Building a Fantasy World VII: Deities
Most editions of D&D have been very neutral in terms of world lore. Races might receive a small assumption of flavour but this is very easily altered, and most classes make no assumptions regarding the type of fantasy world the DM is running. All save one: the cleric. The cleric makes a pretty huge assumption that is going to drive this entire blog.
Before I say my say, there are a plenty of good resources already on the web for creating fantasy pantheons. In a 30-second Google search I found this site and this site, (Edit: such as Lord Archon’s here) but there are many others. Feel free to check them or do your own search.
This is the seventh part in a series on fantasy world building.
Table of Contents
This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous
The Cleric Question
The cleric brings with it a heavy load of assumptions. There are gods in the world. These gods are separated by alignment and/or portfolio. And most importantly, these gods grant powers to mortal followers.
It’s possible to dump these assumptions, as Eberron did by having clerics of philosophies, and Dark Sun did so by not having gods at all. But these are pretty big changes. Dark Sun in particular was defined by its lack of deities: it was the world without gods (and, later, a world where the Primordials won). Given the existence of clerics is one of the very few core assumptions D&D Next makes regarding a world, DMs should remove clerics very cautiously. Making this issue even trickier, clerics are also one of the very few classes that can serve the role of combat healer, which makes them even harder to omit.
Because of this, clerics – and to a lesser extent Paladins – throw DMs a curve ball from a world building perspective. A DMs needs to know what gods exist in their world because it affects the abilities and options of clerics. If a player wants to roll a cleric, the DM needs to know what kind of pantheon is in their game world. As such:
Even if a DM is creating a Bottom-Up world created as the campaign progresses, they should give some thought to gods and pantheons.
Types of God
There are a number of different approaches one can take in designing gods for a campaign setting.
Standard Most D&D worlds stick with the standard Greek/Roman/Norse style of pantheon: a role for every god and every god with a role.
The gods represent a single attribute or archetype. The 5e playtest rules define a few of these quite nicely, but they often include important events (war, marriage, the harvest), natural phenomena (the sun, weather, seasons, death), and professions (blacksmiths, farmers, sailors). Sometimes there is an overlap (a god of the weather also being the god of sailors and fishermen, a god of both seasons and harvests). As an example, the Greek gods could arguably be divided into the gods of the air (Zeus), the land (Hades), and the sea (Poseidon). But there were also gods such as Ares (war), Athena (battle & wisdom), Nike (victory), Psyche (the soul), and Aphrodite (love).
For quick list or major divine portfolios Wikipedia has specific articles on Death, Fertility, Health, Hunting, Knowledge, Love/lust, Lunar, Night, Nature, Rain, Sky, Tree, Thunder, Water, War, Weather, Wind, and Wrath; those are the gods that exist in the most religions. Of course, as mentioned there’s often an overlap.
Personification Not every religion worships true deities. Instead of a being that has control over an element or force, it is possible to worship the force itself: there is no Thor, there is just Thunder. The “god” then becomes a personification of the force. This is akin to pantheism and animism. The force might be personal or impersonal, either having a personality and values or just existing. There may even be different aspects of the force, different personalities or perspectives. For example, fire is both a purifier and a destroyer. A little like how the mood god Jarilo is sometimes portrayed as changing personalities with the shifting of the moon.
Abstraction A step beyond the personification of natural phenomena, is personifying / deifying philosophical elements. These might be emotions such as Love or Hatred, alignments like Order and Anarchy, or actions like Creation and Destruction. The Hindu Trimurti/Trinity is a little like this, with Brahmā the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Śhiva the destroyer (although Śhiva can also be described as the “transformer”). Again, these personifications might have a personality (or two) or just be impersonal forces that grant power to those who tap into the force.
Types of Pantheon
There are a few different ways of organizing gods.
Extended Family These deities are all members of the same extended family. In this organization, gods beget gods and the children of greater gods become gods (or lesser gods and demigods). The pantheon might change over the years, as older gods fade away or are cast down by their offspring, much like the Greek gods cast down the titans. As an example, the Dragonlance pantheon is sixteen gods that are all related.
