Monday, October 25, 2010

Dungeoncraft #4: Homebrew religion

For Day 4 of the campaign development project, we're going to tackle the subject of religion and mythology for your custom campaign setting. Religion is a staple of any D&D game as well as the source material in which the game is based. In fact, I'd say real-world mythology is one of the primary pillars on which the game was originally built. So, it pays to put some thought into religion, but keeping in mind again Dungeoncraft Rule #1, we don't want to overdo it and spend more time than we really need to on religion. We want enough to get started, enough for PCs to latch onto the role of religion in the setting (and in the lives of their characters) and enough to prompt potential stories for us. To get this, the Dungeoncraft methodology suggests the following steps:

First, choose Polytheism or Monotheism. Polytheism refers to a collection of multiple gods (many real world mythologies believe in a system like this), while monotheism refers to a single god (many real world religions today follow this pattern.) There's advantages and disadvantages to both, of course, but they can be more similar rather than different as they appear to be at first blush. Many monotheistic religions still have a host of saints or avatars or other divine servants that practically speaking play the roles of other gods in a polytheistic system.

Polytheism is the default assumption for most published D&D campaign settings, and there's a reason for this. Polytheism gives characters more choice in whom to worship, and gives the cleric class in particular more flavor and options. Polytheism also introduces potential conflicts between the churches of various gods that may have opposing idealogy. However, polytheism could potentially take more time to flesh out; after all, you need to name a few gods and assign spheres of influence to them. This can be done relatively quickly if you stick to the bare bones, of course.

If using a polytheistic system, take a moment to think about the heirarchy between the gods, if any. Greek myth, for example, has Zeus as the "King of the Gods" and his brothers Poseidon and Hades together form a sort of Triumvirate of the most important and most powerful gods. Other gods are wives, sons or daughters of many of these original gods, and the relationships between them suggest something about the setting that ancient Greeks believed they lived in. In many D&D pantheons, however, there is no heirarchy or order per se, instead each god or goddess is on their own, or limited to whatever alliances he or she can cobble together.

After coming up with a handful of gods, it's important to also give them "spheres of influence." This can also be tailored and flavored with the selection of domains the god makes available to his clerics (typically three or four to choose from.) For example, a god might be designated the war god -- he'd probably thus get the war domain. If he also gets the evil and the destruction domain, for example, that says something about how that society views war. If, on the other hand, he gets the strength, good and law domains, that says something else. There's no reason more than one god can't have influence over the same arena -- the Norse mythology has Thor, Odin, Tyr and others who are all "war gods" for instance, but since you don't want to invent scores and scores of gods at this point anyway, you're probably best off limiting yourself to just a few major ones; half a dozen to a dozen tops. Other than their domains, you may also want to give your gods a weapon of choice.

If you choose monotheistic, your choices are obviously simpler. Monotheistic deities typically offer access to all the domains. An interesting variant of the monotheistic system is the dualist, in which two cosmic opposites work at constant cross purposes. One is typically good and positive, while the other is often associated with evil, but other opposition schemes could be contrived easily enough. You also need to decide if there are "sub-deities" such as saints, angels or avatars that the PCs could potentially interact with. It wouldn't hurt to give some thought as to their nature as well--are they lesser divine servants, or are they ascended mortals, ala Catholic saints?

Take a moment to describe whether or not your gods are personified, or something else. Many real world mythologies, such as the Greek or Norse mythologies have their gods acting essentially as super-powered humans in many ways, with emotions, goals, foibles and the like. Even the Egyptian pantheon, which doesn't appear very humanistic at first glance, has easily identified strains of this same line of thinking. However, other religions percieve the god(s) as simply unempathic forces that are pretty much beyond mortal comprehension. Taking this to a further extreme, you get "Lovecraftian" deities, awesome entities that are so far beyond human understanding that they aren't even capable of percieving us as more than infinitesmally unimportant motes. These types of gods make for a very grim campaign, as the gods don't care for even having worshippers, and their plans might accidentally annihilate the entire world without even realising we were on it.

Humanistic deities is a choice most D&D campaigns use, because it provides for easy story ideas. If you go this route, give each deity a quick couple of sentences to describe their personality and motivation, and maybe develop some relationships between them. If you do not have humanistic deities, give some thought on how the deities interact with the world and how that can suggest story ideas. For example (using Ray's own sample campaign) a non-humanistic earth-mother clearly relates to all the organisms that live on it, and certain threats to the well-being of the goddess would clearly impact those who live on her.

For just a few major gods, give some thought on how they are worshipped. Is the pantheon open or closed? Most real world pantheons were closed, i.e. you worshipped all of the gods in the pantheon, depending on what specific help you were looking for. Holy men likewise typically served the entire pantheon at a time. That doesn't mean mystery cults devoted to a specific god didn't exist -- in fact they were quite common, but in general the pantheon was a unit. An open pantheon, on the other hand, is the default for most D&D settings. In this type of pantheon, you typically only worship one of the gods, and that's your religion and your church. There's some mechanical considerations to each, of course, relative to domains available to a given cleric character, favored weapon and the like.

