Deities and Design

I used to worry a lot about domains. When doing world building or even just character creation, I often found myself thinking about deities in terms dictated by their portfolios more than their personalities. And by their portfolios, I mean their domains. This is an affliction tied very much to the concept of domains as mechanical effects used in 3rd and 4th edition D&D (and Pathfinder) but I can see its influence in many types of design and even fiction. It’s important to have boxes we can put ideas in. Portfolios for gods serve many purposes in design and discussion.

Creating a very defined portfolio for our fictional deities is useful because it provides clear talking points for the faith. When I explain my storm god to a gamer trying to make a cleric it is pretty easy to say, “well – just imaging Thor and that’s a good place to start.” But as I mentioned in my last post, expectations can be fluid between my image of Thor and my player’s image of Thor. I mean, I might have read a lot of Thor comics and the old Deities and Demigods entry about Thor but my player might actually read Norse mythology… Turns out Thor was associated with a lot more than storms. Hold that thought… I’ll be coming back to it.

Those boxes that I want to put Thor into, “Storm, lightning, thunder, hammer guy” are especially useful to me as a GM and a player because they define essential game components of Thor for me. Favored weapon: Warhammer, is an easy check box to mark off as I work through making my character. Then I can focus on two or three specific domains that work for Thor and he’s got a clear mechanical identity in the system. And that’s useful to me. It’s simple. But it might be stifling my creativity a little bit too.

These clearly focused identity boxes also serve another useful (depending on how you feel) function in distinguishing deities. There is a certain amount of niche protection inherent in this divvying up of divine rights. Sure, it happened in the real world too, but in our games we make it a distinction that has to do with “well, who can grant the skill domain to their followers versus the luck domain?” because we – as players and DMs – need to know what abilities we have access as we craft our worlds and our characters.

I started thinking about this as I’ve been working on some neglected aspects of my homebrew campaign world. Starting my 5e D&D game has been the perfect time to poke into some of these corners and one such corner was the elven pantheon. I have very few players who ever choose to play elves (not sure about why – it just seems to be true) so I haven’t spent as much time on them as some of the other races who needed to be fleshed out. So I dove into designing the elven deities and as I was working through them I wrote the following note to myself…

“Many of the elven gods have odd portfolios when considered by outsiders, but they make perfect sense to elven minds. Calene is the goddess of music but also holds sway over rivers and streams, birds, and the wind. Of course, all of these make music in their own way so they all go together. The elven gods are all like this – so truly defining an elven deity can be difficult.”

I was designing without thinking about the game, just writing down ideas and I had this moment where I thought… I’m not going to tie the elven deities to any specific domains. I’ll just let the players choose domains and then we’ll talk about how that fits into their vision of their faith and whether it puts them at all at odds with any orthodoxy which exists. The more lawful the faith, the more orthodoxy is likely to exist but even so there can be interpretation.

Remember Thor? Well just some cursory research turned up that he was associated with more than storms and strength. He was also associated with oak trees, protection, hallowing, healing, and fertility. Judging by the stories about him, he’s also a warrior-god (without doubt). So how likely is it that by telling players that Thor comes with the Tempest domain in his “box” I might be squashing some creativity. Seems to me that priests of Thor are naturals for the Life domain and that might be a pretty interesting character who chooses that over Tempest. How do they relate to all their blustery brethren of the faith? Not sure right now, but it’s something to explore, right?

In the real world faith is a complicated, many-layered part of our lives (or the lack thereof) full of interpretation, translation, and dialogue (both internal and external). While prepackaged deities can offer an excellent shorthand to character creation, they can also stifle creativity and ultimately shortchange what can be transformative experiences and encounters for characters. I’m thinking outside the boxes about my deities and taking this thinking as a sign that it might be time to dust off all my deities for a little revision therapy. And I just wanted to share it with all of you.

As always, thanks for reading.


2 responses

  1. My personal take on aligning player expectations and gamey-game (i.e. mechanical) expectations is to keep the whole process in-game and in-character. I have played with people whose culture is Norse. They learn about Thor like we learned about Captain John and Pocahontas. Or Paul Bunyan. I have played with Mediterranean people; that would put me on shakey Ray Harryhausen ground in terms of the Greek/Roman Paul Bunyans of their culture. All hail the Harryhausen!

    I stick to (I want to say “real” but I was not enculturated in Northern Europe) Norse mythology in my game. How do I manage our reality? Simple. I work in-character with my players. Medieval people really thought they had the attention of their God. It was Man’s Sin that caused the Great Pestilence remember? Failed crops were evidence of God’s displeasure. God routinely killed people either directly or by proxy, by Jonah! And in medicine, religious doctrines were always present alongside science – science taught by The Church. Even Galen’s holistic, brilliant but simple medical theories were conducted only as far as The Church would allow, dissecting animals because it would be a sin (and a serious crime) to open up the dead. Bring out the dead by all means, but do not open them up!

    So. I start this “mechanics conversation” at an individual’s character generation. And my god-fearing players who play Clerics all meet their Gods. Initially they are being sent out from their church or, at the least, being sent out into the world. Maybe even on a holy mission inspired historically by a vision or visitation. This brings them into association with nonCleric party members. They may still have the blessing of their church (Holy affirmation by a visitation by their God, like the story of Joan of Arc) or maybe the PC is wrongfully or righteously ex-communicated (requiring affirmation of God’s continued blessing). And whatever the PC’s player concept, there is room for a meeting with their God to discuss mechanics in-game (no rulebook, no role-playing experience required, even new-to-the-hobby players can grok this rule talk).

    The GM’s “in-game responsibility” in creating the shared part of a shared fantasy tabletop game extends beyond keeping the players interpersonally on the same page with each other (story context, sensual descriptions) and reaches into the “personal relationship” each player has with the GM (meaning the rules). I do that, immersively, in-character by having Thor meet the player in-game. Jesus with his disciples is in my mind. It is not as exciting as laying D20 waste to a horde of Kobolds and it certainly does not have a die roll social mechanic tied to it – it has to be “role-played” – but I believe my practice aligns player expectations and GM delivery without having to sit some foreign entity (game designer, DragonLance novels, Wikipedia, etc.) on the empty seat at the table.

    That kind of invisible force can be very disruptive in the long game or so I believe.

  2. A friend told me about a setting a few years ago where the gods were not directly involved with the material plane. The clergy was their hand in the world. But the gods were so distantly involved they didn’t have much active control on their religions. Occasionally they might correct something but then the repercussions of that action would magnify over the years before they did something else.

    This ended up being a mechanical influence in that religions didn’t have alignment restrictions. If you had faith to power the rote prayers (spells) then you could be a priest. This led to different sects and conflicts since everyone might interpret the same thing lesson differently. It also introduced an element of secretiveness to the clergy. They can keep their prayers to themselves and out of the hands of the layperson.

    I’ve thought about using this in a home brew setting. I like every theme it introduces into the game but most of all I like the fact that I could turn to each player during character creation and ask them to tell me about their faith.

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