Some Thoughts on Kaendorian Gods and Religion

One aspect of fantasy worlbuilding that I’ve always been struggling with, other than naming things, is the entire aspects of gods and religion. Which I think I am not alone with. I noticed several years ago that most fantasy settings, especially for RPGs, usually tend to have a lot of gods, but no traces of religion. Having a number of gods with names, areas of influence, and perhaps even iconography does not make religions. What do people actually believe? What do they do? How do faith and the gods actually impact life and society? And most importantly, how does it come up in play? The only case I can think of as actual religion in a fantasy world is the Chantry in Dragon Age, and that’s pretty much Christianity with slightly altered window dressing.

For Kaendor, one of the themes that I like to have well integrated at the foundational level of the whole setting, is the idea that in this world, people are not at the top of the food chain. They are not made in god’s image and they are not made the masters of the natural world by divine decree. Some ways in which this manifests is that most of the world is uninhabited and barely explored, that there are ruins of inhuman civilizations that were much larger and more powerful than society in the present, and that there are many huge beasts and strange spirits which will simply crush any people who don’t get out of their way fast enough. Nature does not care about the concerns of people, and in the end it always wins in every contest about control and mastery of the environment. I feel that this aspect also needs to be very visible in the relationship of the people with the divine powers, and that acceptance of that position in the natural hierarchy needs to be central to the religious beliefs.

Since it is central that people are not created in the image of gods and are not in any way comparable to gods, the gods can not factually have the appearance of a person. I think even depictions of a deity as a person should be rare and untypical. Maybe have depictions of important events in which the divine influence of the deity is represented by a radiant figure appearing in the background or handing something symbolic to an important mortal hero? But no stories of gods walking among people in humanoid form and having conversations with them. Instead, I think gods should primarily be cosmic forces. Like the deity of storms, the deity of knowledge, the deity of plant growth, the deity of hunting, and so forth. They are forces that are present and active in the environment and in daily life and that will do their thing that is their nature, regardless of how it affects people and their needs and desires. The gods do not love people. They don’t care about people. They might not even take notice of people.

Religion in Kaendor is not about serving the gods or about hoping for rewards or help from the gods. Religion is first and foremost about not getting in the way of the gods. They are impersonal forces active in the environment regardless of the presence or activities of people. Understanding these forces and what they do is the most important thing to not get accidentally crushed by them. But instead of being fatalistic and simply hoping to evade an inevitable doom one more day, the religion of the people of Kaendor is also about making use of the benefits and opportunities that are created by the actions of these divine forces. Religion is about living with the patterns of nature to avoid the many dangers of the natural world and to make the most of what it has to offer. Religion provides the framework by which people put abstract concepts about the environment and society into concrete actions that they can practice in everyday life. And it is widely understood to be that way by most people. Religious customs and rituals are not things demanded by a deity because it furthers a divine plan or because it pleases its vanity. They are simply sensible things to do.

Religion in Kaendor is less about faith and much more about practice. Which really isn’t that unusual for many great religions throughout human history, though it tends to seem really strange from a Christian perspective, which really is more of an outlier in that regard than the typical norm. Though spirituality does exist in Kaendor, particularly among priests. To many people, the various gods are not simply the abstract, impersonal spirits of natural or social phenomenons. They are also exemplars of different ways to approach life in general. By framing the various problems and challenges of everyday life in the context of growing crops or a hunt, priests believe that it becomes much easier to find the right answers and solution. In that regard, the cults of the various gods are very much like different schools of philosophical thought. With each philosophy claiming that their view of life and the right way of living is being exemplified by the way in which their respective deity manifests itself in the world. Emulating the gods is the path to happiness and prosperity.

Of course, to many people, simply practicing sensible customs or getting well meaning advice from priests on how to reflect on their own troubles and behavior is not the kind of divine aid that they are looking for. What they desire are more personal gods who will listen to their pleas and grant them concrete blessing and rewards for their worship. And there are many powerful beings that are open to such relationships with mortals, though priests would say that these are not true deities. This space is the realm of spirit and demon cults. Cults are very common everywhere where people live. Usually these take the form of small shrines to a spirit of a local river, mountain, or ancient tree where people will leave offerings or make small sacrifices to ask for good growing conditions for their crops or protection from predators from the surrounding woods. These gestures of gratitude to local nature spirits typically are practiced side by side with the rituals and ceremonies happening at the main temple of a town or village and might even be officiated by the temple priests on certain holy days.

