Gods and Religions in RPGs

by Frank Mitchell, with Gary McBride and Ron Pyatt

September 21, 2006

Fixed incomplete sentences and added further notes September 23

After reading Monte Cook's Requiem for a God I began thinking about the nature of gods in role-playing games. D&D presents a sort of polytheism unknown in history: each god acknowledges the existence of others, but insists on exclusive worship. As this RPG.net article notes, in polytheistic cultures like Egypt, Greece, and the pre-Islamic Middle East, worshippers pray to one or another depending on the nature of their request. Even if a priest dedicates himself to one shrine or another, he'd might still pray to another god, or at least ask his god to intercede with another. On the other hand, religions with one primary god usually regard others as subordinates, demons, or empty delusions.

In the real world, too, other religions have diverse concepts of divinity, from the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the unimportance of gods in Buddhism.

So, to refine the nature and role of gods and religions in RPGs for GMs, I've developed a non-exhaustive checklist of options.

The Questions

Below I've written some questions to ask about the divine in one's campaign, and some possible answers. Many are exclusive, although a GM can choose a different answer for each different religion, or make players think one answer and reveal another.

Gods and Religions

Since, as argued in "Keeping the Faith", GMs should design religions before designing gods. As gods are the focus of the religion, though, the number and type of gods will determine the character of the religion.

How many gods in the religion?

Where did the god(s) come from?

How is the religion organized?

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another?

Gods and Their Worshippers

All these options are multiple choice, and may depend based on the standing of each worshipper.

Whom does the god aid?

What aid does the god provide its supplicants?

Note: the god may grant different levels of aid to different types of supplicants. E.g. a lay worshipper may expect only the occasional miracle, while a priest may get magic spells.

Does aid stem from the god, or from the religion (if multiple gods)?

What does the god expect from its worshippers?

What does the god receive in turn from worshippers?

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)?

Gods and Nature

How does the god relate to the natural realm?

Note: GMs may pose similar questions about more important gods like the Sun God, more abstract gods like the God of Love or the God of Commerce, or more fundamental gods like the God of Good or the Supreme Deity.

So, what is the god really?

Note: I list entries in increasing transcendence. There's a weak correlation between the god's origin story and its actual existence, but theoretically you could have a Creator of the Universe who is, in fact, an alien being. Or a god who's just lying ...

Can gods die?

Religion and Culture

After answering all the questions above, what sort of culture would evolve around such a being? (This is an essay question. You have an hour starting now.)

Examples in RPGs

RPGs besides D&D have answered the question of gods in different ways. Many games use as their setting a strange version of Earth's Middle Ages; some take the logical step of including something like the Roman Church and other contemporary religions. Others invent their own religions, but with different premises.

Here are a few examples.

Mythic Middle Ages (Ars Magica)

Ars Magica, set in a magical version of the Middle Ages, includes the Church. In that game, Divine and Diabolical Powers (God and the Devil) oppose the pagan magic of the PCs.

How many gods in the religion? There is One True God, opposed by Satan who tempts mortals. The Faerie and pagan gods were once worshipped, but those beliefs

Where did the god(s) come from? Pretty much standard medieval Christian beliefs.

How is the religion organized? Like the medieval Church, pre-Reformation: the Pope is the head of the church, with hierarchies of cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, and monks. Diabolists and pagans form small cabals, usually stamped out by the church or those pagan wizards.

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another? The Devil attempts to obstruct and tempt the faithful at every turn; the Faerie use humans as their playthings, and pagan wizards, while sometimes virtuous, are not to be trusted. And then there are those pagan Muslims with their blasphemous ways ... (Remember, medieval European perspective.)

Whom does the god aid? Anyone who prays for aid, although being on consecrated ground, living a Christian life, and being a priest all help your odds.

What aid does the god provide its supplicants? Miracles from on high, randomly with the biases above. In addition, consecrated ground weakens wizards and repels Faerie and Demons.

What does the god expect from its worshippers? Faith and adherence to dogma.

What does the god receive in turn from worshippers? God needs nothing from mortals.

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)? Only as visions and miracles, although perhaps an angel may appear in extraordinary circumstances.

How does the god relate to the natural realm? He is the Creator, the sustainer of the Universe.

So, what is the god really? Ineffable.

Can gods die? The Creator and the Devil, no. Demons and Faerie can die, although perhaps it's more of a banishment.

