You can jazz up the diversity of clerics in your world without adding pages and pages of gods — if you allow for multiple (even conflicting!) belief systems about the deities you already have.
Deities in fantasy RPGs are often sketched out in rigid, one-note ways.
Imagine for a moment the typical campaign-next-door. Its storm god Thorzeus is Chaotic Good, his symbol is a hammer, and his clerics can draw from the domains of Tempest or War. If they thunk you with their hammers, you go deaf from thunder. The goddess of thieves, Lokhermes, is Chaotic Neutral, her symbol is the mask, and her clerics have access to the domains of Knowledge or Trickery. If they stick you with their daggers, you get woozy from poison.
If you go to the temple of Thorzeus, you find he has pretty much just one order of clerics and one kind of worshiper. All of the people in the temple seem to have fairly coherent, consistent ideas about who Thorzeus is and what he cares about. If you cross the street and enter the shadowed sanctum of the thief goddess Lokhermes, you find pretty much the same pattern. If you now hunt several cities looking for temples of those gods whose clerics think about the gods differently, you’re likely to come up empty-handed.
That lack of variety limits your options if you decide your character wants to be a cleric of Thorzeus.
“I want to carry lightning-bolt-shaped javelins and use those as my symbols. Do any clerics of Thorzeus use the javelin as a symbol, instead of the hammer?”
Uh, nope. Not in the campaign-next-door. You have a choice of hammer.
“Can my cleric of Lokhermes be a crusader who breaks thief worshipers out of prison and has the domain of War?”
In the campaign-next-door, that question is going to get noped before you finish the sentence.
If you follow up with “Well, okay, what other options do exist for that god?” you can expect more of that hammer. Thorzeus and Lokhermes don’t have options; they are the options. The gods are narrowly defined, and the clerics get narrowly defined right along with them.
But that kind of one-note divinity is weird. It’s not how gods have actually worked in the one realm we know of that’s real: Our own.
And that point brings me to my argument: If we complicate our fantasy gods in realistic, historically inspired ways, the whole game gets better.
The Historical Case
In the real world, one single god — the god of Abraham — has produced three major world religions that have sometimes warred against each other. That’s kind of interesting; in more than thirty years of gaming, I’ve never seen such a thing happen in a tabletop RPG.
But let’s drill down further. Within Islam, the schism between Sunni and Shia sects has often been bloody. ISIS right now is putting most of its violent efforts into the targeting of other Muslims. Same Allah, but different sects.
Christians haven’t done a lot better.
For just one incident, consider the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Protestants and Catholics, long at odds, came to Paris for the truce-making marriage of Princess Margot (Catholic) to Henri of Navarre (Protestant).
So far, so boring, right?
But the Catholics in power decided this was a golden opportunity to round up all of the Protestants who’d arrived for the wedding — and kill them. You can watch a film scene depicting this event, and much of its horror, in this clip from the brilliant film Queen Margot. (It’s in French, but blood and screams don’t need subtitles. By the way, the subtitled version of the full movie is worth a look for gamers. It’s based on a novel by the same guy who wrote The Three Musketeers, and given its poisonings, intrigues, sword fights, and battles, you can tell.)
The number killed in that massacre? Estimates vary from 5,000 to 30,000. Thousands, regardless.
Again, same God, violent differences.
That one massacre is the tip of the iceberg. Even setting aside the Protestant-Catholic divides, Christianity has had countless schisms, splits, heresies.
Christianity may have one god*, but it has thousands of flavors. Christianity has given us Crusaders, Jesuits, the Spanish Inquisition, Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, Puritans, Conquistadors, Opus Dei, Papists and anti-Papists, Santeria, saint worship, and today’s charismatic evangelicals.
Oh, and Daredevil.
Many sects and schisms have fallen off the map, particularly with many of the beliefs and books that were weeded out during the Council of Nicea. You’re not likely to meet many people who think Jesus, as son of God, is subordinate to God the Father, partly because Arianism lost that argument.
