Polytheism or Serial Monotheism?: Focusing on Pantheons Over Deities

This is part of a collection of thoughts on fleshing out the use of gods and divine power in games, so you can provide more flavor and hooks for common or devout worshippers.

When making a character in game settings with what might be called a “loose pantheon” there is a tendency for characters, especially those that aren’t clerics or paladins, to speak of their religious affiliation like it’s their favorite sports team or being fans of a guy who made some really cool movies.

“Me? Oh, I worship Dargoth the Destroyer. As a chaotic good fighter it just seemed like the best fit.”

Which, ok, makes some sense. Because many loose pantheons are really only connected at all on a level visible to the players, or the most devoted of in-setting scholars, rather than everyday worshippers; it is often a collection of the most powerful or prominent gods from various regions and cultures, balanced against each other on a universal scale.

The weakness is that it can make choosing a god, or even thinking about the religious aspect of a character’s life, feel a bit like picking from a take-out menu.

Or worse… monotheistic.

The Problem with Soft Polytheism

Imagine for a moment that your character grew up in a society where every day they had prayers to a half-dozen different gods come to mind, where haggling in the market was done under the sign of a deity who oversees commerce and butchers perform a daily ritual to the god of good health in order to prevent rot.

What deity does a soldier worship in a culture that could require a soldier to know the basic prayers to the god that has blessed their emperor, the goddess of the battlefield, the god of peace, the goddess of hearth that protects their families, and the bastard godling of strong wine?

And if a soldier did pick one, does that mean soldiers are running around reaping the benefits of the gods while completely ignoring the respect due them? Sounds like a smiting waiting to happen. At the very least it probably means that the soldiers won’t be getting much assistance in any of those other, rather critical, areas of life.

Why? Because – in a fantasy world with an active group of gods out there overseeing various domains – assuming that life would continue on as normal when the Lord of Illness is angry with you or the local temple won’t bless your new business venture doesn’t make very much sense.

That’s A Lot Of Gods!

In a setting, or society, with a “tight pantheon” your average person is going to have a basic understanding of all the gods, because each god’s life is full of lessons mortals are supposed to learn. Some of the lessons are about life, but many are going to be about what a particular god finds respectful or infuriating, which is exactly the sort of thing kids will need to know.

There will be gods who get less attention than others, especially in areas where their domain is considered less valuable or where a rival deity’s favor is considered strong enough to risk being disrespectful (“My order is blessed by Athena herself, so Ares can take his spear and…”). More commonly a region will just demonstrate slightly different aspects of the gods, to reflect local concerns, which is fine as long as it doesn’t alter the presentation so much that the deity no longer feels they are being treated properly.

Altars are devoted to one, maybe two, of the gods because that is where the specific rituals or ceremonies that relate to that god is performed. Sometimes these are sacrifices or intricate rites, but whatever the case it is considered by everyone to be sacred to that particular divine power.

Temples might be built around elaborate or important altars, essentially housing the worship of only one god, but more commonly are places where a collection of different altars might be found.

Priests will often be tied very closely to a specific temple, or made responsible for the care and use of the altars in a given area. Because of this the presumption will not be that their knowledge or devotion is limited to one member of the pantheon alone.

There are people who dedicate themselves entirely to a particular god, but this is almost always done in order to fill a particularly restrictive role in certain important rituals rather than to become a specialist priest who worships only on member of the pantheon. Such people probably exist, but would be considered foolish at best and dangerously – or heretically – fanatical at worst.

So, What Does This Mean For Characters?

A character will need to know what the pantheon make-up is in their home region, and have an idea of what sorts of things their gods find to be important or offensive. The easiest way to handle this as the DM is by coming up with a one or two-sentence summary of the pantheon’s outlook, and then providing a short list of the gods that make it up.

An example summary might be:

The Greek Pantheon: Man lives at the pleasure of the gods, who hate hubris. Life is the only joy mortals will receive. Fate rules over all, and comedy wars with tragedy.

Domains: Tempest, War

Gods: Zeus (Patriarch, Thunderbolts, Adulterer), Ares (War, Courage, Zealous Violence), etc.

Or Make It Up: A more carefree group, or a particular player who works it out with the DM, might do away with the list of gods entirely. Give the brand new pantheon a description like the one above, provide a blank roster of 8-12 potential major deities, and allow the gods of War or Farming or Lying or what have you to be created on the fly by players and the DM as needed.

What About My Menu?

There is one potential issue with presenting deities as merely facets of a pantheon rather than a list of potential patrons: Clerics. In a game with a tight pantheon players looking to play a cleric may be concerned that their options are somewhat more limited when it comes to Domains.

An accommodating DM might attempt to work around this by adding a third Domain to each pantheon or giving a pantheon one Domain while each deity provides another to choose, but that shouldn’t be necessary. In truth there are only a few Domains to begin with, and they don’t particularly limit the spells that a cleric can pick up in the long run.

Better to exchange specialization for flavor and see what happens, especially when the character now shares their faith with most of the culture and has an entire passel of godly patrons to contend with.

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