Sunday, 12 June 2011

G is for Gods

To the pre-modern mind, the existence of gods and goddess, of supernatural powers of all types, is not in doubt.   The exact nature of deities is unknown to mortals.  Although arguably immortal from a human standpoint, gods have been known to die in battle with other gods – some sages claim that these slain gods were only quasi-deities.  Other sages point out that death to a god is not the same thing as death to mortals.  Dead gods have been known to return.

The denizens of d20 System worlds often supposed that deities are Outsiders, in the same way that their servitors on the non-material planes are.  Within my own campaigns, however, deities are actually extra-dimensional entities that exist not only on more than one plane at any given time, but also in more than one cosmology as well.  Their presence on any given plane is felt most often as a disembodied awareness, which can not only communicate with beings on that plane, but can impart spells and spell-like powers to beings, items, and locations.  The divine essence can be focused through the chosen to turn or control the undead, impart divine location and item feats, and counter the affects of other divine energies.

The official d20 System word on the divine appears in Wizard of the Coast’s Deities & Demi-Gods tome (2002).  This book envisions the gods more like super-characters than divinities.  To me, this represents a step back from the way that the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game dealt with both gods and priests. 

When I began work on the Mêdterra campaign, I wanted the world to be one in which the players felt that their characters constantly interacted with the gods.  I wanted the gods to be important – in fact, central to the world – but I also wanted their interaction with the world to be very different from that of player characters or monsters.  Rather than having the gods being simply more powerful, I wanted them to feel like something different from anything else.  In short, I wanted the characters in Mêdterra to have an experience of the numinous.

The following is the initial information given to my players in the Lakelands region of Mêdterra.  Astute readers will undoubtedly recognize the sources for most, if not all, of these deities.

Religions in Mêdterra

Many people in the Lakelands follow the High Church of the Seven Good Gods:  Mardan, Mellador, Aedor, Belanus, Uarthos, Amaethon, and Brigit.  Others follow the druidic faith.  The Lakashi and a few others worship the Beast Lords or their own ancestors.  It should be remembered that, in the Lakelands, deities are real.  They can reward their devout followers, and punish those who displease them.

These are some of the more common deities/faiths a character can worship: 

  • Aedor:  Aedor, God of Blacksmiths, Artisans, Craftsmen, and Mechanics, is lawful good.  He appears as a majestically bearded dwarf of heroic proportions.  He is said to work the Godforge, creating the thunderbolts of Mardan.  He is worshipped by dwarves, as well as by smiths and artificers of all types.  The domains he is associated with are Earth, Fire, Strength, and War.  His favoured weapon is the hammer.  He is one of the Seven Good Gods.

  • Amaethon:  Amaethon, Lord of the Harvest, is neutral good.  Vine leaves entangle his short hair and fall about his shoulders like a mantle.  He cradles a large sheaf of grain in his arms.  Amaethon is often depicted dressed as a peasant farmer, with a stylized tree upon his tunic.  Farmers, vintners, and those who cultivate the land worship him.  The domains he is associated with are Animal, Earth, and Plant.  His favoured weapon is the scythe.  He is one of the Seven Good Gods.

  • Ancestral Worship:  Ancestor worship is common among the Lakashi, the Alderhald, and the goblinoid races.  Even some civilized human and dwarven families worship their illustrious ancestors.  Shamans and clerics of ancestors can be any alignment, so long as they are not more than one step removed from the alignments of the ancestors they worship.  For clerics, ancestors are generally associated with the Death, Knowledge, Protection, and Trickery domains.  Favoured weapons may be assigned based upon historical precedent.

  • Artemis:  The Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis is chaotic neutral.  She is depicted as an incredibly beautiful young girl armed with a bow.  She is often shown riding a doe with stag’s horns, or is depicted with stag’s horns herself.  Although many hunters, foresters, and rangers worship (or placate) her, she only allows human, elven, or half-elven females into her priesthood.  The domains associated with Artemis are Animal, Travel, and Trickery.  Her favoured weapon is the longbow.