These features aren’t at all unique to the God of Abraham and the various religions in that massive family tree. Human beings are remarkably consistent when it comes to saying, “No, your version sucks. My version is better.”
If you have any doubts about this fact, remember the last D&D edition debate you witnessed. Or watch Emo Phillips.
That’s human religious behavior in a nutshell.
As a result, dueling interpretations and practices appear when we look at the deities of Norse, Greek, Roman, and other myths. Take any dozen historical worshipers of Hermes. Some will call him Mercury. Some will think he’s the same guy as the Egyptian god Thoth. Some will see him as a god of thieves. Some will see him as a god of agriculture. For still others, it’s medicine. The more we know about an ancient god, the more likely it is that we find the god comes in many flavors, with a diverse portfolio, diverse legends, and more than just one symbol.
Try this: What’s the symbol for Dionysus?
You might have just answered wine, ivy, thyrsus, or pinecone — or half a dozen other options.
All of those are correct.
Suck it, Thorzeus.
The Better Game-Play Argument
I’ve been working lately on a 5th-edition adventure for Fainting Goat Games.
Because I like to include economics and intrigue in the scenarios I write, I really wanted to create a particular kind of clerical order and use it in my adventure.
So I described it to Jason Tondro, the lead editor on Fainting Goat’s upcoming fantasy world:
- Take a God of Divination — a deity of augurs and prophets.
- His temples are going to have an awful lot of oracles.
- And churches need revenue.
- So what might those oracles do to put some money in the temple’s coffers?
Well, it occurred to me that they might go into the insurance biz.
Think about it: They can use divination to determine how risky a policy is. If it’s high-risk, they can charge a lot for it. If it’s low-risk, they can charge a lower rate.
Moreover, if the oracles — whom I called the Abacae — get into the practice of collecting raw information from travelers and ship passengers, then they can use that intelligence to ask smarter questions and make better bets on what to insure.
I told Jason I thought that such a temple service would quickly turn the order into a medieval Lloyds of London. We’d have a financial services and banking giant that just happened to also be a church. Our prophet deity would accidentally, gradually, become a profit deity. The Abacae would always remain oracles. That’s how their church does what it does. But they’d be oracles with deep pockets.
Jason liked the idea.
He incorporated the god into the setting for his adventure, the first in our upcoming series. However, when he did so, he reinterpreted the god as a god of money and merchants. He saw the church not as a bunch of prophets using that skill to build their coffers but as a bunch of merchants worshiping a money god. The oracle angle all but disappeared.
When I realized my version had drifted away, we ended up exchanging several depressed emails about it. He had a good point: He really wanted a god that PCs from merchant families might worship. But I really wanted an order of oracles who would only ever see merchants as clients not as clerical candidates.
As close as these two visions of the god were, they somehow seemed incompatible.
Jason wondered whether perhaps we ought to just split the dude up and have two different gods: a money god and a prophecy god. But I really didn’t like that idea. I wanted my original vision.
After scratching my head over this, I pointed out that this one god could always have two different orders. Jason heard me out and agreed.
And thus was born a two-ordered god:
- Sholay’s Order of the Abacae collects intelligence and generates prophecies. Its members are recruited from the mad, the damaged, the addicted, and the outcast. They lead cloistered, secretive lives.
- The Order of Mercae works in the field, collecting intel that resists divination, investigating claims when prophecies turn out wrong, and hunting down those who try to rip off the church. Mercae priests are often recruited from merchant families. They don’t have access to the insights of the Abacae except as their missions require it.
Now that we’ve come up with it, I think this solution is better than what I’d originally proposed.
The fact that the god has multiple orders is interesting. It sows seeds that could lead to conflict within the temples. The temples are structured so that the Abacae have most of the intel and call the shots. But a splinter group of Mercae might resent that control. In response, the splinter group could always try to create its own Abacae cloister, off-the radar, and use its insights to seize control of Sholay’s temples — or steal their wealth. The Abacae oracles could sense trouble coming and, in response, have to create their own team of agents to hunt down heretical Mercae.
