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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Running Gods in Dungeons & Dragons

Today I'm going to talk a bit about running gods in your D&D campaign. Gods are supposed to be important - powerful and influential. It can be tough to figure out how to best get that feeling across in a fun and fair way.

First, we'll go over the godly information in the 5e core books, then I'll yammer on about things I learned about running gods in D&D over the years.

Bahamut in his "old man" form

On page 10 of the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide, we go over the idea of a what a pantheon is (a collection of deities). There are two types:
  • Loose Pantheon: A collection of deities that aren't overly intertwined. There are temples devoted to single deities, and often there is conflict between the followers of different gods.
  • Tight Pantheon: This pantheon has a cohesive vision. All of them are worshiped, though individuals might "specialize" in one deity more than the others. One temple honors the entire pantheon.
The Godly hierarchy goes like this:

Greater Deities: They can't be summoned and are always removed from the direct affairs of mortals.

Lesser Deities: These gods are embodied somewhere in the planes. Lolth is in the Abyss, Bahamut is in Mount Celestia, etc.

Quasi-deities: They don't answer prayers or grant spells. There are three types:
  • Demigods: Children of a god and a mortal.
  • Titans: These might be constructs made by a god, the child of two gods, or born from the spilled blood of a god.
  • Vestiges: Deities who have lost nearly all of their followers and are considered dead. Rituals can contact them and draw on what power they have remaining.
Human Gods: On page 13, it says that there is no single god that can claim to have created humanity. Humans worship a vast array of gods. In my game, I like to say that He Who Was (a 4e entity who cast the first devils into Hell) is the god who created humans.


On page 130 of the Monster Manual, we get stats for empyreans, who are "the celestial children of the gods of the Upper Planes." The empyrean is listed as a "Huge celestial (titan)."

The stat block of the empyrean make for a good starting point when trying to figure out stats for avatars and aspects. If these are the children of the gods, it stands to reason that a god's avatar is at least as powerful as empyreans. Their stats: AC 22 HP 313 +17 to hit, 31 damage and the target must make a saving throw or be stunned.

Their moods affect the land around them. When they die, their spirit returns to their home plane. There, one of their parents resurrects them.

Clerics of the Gods

Cleric of Lathander

On page 59 of the Player's Handbook, it says that once per long rest, clerics of 10th level or higher can call on their deity to intervene on their behalf. You roll percentile dice, and if you roll a number equal to or lower than your cleric level, your deity intervenes. Once an attempt is successful, the cleric can't try again for 7 days.

When you are level 20, your call for intervention automatically succeeds!


If you are making your own gods, you should make sure that you take into account the possibility that a player will make a cleric. Make sure you have your bases covered. These are the different divine domains that a cleric might utilize:
  • Knowledge: Learning, craft and invention. This includes spells like identify, speak with dead and scrying.
  • Life: Healing the sick an wounded. Spells include cure wounds, revivify and raise dead.
  • Light: Rebirth, renewal, vigilance. Spells: Faerie fire, fireball, guardian of faith.
  • Nature: Forest stuff. Spells: Speak with animals, plant growth, dominate beast.
  • Tempest: Storms, sea and sky. Spells: Thunderwave, call lightning, destructive wave.
  • Trickery: Thievery, rebels and liberators. Spells: Charm person, dimension door, modify memory
  • War: Courage and might. Spells: Shield of faith, crusader's mantle, flame strike.
If you're stumped and have no ideas on making your own pantheon, you can make a god based on each domain and extrapolate from there.

Page 294 of the PH lists the gods of the different D&D settings.

How to Run an Omniscient Being

Follower of Tharizdun

Once you have the basics down, you'll need to figure out how you want to handle the gods in your game. I've always struggled with this. Are they omniscient? What do they know? How do you keep a secret from them? Can you keep a secret from them?!

It's very hand-wave-y and it can come off as a little too convenient if you're not careful.

Why Don't They Do It? Another thing I've always had a hard time with is why the gods don't just handle things themselves. For example, some mortal bad guy is going to pull off a scheme that will let evil dominate the world. Why wouldn't a good god just pop down there and take the bad guy out? Why all the omens and dreams and prophecies?

