We're thinking a lot about the gods in fantasy roleplaying games as we work on Gods and Icons and The Gods Have Spoken. Here Vanessa gives advice on adding a pantheon to your game, depending on what kind of GM you are. You’re about to begin a new game. You’ve spent time on plot, NPCs, maps. You've thought of absolutely everything, and it’s all gleeful daggers and mayhem until someone says—
“I wanna play a cleric.”
If you’re here, one of your players wants a religious class, and your adventure doesn’t have gods. Or you’re trying to encourage one of your players to play a religious class so that the party has a healer. So you've grabbed a supplement or gone to a website or rifled through the PHB and found a pantheon. Or your player has handed you one god or many, and you promised to work them in.
Problem is, the gods? They weren't in your world to begin with, and they don’t really fit. Or you might like a pantheon but have no idea how to integrate them into your world. You know that the religious-class player will want to have a sense of faith in the game—a cleric without a big religious moment is like a fighter without a battle. How do you squeeze a pantheon into your homebrew so that PCs have fun but you don’t waste a lot of time?
Easy. And it all depends on your GM style.
You always have a map for your game. It’s the first thing you build, and the chief way you think about your world. Boundaries, cultures, cities, terrain, and movement over a large area.
Large scale: Religious practices reflect the land in which the people live. Pick a place that is similar to the original terrain of the pantheon and make it the faith of the people there. Taiga for Norse gods, rainforest for Maya, rocky chaparral for Greek, etc. If there isn’t a terrain that satisfies you on the map, every map has an edge: add something beyond it. And if you’re stuck—if you’re using seafaring gods in a Dark Sun world—just remember that historically speaking, religious practices change over time. What if you landed a sea people on a desert world? How would they change their rituals to match their new territory?
Small scale: Stick a temple on your map. The faith may have been widespread, but now it’s a tiny vestige with limited influence. Or it’s a small cult that has broken off from a larger religion. The cleric has left either to proselytize or bring back an artifact/treasure to restore their former glory.
You have a list of NPCs that makes the Monstrous Manual look tiny. When faced with a gaming problem, you ask yourself, “What would [NPC] do?” Their individual motivations drive the world.
Large scale: Instead of thinking about the pantheon as an entity, think of the pantheon as a group of NPCs. Let's say this pantheon encounters your world. What do they want? How would they change the world, and be changed by it? Caveat: resist having the avatars get too personal with the party—nothing spells frustrating (or Iliad) like having your level 1 PCs constantly trapped into acting for the gods.
Small scale: Look at your NPC list. Make sure some NPCs are familiar with your cleric’s religion. They don’t have to be devout: heck, maybe they hate the faith. They just need to understand the symbols your cleric is wearing and respond to them.
You’ve got the story down to the last detail. Random encounters? Ha! There is no random in your land. Your plot is epic and world-spanning, and you can’t wait to see how the players interact with it.
Large scale: Tweak your world plot. It doesn’t have to be huge. Perhaps the main villain is also of the cleric’s faith (awkward!) or is undead, giving the cleric some extra power in combat. Maybe the artifact of power defeating the evil wizard can only be found and activated by someone who follows your cleric’s god. Perhaps your main antagonist has a paladin minion who hates your paladin’s guts. Or the world tree is dying, and only a druid can research and perform the spell that will protect it from a horde of dire aphids.
Small scale: Create an encounter that requires the player-character’s faith. It can be as simple as a knowledge check or as complex as encountering an undead cult with a thirst for the blood of the PC’s religious brethren.
You see yourself as the person who helps your players create the story they want. If someone wants to explore that rocky crag and you didn’t prepare for it, you wing it. You spend a lot of time thinking of encounters to showcase player skills or backstories.
Large scale: If you haven’t already, consider asking your players to take a gamer motivation quiz: https://apps.quanticfoundry.com/lab/10 Look at the data. Do you have someone who loves to get powerful, to “win” the game? Create a priesthood with ranks determined by deeds. How about someone who loves combat? Generate gods and NPCs in opposition to your cleric’s faith, so the smiting may commence! They love to go on collection quests? Time to prepare some god-blessed artifacts. Someone who loves to roleplay? Make sure the cleric’s faith isn’t obscure: perhaps the people respect and defend priests of the faith, or perhaps the ruling class has mandated worship and the people are in revolt.
Small scale: Why do the work yourself? Give the player the basics of your world and let the player create the order from which they come.
Just Remember: Pantheons are Putty
Nothing is carved in stone (as deep as a spear is long on the trunk of the world ash tree). If there’s anything history teaches us, it’s that religions change and people’s ways of conceiving gods differ. The same Artemis who was worshipped as a javelin-thrower in Sparta was conflated with the goddess of magic in Athens. A Brauron cult had girls dress up as bears to appease Artemis the plague-bringer; in other places, Artemis was considered a protective goddess of childbirth. And while many knew her as a virgin goddess, Artemis was also worshipped as a mother goddess in Ephesus.
Moral of the story: You want to change the gods to suit your world? Do it. Humans have been doing it for millennia as it is.