That’s not the only clerical issue I’ve seen recently that resolves neatly if you’re okay with “secting” your gods.
Just a day or two later, I saw someone on a discussion thread who really wanted his cleric to worship a god whose symbol is the scythe. He wanted suggestions. A lot of respondents looked over lists of pantheons and shot back names of gods with scythe symbols (Greyhawk’s Nerull, for instance). A few others asked a perfectly reasonable follow-up question: Which pantheon is the campaign using?
But on the heels of my conversation with Jason, my first thought was It doesn’t matter. Just create a new sect!
Once you have that thought, the work is easy.
The scythe is an agricultural tool. So pick an agricultural goddess from your world and give her the scythe as a symbol. It doesn’t matter if she already has the sun as a symbol. She’s a complicated being and her worshipers are diverse, even from village to village. Assume she has aspects, avatars, other names, conflicting legends. She can have more than one symbol. And that’s a good thing. Let’s face it, she was probably a tad underdeveloped anyway! In fact, the different symbols might be used by different orders, each dedicated to a different aspect of the goddess. Maybe the clerics who use the sun symbol worship the god’s Spring aspect, while the Fall aspect’s harvest-oriented clerics use the scythe.
Suddenly instead of having two different, thinly developed, narrowly defined gods, we have one goddess who is more richly developed. And the differences between those Fall and Spring (and Winter and Summer!) sects may yield new intrigues, plots, or adventures in ways that the narrowly defined god would not.
What kinds of plots? Well, take Star Wars for inspiration. Just as the harvest clerics seem to focus on one aspect of our farming goddess, Kylo Ren doesn’t honor all of Anakin Skywalker. He just honors the moments when Anakin was Darth Vader.
Similarly, there might be extremist splinters within the Winter sect who truly believe their goddess is only her true self during Winter — and their goal is to snuff out those other, weaker seasons.
27 Schisms, Splits, Sects, & Orders
Why Would a God Grant Spells to Two Factions?
Good question. It’s possible, of course, that the god is only supporting one faction. The other faction might be getting its divine power from another (impostor) source. Or it might be getting its spells from rituals that don’t require divine permission.
As the D&D game has long argued, divine spellcasters may in some cases get their powers from their convictions rather than directly from deities. (Raicho the Recusant, a cleric I have detailed elsewhere, uses some of these ideas.)
But there’s certainly historical precedent for the idea that gods might be so complicated, their purposes so mysterious, that they might very well support multiple warring factions without cluing in either side about their long-term plans.
And here’s the real punchline: Your players don’t need to know the explanation — and you may not need one at all.
When two factions of the same god go to war, each arguing that the other is drawing its power from impostor devils rather than the true god, neither side really knows which is right. They just take it on faith that their god is their power source.
And that’s the funny thing about D&D religion: Faith is still required. Sure, all rational characters in such a world will agree that gods exist. With that much magic flying around, it would be hard to dispute. But even if you think you just had lunch with Odin, there’s someone who is going to argue that, no, it was probably Loki. Faith turns not on whether gods exist, but on how to interpret what they’re doing.
And in such a case, it doesn’t hurt your campaign at all to leave the players a bit uncertain. Mysteries are healthy.
I’m increasingly convinced that we’re missing opportunities every time we add to our list of gods instead of adding more ways for people to relate to the gods who already exist. Broadening existing gods not only solves the kinds of issues that I described above, it also addresses the “Mini-Me of Thor” issue that I have written about elsewhere.
Below, I’ve listed some generic ideas for sects, schisms, splits, and orders that might be applied to a wide range of deities. You may be able to think of others. Along the way, I’ve given a few examples using my own pantheon of the Vorago.