What I say in my game is that the gods have a pact of non-interference, at least as far as directly intervening. That's because it won't take long for two gods to show up in the world and fight each other. That kind of battle could destroy the entire world! Then the gods would have nothing to reign over. It is in their best interest to make a binding agreement not to set foot on the world in their true, most powerful form.

Avatars and Aspects

Takhisis from the Dragonlance Setting

From what I understand, it goes like this:
  • Avatars are a piece of the essence of a god. It is sent on a mission, and when it is done, it comes back and is reabsorbed.
  • Aspects are independent entities, clones with their own thoughts and feelings.
In one book, it says that Asmodeus can create up to 10 avatars. Once those 10 are out in the world, he can't make any more.

In Dungeon Magazine #111, an aspect of Asmodeus is detailed. This aspect is named Nyxthseht, "an aspect of Asmodeus that personifies the arch-devil's persuasive voice and fearful countenance." He commanded a host of bearded devils in the Blood War. In this adventure, Nyxthseht is trapped in an iron flask.

So the aspect has its own name, it is actively involved in affairs of mortals, and has limited power.

How Do Gods Gain Power?

Blibdoolpoolp, goddess of the kuo toa
I think the general idea is that the more followers a deity has, the more powerful they are. The belief itself empowers them. So, if people abandon a faith, that god is going down.

That's a little weird for evil gods. There's not that many people openly worshiping them, right? I suppose that the world has plenty of orcs, goblins, drow, gnolls, trolls and those kind of monsters to worship evil gods, though many of those races already have their own god.

Dead Gods

Tu'narath, city on a dead god

There's a whole adventure book on the topic of Dead Gods. When a god dies, a mile-long stone statue of the god appears in the astral plane, floating among many other dead gods.

These dead gods can be visited and there's all sorts of weird stuff on them - godsblood, atmospheric phenomena, etc. The githyanki travel to them often.

Tu'narath: The githyanki actually built the city of Tu'narath on a dead god. Vlaakith, the lich queen of the githyanki, calls this god "The One in the Void." The god corpse holds a spark of divine life in it. Vlaaskith tries to harness it and become a goddess in "The Lich Queen's Beloved" in Dungeon #100. Capturing this spark involves casting thousands of wish spells.

Having the Characters Meet a God

Iomedae, deity from Pathfinder
The best way I've seen this portrayed is in the Pathfinder Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Path. The group meets a goddess named Iomedae. One piece of advice the book gives you: "Deities exist beyond anything the rules say can or cannot happen."

The heroes are about to go to Baphomet's maze, a mission that will affect the lives of Iomedae's followers. Iomedae meets with them to evaluate them and give them aid. The meeting with Iomedae goes like this:
  • The area fills with light and the heroes are filled with a sense of pride and hope.
  • The group find themselves in a cathedral. Soft light fills the vast space and choirs of angels and archons can be heard singing.
  • If Iomedae wills it, anyone looking at her is forced to make a saving throw or they have to avert their gaze.
  • If a hero mocks her, a deafening trumpet blast echoes through the cathedral. The mocker is permanently deafened and must make a saving throw or forever be mute. This condition can't be removed by anything except a deity's will.
  • If someone mocks her twice or attacks her: She fires off a shaft of light from her shield. The character must make a saving throw or drop to 0 hit points and appear back in the world they came from. If they succeed at this saving throw, they are permanently blinded and appear back in the world they came from.
Iomedae asks the group three questions based on the tenets of her faith. If they answer correctly, they are given an artifact chalice, a spell-like ability and a thread from her cloak - a thing called the Stole of the Inheritor (another major artifact!). Each time answer incorrectly, her choir sings and the whole group takes 5d6, 10d6, and 20d6 damage respectively.

Pantsing a Deity

Church of the Silver Flame from Eberron
You might notice that there's a lot of details focused on what happens if a hero mocks her. That's because in a lot of groups, that's what happens! You need to be ready for this amusing but very tone-shattering kind of behavior.

