Building A Campaign World – Part 3: Gods

This is the third post in my series on world-building. To see all of the posts in one place, click here.

[EDIT: This series sort of fizzled out. I’ve started a new series that is something of a how-to and something of a devlog of a new setting I’m building. You can find it here.]

As I’ve said in the past, I’m not an advocate for doing too much world-building before you actually start playing. I like to discover the world as the players do, staying one step ahead so that I don’t get caught with my pants down. Today, though, we’re talking about something that really does require a bit of advanced planning on your part.

If you have a cleric in your party – or think you’ll have a cleric in your party (and this is why it’s good to get an idea of what characters people want to play before you get them around the table) – then you’re going to have to think about religion in your world. You may well want to use the pantheons from the Player’s Handbook (Appendix B), and that’s fine – but, to me at least, it seems like if you’re going to the effort of building your own world, you should populate it with your own gods, too.

Again, though, I’m an advocate for doing as little as possible, allowing the fine details to work themselves out while you play. So let’s take a look at how I built the pantheon for the 9 Towers.

The Broad Strokes

If you’re going to create a pantheon, it’s important to create at least a little bit of mythology surrounding it. It’s very easy to simply present your players with a list of gods and domains to pick from, but at that point you might as well stick to the standard gods presented in the Player’s Handbook. The goal of everything I do when I build a world is to create something new and exciting, something the players haven’t seen before, something that feels deep, coherent, and somehow real (even though I know I’ve left a huge amount of the world intentionally blank).

The first thing to do is think about the themes of your campaign that we talked about in the past couple of articles. Defining your gods and parts of your mythology is a great way to tie those themes into the larger world – and it’s a great way to put that knowledge into the hands of players, peppering your responses to successful History and Religion checks with information from the mythology you’ve built.

In my case, I knew I wanted to run an artifact campaign that dealt with relics of the gods, and I knew that some great cataclysm had befallen at least one part of the world at some point in history (remember the Bonewood?). I also knew that the town of Standing Rock contained a mystery in the form of a huge, monolithic tower.

This got me thinking about the tower. What is it? Where did it come from? Why is it there?

I started wondering if maybe the tower was linked to the gods and the mythology of the world in some way. I started to think about the gods as powerful entities who rose to their status as deities through some great act. I like the idea that the gods were originally mortals – it hints to the players that they might one day be able to rise to that level of power (especially if the end-game of the campaign is going to be dealing with world-shaping artifacts).

This prompted the question – what did they do to attain deification? The obvious answer – and the one that I went with – is that they fought some great evil. Chaos reigned, and these powerful figures banded together to restrain it.

This still doesn’t tell me anything about the tower, though. I decided that each of the gods is said to have had a stronghold that served as their base of operations, and possibly functioned as a conduit for their power in some way. I began to think of the gods as Lords, overseeing the world from their towers – towers which had once existed in the physical world, and which legends say could still be found.

Whether the monolith at Standing Rock is one of these towers or not is unknown – both to the players, and to myself at this point – but I now have a solid reason for the interest in that tower, too. It’s the only thing like it that has ever been located, and so there is great interest in determining whether or not this tower is one of the fabled Lords’ Towers.

Fleshing It Out

With these thoughts in mind, I turned to the rulebooks. This is the point at which you want to think about specific gods. I made a list of all the cleric domains in the game, and began to match them to those that seemed to fit thematically. Initially I wanted to have a pantheon of 7 gods, but it didn’t feel right. 7 is a number that shows up everywhere, from the Rod of Seven Parts to the 7 Dragon Balls and Voldemort’s 7 Horcruxes. Sets of 7 show up everywhere, and while that means it feels right and familiar to players, I wanted to do something different.

In thinking about this, I had begun to refer to my campaign as “The Lords of the Seven Towers”, and while that didn’t quite feel right, “The Lords of the Nine Towers” did. I can’t explain that, other than to say that it’s an aesthetic decision that felt right to me. Remember, this is your creation: sometimes, “it felt right to me” is the only explanation you need.

Having decided on 9 gods, I began to refine my groupings of domains into 9 sets and began to think about the 9 gods themselves. I’ve never been a huge fan of worlds where the presence of the gods is felt strongly and lots is known about them; I prefer a bit of mystery, and I like the idea of separate factions of different religions who interpret things differently. It feels much more real to me than a world in which you can state facts about the gods with absolute certainty.

