Putting The Gods Back In Their Place - Roleplaying Tips

Putting The Gods Back In Their Place

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #313

Putting The Gods Back In Their Place

From Tim van der Hout

Creating a pantheon for your fantasy game world is challenging. Deciding which gods to use, how they relate to one another, and how they affect the mortal world are crucial considerations if you want religion to be important in your fantasy society.

Creation

Ask yourself the following questions to set up your fundamentals:

  • Where do the gods and the world come from?
  • What does the world look like?
  • Where do gods reside?
  • Where do spirits reside?

If you’re searching for inspiration, research the mythology or history of our own myriad cultures; the Greeks have an exceptionally rich deific background, for example. You can also look at existing campaign worlds, or modify the gods that are usually in the core books for a given setting.

Editor’s Note: My homebrew allows the worship of nearly anything, from abstract feelings like envy or revenge to the art of swordplay to Pelor from the D&D Player’s Handbook. Mortals in my world provide power to their gods by praying or practicing acts that are in line with that god’s ethos. If you want grittier ideas, check out the Scarred Lands campaign setting.

http://roleplayingtips.rpgshop.com/search.php?query=scarred+lands

The world doesn’t have to be round or flat. In medieval times there was a theory the earth was shaped like a tabernacle–a sort of religious boxy tent. My campaign world is a flat disc with a hole where the sun rises through. The area closest to the sun is lifeless coal, then sandy deserts. The outer edges of the disc are absolute cold, where the spirits of the dead reside. The middle regions are the domains of the living.

Scope

Keep the following tips in mind when working out the scope of your pantheon:

  • Start with only a few gods. It’s more important to have fewer, more developed gods than to have a broad coverage of every portfolio you can imagine. You can always add more when introducing new lands and cultures.
  • Don’t overwork. Write reasonable descriptions about half a page for each god. Give the descriptions to your players.
  • Give each god a unique identity. Make gods different from each other.
  • Make holy sites like temples and churches a prominent fixture in your world.
  • A god’s holy (or unholy) symbol is also important. Make each as unique as the god that bears it, and use the symbols liberally in your adventures.

Also, don’t force your players to choose a god to worship. Leave those decisions to your clerics and paladins, and the other PCs might become interested in your well-developed gods on their own.

Culture And Religion

When working out how religion affects the mortal races, answer the following questions about your world:

  • How are the gods looked upon in settled lands?
  • Do the gods manifest themselves or work indirectly?
  • How do they manifest (as a swarm of insects, a shaft of light)?
  • How many temples are there and are they visited regularly?
  • Are temples really sacred places, or was each made by mortals?
  • Do gods grant special powers to followers? What kind? How often?
  • Are all priests capable of divine magic or only a select few?
  • How mundane is magical healing? Can you donate a few gold and get a casting, or are most healers witch doctors and quacks, or scientific surgeons using leeches and liberal amputations?

Mortal Immortals

Can gods die? How? Maybe gods can be slain only at certain places (on top of the highest mountain), or at certain times (every 299 years during the Summer Solstice). Answering this question can change the fundamentals of your world. Consider the ramifications of a god’s death and the knowledge that even the mightiest can be brought low by powerful mortals.

History

Most real-world religions developed as society changed. When people lived in caves and depended on animals, most gods were seen as animals, animal spirits, or humans with animal features. When cities rose and agriculture developed, men placed themselves in the places of gods, and gods became like men and women; they fought, made love, and hated. At the end of the philosopher’s age, a new religion dawned governed by one god who created the earth.

Consider where your NPC mortals are in their development and use that knowledge to shape your pantheon.

Naming

A god’s name is important. It should reflect who they are by having a specific voice and tone. Take time to research your gods’ names before choosing them. Come back to your gods after your world has taken shape and revisit their names. Do they still fit?

Most gods are known by several different names or descriptive titles. Examples are Loki the Trickster and Pelor the Shining One. Be creative and write a few for each god to use in different situations.

Editor’s Note: A god’s title is particularly effective when used to flavour a character’s signature move or ability. Try “Heironius’ will is my own; begone!” the next time you turn undead.

