This has been inspired by me writing up a pantheon for a setting I am thinking about, which was in turn inspired by the various excellent ‘Kobold Guide to…’ books by Wolfgang Baur’s Kobold Publishing.
As a those poor maligned few who actually know me in person will attest I am not a religious person. Actually I am a stone cold atheist, but one with an interest in religions and mythology. Roleplaying inspired my love of mythology, which is kind of ironic considering how slap dash and poor religion is handled in most fantasy games.
Ancient mythology is a fascinating thing, it tells you as much about the society that created it as it does the gods, goddesses and monsters that are included in the stories. On the surface these religions seem monolithic entities and that is how they are used often in fantasy settings. The gods and goddesses set in stone, their roles simple and straightforward. The thing is these religions existed within societies that lasted hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Just as the societies they came from changed, so did the religions and even the deities within them. Some gods rose and fell and others changed their roles as needed by the changing culture.
Checking out various myths will bring up stories that contradict each other and have clearly changed over time. Far from being simply a god of war, you will find that Mithra had other duties based on earlier myths and legends. No deity of the ancient world was as ever as one dimensional as most fantasy settings want you to believe. Unless as a designer of Games Master you want to spend more time researching your gods and their religions, than designing adventures, you will never get the nuanced, layered religions that actually existed. Most players are not interested in the minute details of the rites and rituals that made up the cultures of the ancient worlds, which is understandable, if not slightly disappointing at times.
Beyond this overly light touch that most (not all and I will come back to those that break the mould) designers seem to have, there are two great ‘sins’ that fantasy settings often have when it comes to religion.
The first is that they get pantheon worship wrong, okay they only show one kind of worship, the kind that was rare at best in the real world. These pantheons are made up of a number of different gods, each one having their own portfolio and often a narrow portfolio. There will be the god of the sea (though rarely will he also say be the god of horses) and you have priests and followers who only follow that god. Poseidon was one of the Olympian Gods, brother to Zeus and Hades. Sailors would pray to him for calm seas, Alexander the Great did so before the battle Issus. The idea that Alexander only prayed to Poseidon though does not make sense. Like most people who followed the Greek Gods Alexander prayed to the relevant god at the relevant time. What Alexander practiced is called kathenotheism, as did most people who followed a pantheon based religion.
Instead what we get in most fantasy settings is henotheism. If you follow Thor you only follow Thor and despite the fact that Thor’s portfolio does not cover everything, you ignore those gods who might be relevant. Henotheism was far less common in the real world, well possibly until the rise of the neopagans, yes you got priests of Jupiter and people who favoured him above other gods, but even these recognised that Jupiter was but a single god in a family of them and if you believed these gods existed, you did not go around ignoring them, if no other reason that you did not want to annoy them (these gods and goddesses were not chilled out dudes and took offence quite easily).
This means instead of a working pantheon what you get is a series of competing monotheistic faiths, all of which are significantly less effective than the monotheistic faiths that are more the norm these days. These multiple monotheistic religions lack the omnipotent gods that make up the Abrahamic faiths. Instead of participating in something that actually feels like a working religion, players get a list of patrons that give them specific power ups, especially if they happen to play priests. Choosing a faith becomes choosing which cool powers and spells you want to have, which I find kind of irritating. It also means that you rarely, if ever, get people playing the priests of the less cool gods. Gods of war, by the bucket load, priests of nature gods sure, especially if they give you companion animals or the ability to shape change.Gods and goddesses of agriculture, harvest deities, you know the ones that people would actually call upon most often, heck no. After all who wants to power of making sure that crops grow? Like overly long skill lists, these deities become the dump gods, with little actual reason for being included, other than for background.
