Roundtable: The Role of the Divine

I have my own ideas on what makes for interesting fantasy. But I always want to know what intrigues other people – what YOU enjoy about imaginary worlds, whether in fiction, film, or games. I’ve got a number of projects in the works for 2012 and beyond, and hey, here’s your chance to let me know what you like.

I’ve already posted extensively about the approach we’ve taken in Eberron and why, and I’m about the head off to San Diego Comic Con, so I don’t have much time to tell you what *I* think. But to give a basic foundation to the discussion, what role do you prefer the divine to play in fantasy? Are you a fan of active, incarnate gods who can physically interfere in the affairs of mortals, as we see in Forgotten Realms or Greek mythology? Something like Eberron, where we can’t be certain the gods exist but where divine magic and institutions remain an important part of society? Or perhaps you prefer something like A Game of Thrones (and here I’m specifically referring to the first book) – where religion exists, but there’s no visible magic associated with it; it’s simply a matter of belief?

Let me know what you like, what you’ve used, and what you’d be interested in seeing in the future!

20 Responses to “Roundtable: The Role of the Divine”

  1. I have gone into quite a lot more detail in my own blog, link at the bottom, but summing up; what I want is a realistic attitude to gods. that means they may not exist at all, but people still choose to believe in them. I think that this could lead to some great ways for cultures to interact with each other, on a national or personal level.

  2. I prefer a pantheon that exists, but is generally aloof to the lives of mortals. Their drama does affect world, such as a fight between deities could cause a famine, or could change the disposition of a kingdom.

    The only direct interaction they have is when mess with the mortals similar to burning an ant with a magnifying glass.

  3. Rifter says:

    I always prefer the Eberron approach followed by The FR/Greek style.

  4. Legendsmiths says:

    We thought long about this and decided an active pantheon would be ideal. We blended the wish for such activity with the metagame “fate point” mechanic to ensure that when such points were used, it was an act, however subtle, of divine intervention.

    The result is that the gods are involved in subtle ways in every adventure, and not-so-subtly in some. The frequency and magnitude of involvement also increases with character importance, which feels very appropriate.

    This approach is a fundamental part of the Narosia: Sea of Tears RPG, and you can find a summary of the Divine Favor system on our preview pages.

  5. Nicolas Carrillo (paladinnicolas) says:

    Honestly, the Eberron approach is my favorite by far. It allows a degree of uncertainty yet admitting the possibility of the reality of divine help, and religious conflicts of a deep kind may be roleplayed

  6. I’ve always been a fan of the Eberron approach, even as i passionately hate the Hellenic-Realms approach. That’s not to say that i dislike the Realms or Greek mythology, because i don’t — both are wholly and equally awesome. It’s just that when we shape narrative (whether as authors or just people sitting around a table running a campaign), i think we tend to tell more interesting stories when those stories in rooted in the struggles of characters within the world, rather than in the manipulation of characters by otherworldly forces.

    The idea of a vibrant, conflict-laden cosmology is great, and i’m personally partial to worlds with living, accessible magic — but only insofar as both things provide fodder for character story. And when things push into areas where the gods start to dictate events, i think the idea of the world as a place where character stories are told is weakened.

  7. I like many different approaches. I think that all three of the outlined ways to approach religion in a fantasy setting are good as long as they are done well.

    What I appreciated about Eberron specifically is that each religion felt like it was in fact a separate religion. The Blood of Vol felt totally distinct from the Sovereign Host which shared none of the precepts with the elven religions. The problem with many default D&D deities is that they never seem coherent. Would there really be 6 different gods that represent dark/shadow/shade? Is there really a need for a god of snakes, assassins and poison when there is no god of agriculture? And the way these deities interact is nonsensical. If one is going to make a polytheistic pantheon then they need to interact in logical ways (the Greek pantheon being the best example, IMO) and they need to have a reason to exist.

    As for whether they should really be there? I go either way, again, as long as it works for the setting. I felt like the “no one knows” aspect of Eberron was refreshing, the deities don’t HAVE to exist just for magic to come from their institutions, that could just be another magical tradition. though I prefer that if they DO exist that there is some metaphysical reason why they cannot act directly in the World. Like Tolkien saying that his semi-deities were too powerful to make changes more subtle than lowering mountains, or D&D 4e’s explanation that there is a mystical barrier which means you have to cheat your way in via cultists or just funnel power through churches (because of the primal spirit force field thing). Maybe the metaphysical reason is actually nonsense and no one really does know?