The Arthurian Age ( Pendragon)

Pendragon, set in Arthurian times, focusses on knights and courtly families. However, since magic and religion play a significant part in Arthurian romances, the game covers them.

How many gods in the religion? In Christianity, the standard One. In Wotanic (Norse) and Pagan (Celtic) religions, quite a number.

Where did the god(s) come from? All three religions claim their god(s) either created the universe, or sprang from the world when it was young.

How is the religion organized? Pendragon's Christianity follows the pre-Reformation Church, although Rome is far away. Pagan and Wotanic religions have a decentralized priesthood.

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another? All three regard each other with mutual suspicion. Wotan, in particular, is a very bloody god, hated by the others.

Whom does the god aid? Those sincere of faith.

What aid does the god provide its supplicants? All three religions have their own rare miracle-workers. _Pendragon _originally hand-waved magic as a plot device. Later editions included a complete magic system for pagan, faerie, Christian, and Wotanic miracle-workers. Also, believers in each religion get bonuses if their personality traits match the ideals for that religion.

Does aid stem from the god, or from the religion (if multiple gods)? The rules make no distinction between gods in Paganism or Wotanism.

What does the god expect from its worshippers? Christianity expects worship and ethical behavior (at least by medieval standards); Paganism is a nature-centered religion, and Wotan loves battle.

What does the god receive in turn from worshippers? Unknown.

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)? Miracles, visions, the whole Arthurian bit.

So, what is the god really? Each religion portrays their god(s) as a primal force, far removed from the mortal realm.

Can gods die? No, at least not in the Arthurian cycle. (There's always Ragnarok, though.)

Yrth (GURPS)

In the GURPS world of Yrth, humans from the 12th century fell through an interdimensional rift into a magical world of elves, dwarves, and orcs. Christians and Muslims retained their religions, modified somewhat by the existence of real magic and nonhuman species. While priests and mullahs have no particular magic powers, they may use impersonal magic forces to defend their faiths.

How many gods in the religion? Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have the standard one. (Christian saints don't seem to be a factor.) Elves and dwarves believe in a vague natural force. The Sahudese (a jumble of Asian cultures) believe in a mishmash of Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, and a few other half-remembered faiths. (Sahudese also believe inmultitude nature spirits whom they want to avoid.) A smattering of pagan faiths and minor religions have their own beliefs.

Where did the god(s) come from? Various; see the New Testament, the Torah, the Quran, and, for fictitious religions, GURPS Banestorm.

How is the religion organized? As their Earth counterparts: Christianity has a hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, ruled by a Curia rather than a single patriarch, and the others are fairly decentralized.

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another? To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, the Christians hate the Muslims, and the Muslims hate the Christians, and the Fay hate the Mortals, and everybody hates the Jews ... Well, no, there are alliances and working relationships, but the human faiths get along about as well there as during the Middle Ages, and many nonhuman races -- particularly the Dark Elves, a tribe of Elf Supremacists -- hate all the other races.

Whom does the god aid? Theoretically, any of the faithful.

What aid does the god provide its supplicants? Direct divine aid, if any, is of the "plausible deniability" variety. Priests and laymen alike can use an impersonal magical force, although some Christians and Muslims condemn it as "evil".

What does the god expect from its worshippers? The usual ethical precepts.

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)? About the same as our world. Except for the Sahudese Nature Spirits, which actually exist.

So, what is the god really? In GURPS Banestorm, religion is more of a social and political force.

Original Dungeons and Dragons

Original Dungeons and Dragons had only three alignments: Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Clerics could only follow Law or Chaos, which corresponded closely to Good and Evil. There were no "gods" to speak of.

(The struggle between Law and Chaos, in turn, came from the Eternal Champion series of Michael Moorcock ... itself partly turned into the games Stormbringer and Hawkmoon by Chaosium.)

The Cthulhu Mythos (Call of Cthulhu and others)

The "gods" of Lovecraft are actually ultra-powerful, possibly transcendent beings from the depths of space or other planes of existence.

How many gods in the religion? Untold numbers. (Here I'll use Chaosium's nomenclature of Outer Gods, Elder Gods, and Great Old Ones; I'll leave out the Great Ones of the Dreamlands cycle.)

Where did the god(s) come from? The Outer Gods, and perhaps the Elder Gods, are part of the fabric of the universe (e.g. Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep). The Great Old Ones are immensely old and powerful alien beings who have either traveled to, or have an interest in, our Earth.

