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.


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?


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.


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.


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


Matt Colville has a YouTube playlist where he creates the gods for his setting. It's quite a good watch, he starts with the culture first and then designs gods and saints that emulate what that culture finds important. So if honour is an important part of the culture, then you create a god of honour. Even though I created the gods of my setting separately from the cultures, when I started slotting those gods into pantheons for different cultures, I think this idea was in the back of my mind for a lot of them.

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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?

Especially when the gods have a better understanding, in certain worlds, than mere mortals. If asked which way is best to get to the nearest starbuck, then a god, foreseeing his champion to become a great hero in time of extreme need, will advice the most difficult one, through the slums by night, with many fights so he can get experience faster, instead of advising to take the bus and get down at the next hop.

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.

It was stated by Keith Baker on his blog that if your commune with the Silver Flame, a couatl answers the phone and if you commune with the Sovereign and Six, you commune with an extraplanar being best embodying the specific aspect of the god you're trying to call upon to answer your question. So if you're a cleric of the Host and ask a question about which sword is better to buy at the shop, your answer might come from the Planetar in charge of appraising swords in Syrania or a soldier battling for good in Sharavath, and if you ask a question about military strategy, it will be a spirit acting as a general whose specific shtick governs battle plans. Even they think they embody part of the Sovereigns but don't know for certain if there is a spirit embodying a Sovereign as a whole or if this is just a construct of human (and fiendish, and celestial) imagination.


Victoria Rules
And those don't seem to be the sort of thing that could start up interesting scenarios, to you?
Sure it could, but were it to happen often the deities would get mad; and direct divine confrontation is, by practical and general agreement, not seen as good for anyone - to fight their battles for them is why they have followers and Clerics and monions and so forth. :)


So in other words, you've got all these deities ... and they basically sit around doing nothing. Is that it? This is fun, then?
This is why I don't have my deities be very "hands on". The clerics and heirarchy of the world should know the teachings of that particular religion or deity, and so they can go about their business following the dictates of their particular deity/religion and do what they need to do. The gods have better things to do, keeping the world turning, keeping their divine enemies in check, or who knows, maybe off building new worlds somewhere else, and the cleric keeps getting their spells.

The gods don't have to be doing anything for it to be fun and interesting for clerics. Its actually up to the player to make it fun by engaging with their chosen class and deity to flesh out the world a bit, and bring things to the table. I ask potential clerics, before we begin play, to describe their deity, rites, holy days, prayer days, who are their enemies, etc. Describe what those prayers entail, are they done every day? Every week? What kinds of celebrations for the faith are "must attend services" type days? etc. If you don't want to give any of those things any thought, why are you playing a cleric? At least, imo.


A question for you and @Hussar :

When a Cleric in a godless game casts Commune, who or what answers the phone?

See, this to me is a big difference between real-world and game-setting religions; in that in the game it's possible to talk to one's deity and have that deity talk back. Not so possible in the real world, the best of faith and intentions notwithstanding.

Exactly what it says in the spell - some extra planar entity. Commune doesn’t necessarily directly speak to your deity.


Now, to be fair, I don’t like godless clerics. I think I was pretty clear on that.

But the 10th level cleric power to call in divine intervention would simply be handled the same way - an agent of that deity/ something that embodies that philosophy would pop up and do what’s needed.

I don’t quite see what the problem is.

And again -- what makes you think that whoever answers the phone is telling the truth about their identity?
For me, it's contrasted with the spell contact other plane, where the practitioner expressly don't know who they are contacting. They only know how alien they are. Then there's the "you have to mean it, Harry..." theory of spellcasting. If you undergo a ritual to contact a god of Justice, you are placing yourself into an altered state where the principles and theme of justice are central to your being. That state of mind may be hidden or repugnant to another being not so aligned, and thus unable to approach the cleric's mind.

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.
Ho you are sooooo wrong on this. Of course, if the DM does not read and do not develop the religion in his campaign then the player is not at fault.

But in campaigns such as mine where the ethos of the god is of utmost importance, where gods literally speak each morning with its major priests just like in 1ed, then the priest of Pelor that is a simple murderer will not get spells at all. Only in fighting evil and those that would oppress the weak and innocent will a priest of Pelor actively kill someone.

And how does your DM role play the fact that you are a priest? Do some NPC come over to the priest and ask for guidance on important non combat matters? Does the DM treat the priest like trash when he comes into a shop? Or is the owner deferent and respectful of his status as a priest? When my priest comes into a town, a flock of people are happy to see a defender and holder of the holy laws to come to them. If the local priest is of lower level than the traveling priest, he often offers them to take the shrine, church or even the big temple over and lead them!

A lot of people are reducing the importance of clerics as only casters with cure wounds. They are so much more but a many do not like to have a set of guidelines to follow. A lot of people write Lawful Good, Neutral Good and Chaotic Good to please their DM but in actual play, they are often of the chaotic neutral breed with a strong tendency toward evil. When these players come into contact with a DM that truly follow how characters and alignment are supposed to be played, they are often at loss as to why things do not go their way...

I had a king bow down to a cleric of ninth level in a Friday night dungeon exhibit. A young onlooker could not understand why a king would bow down to a simple ninth level cleric. Hey, that man speaks with his god on a daily basis, can raise the dead and have saved more than a few people during a plague, and invasion and quite a few more feats without asking anything in return, it is only justice that the king recognizes his actions and devotion.

And the cleric was a cleric of Pelor. So yep, playing a cleric is much more than playing a fighter with cure wound spells.
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