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

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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
In the past, the D&D Cleric monopolized healing. Even in 5e, it is the best healer. Players who want to play healers do well to build a character concept using the Cleric class. That includes players who dislike roleplaying theists. Especially, when, defacto, the DM is the "god" that is getting worshiped. Yuck!
Perhaps that was true in Basic, and they were definitely the best healiers, but in 1e/2e druids and paladins could heal, as could rangers of high enough level. Healing became even more spread out in 3e, though with clerics retaining their lead on healing.

That said, the bard in my 5e game has chosen some nice healing spells and is doing very well with them.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Where on earth did you get the notion that the DM was getting worshipped? This is complete BS to think any self respecting DM would want such a thing. You see things way too dark my friend. You assume way too much from an RPG situation that is only make believe.
Yep. Been playing since 1983 and I've never worshipped a DM, and I can say with absolute certainty that no player has ever worshipped me. It would certainly have made some things a lot easier if they did, though!
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
During "roleplay", I have seen that with my own eyes. Even in public, where a library welcomed D&D gamers. The "worshiper" didnt bow down in service to the DM, but the player "prayed" and the DM "answered". This roleplaying "gods" is ick!
The player did not pray. He roleplayed the PC praying, and the DM did not answer. He roleplayed the god answering. At no point was any prayer being offered up to the DM in any kind of worship. At least not without something very strange having nothing to do with D&D going on, such as a cult that worships the cult leader also playing D&D where the cult leader is DM.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Nothing like arrogance to make ones point about someone elses culture.

If you knew my ancestry this comment would seem a bit ridiculous. How and by what authority do you claim exclusivity over my culture (or any culture for that matter)? What gives you title to the past that I don't also have, especially as I am a Northern European whose patronym has Viking origin? Which of us owns the past? That is a ridiculous fight, as the answer is clearly both and neither. Are we now to fight over which of us is more authentic as if that was objective and could determine something.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
If you knew my ancestry this comment would seem a bit ridiculous. How and by what authority do you claim exclusivity over my culture (or any culture for that matter)? What gives you title to the past that I don't also have, especially as I am a Northern European whose patronym has Viking origin? Which of us owns the past? That is a ridiculous fight, as the answer is clearly both and neither. Are we now to fight over which of us is more authentic as if that was objective and could determine something.
Tell me your ancestry.

I am Norwegian.

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

Celebrim

Legend
Tell me your ancestry.

I am Norwegian.

Oh, you are going to try to start an argument about who is more authentic. I'm Norman French. So what? If I was Chinese it would change nothing. Neither of us owns the past. If a Chinese opera star depicts a Nordic hero in an ahistorical horned helmet, so what? And if a guy who claims to be Norwegian makes the claim the old Norse religion is non-theistic, so what?

I'm just going to drop it. I don't want to be guilty of the very thing I was advising you not to do.
 

Nothing like arrogance to make a point about someone elses culture.
D&D is not meant to make an accurate reproduction of a culture. It was never its intention. It often inspires itself, sometimes with bad taste, but never was it to ridicule a culture. At some point, a game is a game. Everything in it should be taken with a grain of salt if not outright derision. It is only a game.

And I do not think that @Celebrim was arrogant. He was just stating facts as he sees them.
 

The player did not pray. He roleplayed the PC praying, and the DM did not answer. He roleplayed the god answering. At no point was any prayer being offered up to the DM in any kind of worship. At least not without something very strange having nothing to do with D&D going on, such as a cult that worships the cult leader also playing D&D where the cult leader is DM.
Never saw that either. And I do not think that any of my players have an altar with a picture of me at their home. I have played with hundreds of players and dozens of groups and never have I seen that.
 
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MGibster

Legend
Where on earth did you get the notion that the DM was getting worshipped? This is complete BS to think any self respecting DM would want such a thing. You see things way too dark my friend. You assume way too much from an RPG situation that is only make believe.
Whoa! Cool your jets, mister. I for one would like to learn more about being worshipped as a DM!

Indeed, why would religion matter, especially if you can worship a simple philosophy and gain spell...
I've felt like that since 2nd edition when my Cleric could worship a nebulous concept like Good.

