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D&D Burgoo (3.5): Of Gods and Homebrews

Ryan and Jay, those d20-rolling enthusiasts over at 3.5 Private Sanctuary, devoted   Episode 87 [1] 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?

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5): Of Gods and Homebrews"

#1 Comment By KernelPanic On September 22, 2009 @ 6:13 am

I prefer making churches to making gods. For instance my homebrew campaign world has no regular-issue gods. It has the Nonite Church (with three sects roughly corresponding to divisions in medieval Christianity), druidism (which I fleshed out by inventing a theology to go with it) and the Thogothrim faith which is essentially very involved ancestor worship.

I find that a certain type of campaign works a lot better if the gods are distant and uninterested in human affairs. I’m also a big fan of the Eberron rule for allowing any alignment clerics to be worshipers of any god. Great for corrupt clergy.

Another fun alternative to traditional gods is to borrow from various mystic cults over the ages. For instance alchemy need not only be a skill but can (as in our own history) be a religious affiliation unto itself. Another option is to borrow from Orphic mysteries of ancient Greece as well as the Pythagorean cult.

I also planned to try and reproduce the eclecticism of the late Hellenic era (we worship anything that moves!) but I never managed to invent a plausible gameplay incentive for players.

#2 Comment By Tapiochre On September 22, 2009 @ 6:42 am

In my own campaign I use the D&D 4e deity names as the common names used by the congregation and layperson. Then attribute my own names for clerical and academic reference. So a farmer may pray to Pelor for a warm summer to help his crops but a priest would know the more accurate way of appealing to the sun god.

#3 Comment By Jagyr Ebonwood On September 22, 2009 @ 6:55 am

In a recent game, I decided to keep the setting very open and undefined, and kind of build it as the players discovered it. I decided to go with generic gods – basically a “make your own” sort of thing.

For instance, one PC was a cleric of Death, and chose Death and Repose as his domains. Another was a cleric of Lady Luck, and chose Luck and Trickery as his domains. It worked pretty well, because you can easily recognize what role each deity/cleric would play in society, without being burdened with unwanted trappings of Greyhawk.

#4 Comment By Knight of Roses On September 22, 2009 @ 7:08 am

I dislike the default (Greyhawk) pantheon as bland and ‘gamey’. While I could play in a campaign using it, it would distance me from the game world a little.

Having gods/religions more tied to the world setting even if they are echoes of historical pantheons/ churches works far better for me.

#5 Comment By Cole On September 22, 2009 @ 7:27 am

In most of my campaigns, religion is always part of the background story. On those, all players just assume some sort of default dieties. Much like what you described with Greyhawk.

Other campaigns, when the religion is the center of things, I use whatever is available in the campaign book. Taking notes of the weird sound deities and passing them on to the players. The notes also include a brief description of the sect, and what is the name of the their core religious texts, if they are available.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 22, 2009 @ 7:56 am

I think there are a couple of factors that homebrew DMs should always consider:
1) Level of immersion in your game play. Generally speaking, a beer n pretzels game is good with the default pantheon because it acts as a baseline; whereas as deeper game needs religion to be more than a background element — religion is a source for adventure ideas and a means of giving a campaign scope, and therefore, needs to be more fully fleshed out, more organic in respect to the rest of the world.
2) The impact of religion, churches and the gods themselves at ground level — where the PCs encounter the faith and the faithful.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 22, 2009 @ 8:00 am

[2] Making churches instead of gods. That’s a wonderfully practical approach. I think it probably mirrors my experiences in developing orders and sects for the PCs to interact with. But can you elaborate? What’s your creative process? I think it would be instructive.

#8 Comment By DrOct On September 22, 2009 @ 8:14 am

Thanks for mentioning “Testament: Roleplaying in the Biblical era.” It piqued my interest since I enjoy ancient history a lot, and it turns out it’s on clearance at Paizo’s store right now! I’m going to get it for $2! And I’ll probably be getting a number of other things for insanely cheap prices (including “Egyptian Adventures: Hamunaptra” which is should be an interesting companion to Testament).

