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Last month, "The Making of a Pantheon" described a good way to design a particular style of religious system where a set of gods exists, each being the embodiment of a particular concept or set of concepts. This is a system everyone is familiar with - a God of War, Goddess of Love and so forth. However, it is far from the only style of pantheon available and the starting point for designing god comes long before this point is reached. Religions and gods can add a great deal to the atmosphere and role play possibilities of a mud and so need to be planned very carefully right from the start - the very minute the theme of the mud is first determined.
Worshiping a false god.
The starting point is the obvious question - are gods even wanted at all? There are pros and cons either way, and this decision is largely down to personal preference. Without gods the way is open for players to become powerful in their own right - unlimited by divine circumvention; not circumscribed by religious prohibitions and directives; and with the possibility of magical skills raising them almost to the level of god hood themselves. Having gods, on the other hand, provides powerful tools for encouraging conflict and strife, political intrigues and holy quests - a fertile breeding ground for adventure and role play.
Once the decision is made that gods are wanted, the next logical question is whether the gods exist. Are the gods real beings that actually exist in the world, or are they simply fictional figure heads from the imagination of the peoples of the world? This is, again, a preference issue but there are some important implications hanging on which you choose.
If the gods are not real, simply mythical or fictional figures, then there is no possibility of actual divine intervention or gods manifesting in the world. Things like religious miracles must have another source, such as magical powers of the high priest. It also means that prayers are unlikely to have any real effect, and that religious doctrine is determined entirely by the priests in high positions. The latter can potentially be very useful in steering the development of the game world - if the policies of a faith are under the control of the highest priest, then something as simple as assassinating that priest can significantly change the course of that religion. The end or beginning of a holy war could depend on the fall of a single knife. There are also great possibilities in allowing players to aspire to lead and control religions.
If the gods are real beings then divine intervention becomes a very real possibility. Prayers can be heard and perhaps acted on; priests can summon divine aid; forsaking or disobeying a god could have immediate and drastic results. With a real god at the head of a religion the focus and purpose of the faith should stay true, allowing much more consistency in the world's theme and direction. Questions on contradictions and other religious issues have a firm and incontravertable source of answers. With real gods there isn't so much a question of 'do you believe?' as 'which do you follow?'
A third option is also possible, where some gods are real and some are fictional. This could lead to some interesting situations of belief and worship, false gods and true gods. Perhaps there is one true god and many false ones, created by those needful of a tool to use against those of the true faith. This kind of combination could gain the advantages from both sides but care needs to be taken that these aren't outweighed by the combined disadvantages of both sides.
There are four more questions to answer when designing gods which are best tackled together. The answers to these questions determine the foundations of the religions. The questions are:
Who are they?
What do they want?
Where did they come from?
Why are they here?
The number of gods needs to be decided - there could be one or two, or many. There could be a predetermined fixed number of gods or it could be open-ended, with new gods and new religions being added to the world as new lands and new races are added. One god worshiped in different ways by rival religions can yield just as much potential as many gods.
The style or type of gods must be decided. Should it be a pantheon where each god represents one or more emotional concept like love, hate or war; do they embody aspects of life such as time, fate, chance or death; or aspects of the natural world such as air, the sea, the forest; natural forces such as fire, storms, earthquakes; or ways of life such as law, chaos and balance.
Another style of pantheon has gods which are all individuals, very much like people but more powerful - each having a personal agenda, a goal to work towards, distinct principles and ways of doing things. One god might be bent on gaining control of the world, another may have the higher purpose of helping mankind become the best it can be, and so forth. Perhaps one simply wishes to encourage growth through conflict, whilst another promotes the idea that all life is sacred and preaches tolerance and restraint.
Establishing just why the various gods hold the opinions and policies that they do will help greatly in developing the theme and resolving problem issues of what a given god will want done in a given situation. It's also a useful way to develop rivalries and conflict between the gods and their associated religions.
If the gods are real, how did they come to be? The possibilities here are manifold - perhaps they were an ancient mortal race that evolved to god hood, or a few of which gained sufficient magical powers to become gods. Perhaps they came to this realm from another and decided to stay or maybe they predate the world and created it. What is the nature of the being called a god, does it really live and can it die or be destroyed or banished? Does it need to eat and breathe or does it survive in a different way entirely?
Correspondingly, if the gods aren't real, when were they invented by the peoples of the world and for what purposes? What do the religious doctrines say about their own origins and the nature of the gods?
Closely linked to this is the question of why the gods are here. Why are they interested in the world and its peoples, why haven't they moved on, died out or lost interest. Do they need worshipers to supply them with power, and if so how does it work and why? If not, do the gods actually need worshipers at all? Why do they want them? Do the gods actually interact with their worshipers? If so, how often and under what circumstances? If not, why not?
Comprehensive answers to all these questions will make a solid base to build from but inevitably this is only the beginning. There is still a vast amount of work to do - each god needs one or more religions, each religion needs holy books and doctrine, prophets and legends, holy symbols and icons, styles of temple and organization, ceremonies and rituals of worship, a calendar of holy days and festivals, a hierarchy of priests complete with dress codes, titles, symbols of position, rights, duties and obligations - and the list goes on. Designing a system of gods and religions is a mammoth task but the rewards of doing it thoroughly massively outweigh the penalties of doing it badly. Depth and detail are the very core of a good theme and a world that feels real to its players.
After all, they do say that God is in the details.
January 2000 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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