RPG Blog Carnival: Making Deities

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!

Welcome to 2019!

Bit late to the party, I’ll admit, but welcome to 2019 everyone! This past year was…interesting. Definitely low points, some personal, some societal. On both fronts, though, 2019 seems to offer hope, so I choose to focus on that.

You’ll start to notice some small changes around the site in the coming weeks and months. I’m committing myself to a three post a week schedule, which will shake out to be a post over at The Rat Hole on Mondays, with two posts here either W/F or Th/Sa. I’m a happier Renaissance Gamer when I’m writing, so I’ve made time for myself to do that every day.

Two new projects are starting this year as well. I have promised myself that 2019 is the year I publish something for TTRPGs, hopefully several somethings. I have a short side-trek adventure ready for other eyes and playtest, that I hope to publish to DriveThruRPG or DM’s Guild in February. I’ll talk that up more when it’s ready, but as a teaser, check out the snazzy logo for my imprint, Prairie Dragon Press. It’s one of two logos by my pal and local designer Mike Kendrick (@ironcladfolly on the Twitters), and if you haven’t seen his work before I highly recommend it. He also did some poster art for the Pure Speculation Festival, and he is super talented and a joy to work with.

The second logo is for something I soft-launched last year, and am ready to push further this year. The Canadian Library of Roleplaying Games is going to be a bit more public this year. While I will continue to build up from my rather small collection of books, art, and memorabilia, I also want to start on the library’s other purpose, outreach and education. To start that will mean working with local cons and such to set-up displays and demonstrations. But eventually I’d like to expand that to the rest of the province and Western Canada. I’m also building out the Library’s website, including a database of what’s in our collection. So look for more of that in the coming months as well.

And while I’ve threatened to do it for years, I think this year is when I’ll also start podcasting. Between the new publishing imprint and the Library I’ll certainly have enough to talk about. In fact, the podcast will likely be focused on the Library, with occasional updates on other things. There are all sorts of folks I’d like to interview and chat with regarding TTRPG history, specifically Canadian industry history, and I hope that will be of interest to to other gaming nerds.

That’s all the updates I have right now. Monday will have a link to the Rat Hole article when it’s up, and regular service begins this coming week. Welcome to 2019, everyone! May the dice be ever in your favour!

Recommended Viewing

YouTube continues to deliver a plethora of tabletop related videos this month. Experience Points finished up the second season of its titular series and teased a third season, then began delivering an excellent new series. Thanks to folks on Twitter I also discovered some new channels and shows in the last few weeks. Let’s take a look at some of what I’m watching right now.

Before we do, though, I want to say thank-you to local artist Tsukino Hikaru (@mystarseed) for my swell new Twitter and blog icon. It was time for an update to my still excellent old chibi icon, and I think this is the perfect replacement. If you’re interested in getting some art done for yourself, I highly recommend checking them out.

On with the show!

All Hail Yog – As mentioned, Experience Points wrapped its latest season with a heartwarming finale. Rather than have us stare into the void until the hoped for Season 3, they have delivered a new series aimed at the darkness in all of us. All Hail Yog is an actual play series focused on a group of evil characters carrying out the will of their patron, Yog. Set in the same campaign world featured in the Experience Points series, we follow four truly despicable villains as they work together to steal a newborn elven child, heir to the Wood Elf throne. The shows feature Timothy J. Meyer as the DM, with equal measures scenery chewing and subtle menace from the four players (Kate Enge as Agnoment, Heather Lore as Desdemonia Malice, Cody Bushee as Dr. Hughbert, and Paul Vonasek as Erick Idylvain) Why does Yog want the child? Can our, er, heroes worm their way into the Elven kingdom and steal the child? Will the Doctor’s Beloved get her deer ear? Find out in this interesting look at what the villains get up to while the heroes are away.

