Skip navigation

This is one of the biggest sticking points when making a campaign world: what damn deities am I going to use?  Sure, it’s easy to pull a deity from here, a deity from there, mix some from Forgotten Realms, a little Greyhawk/Core, maybe a splash of Dragonlance in there, and call it quits.  But doing this always feels really… half-assed to me.  You have given up the chance to make another section of the world you are making into your own.

Deities shouldn’t just be grabbed, willy-nilly from other sources, raped from their respective homes, and used as such.  Creating deities and a pantheon is another labor of love that will add serious flavor and depth to your world, and allow you to work with the history of your world.  After all, religion has started more wars, conflicts and political strife than any other thing in our world.

There are some steps you should follow, though there really is no exact order to follow them in.  I’ll list them for you.  And remember, these are just my ideas of the best way to create a pantheon of deities.

Step One: What kind of structure does the pantheon have?

This is more important than it seems.  The Greek Pantheon of deities had a familial structure, with Zeus serving as the head of household, with his children and family serving in various roles.  This Familial structure lends itself to great dysfunction, especially in the Greek Myths.  Hell, look at the seriously messed up relationship between Zeus and Hera, what with Zeus sleeping around with anything that caught his eye.

One of the other forms it can take is the Social Group, as in the Norse Pantheon.  Odin, his sons, wife, siblings, friends and the like formed a pantheon from two separate groups of diving beings: the Aesir and Vanir.  Each of the gods embodied qualities they felt the world needed, some through birth, or like Zeus, through deed.

There are other structures you can use.  The Chinese see it as the Celestial Bureaucracy.  To the Hindus, the structure of a divine triumvirate, embodied in literally millions of incarnations, all part of one great whole is the truth.  If you look at early Zoroastrian thought, it was a duality: one deity of light (Ahura Mazda) and one deity of darkn (Ahriman).  They had their disciples.  You can even use the Christian mode, which espouses one true deity, and then Archangels and Patron Saints of various causes and concepts. (This one, in particular, is one of my pet projects.)

The simplest format, though, is to have no hierarchy for all of the deities.  They form their own groupings, when they have things in common.  This is seen a lot in the Forgotten Realms setting, where the deities cluster according to purpose.  This is the most freeform version of pantheon creation there.

I myself prefer either this one, or what I call the Axis Approach.  The Axis Approach is best typified by the Dragonlance setting.  Three “families” of deities exist, one for good, one for evil, and one for the balance between the two.  It is the core idea of the setting, that good opposes evil, and balance works to keep the two in check.  Now, it does not have to be a Good vs. Evil scenario.  In the adaptation of the classic Mystara campaign setting for the long defunct Basic Dungeons and Dragons game, it is the war between Law and Chaos, with morality playing a slightly lesser role.  This is a bit more controversial, because the idea of the conventional hero gets very convoluted.  It stops being about doing the right thing, and starts to be about favoring the individual over the group.  This can lead to some seriously anti-heroic, or even villainous, behavior.

Step Two: What deities should you have?

This is a damned tricky question.  The answer is: as many as you want.  You don’t have to have a deity to embody every concept there is.  Granted, you can do this if you want.  But I want to draw your attention back to a quote that I gave a couple posts ago, by Lord Polonius, from the Bard’s Hamlet:

“… brevity is the soul of wit…”

If you pose too many options for your players, you will inundate them.  This causes undue stress and difficulty for the players.  And there is another thing to consider, and that is the Mystery Deity Conundrum.  You see, if you define ALL the deities for your players, you lose out on the chance to come up with new ones later, and throw monkey wrenches into their plans.  This is a fun tool for GMs.

I myself tend to identify key concepts for the flavor of the game.  If you want your world to be about discovery, exploration and learning, deities that champion ideals like revenge aren’t going to be all that big.  By the same token, if your flavor is of savage lands that need to be conquered and tamed, you will find deities that emphasize power of all kinds to have the greatest influence.  That isn’t to say that gods of knowledge or love won’t exist… you just don’t necessarily need to have them all fleshed out in the beginning.

When composing my latest campaign setting, I sat down and made a list of qualities I wanted to be represented.  I was using the new Fourth Edition rules, and loved the idea of a world just recovering from a dark age.  Granted, to this world, the Dark Age was the war between the deities and primordials.  So, the deities I came up with had to embody characteristics that the mortal races would need in order to overthrow their primordial captors and find freedom.