#9 Comment By KernelPanic On September 22, 2009 @ 8:49 am


Well my church approach has several goals:

1) Reduce giggle value. Players tend to view religion in a much more serious light when it looks like something from the real world then when they worship Thugurus The God Of Insufficently Salted Meat.

2) Produce richer politics. If there is a unitary, active god in the religion schisms are harder. If the god is more of a concept tied to an organization then it is possible to have as many sects, varying interpretations and such as needed. And, of course, we can have heresy which is a marvelous opportunity for adventure building.

3) Enable Eberron-like alignment liberalism. If you belong to a church you can put your own spin onto the core belief.

4) Make the social fabric of the world easier to manage. Since you have fewer churches you can simplify matters by assigning huge blocks of land to a certain religion. And you can add as much flavor as you need (and when you need it) with regional twists. In Kölnsburg they may see the Keeper aspect of the Nine as grim and cold but in Atassa they think he’s the patron of transformation and change. Still the same religion, just different spin. Or to use a more recognizable example: Thing how differently desert dwellers and northerners might treat Pelor-or-equivalent.

5) Allow players to customize their beliefs. To take the modern world even within a single denomination you may have many types of, say, Christian. This allows for religious dissent that doesn’t end with cries of “Heretic!”

Mostly my process has been gross thievery. I mine religious history for interesting ideas and then implement them within a fantasy context after hastily filing down the serial number. 😉

However there is a questionnaire of sorts which helps me shape the church I’m building.

1) What is the metaphysics of the church? Here I try and determine what kind of afterlife awaits the members of the church. Do they worship a specific set of beings or an amorphous concept and/or principle? Basic stuff.

2) What is the internal structure of the church organization?

3) What is the social role of the church? This is, for me, the big one. What does the priest of this church DO? Do they preside in rituals? Hold sermons? Teach children? Perhaps they are ascetic and keep away from the general public. The church itself may have several orders each with their own role. This is how I assure that a PC’s religion is more than a field to fill in on the character sheet. This is also a good place to include commandments and other moral precepts of the religion.

4) What is the history of the Church? Very handy for adventure ideas.

5) What does the church revere? Relics? Holy texts? Saints? I usually mock up a few lines from a holy book for my churches in order to give my players something to go on roleplay-wise.

6) What are the points of contention in the church? Another big one. This is a marvelous place for adventure hooks and for roleplay. I’ve once managed to hold my players’ interest with a half-hour long discourse on theology. I’m rather proud of that one. 😉

7) Are there any flavorings that can be added to the church? I usually finish by adding a flourish to the church. Perhaps a quirk in architecture. Perhaps a specific tool used in worship. This is actually good as a mnemonic for new players, as in “Thogothrim priests? Are they the ones with the weird staffs?”.

Uh, er, sorry for talking your ear off.

#10 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 22, 2009 @ 9:05 am

[4] – That’s great stuff! Thanks for sharing. Points No. 3 and 5 shows a lot of trust in your players. If you can achieve collaboration at that level, that’s fantastic.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 22, 2009 @ 9:09 am

I jump between four options:

Greyhawkish generic deities, which may have their original names, or may have regional variants. Since my ‘default setting’ is Greyhawk, this is not really a problem.

“Roll your own”, because belief breeds divinity. More [5].

Borrowed historical pantheons. The Northmen worship Norse gods. The remains of the Atlantean empire down south worship Roman gods. The Saracens in the east worship the One True God and his prophets. And the Gaels in the western islands have their Old Faith (regional nature worship).

(Borrowed heavily from Elizabeth Moon’s Paksennarion series.) One High Lord who is above the world, but has many saints and demigods at his table. They oppose the demonic and the outcast. Haven’t used this yet, but I plan to.

#12 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 22, 2009 @ 9:13 am

[6] – Echoes of History … hmmm, if my home game didn’t already have a name (Steffenhold), that’d be a good one.