Or consider the WoD games with their references to Caine and Lilith and so forth. Again, clearly not try to handle the topic sensitively or in any way worried about how they depict cultures other than their own. Quite honestly, trying to use the topic for mainly shock value and to give offense. But so what?
I never found the story of Caine in WoD to be particularly shocking. Personally, I think they used Caine because it tied directly into a biblical story the majority of White Wolf's audience would have had some passing familiarity with at the least. i.e.
 

Whoa! Cool your jets, mister. I for one would like to learn more about being worshipped as a DM!


I've felt like that since 2nd edition when my Cleric could worship a nebulous concept like Good.


I never found the story of Caine in WoD to be particularly shocking. Personally, I think they used Caine because it tied directly into a biblical story the majority of White Wolf's audience would have had some passing familiarity with at the least. i.e.
I was not mocking. I was simply stating facts.

No you do not want to be worshipped. Too much responsibility.

Yep, worshipping a concept is weird but many do not like being forced to pray to a God for their spells. Especially since many DM were using the god to make their characters do something the player did not want. It has been a way for the game's developers to lessen the power of not so good DM that were using gods as way to "force" players into getting involved in what they did not want to.

I fully agree with your analysis of the use of Cain in the WoD.
 

MGibster

Legend
I was not mocking. I was simply stating facts.
I was having some fun.

No you do not want to be worshipped. Too much responsibility.
Just another Thursday for me.

Yep, worshipping a concept is weird but many do not like being forced to pray to a God for their spells. Especially since many DM were using the god to make their characters do something the player did not want. It has been a way for the game's developers to lessen the power of not so good DM that were using gods as way to "force" players into getting involved in what they did not want to.
Force is kind of a strong word. But if someone is that uncomfortable with the idea of their character worshiping a god within the context of the setting, well, whatever allows them to play comfortably I guess.
 

I was having some fun.


Just another Thursday for me.


Force is kind of a strong word. But if someone is that uncomfortable with the idea of their character worshiping a god within the context of the setting, well, whatever allows them to play comfortably I guess.
I know

Same for me.

I do not think so. I saw a DM menacing a fellow player to lose all spell casting ability of the character would not comply. I stepped in and told him it should not be an occasion for the DM to force players to do his bidding. It is just not the way the game should be played. I took time to explain that it was a lack of preparation and players' agency that led to the situation and that to explain to the players his motives were way more interesting and would have a better impact mpression and image than forcing the group to do something by bullying a player. It worked, but it took a lot of talking. We can all improve. We just have to listen with an open mind.
 

Tsuga C

Adventurer
How do your deities regard and interact with the denizens of the Outer Planes, the planes of belief to which souls and spirits travel after shuffling off their mortal coil? Is the relationship between them congenial, neutral, or antagonistic?
 

How do your deities regard and interact with the denizens of the Outer Planes, the planes of belief to which souls and spirits travel after shuffling off their mortal coil? Is the relationship between them congenial, neutral, or antagonistic?
All of these at the same time. The only thing pantheons agree to is that fiends must be contained.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Compare. If you pick up a phone to call a friend, you arent "worshiping" your friend. There are simply better words in English to describe what you actually are doing, including, "picking up a phone" "to call a friend".

It is entirely wrong to inject the words "worship", "gods", "priests", into a Norse context.

The Norse are doing something else.
Are? Or were? Big difference.

Remember, in theory this is about modelling medieval Norse (or, better, faux-Norse) religion rather than anything it might have morphed into since; much like various other medieval British/European religions bear at times only passing resemblance to what they've since morphed into, that being modern Wicca and its variants.

Picking up a phone to call a friend invokes, one hopes, a two-way conversation with someone real. Talking to the sky, on the other hand, is a one-way conversation based on faith; said faith being that the sky will hear you and maybe - in your mind - respond.

Consider the difference between calling Bob on the phone and asking to borrow $50 and talking to Odin in hopes that his influence will later cause you to stumble over $50. One's a two-way conversation. The other is a one-way prayer.

That said, while any number of historical religions didn't in fact have priests or an equivalent, the game rather demands that their faux-in-setting versions do; and as the game's not a history lesson (at least I bloody well hope it isn't!) I'm quite happy to sweep historical accuracy under the rug in favour of making it playable.
 

Celebrim

Legend
How do your deities regard and interact with the denizens of the Outer Planes, the planes of belief to which souls and spirits travel after shuffling off their mortal coil? Is the relationship between them congenial, neutral, or antagonistic?