- Historical Heresy. Was there really a Great Flood? If there was, who or what caused it? One way to split a faith into sects is to have them disagree over what happened in the past. A sect that credits its deity with the Flood will see the Flood as a good thing, while the sect that blames the Flood on its god’s enemy will have a very different view.
- Theological Heresy. Where does a god’s power come from? Does Zeus lose his power if people stop worshiping him? One sect might believe he is supremely powerful regardless of what his worshipers do. The other might believe that Zeus’s power depends on being worshiped. In fact, any theory of divine power you can find in a rulebook might have a sect that believes it applies to their deity. And those different opinions could easily lead to different kinds of clerics, political schisms, or even open warfare.
- Apotheostic Heresy. Is Heracles a god? In Ancient Greece, some regarded Heracles as a heroic figure–but not divine. Yet others came to worship him as a god. Similarly, different factions in your world might disagree over whether a particular entity is a god at all. One evil sect that thinks Asmodeus is a devil, but not a deity, might find itself in conflict with a second order that believes he is divine.
- Ritual Heresy. Factions disagree over how to worship the goddess. One might, like Catholics, believe that depictions, icons, and symbols are good ways to honor the deity. The other faction might have serious objections to any iconography or depictions, like some Muslims and Puritans have. Or worshipers of an agricultural goddess might disagree over what time of day is best for sacrifices.
- Regional Schism. The same god might be worshiped in separate countries, leading to very different cultures of worship. The sects might disagree over where an important event occurred, both believing that their lake is the lake where the god as a baby first bathed. They might each employ different names for the god. Or they might assign very different values to the a deity. If a sacred site lies somewhere along their shared border, the two national sects might come to blows over which one controls the holy place. (Real-world example: Jerusalem.)
- Avatar-Based Sects. Any god who walks the world from time to time in avatar form will have done great deeds in each of those manifestations (see: Hinduism). Each of those incarnations might be remembered and honored by a different sect, each incarnation possibly with its own name. These sects might get along, but differ in clerical traditions. Or conflicts might brew between the sects of old and new incarnations. For example, the old, powerful Church of the First Incarnation might believe there have only been four incarnations of its god. Armed with that belief, it might go to war against the “heretics” of the Fifth Incarnation, convinced it is the cult following of a false avatar.
- Intermediary Sects. Different orders might each venerate a different saint, angel, or other servant of the goddess, seeing the goddess herself as too unknowable, too powerful, or too busy to deal with their petty problems. (For a real-world example, see Catholic saint veneration.) Fantasy-world example: I had long ago decided that the Queen of Masks has an order of monks who follow her, in addition to her regular clergy. But in developing that Order, I might decide that the monk order follows one of her angelic seneschals, a faceless divine agent known as the Shadowed Hand.
- Domain Orders. Just as Sholay, in my example above, has one order centered on the god’s merchant aspect (the Mercae) and another order centered on its prophetic aspect (the Abacae), so too might any deity have different orders for each of its domains. For example, a god of War and Light might have a Legion of War and an Order of the Light. Whether these two orders cooperate or have tensions (or are in direct conflict) will probably vary by god, and may change over time.
- Relic Sects. A small or secret sect might focus on protecting or locating a relic important to that god. (Think holy grail, with or without the vorpal bunnies.) For a film example, see the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
- Site-Protection Orders. Just as a sect or order might center around an object, a sect could also focus on a location. For a film example, check out the sacred order of Medjai bodyguards in The Mummy franchise, dedicated to ensuring that no one awakened what slept at Hamunaptra. In my own world of the Vorago, the death god known as the King of Tomes has an Order of Tomb Lords, paladins dedicated to protecting gravesites sanctified by the god.
- Order of the Offspring. Just as various orders might look out for sites or relics, so too might an entire order dedicate itself to monitoring or protecting the offspring of a god (particularly if the deity is as prolific as Zeus!).