#13 Comment By LordVreeg On September 22, 2009 @ 9:48 am

I see this focussing on a game system, so any comments I may make are colored by the fact that I don’t use it.
However, I don’t think I would ever go the way of the generic if I were to create a new setting for any system.
I’m more in the KernelPanic mode, creating religions and faiths, followed by the human vessels that control them in the form of churches, than someone who would use ‘generic church x of deity y’.

From my campaign wiki…
” Gods have different aspects, as they are large, old and complex beings, beyond the ken of the Iesuicua (White Omwo~ for ‘Earthbound’). There can be no complete knowledge of a being so complex. Madrak is a Lord of the Earth, and of solidity, He is a patron of wrestlers and of gems. The Klaxik viewpoint sees him as a stern father figure, while another view knows him as Minious Stottar, patron of clan leaders, and of hard choices. Hewecar is the Demon Lord of Blood, and of liquids. Alchemy and poison are some of his bailiwicks, and he is also a god of transformations.

As such, different churches will focus on the aspects of the deity they feel are the real ones, and it is the incomplete earthbound understanding of these beings that cause this. The Igbarian Church of Grazzt the Redeemer has a very different view of their deity, and a very different focus, than Onacon’s Church of the Sword of Grazzt.

People see what they want to in their gods. People have imperfect understandings of these beings, and that is one of the underlying themes of the Celtrician mythos. Simplified, static Churches have no place in a complex world. Nothing is more satisfying than when the mythos is deep enough so the players actually can understand and extrapolate from it, due to the sense of realism.”

I think that a different sects and related faiths are easier to believe in, and I think all of the better GM’s can relate to having players get very personally involved in a faith that really fits their Immersed PC identity.

#14 Comment By Nojo On September 22, 2009 @ 11:43 am

To me, using the Greyhawk gods is like running a campaign just using dungeon delves. Boring.

By far, the best published RPG gods I’ve ever seen are in “The Book of the Righteous” (d20, from Green Ronin). Now THAT’s a pantheon and collection of churches you can sink your teeth into. Classes and prestige classes where religion really makes a difference in role play and mechanics.

#15 Comment By scaurus On September 22, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

This is simplified if playing, say, Midnight, where there is only one god (a god of evil who has won, by the way, so if you want to be a cleric, it’s blood sacrifices and elf hunting for you…)

More generally, I’ve run campaigns where I’ve modeled the religions on Earth’s historical religions – every religion can provide examples of clerics running the gamut from LG to CE! For example, modeling clerics on the medieval Catholic church, one could have:
* clerics of the inquisition – rooting out heretics by any means necessary, and accepting the possibility of false confessions with a “God knows his own” – would be somewhere near NE,
* a scholarly order of scientists and teachers like the Jesuits may range between LN and NG,
* wandering healer priests or crusaders for good falling near CG
* and more general priests ranging the full gamut, from the parish priest faithfully tending his flock (LG) to the skillful politician bishop, manipulating the populace and the nobility for personal gain (LE)

If players ask, “How could one god be granting spells to such a wide range of alignments, some of whom seem to be acting against the deity’s interests?” there are several possibilities:
1) The evil ones think they’re serving the god, but are actually receiving their spells from a demon (and may be horrified and shocked into alignment change when confronted with the truth)
2) No one is receiving spells from a deity – it’s all actually driven by their own will, etc.
3) The deity works in mysterious ways, and that evil cleric leading a pogrom and slaying millions of the religious minority is actually serving a vital role in some sort of long term plan

#16 Comment By drow On September 22, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

most of my 2e campaigns were based on alternate earths or worlds based on historical cultures, so i used the pantheons from legends and lore. most people know enough mythology to find something to grab on to, even if its more cinematic than historic, and so this worked really well.

my first 3e campaign was set in the debris of a shattered cosmos, with no gods at all. this also worked really well, as long as you weren’t a critically injured PC looking around for a cleric. muahahaha…

my next campaign is being built with the standard pantheon. various cultures may ‘alias’ the gods to local names and attributes. e.g. people in the northern realm of ambregil are more likely to call bahamut ‘odin’, kord as ‘thor’, etc. the standard pantheon is actually a pretty fresh concept for my group, and using it will let me easily leverage all the published divine feats, magic items, boons, etc.

i like kernelpanic’s focus on churches, must keep that in mind.

i’m also planning on additional layers to the standard mythology to explain unique aspects of my world, making greater use of archfey, primordials, and other powers in the world, and using entirely different divine structures for other worlds reachable via gate (the dragons of jund and gargantuans of naya, stolen from mtg’s shards of alara).

