Lets Build A Campaign Setting – Part 3: Gods (Their Role)
A cleric calls to her deity to grant her power to heal her comrade. A paladin invokes the name of his God to strike fear in the heart of his foe before smiting them. A dread priest calls to their infernal master to infuse them with a portion of their dark energy so that they might bring ruin to the world. A sailor says a quiet prayer for clear skies and a stiff wind before setting foot upon his ship.
Gods in tabletop roleplaying games have been around since their inception. They are big-time movers and shakers in the mortal realms, granting chosen disciples a portion of their divine gift to work in exchange for their devotion and the promise that they will oversee their all-powerful agenda here on the material plane. Sometimes they even send avatars; mighty embodiments of their physical form, summoned to do that which their disciples are unable to, like opening a jar of pickles.
"Curse this infernal contraption!"
Suffice to say, they are pretty important to a campaign world, specifically your campaign world. In the various player's handbooks, there are no fewer than four classes that rely heavily-if not entirely-on divine magic; the energy of the Gods. That number can grow exponentially with the inclusion of additional materials.
"Now what book did I see that in...?"
Gods play an important role in the actions and behaviors of your players' characters, but more so, these immensely powerful beings have figuratively, and quite literally, shaped the world. Their followers have built temples, shrines, towering effigies and other places of worship that dot the landscape of the world. They have fought wars in the names of their Gods. Entire nations choose a singular deity to rise up as their patron. Kings are crowned and killed with prayers to these entities. They have a place, but it is your job to figure out what that place is.
"Sure, it looks nice, but the stairs are gonna be a bitch!"
Gods come in a variety of flavors; good, evil, tricky, chaotic, stringent, wrathful, peaceful, and just about any other adjective you can conjure. And like the Greeks, the Norse, and countless other societies that have walked the earth, they often come prepackaged in an economy sized pantheon for your convenience. So then you must decide... Do I like one God, or Many?
Polytheism: The worship of a pantheon of Gods. This was popular back in ancient societies. Each deity of the pantheon was responsible for a particular, oddly specific set of domains which they both embody and watch over. The mighty Thor was the Norse God of thunder, lightning, storms, strength, and oak trees... because I guess they're also strong? Aries, the Greek God of War, embodied the physical, violent, and savage parts of war.
This is how the typical roleplaying God is set up. They represent one or a series of domains that their disciples can channel to work their mojo in the realm of mortals. This allows for a lot of flavor, a lot of divine intrigue, and some bitter rivalries between Gods and Goddesses that can shake the very heavens. Not only does it fit well with any roleplaying game that sports a cleric, but it it also opens up thousands of possibly story hooks for the Game master to work with.
Monotheism: The worship of a singular God. This being is often all knowing and all powerful, or at the very least, depicted that way. They are often represented by a very close, very closed religion that doesn't take kindly to those who worship other, stranger Gods. Monotheism is an excellent choice if you are going for a united religion that brings a large group of people together. However, it is not an easy fit for classic roleplaying games that strive to accentuate individuality. Classes that are customized by the choosing of domains will find themselves severely limited, as even singular Gods don't often possess domains that outright conflict with one another. You, as the Game Master, could rule that they worship aspects of the same God, but you may be shorting yourself story opportunities.
For our world, which we have been plugging away at, I see that is is feasible to use both in the campaign world. As you may recall, one of the large turning points in our world was that the bad guys won the decisive battle between good and evil, and that most of the civilized world is now controlled by a singular empire where people exchange personal freedoms for safety from the lawless savages that dwell along the borderlands.
This empire, and the villains who run it, are a united front, so it makes sense from a storytelling stand point to make them united in their worship of an evil entity, be it God or... other. With this new monotheistic religion in place, what becomes of the old Gods? Immortal beings just don't shrivel up and die that easily.
Well, what if Gods in this particular world can hold only so much sway over the affairs of mortals, so their intervention is limited at best. That would be a good reason to employ priests that can wield a portion of their divine power walking about, doing the works they decree. If these priests were either killed or outlawed, it would be difficult for their Gods to have any affect on the larger world, and I think our bad guys know this.
These aren't the incompetent villains that you see on Saturday morning cartoons (is that still a thing? Cartoons on Saturday mornings?). These folks beat the heroes and took the world for themselves. They aren't about to let anyone get an upper hand on them, so they cover their bases, decree that the worship of other is Gods illegal, and make the punishment for doing so death (don't want them wielding holy powers in a prison cell do you? Holy prison riots don't make for good press).
This doesn't outright remove other Gods from the campaign setting, but it does change the dynamic on how they work, how they are encountered, and how they act. Worship of these Gods will still happen. Faith is not a thing that is easily broken, no matter how evil the opposition, but fear of the consequences will drive the worshipers underground, sometimes in a very literal sense. I can see hidden shrines in home basements, and temples in caves and storerooms late at night becoming very big with folk who don't take well to the worship of this new God.
Think of it like the American prohibition era of the early 20th century. This didn't stop people from drinking, it just made them more clever about how they did drink. Speakeasy's became all the rage for those looking to rebel a little. These tiny, hidden bars and taverns showed up in the strangest of places. Re-skin the idea and change them from bars to temples, and you have a unique and interesting facet of your campaign world.
"Come and set a spell."
Now that we have a good feel for how worship in the world works, lets take a look at exactly what Gods to use. There is a plentiful plethora of per-established pantheons to peruse and pursue. The old school Greyhawk Pantheon is as tried and true as D&D itself, or if you are looking for more along the same lines, may I suggest the list of Forgotten Realms' many Gods? If you are looking for a harder edge, than the Gods of Eberon are a delightful choice. If you want to go balls-to-the-wall, than there are few pantheons that can compare to Pathfinder's Gods of Golarian.
If however, you are the crazy-type, the insane maniac that can't leave well enough alone and you are interested in cobbling together a God or Goddess with your own two hands... well, then my mad friend, you are in luck. Join me next time as we play with the fabric of the universe and build deities from scratch and populate the heavens... and the hells.
Just to recap, so far we have:
- A world where the bad guys rule in a lawful, militarized government that reduces the personal freedoms of its citizens in exchange for protection from crime and foreign invaders.
- The Empire has outlawed the worship of all other deities other than their own. People still worship the old Gods, but do so in secret.
- Technology sits around the 1700's, with guns a rare, but available commodity, likely in the hands of the evil empire.
- Magic and science are one in the same. There are corners of the world still unexplored.
Just keep building,