The Crafting Muse – I’m always on the look-out for new TRPG crafting inspiration, so when I received a recommendation for this channel I was intrigued. Having watched a number of videos now, I can honestly say The Crafting Muse is now in my top five crafting resources online! Her videos mix clear instructions, obvious skill, and interesting projects in an almost perfect blend. Every video I’ve watched so far has included something which would enhance my gaming table and impress my players. Alongside the usual table top terrain builds, you can also find videos on dice towers, dice bags, custom notebooks and more. Regardless of your skill level as a crafter you will find a broad range of projects you can jump into. The host, Vee, is a funny and charming instructor, and has worked to build a positive community around her channel. Besides YouTube, you can find The Crafting Muse on Facebook, and join in on Wednesday live streams to meet other crafters. All in all, a great channel and a great experience.

Be Bold Games – As much as I love watching board game actual plays, sometimes I just need a quick, easily digestible breakdown of a game. Be Bold Games delivers that for me, in a fun, earnest way that I find uplifting. Almost every video is under ten minutes, and many are under five, perfect for getting a snapshot of a board game. And every video is packed with her obvious enthusiasm for board games! From the costume and setting designs right down to the various themed presentations, Bebo’s love of the material shines through, and that is inspiring. Her game summaries are clear and concise, and just what I need to decide if a game is in my wheelhouse. I particularly love her focus on accessibility and inclusivity, two key lenses for anyone in games media. Besides excellent game summaries, you can also find product reviews and interviews with game designers and publishers. If you love board games I highly recommend this channel. You can do worse than to start your day with a coffee and a Be Bold Games video.

That’s three from me, but I want to hear from you! What are you watching right now that inspires you? Drop a comment below and share!

November RPG Blog Carnival: Worldbuilding

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is all about world building, something I’ve been doing a lot of for my two D&D 5e campaigns. I thought I’d share a little something from the primer I created for my players to help give them a sense of the world.

While I generally kept the mechanics of the various PHB races as written, I changed the backgrounds of almost all the races to better fit the events of my campaign world. I made two big changes right at the start. First, only some of the playable races are native to the campaign world (dragonborn, dwarves, halflings, humans, half-orcs, and tieflings) while the rest derive from the invader races (elves, dark elves, gnomes, half-elves). Second, I try to refer to them as “species” rather than “races”, as I later intend to make a distinction between a character’s species and culture when I flesh out the game world.

So below is my quickie primer on the species of my campaign world. I’ve stuck with the native species for this post, and I’ll talk about the invader species in a later post.

Intelligent Species Native to Cotterell

Dragonborn

Dragonborn are a race created by the Draconic Empires to fight in the Gate Wars. A dragonborn is created in one of two ways. The first involves an arcane process kept secret by the Empire, by which the dragonborn are gestated in an egg and hatch as almost fully-formed adults. This process involves the passing along of racial memories, so the “Eggborn” are able to mature very quickly into adult dragonborn. The second involves the arcane manipulation of an infant or very young child from another race, to change them into a dragonborn. In this case the “Created” must be raised as normal, as it is not possible to transfer racial memories during this process.

While it was not conceived that the race could or would ever breed true, to the surprise of the Draconic Empire that came to pass shortly after the Cataclysm. These naturally born offspring are still hatched from an egg, and racial memories do seemed to be passed along, though the infant must still be raised normally. However, maturity is still reach sooner than with a comparable human infant; puberty is reached by age 5 or 6, and such dragonborn are considered young adults by age 10-12.

Telling them apart from each other ranges in complexity. It is easy to tell a Created from the other two types of dragonborn; unlike the Eggborn and natural born, the Created have no tails. Telling the difference between naturally born and Eggborn can be more difficult, though not impossible. Generally the Eggborn are less socially well-adjusted than their natural born cousins. Racial memories do not include social interaction, so while they are not generally unfriendly, the Eggborn tend to be more socially awkward and bad at picking up on social cues. And of course, any dragonborn child encountered can safely be assumed to be a natural born, as long as it has a tail.