  • Badur:  Badur, the Judge of the Dead, is neutral.  He is depicted as a dark, faceless man wearing dark robes, and bearing a greatsword made of dark stone.  He is sometimes called the Bonewarden.  Few worship him, save undertakers and those who pray for the dead, though many pay him heed. It is Badur whose task it is to assign the dead to the heavens or hells, or to gray limbo.  His priests often seek out the undead, to deliver them to their Grim Lord’s judgement.  They may also “borrow the dead” from Badur to perform tasks in the world of the living.  The domains he is associated with are Death, Knowledge, and Protection.  His favoured weapon is the greatsword.

  • Baerbeth:  Goddess of Cats, Pleasure, and the Night, Baerbeth is chaotic neutral.  She is depicted sometimes as a female humanoid with cat-like qualities, and sometimes as a great cat.  The domains she is associated with are Animal, Luck, Magic, and Trickery.  Her favoured weapon is the kukri.

  • Beast Lords:  In the Lakelands, every animal type has a Beast Lord, a creature that is a perfect representative of its species type.  Many Beast Lords are also depicted in human, or semi-human, form.  The Beast Lords are worshipped mainly by intelligent and/or awakened animals, faerie animals, shapechangers, and humanoids whose forms mirror the Beast Lord they worship.  Some Beast Lords have cults with human followings, however, and some Beast Lords have created “elevated” humanoid animals to worship them.  In general, Beast Lords are neutral.  All are associated with the Animal domain.  Most have one other associated domain related to their nature (i.e., the Bear Lord and Ox Lords are associated with the Strength domain, while the Turtle Lord is associated with Protection and the Otter Lord with Water).  Beast Lords have no favoured weapons.

  • Belanus:  Lithe Belanus, beloved of the elves, is chaotic good.  He is often depicted as a young human, elf, or half-elf, with a lyre.  An olive wreath crowns his head, holding long hair away from his laughing face.  Belanus is the God of the Sun, Music, Healing, and Prophesy, known also as the Ward Against Undead.  The domains he is associated with are Healing, Knowledge, and Sun.  His favoured weapon is the longbow.  He is one of the Seven Good Gods.

  • Brigit:  Fair Brigit is the Goddess of Hearth, Fire, Poetry, and Community.  She is lawful good.  She is depicted as a young girl, clean of limb and bare of breast, unadorned save for a circlet of gold inlaid upon her brow.  She is also known as the Virgin Goddess, for the priestesses who keep her communal hearths are sworn to remain virginal throughout the length of their service.  Clerics dedicated to Brigit do not have to be female, only her hearthwards do.  The domains she is associated with are Fire, Luck, and Protection.  Her favoured weapon is the longsword.  She is one of the Seven Good Gods.

  • Druidic Faith:  Druids are as described in the Player’s Handbook, and gain spells accordingly.  In the Lakelands, druids recognize Celene (represented by the moon) as the female principle of nature, and Herne (represented by a stag-horned man) as the male.  To the druids, all living things have an animus, life-energy that drives the world of the living, as well as providing the divine energy for druidic spells.  Death is also part of the cycle of life, where the animus loses its differentiated form and goes back into the breath of the world.  Still, druids gain power from the living world, and most shun the world of the dead.

  • Julius Invincible:  Julius Invincible, Lord of Victory By Any Means, is lawful evil.  He began as a warlord among the Parthelonians, who came to power by slaughtering his own father.  He is depicted as a cruel-faced man wearing blood-soaked armour.  Barbarians, fighters, evil rangers, and monks may all worship Julius Invincible.  His cult appeals to the ruthless.  The domains he is associated with are Destruction, Strength, and War.  His favoured weapon is the longsword.

  • Mardan:  Mardan, the Bringer of the Law and chief of the Seven Good Gods, is lawful good.  He is worshipped by paladins, fighters, monks and those who prefer civilized order to chaos.  Mardan is depicted as a jet-black man with four arms and green eyes.  He is said to hurl thunderbolts in judgement, and is often depicted with two thunderbolts, a morningstar, and the Book of Law.  The domains he is associated with are Air, Law, Protection, and War.  His favoured weapon is the morningstar.  He is one of the Seven Good Gods.

