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Mono Gods

What turns out to be a political angle on campaign religion

Last week, over on the Yahoo! Groups ODDGuild, a good online friend Bobjester was asking how others run clerics of polythesistic pantheons. Bob, raised as a monotheistic Christian, always played clerics dedicated to one single deity, even if that deity were part of a larger pantheon of other gods. So we started talking about pantheons, and how they’re represented in the campaign, and how they might be worshiped and where they overlap. I shared a roster of deities from my original Trid campaign, when it was still a B/X construct.

Bob’s Question

Bob reviewed the deities and asked “Do you base your deities on the Immortal system of BECMI, Gygax’s Deific system or something different altogether?”

Definitely not BECMI. Don’t get me wrong–tracking the rise of a mere mortal to godhood along a set path appeals to my sense of order. But there’s no romance. No mysticism or anything even approaching what Lewis called the “feeling of the numinous” (however scaled down, on the assumption that numinous feelings are personal matters not generally experienced at the gaming table). But that aside, the BECMI approach makes you want to stat out Jesus, and I just don’t see that going well, on any level, for a number of very good reasons.

Gygax’s Deific system? Couldn’t say. I don’t know what that is, though I’m sure it was something covered in an old issue of DRAGON. Something different altogether? Yes. By process of elimination, this was, perforce, my approach. So in the interest of promoting discussion to a wider audience, here’s what I wrote back to Bob:

My Answer

In answer to your question, I’d have to say something different altogether.

Reading this thread, it seems to me that you’re struggling with a fundamental issue of RPG deities–that is, are gods world-specific or culture-specific? World-specific deities are accessible to all the setting’s inhabitants, and tend to represent spheres of influence without overlap (i.e., two separate cultures venerate the same deity for the same thing). An example from Greyhawk might be Ehlonna, which (IIRC) is about nature and sylvan stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re an elf, a ranger, a druid, or a tree-hugging magic-user: if you’re into nature, you’re going to worship Ehlonna.

Contrast with culture-specific deities. These guys represent spheres of influence important to the society who venerates them. For example, halflings have an immortal for farming and harvest; orcs, who don’t care so much about these things, have no analogue in their pantheon. But humans from Kingdom A might have a harvest god, as do humans from Kingdom B. Depending on the cultural details, the harvest gods of halflings, Kingdom A, and Kingdom B could be very different. As a result, there is a lot of overlap–you might have 20 cultural pantheons, each with its own version of a harvest god.

The immortals on the Breeyark site are cultural. The only reason is because I decided (in early days of my Trid campaign) that it made more sense for each social unit to worship its own set of gods, coloured (or interpreted) in accordance to that society’s view of a particular sphere of influence. So the harvest god of Kingdom A is patterned after how Kingdom A approaches the harvest. Kingdom B, which might use advanced agricultural techniques or grow different things or, because of location, harvests at a different time of the year, has an entirely different spin on their harvest god. For all intents and purposes, you have two distinct deities.

Unfortunately, this approach is a lot of work. That’s one of the reasons I think world-specific gods seem so prevalent in RPG settings. It’s easier to create a pantheon that represents common interests across an entire setting, rather than create individual gods suited for specific cultural groups within that setting.

Historically, it was entirely common for dominant cultures to “co-opt” the religious views of the vanquished as a means to maintain order. Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? There’s little evidence to indicate that it was Jesus’ birthday.

Instead, Christmas coincides with the Winter solstice, which was important to so-called pagans all the way back to the Babylonians. The pagan sun god Mithras was born on the shortest day of the year. The word “Yule” means “wheel” and represented Mithras’ role in the Natural cycle. It has nothing to do with Christ, but the Christians figured that reinterpreting the solstice as a marker for Christ’s birth would make it easier for pagans to convert without too much fuss. Or rebellion. “See, you can still have your Winter Feast, but it’s about Jesus now, not Mithras.” Pagans reply, “That’s nice. Thank you,” and go off burning logs like they always did. Everyone’s happy.

