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
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.
Historical accuracy only brings bad tastes and begs for abuses, exaggerations and warranted criticism and outcries, especially for
religions and cultures in a game. A lot of people lose the fact that being inspired by and caricaturing a religion/culture are close, so close that confounding one for the other is easy. We have to keep on mind that this is a game. And it should be treated as it should, a game. Nothing more, nothing less.
 
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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Tell me your ancestry.

I am Norwegian.

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

If I'm looking to do some general reading, is the Stefan Brink edited "The Viking World" from 2008 or 2012 still vaguely accurate?

Depending on the edition, the "religion" chapters are by Anders Hultgård, Catharina Raudvere, Anne-Sofie Gräslund, Olaf Sundqvist, and Jens Peter Schjødt who all look relevant from a google search.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
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.

One of the main problems with the Gygaxian Great Wheel is that it has as a necessary feature the infinite planes of the material universe. The infinite planes of the material universe are necessary to balance all the other infinities. Since I didn't want to do "everything is real" in my already kitchen sink universe, it was necessary to cut down the size of the whole universe. It's possible that the entire universe I'm describing is no bigger than the real-world solar system.

That's still incomprehensibly vast, but it no longer has the problem of infinity of everything. Further, one of the biggest incongruities in the Gygaxian Great Wheel is how small a figure like Zeus is (finite) compared to his presumed infinite duties on infinite planes with possibly infinite worshipers and infinite subjects, or how the City of Brass or Sigil is not an infinitely large city given their prominence to infinite beings and infinite planes. It's therefore manageable in a way that Gygax's Great Wheel isn't and things I think fit better in it relative to their scale while still retaining the wonderful Gygaxian quality of being able to throw the kitchen sink into it and it's all fine.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
If I'm looking to do some general reading, is the Stefan Brink edited "The Viking World" from 2008 or 2012 still vaguely accurate?

Depending on the edition, the "religion" chapters are by Anders Hultgård, Catharina Raudvere, Anne-Sofie Gräslund, Olaf Sundqvist, and Jens Peter Schjødt who all look relevant from a google search.
These are fine academics.

What is clear now is: there were no temples, no priests, no organized religions. Earlier, archeologists were realizing this, but it was less clear. They were still processing the implications.

A discrete distinction between "gods" and "giantesses" is less tenable, except in a nominal translation of æsir and jǫtnar (f. troll-konur).



The best info is reading the recent technical reports from archeological sites. You can see how archeologists are interpreting unusual finds in light of what is now understood about the Viking Period (and before and after). But such reports are ad hoc, only mentioning something if it happens to relate to find.
 

cbwjm

Legend
I don't currently have any concept of how large my homebrew campaign setting is. I have had fun coming up with mythic history because every good pantheon needs a war or two in its past, mine has the war between celestials and fiends, the turning point coming when the immortals, a race of celestials captured the cornerstones of reality and ascended to godhood, turning back the fiends and casting them back to the lower planes. Once this great war was over, they looked to the mortal realm and saw a great war between dragons, elementals, and titans (former immortals who gained power through the elements). The gods intervened to save the mortal realm, sending the primordials back to the elemental planes, putting the dragon elders to sleep beneath the earth, and imprisoning their wayward brothers and sisters.

I'm not using the great wheel in this setting, Sigil might still exist, but as a crossroads city with a different master, or the same master but different in power. The celestial planes is really just one, the same with the lower planes. Demons and devils is just a different term for fiends, you can find balors with pit fiends in the dominion of the 9 hells, both serving the lords of the nine, just as you could find them serving one of the many independent Abyssal lords.
 

DrunkonDuty

he/him
I'm not too worried about the gods in my games. They're always transcendent. If they exist at all; which is a question I never actually bother to answer.

What I care about are the religions. These are what have an impact on the worlds in my games. Yes the believers of any given religion will have answers to the questions in the OP. And these beliefs can be good fodder for games about religious conflict. But unless I'm planning a whole campaign around religious conflict (I have in the past and most likely will again) I'm not going to bother coming up with answers until it comes up in play in some way.
 

Hussar

Legend
My issue with the notion of worshipping "philosophies" is that I find in play it's a total cop out.

it's a way to play a cleric or other religious character, without ever having to actually play a cleric in a setting. I don't have any duties, church or god to deal with, so, I'm just a fighter with cure light wounds.