Oh, there is one other thing you have to consider, and that is will you allow PCs and PC divine characters to directly worship evil deities.  You see, according to the strict rules (and we all know how strictly I follow the rules…), you should not allow players to serve an evil deity… or chaotic evil for that matter.  Normally, I do all I can to discourage anyone from approaching anything evil with their characters.  I am a stickler for heroic play.  But every so often, a player comes along that I will permit to play an anti-hero.  I make some exceptions in this case.

Step Three: Who Holds Sway and With Which Races?

This one can make great flavor differences in your world.  For instance, look at the dwarves of Eberron.  Regular fantasy dwarves are all ale-swilling, axe-wielding, grumbling smiths and stonecrafters.  But in Eberron, since it has a more cosmopolitan bent, the dwarves are also the money-lenders, bankers, and financial geniuses of the world.  This means that the classic dwarven deity Moradin would look at these dwarves, shake his bearded head, and wonder what went wrong.  So you really have to decide, which deities, if any, will influence the demihuman races.

You can always go along stereotypical lines.  Stereotypes exist for a reason, and it comes from the fact that, culturally, some races generally have the same predispositions.  If your dwarves are the rollicking, rowdy, feisty creatures they generally are, it is highly unlikely that they will culturally venerate the god of knowledge.  Notice I said culturally.  You should always have something that breaks the standard.  It’s good practice.

By the same token, if you want to change up your standard fantasy, then as I said in one of my character creation posts, bust it wide open.

For instance, in my home-made campaign setting, the eladrin and elves don’t have religion as the rest of the world do.  Where they come from, their lives were near eternal.  When they came to the world, they, in their ego, viewed the deities as kindred spirits instead of beings to be worshiped.  The schism between the elves and eladrin came when the elves discovered the power of Nature (note the capital N), and decided to leave the Summerlands (my term for the Feywild), and become denizens of the material plane.  They still do not revere a deity as a race, but tend to revere Primal Nature itself (i.e. they tend to lean towards the primal power source, favoring druids and shaman over clerics and the like).

Cultural influences of deities can also help you shape your history.  If you have a nation that is dominated by gods dedicated to honor, justice, truth and the like, they will most likely form a chivalric society.  And because of this theocratic influence, they will have a hard time with nations that are dedicated to things like scheming, plotting and such.  Now understand, even the chivalric society will have its schemers and plotters, that’s just the way things are.  But we are seeking to make broad stroke portraits here.  We are leaning more towards the classic and simplistic art of the Middle Ages, than the detailed artwork of the Renaissance.

Step Four: Deific Interactions

Here is where you can get funky with things.  This goes beyond just the organization and structure we talked about earlier.  This is about the personal interactions between the deities of your pantheon.  About how the god of death nurses a grudge against the goddess of fate for “usurping” what was rightfully his.  Or about how the god of mischief is married to the goddess of luck and fate, and how their occasional domestic squabble can shake things up for the faithful.

This can be as complex or as simple as you wish it to be.  I highly suggest taking a piece of paper, as large as you feel you need, and just writing the names of your deities on it in bubbles, randomly on the page.  Now, get a red ink pen, and either a green or blue ink pen.  I prefer blue.  Now draw lines that connect them, but don’t do that randomly.  Your red lines should be lines of animosity.  Your blue lines should be lines of friendship or cooperation.  And they can have different circumstances.

For instance, in the above, the god of death nurses a grudge against the goddess of fate and luck (red line).  The god of mischief and freedom is married to the goddess of fate and luck (blue line), but occasionally finds himself arguing with her (maybe a bit of a red corkscrew around the blue line).  At the same time, the god of mischief and freedom actually works alongside the god of the dead to help keep the incidence of undeath to a minimum in many lands.  This could be a blue line connecting the two.

Now that you see this, you can sit down with a piece of paper and write some short phrases to represent this.  It may look like this:

God of Death:                   Grudge against Goddess of Fate

Partner of Convenience with God of Freedom

Goddess of Fate:             Rivalry with God of Death because of grudge

Married to God of Freedom

Occasional feud with God of Freedom

God of Freedom:             Married to Goddess of Fate

Fights with Goddess of Fate on some issues

Allies with God of Death to exorcise undead

What you have here is a way that faiths can interact and embody the foibles and activities of their divine patron on the world itself.  This can also allow you to make some political decisions as well.  If there was a time when the god of death declared war on the goddess of fate because he wished to possess her dominion over Fate, than you could write in a short period of time where the churches went to war.  This could lead to things like historic peace accords, or even strained relationships to this day.  These are also great ways to create histories for theocratic governments, showing who they politically oppose due to conflicts of faiths.

