I have my own D&D setting; I’ve talked about it before, not because it necessarily is a thing you should want to play in, or I’m going to make you pay for, but because the process of building a world is itself full of interesting insights. Particularly, I find that the surest way to know what you like in world building is to look at other world building and see what about it makes you mad.
This time, I’d like to talk a little bit about Gods, in my setting. No, this isn’t going to be a specific list of those gods (though, you know, maybe). It’s about what gods are and what they mean.
In a lot of D&D settings, the gods are approached from what I can only describe as a diegetically realistic perspective. That is, the gods have a real history, and that real history is largely replicated, proven, true and known. There are some secrets, usually grey areas where people don’t ask, but if there’s a god of war, they’re probably involved in a bunch of wars, and may have an origin story that started out in war. Gods of cultures often say they made the culture in question, andthen that culture knows that story that way and there’s no real contest to it. Some settings try to make it ambiguous but they always frame it in that same way game books frame ‘rumours.’ Rumours are just true things the players have to ask to find, and are usually ‘only rumours’ to prevent characters in the town from doing something about them personally.
Therefore, the traditional presentation of gods in settings like Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms is that they’re largely, heroic-level people and their myths are mostly just a recounting of a set of histories; their beliefs and preferences and wants are consistent throughout their entire lives, they live and they sometimes die, and when they tell you ‘we made the world’ or ‘we are in charge of the weave’ that is largely and believably true.
This presents gods as fundamentally truthful and the world that players exist one that is created and maintained by divine actors.
I don’t like this. Part of why I don’t like this is because it means that the world you’re living in is one where you can very directly look at the person in charge and demand to know why they haven’t fixed things. Why they haven’t fixed things in their own purview, why there are things they do have power over, those things are all literally something someone should have already fixed.
Basically, top down design that treats gods as existing from first principles runs the risk of giving the world a handful of managers who can be demanded to be seen.
What I’ve been thinking about, what I’ve chosen for my setting is to have Gods be a consequence of cultures, not a cause of them. The gods appeared, but their movements and reactions are as sort of signposts along the passage of cultures. They exist as things that mark points in history. That is, when a country forms, and believes itself to have a god, eventually, a god will form.
I don’t mean it as basically pragmatically as n believers mean y units of power. That’s… weird, and it creates the incentive for the gods to all turn into lawful evil dickholes exploiting the population curves of the communities, or creates equally weird ideas like ‘halflings don’t believe as hard.’ But there’s something, some divine wellspring of power, and eventually, enough people trying to reference a point in it, creates a tangle of confused powers and feelings that coagulates around that reference point until eventually, something forms. Then when that reference point gets enough detail to it, that reference can start doing things to reinforce itself. Once a god has a personality and an identity, they can take a hand in trying to ensure their identity is maintained.
This doesn’t mean the gods have direct power over their worshippers, though! Gods can set their own dogma and their own codes of belief, but if people stop reacting to them the way they want, then that just means that the god can feel disjointed, feel upset. A god of war may start out extolling extermination, but over time as the civilisation they’re part of drifts from these values, they’re left dealing with how they’re seen. Do they see the civilisation moving on from their ideals and adjust? Do they see their people marching, knowing they must run ahead and lead them?
This also gives the cultures that want gods ways to retaliate against them. A god is a thing and you can kill it, and that may mean that what remains is untethered, becomes lost, and people stop feeding into that channel of energy. Or perhaps, it might mean that thing can bounce back, can attach itself to a different culture.
This creates three primary stories for a god.
The first is a god that adapts. This is pretty simple: A god just pays attention to the cultures that they’re responsible for. If the people change or if they change in society or the like, well, they don’t mind, they just handle it. This is good for gods that are well-actualised and maybe gods that relate to strongly complex, social things. A god of a country, or the god of a city, probably pays a lot of attention to that city and country, and is more a response or avatar to it, like a citizen of tha society reflects elements from that city.
The next is a god that endures. It could be that the god may have once been a god known for one thing, by a civilisation, but over time the idea of the god drifts, the civilisation may start calling to that same god, but for reasons that don’t make sense. The god stops granting rewards, but doesn’t necessarily dissolve just because of this drift; the culture moves on, and ignores them, but the god, steadfast in why people call on the god, still gets called upon by people, as long as that need persists. This may mean that the god stays where they are, but their followers wax and wane. This would be good for gods like gods of loners or of the wilderness or the sun – these things persist, and people call upon them for aid, and they may not need any continuity between groups of worshippers for those things to last.
The third is a god who reinvents. This has lots of fun spicy ideas, where a god doesn’t so much follow the trends and feelings of their cultural group, or the worshippers that follow them, but which learns from periods of success and failure; gods that have experienced sudden or dramatic losses of connection to ideals, that then do things to draw in worshippers with a new identity but similar ideology. This is interesting because it lets you draw a line between how a thing might start, that over process of history being evolved, step after step. In Hogfather, Pratchett outlines that the tooth fairy started out as the boogyman, the primal dark horror that everything feared – and which over time became a guardian monster, collecting all childrens’ teeth, so the children would not be subject to dreadful, ancient magic.
This still gives you room for ancient continuity; gods that were present for old stories, that have memories that may be true, but are not so true, not so meaningful that they can just pluck the idea out of nowhere. Gods that have information and can lend guidance, but can be wrong, because the older the story, the harder they are to remember. The more drift there is, the more chance there is that the story of that past is filtered through the memories of a person that the god is not any more, and may not have been for some time.