However, I’ve often been stumped about what to do for gods. I don’t want to use someone else’s intellectual property–not without permission, anyway. That means Greyhawk and Nehwon are out. I don’t know anyone who plays with historical pantheons like the Greek, Roman, or Norse (awesome as those are), and don’t want to confine myself to any single one of those, anyway. As a result, so far, I’ve been describing gods generically. The problem is that it’s tough to come up with a fairly specific clerical backstory without a fairly specific cosmology in mind. Clerics don’t grow in vacuums. At least, none to date have been thus grown in laboratory settings.
So I’ve taken a short break from designing clerics to design a pantheon. This isn’t my first pantheon. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’ve been DMing since 1st edition AD&D, so I’ve lost count of gods and goddesses I’ve written up.
However, this time I decided to rethink all of my initial assumptions.
The result is a pantheon that feels very different to me.
A key starting point: Real-world pantheons are deeply story-based – they’re messy soap operas with allegiances, rivalries, intrigues. RPG pantheons often seem to miss those elements, even though those soap operas can seed the campaign world with lots of plot hooks.
Moreover, the gods of real-world pantheons are often full-fledged characters with stories, exploits, failings, and conflicts with other divine characters (even if their alignments might seem compatible). They are much more than just living symbols of the intersection between alignment and portfolio. As a side effect of this fact, real-world gods often aren’t terribly representative of a given class, alignment, or even race. They’re much more difficult to pigeon-hole than are gods designed for fantasy realms. There’s a reason their Deities & Demigods stat blocks are always highly multi-classed. The idea of gods for specific races seems off, as well. Many human religions feature divinities that themselves are not remotely human, or which are only vaguely humanoid. Quetzalcoutl comes to mind. Put simply, any thinking being might venerate any particular god, and the gods (malleable of form anyway — Zeus mated with a woman while disguised as a swan) might look like anything at all. Worshipers of Pan need not be satyrs.
The portfolios of deities overlap considerably, too. Athena and Ares are both war gods, though they have clear differences. Many game-specific pantheons, meanwhile, seem to follow the advice from the 3rd-edition Deities & Demigods to set deities up on a grid so that any character of a given class has someone of appropriate alignment and class to worship. The resulting deities often seem like really powerful PCs — like the iconic party all grown up and wielding lightning bolts:
a wizard god,
a healing god,
a sneaky god of thieves,
a war god,
a barbarian god,
plus evil counterparts for all of those (the evil healing god being a god of disease or death).
PCs in such campaigns often seem to worship gods that seem mostly aspirational: the wizard reveres Boccob; the barbarian worships Kord; etcetera. They worship more powerful versions of themselves, in short, instead of trying to serve (or contest) gods who have clear agendas and goals. (I say this despite being a fan of the Greyhawk campaign world. I’ve played a wizard who worshipped Boccob!)
Starting with Conflicts
So one thing I did differently here was start with the story, and use that story to seed the world with lots of potential for conflict, not only between good and evil, but among apparent allies, within divine courts, and even perhaps between multiple factions following the same god. Like many real-world stories of pantheons, mine assumes a kind of titanomachy—in fact, several of them.
I also made a decision not to name most of the gods, deciding that only clerics able to use Divine Intervention know the names of any deities. Instead, gods in this pantheon are most often referred to by titles (like “The Holy Spirit” or “God” in the real world, or like the “Sacred Fire” in The Lord of the Rings). In part I did that because I already wrote a cleric description in which a god is referred to simply as the Queen of Masks, and in part because, once I did that, I liked the idea. Sometimes the gods change titles as their situations change. The figure once known as the Sceptred King is now known, for instance, as the Outcast King.
I’ll talk in a later column about how to integrate a pantheon like this one in an existing game world, how to “translate” it to existing published campaigns, and how the pantheon below might be integrated into Wallace’s world: the Vault.
For now, though, the pantheon I’m describing makes its home in a realm I’m calling the Vorago. (Note: That word is Latin. It means chasm, pit, or abyss, which sounds mighty ominous, but in this case just refers to the fact that the region is bounded on most sides by high mountain ranges.) The Vorago is a constellation of allied kingdoms, a kind of commonwealth, and is home to the cities of Runerock, King’s Reach, Eador, Kirin, and Maficester, among others.
A History of the Pantheon of the Vorago
According to local religious lore, the pantheon of the Vorago represents the third generation of the gods. Internal struggles for power have left the first and second generations either deceased or in stasis. It is difficult to tell which, as the older gods now remain silent, but people still worship them and some seem to gain powers from doing so. (More on a possible reason for that below.)
The Fall of the Court of Storms
Even the current generation of deities, however, has seen some cataclysms. The third generation initially agreed to be ruled by its most powerful figure, the Sceptred King, who had proven himself formidable and full of insight during the struggles of his father. Because he and his queen-consort, the Babbling Queen, were both fond of imposing justice through hurricanes, tornadoes, thunder, and lightning, theirs was known as the Court of Storms.