- As Expected, The Spanish Inquisition. A church might very well put together a special order dedicated to rooting out its enemies outside the temple (like witches). The Inquisitors differ from Crusaders in that they are more police than military. They have investigators, prosecutors, judges, all aimed at eliminating political or spiritual enemies.
- Internal Affairs. Just as a church might create an Inquisition, it might also create an order dedicated to rooting out heretics, the corrupt, or impostors within its ranks — a kind of internal-affairs unit.
- Crusaders. As happened in our own world history, fantasy-setting churches might create militaristic orders to bring the fight to their god’s enemies. Even gods without War as a domain may have to fight for their survival (or believe that a fight is necessary). It might even be fun to figure out how an order of crusaders for a storm god might differ from the crusaders of a god of life. This kind of order often leads naturally to the next type of sect …
- Last Ember of a Fading Light. An old order of clerics is seeing its last days, having been supplanted by new ways of thinking or new practices. Perhaps the old order was, like the Knights Templar, formed for militaristic reasons–but those old conflicts are now over. The church hierarchy may now see the old military order as a threat (or, as happened with the Knights Templar) as a source of wealth — and may be actively scheming against or even hunting the old, waning order.
- The Emerging Light. A counterpart to the “Last Ember” described above, the “emerging light” is a new order of young clerics that is rapidly growing in popularity, power, and influence — and possibly terrifying the senior clergy.
- “Creole” Religion. When different mythologies and religions encounter each other, sometimes they fuse, creating new practices that might seem heretical, alien, or barbaric to those of the original religions. (These are sometimes called syncretic religions.) For real-world examples, think voudon (voodoo) and Santeria. The Creole religion might worship the same goddess as one of the original religions, but it may have blended her with a goddess, spirit, or figure from the other mythology, and the resulting fusion may seem strange to other practitioners.
- Court Worship. As I have argued elsewhere, clerics in a pantheon system might very well worship an entire “Court” of gods. There may be evil gods who have been expelled from that court, whom they wouldn’t worship. But any members of the divine court would be open to veneration. The cleric who belongs to a Court sect might be very different in symbolism, practice, and goals from a cleric who is dedicated to just one god from that court. Although she should still have just one consistent domain, it might be powered by one or more of the gods on that court.
- Family Gods. In a polytheistic culture, a family might actively revere several gods rather than just one — or rather than an entire pantheon. Members of that family who become clerics might be priests of that family “court,” serving them collectively or having their fealty shared among the deities. And those clerics might be different from clerics who serve formal divine courts, single gods, or other family “courts.” One cleric I have written about previously, Arethkayn, last of the Gale Lords, is this type of cleric. And in her case, the gods she favors don’t necessarily get along with each other.
- Order of the Primal Incarnation. At one point, ancient Hebrews identified Ba’al and Yahweh as the same deity. Later, they split into devil and God, respectively. But before that, Ba’al was a storm god. These kinds of evolutions are common in the histories of religion. One possibility that such histories raise, however, is that a sect of Christians could develop that has resurrected (ahem) the idea of Ba’al the Storm God, explicitly worshiping Ba’al as the Father of the Old Testament. Their practice would likely seem very different from (and upset) many modern Christians, but it’s not like these kinds of twists don’t happen. Similarly, any D&D god might have evolved from old tales of another god, possibly under another name. A cult could always develop around this older, more primal, now-heretical version of the god.
- The Cloistered Order. A splinter order of a god’s flock might lead an ascetic, monastic life, setting aside wealth, arms, and armor. Now, of course, you’re thinking Monks! And that’s certainly a possibility. But the order could just as easily be a group of easy-to-kill NPCs who wield political power and influence through Wisdom and meditation. Or it could be a group of mystics wielding powers of divination and maintaining great, well-guarded libraries. But yes, this is also a good place to put your monks.