Description

What do the common folk envision when they talk of the god Helios? Does he ride his chariot on the southern wind (zephyr) dragging the sun across the sky, or is he a giant yellow eye watching all? There’s a big difference.

How a god is perceived, or how that god manifests himself to his people, often helps you measure his alignment, his ethos, and what actions he might take. Plus, this is a great chance to unleash your imagination.

For example, a warrior god on a chariot might not care about how people conduct business transactions, while a giant eye might weigh every second of every day. A vigilant god combining both ideas might appear as a blind swordsman, a blazing eye tattooed across his chest.

Portfolio And Deity Relations

A portfolio is a list of intangibles a god is associated with–ideas or ideals the god maintains through practice and protection. Possibilities are limitless, and might include an alignment, an element of nature, animals, magic, science, education, war, love, hate, marriage, honour, truth, or knowledge. Use the following tips while developing your portfolios.

  • Stick to four or so portfolio items per god. This will help you isolate the most important elements of a god’s portfolio, and will prevent your gods from stepping on each other’s toes (unless you want to develop conflict over a portfolio item).
  • Look to your world when deciding on portfolio items. Keep them as important to the mortals as they are to the gods.

Gods should have relationships with each other to make things interesting. Gods who cheat, fight, and lie to each other can do great things to a campaign world by providing flavour and instant plot hooks. To begin, make a simple chart or plan with your major deities and how they relate to each other; friend, foe, neutral, or something else.

Role In Society

Each god’s followers should be as unique as that god, and not every god will be worshipped equally. Holy sites should reflect this, with a forest “temple” maybe being little more than a grove, or with a church of a god of combat doubling as an arena. You need to consider how followers worship. Is there daily mass? A monthly tithe? A weekly congregation? Put down the basics for each god and you’ll be well-equipped to introduce his followers to the PCs.

Duty

What are the responsibilities of priests, shamans, or monks of a given god? Do they perform marriages, organize festivals, advise, preach, or maintain the law? Write a short description of the responsibilities for each god’s favoured few.

A priesthood can become powerful through its duties. By advising warlords or nobles, maintaining order, and earning the trust of the common people (like the Jedi council in Star Wars), they can exert incredible influence in many situations. The following list of priestly considerations was taken from the Complete Priest’s Handbook, which is an excellent source when creating a pantheon.

  • Devotions
  • Guidance
  • Marriage
  • Missions
  • Omen-Reading
  • Vigilance
  • Rights of the Priesthood
  • Church Trial
  • Coronation
  • Tithes
  • Separation From the Faith
  • Rule
  • The State Religion
  • Restrictions on the Priest
  • Celibacy
  • Chastity
  • Clothing
  • Contamination+
  • Mutilation++
  • Gender requirements (if any)

+ Contamination covers people, items, locations, or foods which are better left untouched.

++ Mutilation is making a sacrifice demanded by a God or priesthood.

Knights, Crusaders, And Templars

Some religions train warriors to perform special tasks. Most are brave, honourable warriors fighting according to the strictures of their ethos and the commandments of their god and king (although an evil god of trickery would have little use for honour). The knighthood should embody everything its god stands for, and most gods, even if they don’t have prominent legions of shining knights, have favoured warriors that are feared or respected by outsiders.

Editor’s Note: In the early stages of a new world you probably don’t want to dive into creating a new order of warriors from the ground up. In D&D, this begs for a new prestige or even a core class, and that’s a lot of work. Unless you need detailed statistics for an encounter, you’ll be better off waiting until the campaign has taken shape before inching onto that particular tightrope. A name and a physical identifier should be sufficient to flavour the campaign and build an identity for later.

Acknowledgements

Most of my examples are from the great books of Tanith Lee, the crown princess of fantasy fiction, and tips were taken from the Complete Priest’s Handbook from TSR.

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A Brief Word From Johnn

Salad Anyone?

Ike, a friend and co-editor of this e-zine, uses an old, wooden salad bowl for rolling dice in. What a great idea! It makes a cheap dice corral, keeps those pesky dice from rolling off the table, and minimizes cocked dice debates. His dice rolls also make a distinctive sound thanks to the bowl, adding a wee bit of extra fun to the game.