Much more unusual are cults that take the form of secret societies that practice their own rights completely separate from the temples in private and often hidden sanctuaries. These cults are typically led by a single high priest who is in regular direct contact with the spirit or demon that the cult worships. They bring tribute and sacrifices to their god on the promise of concrete rewards, often wealth and power, and that the god will use its great magic power to help the cult with its earthly goals. Many of these cults have had long relationships with benevolent local spirits that have been of great benefit to their villages. But othersĀ  have pledged themselves to the service to far more dangerous and insidious beings to further their own selfish malicious plans, often blind to the fact that they are aiding a being much more ruthless than themselves.

The Dawn of Time

In the Primordial Age, there was only darkness and water. A lightless ocean under an endless black sky. The Primordials roamed these dark waters, preying upon each other and growing ever more powerful and stronger. But there were not yet any cycles, and time itself was meaningless. Only an eternity in complete darkness.

Change first apeared in the world with the arrival of the demons. Their search for power had brought the primordials into contact with other realms and their denizens, and conflict soon followed. In their rage, the demons unleashed fire on the primordials, and with the flames came the first light to lighten up the darkness. Eventually the demons were beaten back, or returned to their own realms on their own. But the primordials had suffered greatly themselves.

While the demons had left, the fires that had seared the primordials had not fully died down yet. The Moon Temis discovered a glowing coal and fanned it back into a roaring great fire that became the Sun, to create a permanent light to push back the darkness. The remaining primordials fled from the light that had hurt them, to hide in the darkest depths of the sea and lowest reaches beneath the earth.

Other sparks that floated in the vast open sky became the stars. And in their dim glow, the Twilight godddes Azuleira came to be. But the sun of Temis shone brightest, and other celestial bodies saw its light and gathered around it for warmth as well.

Fire is Magic

In an earlier version of Kaendor, I was experimenting with an idea that fire is a demonic energy that rises up from the Underworld, and that all undead are monsters of fire and ash. It was one of those ideas that seemed really cool at the time, but couldn’t really get a firm foothold in my own mental image of the world. I was originally inspired by Dark Souls III, where supernatural fire and ash are at the center of the story and the whole cosmology. When I resumed playing Elden Ring this weekend and I was reminded again of the Frenzied Flame by an NPC dialog, I immediately knew I had to pick that tread up rekindle that flame again.

Fire is of course dangerous with the potential to destroy and hurt. But it is also incredible useful and key to all human tools beyond sharp rock, pointy stick, and rope. Fire has rightfully been recognized by ancient myths as the basis of technology and civilization, despite its power to destroy everything people have and take their lives in the most gruesome way possible.

In the mythology of Kaendor, fire was brought to a world of darkness and water in the Era of the Primordials, when they angered the demons whose flames turned the world to ashes. After their rage has subsided and the demons left the world, one last glowing coal was found by the Moon, who breathed its fire back to life and created the Sun, to cast away the darkness of the Void. The other planets saw the new light that she had created and made the surviving primordials flee into the darkest depths of the sea. And they also gathered around the Sun to find protection in its light and warmth. The role of fire in the mythology of Kaendor is an ambiguous one. It was brought to the world by demons as a force of destruction, but it also is a necessity for all mortal life that followed. Unlike the Moon, the Sun is not a god. It simply is a vast fire that casts back the darkness and creates the space in which the natural world can exist.