There’s always the slight “creepy” factor of familial pantheons. For there to be a second generation, some brother has to mate with his sister. Although divine inbreeding might explain why the second generation of gods are typically lesser gods.
One thing I’ve always wondered about is the lack of new gods. In most familial pantheons, the gods had their children at the dawn of time and then apparently stopped breeding. Grandchildren are almost always with mortals and not the web of distant cousins, and there’s seldom newly born gods.
Ascended Mortals A variation on the standard god is the idea of the ascended mortal. This is common in some campaigns, with a half-dozen examples in the Forgotten Realms and Golarion. It makes a nice option for a possible campaign end cap: become a god.
There are a couple questions raised by this. First, in a pantheon entirely made of ascended mortals, who made the world or the mortals? Second, what happens if these new gods have children?
There is also the potential for ballooning of the pantheon, as multiple characters ascend over time, requiring new roles and narrower and narrower portfolios. This was seen in the Forgotten Realms: there were different gods for Death and Murder and Assassination. It’s a little trickier to have a tight pantheon with symmetry and solid hooks without having to justify why certain roles were filled. For example, in a world where all gods were once mortals, who’d be the god of farmers? Is there really a farmer who was so good he shed his mortality and became a god? Likewise, there really should be multiple overlapping gods relating to adventuring or dungeon delving, each fighting for worshippers. It’s fun to imagine the god of farmers being a former rogue who saw opportunity but would rather be the god of merchants, but you can only effectively have a god cast against type once before it loses its impact.
Mix-and-Match This option combines the above, with some natural gods who were born gods (or created by high god), in addition to gods who were once mortal.
This has the strengths and weaknesses of both options. It solves the problem of who were the first gods, while also keeping the pantheon fluid and allowing players to potentially ascend. It’s easier to explain away the gods of uncommon yet expected portfolios, like craftsmen and fishers. But it can seem a little hodgepodge, with unifying element or design between the gods. And there’s still the opportunity for “god bloat”, with a rapidly inflating pantheon as mortals ascend.
The Forgotten Realms’ is archetypal of this, with multiple ascended mortals over several generations. The role of the god of magic has particularly rotated and has lacked some real job security.
One way to make this work is to put a cap of the number of gods, such as by saying there’s a limited godhead that can power the divine. The only way to ascend is through dead-man’s-shoes, so a god must be killed and replaced and their role filled.
Other Design Considerations
Here are some shorter points to consider when designing pantheons.
Polytheism or Monotheism? The first question a DM should ask is one god or many? Monotheism is tricky in D&D as the cleric class assumes multiple gods, so much so that clerical builds are dependent on different gods.
In the real world, many cultures have a single god. This could work in a fantasy world, with different races or cultures having their own god essentially creating a pantheon of different monotheistic faiths. It might also be interesting to have a single distant god with many churches and sects that fulfils the divided roles of many gods. As a real world example, the Abrahamic religions are pretty well connected, but there’s a great deal of dogmatic and philosophical differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
Racial Pantheons This is the Greyhawk design: many different pantheons each tied to different racial groups. There are gnome gods and elf gods and human gods and more. These gods aren’t just different aspects of the same divine being, but separate deities. This makes some sense, as the deities each created their own chosen people, and there’s no reason elves would respect a human deity (or ascended dwarf). But it definitely adds to the number of gods and there’s a heck of a lot of overlap in portfolios. Is a god of elven magic that different from a gnomish god of magic?
Dragonlance takes this in a different direction with the one pantheon but all the races have different names for the gods. In practice this just made for more names to remember with little payoff. It’s hard enough getting players to remember the name of a couple gods, let alone three or four secondary names.
National Pantheons The Forgotten Realms used this design, with different nations and ethnicities formerly having their own god(s) or pantheon(s). Some of this is mimicking reality, where the Egypt analogue worships gods resembling the Pharaonic pantheon.
