“Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a God, you say yes!”
— Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters
If you are running a fantasy RPG, its only a matter of time before before someone call out for divine assistance. Even in games without specific rules for divine magic, there still might be devout characters or villains in service to dark entities from beyond the veil. The question is then, who are these gods and what is their relationship to those who worship them?
What RPG gods are not — Mystical reality
It is very tempting — and many well-known game settings have done this — to model your in-game gods after historical myths. While this can help players gain an immediate understanding of who a god is and what it stands for, it is not without its problems.
Like adopting any canon, historical or fictional, this comes with a lot of detail that you may or may not want in your game world. You may decide to add the thunder god Thor to setting, only to be told by a player that the god’s history of deception of the dwarves makes him their enemy. This is just a small example, but one of many unintended consequences of adding outside material to a game world.
Also, gods serve a much different role in history than they do in a game. Religion in the ‘real’ world served to give people a sense of identity, a shared vision, and in many cases a moral role model on living their lives. Priesthoods were there to reveal the god’s wishes and seek their favor. This was often vague, open to widely different interpretations, and led to more conflicts than resolutions.
In a setting where the gods are detached and uninvolved, this can be fine. But in the case where the gods take an active involvement, granting divine spells, offering visions, or even intervening in the affairs of mortals, this can be quite different. The god’s will might be quite plain, heretical priests will be cut off (if not struck down), and differences between faiths might be played out on a much bigger stage.
What RPG gods are — transactional fantasy
In this kind of setting, gods are more like super-powerful patrons that share their power with those that are loyal to them, and execute their goals. Not to steal the mystery from it, but the devout are like the field representatives of a large organization, with the god (or gods) as executive management. There may be layers of management, and the goals and codes of conduct may vary widely, but the premise is similar.
Say you have a god of might and justice, a true paragon of virtue. Its goals are undoubtedly clear and concrete, and its followers would probably be given fairly strict guidelines for behavior. Deviations from these guidelines might be severely punished. The religion of this god might have several orders of adherence, each with their own goals and restrictions. A militant wing might be empowered to root out evil and destroy it wherever its found, and a judicial wing to maintain order among the people and defend the common good. Meanwhile, the rank and file would simply be encouraged to live justly and obey the clergy. This religion could have a lot of competition and internal conflict, but the faith would be codified. There may even be ‘senior management’ that steps in when the field agents cannot see eye-to-eye.
A goddess of the hunt might take a different approach. Its rules may be looser — keep the natural order, preserve the wilderness — and it organization may be based more in a pack than corporation. But it will still have some level of hierarchy and rewards and punishments for its followers.
If you have a player who is interested in playing a religious character, it is often best to enlist them in this process. Just having a brief discussion about how they see a god’s viewpoint, organization, and objectives can be very helpful to both of view once play begins.
Depending on your setting, the gods might have drastically different involvement in the players’ lives. Some gods might revel in supporting their devout followers with boons, or tweak their rivals by undermining their heroes. Others might be more detached, reserving their intervention for important moments, or merely giving their followers the tools to achieve greatness on their own. This kind of thing can really change how a game is played, and can make players feel like their actions are less important, so it should be applied very carefully.
Our experiment: Divinity under construction
In the world we are building, the gods once had complete power over the mortal races, but the recent cataclysm has force them into a much lower status. They are more like powerful super-heroes and villains, struggling against each other and using the mortal races as proxies in these fights. Many of these gods have relationships with certain regions from before the cataclysm, but do not have nearly the power to control their followers like they used to. All of the spirits that used to inhabit the divine realm have now had to replenish three power in the world of Kneu, so that while individual divine power is diminished, there are aspects of it in many more things. It is almost as if every spring, forest, or hilltop carries a spark of divine power.
In game terms according to the Fantasy Trip, the gods have no ability to impart their power to their worshipers. Magic is achieved by harnessing the immortal power of the universe, but the gods themselves have ability to give it to mortals as a reward for service. The gods are extremely powerful magical beings, but there cannot be granted to others.
To keep with a bronze age feel, our small civilizations with have their own civic gods, that may or may not be connected to a larger group. The gods should reflect the personality and goals of their communities, but may take only a limited role in guiding their worshipers. At least morally— it is definitely in the spirit of the age to have gods intervene with mortal’s lives for their own ends.
The civic deity of Mesus (our starting community) should reflect the expansive outward-looking viewpoint of its people. Since they are seafarers, lets make her a goddess of winds and tides. For that matter, lets make her bird-aspected with wings for arms and extend avian features.
In the spirit of smaller gods, she would not in control of the seas, but rather one of many wives of the elder sea god. Her dominion would be over coastal tides and winds. Like these elements, she will be capricious and fickle, abandoning mariners as often as she saves them.
She favors the brave, and rewards those who are willing to risk the most. Religious festivals would revolve around the seasons and weather, and worshipers would seeks her blessings before undertaking any journey or commercial venture.
Lets call her Diomae.
Would you be a priest of Diomae? If so, what would your religious organization be like? And what would be your code of conduct, or greatest transgressions. If you have ideas or suggestions, let us know below: