Gods, Demigods, and Heroes

In the nature of full disclosure, I feel obligated to reveal the following information.  I was born and raised a Christian (denomination: Methodist).  I am still a practicing Christian, though at the present time I do not have a home church.  I attended Chandler School of Theology, Emory University; I did not complete my Masters of Divinity degree.  I believe that there are multiple deities…” Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 KJV), not “There are no other gods.”  Now, on to our randomly scheduled post.

I recently finished reading Hammered by Kevin Hearne: the third in the Iron Druid Chronicles and the way Mr. Hearne deals with gods and faith has led me to reexamine the deities of Rilmorn.  Shortly after I finished Hammered, I found a link directing me to a video of Monte Cook giving a lecture on designing gods for Dungeons and Dragons to the Religious Studies Student Organization at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  Mr. Cook’s take on faith in D&D worlds only adds reason for my meditation on the gods and goddesses in Rilmorrin.  Together, they force me to ask, “Gregory, how have you treated gods and faith in your game world and what is the best way to way to deal with religion and divine beings in the future?”

In the Iron Druid Chronicles, Kevin Hearne takes some potentially controversial stands on faith, gods, and religion.  All the gods from all the faiths that ever existed are real.  The gods, if they admit it, do not remember their origins…one day each god just was and they didn’t create the world.  Gods are bond by what their followers believe of them.  Add all of this together and introduce a few scenes with Jesus and Mary and I can see where Mr. Hearne could be stomping on more than a few toes; yet he seems to work it all together (with the possible exception of his portrayal of Thor) with grace and respect.  I would like to believe I can do the same with the divine beings of Rilmorrin.

In his lecture, Monte Cook discusses the slippery slope of putting “real-world” deities into a game.  A game designer is going to offend someone, if he or she puts a being that people worship into a game.  Some worshiper is going to feel that the designer is ridiculing or dismissing his or her faith, because designer is using the god as a fictional character.  It only gets worse, if the game designer stats up the god.  Anything with hit points can be killed and sooner or later, some PC will kill it.  I have never statted up gods for Rilmorn, but I have used deities from past and present faiths in my games.  So, how should I handle deities in game and did I do it right in the past?

When I started playing D&D, Davy, Clyde, Tommy, and I all took turns GMing a shared “world.”  It was a world in the sense that all of the PCs existed together and they obviously lived somewhere.  We went out to taverns and drank ale together.  We shopped at the same general goods stores.  We knew the same NPCs.  If that is not a definition of a world, I don’t know what is.  Because we took turns GMing, some games our PCs would tag along in the adventuring party, as an NPC.  It was during one of the times I was GMing the party through Mythgold that Gregor the Gaunt, my cleric of Thor, encountered a chapel dedicated to G_d, discovered a Latin translation of the Bible, and converted on the spot.  This was the first time that I put a religion that I knew was being practiced in the flesh world into my imaginary world.  It was not the last.

Clerics get their power from the gods.  The gods are real.  They are not the deities of Star Trek; to be obliterated when you phaser their temples.  They exist outside of belief and they are often inscrutable, but they have a definite interest in the wellbeing of Rilmoren.  So what I have done with them and their religions over the years.

In the early days, I just accepted all of the gods from the Deities and Demigods Cyclopedia as being part of Rilmorn’s religious biosphere.  I accepted that Christians and Jews existed on Rilmorn, thus the G_d of the Hebrews and the Christ of the Christians existed.  I regretfully admit that I knew nothing about Islam until I was in college.  If I had been asked, before I was twenty, who the Crusaders fought in the Middle East, I would have had to say, “I don’t know.”  Thus, there were no Muslims on Rilmorn.

Later, I would begin picking a choosing deities from multiple sources and attempting to design pantheons and alliances of various faiths for my game world.  I had pared it down to thirty-seven deities and had divided them into thirteen pantheons, some of which shared gods between them.  Even with all of this work other gods and demigods continued to appear.  I failed to really flesh out any of the religions of these divine beings, but I tried to have them available for my Players to use, if they had PCs that wanted a god to venerate.  It was during this time that I met Robert Hegwood and he helped me design a “Christian” faith that could have developed on a world away from Earth.  Also, Mike Magee’s character Gareth Eybender helped a group of desperate cultists turn an efreet into the “God in the Bottle.”  It was time of deep questions in Rilmornic Theology; “What is a god,” was regularly asked during those days.  I look back on Robert’s inclusions in my world’s history and am disturbed by the “faith makes right” attitude of his religion.  I wonder what is going to be the best way for me to make use of this in the future.

After the switch to 3E, I “lost” a bunch of gods in the Cataclysm that made 3E possible.  An unknown number of gods blended themselves together to stop the war that was ripping apart the world.  The new god was Rao and Rao had a vaguely medieval Catholic theme going for him.  He was played off the demons and local demigods of my Rilmoré campaign.  In my Thrasiri campaign, the PCs worshipped the post Ragnarök deities, these are the gods who are to have survived the End of the World in Nordic myth.  In my Divlos campaign, I created a pseudo-Egyptian pantheon with the faith of Rao being an interloper in the region.  Most of my universal deities vanished, but locale pantheons rose up to fill the vacuum.

Now, I am starting up my long proposed 5E game, my Iolta and Thrain campaign.  I have chosen to go with a variant origin of the Tuatha de Danu as the primary deities of the setting.  (Looking at the stuff I worked up months ago, I see it really pairs up nicely with Kevin Hearne’s take on the Tuatha de Dannan.) In the Iron Druid Chronicles, the Tuahta are amortal, they do not age, but they can die; will I need to stat them up?   I’ve got Robert’s “Church of the One God” scattered throughout the lands of Iolta and Thrain, as well.  What do I need to decide about G_d, Jesus, the angels, and the demons?  I’ve spent a lot of words talking about what I did and what I’m doing, but I’ve not really addressed the questions of how I am going to use Earth-world faiths and give them the respect and reverence that they deserve.  Anybody got any advice for me?

Game On!


8 thoughts on “Gods, Demigods, and Heroes

  1. I’m looking forward to having the chance to watch the Monte Cook lecture. I started, lo those many years ago, with “real world gods” including a nominally RC church in my game world. Over time I have shifted away from that but have used real world religion as a rich template to be applied and plundered from in my development of game world religions.

    Doh! And my client arrived, more later!


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    • Ok, after some thought think the “easy” answer is that you need to answer for yourself how to address the cultural relativism that is an inherent part of using “real world” religions – and at the same time refraining from “white-washing” their beliefs and practices. In the “real world” everyone defines “good” as “acting like we say we do” and tends to define “evil” as “those people over there who do things we think are bad”.

      It is also hard to cherry-pick religion without the culture and all that’s involved – sacrifice, sexuality, law, etc. And the further you delve into this the harder it is to plug into the nine-axis alignment model of D&D – which is still essentially a nominally Christian view of morality and ethics. So are the Norse Gods Chaotic Good? Or are they Lawful Neutral? According to actual Norse culture LN probably makes more sense, but they usually get cast in the CG mold because… well, that’s what TSR decided.

      I’ll see about writing more about my own resolution to the “G-d, Jesus, angels, devils, and demons” issues. Ultimately I simply imagined a world that wasn’t ours, but had some of the same forces, and thought about where it might develop – it was an enjoyable exercise that I still engage in. For me it seemed like the best way to avoid stepping on people’s toes religiously – much the same as I postulate (like you) a post-Ragnarok “Norse-esque” religion and culture.


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      • I agree it is impossible to place real religions on the alignment model. I gave up on alignment, back in the 1980s. It did not work for me and the stories that were being acted out upon the stage of Rilmorn. My NPCs were always a little bit more complex than alignment would allow and my Players often asked questions like, “Why is it that when orcs burn an orphanage full of human children, it is an evil act, but when my character puts a nursery full of orc kids to the sword, it is a good act?” I have tried to build up religions that had “true” evil to fight.

        Demons and devils are true evils. Some gods, just hate other gods and so go their followers. The Norse hate giants. Rao hates demons and anything that is greater than mortal and not Rao or Rao following is a demon in Rao’s book. The Tuatha fight the Fomorians. It is an ever expanding quest to work up honest faiths in any setting – flesh, virtual, or fictional. Thanks for the comment.


  2. Reverence, a noble effort. Since it is a game world and fantasy, you can create the respect for other faiths living together.
    As seen in the real world, gods are a messy affair of faith and religion (separate things). Faith is a personal thing that can be practiced privately and peacefully. Religion is the institutions of societies and bedrock to be defended from all others (war ooh).
    So in the construction, maintenance and expansion of the world and its gods, go for real feel. The gods and institutions that revere them have always been a hotbed of intrigue and dispute. A lot of stories, stories that can become campaigns, exist in temples of the true gods. Heck have a few cults to challenge the gods with snake oil and smoke.
    Now for Christianity and the faiths of the mundanes, people choose to take offense for many reasons. To introduce a safe form of Christianity or Islam into Rilmorn, use the example of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” as a guide. Take a known story and insert your characters into the periphery of the story. Like you said you don’t give gods stats, don’t give characters the opportunity to deviate mundane faiths. That is a safe play. They get to be part of the event, but they will not affect its expected outcome. They may have a hidden role in making it happen. But I can’t see characters getting to be 25th level clerics, talking to the holy spirit and not stepping over a reverence line.
    Part of the fun of gaming is stepping out of this world into the possibilities of wonderful imagination. Bringing real faith to fantasy puts anchors on its wings. And creates the potential for hurt feelings for folks that think a line is crossed, no matter how well intentioned things are planned. As all things are possible with God, to invoke him with a d20 makes a short game since he can make a 1 a hit and saving throw.

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  3. Pingback: Rambling thoughts on religion in RPG’s | Fleur du mal

  4. I don’t use real world religions in my campaigns, so I may not be much help here, but…

    Often you can see something clearest by what opposes it, than by what assists it. You have both demons and devils in your world, by the sounds of it. Are they gods? They certainly lord over their own planes of existence. Are specific devils / demons members of specific pantheons?

    If they are, do the same rules that apply to demons and devils apply to gods? Can gods be banished? Can gods only be killed on their home planes?

    Are devils and demons opposed to (and opposed by) all gods or only some gods?

    Just a thought.

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  5. The concept of using gods from roughly most of the major faiths sounds vaguely similar to the concept I was using for my setting. Granted it was mostly focused around the pantheons i could research (Egyptian, Greek, Japanese, Norse) and mostly served as background information for events. Basically these gods individually rose and agreed to reign simultaneously but their relations became more estranged as multiple gods and goddesses fought over the same dominion (sky, moon, love, death, nature). This escalated even more when rumors of a creator god sparked wars among worshipers, and the divine took factions within them. The fighting stopped when they began to lead to the deaths of previously immortal deities (mainly those that died in folklore), eventually making the majority of gods resign from their positions and worship.

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