Creating A Homebrew Pantheon
- Polytheism has multiple gods that represent specific domains of ideas
- Dualism is the idea that there are 2 forces (potentially gods) that are at odds with each other in a cosmic battle, such as good and evil
- Monotheism is the idea that there is one god which is good and is surrounded by chaos
- Godless religions have huge amounts of spiritual elements can are often run by strict codes of conduct to impart value and happiness
- You can design a dynamic RPG pantheon with as few as 2-8 major gods allowing room for minor gods if needed
Because tabletop games like D&D often have a high fantasy setting, they are nearly always associated with a Pantheon of gods. While this is a classic approach, other options exist which can help shape your world in new directions. There are a few important questions to ask yourself before we begin. In your world:
- Is there a divine presence such as gods?
- Are there one or many gods?
- Do they interact with the people of the world in any way?
- How does having one, many, or no gods affect your world?
All these questions will play a huge role in the culture(s) you create, development of character backstories, and how NPCs constructed the world around them. Let’s take a quick broad look at real life religions before we dive into making our own.
Polytheism is the classic Greek or Egyptian pantheon where the society worships multiple deities. Each god or goddess represents an aspect of society, nature, emotion, or a combination of ideas. There is often quite a bit of overlap and even some deities represent either the positive or negative meaning of a particular subject (for instance renewal or death of the life cycle). Gods are almost always ranked in an important hierarchy illuminating greater or lesser gods and in their influence on the world, therefore their importance in life. In Mesopotamia, these gods were called the “seven gods who decree.” Dedicated sects or cults would place increased attention on the deities of particular high rank in order to appease them through various sacrifices and rituals.
One of the more interesting points about historical polytheism is that many of the gods would have multiple names. For example, the Mesopotamian god Marduk has 50 names! This is possible because as tribes of people were combined through conflict, marriage, and political power, the cultures would need to find a way to identify the same god or similar combination of gods. When you look at historical writings, many gods start as one thing and change over time. This shows the flexibility in humanity illustrating communication as a requirement to not just work together but get along. Because of this, there is an argument that past cultures may have been more religiously accepting than some modern religions.
Dualism is the idea that there are two major opposed powers or gods in the world. It is good and evil, light and dark, or summer and winter. One of the more interesting concepts about dualism is that it often doesn’t require that a god represent this idea, however, there is an implicit understanding that balance is part of the continuum of life. The constant balance of Yin and Yang philosophy illustrates this perfectly where the hero of the journey stands directly in the middle. The morality of light/dark and good/evil plays out it’s epic war around the globe and through every actor influencing them in subtle ways. Even some early Christianity sects borrow from this concept as the Devil is not just a fallen angel but an independant god.
Monotheism is the belief of one God, or oneness. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in a single God, and all other gods are imposters or false gods. This is a unifying idea within the religion, but a decisive idea if you are on the outside of that culture. It is why many monotheistic religions make it their goal to promote the good word of their god and attempt to convert other belief systems into their own.
It is important to note that God is good, even if it is fiercely protective, jealous, or in accepting of other gods. Of course, this begs the question: If God is good, then how did evil come about? This is one of the main difficulties monotheism has had in answering the question of the origination of evil. For the purposes of tabletop RPGs, this can get complicated, as it obviously does in real life. The question can more simply be understood that the inherent chaos of the universe would lead to the destruction of society and all things good. As creator of all things good, if God were to allow chaos in, it would rapidly punish mankind. Using this as a guiding principle, a single God would reign supreme among the evil of chaos and destruction. Any aberration of society or monster could be posited that chaos warped and corrupted the good that was instilled within them in the first place.
Nontheism and atheism are similar concepts in that neither believe in a god. Atheism rejects theism, or the belief in gods, however, nontheism is more of a belief in a process. These processes can be a way of living, code of conduct, and can even be described as truths or laws of nature. While there are many forms of non-theistic societies, we will focus on Animism due to the fact that many fantasy archetypes (ranger/druid/barbarian) are protectors of both nature world and draw inspiration from the animal kingdom around them.
Animism is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess some sort of spiritual essence. Animals, rocks, plants, oceans, rivers, weather systems, and of course humans are all alive with a focus on the individual spirit of things. It helps answer questions of not only what a thing is, which is typically obvious, but why it is important to culture. It imposes a morality on the use of things and objects. Many indigenous people use this in their belief systems as it helps guide their actions and creates a sense of gratitude for the things that make life possible.
