Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ye Gods

The only thing I don't like about world-building is making a pantheon. I hate, hate, hate building pantheons. Any deity I create feels kind of silly to me. I'm never satisfied with my pantheons. As a result, I tend to do one of the following when starting a new campaign:

*When I ran d20 D&D, I just took the plain old Greyhawk holdovers they had in the PHB. Fast, easy, and seldom does anyone in my gaming group give a damn except the cleric. Honestly, if I never play in another campaign featuring Pelor again, it will be too soon.

*Embrace vague dualism reminiscent of the various monotheistic religions popular in our world today; there's the Big Good God and the Nasty Evil God and they fight for control of the universe. It works, but is hokey and oversimplified. (I'm not big on strict Black & White morality) This works pretty well for OD&D where all clerics were essentially the same except for a few spell reversals, but it leaves Neutral clerics high and dry.

*Make the players create their own damn deities. This tends to lead to weird, mishmash, half-created pantheons...or game worlds where the one cleric in the party has a deity and they go otherwise unmentioned.

*Grit my teeth and come up with a set of gods that I don't find overly lame.

I always find that I have no idea how to approach the "assignment" that gods get in many historical pantheons. For instance, why is Apollo god of the sun and of music? Do I need a god of music? What about a god of fire? Do I hand out portfolios at random? I'm never sure when my pantheons are macro or micro enough.

I suppose next time out I could always steal a historical pantheon or three, but to me that always feels like kind of a cop-out; if I'm making the whole damn world, why steal gods? Then again, it worked for the Romans, right?
...on second thought, perhaps cop-out is a harsh term. If you're not running a game based on or set in fantasy Earth, I see no reason to snatch the gods of earth.

Demi-humans open a fresh can of worms. The last few campaign worlds I built, I tried to stray from theistic religion for demi-humans. I usually portray halflings as cheerfully agnostic, if you can even get them to talk about religion. I've had Elves and Dwarves alternate between being a society of atheists to having some old Chinese style ancestor veneration.

I'm not running any D&D in the near future, so I'm off the hook for now, but I've been thinking about building a "ready to go" pantheon for when the time comes, and I need to shake up the way that I do it. For the next campaign, I'm thinking of having religion be something extremely localized. More on this later. (Likely much later)


  1. Do I hand out portfolios at random?

    If I still ran 3.x I'd cut up a list of all the cleric spheres, put 'em in a hat, and draw out two or three each for a dozen gods. Then make up the pantheon based upon that random input.

    Actually, I'd probably put two copies of the list in, because two gods with overlapping portfolios can add tension to the set-up.

  2. I always went Greyhawk, and thought that was a very cool thing that 3e did.

    But then what do I know? I'm just a lone 1e nutter.

  3. Jeff-
    Not a bad idea. Granted, any D&D I will be running from here out will be more than likely be basic or some kind of OSRIC/Hackmaster/AD&D1 monstrosity, but I can borrow the domain names from 3rd, if only for flavor. Random assignment will probably produce better deities than I can come up with.

    I quite agree, it was nice to have a ready-to-go pantheon instead of the AD&D 2nd "insert gods here" style or OD&D's "immortals." Of course, after several campaigns, I got quite tired of Pelor and crew. :)

  4. I go about this from the other direction. If, like most DMs, you prefer to use a big pantheon of basically humanish gods, don't worry about domains, portfolios and such. Use an idea seed.

    Start with the most solid idea for a god you had in your head when you started and work from there. Based on one concept or detail, picture the god as a giant NPC. Throw in a quirk or two - you'll sometimes have a stroke of brilliance here, and if not, a couple rolls on the 1e NPC personality charts works nicely.

    Based on that, assign your god spheres, and think up a wacky divine hijinks your new deity might be likely get into. You just wrote a myth, which is even more useful than just a name and a domain because it says something about the people who believe in it.

    Now pick out a few supporting characters that your myth needs and detail them the same way: characterize them and center another myth around them. Tie your myths into gods you've already made, and maybe introduce a few new characters. Branch out until everyone you think is important enough to deserve a myth has one and you have enough gods to suit. At that point, the portfolios and things are probably pretty obvious. You can always add to the tables later, and when you stop, you usually have the kind of weird mishmash pantheon of petty squabblers like the Greeks had.

    The mixes that don't even makes sense are sometimes the best ones -Ares, for example, although a god of war, was terrible at actually fighting. He was so unintelligent a fighter that a giant once managed to stuff him into an bronze urn, where he was trapped until Hermes came to save him a year later. Both Ares and Athena held sway over War, but stupid Ares eventually became a god of blind wanton violence, whereas the wiser Athena was specialized into strategy and tactics.

    The trick is to remember that your deities are characters first, and gods second.