Bandit Leader Makes Proactive Strike

Things got nasty last session in my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. The PCs performed a tactical retreat from a ruined moathouse, where they knew a bandit leader was hiding, to heal up a bit and get their spells back. That night, they were jolted from their sleep at the inn by a villager yelling the church was on fire and the orphans were burning.

Some characters donned armour while others charged out with just their weapons. The first PCs to arrive at the fire were attacked by zombies, stalling their efforts. The paladin had to break into the church to rescue trapped acolytes, further splitting the group up.

My players are very smart and suspected from the beginning that something was fishy about all this, so one PC stayed behind to organize the villagers and watch over things.

The fire soon raged beyond control, though the priests were now safe and the zombies dispatched. A clever PC remembered the water elemental living nearby. The group raced to the pond, conducted a quick negotiation, and carried the small creature in a large waterproof container back to the church. Unleashed, the elemental soon put out the flames, saving the core structure of the church.

Back at the village, the party’s hunch was spot on, because another fire was quickly spotted at the inn where the PCs are staying. Thanks to the character who stayed behind, he and several villagers were able to put out that blaze before it took hold.

However, the group learned at that point the bad guys had circled around during the church fire, broken into the inn and their rooms, and stolen their stuff! To further inflame the PCs, the bandits lit their rooms on fire.

Though I was quite proud of my bandit villain for striking back and not just waiting for the adventurers to return and kill him in his lair, the players ultimately won the day. The villain’s plan was to steal back what the PCs’ had stolen from him using a diversion of fire and zombies, but the player characters ended up on the winning side of the equation. Though some of their stuff was stolen, they managed to anticipate things, save the church, earn more respect from the villagers, earn the favour of the priests and their god, and keep most of their best weapons and armour.

This week we’ll see how phase 2 of the bandits’ plan turns out.

Thanks to the folks at the TT Forums for their help in concocting this evil counter-strike!

http://www.treasuretables.org/forum/index.php?topic=226.0

(Note to my players: please don’t read that thread! 🙂

Have a game-full week!

Cheers,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Railroading Due To Genre Or Play Style Commitment

From Kenneth Gauck

Railroading is the result of a communication breakdown between players and the referee. One side failed to explain what they expected from their RPG. Referees can make the mistake of explaining what kind of game the players are playing and then use his narrative power to play the game he planned no matter what the players do. The same can be true of players, and the key is communication.

Different players and referees have varied levels of genre commitment. In general, railroading occurs because the referee has a stricter genre (character/rules/story) interpretation than the players. Sometimes it’s the love of a genre that gets a person to want to make the investment to create a world and offer to run a campaign based on that vision. Players need to recognize a referee whose commitment to a certain vision is going to be a problem for them.

I once ran a Star Trek adventure in which players beamed to the surface and took innocent hostages because they anticipated trouble. The only logical consequence of this action was a court martial. The game broke down into a discussion of whether the genre was realistic as portrayed on television. My point is, no matter what time, setting, and genre you play, it’s far less important that it be realistic than all the players be interested in playing the game.

Even when this doesn’t lead to railroading, it throws the referee off as they spend in-game time trying to figure out what the players are doing and inventing logical consequences. I know a guy who prepared a Star Wars campaign with several overlapping plots and so forth all based around a group of lovable rogues on the wrong side of the law who nevertheless would be the story protagonists.

Instead, the players played psychopaths and lied to, stole from, and frequently killed everyone they came in contact with. This was a radical departure from the smuggler with a heart of gold (say, Han Solo) that the referee had anticipated.

After two or three sessions of this, I figured out this was Bonnie and Clyde in the Star Wars universe. I suggested the referee look over stories of John Dillenger, the James gang, and other cases where people are totally outside the law and eventually the amount of force brought to bear against themresults in a last stand where everyone (or someone powerful)  the players have crossed finally makes them pay for what they have done. Of course, the players could always change course and start playing differently, but as long as they lied to, stole from, and tried to kill everyone they encountered, a Bonnie and Clyde type campaign of escalating violence and fleeing seemed the best direction for the game. Trying to railroad the players certainly wasn’t the answer.