In a larger world this might work, and can help emphasise the Other in foreigners, who worship unfamiliar gods. I can also help justify ignorance in the characters, as both the players and their PCs don’t know about the other faiths. And it can emulate reality somewhat, where different lands have radically different religions.
Alignment D&D also tends to add a clear distinction between good gods and bad gods which doesn’t usually exist in real world analogues. Zeus is just as capable of being a hero as he is a colossal jerk (and I’d be insane if I were to consider attaching a “Good” or “Evil” label to Islam or Catholicism).
Personally, I dislike it when PCs know an NPC is Evil (with a capital “e”) because of their holy symbol or choice of divine patron. “Oh look guys, it’s a priest of Nerull. Let’s kill him!!” At the same time, it can be convenient to have an Unholy Order of Bad Dudes that you can throw at your heroes without them worrying about the morality (or legality) of mass murder.
This can be avoided by making the Evil gods have not entirely evil portfolios. A god of Undeath or Murder will always be worshipped by jerks to be killed with impunity, but if the Evil god is also the god of the sea it gets trickier as sailors and fishermen might also pray just to maintain their livelihood and clerics might see themselves and performing a necessary service to a seaside community by serving an Evil god.
Alternatively, the conflict in the setting could be driven by Law versus Chaos. This was a big element of Moorcock’s Elric stories. Law versus Chaos was the big background conflict of Planescape and also drove the tension of Babylon 5 with law being represented by the introspective Vorlons and chaos being represented by the desire-focused Shadows.
Innate Power or Fuelled by Worship? This is one of those questions that I don’t believe has been answered by game lore, or at least not been consistently answered. Do gods need the prayers of mortals to sustain their power? Can gods be created by believing really, really hard? Do gods gain or lose power through the number of their worshippers? Can you weaken a god by killing all his followers?
This is really asking “why do gods want churches of mortal followers?” Other than vanity. Likewise, an answer might also explain why gods empower mortals through spells.
Overt or Mysterious? Some campaigns have the gods actively interfering in mortal affairs, directing wars, influencing politics, and generally walking among mortals. Actually… most D&D campaign settings have the gods taking an active role, up until Eberron.
This also leads to the question about why the Big Bad Evil God doesn’t just directly smite the heroes at level 1 before they get into the three-hundred or so fights it takes to pose a direct physical threat.
There’s some wackiness in having visible gods. Such as if faith is still required when you can literally talk to god, why people aren’t nicer when the afterlife is a certainty (and as Hell is pretty terrible), and the like.
Unified or Divided Churches? Most D&D religions tend to be fairly uniform. Worshipers of Tempus generally follow the same rough dogma, be they northern barbarians or southern warriors. I always found this ran a little contrary to the real world where any faith separated by even a few days travel began to shift to need of the parishioners – unless traditions were heavily established and documented.
But keeping things uniform keeps things simple and memorable. Remembering fantasy gods can be tricky at the best of times.
Gender A last idea is gender in gods. Greek and Norse gods have a set sex. Thor is always male, and Aphrodite is always female. But other religions have more fluid genders, and different aspects of the gods might be male or female. If you’re a quasi-phisical being with infinite power, what’s a little gender changing? The gods of Dragonlance often had multiple forms, some with different implied genders.
Making a Pantheon
Let’s move on to creating your own pantheon. Start by looking back at step one (The Hook) and step two (Conflict) and consider how much the pantheon and gods reflect those. Do your gods embody the hook of your word, contrast with the hook, or are largely separate. Sometimes the hook will impose limits on the pantheon, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Limits help reign in creativity, giving you a starting point.
From there, decide what type of pantheon you want. Decide if you want a narrow, focused pantheon or a sprawling pantheon of more niche gods, and decide if you want gods to be natural gods, ascended mortals, or a mixture. Decide on the organization and hierarchy of your gods: are certain gods more powerful than others? Is this consistent or does it vary from culture to culture?
These decisions can be informed by your campaign. In a Top Down world you have the freedom to pick a pantheon that fits your world. For a Bottom Up world created as the party explores it is better to have either a larger pantheon with many gods (so you can add gods as needed) or a few key gods (so you can create the entire pantheon quickly). The former option works well for games where the players have input in the setting, so they can just create their own gods and leave their mark on the pantheon.
