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

cbwjm

Legend
Matt Colville has a YouTube playlist where he creates the gods for his setting. It's quite a good watch, he starts with the culture first and then designs gods and saints that emulate what that culture finds important. So if honour is an important part of the culture, then you create a god of honour. Even though I created the gods of my setting separately from the cultures, when I started slotting those gods into pantheons for different cultures, I think this idea was in the back of my mind for a lot of them.
 

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Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
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?

Especially when the gods have a better understanding, in certain worlds, than mere mortals. If asked which way is best to get to the nearest starbuck, then a god, foreseeing his champion to become a great hero in time of extreme need, will advice the most difficult one, through the slums by night, with many fights so he can get experience faster, instead of advising to take the bus and get down at the next hop.


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.

It was stated by Keith Baker on his blog that if your commune with the Silver Flame, a couatl answers the phone and if you commune with the Sovereign and Six, you commune with an extraplanar being best embodying the specific aspect of the god you're trying to call upon to answer your question. So if you're a cleric of the Host and ask a question about which sword is better to buy at the shop, your answer might come from the Planetar in charge of appraising swords in Syrania or a soldier battling for good in Sharavath, and if you ask a question about military strategy, it will be a spirit acting as a general whose specific shtick governs battle plans. Even they think they embody part of the Sovereigns but don't know for certain if there is a spirit embodying a Sovereign as a whole or if this is just a construct of human (and fiendish, and celestial) imagination.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
And those don't seem to be the sort of thing that could start up interesting scenarios, to you?
Sure it could, but were it to happen often the deities would get mad; and direct divine confrontation is, by practical and general agreement, not seen as good for anyone - to fight their battles for them is why they have followers and Clerics and monions and so forth. :)
 


Cruentus

Adventurer
So in other words, you've got all these deities ... and they basically sit around doing nothing. Is that it? This is fun, then?
This is why I don't have my deities be very "hands on". The clerics and heirarchy of the world should know the teachings of that particular religion or deity, and so they can go about their business following the dictates of their particular deity/religion and do what they need to do. The gods have better things to do, keeping the world turning, keeping their divine enemies in check, or who knows, maybe off building new worlds somewhere else, and the cleric keeps getting their spells.

The gods don't have to be doing anything for it to be fun and interesting for clerics. Its actually up to the player to make it fun by engaging with their chosen class and deity to flesh out the world a bit, and bring things to the table. I ask potential clerics, before we begin play, to describe their deity, rites, holy days, prayer days, who are their enemies, etc. Describe what those prayers entail, are they done every day? Every week? What kinds of celebrations for the faith are "must attend services" type days? etc. If you don't want to give any of those things any thought, why are you playing a cleric? At least, imo.
 

Hussar

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.

Exactly what it says in the spell - some extra planar entity. Commune doesn’t necessarily directly speak to your deity.
 

Hussar

Legend
Now, to be fair, I don’t like godless clerics. I think I was pretty clear on that.

But the 10th level cleric power to call in divine intervention would simply be handled the same way - an agent of that deity/ something that embodies that philosophy would pop up and do what’s needed.

I don’t quite see what the problem is.
 

And again -- what makes you think that whoever answers the phone is telling the truth about their identity?
For me, it's contrasted with the spell contact other plane, where the practitioner expressly don't know who they are contacting. They only know how alien they are. Then there's the "you have to mean it, Harry..." theory of spellcasting. If you undergo a ritual to contact a god of Justice, you are placing yourself into an altered state where the principles and theme of justice are central to your being. That state of mind may be hidden or repugnant to another being not so aligned, and thus unable to approach the cleric's mind.
 


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.
Ho you are sooooo wrong on this. Of course, if the DM does not read and do not develop the religion in his campaign then the player is not at fault.

But in campaigns such as mine where the ethos of the god is of utmost importance, where gods literally speak each morning with its major priests just like in 1ed, then the priest of Pelor that is a simple murderer will not get spells at all. Only in fighting evil and those that would oppress the weak and innocent will a priest of Pelor actively kill someone.

And how does your DM role play the fact that you are a priest? Do some NPC come over to the priest and ask for guidance on important non combat matters? Does the DM treat the priest like trash when he comes into a shop? Or is the owner deferent and respectful of his status as a priest? When my priest comes into a town, a flock of people are happy to see a defender and holder of the holy laws to come to them. If the local priest is of lower level than the traveling priest, he often offers them to take the shrine, church or even the big temple over and lead them!