    Ultimately, unless the deities are going to be characters that you want the players to interact with there is no reason to say explicitly if they truly exist or not. Their actions, likes and dislikes can be framed within the context of myth and tradition and nothing is lost.

  8. Shadow Whispers says:

    I don’t have a specific preference, other than that I want whichever approach is adopted to feel consistent.

    Religion as an unsolved problem creates a lot of potential for story; it means the PCs can’t rely on divine intervention, that there’s tons of hidden mysteries to uncover which can present good opportunities for character crises when things turn out to not be as anticipated. It’s also nicely flexible in terms of being able to mix things up between campaigns without it feeling like you’re fighting the setting to do it.

    On the other hand, the Greek pantheon and its relatives are really good for creating a world with lots of built in conflicts; having your divinities be active and constantly causing trouble that you have to try to fix and/or deal with gives you essentially infinite opportunities. It’s also got buckets of built-in character hooks; if there’s a not-inconsiderable chance that any given hero is the result of some deity’s indiscretions, she now comes with a bunch of dysfunctional divine relatives who are going to want to cause her some trouble.

    The thing that annoys me is when a setting either misses important parts of its model when copying or doesn’t spend enough time thinking of the implications of the one it creates. For instance, one of the features of the Greek pantheon that a lot of fantasy versions miss is that its gods are *constantly* being surpassed by mortals; basically every time Ares gets in a fight he loses, and as much as the story of Arachnae is usually about her hubris in challenging Athena, she actually *was* winning the weaving contest. The Greek deities are great and powerful, but they’re not infallible and they’re extremely petty, whereas a lot of fantasy deities are just unstoppable juggernauts who run rampant over mortals whenever they appear. Even the good gods tend to make mortals feel less than awesome; part of the fun of the Greek pantheon is that it’s up to *us* to be the moral adults, because the gods certainly aren’t!

  9. There are a wide variety of different portrayals of the relationship between mortals and deities that I like. Much like Shadow Whispers, I just want it to be consistently handled throughout that religion within that setting.

    Some time back, I did some compare&contrast thinking on a bunch of different settings. Several of the settings that I considered are those used in LARPs local to me, but I tried to explain them well enough that someone unfamiliar with the settings could follow the text. And, of course, these are just my interpretations of those settings – others may radically disagree about what’s going on in any of them.

  10. John Lach says:

    For D&D at least, I tend to go with the MANY MANY gods. All gods are real. They compete for worshipers. Then there is the apocalyptic battles and the world crawls from the wreckage and the cycle repeats.

  11. Chris Handforth says:

    Me, I tend to like variety. Deities and Demigods was actually the very first book I got when I started playing, and it has influenced my style continuously. I agree with many of the points Shadow Whisperer makes as well. 

    I clearly enjoy the take you took with Eberron Keith, as my constant badgering about various sects and cults evidences (thanks again for your patience!). As others have noted, this allows for a greater diversity and style of plots than is afforded by some campaign settings. Without direct interference by deities, multiple interpretations of powers are completely legitimate perspectives and philosophy can play a role that is equal to that of divine revelation.  Also, it is a novel approach and is rather different than that of my other favourite setting. 

    Said setting is Planescape, so when I said rather different, 
    I actually meant diametric opposite. For those unfamiliar, this is the setting where you can literally walk in to Asgard, sit down with Thor and swap stories over a tankard of ale. Not that it anywhere that easy, but it is possible. My point is, the gods of Planescape are approachable. They are active, and they do mettle, because they are the gods of all of the other setting that Gygax and everyone since him has dreamed up as well as every single historical deity from real life. But some of them are distant, some of them plot, plot and connive and almost all of them politic with one another. Since belief is so important to Planescape, it allows you to explore themes like what it means to be a power, how followers and powers interact, can the followers belief’s alter the deity itself… There is endless variety. Yet, despite the fact that every deity is theoretically accessible, they do not dominate the setting. There are secrets that can control/manipulate them, there are other beings that contend with them for power and there are legions of lesser beings, both mortal and immortal who choose to politic along side them. These beings are capable of winning too, even the PCs. 