However, the Sceptred King proved solipsistic, brutal, megalomaniacal. Eventually, the Lady of Masks–sister of the Babbling Queen, sister-in-law to the king, and wife to the Lord of Tomes, a reclusive sage-god who ruled the underworld–turned on the Sceptred King, despite having initially supported his placement on the throne.
In a successful coup, the Lady of Masks arranged to have him replaced with her husband, exiling the Sceptred King and her sister to a prison realm with his family and seneschals. She became the Queen of Masks; her husband, the King of Tomes. Their court is called the Court of Masks, a name that to some suggests who the true monarch is, but which is sometimes explained by others as reflecting the presence of masks in rites of both spouses: death masks figure prominently in the rites of the King of Tomes. Together, the King of Tomes and the Queen of Masks rule what are called the Palatial Realms, a divine plane and home to most of the gods.
The Sceptred King, meanwhile, became the Outcast King. In act of defiance, his consort, the Babbling Queen, declared her name to all the planes as Magagara (mag-OG-ah-ra), promising to hear any who called her name, a pledge that has caused no end of trouble in ages since.
The Shackled God and the Forging of the Veil
Centuries later, with the help of his fiendish queen, the Outcast King broke free from his demiplane and laid siege to the Palatial Realms. The new struggle, called the War of Words and Storms, raged into the world of mortals, for the world of mortals is a cosmic chokepoint — the place from which those with the know-how (typically gods) can best control access to conduits among the planes.
As the war lumbered on with the Court of Masks losing ground almost yearly, the King of Tomes undertook a radical, desperate measure. To prevent the Outcast King from seizing control again, he sought to cut off the Palatial Realms from the mortal realm. He sent his youngest son, today known as the Shackled Lord, to the Mortal Realm, assisted by divine servants called seneschals and clerical agents, to raise a barrier now called The Veil. At the same time, the King of Tomes and his wife drew the Outcast King into a battle in the Palatial Realms
As a result, the Shackled Lord was the only deity in the Mortal Realms when the Veil was conjured. Now, only the Shackled Lord among deities lives in the Mortal Realms, though where he lives is unknown, as he is largely inactive.
The Veil isn’t absolute but relative: It only permits temporary conduits, each of which has a limit to how much power it will let pass through before slamming closed. Some conduits reopen in the same place each time, but others migrate. Due to the Veil, gods other than the Shackled Lord cannot directly access the mortal realms, but the spirits of mortals can pass through, as can communications and lower-powered seneschals (angels, agents, devils, demons). Spells can be granted to clerics, but because the gods themselves cannot take action in the mortal realms through which all planar conduits pass, their clerical agents are today as important as they have ever been. Gods remote from the mortal realms do still control some conduits—for instance, those through which the souls of the dead pass. But they cannot themselves pass through those conduits as they are too powerful. The gates slam closed when they attempt it.
The Tensions of the Present Reign
In the Palatial Realms, the Outcast King has been captured and forced to swear fealty, his minions and seneschals and children cast back into the prison realm from which he’d escaped. However, a condition of his surrender has been that he may resume a place at court, which he and his wife have done. They are half-prisoner, half-courtier, and watched closely. The Veil remains in place to prevent the Outcast King from becoming too ambitious. Yet the families continue to intrigue against each other, and the court is large enough to permit shifting factions and alliances.
Key Features of the Vorago Pantheon
- Gods are remote, due to the Veil. Most of their intrigues and maneuvers in the Mortal Realm are run by seneschals (angels, demons, and other agents).
- Non-clerical characters generally worship multiple gods.
- Low-level clerics often serve as conduits to the pantheon as a whole. They are naturally able to channel divine power and serve as divine agents.
- Higher-level clerics may dedicate themselves to particular divinities, though many instead serve particular factions or alliances of gods (generally, either to The Throne, or else to the Throne in Exile).
- Some clerics knowingly or unknowingly have cast in their lots with rogue seneschals—divine emissaries that now pursue agendas of their own, sometimes alone and sometimes in concert with other rogue seneschals.
- Only characters able to cast spells like commune or invoke Divine Intervention know the names of the gods. Otherwise, the gods are known by descriptive titles (not unlike The Father, The Son, The Holy Ghost, and The Devil). The only exception to this is Magagara the Invoked (see below).
- Even then, most clerics of such levels know only one god’s name, and there is only one god with which they can commune or seek intervention, even if they are pantheonic, as most are.
- Clerics of rogue seneschals only commune with those seneschals and their Divine Interventions are answered by beings whose options or actions are limited by the abilities in their stat blocks. (That is, a rogue planetar seneschal would be limited to whatever its stated planetar powers are when responding to a Divine Intervention request.)
- Monarch-level deities tend to be associated with three domains each, while intermediate and lesser divinities in the pantheon tend to have two, and quasi-divinities or greater seneschals might have just one.
- The gods are all known to change shape enough that none is affiliated with a specific race. Instead, each god has followers among multiple races as noted in the text.
The deities below are listed using terminology common to the 5th edition of D&D (particularly regarding domains, character classes, and paths). Such terminology is employed mostly as a kind of gaming Rosetta stone, as more readers are likely to understand what is intended in each case. However, the deities here could be used with any fantasy RPG (and in my own case, might very well be used in a different system).