Dwarves

Even before the Gate Wars and the Cataclysm, Dwarves were divided into two distinct groups. Mountain Dwarves avoid contact with other races, remaining in their Great Halls (cities) under the mountains across Cotterell. Even when called to war, they fight in full suits of Dwarven steel armour which utilize full helms which they never remove except in private. Only on the rare occasion that another race is granted audience with a Dwarven ruler, is there the possibility of seeing a Mountain Dwarf’s face. It is uncertain whether this restriction is societal or religious, as no Dwarf will speak of it even if questioned.

Hill Dwarves, on the other hand, maintain contact with other lands through trade and commerce, and make-up what would be considered the diplomatic corps for the Dwarven peoples. They predominantly live in communities built near both Great Halls and other cities, the better to facilitate trade and diplomacy. Except under exceptional circumstances, if you see the smiling face of a dwarf outside of the Great Halls, you look upon a Hill Dwarf.

Halflings

Due to the Faewild Gate opening in the heart of their lands, and the subsequent Cataclysm laying waste to that same territory, halflings are a largely displaced population. Both agrarian and inventive by nature, the halflings were largely responsible for the innovations which allowed cities swollen with refugees and survivors after the Cataclysm to be able to eke out enough food to survive. They were among the first races to begin pushing out from the cities once it was deemed safe, reclaiming useable farmland a few feet at a time, if necessary. Eager to reclaim what was once theirs, halflings were also among the first races to fund and/or lead trade caravans (restoring overland contact between the Survivor Cities) as well as expeditions to explore further into the countryside.

Half-orc

Before the Cataclysm, the Orcish City States were centres of learning and knowledge, home to universities and libraries unparalleled except in the Dragon Empire. While much history has been lost, however, it is still remembered that the Orc City States rode to fight alongside Cotterell in the Gate Wars, and they suffered losses just as great during the Cataclysm. Greater, some might say, as the orcish cities relied heavily on magic and so were severely disrupted during the Cataclysm. They also came under the heaviest post-Cataclysm attacks, being closer to the Faewilde Gate. So complete was the disruption and so overwhelming the attacks, each orcish city chose to flee with as much of their collection of knowledge as they could carry, becoming nomads. Each nomadic group is charged with the protection, preservation, and adding to of the knowledge they carry. They have done so in the centuries since the Cataclysm, with the hope they may one day rebuild their cities and make this knowledge safe again.

So while Orcish ancestry may be considered odd and even undesirable to the rare few, there is no widespread prejudice against half-orcs. It should also be noted, the term “half-orc” is used to describe any person with obvious signs of orcish ancestry, regardless of how far back that ancestry entered the bloodline.

Tieflings

Tieflings are a comparatively young race, as they came about as a direct result of the magical contamination following the Cataclysm. Borrowed from the Fae, the word “tiefling” roughly translates as “spoiled” in the Common tongue. No one is quite sure how it happens, but a small portion of children born among all races come into the world bearing the mark of magical contamination. Some have odd hair or eye colours, while others may sprout horns, grow a tail, or manifest wings. Whatever the outward signs, that person will also manifest strange abilities and magical aptitudes.

As noted above, Tieflings can derive from any of the other species. While there may be mistrust and discrimination on a case by case basis, there is no widespread stigma to being a Tiefling. For many people, the existence of Tieflings is simply a daily reminder that the Elves still have much to answer for.

What do you do for races/species in your campaigns? And don’t forget to check out the other RPG Blog Carnival entries for this topic.

Extra Life and Gamealot

I’m off to one of my favourite local cons this weekend, Gamealot. Not so coincidentally started and run by one of my favourite game stores, Mission: Fun and Games, Gamealot has grown from an in-store event to filling the Kinsmen Club in St. Albert. Despite its growth it has managed to keep an intimate community-driven feel that I love in my game cons. It is one of my two main board game cons, and calendar-wise it balances out nicely against Spring’s GOBFest. Plus there is an excellent family-friendly atmosphere, helping to ensure our next generation of board gamers. I’ll be there with my buddy Dave from The Rat Hole, as both of us are reps for Cheapass Games. We’ll be running a variety of demos and small tournaments both days. Still plenty of tickets available, so come on out and play some board games this weekend!

