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

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Hussar

Legend

Ahh, oops. Mispoke. I thought the fact that I said that they were cabalistic, which means that they are not beholden to gods for their spells. But, the gods still exist and the culture around the different cabals would still venerate that particular deity. It's just that that particular deity couldn't care less about what mortals do. They are unreachable. Sorry, when I said that I don't really like godless clerics, I was more referring to clerics of a given philosophy. My world still has gods. It's just that if your cleric of Heironeous wants to be a murdering bastard, Heironeous won't do anything about it. Now the other clerics in your cabal might be a different story.

One thing I will disagree with @Helldritch about is the idea that the DM must be the sole source of clerical guidance. I actually very strongly reject that. It's the player's character. And I find that such heavy handedness (refusing to grant spells and the like until the cleric player gets with the program) is the primary drive behind players loathing playing clerics, often only doing so under duress from the group (we used to call it falling on the cleric grenade) and become increasingly hostile to the DM having any sort of hooks or influence over their character. So, honestly, that's why I've simply put everything in the player's lap. It's your character. You're the one playing the cleric. Let's see you do it. And, that has led me to this notion of clerics as cabalistic wizards because now, while I have ZERO direct input into your character (I can't withhold spells, I can't directly intervene in your character at all) it does allow me all sorts of indirect influence if I need it - the other clerics of the cabal can step in. People act a certain way towards various cabals. So on and so forth.

I mean, heck, the current cleric in my game didn't actually know who his deity was for most of the campaign and it has only been revealed recently. I have a fantastic player that doesn't mind me getting my fingerprints all over his shiny paint job and collaboratively we have really, really brought this cleric to life. He's definitely in the drivers seat, but, I've been able to play onboard navigator from time to time and it's been fantastic.

Compare to the last cleric player I had when asked what god did his character worship, replied with, "Umm, we've been playing this campaign for eight months, but, what setting are we in again?" :erm: He was only choosing to multiclass into cleric to get access to some cleric spells to make his sword magical because he was pissed off that I hadn't dropped magic weapons in the campaign (Ghosts of Saltmarsh is REALLY stingy with magic items). The fact that his character was choosing to be a priest just didn't matter to him one whit.
 

Davies

Legend
Ahh, oops. Mispoke. I thought the fact that I said that they were cabalistic, which means that they are not beholden to gods for their spells. But, the gods still exist and the culture around the different cabals would still venerate that particular deity. It's just that that particular deity couldn't care less about what mortals do. They are unreachable. Sorry, when I said that I don't really like godless clerics, I was more referring to clerics of a given philosophy. My world still has gods. It's just that if your cleric of Heironeous wants to be a murdering bastard, Heironeous won't do anything about it. Now the other clerics in your cabal might be a different story.

... so. The gods exist, but they don't care about what mortals do, don't have any ability to deny the clerics their spells, won't do anything to punish those who blaspheme against them.

They might as well be imaginary entities in-setting. What is the point of them existing, again, beyond being local color?
 


Ahh, oops. Mispoke. I thought the fact that I said that they were cabalistic, which means that they are not beholden to gods for their spells. But, the gods still exist and the culture around the different cabals would still venerate that particular deity. It's just that that particular deity couldn't care less about what mortals do. They are unreachable. Sorry, when I said that I don't really like godless clerics, I was more referring to clerics of a given philosophy. My world still has gods. It's just that if your cleric of Heironeous wants to be a murdering bastard, Heironeous won't do anything about it. Now the other clerics in your cabal might be a different story.

One thing I will disagree with @Helldritch about is the idea that the DM must be the sole source of clerical guidance. I actually very strongly reject that. It's the player's character. And I find that such heavy handedness (refusing to grant spells and the like until the cleric player gets with the program) is the primary drive behind players loathing playing clerics, often only doing so under duress from the group (we used to call it falling on the cleric grenade) and become increasingly hostile to the DM having any sort of hooks or influence over their character. So, honestly, that's why I've simply put everything in the player's lap. It's your character. You're the one playing the cleric. Let's see you do it. And, that has led me to this notion of clerics as cabalistic wizards because now, while I have ZERO direct input into your character (I can't withhold spells, I can't directly intervene in your character at all) it does allow me all sorts of indirect influence if I need it - the other clerics of the cabal can step in. People act a certain way towards various cabals. So on and so forth.

I mean, heck, the current cleric in my game didn't actually know who his deity was for most of the campaign and it has only been revealed recently. I have a fantastic player that doesn't mind me getting my fingerprints all over his shiny paint job and collaboratively we have really, really brought this cleric to life. He's definitely in the drivers seat, but, I've been able to play onboard navigator from time to time and it's been fantastic.

Compare to the last cleric player I had when asked what god did his character worship, replied with, "Umm, we've been playing this campaign for eight months, but, what setting are we in again?" :erm: He was only choosing to multiclass into cleric to get access to some cleric spells to make his sword magical because he was pissed off that I hadn't dropped magic weapons in the campaign (Ghosts of Saltmarsh is REALLY stingy with magic items). The fact that his character was choosing to be a priest just didn't matter to him one whit.
So... make thw gods more defined and proactive in your games. Make being a cleric a very important choice. When a cleric wants to multiclass in some other classes in my games, the god will communicate with the cleric. It will ask why. Why does the power I give you is not sufficient? Why do you leave me? Don't you fear that your new focus will drive you away from me?

All these will be asked and the cleric will have to have good answers. This maybe why I do not get paladins going warlock. A diety will not accept that one of its faithful serve an other master. The same goes with the warlock that would like to go cleric or paladin. A patron will not share allegiance with his "minion(s)".

