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.
The role of gods in many fantasy realms seems like it must be pretty boring.
Think about it for a moment. Your average Goddess of the Golden Crusade or Mistress of Darkness seems to exist only at a distant remove from the lives of most worshippers, at best a guiding power that blesses important servants, and acts as an eternal balance to whatever deity is on the opposite end of the alignment chart (until things go horribly awry, causing dramatically involved epic showdowns).
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Gods are the apex predators of the metaphysical world, or so far above most mortals that they might as well be, and – unless the divine powers of your realm are perfect incarnations of their respective philosophies – even the best of them are going to display traits that beg to be exploited.
By their enemies, sure, but also by a clever DM.
Below are some thoughts on running deities in any setting where they are active in the world, and how they can be an endless source of plot hooks.
This Land Is My Land
Some could call it protectiveness, others possessiveness, but for mortals the end result often looks the same; you interfered with something a god cared about, and now you will suffer for it. And it is the main source of everyday, god-related, conflict that can put the characters and their loved ones in danger.
But what could beings that powerful get so touchy about? Here are some general categories, along with a few adventure seeds for each.
Territory: Like kings and emperors, the gods of a world could very easily have special attachment to all sorts of places. In most instances this attachment exists because a place has been dedicated in service to or honor of the deity, but there are also geographical features or specific locations which are sacred to them for personal reasons. A king of the seas might get miffed that there was a cat on board the boat, while the god of the dead can be picky about how people treat burial sites.
- In Your Name – When a small city seeks to rededicate itself in honor of its new patron deity a great ritual is planned, but drawing the attention of the gods is always risky and not everyone wants to see this place thrive. If the celebrations are twisted into a sacrilege by conspirators it could mean a cataclysm for the city, but maybe heroes can undertake great labors to save their home.
- Unclean Hands – The altar of a particularly dangerous god has been desecrated with a good deal of human blood, and despite priestly efforts at cleansing it the divine power has revoked his blessings from everyone in the city. Until the culprit is found and punished, everyone suffers, and the adventurers find themselves given the task. Omens, nightmares, and signs of the world without one of the gods haunt them.
- One Shall Hang – When clearing a section of old growth forest by order of the king, royal woodsmen came across an ancient grove and cut down one of the trees. This tree was the daughter of a god and the grove a sacred place. The king has been told he has three days to produce the woodsmen or hang someone of the royal line from the highest tree in the kingdom. Adventurers might those tracking the woodsmen, members of the court who see this as an opportunity, or the woodsmen themselves.
Domains: Cosmic bodies like the sun, abstract concepts like love, and human undertakings like war are all considered fair game when it comes to the nature of a god’s power. Some even claim mortals born under certain signs, or with particular features and talents, as part of their domains… which can they guard as jealously as any petty lord.
This is what it looks like when a being of incredible power sees itself as the “lord of the skies” there might be trouble should someone launch a flying city, while the god of the hearth considers you a trespasser if you’re baking without the proper blessings, and a sun-toting goddess could get jealous if some nation starts sporting a vast dome that shines brighter than she does.
- The Boar – A great sculptor, truly blessed by the patron of her art, has just completed a masterpiece; an enormous boar, being killed by a mighty warrior who bears the likeness of a local prince. Then a priest arrives claiming the god of the hunt demands the statue, which causes the sculptor to demand that if any god shall have the statue it will be hers. The prince wishes this to be settled by a hunt, and recruits local worthies to represent each side; the group that returns with the largest boar wins. Unfortunately for everyone, the gods have taken an interest and won’t sit by without interfering.
- None Greater – Even if not deserved, one of the characters or a companion begins to be widely known as the master of their craft. When someone calls out that there is none greater the character does not correct them, and they find themselves frequently attacked by bizarre creatures or accosted by odd strangers. Eventually they are directed to find three challengers, each more skilled than the last: defeat all and be free, lose to one and never boast again, lose to two and retreat forever to a temple, lose to three and be taken by the god.
- Under the Wrong Star – The priests of a major temple announce that a babe has been born that is more beloved to one of the gods than any other mortal. It must be found, taken from where it now dwells, and brought to a sacred place on a high mountain where the servants of that god may raise it. It falls to the adventurers to find the child, following signs in the sky, and kidnap it away to the god’s care. Will they do so, or attempt to trick a god? And if they try, what happens when the child’s parents prove quite capable of making that difficult?
That Son Of A –
There was a news report about a woman who has what is called perfect recall, meaning that she is able to remember incredibly specific details about her entire life, and one of the things it touched on was her difficulty in letting go of old grudges. Fights and disagreements she’d had with her sister as a child seemed to be as raw and painful to her as they’d been the day it happened, making it very difficult not to dredge them up all over again.
Gods may not have perfect recall, but they tend to have a much larger backlog of family disagreements and when your spats can be rated in body-counts or measured in mountain ranges it becomes hard to forget. Besides, even a saint can be reduced to adolescence when faced with an aggravating sibling.
Rivalries, old grudges, and wagers between the gods (combined with some very unique ideas about righteous judgment) may have left the world forever altered in a way that can be useful to DMs.
- Fanatics – When you are approached by one of the gods in a dream, or in person, and asked to do them a favor it can seem very difficult to say no. When it is a deity who you look to for guidance or protection, it basically becomes impossible, and many perfectly normal people might find themselves laying down their lives (or other people’s lives) for plans they will never understand or petty battles between divine children.
- Cursed – Angry deities love a good curse. Some of them might give mortals a chance to make it up to them, performing some task in record time, but more often they will curse the unfortunate soul first. Spiders, certain flowers, and even freshwater springs might have all been human at some time or another. More interesting, however, are the curses that punish a particular moral failing and come right out of the Twilight Zone; everything you eat turns to ash, your husband becomes obsessed with the idea of impregnating a beast (perhaps creating a line of monsters), or you can only hear the lies people tell.
- Blessed – There’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll just say it. Sometimes the gods suck even more when they like you. Why? Because they might try to magically impregnate you, or kidnap you, you give you amazing luck that makes everyone else jealous, or give you precious gifts that they stole from some other god. And, worse, it is entirely possible they’ll never even look your way again once they’re done.
- Champions – Getting made a proxy in a wager with catastrophic or life-altering consequences is rough going, but what’s worse is running into people who have sworn themselves to such a task or been forced into it. When your entire nation, or your life, or the fate of the love of your life, or the greatest wish your heart could ever desire hangs in the balance of you completing some fool’s errand on behalf of a deity… you tend to become dangerously insufferable. These are people that leave a trail of trouble behind them, and have a history of upsetting the political balance in any nation that the gods point them towards. But how to stop them without getting involved?