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
I was never too fond of the spell level limits for clerics of demigods or lesser gods of earlier editions and tended to ignore it anyway. I do believe there are good role-playing opportunities for expanding one's faith, however I tend not to have clerics of specific gods anymore either, rather your a cleric, or other class, of a faith which could be a single god but is more likely dedicated to a pantheon, so you'll be spreading the faith of the pantheon rather than the faith of Thor or Mystra.

I guess I also feel like since any class can be a member of the devoted clergy of a faith that they should also have the opportunity to call upon the gods, if a god of magic has a large number of wizards acting as their champion, I feel like they should be able to call on their god for aid. I'm thinking of using the concordance rules from strongholds and followers, though perhaps without the temple requirement, if it needs a temple, I need to read up on the rules again.
One thing you could do for non cleric and non paladins (a paladin is always associated with god in my games and gets the miracle too but at half the chances). Would be to allocate a small chance for a really devout and pious non divine class to get a miracle. A quarter of the level + charisma bonuses could do the job along with circumstantial bonus for services to the god and quests done in its name.

After all, Crom did helped Conan with the spirit of Red Sonja at the sacred hills battle. And Crom is not easily swayed...
 

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Celebrim

Legend
One thing you could do for non cleric and non paladins (a paladin is always associated with god in my games and gets the miracle too but at half the chances). Would be to allocate a small chance for a really devout and pious non divine class to get a miracle. A quarter of the level + charisma bonuses could do the job along with circumstantial bonus for services to the god and quests done in its name.

After all, Crom did helped Conan with the spirit of Red Sonja at the sacred hills battle. And Crom is not easily swayed...

There is an actual system for this in my game world. If a character calls out to a god in a life and death situation, there is between a 1 in 6 and 1 in 36 chance (depending in peity, appropriateness of the request, etc) that if the character hasn't asked for or received a boon from any deity in the last game month that the god will intervene on their behalf. (Gods don't like wasting their time on fools that always need rescue and think the gods are at their beck and call.)

The intervention consists basically of the god granting a single spell, but cast at like 30th level of ability so it's usually a really potent spell. There is an effect roll that determines just how much power the god puts forth when they intervene. Most commonly for example a 1st level character would receive a 1st level spell as divine aid. The DM then, acting on behalf of the god, selects what they believe the deity would consider the most appropriate spell in the circumstance to successfully aid the character. Good aligned deities spending a 1st level spell might for example use Sanctuary to effectively remove the character from combat, or cast CLW to heal the character if that might turn the tide. Over the course of about 10 years playing a campaign, it happened four or five times I can remember that deities intervened. One of the most dramatic was the cleric asking her deity for intervention while being mauled by a pack of hellhounds, and rolling really well resulting in the deity sending an angel to intervene (using a summoning spell), but most of the time it was something sanctuary, cure moderate wounds, or fog cloud.

In addition to flavor, this is mechanically part of the layers of mechanics in the game that are designed to protect a player from bad luck, and losing characters to just the dice by giving them 'get out of jail' type cards they can use in hard luck situations. This is one of the weaker layers, but I support it for flavor reasons.
 

How Many?
23 + A bit

The "Twelve and Twenty"; there are twelve Patrons, twenty Powers, and a host of other beings that could claim some divinity.

Gender?
Umm... interesting question! Hadn't put too much thought there.
About half are Male / Female. A third are Masculine / Feminine, and could have been depicted as the opposite gender in the past or depicted as one sex but fulfilling a different gender role. A handful either change or don't have a sex or gender.

Belief?
That there are powers greater than mortals is unquestioned. Faith isn't about whether or not you believe these entities are real. It is about trust and conviction. Do you trust that these beings will help you if you give them proper respect? Do you have the conviction that you are following the rules they laid down? Does the heretical priest in the next nation over have a better insight into the Patron's will? Or, do you not want their help and just go your own way, leaving the fate of your soul to be reincarnated without aid?

Do You Have a Choice?
Yes. Don't really want to deal with that, unless, for some reason, you decide to join with Team Evil. Then there can be some social blowback.

Divine Right?
Sure! There are demigods about. For some it's just a qualification for rulership than anything else. I mean, being the 12th great grandson of Horus is cool and all, but you don't really get anything else out of it.

Manifestations?
The Patrons? No. From myth they are bound to creation. A powerful storm bringing hail to flatten crops is Lady Kirigal manifest, and a pleasant evening in a glade next to a brook with fireflies flitting about is a gift from Lord Brisingr as you woo your special interest. That's about a clearly as they manifest these days. The Powers? Unlikely but possible. They have a bit more freedom in what they can do. The lesser beings? They can mostly tromp about as they wish, but in doing so they take the risk of being killed / banished / most uncomfortably inconvenienced.

