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28 February 2019

Building a D&D Pantheon - Part 1


It’s Wednesday night. My Eldar I group sails out of a cove filled with undead and pearls that they’ve just raided. They break into the beautiful light of the day, hear the sounds of the sea - and spot a boat on the horizon. Desperate to see its sails, Alovnek, the party’s rogue cleric of Ispiria, perches on the edge of the ship. He lets out a heavy sigh as the sigil the ship is flying becomes apparent: An enormous, dark circle, the symbol of Takhsis, draconic goddess of order, cruelty, and manipulation. And, of course, the arch-nemesis of his goddess, Ispiria. Simply seeing the symbol invokes a feeling of foreboding doom inside him...and the rest of his companions on the ship...

The presence or lack thereof of gods and goddesses in a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS setting can tell you a lot about a world. Deities also give Dungeon Masters and players alike myriad ideas to base characters, stories, adventures, items, monsters, and more on. 

That’s why the next part of the Worldforge series will be dealing with deities and divine power in your world. We’ve already discussed establishing your world’s core tenets (magic, wilderness, civilization, tone, et cetera) and now we’re moving on to what will most likely be a multi-part series.

Let’s build a pantheon or two, folks.

Do They Exist?


As with establishing the tenets of your world, the first part of making a pantheon is asking yourself questions. Do gods exist in my world? Do they walk on the world? Do they live in their own planar realms? How often do they interact with mortals? The list can go on, ad infinitum, but we’ll start with the first one now: Do gods exist in my world? For the sake of this series, we’re going to say yes, gods do exist; however, if you’d like to read about a godless campaign setting, check out Dark Sun. The deities are absent from that world, and its spin on divine power is truly awesome. If you prefer neither, here are a few more ideas about gods existing or not in your setting:
  1. Cosmic forces replace deities: Light and darkness, law and chaos, nature and civilization. Clerics draw from these sources of power and write scripture and tenets based on what they believe the force represents. This can lead to a variety of different clerics across the setting interpreting “law” and “chaos” in different ways.
  2. A single, all-powerful deity exists that grants power to clerics of all types.
  3. A single, familial pantheon of gods and goddesses grace the world. Their relationships, good and bad, represent the different factions across your setting. The best-known example of this is the Greek pantheon.
  4. Two deities exist that are polar opposites of each other and constantly vie for power. Their timeless conflict extends across the material world as well as the inner and outer planes.
Alright, so you’ve decided gods exist in your world - or not; regardless, let’s continue. If the gods don’t exist, you’ll have to think about how these next questions relate to you and your world. A D&D world without gods or divine power sources is like a D&D game without dice; it’s not D&D. Like I said, if you don't want gods, you don't need them; replace them with cosmic forces or churches or saints or whatever you'd like. But I must say: You'd be missing out. Arcs with deities can begin at 1st level with a lowly cultist attempting to summon a horned devil of Asmodeus and end at level 20 when the party confronts the Archduke of Baator in his extravagant, hellish palace on the ninth and final layer of the Nine Hells. Gods ooze splendid material for your games; don't squander the opportunity to use them!

Where do They Live?


Next up, answer where the deities reside. In some worlds, godly beings walk alongside their worshipers on the streets of holy cities or rule over a theocracy that sees them as king. In other worlds, gods do appear on the Material Plane, albeit rarely. Most D&D worlds, however, rule that the gods and goddesses almost never materialize on the Material Plane; instead, they live in extraplanar realms and planes of existence like the Nine Hells of Baator, Mount Celestia, the Beastlands, or their own, personal plane.

Think of the scenarios that could unfold from each other options, weigh them in your head, and decide on one. Don’t worry, though; rules can be broken, it’s D&D, and this is your world. Just because your private material states that gods never come to the Material Plane doesn’t mean Torm can’t formally be summoned during your campaign. What we’re creating here is a baseline, stuff to think about - material that should be kept in the back of your mind when you’re preparing for a session or playing one out. As the old saying goes, “Nothing is canon until it happens in-game.”

Divine Contact and Interference Frequency


Okay, now that we know whether or not gods exist and where they live, now let’s decide how often and how they interact with their followers. It’s okay to leave this step until later when we create a pantheon, but I like to lay out a general rule for all of my beings of godly might. Generally, it’s a good idea for gods to take a hands-off approach to their followers; if they didn’t, why don’t they solve all the problems the adventurers are dealing with themselves? Gods rarely interfere directly in mortal affairs in D&D settings, and I think that’s a good baseline. They bless clerics with divine power, create creatures of divine roots, and come to the rescue if the entire fate of the multiverse is at stake, but otherwise, they stay out of mortal affairs. In your world, though, this might be untrue; maybe good and evil gods constantly battle, using the Material Plane as their battlefield. They join their troops in war, leading them against their archenemies.

Take note that I said having deities rarely interact with mortals is a good baseline. This simply means that normal mortals don’t see much of the gods. This doesn’t mean that the cleric in your party can’t have visions from Mystra herself, or the vile drow psychopath tracking your group can’t receive assistance from the Spider Queen. Gods and goddesses make for great plot devices; they’re able to communicate grand messages to your group, and even summon them on a whim. They can also make fantastic villains, albeit for higher level campaigns. Adventurers are exceptional; they deal with extraordinary aspects of your world. This includes deities.