A lot of people are reducing the importance of clerics as only casters with cure wounds. They are so much more but a many do not like to have a set of guidelines to follow. A lot of people write Lawful Good, Neutral Good and Chaotic Good to please their DM but in actual play, they are often of the chaotic neutral breed with a strong tendency toward evil. When these players come into contact with a DM that truly follow how characters and alignment are supposed to be played, they are often at loss as to why things do not go their way...

I had a king bow down to a cleric of ninth level in a Friday night dungeon exhibit. A young onlooker could not understand why a king would bow down to a simple ninth level cleric. Hey, that man speaks with his god on a daily basis, can raise the dead and have saved more than a few people during a plague, and invasion and quite a few more feats without asking anything in return, it is only justice that the king recognizes his actions and devotion.

And the cleric was a cleric of Pelor. So yep, playing a cleric is much more than playing a fighter with cure wound spells.
 
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Hussar

Legend

Ahh, oops. Mispoke. I thought the fact that I said that they were cabalistic, which means that they are not beholden to gods for their spells. But, the gods still exist and the culture around the different cabals would still venerate that particular deity. It's just that that particular deity couldn't care less about what mortals do. They are unreachable. Sorry, when I said that I don't really like godless clerics, I was more referring to clerics of a given philosophy. My world still has gods. It's just that if your cleric of Heironeous wants to be a murdering bastard, Heironeous won't do anything about it. Now the other clerics in your cabal might be a different story.

One thing I will disagree with @Helldritch about is the idea that the DM must be the sole source of clerical guidance. I actually very strongly reject that. It's the player's character. And I find that such heavy handedness (refusing to grant spells and the like until the cleric player gets with the program) is the primary drive behind players loathing playing clerics, often only doing so under duress from the group (we used to call it falling on the cleric grenade) and become increasingly hostile to the DM having any sort of hooks or influence over their character. So, honestly, that's why I've simply put everything in the player's lap. It's your character. You're the one playing the cleric. Let's see you do it. And, that has led me to this notion of clerics as cabalistic wizards because now, while I have ZERO direct input into your character (I can't withhold spells, I can't directly intervene in your character at all) it does allow me all sorts of indirect influence if I need it - the other clerics of the cabal can step in. People act a certain way towards various cabals. So on and so forth.

I mean, heck, the current cleric in my game didn't actually know who his deity was for most of the campaign and it has only been revealed recently. I have a fantastic player that doesn't mind me getting my fingerprints all over his shiny paint job and collaboratively we have really, really brought this cleric to life. He's definitely in the drivers seat, but, I've been able to play onboard navigator from time to time and it's been fantastic.

Compare to the last cleric player I had when asked what god did his character worship, replied with, "Umm, we've been playing this campaign for eight months, but, what setting are we in again?" :erm: He was only choosing to multiclass into cleric to get access to some cleric spells to make his sword magical because he was pissed off that I hadn't dropped magic weapons in the campaign (Ghosts of Saltmarsh is REALLY stingy with magic items). The fact that his character was choosing to be a priest just didn't matter to him one whit.
 

Davies

Legend
Ahh, oops. Mispoke. I thought the fact that I said that they were cabalistic, which means that they are not beholden to gods for their spells. But, the gods still exist and the culture around the different cabals would still venerate that particular deity. It's just that that particular deity couldn't care less about what mortals do. They are unreachable. Sorry, when I said that I don't really like godless clerics, I was more referring to clerics of a given philosophy. My world still has gods. It's just that if your cleric of Heironeous wants to be a murdering bastard, Heironeous won't do anything about it. Now the other clerics in your cabal might be a different story.

... so. The gods exist, but they don't care about what mortals do, don't have any ability to deny the clerics their spells, won't do anything to punish those who blaspheme against them.

They might as well be imaginary entities in-setting. What is the point of them existing, again, beyond being local color?
 