Step Five: Deific Attitudes and Characteristics

Some consider this the most important step you can take; I would agree with them the majority of the time.  It is at this step that you craft the actual deities.  This is also the most intensive step for pantheon creation, involving a lot of forethought and decision-making.  It is here that you will set much of the tone for each religion.

You have your deity list all made up.  You are all set to decide what kind of theme each deity is going to have.  And right here, at this juncture, you have a chance to either go with the clichés that people expect, or blow the living hell out of them.  And each deity should be a case by case basis.

For instance, let’s look back at the God of the Dead case.  We can go one of two ways: we can follow the stereotypes of a grim, uncaring, all-business deity that dominates a gray land devoid of color and life.  Or, you could go a completely different one.  Imagine a caring, compassionate deity of the dead and death, treating those who approach death with a more positive outlook, and less fear.  By doing this, it is entirely possible that temples to the God of Death will also be places of celebration and joy, instead of depression and mourning.

There are many stereotypes you can overcome this way.  For instance, take the standard stereotype in modern fantasy writing of the bloodthirsty God of War.  What if you instead choose to make your God of War a more staid and disciplined God, dedicated to the disciplines of war, tactics, strategy and dominance?  Bit of a different tone than the blood-crazed maniac, isn’t it?

Next you have to decide what your deities’ purposes are in the world.  Are they there to prevent an incursion from the Far Realm?  To hold back the tide of the corrupt Demonic Princes?  What if they exist only to guide mankind?  Each deity could even have their own purpose.  By doing this, you should also be paving the way for 3-4 core precepts or laws behind the worship and discipleship of these deities.

If you are using a system like Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons which allows for special powers to be taken by devoted followers and divine disciples, you also need to think of how your deities’ themes should influence the powers that their devout have access to.  It would not do, for instance, to have a compassionate, loving goddess of healing to grant her followers the power to bring down their foes with disease and corruption.

While we are talking about this, I wanted to take a moment to speak of a less deific religious system.  You see, in the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the spirits have been given their own power source, the Primal one.  Now, as much as this really is an interesting turn of events, you do not have to strictly stay to this theme.  In the real world, there is the Animist view of the world.

Also know as Little Gods, the spirits of the world give the divine agents their powers.  You can design some of the major spirits of the world, and give them spheres of influence just like the deities we spoke of.  This will lend itself to a more generalized religious view, and is great for savage roleplay scenarios, like the sword-and-sorcery style of the classic Conan stories, or the sun-blasted world of Athas from Dark Sun.

Right now, I am going to post one of the deities I created for my Paean Campaign Setting, as an example of what the end result of deity creation should look like:

Katja

When I was creating this deity, I knew I wanted a deity of the wild that savage tribes of barbaric humans and shifters that inhabit a vast land known as Sebaciand would revere.  She had to espouse a very primal, visceral belief system about Might making Right, and Survival of the Fittest, as well as a reverence for the natural world, which could be either a provider and giver of life, or a taker of life, cruel and almost uncaring.

You tell me if I did a good job.

What do you think?

Advertisements

3 Comments

  1. out of curiousity, do you often use one pantheon for your worlds, or multiple pantheons?

  2. It depends on the theme I am going for. Often, what I will do is to just have cultural names for the same deities. For instance, while the northern, Viking-ish culture calls the deity Folcan the Smith, the souther, desert culture may call him Fah-Shahidh, the Blademaker. This is kind of a lazy, but at the same time, very real-world way to do it. There are some occasions where I will go out of my way to create multiple pantheons; but this is rare these days. It tends to get excessive and cumbersome. If you assign a couple deities that are culturally significant to each region, even if there is overlap, you will find it is a better format, and less of a waste of time. Plus, this allows you creative wiggle room in the future in order to create new deities, as well as come up with new spins on the old ones.

  3. I tend to prefer more open-ended, less defined gods. A good example of this are the gods of Arcanis, where they are all true neutral and are broadly described. The followers further define the beliefs. Imagine the intrigue as each god can have paladins and murderers serving them…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: