (the Aesir) Odin, Thor, Tyr and so on along with some lesser known ones like Aegir. Jotun are the evil gods and include Loki, Surtr and Thrym but also ones created for D&D like Gruumsh. The Abyss and Avernus are sub-domains of Jotunheim because I wanted to include demons and devils (Jotun are not all giants in Norse mythology).

Elves are the Vaenir who at one time warred with the Aesir, the war ending when they did an exchange sending Frey and Freya to the Aesir. Dwarven gods work with the Aesir, Moradin has made Odin's spear and Thor's hammer. Garl Glittergold wove the gold hair for Sif after Loki cut off all her hair. Halflings are a bit unique in that Yondalla is called "The mother of a thousand gods" and players can just make up gods as they go along.

I also throw in the Sidhe and Archfey who are occasionally worshipped as gods. They reside in Alfheim, which is my equivalent of the feywild. I include them because they're fun and also to give warlocks patrons that aren't fiends which I don't allow for PCs and I don't really like the lore for The Great Old One. Old, and largely forgotten gods, are based on Celtic or other lore.

So it's a bit of a mish-mash that includes fairly well known lore and archetypes while also tweaking and integrating the lore.

While the gods definitely influence the world, they do so indirectly and through intermediaries. So clerics and paladins are the front-line for the gods, occasionally other celestial beings such as Valkyries intervene. An actual god intervening is incredibly rare, although avatars have made an appearance a few times over the decades.

Other regions have different religious practices which I've only broadly outline which includes things such as ancestor worship or religions (again, very loosely) based on real world religions such as Buddhism.
 

It also can be meaningless. In fact, this is another question that is subtly influence by modern religious conceptions.

My own campaign is animistic and polytheistic. So while 'god' is a class of being with a certain origin and nature, 'gods' are far from the only thing that is worshiped and given homage. A household shrine might have figures of deities important to the family at the top in a prominent place of honor, but it's also going to have figures of important ancestors, notable local spirits like the big oak tree on the village green, and possibly that 2HD turnip spirit in the garden that is really important for this particular house's annual income despite not being any brighter than the families 5 year old. Or perhaps because he's not any brighter than the families 5 year old. When the family patriarch or matriarch offers sacrifices and homage, the distinction between the big gods and the little gods is unimportant.
Personally I consider this to be "they aren't actually divine, just (debatably) powerful supernatural beings." That is, if the status is meaningless, it shouldn't be called "divinity" in the first place. It's some other thing. Sort of like saying, I dunno, that "undead" refers to any being that has died before but isn't just an inanimate corpse right this second, including folks who have been revived by mundane means from clinical death, who have been resurrected, or who have died and become outsiders attached to their associated afterlife plane. That is, it cheapens the word "undead" to the point that it doesn't really mean anything anymore, so a different term should be used if that's what one means by it. (My preference is either "spirit" or, assuming one can clearly communicate that it DOES NOT imply evil, "daemon.") Even in religions which feature a wide variety of such things e.g. the kami of Shinto, there is still an understanding that there are "great" beings (ō-kami).

But I suppose that is a philosophical/theological debate for another time.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Even in religions which feature a wide variety of such things e.g. the kami of Shinto, there is still an understanding that there are "great" beings (ō-kami).

That would be very much in line with what I just said. In fact, that distinction would be exactly on point. That 2HD radish spirit is a kami, but not an ō-kami. However, both are worshiped, revered, given homage, and propitiated.

Technically, in 3e D&D, a "god" is anything with Divine Rank of 1 or higher. All beings with Divine Rank 1 or higher in my game world have the same origin - they are either birthed from one of the seven fruit of the World Tree or else they are the descendants of one of those beings. They are phenomenally powerful beings, capable of when acting together especially doing almost anything.

But yes, you are no delving into one of the heresies of my game world. I believe in particular that's Gantroism - the gods are merely powerful supernatural beings and not especially worthy of worship. They should be deferred to only as you would defer to anyone with wisdom and greatness. So you would be, if you were in my game world a Gantroist, and depending on where you vocalized that particular belief, you'd find yourself in jail needing to recant it or face execution.

I take no particular stance on whether Gantro of Corval was correct, but I will say that if your concept of a god is that you must be an all-powerful being capable of creating the heavens and the earth, the gods do fall short of that however mightier than mortals that they can be, and there is a general awareness that the gods were in fact created, and that something probably created the world tree. There are a variety of All-Father/All-Mother cults on my homeworld, but notably, they can't work miracles, can't display divine power, and have no spell wielding priesthood. The same is true of the cults and philosophers that worship The Cascade or The World Tree. So the general consensus is that if such a creator exists, either he's dead, or he's uncaring, or he was never sentient in the first place. The cults of the gods claim divinity in the sense you try to define it of "ō-kami" therefore in an uncontested fashion.
 

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