They actually created the Outer Planes in response to a war between the deities that nearly destroyed and ruined the material world. Technically all the Outer Planes in my homebrew are realms in the far Astral. The exceptions to this, and perhaps the inspirations for the god's movement are Limbo and Mechanus. The modrons (often referred to as 'the Auditors', which is what they call themselves) and the Slaad both seem to have either preexisted the gods or came into being at the same time. Both are campaign level mysteries in my world on the level of Tom Bombadil in Tolkien's legerdemain. Although, I actually do know what the Slaad are, and at least one of the Slaad and probably two of them also knows. It's probable that Maglubiyet suspects or knows the truth, and maybe a few of the other older gods. See my Slaad thread for some hints. I've never exactly worked out why the Modron are there but they themselves seem to believe that they came along as a necessary component of keeping the universe functioning, so it's possible that Primus and his energy pool are as foundational in the (homebrew) universe as other things like The Tree of Life and The Cascade. I don't mind that there are questions that most gods in the setting couldn't answer.

Demons and devils though don't really exist in my game per se, except as servitors of evil deities that created (or possibly molded) them for some purpose. The same is true of the celestials. Therefore, the classical D&D division between the deities and the native inhabitants of the outer planes generally does not exist, because generally there aren't native inhabitants to the outer planes.

Note that while this borrows heavily from Gygax's "great wheel" cosmology, it's no longer congruent. For one thing, it's no longer a wheel per se of theoretically physically joined infinite universes. Each domain is finite and is on the edge of the astral sea and is not connected physically to the others except by the astral sea.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Are? Or were? Big difference.

Remember, in theory this is about modelling medieval Norse (or, better, faux-Norse) religion rather than anything it might have morphed into since; much like various other medieval British/European religions bear at times only passing resemblance to what they've since morphed into, that being modern Wicca and its variants.

Picking up a phone to call a friend invokes, one hopes, a two-way conversation with someone real. Talking to the sky, on the other hand, is a one-way conversation based on faith; said faith being that the sky will hear you and maybe - in your mind - respond.

Consider the difference between calling Bob on the phone and asking to borrow $50 and talking to Odin in hopes that his influence will later cause you to stumble over $50. One's a two-way conversation. The other is a one-way prayer.

That said, while any number of historical religions didn't in fact have priests or an equivalent, the game rather demands that their faux-in-setting versions do; and as the game's not a history lesson (at least I bloody well hope it isn't!) I'm quite happy to sweep historical accuracy under the rug in favour of making it playable.
The animists have visions and dreams, and encounters, and a sense of mindful rapport. It is a two-way relationship with nature.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
D&D is not meant to make an accurate reproduction of a culture. It was never its intention. It often inspires itself, sometimes with bad taste, but never was it to ridicule a culture. At some point, a game is a game. Everything in it should be taken with a grain of salt if not outright derision. It is only a game.
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.
 

They actually created the Outer Planes in response to a war between the deities that nearly destroyed and ruined the material world. Technically all the Outer Planes in my homebrew are realms in the far Astral. The exceptions to this, and perhaps the inspirations for the god's movement are Limbo and Mechanus. The modrons (often referred to as 'the Auditors', which is what they call themselves) and the Slaad both seem to have either preexisted the gods or came into being at the same time. Both are campaign level mysteries in my world on the level of Tom Bombadil in Tolkien's legerdemain. Although, I actually do know what the Slaad are, and at least one of the Slaad and probably two of them also knows. It's probable that Maglubiyet suspects or knows the truth, and maybe a few of the other older gods. See my Slaad thread for some hints. I've never exactly worked out why the Modron are there but they themselves seem to believe that they came along as a necessary component of keeping the universe functioning, so it's possible that Primus and his energy pool are as foundational in the (homebrew) universe as other things like The Tree of Life and The Cascade. I don't mind that there are questions that most gods in the setting couldn't answer.

Demons and devils though don't really exist in my game per se, except as servitors of evil deities that created (or possibly molded) them for some purpose. The same is true of the celestials. Therefore, the classical D&D division between the deities and the native inhabitants of the outer planes generally does not exist, because generally there aren't native inhabitants to the outer planes.

Note that while this borrows heavily from Gygax's "great wheel" cosmology, it's no longer congruent. For one thing, it's no longer a wheel per se of theoretically physically joined infinite universes. Each domain is finite and is on the edge of the astral sea and is not connected physically to the others except by the astral sea.
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.
 

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