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.

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?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
At 10th level, clerics in 5th get to have a chance to call on their deity to intercede in their favor. It is a small percentage but it can replicate almost any spells (with the DM adjudication of course). I allow a cleric to add charisma bonus to this check that is 1% per level. A good reason to have charismatic priest(esse)s.😀

Yes, and that doesn't imbalance the game. Note that a 1 in 10 chance (starting at 10 level) that you can use daily in case it doesn't work makes a divine intervention a fairly common occurrence for 10th level and above cleric. Strangely, I haven't ever seen it used in my group. [and we play high level campaigns]
 

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Hey, I'm with you on this. Please don't think I disagree.

I'm just telling you what my experience with this sort of thing has been. The second that some players get even the merest whiff of the DM getting any sort of power over their characters and they revolt. This is why you see all the "Man with No Name" characters with Outlander backgrounds (if you play 5e - or something very similar in any other edition) with no living family and zero interpersonal connections to the campaign. For added protection, make the character Chaotic Neutral so that the DM can never, ever suggest that you wouldn't do something.

There are more than a few players out there that will absolutely lose their poop if you even begin to think of influencing their character in any way, shape or form.

Heck, gaming story time. This one was recent.

I ran an adventure where there was a temple of Baphomet. The party was there to raid the temple for a variety of reasons, not particularly germane to this example. Within the temple, I placed several fonts full of clean, clear water where you could bathe. The fonts radiated magic if checked. The party took one look at the first one they found and gave it a hard NOPE. No worries.

Then a bit later, a summoned wolf was hit with a fear effect and ran (entirely randomly) into one of font rooms and splashed into the pool. The party discovered that bathing in the pool healed all wounds. Bathing in a second pool granted all sorts of bonuses, which they fully enjoyed. But, when they came across a third pool, there was a magical compulsion for those who had willingly bathed twice to bathe a third time. One of the characters (well, two actually, but, only one is needed for this example) failed the save and bathed a third time.

This basically baptised the character into the cult of Baphomet. Baphomet appeared to him in a dream and told him that they were going to do great things together. Now, the ONLY effect this had was that Baphomet would be able to contact the character from time to time and offer different enticements to cement their relationship and that the character would not willingly sever the contact. The character was under no compulsion to accept anything whatsoever and it was 100% up to the player (and the character) how he would deal with this, other than the fact that the compulsion would not allow the character to try to sever the connection.

The player absolutely lost his naughty word. I had ruined his character and he basically refused to do anything further in the game until I removed this compulsion. This, honestly, was the deal breaker for my last group. I walked away from the group over this. The complete lack of trust in me as a DM and complete and total refusal to engage in anything I tried to do in the game was too much. I left the group.

But, yeah, this is a thing. This is very much a thing. There are players out there that will absolutely freak out if you tried to do anything like your examples @Helldritch. I wouldn't dream of trying anything like you just suggested because I know, before I even tried, that it would just not fly. Heck, in my current game, I was very, VERY careful to ask the player first, many times, before I even hinted at putting a fingerprint on the paint job on his character.

So, yeah, my experiences have been VERY different from yours.
Geez... I can not even decide if I do a thumbs up on this or a sad face...
Over the years and hundreds of players, I encountered a few very "reticent?" players as you speak. Most of these have been "burned" by heavy handed DM and once I explained, it went like: "Ho...! Ok then let's see where this gets". A talk with these players is always going to work as if they do not want you to interfere, it goes both ways. They get cut off from the bad, yes, but they will also cut off from the good. I really feel sorry for you.
 

Yes, and that doesn't imbalance the game. Note that a 1 in 10 chance (starting at 10 level) that you can use daily in case it doesn't work makes a divine intervention a fairly common occurrence for 10th level and above cleric. Strangely, I haven't ever seen it used in my group. [and we play high level campaigns]
Yep, I changed it so that it can still be attempted but it does not cost your action or bonus action if it does not work. I added a few modifiers so that when questing for the god, the chances are a bit higher but not by a ton.
 

The DM plays the world.

The player plays the character.
Agreed.

When something overlaps both how the world works and what the character concept is, both the player and the DM need to agree.
Sure. But decisions can and will have consequences. A paladin going to switch to warlock will have a big chance of losing paladin powers if his new patron is not an ally of the god. And if you look at patrons in general... But most of the time, it works out very well.

A player has the right to nope out of something that alters the character concept.
Yes and no. There are situations that will alter the character's concept because of a player action. This is usually called a consequence. You're character is supposed to be the king's best man but you speak poorly of him all the time? Don't be surprised if he stops considering your character as his best man...

With regard to the world setting the DM has a right too, to nope something that a character might want.
Agreed. But it must be done with both restrain and for good reasons. A DM should never hand everything on a platter but at the same time, removing and using something loved by the character should not be an automatic thing. Again, it is something to use sparingly. At the same time, when a character has a goal, the DM should make it at least possible if the goal is reasonable. Slaying a god should not be something reasonable but having a revenge on the leader of a cult/tribe/raiders and so on should be.

Negotiation and trust can be vital for a healthy game.
You are absolutely right on that!
 

