A young cleric kneels at an altar dressed in formal vestiges. She clutches an amulet hanging around her neck and closes her eyes. She softly speaks a prayer asking for guidance and protection as she prepares to embark on an epic quest. Her amulet glows, filling her hand with the warmth of her chosen god as a sign that her prayers were heard and answered. She smiles, stands, and confidently strides out of the sanctuary to armor up and begin her quest.
This scene cannot happen in your homebrew world until you finish a very important step: you must develop a pantheon of deities for your fantasy world citizens to confide in. Deities are the sources of clerics’ power and the staple of paladin oaths within your game. Having them is vital to giving your players’ characters their abilities and gives the commoners a little hope in an otherwise dangerous and unforgiving world.
If you’ve been following along with the lessons from previous posts, you should now have a map of your homebrew world. You should also have a list of notes and ideas about how the world came to be shaped, why regions of your world have certain characteristics, and how the races of your world came to be. Now, you must develop a pantheon of deities that can set those ideas into motion, essentially forming your world’s creation story.
Gods by Domain
Dungeons & Dragons 5e divides its canonical deities into several categories, called Domains. Each of these Domains pertains to an aspect of existence: Life, Light, Nature, Knowledge, Trickery, War, and Death. If you’re creating your world to be used with 5e, this is where you start. If you’re developing your world for a different game, analyze that game’s deity system and shape yours accordingly. For the sake of this article, we’re sticking with 5e.
When deciding how many deities you want in your world, the easiest choice is one per Domain. However, unless your world’s races all agree on the same deities (read: they don’t and shouldn’t), you need to create multiple deities per Domain. However, this is all up to you. Certain deities can also have multiple Domains. Deities associated with War often are associated with Death as well. Life and Light deities are also closely related and can be represented by one deity.
Domains are important because in the character class rules for 5e, clerics get their spells from their deities and those spells are determined by the deity’s Domain. If you choose to not have a Domain represented in your pantheon, you may be hindering your players’ choices on which type of cleric they can play. For this, I would suggest having all Domains in your pantheon.
Balance is a Guideline, Not a Rule
In my pantheon, I have fifteen deities. I have three deities in each of the following Domains: Life, Death, Trickery, and Knowledge. The reason for this is because I feel that each of these Domains can be represented in the three Alignments of Good, Evil, and Neutral. There are elements of each of these Domains that fall into that spectrum. For instance, Knowledge can be used to ignite positive change and progression in the world, but it can also be used to destroy. Or it can be squirreled away and never shared with anyone.
Having this type of balance in your pantheon allows your players more leeway when playing their clerics or paladins. They can skirt the grayer areas of their Alignment while still being in their chosen deity’s favor. But once they tip that balance, they will lose favor with one deity, gain it from another, or lose their abilities altogether.
Once you’ve chosen your Domains and the number of each you want represented in your pantheon, it’s time to design your deities individually. Here is where your creativity can go berserk. Want your Nature deity to be represented by a non-binary giraffe with purple spots that wears a top hat? You can do that! However, I would suggest creating individual deities that would fit into the type of fantasy world you’re envisioning. The NB giraffe is a great idea if your world tends to lean towards the goofy and absurd, but in a high fantasy world where everyone is oppressed and fighting for survival, it might not be appropriate (NB deities are, however, always appropriate!).
A good guideline to remember is that you can tailor a deity’s look to their Domain. Knowledge deities tend to be wizened old people who spend their time on the Astral Plane in an infinite library. War deities will almost always be armored and carry weapons. Have fun with this by imagining just how a deity would dress and live. Would the Trickery deity wear hooded cloaks and spend their time pestering the other deities? Would the Life deity live in a clear glass castle that refracted all the light in the plane, making it hard to look at if you are a mortal?
Next, you should determine the alignment for your deities. Like I said before, having deities that represent a single Domain but different alignments gives flexibility to your pantheon. Generally, War deities tend to be Lawful, Trickery deities tend to be Chaotic, and Knowledge deities tend to be Neutral. You can toy with the alignment configurations to give your pantheon a specific type of flavor. Are your deities more concerned with how mortals obey them? Make most of them Lawful. Are your deities out to make mortals’ lives as hard as possible? Make the majority of them Chaotic or Evil.
Finally, you should name your deities. You can come up with clever names yourself or you can use the vast number of name generators online. Try to make the names of your deities sound as if they definitely represent a certain Domain. You don’t want a Chaotic Evil Death deity named Billy Bob. Or maybe you do.
If you would like certain races in your world to consider one of the deities the progenitor of their race, you can assign that race a Patron God. Patron gods will be almost exclusively worshiped by people of the race the god created. In the Forgotten Realms of D&D, for instance, Moradin is the patron god of the dwarves. Similarly, Lolth is the patron goddess of the drow. Worshiping other deities by members of this race can be looked down upon at best and outright banned at worst.
Having patron deities also lends to making your creation story easier to devise. If you know which god created certain races, you can use that information as a tent post to attach other elements of your creation story to. If, for instance, you want elves to be the first race ever created, you can say a certain Nature deity created the elves first, and then use that as a way to develop stories for the other races’ creation. Did another deity get jealous at the Nature god making a race and set out to create one himself? This could be the beginnings of a rivalry between those races in the world, paving the way for eternal conflict.
Once you have your pantheon fleshed out, it’s now time to start thinking about how these deities relate to each other and how their actions resulted in the creation of your homebrew world. We’ll cover the creation story in the next installment!