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Netflyer 32

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Deities to Believe In

Most fantasy style role playing games include gods. Sometimes they are central to the plot, sometimes they just sit around in the background and add some colour to the setting. Most are worshipped by an extensive priest(ess)hood who may be good, bad, politically powerful and/or amazingly secular, depending upon GM whim. Some seem to be the sole province of gnomic hermits out in the wilderness. The one factor which seems common to almost all fantasy gods, however, even the ones which storm chaotically around the world in a haze of blood and death, is their, well, blandness.

Fantasy deities just somehow fail to inspire belief. Even in the (almost inevitable) fanatically religious parts of the world, the fanaticism seems somehow to stem from a cultural tendency rather than from any personal devotion. PCs encounter the priests, they talk to the gods, and then they wander off on their way as if the deity in question were just another powerful human. In the encounter there seems to be nothing that could inspire anyone to belief or awe, or explain the religious devotion of the deity's followers. One almost wonders how the god managed to get itself worshipped in the first place.

This tendency, however, is not because of a lack of imagination by the GMs. The society game Pantheon II threw up a huge quantity of beautifully-created gods with complex mythologies and personalities far larger than life. I will be using some of these to demonstrate points later in this article - I'll try not to rely too heavily on my own ex-PC to do so.

In Pantheon II, when the war god Cawrdav spoke to you, you knew you'd been spoken to. If you survived the experience you knew he liked you. Any mortals entering the meeting of the Celtic pantheon gave thanks ever after that they'd managed to escape with their skins intact. These were gods whose followers' fanatic devotion was easy to understand.

So why do inspirational deities like these not make game worlds their playground?

A Stitch in Time...
The obvious first constraint on a GMs creativity is time. A PC, especially one with millenia of history and mythology behind it, takes time to create, and with the rest of a game world to get on with the deities may receive only cursory attention. There are very few games in which gods and their priesthoods play an important part, and getting on with the plot tends to be rather further up the priority list.

However, the gods' interactions with the PCs are not their only role in the game. It is important to remember that in the kind of societies typically presented in fantasy games, the gods would be present in every detail of life. Think of the kind of stranglehold Christianity or Druidry had over their believing populations. Gods were thought of constantly, in fear or in thanks. Their whim could make someone prosper, or destroy a community. In other words, most of the people the PCs meet will do the gods rather more than lip service.

It only takes a moment to come up with a concept for a deity. A couple of rituals and a few well-chosen myth subjects are all that is really required. The players need never know the actual story of the legends, but subjects like 'the rape of the Goddess' and 'the Kingslaying' are likely to stick in the players' minds, especially if they don't know the full story, and add a layer of interest to the deity's personality when/if they finally meet her.

Larger than Life
These days, especially in Oxford, the fashion in role playing seems to be to play characters with fairly 'realistic' personalities and motivations, so why shouldn't deities be the same?

Of course, 'realistic' is a rather tricky term to apply to an essentially unrealistic deity. The gods that various modern religions believe in may or may not exist, but nobody's exactly sat down to tea and cake with them. In other words, we have no idea what a realistic deity ought to look like.

In a campaign which attempts to bring plausibility to a fantasy world a deity is a tricky thing to present. A god that really behaves like the gods of Greek mythology, for instance, is a bit, well, unbelievable. Surely their actions ought to be a bit better motivated, a bit more consistent?

But that they have reasonable motivations behind their actions and that their personalities are reasonably consistent does not mean that deities must behave like people. Gods aren't necessarily free to do so.

Gods commonly come about in two ways. They are created and sustained by belief, or they are somehow created by the universe itself to fill a niche. I will miss out for the moment the kind of gods who appear in a pantheon, create the world, and then hang around in it, since this view of deities creates exactly the kind of bland, undifferentiated gods that this article is designed to prevent.

Where a god, although of independent will, is sustained by belief, the avenues open to him are limited. Unless the beliefs of his followers change, something usually outside the scope of a campaign, that god is rather restricted in his actions, while at the same time being immensely powerful within his limitations. These limitations are, unlike those for normal mortals, absolute. They cannot be crossed, but neither can they be seen as imposed from outside. The deity simply is those things.

The same (or even more so) goes for a god created to fill a niche. A deity of this type, of course, hasn't the same need for believers as one sustained by belief, so is far more likely to be responsible for areas unimportant to humans. The consequences of this independence from belief will be discussed later.

As an example of how this can work, Killin the Moon Goddess invades Wales, slaughtering its inhabitants. A few months later she heads the resistance movement that drives out the invaders. Unreasonable? Inconsistent? Not quite (or so her player ever after claimed). The key to understanding her actions is knowing what she is goddess of. Which is, as it turns out, justice, vengeance and women. So without being at all inconsistent she can invade as an act of vengeance but, when petitioned by a Welsh woman that the oppression by the invaders is unjust, her nature drives her to take the other side.

Thus any god created can be both consistent in his/her actions and larger than life - which leads to another minor problem.

Those Meddling Kids!
The well-developed, complexly-motivated, be-legended gods created for Pantheon II could never let well enough alone. At times it seemed impossible to stir hand or foot in the isle of Albion without three gods manifesting and subsequently fighting over it. Their absolute dependence on reputation created gods who were both epic in their grandeur and incredibly petty when their wishes were flouted.

This, of course, is an impossible situation for any campaign. The party help a small village fight off the monsters who have been terrorising them - ooh, Pan and the Gremlin King aren't going to like that! You prevented the Pictish soldiers massacring the innocent civilians of the Brigante? Well, I wouldn't go anywhere near the lands of Duha Mohr for a while, then.

In fact, any adventuring party worth their salt is going to alienate every deity in the land approximately five minutes after starting the campaign. And this is going to make running that campaign extremely difficult. What you need is some way of preventing your deities from meddling.

This is one of the areas where a god created by (the universe? Nothing? Itself? Insert your favourite theory here) scores over those created by belief. Such a deity is independent of its worshippers, and thus has no need to prove its power in order to survive. In addition, its attention need only rarely overlap the sphere of human activity in which the party is likely to be acting. Such a god can be worshipped as fanatically as any god in the history of this world, but is fundamentally less likely to destroy the plot of your lovingly-created campaign.

If you really want a deity who depends upon its worshippers (let's face it, you can spin wonderful plots around them), then remember - the likelihood of petty meddling varies inversely with popularity of the god. A god with a lot of worshippers is in no imminent danger of dying out, and therefore has far less need to constantly prove himself, although such a god is of course likely to be more powerful. A little-worshipped god, on the other hand, or one trying to move into a power vacuum, will be much more likely to try to affect the game world - but will have much less power with which to do it. Since the power levels are entirely dependent upon the whim of the GM, it should be very easy to make these factors balance out at whatever level of meddling is desirable.

Creating believable deities for a campaign world is a very rewarding task. It can be done surprisingly quickly, and certainly adds an extra dimension to the game world. Remember, if a religion is worth creating it's worth creating really well. After all, finding most of the game world's inhabitants worshipping a selection of uninspiring 'good' or 'evil' deities is not going to inspire the PCs either.

But if you end up with a pantheon of powerful, epic, and above all petty deities ravaging your beloved world - well, don't blame me.

Sarah Blake