This month’s RPG Blog Carnival topic is Divine Worldbuilding, which comes at a fortuitous moment as I have had to begin designing a pantheon or two for my home campaign. I really should have given it thought much sooner, as I have two clerics and a paladin split across two groups. When it was just my home game, and I wasn’t looking at publishing the setting, I was fine hand-waiving the details and going with the gods as presented in the 5e PHB. But as I am going to publish this campaign world as a setting book, it seemed appropriate to make some decisions about the deities of my world. Not only is it better to do it now, before the characters get much higher in level, but these details can then inform and even form the basis of future plots.
Today I’m going to outline the first three big questions I ask when creating a pantheon from scratch, so you can see how you might get started. In articles later this month I’ll outline the next steps from there, and we’ll look at one of my finished pantheons, to give you an example of how to flesh out the pantheon for play. Let’s start!
1) Deities of What? – This question encompasses a bunch of more specific questions. In our own history, we can see that deities came into being to help explain aspects of the world we didn’t understand. So the usual starting place would be to look at the elemental forces of your world: fire, lightning, wind, water, and so on. Are there moons in your night sky? There’s probably a deity or deities associated with them. Is there an especially tall mountain, or an always smoldering volcano? Deity. Deities were also associated with common aspects of life which could be affected by unknowable or poorly understood influences. Thus we had deities of the hunt, for instance, because we needed someone to thank/blame when hunting was good/bad. When we later developed agriculture we had a deity for that, for much the same reason. Death deities are probably the most common across pantheons, as death and what happens when we die is probably the great unknowable.
Once you have a list of “primordial” deities, look at your campaign world and figure out where you are in your campaign’s history. If you’re running a campaign set in a rough, pre-history type setting, you might actually be done. But if the societies in your campaign world are more developed, chances are they’ve also expanded the influence and portfolios of their deities. That old deity of fire, for instance, may also be the new deity of the forge. Depending on the flavor of Death deity in your campaign, maybe its portfolio has expanded to include law and judgement in the mortal realm, as well as the hereafter. You may even need to create more modern deities. Early civilizations wouldn’t have needed a Deity of Trade or a Deity of Invention, for instance, but your current culture might.
And one final question, are you going to use a pantheon or not? While there may have once been primordial deities worshipped, perhaps there is now just a single deity encompassing all things to all people. But is it a true monotheism, or do folks also believe in lesser deities which support the main deity? The Catholic faith is a good example of this; while it is considered monotheistic (God), there is the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit), as well as what amounts to a pantheon of Saints, each a patron of some aspect of the world.
2) How do They Look? – This may seem superficial, but it can be an important question to answer because it will determine a lot about the visual aspects of faith in your world. Just think about how much art has been created or influenced by our world’s religions. As before, this question holds many more. Do the deities appear as paragons of the people who worship them? Do they appear gendered or non-gendered? Are they simply anthropomorphisms of the aspect they represent (ie, the Deity of Fire appears as a column of flame to their worshippers, the Moon Deity appears as a bright moon beam striking the ground or altar)? Do they appear at all? Maybe the deities in your campaign world are formless, and there are no direct representations of them.
As part of this, ask yourself if folks are even allowed to show representations of the deities. Maybe images of them are restricted in some way, or even forbidden. Perhaps the opposite is true, and everyone has their own personal idea of what their deity looks like, all equally valid. And does the deity in question have opinions on all this, or does it remain aloof on the question of its appearance?
The answers to these questions will inform aspects of your campaign world like: what do holy symbols look like? How are temples constructed and decorated? How do the clergy (and therefore your clerics, paladins, druids, and sometime warlocks) dress, both for everyday and for adventuring or battle? Can you tell the worshippers of one deity from another, simply by looking at them? Do any of the faiths engage in tattooing, branding, or scarification?
3) Who Worships Them? – The faithful, of course! But who is that? Is the deity species specific, and do they only allow worshippers from that species, or can anyone pay homage? Is the deity gender-specific? Is there a test to join the faithful, some aspect in which a potential worshipper must prove themselves to be a paragon? Or maybe you don’t choose the deity, the deity chooses you, and you can only be one of the “true faithful” if you have received a direct invitation from that deity.
And an even bigger question to answer: are the Deity and the Church on the same page? The Church may have some ideas about who can worship and who is truly faithful, divorced from the Deity in question. If so, what does that look like? Are ceremonies to that deity antagonistic, bordering on blackmail (“Look at this juicy faith we have for you! Give us spells and you can have it!”)? Does the deity sneak around behind the backs of the “True Faithful”, bringing those the Church considers unworthy into the faith? Maybe the situation is so antagonistic, ceremonies look very much like we’d imagine the summoning of a demon would, with the worshipper weaving protections and bindings to force power from the deity.
These three questions, and the little questions buried inside, allow you to piece together a framework for your deities. You can do this for each of the species in your world (and thus have human, dwarf, elf, etc pantheons) or do it once for all. Once you’ve put together this framework you can start adding to it, fleshing out the details for each deity. And that’s where we’ll pick up in the next article.
How do you go about creating the deities for your campaign? Comment below!