It always bugs me when players step up to play a cleric and then leave the best parts of playing a cleric - the religious aspects - on the table. It's boring as heck and gives me nothing to work with as a DM. Oh, you're a cleric is "Good"? What does that mean? "Well it means that I do good things while murder hoboing my way through your campaign, never once referencing my faith or religion while still getting to have all those juicy spells."

:erm:
 

Hussar

Legend
Y'know, I just sometimes can't help picking at a scab.

@Yaarel - excuse me if I'm wrong, but, didn't the Norse have some pretty elaborate burial rituals? Like rather quite famous ones like massive tombs filled with stuff and also that whole burning boat thing? And, AIR, marriage was a pretty strong thing in Norse culture as well.

So, when someone is burying the dead in a massive tomb, spending thousands of man hours on construction and filling it with very, very expensive goods, that's got nothing to do with gods or worship? It's just "calling a friend"? Loading a boat, which takes hundreds of man-hours to construct by hand, filling it with, again, rather expensive goods, then setting it on fire is just a way to take the chill off those northern nights?

I'm really having a problem here reconciling your claims here.
 

Davies

Legend
It always bugs me when players step up to play a cleric and then leave the best parts of playing a cleric - the religious aspects - on the table. It's boring as heck and gives me nothing to work with as a DM. Oh, you're a cleric is "Good"? What does that mean? "Well it means that I do good things while murder hoboing my way through your campaign, never once referencing my faith or religion while still getting to have all those juicy spells."

:erm:
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.
 

Hussar

Legend
Again IME it’s generally an issue specifically that comes up when players want to play a cleric of a philosophy. It’s bad enough with standard clerics but at least you can generally point to some stuff in various source books to give a bit of a leg up.

But IME when a player insists they are a cleric of a philosophy, it’s done solely to bypass even the slightest hint that the dm might have even the remotest chance of having any influence over the character. Which generally means that Father Generic rides again. A character totally divorced from the setting that’s just a placeholder for a fighter with healing.
 

Davies

Legend
Again IME

But IME
Perhaps your experience is overly narrow. And, notably, dumps all the responsibility for developing this aspect of the character's background on the player, accepting none of it for yourself as the GM. And overlooks the possibility of having mortal authorities influence the player character, and having them deal with the consequences of their resistance, rather than relying on divine influence that seems irresistible.
 

Hussar

Legend
Oh certainly. I’m not speaking broadly here. I’ve just found that if the player actually picks a deity, there’s about even chances that the player will actually bring that choice to the table, making it so that this priest of X is significantly different from that priest of Y.

Otoh when a player comes to the table with a philosophy priest, there is zero chance that it will make the slightest impact on how the character is played and is just an excuse to make sure that the character has absolutely no hooks for the DM. It’s the equivalent of the orphan character that was born “far away” and has just arrived in town without any attachments of history. Yet another in a very long line of Man with No Name characters that just suck all the air out of the room.

Heh. Ok. That might be slightly over the top. :). But I’m just sick to death of players dropping characters into the game with zero connections to anything in the setting.
 

aia_2

Custom title
My 2c on the topic of religion in a setting: all the original questions are ok, however these should be posted once the "creator" of the setting has made up the "baseline" for the religion. This means to define beliefs and faiths consistent with the setting itself. Once the "creator" has done this exercise, then all the questions above should be turned into "why-questions"...
Maybe i am going OT, and i apologize for this, however i feel that an answer about how many gods a pantheon should have doesn't give a great value added... Looking with the logic of the "why-question", it seems to me more interesting (and challenging for the "creators") to understand how a "creator" has defined a patheon as it is present in the setting.
The drawback of my view is that such a thread would turn into an veeery long essay of religion...
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Oh certainly. I’m not speaking broadly here. I’ve just found that if the player actually picks a deity, there’s about even chances that the player will actually bring that choice to the table, making it so that this priest of X is significantly different from that priest of Y.
Depending on what source or write-ups you're using for your deities, said write-ups will (or should!) usually include a few basic details about observances etc. that would apply to its Clerics; you-as-DM can then point to that if-when needed.

For my own deity write-ups, each one notes in overview form:
--- the sphere(s) of influence of that deity, as known by its Clerics and followers;
--- what a typical temple (or equivalent) might look like;
--- colour(s) and-or animal(s) and-or specific weapon(s) associated with that deity;
--- typical offerings or sacrifices;
--- what is expected of its adventuring Clerics, if anything specific; or whether its Clerics are prone to adventuring at all;
--- holy days or times, if applicable;
--- in some cases, whether the deity expects - or discourages - evangelism and proselytizing from its Clerics.