Fear or Love?
Yes. A plethora of emotions is experienced when encountering the numinous.

The Old Gods?
In times of myth, there were other entities that created, procreated, married, separated, warred, loved, killed, and died. These days, not so much. There are other powers beyond the Twelve and Twenty, but they are broken, lost, indifferent, or sealed away. Some power could be salvaged from them, perhaps.

The Patrons are bound to Creation- they cannot die even if wholly forgotten. The Powers would diminish, but they too would linger on as patterns in the stars or why the sky turns green right before a tornado touches down. The lesser powers actually need some worship to survive as numinous beings, otherwise are simply immortal rather than eternal. They could be slain by violence, and then they would walk the Long Road as any other being.

Worship is primarily pleasing for them; everyone likes a hug, flowers, or invited to MMA ringside seats.

What Are They Really?
Numinous beings that are shards of Creation; most with some care and affection for the mortal races.

Clerics or Warlocks?
The Twelve Patrons? Clerics, usually as part of a religion that venerates a selection of them. The Green Temple of the Septeon worships a pantheon of the Spring Mother, Summer Adventurer, Autumn Crone, Winter Sage, Eternal Sentry, Eldest Dancer, Shackled General. A player would be a cleric of the Green Temple, and may later specialize in one of the Patrons they have a particular affinity for.

The Twenty Powers? Could be either- it would depend on how devout the character is. If they just want a business deal for power, then they're warlocks.

The Lesser Powers? Demons locked within the Iron Sun? Warlocks, only option. They don't have the available power for clerical investiture.
 

Physical immortality and the inability to age unless intentionally desired is IMO divine requirement #1.
I wish I could remember where I saw it, but there was a scene somewhere when the hero comes up to the villain and says,
"It's been decades, and you're still young and attractive!"

"Well, I wouldn't be a very good wizard if I couldn't keep myself young, would I?"

Goes for gods, too!
 

Coming from RuneQuest and Glorantha, my questions are maybe a little different.
Assuming that gods are real in the setting, and that they were involved in the creation of the setting, or at least aspects of that setting, or that they entered the setting at some point after its creation (or evolution), how well understood are the deities?
Thinking of the five blind men investigating the elephant, do the deities channel magic from primal principles, like e.g. the elements (whether these appear as planes of their own or as rather abstract mythical concepts)? Is their magic a do ut des, limited in manifestation by the amount/intensity of worship they receive, or the world immanence that they lay claim on?
How definitive are pantheons, and the deities expressed in those pantheons? Can one and the same divinity take on different aspects and associations (different chrome) depending on the pantheon the worshippers associate them with?
Are all sun gods the same, or can a single physical and/or mythical object have different, possibly mutually hostile or at least vastly incompatible divine expressions?
How much does anthropomorphizing these deities (or whichever shape, society etc. the followers have) affect the deities' actions, gifts, or even nature? Do things like generations, sex, gender, pantheon really affect the divinity behind the veil, or do they just affect the veil?
 

Other questions:

What keeps the gods from interfering personally with the setting?
There should be realms where the will of the gods will shape the environment, like a master dreamer or illusionist or holo-deck programmer directing their wishes, and then possibly hardcopy it into the setting, but any realm where humans and similar entities live would have to be a lot less arbitrary.
Usually, a deity manifests through either an avatar or aspect if it exerts direct control, or through a natural force which the deity claims as their domain (at least in the region where the deity's context, aka pantheon, is strong), or through the actions of their followers, who could be descendants (or descendants of their creations), or adopted individuals or groups, or just sufficiently powerful magicians able to form a contractual relationship with the deity.
What about deities manifest in (more or less ordinary) humans?
Divinity was a major criterion in e.g. Germanic kingship (even Christian kings needed to provide descent from pagan deities, at least until "by God's Grace" became the Christian formula, and then that Grace was the divine essence that would be inherited), and e.g. in Japanes polytheism there are people who are both ordinary folk and local deities, or avatars of a deity in some other realm.
Do species like Tieflings or Dragonborn carry such divinity?
Does acquisition of a deity's Grace or Identity require ancestry, or are there other ways for a mortal to be adopted/coopted as a deity?
How can a mortal (or demigod) apotheosize, and what does that mean?
If the deities have realms of their own (or shared ones as per pantheon, or as per primal principles), can individuals collecting divine Grace or something similar enter that circle? No matter whether by invitation or by conquest. Can a new deity carve out or even create a domain for themselves? Can a manifest entity (a mortal, or possibly already immortal but still physically manifest) carve out such a realm, by conquest, inheritance, or by actual creation?
 