    This leads to one of my favourite storyarcs to run, Planescape Ragnarök. Everything starts to go down as according to Norse myth. At the same time, Loki, Odin, the Æsgard, the Jotuns and who knows what else, all have contingencies to try and survive the coming apocalypse. Then you have other pantheons alternately trying to take advantage of it by harvesting the divine energy of the Norse as they are slain, or alternately trying to keep Ragnarök from triggering their own apocalypses. You have Anubis trying to keep everything straight, the Blood War following in the wake of Ragnarök’s battles, various parties such as Asmodeus , the Barenloths, Orcus, Kyuss, Nerull and the Illithids trying to take advantage of it for their own purposes, to start, plus all of the Factions of Sigil, and someone might try to revive Aoskar, the dead god of portals. Throw the PCs into the middle of the giant mess to try and survive it, along with the possibility of becoming gods themselves. They throw their lots in, they pick their sides and bump shoulders with the movers and shakers at every level. It’s something totally different the Eberron, but it works and is awesome. 

    That said, both have commonalities. As I said variety is important and both have it in spades. Both also have a strong philosophical component as well. Most of all, it’s not the presence of the divine that’s important, but your belief in it. That belief is all that exists in Eberron and it is clearly powerful, while in Planescape, it’s your conviction, even though you can get in a scrap with said god. They are powerful, but neither all knowing nor infallible. If you can nail all three of those points, I think you’re exactly on the right track

  12. Aelth says:

    Hmm, I think I enjoy the Eberron method best in relation to D&D, though I prefer the thought of no Magic associated with religion in other examples of fantasy-… That being said, I do enjoy excessive forms of Magic and Arcane tradition. :P

  13. balard says:

    I like to point that greek and forgotten are not similar. Greek gods are more akin to just epic guys, and FR gods are ubber powered outsiders. Greek gods mingle with humans, and you can tectonically just walk up to their home.

    About the question, I don’t like the normal D&D approach. Just many gods. The thing to me is not about the presence or absence of proof of gods, is about the presence or absence of religions. D&D normally just have one big pantheistic “religion” and a list of “good” gods and bad gods to worship in determined society.

    I like that when you are confronted with a different religion you consider their gods just powerful monsters, or different form of YOUR gods, or figments of their imagination. I like when RELIGION are more important than gods.

  14. Micah says:

    It depends. Any story about a god ultimately becomes a story about power – what it means, how should it be used, and what it does to people. I like the Aesir and their extreme mortality for gods – they age without the aid of magic, and time will bring an end to them as well. They’re grim gods for grim people. I like the wild gods of Greece, corrupt and thoughtless and entitled, great men writ large. The gods should fit the story, in my opinion. That said, I also enjoy the question of transcendence. What makes a being worthy of worship?

    Is it morality? Immortality? Their ability to hear prayers? Wisdom? Raw power? Some combination thereof? I prefer a D&D setting where the answers to these questions are variable. People can worship dragons, devils, angels, elemental princes and unique outsiders, even their own dead. Why? What drives worship? The desire for power, for transcendence, the respect those beings have earned? I think that’s important. As a seminarian, those questions drive me personally. I don’t like that 3.5 has a concrete mechanical form to mark out divinity. It is complicated. In addition to all the above examples, beings who are completely beyond physical incarnation, such as the Sovereign Host or the nameless, faceless G-d of the book of Exodus, are worshipped. Why? Important question, I think. Basically, I prefer a setting, especially for D&D, that doesn’t define divinity. That’s part of what I like about Eberron, there are lots of worshippers and their relationship to the gods are all different.

  15. Ombwah says:

    I have always been a fan of pantheistic gods, some who may even have come from another place to this one. I like the idea that the divine is more ‘beings of great power’ than “all-seeing-all-knowing architects of the universe” as the latter leaves little room for heroes, or for those who challenge destiny.

  16. I’ve always been a fan of the Idea that if the Gods do exist, then they walk among us. Hiding in plain sight, very much in keeping with Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”. With that said, I also am a fan of the idea that while they may exist and walk among us, that it’s impossible to know whether or not the Gods are responsible for magic in the world or if there is something else entirely creating it, or if magic is, like The Force (and I’m going pre-midichlorian here), self sustaining.