  • Mellador:  Mellador is neutral good.  The Goddess of Mercy, Shipwrecked Sailors, and Fertility, she is often depicted with a serpent-staff, her right hand raised in benediction, as though to heal the wounded onlooker.  Mothers, sailors, fishermen, and healers worship her, though many others come to her for aid.  The domains she is associated with are Healing, Good, and Protection.  She has no favoured weapon.  She is one of the Seven Good Gods.

  • Mellythese:  The Great Spider is the Goddess of Spiders, Treachery, Venom, and Deceit.  She is chaotic evil.  Mellythese is depicted as a gigantic black and red spider with cunning, evil eyes.  She is worshipped by the treacherous, by those bent to evil in their quest for vengeance, and by magicians who are seduced by the false lure of easy power.  The domains she is associated with are Death, Evil, Knowledge, and Trickery.  Her favoured weapon is the net.

  • The Seven Good Gods:  Although clerics may worship them separately, many clerics in the High Church of the Seven Good Gods worship all of the gods together.  In this case, the cleric may be of any non-evil alignment (though most are good).  The domains they have access to are Fire, Good, Healing, Law (unless they have a chaotic alignment), Protection, and Sun.  They do not gain the benefits of a favoured weapon.

  • Uarthos:  Called the Sleeping God, Uarthos is the chaotic good God of Sleep, Dreams, Healing, and Inspiration.  He is worshipped by poets, lovers, and dreamers of all sorts.  He is often depicted as a well-formed giant, with serene features, meditating or asleep.  The domains he is associated with are Chaos, Healing, Knowledge, and Travel.  He has no favoured weapon.  Uarthos is one of the Seven Good Gods.

Trying To Do Better

In the case of the Lakelands/Mêdterra mythos, creating a sense of the numinous was a mixed success.  On one hand, I had various priesthoods and clerics active in the milieu.  At one point, the (relatively low-level) PCs even encountered a bound Elder God called Baloraz of the Baleful Eye, or Baloraz, the Seated One.

Baloraz appeared as a seated humanoid creature, and would be nearly 80 feet tall if it stood.  It’s body was manlike, and handsomely build, except its head, which was dominated by a gigantic lidless eye like that of a cat.  Its leering face was transparent, showing bone and blobs of soft yellow fat beneath, as well as the pulsing ichor which fed its massive brain.  Slime drooled from between its pointed teeth, but only its eye moved, free to perceive within its trapped body.  Baloraz could speak via telepathy to any it could see; its voice oozing into the mind like a high-pitched whisper.

Because Baloraz was seated and unmoving, the PCs could interact with the bound god – although this was a fearful prospect indeed.  Should the gaze of Baloraz actually fall upon one, it could use a powerful telekinesis effect, either to draw one closer….or to flay one alive.

On the other hand, because I was using a modified version of the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, I missed the level of customization afforded by the preceding edition.  This affected my design for clerics in Raven Crowking’s Fantasy Game (RCFG), my ongoing project.  I included this optional rule:

Optional Rule: SPECIALITY PRIESTS:  The cleric is a generic form of priest, suitable for the “average priest” in the average campaign world.  However, GMs (or players, with the GM’s approval) are encouraged to create specialty priests for specific Powers.

Some examples of specialty priests appear in The Big Book of Monsters and the Encyclopaedia of Powers & Avatars – these can be used for inspiration.

The easiest way to create specialty priests is to change the abilities granted by Focus Divine Power and Aura of Faith. Another method is to create unique spell lists for a given priesthood. Finally, if the Power is associated with a particular slashing or piercing weapon, the speciality priest should not be limited in using that weapon.
A speciality priest may have the same level of overall power as a cleric, or it may have slightly more power in exchange for a much narrower focus. The GM is cautioned to avoid creating a specialty priest that is obviously a better choice than a standard cleric.


Deities and Powers of all sorts are an important part to the feel of a fantasy world.  I’ve worked hard to include these beings as an integral part of the setting, but I feel that my attempts have always fallen somewhat short of the mark.