DrunkonDuty

he/him
How much does anthropomorphizing these deities (or whichever shape, society etc. the followers have) affect the deities' actions,

I guess, being Runequest, duckpomorphisation is an actual thing. lol.

Jokes aside, great questions. As I mentioned up-thread I rarely define deities directly, I prefer them transcendent and probably non-existent. But the various religions of my campaign worlds obviously do define their gods. So I can definitely say that gods (whether real or not) are anthropomorphised within a given religion. The gods are very much made in the image of the worshippers and/or the worshippers' ideals of form, behaviour, morality, etc.

How definitive are pantheons, and the deities expressed in those pantheons?
This will vary from religion to religion. Actually, that's going to be my answer to all these questions. Sorry.

If Religion A has an off-shoot, Religion B, A & B will probably acknowledge that the god/gods are the same but argue over precise representation (physical, moral, monophysite/diaphysite, etc) of those gods. For "unrelated"* religions gods will be represented as distinct individuals (or you know, beings with multiple avatars/forms/essence) with separate existence from the gods of other religions. So you do, for example, get multiple sun gods as per Terry Pratchett's Pyramids but without the physical manifestation.

What keeps the gods from interfering personally with the setting?
Well, in my campaigns, non-existence.

What about deities manifest in (more or less ordinary) humans?
Well monarchs can, and indeed do, claim all sorts of things to legitimise their power. Claiming descent from the gods is certainly an option. How much people believe that varies greatly.

As for extra-planar beings, well, given this is fantasy angels etc. do manifest. But they are no more knowledgeable about the true nature of any gods than are any mortals. In fact, given their certainty on religious matters, they may well understand less than some mortals. And of course it's always possible that angels, etc are also just reflections of mortal belief. Or are space aliens.

How can a mortal (or demigod) apotheosize, and what does that mean?
Different religions may well claim the actual and real apotheosis of given figures, saints and demi-gods. You might even be able to meet the saints and demi-gods just as you can meet an angel of a devil. And to much the same effect re. gaining insight into godliness. BY which I mean none.

The literal truth of a being's apotheosis is going to be more like gaining a high level class benefit. Is apotheosis just being high enough level to kick anyone's arse? You're a 20th level wizard, you can smite anyone you want, so people better call you "Your Holiness?" In my games that could happen. And there'd be no effective difference between the worshipper of such a person and the worshipper of, I dunno, Thor.

But for my campaigns, apotheosis would be a very rare event. No Godstones here. :) In fact I've never played in a game with apotheosis. Oh, no, wait. I played about half of Age of Worms. Old Kyuss gets to apotheos-athise in the back story of that. But what does that actually get him that being a high level wizard doesn't? He comes back to Oerth and the players get to (try to) kick his butt. Godhood is just a hat he puts on in place of one that says "wizzard."

As for God's Grace and who can have it... again it's gonna depend. Some religions will insist on a closed set of "chosen people." A set that may defined by genetics, place, time, wealth, whatever. Others are going to be expansive and welcome, and extend grace to, anyone who accepts a given set of codes.

Just to reiterate, I'm talking about my campaign worlds.



*as based on the claims of the given religion(s) regardless of how much influence they may actually have on one another.
 


d24454_modern

Explorer
Not, in my opinion, if that creature is mortal enough to die of old age.

Physical immortality and the inability to age unless intentionally desired is IMO divine requirement #1.

So sure, people might worship the Tarrasque - a mortal creature - but that worship isn't going to do it any good.

Part of the conferring-of-godhood process - a.k.a. divine ascension - is to turn a previously-mortal creature into an immortal, as I see it.
Interestingly, in Norse and a lot of Asian mythologies, Gods aren’t immortal so much as long lived. They too grow old and die.
 

Coming from RuneQuest and Glorantha, my questions are maybe a little different.
...
How definitive are pantheons, and the deities expressed in those pantheons?
One thing that really struck me while I was going through the RQ II rules back in the day was the Sky Dome Temple.

Out in the desert frontier was a temple to an Elven god built and maintained by humans. They were so struck by the awesomeness that is Yelmallio, his myths and place in the world resonated so much with them that these humans built a temple to him. It was the first time I saw in a gaming book one species being a part of another's religion. And it made sense in the context of the game world and scenario.

Everything's changed since then, lorewise. But I really appreciated the idea of an entity expressed in one culture being highly valued in a disparate one.
 

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