    I also like the idea that the gods can be fallible and prone to seriously screw things up. They are, the ones that appear to be humanoid, at least, are, to some degree, equipped with the same humanistic personality tropes. Good or bad, they all have the ability to be really nice people or complete jerks based on the way they relate to people. I definitely like to play to this in the Eberron game that I run. If the PCs happen to wander across a God, there’s no telling what personality they might get until they try to talk to it. A revered god of a holy cleric might invite the party to a tavern and get insanely drunk while, perhaps, trying to seduce the barmaid or the female in the group.

    I like bringing a challenge like that to the perceptions of what Gods should/can be in games. It makes for some interesting, and often hilarious storytelling. :)

  17. Larry says:

    I prefer the Eberron approach to the divine. Before Eberron, I gamed in the Forgotten Realms since the beginning of AD&D, and honestly, it felt like the gods were so often the focus (as much as the god-like signature NPCs) that the characters were just struggling to get out of their shadow.

    Of course, a lot of that is just how the campaign is run and how the stage is set, but there’s still that feel that a campaign setting takes on where the characters keep expecting the gods to be involved or for each cleric to have regular one-on-one conversations with the divine.

    On one hand, stories like the Bhaalspawn saga are some of the best (non-Underdark) stories that the setting has to offer, but there comes a point when it just gets tired. How many plots have revolved around killing Mystra? Too many.

    So to summarize, I absolutely enjoy the fresh approach to all of the (potentially tired) DnD staples that Eberron brings, including the gods.

  18. Newb says:

    I’ve always seen the Sovereign host and dark six as the weakest elements in the Eberron setting. The reason for this is that while their mysterious position in the world makes for intriguing gameplay, their composition too closely reflects the popular present secularist religious view. In other words, it is too complacent.

    Game worlds should reflect real life enough for players to connect to them on the level of personal experience, but they should also challenge existing views and beliefs. I find too little challenge in the Sovereign host and Dark six for my needs.

    My own solutions are to rework them into something more in the framework of the other religions (Silver Flame, Blood of Vol, Dragon below, etc.)

    Another interesting solution is to connect them with the Dragon Marks. This is difficult, but also makes for a myriad interesting possibilities, i.e.
    - What is the relationship between dragon marks and religions? Are dragon marks a gift to the faithful being misused by a few to get rich? Are they perhaps a sign to the faithful that they have erred and that the gods are starting from scratch?
    - Politics: In the conflict between religion and economics, which side will will various nations choose? Economic prosperity or spiritual well-being? Might conflicts between Sovereign host and dark six bleed into the Dragon marked houses?
    - Where does Argonessen stand? Does this perhaps confirm a suspected link between dragons, draconic prophesy and gods? If so, what does this mean? Are the dragons opposed to the gods and exploit the conflict to weaken them?
    - Questions on magic? What then is the link between gift of divine magic and ‘blessing’ of dragon marks? Might dragon heirs have special powers over divine magic, or vice-versa? What new doubts will this leave among the already beleaguered faithful of the gods?
    - Broader repercussions? Is this an ever greater condemnation of old Galifar (since Galifar supported opposition between sovereign host and dark six, while dragon mark houses unify them)? Can dragon mark houses fulfill the burden of responsibility this development thrusts on them or will it break them?

    In short, these are merely ideas. In the main I would prefer an Eberron where the dominant faith is not so remote from everyday reality.

  19. Keith Baker says:

    their composition too closely reflects the popular present secularist religious view.
    Could you explain what you mean by this? To be clear, the attitude that “we can’t prove the gods exist” is one WE, the outside reader, may have; it doesn’t remotely reflect the typical attitude of a worshipper of the Sovereign Host. If you ask a smith why he believes in Onatar when the god’s never showed up in person, he’ll tell you that Onatar is there with him every moment he’s at the forge. As a soldier why he believes in Dol Dorn when the god never actually appears on the battlefield and he’ll respond that Dol Dorn is on EVERY battlefield, that he is there with every soldier, welcomed or not; through faith and prayer, the soldier hopes to gain his favor so Dol Dorn with strengthen his arm when he needs it. To the typical worshipper of the Sovereign Host, the idea of a god taking physical form and walking around would actually be, essentially, bizarrely limiting for the god. Wherever there is wind, it is the breath of Arawai or the furious storm of the Devourer. Wherever people trade, Kol Korran counts the coins. Far from people being complacent about the Sovereigns, a vassal believes that the Sovereigns are with her every moment of her life – which is why most healers are devoted to Olladra or Boldrei, why the smith will have his anvil and hammer blessed by a priest of Onatar before he ever uses them, a why a paladin named Tira Miron would risk her life battling demons back before there ever was a Church of the Silver Flame.