Free Homemade Firefox Combat Tracker

From Ian Toltz

I’ve been working on a javascript combat tracker for D&D. I like to think of it as an interactive DM screen, akin to the piece of scrap paper I usually keep handy for writing down health totals and such. It features an intuitive drag-and- drop interface to reorganize things as you please, such as by initiative order, and a method of saving the characters and their layouts (limited by the JavaScript that powers it; it requires copying a text box that pops up, and pasting into a defaults.js which comes with the software). There’s also a method of adding custom rolls to characters, such as spot checks.

I hope you and your readers will find it helpful!

Play with it online at Asmor’s Combat Tracker v0.1.

Or download it to your computer from Combat Tracker v0.1.

Unfortunately, it only runs on Firefox.

Oh, I forgot, if anyone has any feedback they can reach me at this e-mail (itoltz -at- gmail.com).

Character Generation Breakdown

From Kit Reshawn

Character creation is an important phase of any campaign. This should be obvious since it gives you your characters that will be playing through the campaign, and also can determine how inter-party relations may play out. This is especially true if each player has written a history for their character, adding in great potential for roleplaying and plot hooks. While character creation can be a great tool if done properly, however, it can also cause problems if done improperly.

There are several general ways to approach character creation. Each has its own uses, benefits, and pitfalls. The trick is to pick the proper one for what you are trying to do. Which you pick depends on the specific situation, your goals, and your players.

Pre-Generated Characters

Pre-generated characters are created before campaign play, and are then given to the players. Pre-gen characters eliminate character creation time, puts character balance in your hands, and won’t confuse or intimidate new players.

The downside is it limits player choice. In addition, if you assign the wrong character to the wrong player you will probably end up with a thief who wants to play a mage. One way around this is to simply know your players well. A better solution is to have a good collection of PCs already generated, allowing players to pick from the pool. That way you can have good control on what gets in, while still making sure you don’t lock anyone into a role they do not want.

Assigned Roles

On the first session have the players choose characters from a hat. Each slip of paper will have a brief history of what that character’s current goals are, as well as a list of classes to pick from that make sense. It can also have a list of mandatory flaws/gifts to pick from and other plot relevant info you want to be exclusive to that character.

This method is nice because it gives players a lot more control over their characters while still keeping it easy for the DM to plan around them. Some players actually find it fun to have some of their history already set that they can build around and make more interesting. It also gives you a good way to have the party start out together and have pre-made plot hooks already in place. Finally, this is a good way to set up inter-party conflict by giving players conflicting goals.

The pitfall here is being too strict. Give at least 3 or 4 classes to pick from, and the same with any flaws/gifts a player may have. Keep the history you provide as bare bones as possible while still accomplishing your goal. Try to avoid making anything required. If you make the directions too strict you might as well just have pre-generated the characters yourself. You might also allow players a single redraw or two so, if they get something they really dislike or think they cannot play well, they have a second choice.

Group Generation

At the first session have everyone get together and decide what they want to be. Let the players work out their own party balance and histories together so they feel happy with the party they have made. This is an especially nice option if you have a campaign where you want everyone to mesh well.

The big benefit of this is that you don’t have much work to do. Since everyone is working together, you can expect to have a strong and balanced party, and you generally end up with a good way to start out everyone together.

Sometimes players have differing views on what a fun party should be and you may need to mediate. Sometimes you can also expect a twinked out party depending on who you are playing with, so you might need to have a final approval for each character. The flip side to this is experienced players will help new players learn how to generate characters, and will be on hand to help you answer questions.

Individual Generation

This is where you have your players generate their characters with limited contact with each other, and then come to you for approval. You might end up with an interesting party mix and having the players learn to deal with it. This often leads to interesting interaction and conflicts. It also adds a bit of realism from the fact that sometimes you just have to take what companions you can find rather than what would be ideal. Finally, this lets each player control their character and its history.

You should watch for power gamers and munchkins with this method, and be prepared to deal with railroading early on when it’s difficult to get the party to work together.