When I ran Scales of War, the group met Moradin, god of the dwarves. The party wizard was an elf with a smart mouth. His character didn't like dwarves, and began mercilessly mocking Moradin and would not let up. I sat there and thought over my options. Would a god kill him? I mean... you're mocking a god, a supremely powerful being! How do you decide what is appropriate?

The first thing I did was to make it clear to the player that this is a god who has incredible power and that his character was likely to provoke some sort of retaliation. He said he knew that, and kept on roasting the god of the dwarves.

So Moradin decided to teach him a lesson. He turned the wizard into a dwarf! For pretty much the rest of the campaign, the dwarf-hating character was a dwarf. Moradin was hoping that if the wizard walked in the shoes of a dwarf, he'd understand them and stop with the blind hatred.

The wizard just kept hating dwarves. In fact, he hated them even more. Eventually he regained his elf form and became the god of magic in my campaign. To this day, all of his followers hate dwarves, and dwarves hate them.

Change is Unlikely: That's something that I learned in D&D many times over. Most players cannot be "taught a lesson," in-game or out of the game. I have never had a group change their tactics, even when their strategy gets them killed time and time again.

What I eventually concluded was that everyone has their own sense of how things should work, and they are not going to change those beliefs based on what happens in this game. If they were running the game, what they did would work. To them, I'm the one making the mistake.

They know that this is my game, my vision of how things work, so they are happy to ride along but they will never buy into something that they fundamentally disagree with.

Battling a God
Kyuss, god of worms

This one is really hard to handle. If the big bad guy of your campaign is an evil god, how do you do a final battle that "makes sense"? It's a god! How can mortals kill a god?

Usually the story involves some artifact that can kill the god in one shot, or some kind of ritual that weakens the god for a short time, effectively making them a CR 22 monster or whatever. Some campaigns go with banishment - the heroes get some device or spell that traps the evil god in some nether-realm.

That's the really hard part about using gods. How do you fight them?

Make Consistent Rules

You should decide at the outset of the campaign exactly what the god's capabilities are. What does it know? What can it do? What can't it do? Maybe it can see through the eyes of a certain type of creature, such as a bat or a raven. Whenever the god wants, it can scan their minds and see where they're at and what they're seeing. Maybe the god can speak through them or use some kind of power through them.

Maybe the god has an aspect down in the world handling everything, practically cut off from the true form of the god. The aspect won't have that nebulous god-power to worry about, it would be more on the level of the demon lord stats in Out of the Abyss.

How does the god communicate with its followers? Does it hear every prayer? Does it know what all of its followers go through and think about?

How does the god reward followers? How does it punish them?

Can the god just make an artifact - conjure it out of thin air? What about magic items?

These questions are important because players can tell when you're pulling ideas out of your butt during the game. They'll realize that this god can do whatever the DM wants it to do, so it's pointless to try anything outside the box because the god will know what it needs to know.

If you have these "rules" in place, that frees your players up to come up with schemes and scenarios to work around those rules. If they know the god sees through the eyes of every raven, maybe they'll have every raven in the kingdom captured and locked up somewhere. Maybe they'll befriend another type of bird and get them to scare off the ravens.

Spending a little extra time to clarify how the god does things can make your game much more fun and the players will come alive when they sense it.

Roleplaying a God

Vecna, God of Secrets
I see a lot of people lately getting hung up on doing a voice. Newer players: You don't have to do a voice! That's a thing on Critical Role - a show full of voice actors! Most of the groups I played with in my life don't do voices at all. You can do it if you want, but it's fine if you don't want to. You are not failing in any way if you can't do a good Darth Vader impression.

The important thing is to try to convey the specialness of the god. You should come up with a few things that make the god unique. Three things, probably. The god shows up, and what happens? Holy light has some effect, when the god speaks some effect goes off, and gazing upon them has some effect. Maybe just being near them temporarily enchants weapons and armor as the metal absorbs divine radiation. Maybe flowers spring up in each of their footprints.

The most important thing, as weird as it sounds, is to be ready for goofing off. If you want your god to be taken seriously, be prepared for the players' inappropriate behavior. Definitely warn the players that this god isn't likely to put up with fart jokes. They've been fairly warned... then do what you have to do, just make sure it's not overly harsh. It should fit the tone of the god.