- Cult of the Synthesized God. As noted earlier, sometimes cults develop that see two gods, possibly from different cultures, as the same god. An entire sect could be built around one such belief. Perhaps it sees the Goddess of Life and the Goddess of Death as two sides of the same being–a single deity who changes with the seasons or time of day or chaotically, veering toward evil when the wind blows fiercely. In the Vorago, the Unfealed Hand could easily be seen as several deities by most worshipers, but as a single deity by a splinter sect.
- Cult of the Bifurcated God. The opposite of the previous entry, a sect might believe that a single god is really several gods, arguing that those who worship the gods as one being are making a mistake. In the world of the Vorago, the nature goddess known as the Warden of Wastes and Waters–whose alignment changes by season–might easily be construed by a splinter group as four goddesses, one for each season.
- A Schism Triggered by an Historic Decision. Ever since a decision to sacrifice the 10th legion at the Battle of Maldulud, two sects of the goddess known as the Maid-at-Arms have opposed each other. Not all decisions are popular. Sometimes a group might split into factions over a controversial decision, with one side defending the old judgment and others highly critical of it. This has certainly happened politically in the real world (think the American Civil War or the Hiroshima bombing), but in a world where gods are real and religions hold considerable power, decisions by churches may well result in similar splits.
- A Reaction to Corruption. A schism could be a response to perceived corruption within — a splinter group develops, promising to restore the church to the proper way. Stalwarts defend the current leadership, protesting their innocence.
- The Bletchley Park Order. In World War II Britain, bright women contributed in secret to the war-time effort by monitoring Nazi communications and cracking codes at Bletchley Park. After the war ended, many of these women found themselves underutilized and underappreciated–quiet heroes expected to resume life as housewives. (One great British TV show imagines that some of these women went on to solve murders.) Similarly, a church that has historically privileged men might at some point, under pressure from dire opposition, develop a secret order of women with a specific, quiet mission. The church’s “Bletchley” unit might not be recognized as legitimate by male clerics not in-the-know, creating social obstacles for women clerics in the unit, but the work that they do might determine the long-term survival of the church. And once that moment has passed, the women might continue to meet in secret and conduct their own missions, even without church blessing. Talent doesn’t like to be bored.
- The Order of the Tuskegee Airmen. Echoing what I said about the Bletchley model, the privileged of a church might create units or orders made up of devotees from less-privileged ethnicities, nations, or D&D races (halflings, elves, half-orcs, etc.). Even after the urgent moment that led to its creation has passed, the members of that old order might continue to meet or pursue agendas. This practice, by the way, has considerable historical precedent. If you’ve seen 300, that massive army of Xerxes wasn’t all Persian. He used conquered people as fodder. So too did the Romans. Some of the religions of your D&D world may, from time to time, follow similar practices.
- The Sectarian Suicide Squad. As a related but slightly different idea, an order might be made up entirely of converts or former prisoners of the temple, now sworn or geased or pressured to do dangerous work for their former opposition. One of the weird twists here is that a cleric in a compelled order might not love the being that is granting her spells. The priestess compelled into the Geasgang of the Outcast King might have once been a loyal cleric of the King of Tomes — until she was captured. Even though her heart might continue to support the King of Tomes, the Outcast King is now directing her missions and granting her spells, not because she is loyal or devout, but because she is expendable. If she dies, the Outcast King loses nothing but a pawn, while the King of Tomes loses any chance to redeem his abducted servant.
- Reliquary Order. Related to the geased “Suicide Squad” idea is that of the reliquary order, which I’m basing on the cleric Galatherina, whom I’ve described in another column. Galatherina took advantage of an idea in the official cleric class description, which suggests the seldom-explored idea that a cleric might have been compelled into service against her will. In Galatherina’s case, she found a religious relic and in attuning to it became geased to serve its god as a divine agent. Well, if a god has created one such object, what’s to say he hasn’t created a dozen or two? And if that’s the case, then perhaps all of these reliquary agents belong to a common (involuntary) order.†