Ryan and Jay, those d20-rolling enthusiasts over at 3.5 Private Sanctuary, devoted Episode 87  of their podcast to the subject of divinity and the role of gods in a campaign world.
And at one point, Ryan and Jay make a solid case for always using default pantheon — the Greyhawk-lite list of gods and goddesses from the Player’s Handbook — for every campaign.
Basically, their argument boils back to the very purpose Pelor, Kord and Wee Jas and their deific fellows were provided in the first place: It’s a (fairly) concise list of gods that cover all the bases in terms of the rules (domains and associated powers) and flavor (portfolios and areas of influence).
Simplicity wins out, they say. The DM can focus on planning other aspects of the campaign and need not be concerned with teaching a new set of gods and goddesses. Although the default pantheon was born from the Greyhawk campaign, its gods are, by their design, generic enough to port to just about any world the DM can envision. And for players, the equation is simpler. They are either familiar with the pantheon and its associated game mechanics or the gods can be readily referenced: just flip open the PHB and there they are.
And compared to other published campaign settings (even others published by Wizards of the Coast), the default pantheon has its advantages. Other campaigns have gods lists that are 1) too long for practical gameplay; 2) gods whose names are nigh unpronounceable; 3) just goofy.
I can appreciate Ryan and Jay’s argument. As a DM who devoted nearly two years allowing the machinations of Kyuss to torment my gaming group in an Age of Worms campaign, the utility of the Greyhawk pantheon was proven out early on. (Really, is there anything more fun than having the PCs knock on the door of a secret temple of Hextor and calling for initiative rolls? I can’t think of any.)
That said, DMs who love to homebrew their campaign settings, understandably balk at using the default pantheon. In spite of the default pantheon’s utility, there’s just something too corporate-sounding about dropping the officially-branded D&D gods in your homebrew.
But how do you avoid the other problem? Your player says he wants to play a cleric, and immediately asks: What are the gods and goddesses (and for game play, their domains) of your world?
If you hand over a list of deities, and it’s either too long or filled with too many silly or tongue-tripping names, you’re going to see the players’ eyes roll back in their head. That’s the wrong way to start a campaign.
I was faced with that dilemma for my homebrewed, medieval-Western European Steffenhold campaign. After the Age of Worms, I very definitely wanted a break from core D&D setting, and so did the group. As one said: “Remember the days when we just assumed the cleric was some friar from the parish church or monastery down the road? Whatever happened to that?”
If ever there was a call for some real-world sounding deities, this was it. To satisfy the Friar Tuck of the group, we have the Church of the Shepherd.
(Why not just use Christian denominations instead of an analog? First, I didn’t want to bring real-world religion to the table. Secondly, I wanted a more egalitarian priesthood than what the Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox churches had in medieval times. There is also a Jewish analog, thanks to one of the most wonderful references in my rpg library, “Testament: Roleplaying in the Biblical era).
And to add variety and history, there are also the Imperial gods (borrowing deeply from the Greek Olympian pantheon) of the cultured south and the Old Ways (dipping into the Teutonic myths) of the frontier north.
I get the same advantages as the default pantheon with this approach. 1) the gods are certainly knowable, as they are drawn from real-world mythology; 2) the list is concise enough to cover the bases. Assigning domains and portfolios to them was a simple and fun exercise.
Moreover, I avoid having to make up any names for gods. (Egads, isn’t coming up with names for a town filled with NPCs quite taxing enough?)
So, homebrewers, chime in. What’s your approach to creating gods and goddesses for your fantasy campaigns? What works best?