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

Cruentus

Adventurer
Good question, one that could create lots of potential adventures. Counterpoint: How does a cleric in a god-filled game know that the entity answering the phone is the entity they worship? What if the entity answering is revealing the truth in a way that serves their interests rather than yours? And if there are guarantees, why does that improve things rather than just making them easy?
I'm not @Lanefan, but in my game, the cleric wouldn't know. IF the spell worked, and they got some type of response, it could be a messenger of said deity, it could be a pre-recorded message, or it could be some other entity hacking the line, so to speak. Some of that would depend on where it was being cast, what offerings had been made, and whether the cleric in question was in good standing with said deity.

That being said, I prefer those elements to not be present with clerics in my campaigns. There is no divine intervention, there is no "commune" where the deity answers. Those types of rituals and auguries are always answered in riddles or in vague responses, and it falls on the cleric to interpret them, or seek out the answers.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This is one of the spells that most directly involves a deity. However, mostly getting a yes/no answer is not conceptually that hard to divorce from subpoenaing a god for a limited deposition.

First here is the 3.5 spell from the SRD:

Commune​

Divination

Level:Clr 5
Components:V, S, M, DF, XP
Casting Time:10 minutes
Range:Personal
Target:You
Duration:1 round/level

You contact your deity—or agents thereof —and ask questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no. (A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.) You are allowed one such question per caster level. The answers given are correct within the limits of the entity’s knowledge. “Unclear” is a legitimate answer, because powerful beings of the Outer Planes are not necessarily omniscient. In cases where a one-word answer would be misleading or contrary to the deity’s interests, a short phrase (five words or less) may be given as an answer instead.
The spell, at best, provides information to aid character decisions. The entities contacted structure their answers to further their own purposes. If you lag, discuss the answers, or go off to do anything else, the spell ends.

Material Component​

Holy (or unholy) water and incense.

XP Cost 100 XP.​

Most of the versions of commune through the editions are fairly similar.

Couple options:

Option 1 take out the flavor text of the god. Treat it as a pure information gathering spell giving yes/no answers. Similar to a tarot reading, an oracle, or other divination. It might tap into the universe, akashic consciousness, whatever.

You contact your deity—or agents thereof —and ask questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no. (A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.) You are allowed one such question per caster level. The answers given are correct within the limits of the entity’s knowledge. “Unclear” is a legitimate answer, because powerful beings of the Outer Planes are not necessarily omniscient. In cases where a one-word answer would be misleading or contrary to the deity’s interests, a short phrase (five words or less) may be given as an answer instead.

The spell, at best, provides information to aid character decisions. The entities contacted structure their answers to further their own purposes. If you lag, discuss the answers, or go off to do anything else, the spell ends.

Option 2 treat it as written "(A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.)" either using a deity or other being.

Option 3 spell does not work if there are no gods to compel an answer from.

It comes into play for 5th level spells, so either 9th level+ clerics or someone with a scroll in 3.5.
I'm more familiar with the 1e version, which (as written) allows much more leeway in the answers than just a yes-no and didn't come with any cost attached. The intent as written, I think, is to allow the DM (playing the deity) to give some meta-direction to the PCs via their Cleric provided the questions asked have any wisdom behind them.

In 1e as written it was a broken spell, no doubt there. But it did require someone to answer the phone.
 



Voadam

Legend
I don't remember if commune was ever discussed in Eberron where the gods are distant, if they even exist at all, and there are nontheistic clerics.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm not @Lanefan, but in my game, the cleric wouldn't know. IF the spell worked, and they got some type of response, it could be a messenger of said deity, it could be a pre-recorded message, or it could be some other entity hacking the line, so to speak. Some of that would depend on where it was being cast, what offerings had been made, and whether the cleric in question was in good standing with said deity.
Once in a while things like this arise but I have it that the casting Cleric almost always knows if the spell worked properly or not - of nothing else, the caster would have given the spell a trial run or two during training into 9th level and thus know what to expect.
That being said, I prefer those elements to not be present with clerics in my campaigns. There is no divine intervention, there is no "commune" where the deity answers. Those types of rituals and auguries are always answered in riddles or in vague responses, and it falls on the cleric to interpret them, or seek out the answers.
Fair enough. I have the deities being quite a bit more "hands-on" than that, though direct intervention etc. is still very rare.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
And again -- what makes you think that whoever answers the phone is telling the truth about their identity?
The fact that if someone does hack the line, when (not if, when) the hack is detected it's going to cause repercussions at the divine level if the hacker was divine and almost certainly cause a very VERY unpleasant series of consequences if the hacker was mortal.
 

Davies

Legend
The fact that if someone does hack the line, when (not if, when) the hack is detected it's going to cause repercussions at the divine level if the hacker was divine and almost certainly cause a very VERY unpleasant series of consequences if the hacker was mortal.
And those don't seem to be the sort of thing that could start up interesting scenarios, to you?
 

Voadam

Legend
I'm more familiar with the 1e version, which (as written) allows much more leeway in the answers than just a yes-no and didn't come with any cost attached. The intent as written, I think, is to allow the DM (playing the deity) to give some meta-direction to the PCs via their Cleric provided the questions asked have any wisdom behind them.

In 1e as written it was a broken spell, no doubt there. But it did require someone to answer the phone.
Eh it was still yes or no and did not seem to have as much wiggle room as 3.5's short phrase.

1e PH:
Commune (Divination)
Level: 5 Components: V, S, M
Range: 0 Casting Time: 1 turn
Duration: Special Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: Special
Explanation/Description: By use of a commune spell the cleric is able to contact his or her divinity — or agents thereof — and request information in the form of questions which can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”. The cleric is allowed one such question for every level of experience he or she has attained. The answers given will be correct. It is probable that the referee will limit the use of commune spells to one per adventure, one per week, or even one per month, for the “gods” dislike frequent interruptions. The material components necessary to a commune spell are the cleric’s religious symbol, holy/unholy water, and incense.

or the answer could be "I don't know" because the 1e DMG says the 1e PH is an unreliable narrator of PC spell mechanics.

DMG page 42:

Commune: The questions permitted must be asked consecutively in as brief a period as possible, as there is too much bother and disturbance for the supernatural powers otherwise. If the spell caster lags or goes off to do anything else, the spell is broken, over and done with. Note that it is possible for a deity to answer “I don’t know”, as most deities are not omniscient.
 

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