Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Gods and Religion in Alnwich

We talked a long time ago about spirits in Starfall, but today, I’m going to zoom in on Alnwich and focus on the gods recognized and worshipped locally. It is worth reiterating some of that information here to help obliterate some common RPG tropes that simply Do Not Apply, namely that pantheism is the equivalent of a collection of monotheisms.

What do I mean by this? Well, a cleric may favor one particular deity, view them as a personal patron, etc., but that does not mean he worships that divinity as the One True God to the exclusion of others. It does not mean he tries to convert people who favor other deities to his own. Basically, polytheism is not a pile of Catholicisms, each with its own god who specializes in one aspect of reality. No, polytheism is polytheism. Polytheists acknowledge and worship all of the gods. They also tend to be far more accepting of foreign deities than monotheisms because, well, polytheists don’t claim to worship the only real god in existence. Let’s follow some of this through to its logical conclusions.

Polytheists Worship All of the Gods

If you knew there was some cosmically powerful entity that could completely wreck your life if it took notice of you and was somehow upset, would you do anything to piss it off? You know, like denying its existence? Didn’t think so. More than that, would you run around telling everyone that that particular entity was somehow inferior to another entity? Again, this is inviting the kind of unwanted attention that usually turns people into pillars of salt or burns entire cities to ash. In short, the best course of action is to not piss off things far more powerful than you.

So why is it that in RPGs, every cleric seems to run around like a 15th century Jesuit trying to force each and every NPC – and, with more annoying players, PC – to “convert” to his particular deity? That’s the sort of arrogance that should get him smited by a dozen different lightning bolts at once! Well, in Starfall, even the goddess of love will smite that sort of behavior with a fluffy, pink, glitter-trailing bolt of YOU ARE NOT MONOTHEISTIC!

Enough about how Starfall clerics don’t behave. Let’s talk about how they do behave in a polytheistic setting. For starters, clerics will worship all of the gods in an area. Each one will have its own festivals and shrines and celebrations and holy days. They should all be observed lest a deity be offended. If there is a temple in an area, it might be to the most powerful or popular deity in the region, but it is more likely to be dedicated to all of the deities locally recognized. And even a temple dedicated to a single god will have smaller shrines to the others out of respect – or fear, depending on the deity.

Similarly, clerics will observe all holy days, festivals, and such, but they may view one deity as their personal patron. This is what’s meant by a “cleric of Likumä”; he doesn’t deny the existence of Jürä any more than he denies the existence of water. But he sees the goddess of light and protection as his personal guardian and patron. That cleric of Likumä will still honor Jürä during the Festival of Boats, but he probably puts far more effort and sacrifice into the Festival of the Sun when his mistress is glorified.

Common Worship in Alnwich

Worship of the gods takes several forms in Alnwich. The town is fond of its festivals and has at least one every lunar cycle, plus several holy days throughout the year; a temple to all of the local gods, with a fond preference for Likumä and fearful respect for Jürä; several local shrines to various spirits and gods. Locals offer regular prayers to the gods at dawn and dusk, with more specialized prayer sand rituals surrounding childbirth, coming of age, marriage, and death. There are invocations for meting out justice, going to war, embarking on voyages, and more, as well. In short, worship is a common aspect of daily life whose presence is not of particular note, but whose absence would be all kinds of strange. A few examples include:
  • Morning begins with a prayer to the gods for good fortune that day.
  • When drinking, a mouthful of alcohol is spat upon the floor as a sacrifice to Karalis, the mad prophet.
  • When eating meat, the meal is preceded by a prayer of thanks to the animal’s spirit so Yaunävä is not angered.
  • When entering the forest, a small wicker man containing a cone of incense is burned as an offering to Metsä.

Gods, Clerics, and Supernatural Powers

People’s belief in the gods is not without good reason. The gods are very much alive in the world and their works can be seen, touched, and felt. Not the least of these are the miracles performed through their clerics. Particularly holy priests exhibit all manner of supernatural powers ranging from innate abilities to specialized prayers that behave almost like spells. It is a matter of debate, however, whether these gifts are bestowed in exchange for or because of worship, or if worship results because of the presence of these divine powers.

