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

Yaarel

He Mage
As for the priests in Norse mythos. A shaman is a kind of priest too.
But these shamans do not "serve" the æsir. At all. They dont seem to mention them, even when doing shamanic activities.



For example, regarding the æsir natural features of the sky, there is a rare Norse term called a "house of the invoked ones" (goðahús). This term refers to any person who has a house, who invites in nature beings.

There are no "priests". It is any individual who feels a personal affinity with one or several nature beings. These kinds of dinner party traditions tend to be unique to a particular family. Kids grow up with the custom of their parent. There is no organized religion.



At some point it is simply a matter of how you want to see things. You consider that Norse had no priest but shamen? Fine, I consider shaman priest as they worship spirits.
But shaman dont "worship" nature beings. Indeed, if a shaman gets annoyed, a shaman has the knowhow to punish a nature being. Some beings are friends, but other beings are hostile. Most are neutral.



Compare. If you pick up a phone to call a friend, you arent "worshiping" your friend. There are simply better words in English to describe what you actually are doing, including, "picking up a phone" "to call a friend".

It is entirely wrong to inject the words "worship", "gods", "priests", into a Norse context.

The Norse are doing something else.

The theism is ethnocentric and inappropriate.



And I am not alone in that case. The view point you express is rather singular but not that stretched. But you can not claim that your view is the view by which people will see how Norse priest would be defined. You know that in most religions the priests was not a full time priest. Most were often elders and hunters and fishermen and weavers and so on. Being a priest was a part time job for most of them.
Scandinavian archeologists are clear. There were no priest. There were no temples. There were no "gods", in the English meaning of the word. These foreign concepts never existed in Norse culture.

But we are in a fantasy world where priest can literally work miracles. A Druid can nourish a lot of people with good berry spells. A cleric even more with create food and water. They can be full time druids and clerics without any aid from their community. Fantasy Clerics and Druid, unlike their real world counter parts, are truly at the service of their community.
A fantasy need not be Christian-centered, with its lore about the polytheistic traditions that existed in the lands where Christianity came from and spread to.

Fantasy includes nontheistic cultures too.
 
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But these shamans do not "serve" the æsir. At all. They dont seem to mention them, even when doing shamanic activities.



For example, regarding the æsir natural features of the sky, there is a rare Norse term called a "house of the invoked ones" (goðahús). This term refers to any person who has a house, and holds a dinner party to honor various nature beings into ones home, and invites other (human) friends to this dinner.

There are no "priests". It is any individual who feels a personal affinity with one or several nature beings. These kinds of dinner party traditions tend to be unique to a particular family. Kids grow up with the custom of their parent. There is no organized religion.




But shaman dont "worship" nature beings. Indeed, if a shaman gets annoyed, a shaman has the knowhow to punish a nature being. Some beings are friends, but other beings are hostile. Most are neutral.



Compare. If you pick up a phone to call a friend, you arent "worshiping" your friend. There are simply better words in English to describe what you actually are doing, including, "picking up a phone" "to call a friend".

It is entirely wrong to inject the words "worship", "gods", "priests", into a Norse context.

The Norse are doing something else.

The theism is ethnocentric and inappropriate.




Scandinavian archeologists are clear. There were no priest. There were no temples. There were no "gods", in the English meaning of the word. These foreign concepts never existed in Norse culture.


A fantasy need not be Christian-centered, with its lore about the polytheistic traditions that existed in the lands where Christianity came from and spread to.

Fantasy includes nontheistic cultures too.
Shamen do not serve but still venerate/worship. That it is not in a Christian way has absolutely no bearing on the basic of what they are doing.

The Scandinavian archeologists are right. But there were "holders" of the lore. Weddings were still held by these for good fortunes. Burials were still.made with the traditions held by the elders and knowledgeable in the lore. That it was not done in the Christian way is again irrelevant. The basics of worship are still there.

At some point the simple belief is enough to warrant priesthood, shaman status or druidic tradition to a set of beliefs. Of course this is a bit reductive as it is usually a lot more than this simplification. But this is more than enough an approximation for a game. Not everyone will want a thesis on Norse or Celtic or Assyrian worship/beliefs. In D&D, you are a divine caster whenever you tend to spiritual matters. It is unfortunate that they gave bards the ability to heal because they lack this focus. I also put artificer in this light too. It is a shame that they can heal with spells. I would have prefer them to heal with potions and salves that they would have made in the morning or whatever. Not healing as spells.
 

Yaarel

He Mage
Shamen do not serve but still venerate/worship. That it is not in a Christian way has absolutely no bearing on the basic of what they are doing.

The Scandinavian archeologists are right. But there were "holders" of the lore. Weddings were still held by these for good fortunes. Burials were still.made with the traditions held by the elders and knowledgeable in the lore. That it was not done in the Christian way is again irrelevant. The basics of worship are still there.