Hard to do much of that for a philosophy.
 

Hussar

Legend
Depending on what source or write-ups you're using for your deities, said write-ups will (or should!) usually include a few basic details about observances etc. that would apply to its Clerics; you-as-DM can then point to that if-when needed.

For my own deity write-ups, each one notes in overview form:
--- the sphere(s) of influence of that deity, as known by its Clerics and followers;
--- what a typical temple (or equivalent) might look like;
--- colour(s) and-or animal(s) and-or specific weapon(s) associated with that deity;
--- typical offerings or sacrifices;
--- what is expected of its adventuring Clerics, if anything specific; or whether its Clerics are prone to adventuring at all;
--- holy days or times, if applicable;
--- in some cases, whether the deity expects - or discourages - evangelism and proselytizing from its Clerics.

Hard to do much of that for a philosophy.
Heh. See, I do do that sort of thing. Or, I'll put in on the player to provide me with that sort of thing. I mean, good grief, I have to create the whole world and the campaign, expecting a player to spend 15 minutes creating a couple of rituals and observances isn't too much IMO. I've seen players spend half an hour deciding the color of their clothes but refuse to spend 30 seconds thinking about the faith of their cleric.

Then again, IMO, most players just want to play whatever character they have in their mind and couldn't give two cp about the actual setting. Like I said, this is a really sore topic for me. It drives me straight up the wall but, by and large, I just grit my teeth and ignore it because there's only so much you can do.

I do find though, that in play, when players give me hooks to work with, the campaign very much gravitates towards those players being given far more spotlight time. And, to be fair, I've seen players who really don't seem to mind that too much. I just had a rather lengthy spell a few times of having groups that just could not give a darn about any setting and it has really soured me on the whole thing.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Y'know, I just sometimes can't help picking at a scab.

@Yaarel - excuse me if I'm wrong, but, didn't the Norse have some pretty elaborate burial rituals? Like rather quite famous ones like massive tombs filled with stuff and also that whole burning boat thing? And, AIR, marriage was a pretty strong thing in Norse culture as well.

So, when someone is burying the dead in a massive tomb, spending thousands of man hours on construction and filling it with very, very expensive goods, that's got nothing to do with gods or worship? It's just "calling a friend"? Loading a boat, which takes hundreds of man-hours to construct by hand, filling it with, again, rather expensive goods, then setting it on fire is just a way to take the chill off those northern nights?

I'm really having a problem here reconciling your claims here.
In animistic cultures, the dead never leave the world. There is no where else to go. Instead, the dead shapechange into new ways of existing physically in this world. Their bodies become corpses, their breaths become winds. Earth and sky. Each aspect might retain the consciousness and the memory of the former life as a human.

As corpses normally remain still, the corpse aspect of a person tends to want to rest and to be part of the earth. In the Norse view, humanity (mennir) is one of the kinds of nature beings (vættir) − one of the features of nature. At death, one ceases to be this kind of nature being, and now becomes a different kind of nature being − a different feature of nature − namely one of the corpses (nár). Normally, a corpse remains still, resting. The corpse can become "undead" in various ways, being still a corpse, but able to project ones mindful influences in the same way that any of the other nature beings can. In one account, a human steps into a burial (into a kind of large extradimensional demiplane) where the corpse, the ship, and all the persons buried with it, appear alive and well, and in this story hostile against this human that wishes to steal its valuables. The grave itself is hel, the place where the corpse is, and where its memories and influences rest. To some degree, all of these nature beings that are corpses share a mindful affinity with each other. There is a kind of collective grave, a shared hel, but each corpse rests separately in ones own grave.

Separately, the breaths become winds. A human "breathes ones last breath", and this conscious breath travels elsewhere. It might become the winds below the clouds, among the vanir nature beings, or the winds among the clouds, among the æsir nature beings. It is rare but known, the winds might become part of the sky above the clouds among the alfar.

Different animistic cultures can have different burial customs. Each human demonstrates affinity with certain features of nature. Both the way a person lives, and the way a person dies, can determine how one exists after ceasing to be human. In some animistic cultures, there are many possibilities after humanity.

Among Norse cultures, the texts preserve descriptions of many different ways of existing after humanity. Likewise, the archeological remains evidence many different burial customs: pits, mounds, boats, cremations, etcetera.

Archeologists are still sorting out the various burial customs and their significance. This aspect of Nordic archeology is remarkably complex.