Magic is a force that has the reality to alter the world in ways that go around the laws of nature. It can do and create things that are not naturally possible. But the natural laws are far too complex for any mortal mind to fully comprehend. And time magic is unleashed upon the world, its full effects are unpredictable. Even when the effects appear clear and not causing any immediate harm, magic can still cause countless of very minor and completely invisible changes to anything it touches. Ever so slightly, it can disrupt the internal complexities of any living things. And even if no effect is immediately noticeable, repeated and continuous exposure to magic will gnaw and tear at what makes a living thing function until it becomes sickly and twisted by magic’s corruption. The common spells taught by priests and shamans to their apprentices have been refined for many generations and are the product of centuries of careful work to reduce any unintentional side effects and make them safe and predictable. As such, they are an incredibly powerful tool to do good and make civilization possible. But many sorcerers, ambitious and always searching for greater power, experiment with new spells of their own creation and are reckless in their use without restrained or caution. They often allow magic to spread unnoticed beyond the intended effects of the spell, causing the spread of corruption.

In the world of demons, magic flows freely everywhere. It is part of the nature of the demonic realm. And as such, demons have no restrained in using magical powers and are unaffected by corruption.

Fire and Magic mirror each other in many ways. They have the power to transform and create miraculous things but also the ability to cause terrible devastation. They are very safe to use when used with caution and restrained, but will quickly escape control when wielded recklessly. And then they will continue to spread, consuming those who thought to control them and everything around them. They destroy life, ultimately leaving behind nothing but ash.

What really is the difference between fire and magic? Perhaps, fire is simply one of the most basic manifestations of magic? One that can be used by anyone?

End of Empire

The idea of a great past Golden Age that had far more advanced magic and perhaps even technology is quite common in fantasy, but one that has never really worked for me. It explains how the heroes find all those amazing magic items deep in ancient ruins, but current archeological understanding casts serious doubt that any such cultural apocalypse has ever really happened in history, and usually the idea pops up in the context of nostalgia for a past that never was, in which the person in question would have been one of the few people who supposedly benefited from the injustices and inequalities. And in recent decades, a consensus has been emerging that empires in general are a horrible thing that are to blame for most of the greatest evils in history. Not really something to celebrate romantically in fiction.

Kaendor is a world of vast open spaces and barely explored wilderness, with society consisting largely of various city states and tribal confederacies. There aren’t really any major kingdoms comparable to nation states and certainly no great dominant empire. However, the concept of empire and conquest is not unknown to the people of Kaendor. But it is one that is widely feared and despised and inherently associated with sorcery and demons.

The coastal lands of Kaendor have seen a number of empires in the past, and all of them are seen as dark periods in the myths and stories of their current inhabitants. The first mythological empire is that of the Tower Builders, who destroyed the civilizations of the Rock Carver and the Tree Weavers with their sorcery and the help of demons. The Tower Builders ruled the coastal lands for many hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, keeping the early clans of the mortal peoples hidden deep in the forests and mountains, until they came into contact and conflict with the Naga empire of the southern jungles. The Naga eventually emerged victorious, commanding terrible sorcery of their own, and destroyed the civilization of the Tower Builders. But they had suffered greatly in the centuries of war as well, and when mortal shamans rediscovered the secrets of sorcery from the ruins of the Tower Builders, they conquered the coastal lands for themselves. Inevitably, these mortal sorcerers desired to create an empire of their own in the lands that they had conquered. But unable to agree which one of them should rule over the others as emperor, they soon turned on each other, continuing the endless wars and unleashing more demons and corruption upon the world.

It was only when priests of the moon goddess Temis led an uprising against the Old Sorcerers that spread throughout the coastal lands that the demonic influence was finally banished from Kaendor. With the Old Sorcerers gone, numerous small kingdoms formed around the remaining cities, each of them weary of becoming the next target for a new conqueror who was dreaming again of an empire. This common fear has brought rivals and enemies together many times to join forces and shatter the forces of any new potential new conqueror showing ambition that went beyond securing a few towns and river crossings along the borders of their realm.

The mortal people of Kaendor have seen enough of Empires in the past and it is seen as a great evil that should never be allowed to return back to the world.

The Cerulean Order

After the great wars of the Old Sorcerers had left the victorious armies badly shattered, and the surviving sorcerer kings ravaged in body and mind by the corruption of the demonic powers they had unleashed on their enemies, a great revolt led by the priests of the moon goddess Temis spread over the coastal cities of Kaendor to overthrow the evil tyrants and banish their demonic servants for good. After thousands of years of despotic rule by the Tower Builders, the Naga, and the Old Sorcerers, the mortal peoples were finally freed of the corrupting influence of demons. The ancient cults of the gods reemerged from hiding, and numerous new kingdoms were established under the rule of wise priest kings.