When creating you gods, remember to ask yourself who would worship each god, and make sure there’s a god for most of the major professions and activities. Who do people pray to? There doesn’t need to be a god of scotch brewing, but there might be a god of revelry or alcohol might fall under the purview of the god of the harvest. The big professions would be the providers (fishermen, farmers, ranchers, hunters) and the makers (carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners). However, also consider the game. Who do adventurers worship? Not just the cleric or paladin (but the cleric domains are good starting points that need to be filled) but all the other classes. Who does the fighter dedicate his kills to during the heat of battle? Who does the rogue whisper a quiet prayer to while struggling with a difficult lock? Do druids serve a god of nature or do they draw their power from spirits of nature and primal powers?
The playtest document (and eventual 5e books) can help with this, as the cleric class has a list of domains and related gods. In the current iteration of the playtest there are eight archetypes for gods, which serve as an inspiration check-list it’s good to make sure all the core options are covered in case a player has their heart set on a particular type of cleric. As such, it’s a good idea to have each covered by at least one god. This might four gods that each cover two of the domains, eight gods that each fill a role, or even sixteen with several doubles. There will likely be more options later, so it’s handy to have some gaps in your pantheon.
At the same time, it’s advisable to not have a god that fits none of the established archetypes, as clerics of that god will lack rules support. At the end of the day, the pantheon you’re designing is for a game system, so it does have to support the rules. If you’re comfortable enough as a designer to make your own build for the cleric that’s fine, but that’s a bit of advanced design work that shouldn’t be done needlessly.
Once you have a loose idea of your pantheon (or the necessary starting point of your pantheon) you can flesh out the details of your gods. Decide on what the dogma and teachings of that god (or their church) are. What does the god encourage and what does the god discourage? What should followers do and what should followers avoid? What are the small sins (worthy of the equivalent of Hail Marys or small donations) and what are the mortal sins that will condemn the soul to the Nine Hells?
Foods tend to be an easy yet memorable restriction. There are so many examples in real life: no eating meat on friday, no eating between sunrise and sunset for a certain period, no eating pork or shellfish, etc. The harvest god might mandate daily consumption of beer, and the god of death might require the consumption of once-living flesh every holy day.
Limits on activities and actions might seem like a good idea, they should be done carefully. It seems easy enough to say “Friday is holy day and you shall make no labour nor shed any blood” until a Friday comes along in the game and the rest of the party wants to adventure. Or they’re trapped in a dungeon for a couple days longer than expected. This is fine if the intent is to make the cleric test their beliefs, and making religion a memorable and meaningful choice. But this is only fine up until it regularly impacts the player’s fun; the point of religious taboos is to restrict the character not the player.
Other restrictions might involve hair (cutting or not cutting), clothing (certain colours or articles), or accessories (crosses, prayer beads, totems or fetishes).
Decide what day of the week is holy (if any), and how followers of that god revere their god. Is it a quiet, respectful religion or a celebratory affair full of singing and praising. Are there sacrifice? Sacred animals?
You don’t need to give each god the details and history of the Catholic church, just a few key features. Think of each religion like an NPC: each needs one really memorable trait. Important and key religions might receive a couple smaller traits and extra details, but it’s all about the one memorable belief that captures the imagination and acts as a mnemonic trigger.
Gods in War World
Moving on to my sample pantheon for War World. When I first started this blog I actually had no idea what my pantheon would look like. I had been deliberately putting off thinking about it to apply my advice at the same time. I didn’t want the perpetual war of War World to apply too much to the gods. Having the gods always at war would justify their followers also at war, almost making the battles in the mortal world alright. If god says kill, you kill. But I wanted the wars in the world to be the result of mortal action not higher powers. People had chosen to start and continue the wars.