A recent breakthru relates to those burials that include a horse. If the horse is whole, and meant for riding, it appears to assist the journeyer to ascend the rainbow bridge to dwell up high in the clouds among the æsir nature beings of the sky. However, if it is only part of a horse and meant for food, it relates to the nature beings of the winds below the clouds, the vanir. The horse meat relates to Freyr, whose winds neigh like horses. There seems to be a correlation between Freyr with horse meat burials, Njorðr with sailing ships or boatlike burial markings, and a mention that Freyja receives half of the warriors who die in battle. In other words, by means of the horse, the living family and friends want to assist the dead one to exist well and in comfort among the vanir or æsir, in the aspect of the breath among the winds of nature.

The Norse bury their dead with material possessions, for the corpse to remain in comfort, and if wealthy to continue to enjoy the presence and memory of luxury. There are also "ritual killings", where objects are destroyed, so as to deter grave robbers, while the corpse continues to enjoy the presence and memories of these items. The significance of cremation remains uncertain. Perhaps, it relates to a ritual killing, where smoke of the body can ascend into to the winds and clouds, or perhaps it is to help the corpse to move on to other ways of existing.

Norse texts mention many possibilities, besides hel, vanir, and æsir. There are accounts of reincarnation (relating to breath). Vǫluspá mentions resurrection after Ragnarǫk. Those who love wealth can spend their existence among the dvergar. Those who love to drink ale and party can spend their existence among the jǫtnar. Those who love to play table top games (!) can spend their existence with Baldr and Hǫðr in the new Ásgarðr that is on earth. Meanwhile, some humans survive Ragnarǫk among the alfar in the farthest reaches of the sky.
 
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Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
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.

Mmm... I can see your point, but the game demands that cleric are worshipping a god. If you want to design a godless religion in the setting, the game answers is that this religion doesn't have cleric, per the class. But depending on your level of historical accuracy, you could accept that (in this city, they worship urban unity and cohesion, without a specific god, and they don't get clerical spells. They can have paladins (their power comes from their devotion to a principle as much as a god), for example. If you want to create a faux-Norse (well, we might want to change the real-world example for the remainder of the discussion...) so you want to create a faux-Confucianist religion and at the same want to play a cleric... (one that pray to a god to get spells by the rules). Well, maybe the character concept could evolve, because if you're wanting to emulate a godless religion, then having someone who worship a god and makes miracles happens is not appropriate: he could worship other gods of the setting. I can't see the problem arising unless the GM isn't willing to accomodate a player wanting to play a Cleric (by providing him a god to worship for direct supernatural intervention, that would be BESIDES the in-setting major religion, say an ancestor spirit granting spells because he's proud of the faux-confucean ethics being strictly adhered to by his descendant) because a player wanting to play a faux-Confucianist wouldn't pray for miracles in the first place.
 

Voadam

Legend
My issue with the notion of worshipping "philosophies" is that I find in play it's a total cop out.

it's a way to play a cleric or other religious character, without ever having to actually play a cleric in a setting. I don't have any duties, church or god to deal with, so, I'm just a fighter with cure light wounds.

It always bugs me when players step up to play a cleric and then leave the best parts of playing a cleric - the religious aspects - on the table. It's boring as heck and gives me nothing to work with as a DM. Oh, you're a cleric is "Good"? What does that mean? "Well it means that I do good things while murder hoboing my way through your campaign, never once referencing my faith or religion while still getting to have all those juicy spells."

:erm:
It's funny how much tastes really differ. I in contrast really like the godless cleric models.

My experience in playing a godless cleric of "Good" was to approach it as a paladin or Jedi type of model. A supernatural crusader against evil. I found for me it was plenty of hook for character motivation and for approaching roleplaying the character and interacting with the world as I came across it.

I did not find it that much different from roleplaying a cleric of a good god with a religious order background I fleshed out.
 


Hussar

Legend
Plenty of D&D models for using clerics as a class that does not require worshiping a god. Eberron is a great example.
FUnny thing is, and I think I mentioned this upthread, I don't actually require clerics in my game to actually worship anything. Clerics in my game are just wizards with better PR. They are cabalistic, where each group has learned certain ways to tap into divine magic through rituals (spells). Maybe someone, in the history of the cabal, was taught by some outsider or other, but, largely, the clerics have zero actual requirements to follow any of the teachings of their given church. Which nicely allows all sorts of schisms, heresies and various other goodies. Also allows clerics of virtually anything.

I've found it's a lot more interesting this way.
 

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