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On September 22, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

Generic gods work great if you’re back grounding Clerics and their worship. If you want to concentrate on them, you should take the time and effort to make them snap– whether through reinterpretation, sects, various churches per KernelPanic above, or otherwise.

Figuring out how much you care and how much your players will care goes a long way. If both of you could care less, staying generic or freeform creating them as needed works well. If you’re going to make it significant and they care, spend the time appropriately.

#18 Comment By Rechan On September 22, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

Whenever I start a new game, I generally ask an player who wants to play a cleric to “Give me a God”.

But then, I like it when players come up with stuff for the setting. Their noble house, their country, the patron of their pact, etc.

#19 Comment By Volcarthe On September 22, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

The core deities of my homebrew campaign were actually esaier to come up with than i had initially imagined: They were old PCs of my gaming group that had achieved godhood.

each of them were immediately recognizable to the players, and then through the stories a few new ones popped up here and there to account for history and player/DM suggestion and collaboration.

#20 Comment By Filamena On September 22, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

It’s funny. I just came up with the same solution for the campaign/setting I’m working on. The focus is on the legal/political structure, it’s a very down to earth setting. Still, I couldn’t ignore the Church or Churches because it’s hard to have politics without religion and I’d hate to eliminate all the religious character classes. It seemed like the easiest way to do it was to use a parallel from real world gods, real casually hinting at a vague concept of ‘the one god we worship, and there’s that other got those guys worship.’ covers my butt pretty well.

#21 Comment By KernelPanic On September 23, 2009 @ 4:23 am

Oh I like this. I always like when world creation is shared between the player and the GM. Unfortunately, it’s hard to balance right. The approach plays spectacularly bad with power gamers.

#22 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 23, 2009 @ 8:15 am

We’ve heard from Nojo, who utilizes Book of the Righteous from Green Ronin. Which besides having a ready-made pantheon, has instructions for designing one.

Has anyone else pulled deities from any supplements or campaign worlds? Does anyone find the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance gods to their liking, for example? Or Ptolus or who knows what else? Is their experience the same as those who prefer the default pantheon, or are there twists?

Sometimes it’s fun to arrange a collection of gods from various sources. I did a short pirates/swashbuckling campaign where I grabbed some aquatic/ocean themed gods from difference sources and cobbled together a pantheon from that. Does that mirror anyone else’s experiences?

#23 Comment By bevinflannery On September 24, 2009 @ 9:57 am


When I created my homebrew setting (my first effort at DM’ing), I did something similar to Rechan. I didn’t particularly care for the default pantheon, and didn’t want to spend time inventing a pantheon that might end up being utterly meaningless to the players. I created one god only, for a new church/religion that was developing and that was creating some political issues. Otherwise, I declared religions/deities to be regional/local – it was up to the players to decide whether religion was important to them and, if so, who their local god was and what the tenets were.

One player ended up being a cleric, and chose the new church, and has had a lot of leeway in designing on the fly the various orders, the hierarchy, the internal politics, and the like. As the story has developed, a goddess for one of the other PCs has been mentioned and a little bit about her clerics described, but only as needed to develop the PC’s background and his relationships with the goddesses priestesses (his mother, sister and the woman he is sweet on). Once those details come out, they are considered canon, but I don’t need to come up with them ahead of time and then later try to remember (or look up in the Wiki) what they were — they are organic to the story itself.

As the PCs have traveled from place to place, there have been occasional mentions of local temples/altars, but I haven’t bothered naming any deities unless it was relevant to the scene — and 99.9% of the time, it isn’t.