Also take a moment to think about a few sample religious services and a couple of "dos and don'ts" for each church, religion or sect. These are particularly useful to the cleric or paladin players, but they could also be important to other classes if the characters happen to be religious. In some campaign settings -- Forgotten Realms for example, all characters typically are at least somewhat religious. Giving them something they can actually roleplay related to that makes the setting come alive. Don't get carried away with any of these details; it'd be easy to spend hours detailing gods and ceremonies and lists of commandments; just a few small bullet points should be sufficient.

Just to give the religion more than simply a dry, mechanical rundown, a few myths explaining some of "the great mysteries" are helpful. Where did we come from? What happens when we die? How was the world created? How did civilization start? What's the relationship between humans and nonhumans? Where does magic fit in? These are the kinds of questions you should look at. Don't write long stories, a paragraph or two should be sufficient, and share it with the players ahead of time.

In an open polytheistic environment, you've probably already done this, but otherwise, you probably want to take just a moment to give some hints of other religions that believe differently than the main religion of your campaign. Perhaps elves or dwarves have different creation myths or a different set of deities, for example. If you do this, though, be sure and come up with, at least for yourself, how these various religions interact. Is one right and not the others? Are they all wrong? Are they all right? Are competing pantheons related in some way, or is there an actual divine war going on between them mirrored by the conflict between the worshippers?

So now it's time to look at the Dark•Heritage setting again to see how I did it as a sample. I decide that I want a polytheism model, and that about a dozen gods sounds about right. The gods themselves will be humanistic, and will have a very loose heirarchy, with each god more concerned with his personal sphere of influence than in gaining more power per se. I'll also decide that my pantheon is closed -- the church worships all of the gods at once. But I'll get into organizations and religions later; first I need to detail the gods themselves.

Czernoboch (CHERN-uh-bock) "The Black Prince" - As his name implies, Czernoboch was originally a Balshatoi god; perhaps even the chief god of that people. His cult has spread throughout the surrounding area, however, and he is an important figure in the religion of the Terrasans, and even moreso in the religion of Baal Hamazi, who view him as their divine "father." In most representations, he looks like an ideal hamazin; jet-black skin, handsome, sharp features, and a crown of six horns poking up through his hair. His concerns seem to be with civilization, although that has taken on a darker pall in many cults, where he's also seen as the patron of the seedier side of civilization: thieves, plague, corrupt politicians, bandits, and worse.

Perun (pare-OON) - He also sports an originally Balshatoi name, but Perun, "The Thunderer" is associated with war, and as such, his mystery cults have suffused the Terrasan military for generations. As he's worshipped today, he's a hybrid of the original cult of Perun and the cult of the war-god of the south, Belcadros, and is sometimes referred to in full as Perun Belcadros. Perun is usually depicted as a primitive warrior, wielding a spear, hammer or ax, all of which are metaphors for his thunder and lightning.

Ashtarte (ash-TAR-tay) - Also known as Ishtar or Ashtar, depending on the dialect of the speaker, Ashtarte is one of the goddesses most associated with civilization. She's sometimes known as "The Divine Librarian" or "The Goddess of Knowledge." Her search for knowledge is only one aspect of her worship, though, and older cults still remember her as a more generic goddess of civilization, to whom fertility was as important as knowledge. To this day, heirodules, or "temple prostitutes" make up an important part of her religious observances.

While the search for knowledge is an important part of her worship as well, and the libraries of her temples are amongst the greatest in Terrasa or beyond, Ashtarte's priests are notorious for lusting after knowledge they shouldn't have, and the more forbidden the knowledge, the more they seek after it. Even the old myths talk about Ashtarte stealing forbidden knowledge in scandalous ways (as a courtesan, or through murder.) The temples of Ashtarte have to cover up the scandalous actions of her too-curious priests with disturbing regularity. Ashtarte is usually pictured as a voluptuous naked women with angelic wings, seated on a coiled serpent for a throne, and with a smaller serpent in her hand. In her other hand is a book.

Orcus (OAR-cuss) - The God of Death is not much worshipped or revered locally, but since his temple has charge of preparing dead bodies for funerary rites, it remains important nonetheless. Ironically, the priests of Orcus are notorious for trying to escape death--urban myths of the priest of Orcus who turns to dark necromancy are common bogeymen that mothers use to frighten their children. Orcus himself is never pictured out of superstitious fear; nobody knows what he's supposed to look like--or if they do, they're not saying.

Dagon (DAY-gonn) - One of the most respected and revered gods near any body of water is the Lord of the Sea. Since literally everyone in coastal areas depends on the sea to some degree or another---either for food, livelihood, or at least in the hopes that it won't rise up in a tropical storm and wipe them off the map---Dagon's ceremonies are the most attended of any in those regions, and icons of him appear in almost every single building. He's usually shown as a merman with a flowing beard, but he's also occasionally pictured otherwise; one popular variant is a shark-like creature with grasping tentacles and mouth and eyes similar to that of horrible deep sea hunters.