Ahh, oops. Mispoke. I thought the fact that I said that they were cabalistic, which means that they are not beholden to gods for their spells. But, the gods still exist and the culture around the different cabals would still venerate that particular deity. It's just that that particular deity couldn't care less about what mortals do. They are unreachable. Sorry, when I said that I don't really like godless clerics, I was more referring to clerics of a given philosophy. My world still has gods. It's just that if your cleric of Heironeous wants to be a murdering bastard, Heironeous won't do anything about it. Now the other clerics in your cabal might be a different story.

One thing I will disagree with @Helldritch about is the idea that the DM must be the sole source of clerical guidance. I actually very strongly reject that. It's the player's character. And I find that such heavy handedness (refusing to grant spells and the like until the cleric player gets with the program) is the primary drive behind players loathing playing clerics, often only doing so under duress from the group (we used to call it falling on the cleric grenade) and become increasingly hostile to the DM having any sort of hooks or influence over their character. So, honestly, that's why I've simply put everything in the player's lap. It's your character. You're the one playing the cleric. Let's see you do it. And, that has led me to this notion of clerics as cabalistic wizards because now, while I have ZERO direct input into your character (I can't withhold spells, I can't directly intervene in your character at all) it does allow me all sorts of indirect influence if I need it - the other clerics of the cabal can step in. People act a certain way towards various cabals. So on and so forth.

I mean, heck, the current cleric in my game didn't actually know who his deity was for most of the campaign and it has only been revealed recently. I have a fantastic player that doesn't mind me getting my fingerprints all over his shiny paint job and collaboratively we have really, really brought this cleric to life. He's definitely in the drivers seat, but, I've been able to play onboard navigator from time to time and it's been fantastic.

Compare to the last cleric player I had when asked what god did his character worship, replied with, "Umm, we've been playing this campaign for eight months, but, what setting are we in again?" :erm: He was only choosing to multiclass into cleric to get access to some cleric spells to make his sword magical because he was pissed off that I hadn't dropped magic weapons in the campaign (Ghosts of Saltmarsh is REALLY stingy with magic items). The fact that his character was choosing to be a priest just didn't matter to him one whit.
So... make thw gods more defined and proactive in your games. Make being a cleric a very important choice. When a cleric wants to multiclass in some other classes in my games, the god will communicate with the cleric. It will ask why. Why does the power I give you is not sufficient? Why do you leave me? Don't you fear that your new focus will drive you away from me?

All these will be asked and the cleric will have to have good answers. This maybe why I do not get paladins going warlock. A diety will not accept that one of its faithful serve an other master. The same goes with the warlock that would like to go cleric or paladin. A patron will not share allegiance with his "minion(s)".

A warlock will make a pact with some other power in exchange of something. Just like a cleric and paladin will devote themselves to a deity. Note that there are no philosophical clerics or paladins in any of my campaigns. Even in Eberron the philosophical.faiths are backed up by some form of deity. Then again, most of my players do not like Eberron, too steam punk for them...

It maybe why I fo not have problems with multiclassing as the patron of a warlock will ask questions and will be clear that the warlocks power.moght be denied IF the warlock goes some class with a god to back him/her up. Patrons are very allergic to shared allegiance and much prefer the warlock to be fully under its controled indenture for power. The same goes with divine classes save a few exceptions. Druids and rangers are notable because they follow a broader concept of nature. It explains why that unlike the paladin, the ranger has known spells and not the whole spell list.

I know that at some table this would be viewed with character building inference from the DM, but I must point out that this has been voted upon and accepted by all players. We view this as a necessary mean to enhance the immersion in the world. We like to have our supernatural being involved a bit more than power providers. It gives them purpose and a definite taste that is missing in many campaigns. We strongly believe in what you chose as a character can and will have repercussion on him/her. For good or bad, the gods and supernatural patrons are there and they want exclusivity.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So in other words, you've got all these deities ... and they basically sit around doing nothing. Is that it?
Not at all.

Those deities have far FAR more to see to than just my little speck of a game-world. There's a near-infinite number of worlds out there, and though there may be some local differences, under the hood Moradin is the same dude on each one of 'em. Zeus to your faux-Greek culture is the same Zeus as to mine - there's just one of him to handle all these prime material worlds. Tiamat has dragons to look after on more worlds than you can count. And so on.

Add in that they've got their own divine-level stuff going on, and these deities are Very Busy Individuals!
This is fun, then?
Define, in this instance, fun.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Now, to be fair, I don’t like godless clerics. I think I was pretty clear on that.