The reason that this happens and why it also tends to take place with neopagans, is because of the culture most of us grew up in. The dominant major religions of the current era are monotheistic and the three biggest share a single deity, though they disagree on how He should be worshipped. Even within these three big religions you get divides and schisms, with competing denominations. With Christianity especially, you even get the chance to chose a minor semi divine being, who has a minor portfolio as your patron saint. Even if, like me, you decide not to play the religion game our culture is shaped by these beliefs on a fundamental level. It shapes our language, philosophies and morality in ways even atheists cannot honestly deny. It is not a surprise then that if influences setting designers and even neopagans who rebel against these monotheistic religions. We are given the choice of picking and choosing the god or goddess we can follow, but it feels more ‘natural’ to chose just one or maybe a couple.
The thing is though that there are plenty of classical examples of how societies with pantheons thought and acted. The Iliad and Prose Edda describe not only the actions of the mortals of these tales but also the gods who looked over them. These ancient gods, especially the Greek ones, loved to play with mortal lives. The Greek legends are filled with gods coming down, sleeping with mortals, creating demigods and general being pains in the rump to any mortal unlucky enough to draw their attention. Now to me having heroes having to deal with petulant deities as well as monsters and villains sounds like fun.
The other major sin, started in Dungeons and Dragons but found even in games where the alignment system has been dropped is that gods get pigeon holed. This is especially true about whether the god or goddess in question is evil or not. Now Ares was a bit of a jackass, but the Greeks did not see him as an evil god. Even Hades brooding away in the Underworld was not a one dimensional, moustache twirling villain. As for good gods, pretty much any mythology that you can read will show that even the most beneficial deity could be a right bastard at times. Just like the God of the Old Testament, whose tales were first written down at the same time as the Egyptian and Greek gods were being worshipped, keep them happy and the gods would protect you, upset them and they would really ruin your day. The thing is unlike the more impersonal and distant deities of later Monotheistic religions, the ancients showed their gods more like real people, with failings as well bits that were to aspire to.
Yes there were beings, gods and/or demons considered evil. Also having an arch villain, one way above the bog standard bad guys that your characters meet at the beginning of the campaign is always a good move, though it might not be the best move in EVERY campaign. There has to be a reason though why someone or something would worship such a being, more than just because fate has decided that these worshipers are also evil. Only the desperate and/or insane worship Cthulhu, making whole countries and species that desperate or insane seems a bit simplistic. Even evil gods need to be well rounded to offer their worshipers a legitimate reason to worship them.
Not every fantasy mythology falls into these traps. The major example is Glorantha. The world of RuneQuest and HeroQuest is incredibly detailed with a major focus on the mythology that underpins it. Then again Glorantha did not start as a roleplaying setting, it was started in 1966 by Greg Stafford as an experiment to create a mythology. The story goes having read every book on ancient mythology at college, Greg Stafford decided to see if he could create his own. Nearly 50 years later the experiment is still on going. Greg may have taken a step back these days, but designers are still working on his momentous work. Many of these designers are now game designers.
The beauty of Glorantha is that if you want your characters can interact with the mythology that literally underpins the world, even to the point that you can change the myths. While there are evil gods, many of them have not always been seen as such and some (depending on which age you are in) are universally regarded as being evil. As with real life it comes down to your culture’s viewpoint.
A more small scale version is Wolfgang Baur’s Midgard setting, where not only are pantheons worshipped complete with priests dedicated to the pantheon as a whole, but the gods themselves are a mysterious element. In Midgard there is only a limited number of actual gods, far less than are worshipped. This is because the gods where masks, an idea taken from the Roman’s assimilation of gods they encountered. According to the Roman’s this new local god, was actually one of theirs, but wearing a mask. In Midgard it is not always clear which god is wearing what mask and it is possible that two gods who hate each other, is actually the same god just wearing two different masks. Again how much you use this is left up to the Games Master, but the fact it is there is an added bonus missing in most fantasy settings.
There is a wealth of real world inspiration, as well as over a century of fantasy novels that deal with religion and mythology in a much more nuanced way than it gets in the majority of fantasy settings. Taking the easy route regarding the options available, seems, to me at least, doing gamers a disservice. Just because most players are happy not to have a detailed religious aspect to their games does not mean that all of us feel the same way!