Yaarel

He Mage
Sure. But decisions can and will have consequences. A paladin going to switch to warlock will have a big chance of losing paladin powers if his new patron is not an ally of the god. And if you look at patrons in general... But most of the time, it works out very well.
If both Paladin and Warlock exist in a setting, I see no problem with a character concept doing both. The 5e Paladin is normally nontheistic. A character concept can try to straddle the tension between benefiting from a Warlock patron while striving to maintain the Paladin code of conduct.

On the other hand, if the player wants the Warlock patron to be an archfey, but fey doesnt exist at all in the setting, then the DM and the player need to session-zero this to figure out how something analogous might work.

I had an issue when playing a 3e game. The DM was fine with whatever sacred concept I wanted for my Cleric. In this case, the problem was, the DM hated cantrips. But for me, I hated mundane weapons. The mundaned caused my character to feel nonmagical in practice. I insisted on a magical at-will. The comprise we reached was: I played an elf character who therefore had bow proficiency. Because of the sacred concept of light as both energy and awareness, the arrows were shafts of light (comparing the D&D cartoon). Mechanically, they were exactly the same as normal arrows, except, they never ran out, and were in fact luminous daylight, in situations where that might matter. For me, it was sufficiently magical for the flavor, and for the 3e DM it was sufficiently mundane, even if with "elven magic." Both of us came away happy with the negotiation.

Yes and no. There are situations that will alter the character's concept because of a player action. This is usually called a consequence. You're character is supposed to be the king's best man but you speak poorly of him all the time? Don't be surprised if he stops considering your character as his best man...
In my eyes, that isnt "character concept", that is roleplay. Unless the monarch is also the players character, it is the DM who roleplays the monarch.

Agreed. But it must be done with both restrain and for good reasons. A DM should never hand everything on a platter but at the same time, removing and using something loved by the character should not be an automatic thing. Again, it is something to use sparingly. At the same time, when a character has a goal, the DM should make it at least possible if the goal is reasonable. Slaying a god should not be something reasonable but having a revenge on the leader of a cult/tribe/raiders and so on should be.
Yeah.

If the DM and player agree on something that impacts both character and world, the DM needs to tweak the world to make room for the concept. It can be work for the DM. A player needs to make sure the DM is having fun too. (We take turns DMing, so we inherently see things from a DMs point of view too.)

Heh, to kill a D&D "god" can be a reasonable ambition. But it wont be happening during any levels soon.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
At 10th level, clerics in 5th get to have a chance to call on their deity to intercede in their favor.
Ah. I have it that a Cleric can do this right from 1st level but the odds are always extremely low of anyhting happening...and there's a slight risk of backfire.
It is a small percentage but it can replicate almost any spells (with the DM adjudication of course). I allow a cleric to add charisma bonus to this check that is 1% per level. A good reason to have charismatic priest(esse)s.😀
A better reason in my game is that high Charisma improves your odds of turning undead. :)
 

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
I actually don't like the cleric's divine intervention, mainly because it is specific to the cleric. I'd much prefer it to be an optional rule that any pious character can attempt, perhaps after working to earn a god's favour.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I actually don't like the cleric's divine intervention, mainly because it is specific to the cleric. I'd much prefer it to be an optional rule that any pious character can attempt, perhaps after working to earn a god's favour.
That's fair. (now I'm trying to remember any instances in my games of a non-Cleric getting DI, and thus far failing...)
 

I actually don't like the cleric's divine intervention, mainly because it is specific to the cleric. I'd much prefer it to be an optional rule that any pious character can attempt, perhaps after working to earn a god's favour.
And I support the "only" cleric whole heartedly. Being pious is not the samething as being a devout cleric. The cleric is the litteral representative of the god. Not only does the cleric champion the God's cause, but the got itself support the cleric in a strange symbiosis. The more power the cleric has, the more the people are impresses and will turn to him and his god for favors, protection, advice and the more the god will get follower through that the stronger the god gets... The stronger the god gets, the stronger will the cleric become...

Of course, in 5ed, the fact that the cleric of a minor deity can get appropriate spell level slots is a bit problematic to reinforce a player to try to get more followers while in earlier editions if your god was a demi god? Your spells would stop at level 5. It took a greater god to allow for 7th level spells. So as a cleric, you would try to convert a lot of people to your faith so that your god would get stronger and yourself too by the same action.

This aspect of the game has been trashed and in so doing killed a lot of what made cleric so distinct from simple followers of a god.
 

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
And I support the "only" cleric whole heartedly. Being pious is not the samething as being a devout cleric. The cleric is the litteral representative of the god. Not only does the cleric champion the God's cause, but the got itself support the cleric in a strange symbiosis. The more power the cleric has, the more the people are impresses and will turn to him and his god for favors, protection, advice and the more the god will get follower through that the stronger the god gets... The stronger the god gets, the stronger will the cleric become...

Of course, in 5ed, the fact that the cleric of a minor deity can get appropriate spell level slots is a bit problematic to reinforce a player to try to get more followers while in earlier editions if your god was a demi god? Your spells would stop at level 5. It took a greater god to allow for 7th level spells. So as a cleric, you would try to convert a lot of people to your faith so that your god would get stronger and yourself too by the same action.

This aspect of the game has been trashed and in so doing killed a lot of what made cleric so distinct from simple followers of a god.
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.
 

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