I continued to have no idea until I started writing about the greek gods and their trinity of Zeus (sky), Poseidon (sea), and Hades (underworld), which is pretty close to three of the four classical Greek elements: Air, Water, and Earth lacking only Fire. The elements are pretty big in D&D as well, and had a special role to play in 4e with the Primordials who were the opposites of the gods. I had been considering giving the Primordials a big role, liking that bit of the 4e lore.
As a small aside, I’ve been a little disappointed by how much the lore has pulled away from 4e. While I agree that pulling back changes in the lore to a 1e default is a good idea – in the event of contradictions go with the earlier version – many of the editions were good. The elemental titans gave the giants an interesting focus. I had been thinking of keeping some of the lore already, but after seeing neither archons nor primordials mentioned in the article on elementals I’m a little more motivated to make Primordials a big part of my world.
I’ll start with a High God. He created the world from the bones of the Elemental Chaos, giving it structure and order until there was a balance and allowed life to spread across the world. Then he created the Primordials: Sky, Sea, Land, and Underworld. The High God gave each dominion over their land and withdrew. The Primordials ruled firmly and inflexibly until they had children. These children were the first generation gods and shared a mixture of their parent’s elemental nature, but also a connection to the life giving them an abstraction not found in their parents. The four gods paired off and had children of their own, a second generation of gods that were even more tied to the world of mortals. The Primordials disapproved of the actions of the children and the existence of their grandchildren and there was battle and strife. Some say this was a great war in the Dome of Heaven while others equate it to a family squabble. Whatever the truth, the Primordials took a lesser role in the world, beginning to slumber amid their elements, letting their essence spread and dissipate.
This gives me twelve gods to work with in my world. The four primordials, that might still inspire elemental cults. The first generation of gods and the second generation of gods. Which I can kinda represent in a diagram like this:
The first generation of gods lack true names, having different names and titles for their various aspects. Being fickle and chaotic beings, beyond good and evil, they have different personalities and traits depending on what trait of fire or air is being called upon. (This is a cheeky way of letting me use multiple different primordials in my world, including classics such as Imix.
To design the second generation I combined the elements, and thought about how they would interact. So we have Hanala god of storms, who is the child of the Sky and Sea. The full list of the second generation is: Haneal lord of storms (god of battle, and master of weather), Lohar lord of metals (god of blacksmiths and miners), Raettu lord of nature (god of seasons and plants), Akasit lord of the sun (god of light and happiness).
For the third generation, I paired off the gods from the opposite side, mating Hanael and Lohar, with each having a child that takes after one parent. We have Jaidu god of magic and creativity, Tadir god of lightning and warriors, Phashay god of the harvest and farmers, and Sampait god of wealth and merchants.
The design of the portfolios was inspired primarily by the connection of the two elements. Water and air produce storms. Earth and fire produce metals. Metals and storms produce gold on one side and warriors on the other. I also looked to the 5e playtest document to make sure most of the archetypes were filled. Sampait, the god of wealth, was one of the last until I realized I lacked a Trickster deity. Not all of them are perfect fits, but there’s one for each and making the god fit the archetype helps inform the gods.
For alignment, my gods will all be variations of Neutral, so that there can be both good and evil followers. Given the focus on war in the world, I’d like subjective morality to be a theme. I want good and evil to be personal decisions and not tied to the gods.
One thing you might notice is the first sounds: Ha, Lo, Ray, Ack, Jie (or Jay), Ta, Fay, and Sa. One hard lesson I’ve learned is to avoid too many overlapping sounds for similar things. Two nations or gods or races that sound too alike will be hard for players to remember or distinguish. Naming is a finicky thing.
As a larger example, I’ll expand on a couple of the gods.
Haneal is the god of battle and storms, because both are wild chaotic affairs that spread across the landscape. She is not a lawful god, being unpredictable in her favour. She values strength and self-reliance. Evil followers believe that might makes right while good followers advocate teaching strength and independence.
Worship of Haneal is an outdoor affair, done before a storm or battle. There are no set holy days, for any day can be one of battle. Hanael cares little for small skirmishes or duels, and seldom grants her favour to individuals. People pray to Haneal for gentle weather, during storms for personal safety or the safety of loved ones. War clerics will often lead armies in quick prayers prior to large battles, with the chants used to motivate troops as much as gain divine favour.