A warlock will make a pact with some other power in exchange of something. Just like a cleric and paladin will devote themselves to a deity. Note that there are no philosophical clerics or paladins in any of my campaigns. Even in Eberron the philosophical.faiths are backed up by some form of deity. Then again, most of my players do not like Eberron, too steam punk for them...

It maybe why I fo not have problems with multiclassing as the patron of a warlock will ask questions and will be clear that the warlocks power.moght be denied IF the warlock goes some class with a god to back him/her up. Patrons are very allergic to shared allegiance and much prefer the warlock to be fully under its controled indenture for power. The same goes with divine classes save a few exceptions. Druids and rangers are notable because they follow a broader concept of nature. It explains why that unlike the paladin, the ranger has known spells and not the whole spell list.

I know that at some table this would be viewed with character building inference from the DM, but I must point out that this has been voted upon and accepted by all players. We view this as a necessary mean to enhance the immersion in the world. We like to have our supernatural being involved a bit more than power providers. It gives them purpose and a definite taste that is missing in many campaigns. We strongly believe in what you chose as a character can and will have repercussion on him/her. For good or bad, the gods and supernatural patrons are there and they want exclusivity.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So in other words, you've got all these deities ... and they basically sit around doing nothing. Is that it?
Not at all.

Those deities have far FAR more to see to than just my little speck of a game-world. There's a near-infinite number of worlds out there, and though there may be some local differences, under the hood Moradin is the same dude on each one of 'em. Zeus to your faux-Greek culture is the same Zeus as to mine - there's just one of him to handle all these prime material worlds. Tiamat has dragons to look after on more worlds than you can count. And so on.

Add in that they've got their own divine-level stuff going on, and these deities are Very Busy Individuals!
This is fun, then?
Define, in this instance, fun.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
An agent or minion of the deity showing up is more than fine. Most people in the setting who think they've met a deity (and there's not that many who have) have in fact met a divine minion. A classic example is someone who has met a Valkyrie might think it was Sif herself stopped by, as that's who the prayer went to.
I don’t quite see what the problem is.
For me, it's that I can't reconcile philosophies or alignments having the same type of active and independent-thinking consciousness as would a deity - and this is coming from me: I'm normally a big proponent of having alignments in the game but to me this isn't what they're for.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So... make thw gods more defined and proactive in your games. Make being a cleric a very important choice. When a cleric wants to multiclass in some other classes in my games, the god will communicate with the cleric. It will ask why. Why does the power I give you is not sufficient? Why do you leave me? Don't you fear that your new focus will drive you away from me?
I don't take it that far but in my game there are some deities who won't allow their Clerics to multi-class into certain other classes e.g. many of the more Good-ly deities frown on - or outright ban - their Clerics multi-ing into Necromancer or Assassin.

Some other deities, meanwhile, actively encourage their Clerics to multi-class. A deity of Thievery, for example, might encourage his more nimble Clerics to take up Thief as a second class; and would gladly accept a Thief taking up his Clericism as a second class. (worth noting I hard-cap the number of classes a character can have at two)
 

Hussar

Legend
... so. The gods exist, but they don't care about what mortals do, don't have any ability to deny the clerics their spells, won't do anything to punish those who blaspheme against them.

They might as well be imaginary entities in-setting. What is the point of them existing, again, beyond being local color?

Nothing really. They are exactly as important in the game as the cleric players want to make them. I just got so tired of fighting against the current that I just make clerics fit with what people have repeatedly told me through their actions what they actually want to play.
 

Hussar

Legend
So... make thw gods more defined and proactive in your games. Make being a cleric a very important choice. When a cleric wants to multiclass in some other classes in my games, the god will communicate with the cleric. It will ask why. Why does the power I give you is not sufficient? Why do you leave me? Don't you fear that your new focus will drive you away from me?

All these will be asked and the cleric will have to have good answers. This maybe why I do not get paladins going warlock. A diety will not accept that one of its faithful serve an other master. The same goes with the warlock that would like to go cleric or paladin. A patron will not share allegiance with his "minion(s)".

Yeah, this is precisely the heavy handed DMing approach that I will not take at the table anymore. IME, when DM's do this, players just refuse to play these classes. Players get REALLY fussy about the DM stepping in and telling the player, "Sorry, nope, you can't multiclass because I don't think you should" is NEVER going to go well.
I know that at some table this would be viewed with character building inference from the DM, but I must point out that this has been voted upon and accepted by all players. We view this as a necessary mean to enhance the immersion in the world. We like to have our supernatural being involved a bit more than power providers. It gives them purpose and a definite taste that is missing in many campaigns. We strongly believe in what you chose as a character can and will have repercussion on him/her. For good or bad, the gods and supernatural patrons are there and they want exclusivity.
If it works for your group, then fine and dandy. This most certainly will not work in mine. There is just zero chance that I would be able to be this heavy handed in the game. Any time I've even suggested the barest whiff of any sort of overview by the cleric's deity, it has been immediately and very, very vocally rejected. And, in groups where I've been a player and not the DM, I've watched as players will just flat out refuse to play divine characters with DM's who play like this. It just won't work for me.

I remember years ago running a Scarred Lands campaign back in the early days of 3e. Now, Scarred Lands has VERY active gods. As in the gods routinely walk the world and you can meet them. It's very Greek Mythology based. Very fun. Had a priest of the Lawful Good god player stand by and watch while orcs (Titanspawn and the sworn enemy of the divine races) torture and murder many people without so much as a peep. So, I stripped him of his higher level spells until he atoned. He committed suicide by troll at the first opportunity and came back with a non-cleric character rather than deal with atonement.

My experience with being able to directly influence players has, with a few very notable exceptions (the recent cleric being one of them) has been very strongly negative.
 

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