In reality, no one will every be completely certain, and the answer is most likely that both options exist. Sometimes deities take notice of an individual and decide that, for some reason, he should be given greatness, and the mortal offers worship in thanks. Other times, the mortal offers praise and is rewarded with gifts of power. Sometimes even, mortals feel cursed by their gifts and find themselves accidentally doing the work of a deity all the while cursing that same deity’s very existence. Suffice it to say, the gods work in mysterious ways.

Godly Behavior

So far, we’ve talked about how people view and interact with the gods, but how do the gods view and interact with people? Well, to start with, it’s important to realize that the gods are immortal spirits of near boundless power within their sphere of influence. A sky god has literal control over the sky within his demesne, and he need never worry about the finality of death. This gives gods a certain perspective that mortals cannot easily comprehend.

That said, the gods are not omnipotent, and they are not omniscient. Each divinity’s power is limited in scope – e.g., a fire god cannot create water; but he can do nearly anything with fire. This means it is conceivable, although extremely reckless, for a mortal to employ trickery or force to get the better of the gods, but this invites nothing but retribution. Similarly, the gods do not know everything, although they are far more intelligent and wise than most mortals.

Just as the gods lack unlimited power and knowledge, they also lack the strong moral alignments common in Dungeons & Dragons-inspired games. This conforms to the general theme in Starfall of there being no Good-versus-Evil. Things are simply what they are, and most times all of the options suck. This means gods can be helpful or malicious, cheerful or dark. How they react to a situation is largely a matter of their mood. For their followers, this translates to a general lack of requirements except for offerings of proper gratitude and an avoidance of offenses.

Again, in defiance of traditional RPG values, the gods do not war against each other. They may have their squabbles or spats, but they do not take up arms. Of course, even family spats in the heavens can cause devastating wars whose stories are told and retold for thousands of years – e.g., the Iliad resulted from Eris being bitter that she didn’t get invited to a wedding. But these squabbles never erupt into full-fledged holy wars. Likewise, the gods never demand exclusive worship of deny another deity of followers.

Similarly, the gods do not see humans as worthless pawns. They worked hard to create the world and all of the life within it, and they particularly value human beauty, something that leads many to take mortal lovers. They also appreciate and encourage the thrilling spectacle of human courage, which is why they merely help heroes instead of doing everything for them, and in some cases, drive their greatness by directly opposing them. Such spectacles would be meaningless without the free will to stop at any point, so the gods never use their powers to enslave human minds. After all, who really wants to know how their favorite soap opera will end?

The Gods Themselves

This has rambled on long enough for today, but next time, I will dig into the pantheon itself, what information I will need for each god, from a player-facing and rules-facing perspective, and maybe even offer up the template I’ll use. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on truly polytheistic settings, how you handle them, or even just how to deal with religion in your games. Feel free to discuss in the comments section below!


  1. As a guy who also takes religion very seriously in his games, and who feels that RPG tend to trivialize it as a very powerful social force, I appreciate the thoughtfulness you've put here. A comment on the omni-temples you've included. I'd have to dive, but that sounds plausible. What you effectively have is what you see in actually polytheistic religions as opposed to the modern sort of "I guess all of the traditions can be true." This is partially because the Gods are obviously real and definable and your religion is a reaction to that, as opposed to numerous traditions growing up independently and then being glommed together by an empire or general cosmopolitan communities.

    I would, however, argue that you would have dedicated shrines, not in the sense of "Only this God is worth worshiping," but more like there are hospitals in the world that only take heart patients. Sometimes you need specialization, and that doesn't mean that generalities don't exist. For example, imagine the Harvest Goddess requires exceedingly specific and numerous sacrifices if she's going to remain appeased and continue allowing for a good harvest. You'll likely have a shrine dedicated to her alone, because the priests there need to be certified experts at that one ritual. There's a general, non-specialized temple down the road, but if you want to do stuff regarding the harvest goddess, there's no better place than here.

    In the real world, most of these specialist places are really just the centers of a given tradition, but here, gods rather than humans would drive such specialization, just like health concerns drive the specialization of doctors, not social traditions.

    1. You raise a good point. I could see the Lake God having a shrine at the docks, at the very least. Also, that opens up the secluded mountain shrine with the mystical attending priest, or remote monastery that maintaining a shrine. I do like that possibility. It also breathes more depth into the world while adding things that would be good to have in game. I think I'm going to need to add another header to my god template...