This train of thought led me to a fairly easy decision. The gods don’t have personal names. They function more as archetypes or concepts, referred to in more abstract terms e.g. The Healer, The Judge, and the like. This is what I came up with:

  • The Healer (LG) – Life, Light, Knowledge
    The Healer watches over the sick and feeble, and provides knowledge to those who seek it. Myths tell how the Healer fought with the Raven Queen over who should choose when people die, but scholars argue that both gods also oversee the Life domain, and that their purposes are not at odds with one another. The Healer and the Raven Queen are seen by many as being two facets of the same god, and as such the Healer is often (though not exclusively) depicted as being male.
  • The Raven Queen (LN) – Life, Death*
    Not so much worshipped as appeased. It is known that death is the price of life, and believed that the Raven Queen rewards those who have lived full lives. Plenty of stories tell of the Queen punishing those who have lived sinful lives by choosing to bring them to death early, but scholars point out that if this were the case there would be very little evil in the world. It is generally believed that the Raven Queen simply observes, escorting people into death when their time comes but rarely intervening to either cut life short or extend it. The Raven Queen is exclusively depicted as being female.
  • The Seeker of Secrets (N) – Knowledge
    Said to be the entity who guards the secret of the nature of the Great Chaos’ imprisonment, the Seeker knows all. Some call the Seeker The Keeper of Secrets, and claim that the Seeker is also a god of Trickery. There is something of a schism in the church, some of whom argue that the Seeker and the Keeper are two entities at odds with one another and others who dismiss the existence of the Keeper entirely. Those who believe in both the Seeker and the Keeper are very much in the minority, if for no other reason than that would create a tenth Lord and thus render the myths of the empty Ninth Tower false.
  • The Gambler (CN) – Trickery
    Said to have decided which side to take in the Creation Wars by a roll of the dice, some regard the Gambler as evil. Others say it is the Keeper of Secrets, the opposite number to the Seeker. These people are more common than those who argue for a tenth Lord, but they are still a rarity. Whatever their beliefs, faithful folk still give a small prayer to the Gambler when things go their way, and a curse when they do not.
  • The Giant (CN) – War, Death
    Some are wary of the Giant, whose followers share stories of its great conquests and its thirst for violence. Though some believe the Giant to be evil, it is difficult to make that argument when the myths tell how the Giant’s forces led the charge against the Great Chaos, and that it was the Giant’s axe that struck the decisive blow in the battle. In many places the Giant is depicted as being an enormous orc, though human cultures tend to show it as a massive human.
  • The Phoenix (LN) – Life, Knowledge, Light
    The only Lord not represented as a humanoid of some kind. The Phoenix burns away lies and deceit to reveal the truth beneath, and burns out when it has cast its judgement. It is born again from the ashes, free of the knowledge of the judgement it has given and of anything that could bias future judgements. The judged are born again into a world where their sin has been burned away and they have received what they are due.
  • The Storm Lord (CN) – Nature, Tempest
    Scholars and initiates alike argue over whether the Storm Lord is an actual being or simply a throwback to a time when nature’s violent aspects were not understood and thus feared. Others argue that the dichotomy of brutal violence and beautiful serenity found in nature is a reflection of the Storm Lord’s tempestuous nature. The Storm Lord is often seen as the other face of the Lord of Thorns.
  • The Lord of Thorns (N) – Nature
    The Lord of Thorns rules over the natural world and its followers tend to be Rangers and Druids who see the Lord not as a person but instead deify nature itself. The Lord of Thorns is often represented as a giant four-horned stag, or a sinuous green drake. Some believe the Lord of Thorns is the peaceful aspect of the raging Storm Lord.
  • The Jester (CN) – Trickery
    Said to have been cast out from the towers for sowing discord and causing strife between the other Lords purely for its own entertainment. The Jester is seen by many as not being a full deity. It attracts the worship of rogues and criminals, and chapels are often found in the seedier parts of towns and cities. Large temples rarely, but sometimes, contain a shrine to the Jester. The Jester has a capricious nature, and myths abound with stories of believers who struck a deal with the Jester only to be betrayed.

Now I have my gods. I deliberately thought about the way the gods are said to have interacted with each other in myths and legends, because this will directly inform the way their followers interact with one another. Religious tension is a great source of conflict for your world.

This is now enough information to present to a player who would like to play a character of a religious bent. Note that I still don’t know who actually created the world – in my mythology the gods were mortals to begin with, so something came before them – but that’s fine. The only thing left to do is to introduce the enemy that brought these gods together – in my case, that’s The Great Chaos. It’s a big, ominous name that doesn’t really tell you anything specific – which is exactly what I like. All of this is in service of letting the game – and the world it’s set in – develop naturally around the table.

I also now know enough about my world to determine that Standing Rock probably holds quite a few temples, as worshippers of the different gods flocked to the monolith to try and determine if it had any connection to their deity. At this point, it’s time to build an introductory adventure for your players and get to the table!

In the next part of this series we’ll be moving away from Standing Rock and the Bonewood. My players spent a lot of time adventuring there, but there was very little worldbuilding done during those adventures. Unfortunately that game fell apart, and I had to gather a new party – which meant building another part of the world. But more about that next time!

*Having never played 4th Edition and only giving a cursory glance to the pantheons in 5th Edition, I hadn’t realised there was a deity in the game already who was called The Raven Queen. Imagine my surprise when she showed up in Critical Role! I have since changed this god’s name for my new campaign, but as this series is a guide to the process I went through while creating my setting, I thought it best to show the pantheon as it began. This is all part and parcel of creating something – sometimes you find that others have tread the same ground as you before, and you have to go back and change things to make it your own again.