In Extra Life news, thank-you so much to everyone who has donated and shared my donation link. Because of all of you I am now just over halfway to my $1000 goal, with a few weeks left until the day. Please follow the link and donate, any amount helps, and you can do some cool things to either come play D&D with me or affect the game if you don’t want to play. I’m super excited about game day, though sign-up for the game has been a bit sparse. But I have a back-up plan in case the D&D game doesn’t come off the way I’d like, so there will be gaming of one kind or another.

That’s my quickie update for this week. Have fun, play games, and maybe I’ll see you across the table this weekend.

Engaging your Players: Player Homework

I prefer to build a world/campaign focused on the player characters. Like characters on a TV show, the action of the story should revolve around them. I also want the world to feel fleshed out, so I include things that have nothing to do with the players. After all, in the real world there are lives and events going on all around you that have nothing to do with you. So I try to keep about a 70/30 split of character-focused versus unrelated plot.

At the start of a campaign I ask my players for some sort of background for their character. Many GMs ask for a straight-up written bio, and while I’m happy to take those not all players are comfortable writing what amounts to a short story about their character. So a few years ago I expanded my request for background info to include things like:

  • character biography, written out or point form;
  • map of your character’s home village, or farm, or city street;
  • description of your mentor growing up. Could be a family member or the woman who taught you how to fight;
  • a description of both your best friend and nemesis growing up;
  • a sketch of family members, the home you grew up in, favourite pet et al

The point is, not every player engages with the campaign narratively. Giving your players other options can yield details about your campaign world you might not have developed on your own. And things like these are just begging to be included in your campaign! If a player draws for me a map of their home village, of course we’re going to have an adventure set there. How can I pass up a golden moment to engage that player and connect their character to the campaign?

Once the campaign is running, I encourage players to keep their ideas about the world around them coming. For instance, in a one Pathfinder campaign I’m GMing the party’s gnome sorcerer works in a theatre. So I asked her to give me a general layout of the theatre as well as some folks that might work there. Homework like this does two things. First, it gets the player more involved in the campaign world, and gives you a glimpse of how they see the campaign world versus how you see it. If parts of the world fit their vision better, it is easier for them to immerse themselves in the campaign. Second, it takes some of the writing and creation pressure off of you. I could just as easily have drawn up the theatre the character worked at myself. But I’d be taking time away from other session prep to do it. Letting my players help gives me a chance to kill two cockatrices with one stone; I get interesting bits of character related campaign info, and I can focus on creating and running exciting events and encounters for my players.

A key component of this player homework for me is rewards. I tell my players flat out at the start of a campaign, if you give me some sort of character background you will get a tangible, in-game reward. I could just give an experience point or build-point bonus for it, but I try to connect the reward to some aspect of the character’s background. The more connected and specific I can make the reward, the better. For example, in a recent campaign I rewarded a wizard character with 250gp worth of scrolls, written by her, because her background talked about her learning at the hands of itinerant wizards. I imagined her character quickly jotting down what notes she could in the hopes of expanding her spell repertoire, trading scroll scribing for lessons. Another player in the same campaign is playing a paladin of the goddess of beauty, and his background (and player actions in-game, so far) focused on his attempts to find peaceful solutions, using combat as a last resort. His reward was to start the game with a potion of eagle’s splendor (to aid in diplomacy) and a potion of cure light wounds (for when diplomacy breaks down).

Other rewards can include:

  • one-time or continuing bonuses to skill checks or saving throws;
  • a situational bonus to item creation;
  • actual treasure in-game (though don’t get out of control with this one)

 

I’ve even hidden adventure hooks in seemingly over-generous rewards, like gifting the characters a castle or thriving merchant business. All sorts of interesting things can find you when you are tied to a castle or have to travel to keep your business running. You need to be careful with these types of rewards, however, and make sure they are something the player actually wants.

So don’t be afraid to include your players in the campaign building process. Engage them and reward them for engaging. You’ll find your campaign world starts taking on vibrancy and detail beyond what you expected.