Thus, you get multiple deities that represent pretty much the same thing for a number of non-religious reasons. Christ is the saviour-king of Christians, whose sacrifice is the salvation of all Man. Mithras is the sun god of pagans, whose part in the Natural cycle ensures crops and, subsequently, the ability to eat. More of a “corporeal” sort of salvation, but important, right? Over time, the whys and wherefores are forgotten, and the lines between cultural roots and subsequent influences get blurred.

For me, world-specific deities are much easier to deal with–they’re aspect-based, so you have one god for this and one god for that, regardless of culture. On the other hand, culture-specific deities are far more realistic, even though they tend to “map” to common points. That harvest god? Whether halfling or human, he (or she) is actually the same immortal dude–just interpreted differently by different folks.

The key is how those differences manifest. Jesus performed miracles, and Christians interpret this in a certain way. Did Mithras perform miracles? Doubt it, but he was responsible for providing growing seasons and daylight, which would have been miraculous within the pagan culture who worshiped him. Christians just plussed him up by infusing their own mythology into a precedent set by the pagans they wanted to convert.

I hope this rambling reply offers some value. In the end, I think it really comes down to how much work you can do as a GM. I’d start with universal aspects of mortal life: crops, healing, birth, death, war, disease, marriage, etc. If your campaign’s cultures interpret these things in wildly different ways, then you want to go with culture-specific deities. But if these aspects are truly universal (i.e., the manifest pretty much the same way across cultural boundaries), then you should go with world-specific deities and have done with it.

One thing you might want to try (and it just occurs to me now, after my 3rd Newcastle Brown Ale) is that you might start with world-specific deities to represent common mortal aspects across all your campaign’s social groups. But you could represent cultural differences in the powers of specialty priests from each group.

For example, you have a single war god, and he represents all sorts of battle-oriented stuff across the entire setting. But you can simulate cultural spin by what war god priests can do in different societies. For example, Kingdom A is warlike and has advanced metallurgy, so its war god priests get a +1 to hit when they use specially-blessed swords, and they eschew healing spells. Kingdom B, having a predominately non-violent culture, avoids battle, so its war god is relegated to cult status and subdued worship; priests are leaders of clandestine fighting units who practice backstabbing (as a thief of half-level), and they like to create undead out of slain warriors (because that’s a good way to honour those who die in battle).

Final Words

In the end, I pretty much discard my Trid Pantheon in favour of something easier to wrangle (and, as a busy GM, I do not have the time to detail out 128 separate and distinct immortals). I’m not generally a fan of world-specific deities because they tend to lack cultural distinction, which is crucial to the setting in so many ways, to the GM and the players. But maybe I’ve hit upon a decent middle ground: world-specific deities with slight cultural tweaks represented by the abilities of specialty priests.

How do you handle this in your campaign?

  1. deimos3428
    August 4th, 2010 at 16:46 | #1

    I make a distinction between a Power (actual immortal entity in the gaming world), and a Deity (revered being or concept).

    Deities are social constructs designed by mortals; they may or may not exist, they may or may not overlap with other cultures’ deities. They are subjectively based on what people believe. Powers are the beings that provide the fuel for the various religions; they are the movers and shakers. They are objectively real, whether people believe in them or not.

  2. August 5th, 2010 at 12:28 | #2

    Great post with interesting questions, and I have only a couple minutes to reply and no Newcastles to help!

    My gods are generally based on gameplay first, world second. In campaigns where I opt not to use the game systems deities, I look at how gods impact my plots and the PCs. If the answer is rarely, if ever, then I develop gods based strictly on world design needs. If the answer is a lot, then I base gods of game and plot design needs.

    I recommend GMs try out all the permutations to learn what they like best, and if they have a long term group, then also learn what their players like best.

    I am reading Thieves World right now, and the frequent and personal type of divine meddling is how I am basing my current Pathfinder campaign on. Another GM could run Pathfinder’s default gods as remote and purely as spell sources. so, lots of options even within the same world design.

    Gotta scoot. Thought provoking post.

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