(This article was updated on May 24, 2017 to clarify some points throughout the article)
To me, there is nothing more satisfying than running a game in a world you created yourself. Your cities, your countries, your cultures- your everything! Making a homebrew campaign is like writing a screenplay, and then running the session is watching it all unfold, sometimes how you don’t expect it to!
One thing that tends to get overlooked in making your own world is creating your own deities or pantheon. When I first started running homebrew games I would stick with an established pantheon such as the ones found in various D&D settings; after a while though, the deities seemed a little too familiar to my players. These are gods that have powers beyond character comprehension, yet my players were getting cozy with their knowledge of them. It was around this time that I decided to begin working on a custom pantheon.
I met different amounts of success as I went through different processes with different campaigns, sometimes scrapping the results at the last minute or partially through and reverting to something else because the quality wasn’t there, and the deities were a little too one dimensional to be interesting and mysterious. Over time though, and I came to create gods, goddesses, and other celestial beings that my players could buy into and want to learn about. And today, I start sharing my process for creating an interesting and thought out pantheon with you!
The Dungeon Master’s Guide (for 5th edition D&D- and for all intents and purposes I’m writing this from a 5e point of view, though the idea is easily transferable), right in the beginning of Chapter 1, has a section on choosing or making a pantheon. It talks about the pros and cons of a traditional pantheon, monotheism, dualism, and so on. Rather than discuss what I like and don’t like about each of these, I’m sticking with the assumption you’re creating a traditional pantheon, with deities overseeing different aspects of life, death, the world, and so on and so forth (Etcetera is the goddess of So On And So Forth, by the way).
The first step in this process is to write out the cleric domains that are in the game. If a player plays a cleric there should be a deity attached to each of these or at least is compatible. Even if I know my cleric player wants to choose the Life domain, I still need to round it out with gods that compliment and complicate each other. The next thing I think about is how I picture this pantheon. If you want a tight or compact pantheon, you can package certain domains together- Nature and Tempest, Life and Death, and so on. It’s easy enough to combine with the following steps, and I’ll touch on how to expand a pantheon beyond these domains in the next article. But for now, let’s assume you want one deity per domain.
I know I need names for the deity of each domain. I tend to create a name and throw it as a placeholder, because it’s easier for me to personify and develop a deity that has a name than one that doesn’t. If need be, I’ll scrap the name and think up a better one later.
So, going through that, you should have a handful of named, basic deities. Each deity has a domain… and not much else. So how do we keep going? Let’s take Light as an example. I decided, in the interim, this deity is named Edison. He’s the god of light. That’s cool, but now we go through the classic W’s and H to flesh him out.
We already got the Who and What figured out for the most part (Edison, God of Light), but is he also the god of anything else? Asking the ‘What’, maybe he’s also the god of the sun, or maybe he’s the god of fire. Nothing says he even needs to be the god of light per se, so long as what he is the god of is relatable. You can even add a secondary domain that is less pronounced in his worship, such as Tempest. Then you can revisit the ‘Who’: Maybe he’s a hive-mind, or maybe he’s part of a duo, Edison and Sol, that co-rule this domain. This is a chance to break out of the cookie cutter and create something unique, especially if what you choose is dynamic. Going off of the co-deities idea, maybe Sol acknowledges that at night their job is done, while Edison’s goal is to make it light out forever. Their clashing over their domain could mean that worshippers of these two are at odds with one another, or if they have co-worshipers, their followers could be really confused on what tenets to follow!
Next we have the When, Where, Why, and How. I group these four together because they often are asked together, and are all a part of the detail phase. Examples of things to ask here would be: How did they become a god, and when was it? Where are their worshippers, and why do people worship them? How do these gods express their will? When and how do they help their people? If this seems like a lot to think about, it is, or rather it can be. Sometimes you don’t need to think of it all right away, or even at all. For example, maybe no one alive knows the story of how Edison became a god. You can decide to not write that, unless it becomes important in your campaign later on. Or maybe you’ll end up improvising it along the way, which is perfectly fine! Just make sure you write down anything you improvise for consistency later on.
After you feel more acquainted with your deity, and you have a better idea, they might be looking like this:
Edison- God of Light and Warmth.
Edison wants to bathe the world in everlasting light and drive out the darkness and cold. He was once a powerful wizard who tried to create permanent light that gave heat for people to save torches, but was accidentally pulled into one of his own spells. As the arcane power combined with his own, his body disappeared and a glowing figure remained. No one knows what happened after that, or how that led to him becoming a god. People worship him because they are forced to live in dark places, or have enemies who are averse to the light. Edison helps people by giving his clerics the ability to create light that lasts for a long time and sheds warmth, and by providing needed light to his people’s crops on overcast days.
We now have a decently fleshed out god to use, and I didn’t answer many of the questions I listed out. You may go back and edit things here or there as new ideas inevitably pop into your head, or maybe you’ll create another deity and want to link them in some way. The best place to start is to just get to writing down ideas and revising as you go through it with each being. I found that working on each stage across the pantheon works best for me- give them all a name, then give each one the Who/What treatment, and finally answer questions about them- as I can tie them into each other better. You may be better off focusing on one at a time, but I’ll leave that up to you as it is personal preference.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss how to expand the pantheon beyond the number of domains. Later on in the series I’ll also give you an expanded list of questions you can ask about your deity like we did above and talk about tying the pantheon together with relationships and followers.
Until then, see what you can come up with using for deities using the steps above, and share them in the comments!