    It may well be that authors haven’t done enough to depict the manner in which the faith of the Sovereign Host manifests within the world. But to me it is pervasive and anything but secular. Its missionaries are an active force, who even now seek to convince the Giants of Rusheme and other recently contacted cultures to adopt their ways. Taken as a whole – for there are hundreds of stricter sects and orders – it doesn’t have the tight structure and hierarchy of the Church of the Silver Flame.

    In the main I would prefer an Eberron where the dominant faith is not so remote from everyday reality.

    Whereas to me, there’s nothing remote about it. The typical citizen of the Five Nations offers prayers to the Sovereigns every day. The Dragonmarked houses already have Sovereign patrons; Cannith is typically devoted to Onatar and Kol Korran, with a secretive but influential cult of the Traveler hidden in its roots. The Three Faces of War have many followers in Deneith, while many Jorasco healers offer prayers to Boldrei and Olladra (for all that they aren’t actually clerics). The Sovereigns and Six don’t walk the world… but in many ways because of that, there’s no reason to believe that they aren’t with you at this very moment, guiding and inspiring you, their benevolence responsible for every blessing and anger (or treachery of the Dark Six) responsible for anything that goes wrong.

    Or am I misunderstanding what you’re trying to say?

  20. Newb says:

    Sorry. In retrospect I didn’t make myself very clear.

    What I mean by secularist complacency is the contemporary attitude of western society towards religion – it is there but only if you’re interested. For most of us there is no social imperative to commit to a stance on religion. One can ignore it and live your life just fine. This is just an observation, not a criticism – in everyday life I prefer it that way.

    In Eberron, the Sovereign host and Dark six have a similar feel. Other faiths like the Silver Flame and Blood of Vol are deeply involved and highly active in events in the world. While other faiths are deeply enmeshed in key events of the past (the causes and vicissitudes of the Last War), and the contemporary politics of Khorvaire, there is little mention of the role of the Sovereign host (SH) or the Dark six (DS).

    I think that players feel comfortable with the SH and DS because they are so familiar to the role of religion in western society. But I think that on the whole the other faiths are more popular, and I think that this is because they are more interesting and challenging to our normal experience of religion. They force us to really think about what religion means.

    The other faiths are closely attuned to the feel of Eberron, in fact to a large degree they are Eberron. It just wouldn’t be the same without the Gatekeepers or the Blood of Vol. This I think is one of the greatest appeals of Eberron. We role-play to experience situations and environments which we cannot in all practicality in real life. We revel in danger because we cannot in real life. We enjoy intrigue and mind-bending changes because everyday life demands consistency, stability and trust. In the same way we enjoy the other faiths because they confront us with ideological choices that are much harder to commit to when its our own lives on the line.

    In comparison, the SH and DS seem out of place. Its like they were created to let players play clerics without committing to the beliefs that empower them. Like too many other settings they feel like hollow pantheons of empty figureheads.

    The SH and DS are aloof and mysterious deities, but does this mean that their faiths have to be as well. Wouldn’t this instead make their clergy more zealous? If you have no affirmation from your god that what you’re doing is right, you have to make up for that absence with greater self-belief. And that aloofness should mean for greater room for interpretation, which should mean greater divergences between followers, which should mean much more conflict and rivalry.

    To me personally they just seem too inconsistent with the rest of the world. The SH I think enjoyed a lot of prosperity under Galifar hegemony. Why aren’t many of them trying to get rid of the usurpers who’ve caused so much trouble both for them and the world at large. Aren’t there some who think that perhaps they should take the leadership of a new Galifar? And surely the DS just love the events of the last century? Shouldn’t they be supporting the usurpers rather than trying to cause trouble for them?

    What role has the SH and DS played in the history of the last millenium? What major events did they precipitate? What shape do they envision for the future of Eberron and what schemes and conspiracies are they developing to arrive at that destination?
    Which power groups do they oppose? Whom among their allies do they secretly view as rivals and who do they see potential partners?

    These questions seem to me to lead to far more interesting answers when asked of the other faiths than of the SH and DS. It is this disparity which bothers me.

    I hope that this is clearer.

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