Game Master's Journey 155: Developing Gods & Pantheons for Your World

Lex discusses developing gods and a pantheon for his homebrew world of Primordia. Lex first attempted to base Primordia's gods on the domains in D&D, but finally realized it wasn’t working. Lex shares what he's learned from this and what he thinks is a better approach to creating gods and pantheons for your homebrew world.

Call the Game Master's Journey voice mail: 951-GMJ-LEX1 (951-465-5391)

Ask Lex questions about designing The Trickster's Labyrinth.

Check out Lex's Tales from the Yawning Portal Campaign

Lex's Series on the Dungeon Master's Guide

Episode 151: DMG Introduction - Know Your Players

Episode 152: DMG Chapter 1 - A World of Your Own

Lex's Series on the Player's Handbook

Episode 137: PHB Prelude through Chapter 4

Episode 138: PHB Chapter 5 - Equipment

Episode 139: PHB Chapter 6 - Multiclassing & Feats

Episode 140: PHB Chapter 7 - Ability Scores

Episode 142: PHB Chapter 8 - Adventuring part 1

Episode 143: PHB Chapter 8 - Adventuring part 2

Episode 145: PHB Chapter 9 - Combat

Episode 145: PHB Chapter 10 & Appendices - Spellcasting, Conditions & Exhaustion

Lex's Series on the Cleric in D&D

Episode 103: A More Attractive Cleric Part 1

Episode 104: A More Attractive Cleric Part 2: The Holy Burrito

Episode 109: A More Attractive Cleric Part 3: Making Clerics Awesome in Your World

Recommended Previous Worldbuilding Episodes:

Episode 127: Adventuring in the Wilds of Primordia

Episode 128: Primordia Q&A

Episode 130: Improving Your World Through Revision

Episode 152: A World of Your Own

Episode 154: Gods of Your World

Top 10 Episodes of Game Master's Journey

#10 Episode 117: Handling Off-the-Wall PC Actions

#9 Episode 121: Revising the Ranger

#8 Episode 132: Bringing PC Backstories into the Adventure

#7 Episode 109: A More Attractive Cleric Part 3: Making Clerics Awesome in Your World

#6 Episode 145: D&D Combat Rules

#5 Episode 146: Storm King's Thunder Review

#4 Episode 134: Bringing NPCs to Life & House Rules

#3 Episode 124: Theater of the Mind

#2 Episode 111: Curse of Strahd Review

#1 Episode 101: You Can Be a Game Master with Matthew Colville

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Topics

The domains aren’t a satisfying representation of a pantheon's portfolios.

The domains are presented as a “dividing up of reality”, representing the pantheons of deities. In fact, in the books domains and portfolio discussed as though they’re synonymous.

However, they don’t really do this, at least not in a way that’s satisfying. You could take any culture (historical or fantastical) and ask, what is important to this culture? What would this culture define as the main elements of reality that would be represented by gods. No matter what culture you picked, the domains would not do a good job of covering those elements. You would have some domains that wouldn’t fit into the schema, and other important elements that have no domain to fit them.

What domains are is a way of dividing up the non-cleric spells in the game to give clerics access to non-cleric spells. If you took all the non-cleric spells in the game and tried to divide them up using themes to tie spells together, you’d end up with the domains. The domains are defined much more by the spells that exist in the PHB than there are by any conception of reality.

As a game mechanic, the domains work fairly well. You start with the base cleric spell list, and then you add some additional spells and abilities based on a theme. If you want to create a more warrior type cleric you can do that (war domain). If you want a more sage type cleric, you can do that (knowledge domain). If you want to be the ultimiate healer, you can do that (life domain). Etc, etc, etc.

So domains are a mechanical game play tool, and they work fine for that. But as a representation of a pantheon of gods’ portfolios, they don’t work so well. 

We can illustrate this by looking at a pantheon and seeing how wizards assigned domains. Let’s look at the Greek pantheon. First, you will see there is no correlation between how influential a god is/was, how large its pantheon is, and how many domains it has. PHB 298

E.g. Zeus, king of the gods, has one domain, Tempest. Apollo has three—knowledge, life, and light. Artemis has two—life, nature. Hecate, nothing near a major deity to the ancient greeks, has two domains—knowledge and trickery. Hercules has two domains—tempest and war. How does Hercules have more domains than Zeus? This is a perfect illustration of how the game mechanic of domains is not matching the in-world story reality of what portfolios are. More powerful and more influential and important gods (gods with more expansive portfolios) should have more domains. While minor gods, or gods that are seldom worshipped or only worshipped by a relatively small number of people, should only have one domain.

Also the domains don’t always fit the gods very well. Does light fit Aphrodite? Not really. Could we come up with a domain that fits here better? Not with the domains in the PHB, we’d have to create a new one. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with some powers for a “love and beauty domain”, but what might be difficult is coming up with domain spells that fit the domain, because there aren’t those type of spells in the PHB. This is why there is not love and beauty domain, because the spells don’t exist. The domains are based on the spells in the PHB.

So from a mechanics perspective, the domains are very systematic, a dividing up of the spells in the game, but from an in-story perspective, they seem rather arbitrary. Some domains overlap, like Tempest and Nature, while other domains that should exist (because nearly any pantheon will have a god of that portfolio) don’t. E.g. love/beauty/fertility, trade/commerce, crafting/artifice, justice, etc.