How about you, Gentle Readers?  What have you done to make the gods “live and breath” in your campaign milieus?


  1. I'm going back through and reading over your blog more carefully, because I find your detailed posts to be an excellent source of gaming theory and inspiration. I don't know if you still check old posts, but here it goes.

    I have a difficult time with pantheons, because I generally either (a) use real life ones whole cloth, or (b) make one up, and players can't be bothered to learn. I've noticed that you use some mythological beings whole-cloth, while some are allusions to saints or lesser known figures. How are these received at the table, in your experience?

    My other struggle is with using real world religions, such as Christianity, since western history is so entangled with the church. It also evokes as whole range of feeling in players.

    I did develop one interesting set of deities that I'd like to share, but I think I'll save it for a post rather than a comment.

    1. Glad you are enjoying these posts.

      IME and IMHO, the key to making players interested in anything in a campaign milieu is making it relevant to their characters.

      Rather than working out all of the details, and hoping that the players will be interested, I try to include details that will affect how their characters can interact with the clergy, that affect the shape and structure of temples, and so on...and I try to work rewards into remembering these details.

      For example, the players quickly learn that the temple of Mellador will lend them aid, but may wish them to perform services to aid others. Example: When a plague came to the town of Long Archer, the Mellarites requested that the skull of St. Brendan be retrieved from the Ravenlady of Rookhaven, as it was effective against cholera.

      The Ravenlady allowed the group's paladin to walk the labyrinth beneath her keep -- this was a traditional labyrinth, all one long twisting path with no side passages -- which also allowed that PC to play out a spiritual journey related to his backstory.

      Likewise, when PCs died, I actually went so far as to place them in the afterlife. They knew what had happened to them, where they were slotted in the grand scheme of things, whether they were viewed as virtuous or venal by the gods.

      Each player was allowed a chance to justify his life and actions, and how the character went about this was taken into account. In at least one case, the PC was able to choose which afterlife his character belonged to -- the paradise of humans, or the (horrific) "paradise" of the orcs.

    2. Interesting. As a proponent of the sandbox style of game, how much do you tailor these kind of quests to individual PCs?

      Also, I posted three gods with a different sort of symmetry driving their interaction here:

    3. If a paladin called for a warhorse in a 1e sandbox, the quest would be both player-driven and tailored, would it not?

      If a PC behaves in such a way that an NPC seeks him out, either to hire, further a scheme, or stop the PC, is that not tailored? Doesn't it make sense that, in the case of a deity, this should be more so?

      The difference between a sandbox and a linear model game is that, in the linear model, the player is not free to have the PC react however he likes. I.e., "If a guy offers a quest, you'd better take it, 'cause that's all we've got on the plate for tonight" vs. "Just because a guy offers you a quest, it doesn't mean that it is wise to accept."

      The sandbox GM absolutely MUST have the world respond to what the players choose to do, or the players will lack both the context and consequences that make those choices meaningful.

      So, for example, anyone who enters the labyrinth at Rookhaven will have experiences that are personally tailored to them. Also, when a PC is introduced, I consider what any (approved) backstory implies about the world, and then I weave those strands into the tapestry.

      If the PC dies prematurely, though, they are still there. For instance, Locke learned that he was the reflection of the escaped wizard Keye, but Hrum never found the letters his grandmother wrote to her lover before orcs sacked their town.

      The difference between a sandbox and a linear model adventure, again, is not the existence or the lack of existence of these elements, but rather whether or not the GM has projected a storyline for how they will play out.

    4. Some more Godly Goodness can be found here:

  2. In my own evolving Dark Ages campaign, I draw on the real-world religion of 8th-century Christianity. There are saints, and pagan gods who are treated as saints, and mixtures of pagan and Christian traditions. The nature of the divine is not clear to players--but the specificity of saints and the underground survival of some pagan traditions allows me to create the pantheon-feel of a polytheistic culture.

    1. That sounds both flavourful and fun.

      Welcome to the blog, by the way.