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

Voadam

Legend
I'd say for the OP for a focus on religion I'd start with questions about your world and what you want to portray.

Do you want a universal faith, or multiple faiths?

Is a particular faith more western monotheistic based with familiar concepts so you are making essentially a fantasy medieval church or something else?

If it is a pantheon type fantasy cosmology religion is it going to be henotheistic/monolatry where individuals devote themselves to and focus on one individual deity among the pantheon?

If it is a pantheon is the religion more based on non-christian models, such as focusing on rituals and sacrifices as opposed to sermons and creeds?

Are there non-theistic religion models being used?

Is there ancestor worship?

Is there animsm?

Are there philosophy based religions such as the Blood of Vol in Eberron, some versions of Buddhism, or the Red and Blue temples from Fred Sabrehagen's Sword novels?

Is religion home based or personal, or does it involve temples/churches and communities?

What is the relationship between the religions and political powers? Are there state religions?

Are there heresies and schisms in the religions?

How are clerics and other divine champion classes empowered? What, if anything, can cause them to lose their powers?

How much contact with the divine is there?
 

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Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
Plenty of D&D models for using clerics as a class that does not require worshiping a god. Eberron is a great example.

The 5e rules Lanefan and I was referring to explicitely mention needing a god (by contrast with former edition where you could worship an ideal, a philosophy, your cousin Bob or an alignment). It's easy to disregard, like Eberron does (though I'd say in this case it's a left-over from 3.5e) , but the wording of the rules doesn't invite to think of nontheistic clerics. Per the PHB "As you create a Cleric, the most important question to consider is which deity to serve [...] once you have chosen a deity [...] the power of your spell comes from a devotion to your deity [...] domain related to your deity [...] beginning at 10th level, you can call upon your deity to intervene [...] clerics are the intermediaries between the mortal world and the distant planes of the gods. As varied as the gods they serve, clerics strive to embody the handiwork of their deities." So it's not surprising that nontheistic clerics aren't common: they are no longer even alluded to in the rules, and deities are expected to have an agenda, not being just great clockmakers. TBH, there is a mention in the DMG that not everything needs to be that way, but it's quite remote from the character creation section...
 
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Voadam

Legend
The 5e rules Lanefan and I was referring to explicitely mention needing a god (by contrast with former edition where you could worship an ideal, a philosophy, your cousin Bob or an alignment). It's easy to disregard, like Eberron does (though I'd say in this case it's a left-over from 3.5e) , but the wording of the rules doesn't invite to think of nontheistic clerics. Per the PHB "As you create a Cleric, the most important question to consider is which deity to serve [...] once you have chosen a deity [...] the power of your spell comes from a devotion to your deity [...] domain related to your deity [...] beginning at 10th level, you can call upon your deity to intervene [...] clerics are the intermediaries between the mortal world and the distant planes of the gods. As varied as the gods they serve, clerics strive to embody the handiwork of their deities." So it's not surprising that nontheistic clerics aren't common: they are no longer even alluded to in the rules, and deities are expected to have an agenda, not being just great clockmakers. TBH, there is a mention in the DMG that not everything needs to be that way, but it's quite remote from the character creation section...
5e contains contradictory multitudes and offers options. :)

In the 5e PH it also talks about the non-theistic alternative religion philosophies of Eberron and gives them suggested clerical domains explicitly. So if you look for allusions to 5e godless clerics in the core rules I think you can find them.

5e PH page 293:

"Eberron's other religions are very different from the traditional D&D pantheons. The monotheistic Church of the Silver Flame is devoted to fighting against evil in the world, but plagued by corruption in its own ranks. The philosophy of the Blood of Vol teaches that divinity lies within all mortal beings and reveres the undead who have secured that immortality. Various mad cults are devoted to the demons and horrors imprisoned in Eberron's Underdark (called Khyber, the Dragon Below). The followers of the Path of Light believe that the world is heading toward a glorious future where the shadows that cloud this world will be transformed into light. And two related nations of elves revere their ancestral spirits: the Undying Court, preserved as spirits or even undead forms, and the glorified Spirits of the Past, the great heroes of ancient wars."

