• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

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.

Deuses_Egipcios.png

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?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
Exactly. A game that uses Xena-Hercules versions of those old religions is more than good enough for me, and as a pleasant side effect IMO stands to be more entertaining than something that tries too hard to push historical accuracy.
Historical accuracy only brings bad tastes and begs for abuses, exaggerations and warranted criticism and outcries, especially for
religions and cultures in a game. A lot of people lose the fact that being inspired by and caricaturing a religion/culture are close, so close that confounding one for the other is easy. We have to keep on mind that this is a game. And it should be treated as it should, a game. Nothing more, nothing less.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Tell me your ancestry.

I am Norwegian.

I am aware of what Nordic scientists are saying about the Viking Period.

If I'm looking to do some general reading, is the Stefan Brink edited "The Viking World" from 2008 or 2012 still vaguely accurate?

Depending on the edition, the "religion" chapters are by Anders Hultgård, Catharina Raudvere, Anne-Sofie Gräslund, Olaf Sundqvist, and Jens Peter Schjødt who all look relevant from a google search.
 
Last edited:

Celebrim

Legend
Your modifications of the Gygaxian Great wheel is really well thought through. In a few paragraphs, your presentation is really good. It could give nice twists to my own views.

One of the main problems with the Gygaxian Great Wheel is that it has as a necessary feature the infinite planes of the material universe. The infinite planes of the material universe are necessary to balance all the other infinities. Since I didn't want to do "everything is real" in my already kitchen sink universe, it was necessary to cut down the size of the whole universe. It's possible that the entire universe I'm describing is no bigger than the real-world solar system.

That's still incomprehensibly vast, but it no longer has the problem of infinity of everything. Further, one of the biggest incongruities in the Gygaxian Great Wheel is how small a figure like Zeus is (finite) compared to his presumed infinite duties on infinite planes with possibly infinite worshipers and infinite subjects, or how the City of Brass or Sigil is not an infinitely large city given their prominence to infinite beings and infinite planes. It's therefore manageable in a way that Gygax's Great Wheel isn't and things I think fit better in it relative to their scale while still retaining the wonderful Gygaxian quality of being able to throw the kitchen sink into it and it's all fine.
 

Yaarel

He-Mage
If I'm looking to do some general reading, is the Stefan Brink edited "The Viking World" from 2008 or 2012 still vaguely accurate?

Depending on the edition, the "religion" chapters are by Anders Hultgård, Catharina Raudvere, Anne-Sofie Gräslund, Olaf Sundqvist, and Jens Peter Schjødt who all look relevant from a google search.
These are fine academics.

What is clear now is: there were no temples, no priests, no organized religions. Earlier, archeologists were realizing this, but it was less clear. They were still processing the implications.

A discrete distinction between "gods" and "giantesses" is less tenable, except in a nominal translation of æsir and jǫtnar (f. troll-konur).



The best info is reading the recent technical reports from archeological sites. You can see how archeologists are interpreting unusual finds in light of what is now understood about the Viking Period (and before and after). But such reports are ad hoc, only mentioning something if it happens to relate to find.
 

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
I don't currently have any concept of how large my homebrew campaign setting is. I have had fun coming up with mythic history because every good pantheon needs a war or two in its past, mine has the war between celestials and fiends, the turning point coming when the immortals, a race of celestials captured the cornerstones of reality and ascended to godhood, turning back the fiends and casting them back to the lower planes. Once this great war was over, they looked to the mortal realm and saw a great war between dragons, elementals, and titans (former immortals who gained power through the elements). The gods intervened to save the mortal realm, sending the primordials back to the elemental planes, putting the dragon elders to sleep beneath the earth, and imprisoning their wayward brothers and sisters.

I'm not using the great wheel in this setting, Sigil might still exist, but as a crossroads city with a different master, or the same master but different in power. The celestial planes is really just one, the same with the lower planes. Demons and devils is just a different term for fiends, you can find balors with pit fiends in the dominion of the 9 hells, both serving the lords of the nine, just as you could find them serving one of the many independent Abyssal lords.
 

DrunkonDuty

he/him
I'm not too worried about the gods in my games. They're always transcendent. If they exist at all; which is a question I never actually bother to answer.

What I care about are the religions. These are what have an impact on the worlds in my games. Yes the believers of any given religion will have answers to the questions in the OP. And these beliefs can be good fodder for games about religious conflict. But unless I'm planning a whole campaign around religious conflict (I have in the past and most likely will again) I'm not going to bother coming up with answers until it comes up in play in some way.
 

Hussar

Legend
My issue with the notion of worshipping "philosophies" is that I find in play it's a total cop out.

it's a way to play a cleric or other religious character, without ever having to actually play a cleric in a setting. I don't have any duties, church or god to deal with, so, I'm just a fighter with cure light wounds.

It always bugs me when players step up to play a cleric and then leave the best parts of playing a cleric - the religious aspects - on the table. It's boring as heck and gives me nothing to work with as a DM. Oh, you're a cleric is "Good"? What does that mean? "Well it means that I do good things while murder hoboing my way through your campaign, never once referencing my faith or religion while still getting to have all those juicy spells."

:erm:
 

Hussar

Legend
Y'know, I just sometimes can't help picking at a scab.

@Yaarel - excuse me if I'm wrong, but, didn't the Norse have some pretty elaborate burial rituals? Like rather quite famous ones like massive tombs filled with stuff and also that whole burning boat thing? And, AIR, marriage was a pretty strong thing in Norse culture as well.

So, when someone is burying the dead in a massive tomb, spending thousands of man hours on construction and filling it with very, very expensive goods, that's got nothing to do with gods or worship? It's just "calling a friend"? Loading a boat, which takes hundreds of man-hours to construct by hand, filling it with, again, rather expensive goods, then setting it on fire is just a way to take the chill off those northern nights?

I'm really having a problem here reconciling your claims here.
 

Davies

Legend
It always bugs me when players step up to play a cleric and then leave the best parts of playing a cleric - the religious aspects - on the table. It's boring as heck and gives me nothing to work with as a DM. Oh, you're a cleric is "Good"? What does that mean? "Well it means that I do good things while murder hoboing my way through your campaign, never once referencing my faith or religion while still getting to have all those juicy spells."

:erm:
Oh you're a cleric of "Pelor"? What does that mean? "Well, I means that I use this particular holy symbol while murder hoboing my way through your campaign, never once considering the implications of my faith or religion while still getting to have all those juicy spells."

Bad role-playing can happen whether you have the most well-developed cosmology in the universe, or none at all. And you're neglecting the middle, where the answer to "What does that mean?" is an hour-long lecture concerning the various historical figures who have influenced the discourse of the philosophy of Good, and the various practices that I, as a cleric of a philosophy of Good, undertake.

If you, as the GM, put the same amount of effort that you spend coming up with imaginary gods and their imaginary ceremony into developing a philosophy and its history, then maybe it will seem as vital and compelling. If not, then not.
 

Hussar

Legend
Again IME it’s generally an issue specifically that comes up when players want to play a cleric of a philosophy. It’s bad enough with standard clerics but at least you can generally point to some stuff in various source books to give a bit of a leg up.

But IME when a player insists they are a cleric of a philosophy, it’s done solely to bypass even the slightest hint that the dm might have even the remotest chance of having any influence over the character. Which generally means that Father Generic rides again. A character totally divorced from the setting that’s just a placeholder for a fighter with healing.
 

Remove ads

Remove ads

Top