Veles (VELL-us or VELL-eez) - Veles is the goddess of magic, and few are the arcane spellcasters who don't at least give her some nominal votive offerings from time to time. Her priests are famous for selling charms that protect the faithful from minor harm and bad luck. Most people agree that they do indeed work, although some decry the practice as charlatanism.
In the myths of many peoples, she is linked with Orcus, but the nature of that linkage is obscure, and varies from place to place.

Susinak (SOO-sin-ack) - Susinak is the ultimate traveler. Most people about to embark on a long journey will stop by the temple district and touch the hem of the robe of her statue. Most cities have a brass statue of her in an important plaza, but temples are few. Clerics and other faithful clean and polish the brass statues daily. They do, in fact, frequently start to lose some of their detail and definition because of the constant polishing. The etymology of Susinak is unclear. While clearly not a native word in Terrasan, she is a goddess who's cult originated in the south, perhaps amongst neighbors of the old Terrasans.

Charun (char-OON) - Charun is a bull-headed god famous for his feats of strength. His temples are small shrines that are simply a roof supported by four pillars with a granite altar in the center.

Selvans (SELL-vans) - "The Horned God" is often seen as a dark god; a representation of nature "red in tooth and claw", and frequently associated with wolves or wulfen. Hunters and outdoorsmen worship him, but these are hard and cynical men, usually. This representation is common, but his name varies wildly from place to place. He's also known as Cernunnos, Herne, and in the southwest, in Kurushat, as Yinigu. There, he is seen as the patron of the entire nation, and associated with hyenas instead of wolves.

Vanth - The God of Penitance is not a popular god, but one that you occasionally hear about from those who have had to spend time in prison. He encourages extremely dilligent penitance and flagellations, so his followers are at least easy to spot. Mythology supposed a link between Orcus and Ashtarte, usually hinting that Vanth is a discarded lover of Ashtarte, and a former prisoner of Orcus.

Moloch (MOLE-ock) - The god of fire and the sun. His worship is more prevalent in tropical, open areas (unsurprisingly) where he is seen as a harsh and demanding master. In more temperate climes, he's more likely to be viewed benevolently, as a bringer of clement weather and bountiful harvests. In hotter regions shake their heads knowingly, and watch their own crops go sere with Moloch's displeasure.

Human sacrifice, especially of slave children, has been strongly associated with Moloch's worship in the past. In most Terrasan regions today, this is no longer practiced.

Culsans (CULL-sans) - While never openly worshipped, this god of thieves is very commonly given a quick prayer by the land's many less than upstanding citizens. Also known as Frezur Blue as a nickname (origin unclear), many invoke his name only to make fun of it, and ask what part of him is blue (usually with a randy joke about his sex life) which causes the priests of Ashtarte or other more learned theologians no end of frustration. They simply roll their eyes, comment that "Blue" in this case is merely a mispelling of his proper name anyway, and although Frezur Blue may seem to be an easy-going god who doesn't mind a few jokes made at his expense, only the truly foolish think that it is wise to upset the god who can take away everything that they own, and even steal their very souls.

You'll notice that few of the gods are good, or even bear a semblance of it, in keeping with the dark and grim nature of the campaign I'm trying to develop. Old time D&D players may recognize that several of them are relatively transparently the same as some of the major Demon Lords, which also accomplishes that same idea, as well as being a bit of an in-joke to savvy players.

Since I've now developed my type of pantheon and the nature of the major gods, it's time to have a look at religion and organizations.

Essentially, in my main kingdom, all religion is a province of the Ecclesiastus, an organization that has been scrabbling to hold on to political power for decades, only to see it gradually fade as the populace has turned in recent generations from being highly religious to being largely superstitious. Now, they see the Ecclasiastus as a helpful advocate to keep an unfriendly god from giving you a very bad day, as well as the source of most scholarly pursuit. That said, agents of the Ecclesiastus dabble in all kinds of things, many of them things that they should not, and strange mystery cults within the organization of the church itself have even more sinister motives.

My descriptions of the gods does ennumerate a number of myths, but for one that I'd like to develop at this stage: how humanity got their freedom from the Old Ones that created them in ancient times. Supposedly, at that time, the Old Ones worshipped strange gods, fell and uncouth that had no love for humanity, or even for their own subjects. The current gods were their children, and they chafed under the rule of the cruel Elder Gods. In a legendary reenactment of the freeing of humanity from their masters, the New Gods rebelled against the Elder Gods and threw them down to take their place. In order to purge the world of the influence of the Elders, they brought about the downfall of the Old Ones themselves and adopted humanity as their worshippers.

Finally, as Dungeoncraft Rule #2 compels me to create a secret about my religion, I'll jump from the myth I created and say that it is more or less true. Of course, my secret from an installment or two ago was the demons helped humanity overthrow their masters, not the gods. This is because these "gods" that are worshipped aren't gods at all, but truly are demon lords, vying to corrupt humanity as much as possible. True gods, if they exist at all, probably are the Elder Gods, although humanity is undergoing a true apostasy, and any real knowledge of them is long gone.

Next time, we'll look at naming and organization and start to get ready to draw the first maps.

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