5e PH page 296:

DEITIES OF EBERRON

* * *

Other Faiths of Eberron Alignment Suggested Domains Symbol
The Silver Flame, deity of protection and good LG Life, Light, War Flame drawn on silver or molded from silver
The Blood of Vol, philosophy of immortality and undeath LN Death, Life Stylized dragon skull on red teardrop gem
Cults of the Dragon Below, deities of madness NE Trickery Varies
The Path of Light, philosophy of light and self-improvement LN Life, Light Brilliant crystal
The Undying Court, elven ancestors NG Knowledge, Life Varies
The Spirits of the Past, elven ancestors CG War Varies

It is kind of hard to say that the 5e game demands the default PH cleric class flavor text of theistic clerics and does not even allude to non-theistic clerics when they have campaign settings using religions with non-theistic clerics in the PH and there is a whole section of the 5e DMG talking about alternatives to that default theistic cleric setup.

5e DMG page 13:

FORCES AND PHILOSOPHIES
Not all divine powers need to be derived from deities. In some campaigns, believers hold enough conviction in their ideas about the universe that they gain magical power from that conviction. In other campaigns, impersonal forces of nature or magic replace the gods by granting power to mortals attuned to them. Just as druids and rangers can gain their spell ability from the force of nature rather than from a specific nature deity, some clerics devote themselves to ideals rather than to a god. Paladins might serve a philosophy of justice and chivalry rather than a specific deity.
Forces and philosophies aren't worshiped; they aren't beings that can hear and respond to prayers or accept sacrifices. Devotion to a philosophy or a force isn't necessarily exclusive of service to a deity. A person can be devoted to the philosophy of good and offer worship to various good deities, or revere the force of nature and also pay homage to the gods of nature, who might be seen as personal manifestations of an impersonal force. In a world that includes deities with demonstrable power (through their clerics), it's unusual for a philosophy to deny the existence of deities, although a common philosophical belief states that the deities are more like mortals than they would have mortals believe. According to such philosophies, the gods aren't truly immortal (just very long-lived), and mortals can attain divinity. In fact, ascending to godhood is the ultimate goal of some philosophies.
The power of a philosophy stems from the belief that mortals invest in it. A philosophy that only one person believes in isn't strong enough to bestow magical power on that person.
 


Celebrim

Legend
A friend of mine sent me this (neither him nor I are the author) - it's a fascinating idea on the nature of gods, and really could be used in a campaign:


He begins by eschewing Pratchett gods that are formed by belief, but I think he ends up in the same place.

What he postulates is a sort of reverse Lovecraftian. Like Lovecraft, it postulates that the gods are insane destructive incomprehensible beings by nature, but rather than suggesting worshipping them transforms you into an image of what you worship, that worshipping a god transforms them into an image of you. You cease to be the source of their divine power but you become the source of their divine identity. You are no longer the gods maker, but you are the god's tamer.

In some ways, that's even more ego endorsing than a Pratchett deity. Instead of gods being the uncontrolled and unforeseeable consequences of human ideas, gods are reduced to being some sort of dangerous pet. Lovecraft's world is one of the material insignificance of humanity in the face of blind and indifferent forces of nature beyond human comprehension are control. The Feral God setting is the happy world of all of nature can ultimately be harnessed to serve human desires. Just tickle the god under the chin and say it is such a good god, and it will be your genie.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
A question for you and @Hussar :

When a Cleric in a godless game casts Commune, who or what answers the phone?

See, this to me is a big difference between real-world and game-setting religions; in that in the game it's possible to talk to one's deity and have that deity talk back. Not so possible in the real world, the best of faith and intentions notwithstanding.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The 5e rules Lanefan and I was referring to
Not guilty, y'r honour - I'm referencing my own system, which in this case conicidentally happens to largely agree with 5e. :)
explicitely mention needing a god (by contrast with former edition where you could worship an ideal, a philosophy, your cousin Bob or an alignment).
I didn't really like this direction and am glad 5e backed off on it.
It's easy to disregard, like Eberron does (though I'd say in this case it's a left-over from 3.5e) , but the wording of the rules doesn't invite to think of nontheistic clerics. Per the PHB "As you create a Cleric, the most important question to consider is which deity to serve [...] once you have chosen a deity [...] the power of your spell comes from a devotion to your deity [...] domain related to your deity [...] beginning at 10th level, you can call upon your deity to intervene [...] clerics are the intermediaries between the mortal world and the distant planes of the gods. As varied as the gods they serve, clerics strive to embody the handiwork of their deities." So it's not surprising that nontheistic clerics aren't common: they are no longer even alluded to in the rules, and deities are expected to have an agenda, not being just great clockmakers. TBH, there is a mention in the DMG that not everything needs to be that way, but it's quite remote from the character creation section...
The bolded is something else it's hard to imagine a philosophy or alignment doing. That said, "Philosophical Intervention" would make one hell of a good album title. :)
 

Davies

Legend
A question for you and @Hussar :

When a Cleric in a godless game casts Commune, who or what answers the phone?
Good question, one that could create lots of potential adventures. Counterpoint: How does a cleric in a god-filled game know that the entity answering the phone is the entity they worship? What if the entity answering is revealing the truth in a way that serves their interests rather than yours? And if there are guarantees, why does that improve things rather than just making them easy?
 

