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

Hussar

Legend
Except that didnt happen.

animism ≠ theism

Heh, but it kinda makes the point: Westerners today find it difficult to imagine a religion without worshiping a person.
Ok, I'm a bit confused. No one worshipped Odin? These were all just fictional characters?
 

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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Except that didnt happen.

animism ≠ theism

Heh, but it kinda makes the point: Westerners today find it difficult to imagine a religion without worshiping a person.
Animism is literally in the DMG, as are Forces and philosophies, so clearly it can be imagined just fine.
 

MGibster

Legend
Last time I designed a religion for a D&D campaign, I kept asking myself "Why should this matter to the players?" The sad truth of the matter, is that religion doens't make a big difference in D&D. I don't know if it ever has. Of course, perhaps your campaigns in the past or present are ones where religion was immensely important, but I certainly don't see evidence of that in published materials or from my own personal experience. (And, yes, I'm well aware I'm not the end all be all of D&D experience.)

So with all this talk about religion in a campaign I have to ask you this question: What does it matter? How does this affect game play? And I don't mean that in a snarky manner. If I sit down at your table to play a game, why does religion matter to my character?
 

Hussar

Legend
Last time I designed a religion for a D&D campaign, I kept asking myself "Why should this matter to the players?" The sad truth of the matter, is that religion doens't make a big difference in D&D. I don't know if it ever has. Of course, perhaps your campaigns in the past or present are ones where religion was immensely important, but I certainly don't see evidence of that in published materials or from my own personal experience. (And, yes, I'm well aware I'm not the end all be all of D&D experience.)

So with all this talk about religion in a campaign I have to ask you this question: What does it matter? How does this affect game play? And I don't mean that in a snarky manner. If I sit down at your table to play a game, why does religion matter to my character?
I agree. Religion, by and large, is something that most players don't seem to want to bother with too much. Even the cleric or druid players I've seen over the years don't pay much attention to their actual faith. They're basically just "casters" with healing spells. It is something of a proud nail to me that paladins get all this bad rep for being difficult to play, but, a priest of Heironeous, a character that should be every bit as restrictive to play as a traditional paladin, isn't held to any sort of standard.

So, yeah, I tend to think that most of the religion stuff is mostly for the DM. It's setting, largely for settings sake, because it rarely actually comes up in play. Even really heavy handed things like the Cataclysm in Krynn or the Wall of the Faithless in Forgotten Realms really has largely zero impact on actual play, despite having tons written about it.

Divine characters are something that needs a lot of player buy in to matter. Otherwise, it just gets completely glossed over.

Fun to think about though. From a world building perspective, it's hugely important. Faith shapes culture and vice versa to such a huge degree. Wars are fought over faith. Faiths can absolutely drive the conflict in a campaign. Easily. But, again, when the rubber meets the road, I find most players just don't want to think about it too much. They just don't care.
 

Religion in my game / world started out as a result of the Cleric in OD&D. It seemed pretty medieval (and we started out playing Chainmail medieval miniatures) so I set up a "medieval" / European type church. I settled on three gods (a Trinity; Order, Wisdom, and Necessity) with (eventually) dozens of saints representing various aspects of the gods. Dwarves and Elves didn't have Clerics at first. They got them later and I developed the "Old Gods" for them. Ascended ancient Dwarves and Elves. For them religion is more of a feudal relationship than it is with Humans. As I moved from original D&D, to AD&D (1E) and 2E AD&D it gained in complexity and depth. And the backstory of the religions filled out. The various churches / religions are well fleshed out, the inter-relationship of the various gods / religions is known, and I've developed a lot of lore / background for them.

Occasionally I think of how I would do it from the ground up, but I'm attached to my setting and its divine ecosystem. I can trot out lists of deities / saints for new Clerical characters. There are a lot of options. They know the organization, rituals, goals, etc. of the one they choose (handouts are a thing) and how it relates to others and the world. It works pretty well.

So, a laundry list of questions is great for building a new religious system. I like it, in theory. Time answered all those questions for me though :D
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm finding that for my worldbuilding, I'm having greater success when I keep the adventuring fairly "local" and not realms hopping. If there are only 3 "gods" worshipped in this area, that's way more manageable. I just keep some stuff thumbnailed if the party visits the kingdom next door.
Whicn IME is just fine until the inevitable happens: someone decides to play a Cleric from said kingdom next door; on which I have to come up with that kingdom's pantheon then and there so as to allow the player a choice as to which deity said Cleric will follow.