You should also think about how gods become gods. Is it possible for mortals in your world to become gods? How does that happen?

In my games, the characters can become gods. All of the gods in my world are former characters. Sometimes, when the character hits the highest level, I'll run a special event where the heroes can become a god if they kill a god. I first did this as a little kid. The characters were ridiculously powerful. The players flipped through deities and demigods. They picked out the weakest gods in there and asked to fight them. Sure! Why not? They killed them and became the gods of my realm.

That's a great way to immortalize your friends. One day when I was running a game in the game store, my old friend came in to say hi. I told the group, "He ran Thennrynia." Everyone gasped and started asking him questions. Thennrynia was a god in my game. He went, "You mean my cheesy Drizz't rip-off character?"

This campaign had partly revolved around his character. People who had never even met him got to interact with him in a small way without ever meeting him. In a very tiny way, my friend was "famous".

To me, that's a fitting reward for someone who put so much of their time and energy into my goofy campaign.


Scotaire said...

"You don't have to do a voice"
I think the talent of Chris Perkins on Acq. Inc. is never pushing a voice too far off his own voice. When you're at ease with your way of speaking, you can concentrate on what you're saying, and end up more natural. Even if you roleplay an inconceivable entity.

Eric Kamander said...

I enjoyed this. Thanks for posting.

Regarding "How Do Gods Gain Power?" I like to think of deities' power coming from actions that promote their spheres of influence. This could be in independent of or in addition to direct worship. This would explain the power of evil gods, as they are gained from evil actions.

If a game includes gods of different races, then optionally, the power could potentially only come from members of that race.

And it's fine to leave this ambiguous, since these are appropriately among the mysteries of the universe.

snow said...

Nice, article!

When it comes to divine intervention, in the Realms the overgod Ao inscribed the duties of the gods into the tablets of fate, effectively forbidding them to directly intervene in mortal affairs. As far as I know.


glados131 said...

On Critical Role, Matt Mercer actually came up with an ingenious solution to the "why don't the gods fix everything" problem. It even has a name: the Divine Gate. Basically it's a giant metaphysical screen door separating the realms of the gods from our world. Mortals can pass through it, but gods can only just barely poke a finger or two through. In other words, gods can somewhat influence our world, but can't appear directly.

The best part is the justification for keeping the Divine Gate. If they destroyed it, sure, they could smite whatever evil was brewing in the mortal realm-- but it would also release all the evil gods to inflict their will on it.

Ryan said...

Good read as always Sean.

On the subject of group change in tactics and character growth, (such as your dwarf-hating friend), how often do you discuss things like character arcs during table talk after or before the game? One of the things I love about the C-Team in Acquisitions Inc, is the way the group discusses the meta of their character stories and they each weigh in on what the characters did during the session and the open wonder of why that decision was made and what it could mean in the future.

It makes me think that if a group takes the time to step back and acknowledge that they are separate from their characters, it opens up the opportunity for each player to become aware of different possibilities for character change, and the input doesn't just come from the DM, but from other players as well. Sometimes a player might not even think of why they made a decision, but when another player says 'that was really interesting!' It can make the person scrutinise their PCs personality a bit more.

Do you personally think this meta talk is worthwhile?

Sean said...

Scotaire: Agreed! I think a lot of people are too shy to do voices. I don't want to scare them away from the table by setting any type of expectation.

Eric Kamander: That makes sense. Corrupting people, blood sacrifices, definitely a good idea!

snow: That's cool. Did Ao give a reason for this?

glados131: That sounds really awesome. I might use that!

Ryan: Never! We never talk about character arcs. Sometimes I might say something like "I can't wait to see what Theran does with X!" but we just let things unfurl. I do think the meta talk is worthwhile, at the very least because it will help players see all of the options before them when it comes to running a character. In my Planescape game, Bidam went from a ladies man to a devoted husband. Theran is a quiet, bookish type who refuses to open up. For me, character developments just happen the way they happen, we don't map it out.

I definitely think people should think about it and talk about it. Pull the DM aside and go over ideas, that usually leads to awesome stuff!