Designing Your Own Pantheon
At this point, we have discussed enough religious material to understand the broad strokes of world religions/spiritual beliefs and we can begin to hone in our own ideas for our homebrew campaign. Unless there is a reason that you need to be more specific, a general approach to religion is acceptable for RPGs. In most fantasy pantheons, each god is typically given control over a domain. Each of these domains relates to either a large or specific category of ideas. You can get very granular if you wanted, however, it is much easier to focus on the larger domains to give the shape of your pantheon. You’ll need to play with this list to get it right for your homebrew world, but where do we start?
Good And Evil
We are actually going to first start with dualistic gods. This is often set up by the creator or father god who formed material existence from chaos itself. This is then by a jealous god who wants that power, or things they can do better. By setting up the conflict of good and evil, we can easily put our heroes in the center stage of the complicated balance. Good and evil is most often represented by Light and Dark or Life and Death. The idea of this is that the darkness is unknown and therefore scary. When light illuminates the path forward, it is less scary, and therefore good. They represent:
- The domain of the Good God is life and light. Creations add to the world resulting in new positive energy.
- The domain of the Evil God is death and darkness. Death takes away from the world and is seen as negative since it diminishes through destructive chaos. Death often holds the domain of the underworld.
Next we move on to the neutral gods. The neutral gods are best represented by both magic and nature. You can parse this out to different degrees, but when you boil it down mother nature gives and takes. Magic can be used for good or evil. This makes them inherently neutral as they can do both fantastically well without any true care for your character’s wellbeing. The neutral domains best represent:
- Nature. The environment can consist of rainbows, tidal waves, animals, and everything in between. It is the process the decay of the old and rebirth into new living creations.
- Magic. Source power of magic and the arcane is the tool of the gods. Where science fades, magic begins. It explains the unexplainable as it gives monsters and skeletons their ability to survive in unnatural ways. Not only that, but It is also a force of creation and destruction allowing both good and evil to wield it equally.
Now we get to the place where things get even more confusing. Some gods are not good or evil, nor do they have no interest in the way the world works. In fact, they actively support the sides of good and evil… sometimes. Or at least when it benefits them in some way. There are at least four godly opposite domains such as Knowledge, Trickery, Disease, Justice. The god of:
Knowledge. Truth best signifies the benefits of knowledge. Truth, even when harsh and unwanted, is often seen as a positive force because it shows honest desires and concerns. When you are honest with yourself and others, it feels good. The reason this god is not called truth is because knowledge offers more of a divination aspect which is useful for mystics and soothsayers in predictions.
Trickery. As you might expect, the domain of Trickery is the approach of withholding or hiding information. It is the more selfish aspect of keeping information close in order to wield it to your own benefit. If knowledge is power, it is best not to share that knowledge in order to use it for your own personal gain. Setting a trap or stealing a secret can gain untold advantages rather than building coalitions of power through competency. The struggle of life is difficult, why not take a shortcut?
Justice. Justice is the domain of what is right and moral. What is right and moral is good for the individual and therefore good for all of society. It helps cultures to have a baseline set of values in order to avoid chaos which allows them to further avoid war by working together in common goals.
Disease. Disease is closely related to famine and the unlucky. Why do good things happen to bad people? Obviously because justice fails to hold its end of the bargain! Sometimes good people get sick and bad people live long (unfulfilling) lives. This is a vast domain of fear, lack, and slow withering. Cultures suffer vast amounts of pain and suffering through the hands of not caring for one another. To not care is to allow apathy to take over which results in chaos taking root.
Godly Runners Up
There are few gods that don’t fit nicely into categories that are extremely fun to have, however, they are unnecessary in order to construct a successful homebrew pantheon. They are:
War. The domain of conflict and is inherently important, however, this is truly the domain of the individuals and heroes of a story/society. They are the ones in the middle of the action and need to decide when to be fierce and formidable. Do they choose the word or the sword to get things done? You can see how quickly this gets complicated whether they are fighting for a moral cause, survival, or in-game political interest. If every PC, NPC, and god has their own interests, isn’t the world already a battlefield of ideas?
Luck. Luck is an extremely fun godly idea, but often not necessarily helpful when it comes to gameplay. With the other opposite aspects of the gods, luck is more like the gauge in between the two forces like a tug of war. You have to decide which way to push the pendulum in order to restore balance and luck is often the hero finding themselves in the middle making their own choices to increase their chances of success.
If you wanted to add minor gods to your pantheon, there should be absolutely no problem with the flexibility of this outline. As you can see, breaking apart each domain into subcategories is a fairly easy exercise with the idea that the overall minor deity is higher or lower on the spectrum of good vs. evil. Minor gods are also useful because they can be used as messengers of the greater deities putting a level of rank in between godly initiatives.