In Summary


Whoosh. By now, you should have decided:
  1. The status of gods in your world. Do they exist or not?
  2. The location of gods in your world. Where do they live?
  3. The day-to-day interactions between gods and their worshipers. How often, on average, do they interfere in mortal affairs?
For my world of Eldar (changed from Aphesus, which is now a continent on Eldar), deities exist. For the most part, though, it’s a new order of them; draconic deities who slaughtered almost all of the old ones around 5,000 years ago. In addition to the draconic deities and the surviving gods, there are also three cosmic forces that clerics & peoples of the world turned to when their olds gods were killed. Deities in Eldar live on a different plane of existence than the Mortal World; well, all except one, who is in perpetual hiding as she tries to overthrow draconic rule. And finally, their interference in mortal affairs is relatively high, though it’s not supposed to be. Divine standards set when the old gods were slaughtered are being broken by a few of the draconic deities, which is leading to a power struggle in the Planar Worlds. Dramatic!

And that’s it. A few sentences, some drama and action, and a little bit of lore thrown in. Do the same for your world.

Phew. This is a fantastic start. But we’re nowhere near complete- we haven’t even started to create an actual pantheon yet. It’s okay, though, because that’s where we’ll pick up next week. Get ready to make some incredibly powerful entities. It's good fun!

Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

15 February 2019

The Tone, Change It!


It’s Wednesday night. The intrepid adventurers of my Aphesus I group are in the middle of a forest delve. They’re caught between a web of conflict and intrigue between an arrogant human lord with a dragon-complex, a wood elf tribe near extinction, and the human lord’s lizardfolk allies. Thus far in the campaign, they’ve experienced victory after victory with small losses scattered throughout - they feel like they can conquer the world, eventually. The gods will be theirs one day, as these lizardfolk and Lord Ambriosa will be in a few days time. Well, from my viewpoint, their expectations were about to change.

As they near their destination in the forest, the smell of smoke sails on the light wind. They grow nearer, and they see smoke flowing in the air, coming from the village’s direction. They pick up the pace and their wood elf ally flies ahead on his pegasus. Wait awaits them? The wood elf tribe’s capital village, massacred. Bodies young and old are strewn about, huts torn down or burning, and the presence of - few compared to the elves - lizardfolk corpses. The lizardfolk had arrived here before them and had destroyed everything. A momentous blow.

Half a day later, after fighting a corrupted pegacorn/unisus (unicorn with wings), thoroughly searching the village, and settling down to rest with their wood elf allies in the ruins of this village, an ambush arrives. The party, alongside one of their three wood elf friends, are lured into the forest, a trampled path that shows where most of the lizardfolk went after the massacre. As the party searches, they hear something in the brush but are unable to see it. One of the party members, a lizardfolk named Grobolith, hears a whisper in his mind; it asks him to turn on his allies and he refuses. The party takes a defensive stance...talks...and waits.

At this point, as a Dungeon Master, I'm changing the plan in my head. I was going to have the lizardfolk ambush the party, but since they rolled poorly on their Perception and Investigation checks and the lizardfolk crew rolled incredibly high on their Stealth checks, another route becomes possible. A route that drives the dagger deeper into the party's unfortunate situation. They left two wood elves at their makeshift camp tending to the passed-out unisus...if they act too slowly, they're in for another blow.

Seconds turn to minutes, until a few pass by. Nothing. They return to the camp to find their other two wood elf allies, along with the chief’s unconscious unisus dead, murdered by the same darts and venom found on other corpses strewn about the village. Then, the ambush arrives for them. The combat is tough, but they succeed, but not without a warning that more are coming. They retreat to the torn down tree-hut of the tribe’s chief, mending their wounds, and wait. The session ends there…

The party is in a dangerous, dark spot. They’ve gone from winning each and every battle convincingly and interacting with various folk around the region always walking away victorious to nearly pure defeat for an entire day. Now, they’ll have to deal with the opposite of victory after victory; how will they deal with that? The people they were supposed to help are dead and routed. Their allies are dropping one by one. They’re in a forest once vibrant with life that’s now completely mute, no sounds to be heard. They’re in the darkness, at a single point of light, waiting for enemies to arrive, while they have little to no resources remaining. It’s bleak.

But that’s DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

Every long-running campaign should have high and lows, and sometimes, the tone should change incredibly fast. That’s what I’m trying to do here: The campaign will be having its eighth session in a week or two, and they’re experiencing their first, real loss. That’s the takeaway today: Don’t be afraid to present terrible, excruciating, even sad situations to your group. Once they go through it, once they, maybe, succeed against the vile lizardfolk and avenge or rescue the still-living wood elves, they’ll be thrilled. 

The victory will contain a larger sense of accomplishment and will mean more in the overall narrative. Losing, losing, and losing again before a momentous victory makes for a far more interesting campaign than victory after victory without cost. Trials, troubles, and defeats give texture to the characters and the story as a whole. You don’t want your entire campaign to be a positive diagonal, rising forevermore. Instead, change the tone - throw in curve balls that don’t give the party an additional victory; toss in twists that trouble them.

They’ll return to winning, eventually; and when they do, it’ll be all the sweeter. 

Wise folk always say the night is darkest before the dawn, morale is lowest just before a turn-around, and heroes must experience failure to show their true selves. I expect the same will be true of this situation, and many situations across the many campaigns of D&D.

I'll let you know what happens next time, and I think we'll talk a little bit about NPCs. Specifically, how they can be foils to the PCs; not just the villains of the campaign, but the PCs' allies as well.

Until then, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

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