This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by the Dice Bag. Usually, religion is a subject I do not breach in public forum, at work, or with the in-laws (by and large they are Latter Day Saints). However, within the context of roleplaying games and science-fiction literature, I do love to read about, tinker with, and discuss the myriad pantheons available to use in a game.
I find that many gamers respond to alterations to the deities and dogma of their favorite campaign setting in much the same way as fundamental practitioners of any religion respond to dissimilar viewpoints on god(s). They balk, argue, and throw tantrums. Another reason I like creating my own “homebrew” settings; no one has any grounds to disagree with what you’ve done.
When I create pantheons for my worlds, I like to grab a few sheets of paper and begin “mapping” out the various levels and interactions of the pantheons/gods with a kind of flow chart. If I do it at the PC, I will usually open up FreeMind, which I reviewed here. I will then create nodes, which represent either entire pantheons or individual gods depending on which “level” I am working on. When creating a pantheon(s) for your game, there are a few things you should consider:
- Influences: Are you using existing sources?
- Breadth: How many gods occupy a layer?
- Depth: How many layers exist in the pantheon?
- Portfolios: What, if anything specific, does each god govern?
- Personalities: Define the gods’ personalities.
- Alliances: Are there one or more aligned groups?
- Church Structure: How are their churches organized?
- Worshipers: Who are the general members of each god’s church?
When designing pantheons for your world, the very first thing you need to decide is whether or not you are going to use an existing set or sets of deities either completely stock or as a foundation. You could look to real world mythologies [Egyptian, Greek, Scandinavian, Native American, Oriental, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity] or fiction-based resources [books, movies, video games, other campaign settings].
You can take each pantheon wholesale, include more than one (or all), or even mix and match deities. If you decide to mix and match, I highly recommend that you at least rename the majority of deities, as it could cause confusion among the players with even a nominal amount of recollection.
Another approach with using influences is to lift the structure and hierarchy of a pantheon. You could take the monotheistic approach of Islam, or perhaps a henotheistic approach where there are many gods, but only one is supreme.
As a rule, I almost never lift an existing pantheon for use in my game, unless it is on purpose (such as a game set on Earth). I try to mix it so that players may see the influence, but there is no mistaking that it is not the same.
Breadth & Depth
If you are borrowing from existing sources, this step in the process may already be decided. Now you need to decide how many different pantheons exist, and if there are any that may be subordinate to another. You can apply this step multiple times to each “node” you place on the pantheon map.
For example, let us say that in my new world, I have a pantheon for each major race. Long ago, the gods of the lizardmen were triumphant in their conquest of a quasi-elemental plane and subjugated the powerful entities there, which are deific in their power. So now there is a sub-pantheon of quasi-elemental entities that are both servants and messengers for the gods of the lizardmen as well as being venerated somewhat like saints or totem spirits by the lizardmen themselves. I could even take this a step further by saying that the chieftains are believed to be the children of the gods and are themselves venerated as deities.
I could then go into each level I just created and continue applying breadth and depth. The quasi-elementals could have three tiers of power, consisting of princes, dukes, and lords. Each prince rules over an aspect, such as swamp gas. I then create as many aspects as I need.
Rinse and repeat as necessary.
This is not necessarily a separate step, but something to keep in mind as you are creating the various pantheons and deities. Does an entire pantheon, a group of gods, or a single deity hold dominion over a concept, such as love or death? Is there even the concept of portfolios for your gods?
A god’s personality is usually defined by their portfolios, but do not be afraid to break the mold with this one. What is the story behind a god of war that is a coward and weakling? Many gods of wine and drink are frivolous beings who constantly party with decadence, how about a sad, mournful god that drowns his sorrows in alcohol?
It can be a daunting task to define the personalities of an entire pantheon, or pantheons, of gods, but I find this to be the most fulfilling part of the exercise. I find that once I have laid the foundation of the pantheon with the last few steps, this process just seems to flow. I also begin to look forward to the next step when creating personalities, seeing how these gods would co-exist with each other.
Deific alliances are wonderful sources for plot hooks, as the gods use the players as pawns in their immortal power plays. Alliances can occur between just two gods or may span entire pantheons. Maybe the pantheons of all the monstrous humanoids have joined forces to protect themselves from the onslaught of men and their gods. Maybe the god of lust has seduced the goddess of death, and uses her influence for his own agenda. The possibilities for story ideas are endless. Along with alliances, be sure to note enemies.
Churches & Worshipers
Not every deity may have an organized church, but the major players will. When thinking about church structure, look to real word or fictional examples. The catholic church is always a fun one to pull from. It is also important to consider the god’s portfolio and personality. The church of a god of war might be structured like the military. Just take care when using cliche structures (like the god of war).