I prefer to go the other route (that being, perhaps, the route of overkill) and sort out pantheons for all the local or nearby-ish cultures and species ahead of time, before play even begins. Even then, as I've been finding in my current campaign, it might not be enough: the adventuring area has recently changed to a different part of the continent, with different cultures and yes, different deities. Result: I had to dream up a whole new pantheon to suit a faux-Spanish culture almost on the fly.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So with all this talk about religion in a campaign I have to ask you this question: What does it matter? How does this affect game play? And I don't mean that in a snarky manner. If I sit down at your table to play a game, why does religion matter to my character?
It might not, unless you're a Cleric or a Paladin.

But if you're one of the faith-based classes it should matter a great deal to what makes your character tick as a character and to how you play it. For example, I'd expect a Cleric or Paladin* to a deity of secrets to be played somewhat differently than a Cleric to a deity of promiscuous love or to a deity of warfare and strife.

* - better note here that I allow Paladins to be any of LG, CG, LE or CE, as long as they dial it to eleven.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I agree. Religion, by and large, is something that most players don't seem to want to bother with too much. Even the cleric or druid players I've seen over the years don't pay much attention to their actual faith. They're basically just "casters" with healing spells. It is something of a proud nail to me that paladins get all this bad rep for being difficult to play, but, a priest of Heironeous, a character that should be every bit as restrictive to play as a traditional paladin, isn't held to any sort of standard.
Agreed.

I once tried playing a Cleric who would only minister to the faithful. In practice this meant she wouldn't cast beneficial spells on you (i.e. cures, mostly) unless you were of her own faith...which, as you might imagine, went over real well with the "heathens" who made up the rest of her party. In one case it literally came down to her saying to a downed comrade "Convert or die"; the comrade converted (or at least was convincing enough that my Cleric bought it), the cure was cast, and his life was saved.

By the end of her career - which came within just a few sessions courtesy of some foes or other - the rest of the party were lining up to kill her.

Even with that, I'm surprised we don't see a lot more of this: even mildly fanatical Clerics putting their religion ahead of the party.
Fun to think about though. From a world building perspective, it's hugely important. Faith shapes culture and vice versa to such a huge degree. Wars are fought over faith. Faiths can absolutely drive the conflict in a campaign. Easily. But, again, when the rubber meets the road, I find most players just don't want to think about it too much. They just don't care.
IME some care and some don't; the bigger issue can be that those who do care care in different directions and-or about different things than does the DM, and believe me that can lead to headaches.
 

Yaarel

He Mage
Ok, I'm a bit confused. No one worshipped Odin?
Correct. No Norse "worshiped" Odin. The Norse had a nontheistic animistic worldview.

There were no "temples", there were no "priests", and people never prayed to Odin in times of need.

Odin (Óðinn) is the sky itself, especially its cycle of seasons.

There were certain human individuals, certain families, who felt a "friendship" with Odin. These individuals set up a small shrine in their own home. There, they can offer their friend some food, to thank him for the good weather they are currently enjoying. Maybe there is a timely spring to start planting crops.

Additionally, the sky inspires various natural features in the sky to move in the season cycles that they do, such as sun an moon, planets, and stars, and patterns of weather. Sometimes the sky can inspire humans too. The sky can be a kind of muse, to help form a good idea for a new song, political strategy, even new insight during a mystical trance. A human can thank the sky for a being inspirational too.

During the Viking Period, almost no one in Norway befriended Odin, considering its seasons too treacherous. Norwegians were, by far, more like to form friendships with the summer storms that kept the arctic threats away, namely Thor (Þórr). But in Denmark, humans are friendlier with Odin.

It is an animistic world view. There is no polytheism. Not in Scandinavia, anyway.
 

Yaarel

He Mage
For D&D, animism is more like fey and archfey. Nature is alive − even sentient! Some features of nature are very powerful.

But there is no assumption to "worship" an archfey.

There might be a particular human who an archfey considers a friend.

Animism feels more like that.

Unlike D&D fey, animism is never otherworldly.

The features of nature in the material plane are sentient.
 

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