At some point the simple belief is enough to warrant priesthood, shaman status or druidic tradition to a set of beliefs. Of course this is a bit reductive as it is usually a lot more than this simplification. But this is more than enough an approximation for a game. Not everyone will want a thesis on Norse or Celtic or Assyrian worship/beliefs. In D&D, you are a divine caster whenever you tend to spiritual matters. It is unfortunate that they gave bards the ability to heal because they lack this focus. I also put artificer in this light too. It is a shame that they can heal with spells. I would have prefer them to heal with potions and salves that they would have made in the morning or whatever. Not healing as spells.
Here are English dictionary definitions of "worship":

• "The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object."

No.

The Norse shamans never "worship".



• "The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms."

There are never formal recitations. All practices are personal and impromptu.



• "To honor and love as a deity."

Never.



• "To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion."

Never. Especially not adoring! The Norse can be contemptuous.



It is an error to use the theistic term "worship".

The Norse shamans are simply forming friendships with local nature, including the sky. Nature is sentient.

It is actually pretty simple. There is a neighborhood whose neighbors include sunbeams and mountains.

Only theism causes confusion!
 

Celebrim

Legend
@Yaarel : If I had to assert in a nutshell why I'm skeptical that your beliefs are based on historical knowledge, it is that you are using the very ahistorical term Norse, but honestly it doesn't matter whether I think there is a clear distinction between ancient paganism and modern paganism. Probably there are people that feel that there is also a clear distinction between Christianity circa 3rd century and modern Christianity as well, and while that is also an interesting topic it's not really an EnWorld topic. I'm feeling like this thread is increasingly about debating personal real world religious beliefs and is kind of departing from the topic. To be fair, you didn't start that and there are several posters on the first page that took the opportunity to opine on real world questions as well. Feel free to use a library or other resource and research what is known about Northern European Germanic or Viking religion, and if you want to quibble with those historians and archeologists about their findings I feel there is probably a forum for that somewhere. But asserting various things on the basis of personal conviction, I don't feel is helping the thread much because for one thing I don't think it is going to matter much what resources a cite here if the basis of your belief is personal conviction and even if it did, it's still not an EnWorld topic.
 


Yaarel

He Mage
In Nordic countries, the term "Norse" (norrœnn) relates to Norway but extends to the Norse language (norrœna) and cultures generally.
 

D&D is also about how people perceive ancient stuff. Do as you want in your games. Not everyone here will do extensive research about one thing or another. This is make believe. At some point to much spoils the broth. I look at this from a gaming perspective and putting spiritual beliefs in the province of the divine casters seems just about right to me.
 

Yaarel

He Mage
D&D is also about how people perceive ancient stuff. Do as you want in your games. Not everyone here will do extensive research about one thing or another.
When D&D "perceives" Indigenous American cultures, there are challenges to represent these sensitively and accurately.

When D&D "perceives" East Asian cultures, there are challenges to represent these sensitively and accurately.

The same goes for the sacred heritages of other cultures.

The same goes for Norse heritage.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
For D&D, animism is more like fey and archfey. Nature is alive − even sentient! Some features of nature are very powerful.

But there is no assumption to "worship" an archfey.

There might be a particular human who an archfey considers a friend.

Animism feels more like that.

Unlike D&D fey, animism is never otherworldly.

The features of nature in the material plane are sentient.
Both Dark Sun and Kara Tur had elements of this. Spirits of nature inhabiting places and things.
 

Celebrim

Legend
The same goes for Norse heritage.

I'm inclined to believe an accurate depiction of ancient Norse paganism would deeply offend you. At some point, regarding matters like this "accuracy" is a very subjective term. We're deep into 'beliefs' here and not facts. In any event, this isn't a problem unique to you. Green Ronin for example printed 'Testament' from a clearly non-believing perspective. The majority of us just shrugged and ignored it rather than ranting about blasphemy or acting shocked someone disagreed with them over what was accurate.

Or consider the WoD games with their references to Caine and Lilith and so forth. Again, clearly not try to handle the topic sensitively or in any way worried about how they depict cultures other than their own. Quite honestly, trying to use the topic for mainly shock value and to give offense. But so what?

Just accept that things don't have to be accurate or respectful. You can't demand that of others, because at best you are just getting into an argument over what is accurate and respectful, and at worst you're trying to real world smite someone. People have no obligation to respect my beliefs or get my permission and blessing before delving into matters of my religion. I certainly can't demand or at least ought not demand that other people not give insult and go stabbing Salman Rushdie if they do. I have no right to get angry with Green Ronin because their depiction of the Old Testament isn't what I would have preferred.

Like I get where you are coming from and why you would want to demand that certain groups stop being hypocrites about their beliefs and apply what they claim to believe equally, uniformly, and respectfully to all groups. But again, ultimately that they don't isn't my problem or yours.

Nor is this topic, "How to respectfully depict a real world religion (present or past) in media."
 

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