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.

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!;
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
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?
 

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.
 

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