Voadam

Legend
A question for you and @Hussar :

When a Cleric in a godless game casts Commune, who or what answers the phone?

See, this to me is a big difference between real-world and game-setting religions; in that in the game it's possible to talk to one's deity and have that deity talk back. Not so possible in the real world, the best of faith and intentions notwithstanding.
This is one of the spells that most directly involves a deity. However, mostly getting a yes/no answer is not conceptually that hard to divorce from subpoenaing a god for a limited deposition.

First here is the 3.5 spell from the SRD:

Commune​

Divination

Level:Clr 5
Components:V, S, M, DF, XP
Casting Time:10 minutes
Range:Personal
Target:You
Duration:1 round/level

You contact your deity—or agents thereof —and ask questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no. (A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.) You are allowed one such question per caster level. The answers given are correct within the limits of the entity’s knowledge. “Unclear” is a legitimate answer, because powerful beings of the Outer Planes are not necessarily omniscient. In cases where a one-word answer would be misleading or contrary to the deity’s interests, a short phrase (five words or less) may be given as an answer instead.
The spell, at best, provides information to aid character decisions. The entities contacted structure their answers to further their own purposes. If you lag, discuss the answers, or go off to do anything else, the spell ends.

Material Component​

Holy (or unholy) water and incense.

XP Cost 100 XP.​

Most of the versions of commune through the editions are fairly similar.

Couple options:

Option 1 take out the flavor text of the god. Treat it as a pure information gathering spell giving yes/no answers. Similar to a tarot reading, an oracle, or other divination. It might tap into the universe, akashic consciousness, whatever.

You contact your deity—or agents thereof —and ask questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no. (A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.) You are allowed one such question per caster level. The answers given are correct within the limits of the entity’s knowledge. “Unclear” is a legitimate answer, because powerful beings of the Outer Planes are not necessarily omniscient. In cases where a one-word answer would be misleading or contrary to the deity’s interests, a short phrase (five words or less) may be given as an answer instead.

The spell, at best, provides information to aid character decisions. The entities contacted structure their answers to further their own purposes. If you lag, discuss the answers, or go off to do anything else, the spell ends.

Option 2 treat it as written "(A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.)" either using a deity or other being.

Option 3 spell does not work if there are no gods to compel an answer from.

It comes into play for 5th level spells, so either 9th level+ clerics or someone with a scroll in 3.5.
 

Cruentus

Adventurer
Good question, one that could create lots of potential adventures. Counterpoint: How does a cleric in a god-filled game know that the entity answering the phone is the entity they worship? What if the entity answering is revealing the truth in a way that serves their interests rather than yours? And if there are guarantees, why does that improve things rather than just making them easy?
I'm not @Lanefan, but in my game, the cleric wouldn't know. IF the spell worked, and they got some type of response, it could be a messenger of said deity, it could be a pre-recorded message, or it could be some other entity hacking the line, so to speak. Some of that would depend on where it was being cast, what offerings had been made, and whether the cleric in question was in good standing with said deity.

That being said, I prefer those elements to not be present with clerics in my campaigns. There is no divine intervention, there is no "commune" where the deity answers. Those types of rituals and auguries are always answered in riddles or in vague responses, and it falls on the cleric to interpret them, or seek out the answers.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This is one of the spells that most directly involves a deity. However, mostly getting a yes/no answer is not conceptually that hard to divorce from subpoenaing a god for a limited deposition.

First here is the 3.5 spell from the SRD:

Commune​

Divination

Level:Clr 5
Components:V, S, M, DF, XP
Casting Time:10 minutes
Range:Personal
Target:You
Duration:1 round/level

You contact your deity—or agents thereof —and ask questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no. (A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.) You are allowed one such question per caster level. The answers given are correct within the limits of the entity’s knowledge. “Unclear” is a legitimate answer, because powerful beings of the Outer Planes are not necessarily omniscient. In cases where a one-word answer would be misleading or contrary to the deity’s interests, a short phrase (five words or less) may be given as an answer instead.
The spell, at best, provides information to aid character decisions. The entities contacted structure their answers to further their own purposes. If you lag, discuss the answers, or go off to do anything else, the spell ends.

Material Component​

Holy (or unholy) water and incense.

XP Cost 100 XP.​

Most of the versions of commune through the editions are fairly similar.

