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The Making of a Pantheon

by Michael A. Hartman (Aristotle@Threshold)

In Epitre a l'auteur de livre des trois imposteurs, Voltaire wrote "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent Him." This condition of desperate necessity is precisely the situation any world-building game master finds himself in when striving to create a truly new and unique campaign world. Religion is a vital element of any role playing game, as its potential for generating conflicts, quests, and plot lines is basically limitless. The excitement of a good religious debate or a bloody jihad cannot be underestimated. A poorly designed pantheon of deities and religion system can cause a role playing game to feel empty and soulless. Thus a wise game master can hardly devote too much time and creative energy to the development of this facet of the game world. But where to start?
Why are greek gods always naked?

Greek Gods in a clump.

The first task is to determine how large of a pantheon you want to create. There are basically two main factors that will have the greatest effect on this determination. The first is the number of players you have or will have in your game, and the second is how many concepts you wish to have represented by your deities. For your religions to really come alive in your game they will need clerics and worshipers to spread the word and sally forth to convert the masses. If you have too many deities, their ranks will be diluted to the point that no religions are able to have much effect on the world as a whole. Religions with few (or no) followers are like modern day vaporware: they sound really interesting but never deliver anything of substance. Thus, one must be careful to make sure that the population of the game can adequately support the number of deities in the pantheon.

It is also crucial that enough concepts are represented by your deities to make the overall religion system interesting and laden with conflict. Conflict drives role playing and creates all sorts of interesting "we versus them" situations. Further, having many interesting and diverse concepts represented by your deities will create many situations where players have a specific deity they can pray or tithe to. They can do this asking or tithing when something they want to do falls within the purview of one of the deities of the campaign world. In such situations, they might need to seek out a cleric of the deity for advice. Such situations create very interesting role play situations for the both the aspirant and the cleric(s) involved, and can result in some very memorable scenarios and player given quests or tasks. This level of player-to-player interaction can be extremely enjoyable and rewarding for all people involved, and should be encouraged through game design as much as possible.

Lastly, by having many concepts represented you are able to ensure that religion and the gods will be on the minds of your players with far greater frequency. The more often a player thinks some action of theirs might be of particular interest to one of the deities, the more real the whole religion system will feel to them. The effect of this type of thinking is that players are drawn much deeper into and feel more psychologically connected to the game world.

The second task is to decide on what concepts you wish to have represented by your deities. A good way to do this is to first create a huge list of potential concepts. One way to start is by perusing texts on existing pantheons like Greek, Roman, Norse, Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, and other mythologies and jot down concepts that you think are interesting or important. Of course there are some "core" concepts that you will almost definitely want to include. Such core concepts include love, hate, war, life, death, nature, truth, deceit, etc. Next, look up the concepts on your list in a thesaurus and a dictionary to find similar or opposing concepts, and also to ensure that you have a good understanding of all the concepts on your list. At this point, you will most likely have an enormous list of concepts. If not, you should do some more research until you have generated a substantial set of concepts to work with. The next thing to do is prioritize the concepts into a few groups like "definite", "very important", "would like to have", "not very important", etc. Then looking over all of the concepts, determine which concepts are related in such a way that it would be logical for a single deity to be the embodiment of those concepts. For example, it would be logical for a single deity to be a goddess of love as well as fertility, or for a single deity to be a god of war and storms. Such concepts make sense together, and thus you can group them into a single deity if desired. By making these groups of concepts, you can incorporate many ideas into your game world without having an outrageous number of deities.

The hardest part of this task comes last: final selection. This part of the process can be extremely agonizing, as there will very likely be many concepts that it seems impossible to do without. However, narrowing things down to produce an appropriate number of deities that will not spread your population of followers and clergy too thin is crucial. It is not a disaster if some really interesting concepts get left on the cutting room floor. This does not mean those concepts have been eliminated from your game. It just means there is no specific deity at that time to represent them. Furthermore, unused concepts can leave open the possibility of new gods or the resurrecting of old, lost, or driven out gods.

The third task can be one of the most painful and brain wracking of them all: creating the deities' names. At this stage the deities are just a conglomerate of concepts that need names to bind them together into single, usable units. Since the names of your deities will be the first impression players have of your deities, their importance is enormous. Poor names can turn an otherwise superb set of deities into a group of absurd entities that make players wince and cringe whenever they have to type or say their names. There is no easy way to come up with names, but there are a few things one can do to facilitate the process. Start making a list for each deity by going through a couple of steps. First, go back to the original research of existing mythologies and see what deity names corresponded to the concepts that were chosen for the final set of deities. Second, look up the concepts in other languages (Latin, Old English, Middle English, German, and Modern Greek make particularly good choices) and add any interesting sounding words, roots, or parts of words to the list for each deity. Lastly, play around with the words (and parts of words) you have compiled for each deity. Given enough time and experimentation, you can use these lists to come up with pretty interesting names for all the deities in the pantheon. Furthermore, the names will have some type of real connection to the concepts that are represented, and this might help make the pantheon make sense to the players. While it is certainly possible to use names that are totally unassociated with the concepts the deities represent, that type of abstraction adds little to the game and eliminates the very real benefit of having deity names that educated players can understand on multiple levels.

At this point, the weary and bleary eyed game master should have a respectable set of deities that can clearly be used to flesh out an interesting pantheon. But more is needed if one wishes to have a religion system that really comes alive for the players. Each deity does not exist alone in a vacuum. They should be part of a much larger and more complicated cosmology wherein conflict, alliances, intrigue, and mystery abound. Each deity should have its own history, goals, and motivations that explain the demands it makes upon its clerics and followers. Although some of these goals may remain a mystery from the players (in fact, it is definitely preferable for this to be the case), the game master should understand them far in advance as they are a necessary element of development in other areas of the game world.

In addition, a good deal of time should be spent developing all sorts of relationships between the various members of the pantheon. Each deity should have allies and enemies within the pantheon which will naturally trickle down to their followers. If the game designer is particularly adept in creating these relationships, all sorts of complicated, crisscrossed loyalties can be created. This can generate exciting role play situations where players must wrestle with their faith and struggle to determine what course of action would be most pleasing to their god or goddess.

Struggling to find some clothes.

One need only consider the effect of religion on real life history to realize the enormous effect a well developed pantheon and religion system can have on any campaign world. With a richly designed religion system, the potential for conflict, debate, and rich interaction amongst players is staggering, and the variety of possible role playing scenarios is endless. Without question, the time and effort required to develop a good pantheon is enormous and daunting. But when you look upon your world and see players raving in religious debate and streets flowing red with the blood of heretics and blasphemers, you will know it was worth every moment.

Michael A. Hartman is the sole administrator and author of Threshold RPG. He is also a one of Imaginary Realities's Staff Writers.