Titles given to the priesthood will also likely reflect the portfolio of their god. The monks of the God of Beer may have the titles of Masher, Lauterer, Boiler, Worter, and Brewmaster. The clerics of the goddess of knowledge may have the titles of Adjunct, Lecturer, Professor, and Dean.
It may be important to note the worshippers of a given deity. Worshippers may be defined by class (poor, merchant, noble), race (human, vampire, dragon), profession (assassin, cobbler, sorcerer), lifestyle (hedonists, ascetic, masochism), or anything else that comes to mind.
It may also be useful to define any symbols associated with the deity, how worshipers conduct service, and if the church/worship is allowed by law. Does the church have holy writ? Are there rules for behavior? Are the worshipers tolerant of other beliefs?
This is a tribute to the Crs’Tchen Debacle of Dragon Magazine (retold by The Core Mechanic). Insert this faith into your campaign world if you need a corrupt religious organization full of plot hooks for adventures of political intrigue, betrayal, and misguided crusades.
The Shepherds are the worshipers of the True Creator, Genovah, and believe him to be the only true god. All other gods are false gods: demons, devils, and pretenders. Though the Shepherd religion has been around for nearly a millennium, it is considered an upstart by many of the other religions that can trace their heritage back to the days before words, when men communicated with simple drawings on stone. In that relatively short time frame, the Shepherds have become the most popular faith in the land.
However, within the last century, the Temple of Genovah has experienced some growing pains. The faith was fractured in the Grand Rift, when a growing number of priests had become disillusioned with the corrupt operations of the Temple. These priests, commonly referred to as the Objectors or Dissenters, left the original Temple, now known as Orthodox Temple, and began teaching their own sermons. The Objectors now make up half of the faithful.
Today there are hundreds of sects of Shepherds, each preaching their own brand of the faith. It is a wonder they can all call themselves Shepherds as the only thing they truly agree on is that Genovah is the only god to worship (though a few sects do recognize other gods, they just believe Genovah is supreme), and he sent his Harbinger and Prophet, Susej, to the lands of mortals to be sacrificed for their sins. Everything else is up for debate, or more than likely, war.
The Shepherd sects are in a constant struggle between themselves, attempting to prove that their version of the faith is the correct path to worship Genovah. However, the various sects set aside their differences all too quickly when confronted with the followers of a different god. Temple officials have concocted numerous lies and blamed plague, famine, and moral erosion on many other religions to incite intolerance, persecution, and outright war on those who would not convert.
The annals of history are stained by the innocent blood that has been shed in the name of Genovah. In fact, today many are afraid to practice their chosen religion in the open out of fear of being burned at the stake simply for being different.
Shepherds can easily be identified by the implement of torture and death they use as the symbol of their faith. Most wear a golden miniature of the contraption suspended by a chain about their necks and adorn their churches, homes, and businesses with this tool of execution, a crucifix, often with an image of the Harbinger, Susej, frozen in death upon it.
In the past, the image would have invoked disgust and horror, but now the icon is so commonplace that most people have become desensitized to the ghastly image of tortuous death. To display such a horrible image so casually is truly appalling.
The vilest aspect of the Shepherds is the secret of its creation and the lies used to control millions of followers. For while most of the faith are good people that have good intentions, the authority of the faith has led their flock astray, and direct their parishioners to line their coffers with gold and commit foul atrocities in the name of good.
For you see, the entire foundation of the Shepherd faith was built on lies, commandeered practices, and forced worship. The faith was engineered to attract followers, feeding them lies of salvation and paradise in an afterlife. It incorporated the rites, rituals, and personalities of older religions to appeal to the converted, and make them comfortable. It has duped its followers in tithing the majority of their wealth to ensure salvation. Most of all, it has allowed the Temple authorities to control the masses and further their own political agendas of power.
The Shepherds are a powerful force in the world, but what would happen should the truth be revealed? Would the faithful turn a blind eye, happy to continue worshipping a lie? Or would it spell the end of this intolerant religion? We may never know, for the keepers of these secrets are willing to keep them secret at all costs…
Listening to: Velvet Revolver – Contraband – Fall to Pieces
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3 thoughts on “RPG Carnival IV: Religion”
NICE to see some good meaty posts again here. Excellence becomes you and your writing – and thanks for the bump! I love the idea of The Shepherds as a parody on modern religions. I’ve toyed with monotheistic religions in my games before – but haven’t yet to take the plunge. It would be interesting to see a player decide their character is one of these Shepherds; interesting roleplaying would no doubt result. “I’ll agree to save the princess, King; but only if you convert to my faith and disavow your false gods first!”
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Thanks for the compliment. Yeah, I have certainly been a little content light recently, but hopefully I can remedy that. I have yet to use monotheism myself, though I have had crusades where one religion wanted to wipe all the others out. So while there were actually more than one god, the followers of one dominated.