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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.

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
Ah, now I understand. You are using a definition of "worship" that is different than it is commonly defined. Fair enough. I understand what you mean.

As an aside though, you might find that people would be more likely to understand your point of view if you used language the same way that they are. Splitting hairs over Oh, they didn't "worship" Odin, they just had shrines and rituals for their "friend" tends to make things very confused. Most people would define having shrines and rituals surrounding a divine being as worship, but, hey, whatever works.
 

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Yaarel

🇮🇱He-Mage
Ah, now I understand. You are using a definition of "worship" that is different than it is commonly defined. Fair enough. I understand what you mean.

As an aside though, you might find that people would be more likely to understand your point of view if you used language the same way that they are. Splitting hairs over Oh, they didn't "worship" Odin, they just had shrines and rituals for their "friend" tends to make things very confused. Most people would define having shrines and rituals surrounding a divine being as worship, but, hey, whatever works.
It is only confusing if someone assumes there is a theistic relationship that involves "worship".

The Norse use the term "friend" (vinr), the same kind of relationship as between any two friends.

Having a "shrine", mostly a bowl for food, is a way to invite a friend over for dinner.

Like the jotnar and dvergar, the æsir arent "divine". All of them are nature "beings" (vættir). Animistic figures. The æsir are the natural features of the sky. They are more likely to be helpful and to be "invoked" (goð), namely invited to a friend’s home for dinner. There are also jotnar, such as fire (Logi), who has friends and gets invited to dinner.
 
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Indeed, why would religion matter, especially if you can worship a simple philosophy and gain spell...

Again, gods need worshippers to increase their power and to maintain it. If you go the creator god way. You need to have them being created by something else beforehand. Such as Chronos creating the gods in the Greek mythology, or things like the Great Ancients that the gods banished to the Far Realms and so on. But even without worshippers, gods are gods, but they are simply much more powerful with devout worshippers.

As to why should it matter to be affiliated and why would a cleric heal non believers...
5ed and even 4ed gave away the power of healing to non divine classes. This is both a sad thing and the main reason why people are now asking why should we have a cleric in the first place and even why should we have gods.

If you remove modern sensitivity about religion and how it should work, in a world where the gods are real, people will worship them. Heck, some of the Hollywood stars are literally worshipped by their fans and they do not grant spells... So imagine if they could...

So if the power of healing was in 5ed relegated to clerics and druids only people would see a bit more reasons to have a whole church at their back. But even without that monopoly on healing worshipping a god and be affiliated with a religion has a lot to offer.

1) A god backs you up. What the evil have you can have too.
2) The possibility to be raised at no cost simply because you were questing for the church.
3) You will have someone that really cares about you and your success. And these will make sure to back you up. I have had a group TPKed only to be revived with true resurrection a month later when divination cast by the cleric's church showed that they were dead. A bard friend will not be able to do that but a powerful church will.
4) Churches have connections with the whole world where the church is present. Known worshippers and allies of the church will offer aid and assistance to champions of the gods. And remember that a god is backing you. That is a lot to think of.

In old editions (1ed and 2ed) to get his spells of higher level, the cleric was communing with his/her deity directly, I have kept this aspect throughout the editions simply because it allows the cleric to interact with the god! I often use this to counsel the player on the challenges ahead. "Yes my daughter, I know that you want this spell, but would it not be better to take such spell instead?" Clever players knew that this was a free warning and hint of the challenge to come.

It is exactly this kind of interaction that is missing in 5ed. Without it, a cleric is simply another healer in game where healing is already plentiful...
 

Yaarel

🇮🇱He-Mage
Indeed, why would religion matter, especially if you can worship a simple philosophy and gain spell...

Again, gods need worshippers to increase their power and to maintain it. If you go the creator god way. You need to have them being created by something else beforehand. Such as Chronos creating the gods in the Greek mythology, or things like the Great Ancients that the gods banished to the Far Realms and so on. But even without worshippers, gods are gods, but they are simply much more powerful with devout worshippers.

As to why should it matter to be affiliated and why would a cleric heal non believers...
5ed and even 4ed gave away the power of healing to non divine classes. This is both a sad thing and the main reason why people are now asking why should we have a cleric in the first place and even why should we have gods.

If you remove modern sensitivity about religion and how it should work, in a world where the gods are real, people will worship them. Heck, some of the Hollywood stars are literally worshipped by their fans and they do not grant spells... So imagine if they could...

So if the power of healing was in 5ed relegated to clerics and druids only people would see a bit more reasons to have a whole church at their back. But even without that monopoly on healing worshipping a god and be affiliated with a religion has a lot to offer.

1) A god backs you up. What the evil have you can have too.
2) The possibility to be raised at no cost simply because you were questing for the church.
3) You will have someone that really cares about you and your success. And these will make sure to back you up. I have had a group TPKed only to be revived with true resurrection a month later when divination cast by the cleric's church showed that they were dead. A bard friend will not be able to do that but a powerful church will.
4) Churches have connections with the whole world where the church is present. Known worshippers and allies of the church will offer aid and assistance to champions of the gods. And remember that a god is backing you. That is a lot to think of.

In old editions (1ed and 2ed) to get his spells of higher level, the cleric was communing with his/her deity directly, I have kept this aspect throughout the editions simply because it allows the cleric to interact with the god! I often use this to counsel the player on the challenges ahead. "Yes my daughter, I know that you want this spell, but would it not be better to take such spell instead?" Clever players knew that this was a free warning and hint of the challenge to come.

It is exactly this kind of interaction that is missing in 5ed. Without it, a cleric is simply another healer in game where healing is already plentiful...
I breathe a sigh of relief because animists have healers too.

Indeed, animists were the FIRST healers.
 

I breathe a sigh of relief because animists have healers too.

Indeed, animists were the FIRST healers.
I put animist as druids. These get their powers from worshipping spirits and aspects of nature.

There was a reasons druids would only be able to use reincarnation and not raise dead as spells to bring back dead characters.
 

Yaarel

🇮🇱He-Mage
I put animist as druids. These get their powers from worshipping spirits and aspects of nature.

There was a reasons druids would only be able to use reincarnation and not raise dead as spells to bring back dead characters.
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!

There are other religions besides theistic traditions. The Cleric represents them well too.

Note, in my own Norse setting, the Bard tends to represent the religious office of the shaman, the Vǫlva. There are no musical instruments, but the shaman does tend to use verbal commands when manifesting magical effects. The Cleric class serves as nontheist warrior who is knowledgeable in the ways of courageous (one-on-one) war magic, including luck, protection, healing, even resurrecting (rare but known).
 

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!

There are other religions besides theistic traditions. The Cleric represents them well too.

Note, in my own Norse setting, the Bard tends to represent the religious office of the shaman, the Vǫlva. There are no musical instruments, but the shaman does tend to use verbal commands when manifesting magical effects. The Cleric class serves as nontheist warrior who is knowledgeable in the ways of courageous (one-on-one) war magic, including luck, protection, healing, even resurrecting (rare but known).
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.

But on our matter.

The Norse had their priests and bards were not their priests. Non theist healer were always covered by the druid class and the shamans (a shame 5ed did not use them as healers and put healing in the hands of the bards which should have been casters centered on charm, illusions and transmutations).
 

Yaarel

🇮🇱He-Mage
Where on earth did you get the notion that the DM was getting worshipped?
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 Norse had their priests
False.

and bards were not their priests.
Correct. There are no temples, and there are no priests, in Norse culture.

The ONLY official religious office, is the shaman: the vǫlva. Her official duty is to be a seer. Today we would call her a psychic. But several are known for other kinds of magic as well.

From the various descriptions of these shamans, not one ever mentions the æsir. The æsir arent especially important. In practice, all animistic beings are important. All features of nature are important.

Non theist healer were always covered by the druid class
The D&D Druid class is too elemental, and is unsuitable to represent any Norse customs. The shapeshifting is appropriate, but the Bard can shapeshift too. The Bard spell list is thematically excellent.

The Sámi shamans are known for weather magic − at least the Norse credit them for some of the arctic blizzards. I do use the Druid class as well as the Bard for these Nordic traditions.

and the shamans (a shame 5ed did not use them as healers and put healing in the hands of the bards which should have been casters centered on charm, illusions and transmutations).
The Norse shamans are known for: psychic readings, healing, illusions, delusions, shapeshifting, outofbody journeys, and teleporting. The Bard class does all of these.

The 5e Bard is genuinely appropriate for Norse mythological accuracy and Norse-esque settings.
 
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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!


False.


Correct. There are no temples, and there are no priests, in Norse culture.

The ONLY official religious office, is the shaman: the vǫlva. Her official duty is to be a seer. Today we would call her a psychic. But several are known for other kinds of magic as well.

From the various descriptions of these shamans, not one ever mentions the æsir. The æsir arent especially important. In practice, all animistic beings are important. All features of nature are important.


The D&D Druid class is too elemental, and is unsuitable to represent any Norse customs. The shapeshifting is appropriate, but the Bard can shapeshift too. The Bard spell list is thematically excellent.

The Sámi shamans are known for weather magic − at least the Norse credit them for some of the arctic blizzards. I do use the Druid class as well as the Bard for these Nordic traditions.


The Norse shamans are known for: psychic readings, healing, illusions, delusions, shapeshifting, outofbody journeys, and teleporting. The Bard class does all of these.

The 5e Bard is genuinely appropriate for Norse mythological accuracy and Norse-esque settings.
A make believe is not true worship. Otherwise an actor playing a god would consider himself or herself a god/goddess which is not how make believe work.

As for the priests in Norse mythos. A shaman is a kind of priest too. At some point it is simply a matter of how you want to see things. You consider that Norse had no priest but shamen? Fine, I consider shaman priest as they worship spirits. And I am not alone in that case. The view point you express is rather singular but not that stretched. But you can not claim that your view is the view by which people will see how Norse priest would be defined. You know that in most religions the priests was not a full time priest. Most were often elders and hunters and fishermen and weavers and so on. Being a priest was a part time job for most of them.

But we are in a fantasy world where priest can literally work miracles. A Druid can nourish a lot of people with good berry spells. A cleric even more with create food and water. They can be full time druids and clerics without any aid from their community. Fantasy Clerics and Druid, unlike their real world counter parts, are truly at the service of their community.
 


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