But the 10th level cleric power to call in divine intervention would simply be handled the same way - an agent of that deity/ something that embodies that philosophy would pop up and do what’s needed.
An agent or minion of the deity showing up is more than fine. Most people in the setting who think they've met a deity (and there's not that many who have) have in fact met a divine minion. A classic example is someone who has met a Valkyrie might think it was Sif herself stopped by, as that's who the prayer went to.
I don’t quite see what the problem is.
For me, it's that I can't reconcile philosophies or alignments having the same type of active and independent-thinking consciousness as would a deity - and this is coming from me: I'm normally a big proponent of having alignments in the game but to me this isn't what they're for.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So... make thw gods more defined and proactive in your games. Make being a cleric a very important choice. When a cleric wants to multiclass in some other classes in my games, the god will communicate with the cleric. It will ask why. Why does the power I give you is not sufficient? Why do you leave me? Don't you fear that your new focus will drive you away from me?
I don't take it that far but in my game there are some deities who won't allow their Clerics to multi-class into certain other classes e.g. many of the more Good-ly deities frown on - or outright ban - their Clerics multi-ing into Necromancer or Assassin.

Some other deities, meanwhile, actively encourage their Clerics to multi-class. A deity of Thievery, for example, might encourage his more nimble Clerics to take up Thief as a second class; and would gladly accept a Thief taking up his Clericism as a second class. (worth noting I hard-cap the number of classes a character can have at two)
 

Hussar

Legend
... so. The gods exist, but they don't care about what mortals do, don't have any ability to deny the clerics their spells, won't do anything to punish those who blaspheme against them.

They might as well be imaginary entities in-setting. What is the point of them existing, again, beyond being local color?

Nothing really. They are exactly as important in the game as the cleric players want to make them. I just got so tired of fighting against the current that I just make clerics fit with what people have repeatedly told me through their actions what they actually want to play.
 

Hussar

Legend
So... make thw gods more defined and proactive in your games. Make being a cleric a very important choice. When a cleric wants to multiclass in some other classes in my games, the god will communicate with the cleric. It will ask why. Why does the power I give you is not sufficient? Why do you leave me? Don't you fear that your new focus will drive you away from me?

All these will be asked and the cleric will have to have good answers. This maybe why I do not get paladins going warlock. A diety will not accept that one of its faithful serve an other master. The same goes with the warlock that would like to go cleric or paladin. A patron will not share allegiance with his "minion(s)".

Yeah, this is precisely the heavy handed DMing approach that I will not take at the table anymore. IME, when DM's do this, players just refuse to play these classes. Players get REALLY fussy about the DM stepping in and telling the player, "Sorry, nope, you can't multiclass because I don't think you should" is NEVER going to go well.
I know that at some table this would be viewed with character building inference from the DM, but I must point out that this has been voted upon and accepted by all players. We view this as a necessary mean to enhance the immersion in the world. We like to have our supernatural being involved a bit more than power providers. It gives them purpose and a definite taste that is missing in many campaigns. We strongly believe in what you chose as a character can and will have repercussion on him/her. For good or bad, the gods and supernatural patrons are there and they want exclusivity.
If it works for your group, then fine and dandy. This most certainly will not work in mine. There is just zero chance that I would be able to be this heavy handed in the game. Any time I've even suggested the barest whiff of any sort of overview by the cleric's deity, it has been immediately and very, very vocally rejected. And, in groups where I've been a player and not the DM, I've watched as players will just flat out refuse to play divine characters with DM's who play like this. It just won't work for me.

I remember years ago running a Scarred Lands campaign back in the early days of 3e. Now, Scarred Lands has VERY active gods. As in the gods routinely walk the world and you can meet them. It's very Greek Mythology based. Very fun. Had a priest of the Lawful Good god player stand by and watch while orcs (Titanspawn and the sworn enemy of the divine races) torture and murder many people without so much as a peep. So, I stripped him of his higher level spells until he atoned. He committed suicide by troll at the first opportunity and came back with a non-cleric character rather than deal with atonement.

My experience with being able to directly influence players has, with a few very notable exceptions (the recent cleric being one of them) has been very strongly negative.
 

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