How is the religion organized? Since mankind wisely suppresses cults of the Outer Gods, worshippers of the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods work alone or in secretive cults. Their only common points of reference are books like the Necronomicon which contain knowledge of the Mythos

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another? Some cults cooperate, or worship Outer Gods and Great Old Ones indiscriminately. Usually they're too isolated and secretive to know of each others' presence, save through historical research.

Whom does the god aid? Technically, no one; they're utterly indifferent to humanity. Sometimes they or their servitors will aid cultists if it will help them gain extend their power on Earth.

What aid does the god provide its supplicants? Forbidden knowledge and "spells" to invoke a science beyond ordinary human science.

Does aid stem from the god, or from the religion (if multiple gods)? Partly from each individual god, but mostly from principles that supercede the laws of reality on our pitiful little planet.

What does the god expect from its worshippers? Obedience, blood, flesh, souls, a gateway to our realm.

What does the god receive in turn from worshippers? Sustenance, power, direct access to Earth.

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)? It's indescribably horrible, when it at last gains enough of a foothold.

How does the god relate to the natural realm? It's of a nature beyond nature.

So, what is the god really? Entities beyond human comprehension.

Can gods die? Unknown; the Outer Gods certainly not, and even the Great Old Ones are generally too vast and too hyperreal to be permanently destroyed. However, humans with luck and knowledge can banish them from this realm, or hurt them badly enough that they have to retreat or return to their deathlike slumber.

Glorantha (RuneQuest/HeroQuest)

[Glorantha has evolved over thirty years, and I'm just becoming acquainted with it now. Some of the following may be incomplete or just plain wrong.]

Especially as developed in _HeroQuest, magic is, essentially, Glorantha's laws of physics. Nearly all magic in stems from some divine, otherworldly, or primal entity. (Some monsters get power from Chaos, and Dragonewts get magic from their Dragon ancestors, but I won't attempt to cover those here.)

Beyond "Common Magic", most creatures gain magic from three sources: the God Realm, the Spirit Realm, and the Essence Realm.

Gods and their Cults

How many gods in the religion? There are a multitude of gods, of varying power. Some are worshipped more in some places than in others.

Where did the god(s) come from? Each god was/is a being in the God Time; the Gods War nearly destroyed the earth until the goddess Arachne Solara forged a Great Compromise where gods wouldn't interfere directly on Earth.

And then there's the Goddess of the Red Moon, a resurrected goddess of the God Time reborn in Mortal Time, who ascended into the heavens as the Red Moon. The Lunar Empire proceeded to conquer a large chunk of Glorantha.

How is the religion organized? Each cult has its own priests; the larger the cult, the more organized it is. (The Red Goddess, being the state religion of an empire, has a massive religious hierarchy.) Many cults are part of a regions culture, so nearly all members of a tribe or village follow the same cult.

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another? Cults are on friendly or unfriendly terms with each other depending on affiliations and rivalries between gods. Some evil or Chaotic cults are universally despised, and the Red Goddess attempts to stamp out all other cults. Shamans and wizards usually don't compete with priests, so they regard each other with only slight suspicion.

Whom does the god aid? Theoretically anyone who prays and sacrifices, but those who dedicate themselves to the god receive the most benefits.

What aid does the god provide its supplicants? Priests and rune lords of a god receive special Divine Spells.

Does aid stem from the god, or from the religion (if multiple gods)? Each god grants his special followers -- priests, rune lords, and the like -- specific powers related to his domain.

What does the god expect from its worshippers? Members of the cult act as the god's agent in the Mortal Realm. They initiate others into the cult, and sometimes recruit members.

What does the god receive in turn from worshippers? Unknown.

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)? Believers who travel to the God Realm can meet the god. A few manifest to believers to impart some important message, or grant a special gift (or curse ...).

How does the god relate to the natural realm? Gods command, and even embody natural forces. The most primal forces have their own "rune", primarily owned by one god but accessible to affiliated gods. The death of Orlanth the Storm God produced a still and endless winter until he was "reborn"; the reincarnation and ascension of the Red Goddess literally created the Red Moon.

So, what is the god really? Transcendent beings, far too vast for human comprehension ... althougn certain heroes can go Hero-Questing in the God Time and fight alongside, or against, the gods. Generally, though, gods don't need "stats".

Can gods die? Yes, although they can get better.

Spirits and Shamans

How many gods in the religion? A nearly infinite number of spirits: nature spirits, disease spirits, ancestor spirits, totems, ghosts ...