Hanael asks little of her followers, save sacrifices in her name, typically grains, gold dust, and light objects that can be cast into the wind.
Raettu is the god of seasons and plants, being favoured by druids (although storm druids would also favour Hanael). She is a hard god for nature is heartless, being neither lawful nor chaotic and instead striking a balance in all things. Her followers accept this balance although good followers believe small acts of mercy and kindness will not upset the balance. Evil followers revel in the heartlessness and casual cruelty of nature, or place wilderness above other forms of life.
Worship of Raettu is done in specially sanctified glades or other secluded natural areas, such as small valleys. While these areas can be pruned for space, planting and the like cannot take place: the glades must be wild areas.
She is the god of wild untamed nature and not worshiped by farmers. She is revered by those who live off the land – such as hunters – as well as anyone travelling through the wilds. Traders and explorers give her offerings before long journeys. Clergy of Raettu only wear non-animal fibres such as hemp, linen, and cotton. They avoid wool and silks. Clerics try and live off of fruits, vegetables, and nuts and are only permitted meat once a week.
Mechanically, Raettu might fill the archetype of The Lifegiver, but that role might be better served by the plants and harvest god Phashay. As there is currently no “Plants” archetype, instead, clerics of Raettu might also follow The Reaper build. Every season has its end and winter and death are as much a part of nature as life.
Jaidu is the god of creativity including magic. Her purview is inspiration and inner brilliance. She is an orderly god of structure and form. While creativity can sometimes be wild and chaotic, it should always be a controlled and structured level of chaos, there must be patterns beneath the veil of abstraction.
Arcane magic is separate from the divine and Jaidu does not grant arcane magic to her followers, but she is held responsible for enabling mortals to learn the magical arts. However, the majority of her followers are bards, musicians, painters, and other artists. Even mundane craftsmen sometimes give thanks to Jaidu before doing the fine work on a project.
Clothing with bright colours are the mark of clerics of Jaidu, preferably also in the newest fashion. Accessories such as scarves and shawls are also common. Followers of Jaidu are required to create things of beauty. This might be a painting, a song, some pottery, or a poem. She also takes sacrifices of the elements of creation: ink, paint, wood or stone chips, and the like. These are places aside and burnt at shrines. This should be done at the start of each week, to ensure creativity for the following week.
Tadir is the god of lightning and warriors. While Haneal blesses battles and wars, Tadir blesses individual fighters. Tadir is a god of honour. Attacks must be announced, just as thunder is announced by lightning. Surprise and sneak attacks are the tactics of cowards. Good followers of Tadir are noble warriors and knights, while evil followers are honourable men of their words who lack all compassion or mercy.
Warriors of Tadir must identify themselves as such, adorning their armour with a lightning bolt. This is typically done on their shield or on their spaulder/pauldron. During battle, knights and followers of Tadir are obliged to offer no quarter or special treatment to other knights but at times of peace (even during a war but before or after a battle) all followers of Tadir are brothers and are to be treated with respect and hospitality (lay followers seldom go this far).
At the end of the week or prior to battle, followers of Tadir sacrifice an animal, offering the god its blood in place of their own. Once the animal has been bled, the worshiper can do what they like with the corpse. Before large battles, armies will often slaughter a few goats or cows and then cook and distribute the carcass among the professional soldiers.
The neat thing about creating your own mythology is how the stories and lore spread out in interesting ways. Clerics of Tadir sacrificing animals to their god is a pretty standard image, but the idea that the blood belongs to their god generates some inspiration. What if in War World, vampires were cursed followers of Tadir who kept the sacrificed blood or did not properly sacrifice animals, and now can only drink blood as a reminder of their sin. A generic monsters is suddenly made world specific without actually changing the monster.
Plus gods are a good way of making clerics and paladins stand out. A catholic bishop and a southern baptism minster both worship the same god but do it in very different ways, just like two clerics with the same build (such as protection or lightbringer) might be very different with different gods.
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