Couple options:

Option 1 take out the flavor text of the god. Treat it as a pure information gathering spell giving yes/no answers. Similar to a tarot reading, an oracle, or other divination. It might tap into the universe, akashic consciousness, whatever.

You contact your deity—or agents thereof —and ask questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no. (A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.) You are allowed one such question per caster level. The answers given are correct within the limits of the entity’s knowledge. “Unclear” is a legitimate answer, because powerful beings of the Outer Planes are not necessarily omniscient. In cases where a one-word answer would be misleading or contrary to the deity’s interests, a short phrase (five words or less) may be given as an answer instead.

The spell, at best, provides information to aid character decisions. The entities contacted structure their answers to further their own purposes. If you lag, discuss the answers, or go off to do anything else, the spell ends.

Option 2 treat it as written "(A cleric of no particular deity contacts a philosophically allied deity.)" either using a deity or other being.

Option 3 spell does not work if there are no gods to compel an answer from.

It comes into play for 5th level spells, so either 9th level+ clerics or someone with a scroll in 3.5.
I'm more familiar with the 1e version, which (as written) allows much more leeway in the answers than just a yes-no and didn't come with any cost attached. The intent as written, I think, is to allow the DM (playing the deity) to give some meta-direction to the PCs via their Cleric provided the questions asked have any wisdom behind them.

In 1e as written it was a broken spell, no doubt there. But it did require someone to answer the phone.
 



Voadam

Legend
I don't remember if commune was ever discussed in Eberron where the gods are distant, if they even exist at all, and there are nontheistic clerics.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm not @Lanefan, but in my game, the cleric wouldn't know. IF the spell worked, and they got some type of response, it could be a messenger of said deity, it could be a pre-recorded message, or it could be some other entity hacking the line, so to speak. Some of that would depend on where it was being cast, what offerings had been made, and whether the cleric in question was in good standing with said deity.
Once in a while things like this arise but I have it that the casting Cleric almost always knows if the spell worked properly or not - of nothing else, the caster would have given the spell a trial run or two during training into 9th level and thus know what to expect.
That being said, I prefer those elements to not be present with clerics in my campaigns. There is no divine intervention, there is no "commune" where the deity answers. Those types of rituals and auguries are always answered in riddles or in vague responses, and it falls on the cleric to interpret them, or seek out the answers.
Fair enough. I have the deities being quite a bit more "hands-on" than that, though direct intervention etc. is still very rare.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
And again -- what makes you think that whoever answers the phone is telling the truth about their identity?
The fact that if someone does hack the line, when (not if, when) the hack is detected it's going to cause repercussions at the divine level if the hacker was divine and almost certainly cause a very VERY unpleasant series of consequences if the hacker was mortal.
 

Davies

Legend
The fact that if someone does hack the line, when (not if, when) the hack is detected it's going to cause repercussions at the divine level if the hacker was divine and almost certainly cause a very VERY unpleasant series of consequences if the hacker was mortal.
And those don't seem to be the sort of thing that could start up interesting scenarios, to you?
 

Voadam

Legend
I'm more familiar with the 1e version, which (as written) allows much more leeway in the answers than just a yes-no and didn't come with any cost attached. The intent as written, I think, is to allow the DM (playing the deity) to give some meta-direction to the PCs via their Cleric provided the questions asked have any wisdom behind them.

In 1e as written it was a broken spell, no doubt there. But it did require someone to answer the phone.
Eh it was still yes or no and did not seem to have as much wiggle room as 3.5's short phrase.

1e PH:
Commune (Divination)
Level: 5 Components: V, S, M
Range: 0 Casting Time: 1 turn
Duration: Special Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: Special
Explanation/Description: By use of a commune spell the cleric is able to contact his or her divinity — or agents thereof — and request information in the form of questions which can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”. The cleric is allowed one such question for every level of experience he or she has attained. The answers given will be correct. It is probable that the referee will limit the use of commune spells to one per adventure, one per week, or even one per month, for the “gods” dislike frequent interruptions. The material components necessary to a commune spell are the cleric’s religious symbol, holy/unholy water, and incense.

or the answer could be "I don't know" because the 1e DMG says the 1e PH is an unreliable narrator of PC spell mechanics.

DMG page 42:

Commune: The questions permitted must be asked consecutively in as brief a period as possible, as there is too much bother and disturbance for the supernatural powers otherwise. If the spell caster lags or goes off to do anything else, the spell is broken, over and done with. Note that it is possible for a deity to answer “I don’t know”, as most deities are not omniscient.
 

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