Where did the god(s) come from? Some are primal natural beings, others are humans or animals who passed on.

How is the religion organized? Every tribe has one or more shamans, who pass their knowledge to their apprentices.

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another? Shamans usually don't bother the gods, and have no contact with wizards normallly.

Whom does the god aid? The shaman with a will strong enough to command it, or clever enough to cajole it.

What aid does the god provide its supplicants? Spirits teach magical techniques, and provide raw magical energy.

Does aid stem from the god, or from the religion (if multiple gods)? From each individual spirits.

What does the god expect from its worshippers? Really, the shaman is the prime mover, walking in the spirit world for the benefit of the tribe.

What does the god receive in turn from worshippers? Some spirits might get their freedom, or gifts of spirit power.

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)? Most people can't see spirits, although powerful once can become visible. Some spirits manifest as disease, or possess human victims.

How does the god relate to the natural realm? Nature spirits have a symbiotic relationship with a particular natural feature; others can bless or curse a tribe.

So, what is the god really? See above: dead mortals or the souls of "inanimate" objects.

Can gods die? A spirit can be whittled down to nothing.

The Unseen God and Wizards

How many gods in the religion? Just one, the Invisible God, the Creator.

Where did the god(s) come from? Much like the Abrahamic faiths, he existed before the universe.

How is the religion organized? Hierarchically, much like Christianity. Malkionism has a plethora of saints who give magical essence to those who venerate them (almost like gods and their cults).

If there are other religions, how does each religion regard another? The other gods and spirits are lesser powers; all true power and wisdom comes from the Invisible God.

Whom does the god aid? As far as I can tell, those who help themselves.

What aid does the god provide its supplicants? The Invisible God granted mankind the secrets of wizardry (or sorcery), through the prophet Malkion, the secrets of "wizardry" so that humanity might prosper. Some have corrupted that gift, and the Invisible God has punished the worst offenders. Also, those who follow the Laws will receive the Solace after they die.

Does aid stem from the god, or from the religion (if multiple gods)? From the mystical Essence Plane.

What does the god expect from its worshippers? Typical ethical precepts.

What does the god receive in turn from worshippers? Veneration, and following its laws.

How does the god manifest to believers (or nonbelievers)? As far as I can tell, he doesn't; he's "invisible", after all. To believers, the existence of Essence proves his existence.

How does the god relate to the natural realm? The Invisible God created the natural realm -- forget those other gods -- and provides Essence to those who know how to use it.

So, what is the god really? Even more transcendent than the others.

Can gods die? Not this one.

Discussion

I had intended to add my own example, five interlocked religions which interpret the same gods in very different ways, but the preceding examples covered monotheism with an active god, purely social religions, aggregate polytheistic pantheons, ditheistic forces of Law and Chaos, individual polytheistic cults, animist spirit magic, and impersonal magic with a monotheist/henotheistic veneer. That's most of the possibilities, except for "real" pantheism, human apotheosis, Pratchett-style "belief vampires", and lesser entities pretending to be gods a la Stargate.

For other interesting examples see Midnight or Tales of the Caliphate Nights. Also check GURPS worldbooks and historical sources for the way pantheistic religions really work.

Another interesting read is M. A. R. Barker's essay "Create a Religion In Your Spare Time For Fun and Profit", written originally in 1980 for a fan magazine; it's available from DriveThruRPG.com. It goes into more detail about how simplistic the usual D&D treatment of gods is, and how "realistic" religions evolve from cultural and political as well as philosophical assumptions. The essay assumes gods aren't real, or at least not sufficiently active to overwhelm human influence on religion, but understanding how real-world religions arise and develop helps understand what influence an active and/or immensely powerful god might have.

Conclusion

By considering what gods "are", and how they interact with worshippers and the world, a GM can give a certain flavor to a campaign, which translates to player character options and motivations.

Gloranthan god-cults and the ubiquitous religions of Yrth both put religion front-and-center, but in two different ways; one is a source of magical power balanced by social obligations, the other is a political force to be reckoned with.

To give religion a smaller role, a GM could simply make The Church (or The Faith, or the Gods) a background detail, or, for actively magical priests, fall back on OD&D's nebulous cosmic forces.

If gods are less transcendent and more accessible, the campaign might revolve around killing a god, becoming a god, or escaping the wrath of a god. Or, as in the supplement that started this whole thing, dealing with a dead god.