Because the domains are rather arbitrary from a real-world, in-story perspective, attempting to create gods based on the domains to create a pantheon is not going to result in a believable pantheon. In order to make it work in Primordia, I had to add numerous portfolio elements to the gods that are missing from the domains. E.g. Inara the life goddess is also goddess of love, beauty, fertility and protection. Kalis, the war god is also the god of competition and ambition. Ion, the goddess of knowledge is also the goddess of trade and crafting. Etc., etc. etc. The problem with this is that you end up with gods with very diverse pantheons, which I was trying to avoid. And you also end up with obvious cleric character concepts that the rules just don’t support. How do I play a cleric of Inara who focuses on her portfolio elements of love, beauty and fertility? How do a play a cleric of Ion who focuses on Ion as the God of trade and commerce? The only way I could do it would be to create new domains, and the only way I could create satisfying new domains is to create new spells to go with them.

Aspects are confusing and ask a lot of the players.

Although I really like the aspects concept, after some playtesting it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

First, the aspects can ask a lot of the players. This might be somewhat mitigated once I had multiple aspects of each god fleshed out. Then a player could merely choose one, just like choosing a god in another setting. However, one of what I thought was a big selling point of aspects is that players can create their own. In this way a player can customize a god concept to fit their character. However, in my experience, the number of players who want to play a religious character in the first place is relatively low, and few of even those players want to come up with a god, religion, etc.

Second, I think the aspects are ultimately confusing and defeat themselves. The goal was to avoid having oodles of gods, to limit it to a few gods the players could name. But in reality, I think the aspects are even more confusing. I think it’s actually easier to keep five deities that have different names straight than it is five aspects of a god that all have the same name but different titles. E.g it’s easier to remember Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and Artemis, goddess of the hunt, than it is to remember Primordia, goddess of agriculture, and Primordia, goddess of the hunt. What I hoped would simplify actually makes things more confusing. Especially once you consider that Primordia would have at least half a dozen aspects representing her different portfolio elements (domains), and then on top of that dozens more representing how those different aspects of Primordia are seen by different cultures. It would be far less confusing if all these aspects at least had different names.

Basing a pantheon of gods on the domains is designing backwards.

Since the domains don’t really work as story elements, basing a pantheon of gods on the domains is effectively designing backwards.

Once I realized that the domains aren’t an adequate or effective way to divide reality up into a pantheon, the eureka moment happened. Trying to create a pantheon based on these (from a cultural/story perspective) ill-thought-out and ineffective domains is designing backwards. I’m shooting myself in the foot. It’s like trying to make an awesome movie by basing it on a book, but the book you’re basing it on is terrible.

What I need to do instead is not follow the advice in the DMG and base gods on the domains. Instead, I need to come up with a believable and functional pantheon, flesh out all the gods as characters and religious figures, and then and only then start thinking about domains. Thinking about domains while designing my gods will only lead me astray and lead to a pantheon that will fall apart as soon as any thought is put toward it. Once I have my gods and the pantheon solid, then I can think about domains. I can match the existing domains to gods that really fit them. Then, I can decide what to do with any domains that might be left over that weren’t assigned to a god. Most likely I’d just add them to some of the more influential gods’ portfolios.

Then I’ll look over the gods’ portfolios and look for elements that are important but aren’t represented by domains. I’ll then create domains to fit those elements. In order to create these domains, I’ll have to create spells for them, because remember the real skeleton a domain is build on is a list of non-cleric spells that those clerics get access to.

I’m actually fine with this because I think coming up with new spells is a very important part of worldbuilding. The spells in the PHB and the other official supplements merely represent the most common and widely known spells used in the world—the generic spells if you will. But in my mind, they should really be only the tip of the iceberg in a well-developed world. Wizards will research their own spell, and every wizard of beyond middling power will have spells that perhaps only she knows—spells learned from her master that he developed, and spells she’s created herself.

Clerics should all have spells that are specific to their deity that other clerics wouldn’t be able to use. These spells could be very niche. E.g. I could see a cleric of a god of art and culture knowing a spell that can preserve a painting or other work of art forever. I could see a cleric of a god of trade and commerce knowing a spell that can determine the value of something, or a spell that can determine if something is a forgery (e.g. some other metal disguised as gold).

In the case of clerics, this would actually help me to make more sense of the idea of non-PC acolytes and priests having spells. It doesn’t make sense to me as presented in the game, because all the spells in the PHB are geared around combat and adventuring. Why would a priest or acolyte who never leaves town know a spell like that? However if they have spells that are more useful in everyday life and a specifically useful in regards to areas that god influences, it makes perfect sense. A priest of a god of fertility would probably know spells to aid in childbirth, to ensure a healthy baby, and even spells to prevent unwanted pregnancies (these would most likely be made into potions and available to the public). An acolyte of an agricultural god has spells used to bless crops, to keep pests and disease away from crops, to help crops resist drought, etc.

You might be tempted to say something like, that’s all well and good, but a lot of those spells and domains would be useless to PCs, but I don’t think so. First off, every domain should have at least some spells that will be useful out of the box to adventurers. I’m not going to create all new spells for these domains. I could see spells like bless and cure wounds being very commonly found in domains. Also, even the most niche spell can find use in the hands of a clever PC. Players love finding creative uses for spells, and this flat-out encourages that kind of play. For example, perhaps the spell to preserve artwork could be used to protect spell scrolls and maps while adventuring. A spell that detects forgeries could be used to detect illusions, traps, etc. in a dungeon. An appraisal spell could be useful in choosing the best items if a party only has moments to grab some loot from a dragon’s hoard.


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