Though the tyranny of the Old Sorcerers and their demonic servants had been broken, sorcery had never been fully banished from the world, with many sorcerers fleeing to hidden lairs deep in the wilderness, and scattered secret cults pledging themselves to demons for personal wealth and power. And among the priests of Temis, many realized that they would have to dedicate their lives to eternal vigilance to prevent the return of demons taking a hold over the people. The Cerulean Order traces back its lineage to the old priests who led the people in revolt against the sorcerer kings,and all its members of the order are ordained priests of the moon goddess. However, the order exists separate from the hierarchies of any of the temples and is not under the authority of any high priest. Priests of the Cerulean Order follow the same traditions and use the same symbols shared by all the temples of the moon goddess, and most people are not aware of any difference between them and traveling priests from other temples. However, their robes typically include very little white and instead are made almost entirely from shades of dark or medium blue, and they are most clearly identified by blue tattoos covering their hands and wrists.

The Cerulean Order sees itself as a group of scholars first, and priests second. Their sanctuaries are usually closed to visitors and they rarely perform any public rites and ceremonies, though as ordained priests of Temis they have the power to do so. As the old priests who led the revolts against the sorcerers, the order sees its role as that of guides and advisors, and inquisitors who seek to uncover the influence of demonic magic wherever it is hiding, rather than as warriors who purge demonic cults and slay corrupted sorcerers themselves. By the very nature of the order, its members are always suspicious of possible demonic influence and looking for signs of corruption wherever they are traveling, and have somewhat of a justified reputation as being prying and a nuisance. However, the deep respect given to all priests of the moon goddess gives them a certain leeway not typically granted to visitors at courts or other outsiders. When direct warnings or appeals from members of the Cerulean Order go unanswered by a king or lord, they typically bring their concerns to the local priest or high priest. Such situations often put the priests into awkward positions that don’t help with the orders complicated reputation among the priesthood. But when a member of the order calls upon the name of the goddess to assert their certainty of a demonic or sorcerous threat and that they are not acting on mere suspicion alone, their warnings or accusations are typically taken extremely serious and the leaders of the local temple will use all their reputation and their entire influence with the local lords to see the threat purged.

In Dragonbane: Priests of the Cerulean Order are typically trained in both Animism and Mentalism and at least know the spell Banish or even Purge. Farsight, Divination, and Scrying are also commonly used spells, as well as Dispel, Protector, and Magic Shield. Their priority is to destroy demons and undead and protect those who are fighting sorcerers and demons from their magic.

Why is it interesting?

Campaign preparation with ADHD can be challenging. Especially when circumstances keep delaying the start of the campaign and you have plenty of time in which you can’t keep your creativity occupied by building and expanding upon what’s happening in the current adventure. Instead, thinking of alternative ideas that you could use becomes a very inviting creative outlet.

When I started working on my “current campaign” (whatever that might actually mean at this point?), I wanted to make it a Classic Dungeon Crawl West Marches sandbox running Old-School Essentials, because that’s a very simple campaign structure to apply. The PCs go to places holding old treasures, overcome the obstacles in the way, carry out the treasures, and gain XP to become more powerful and able to go into more dangerous and fantastical places to search for even greater treasures. It’s very much a game structure. The mechanics of the game provide the incentive for the players that makes engaging with the obstacles attractive. But three months ago, Dragonbane was released and it turned out to be just the kind of game that I had wish existed before I settled on starting an OSE sandbox campaign. And with not being able to get a campaign launched for still two more months at least, exploring how a potential Dragonbane campaign in Kaendor could be set up is just something that I literally have to do.

Among the many differences between Dragonbane and OSE is that Dragonbane does not have the mechanical incentives that OSE does. Characters advance their skills by using them and may gain an additional Heroic Ability whenever the party has completed a significant goal. This does not in any kind suggest or incentivize any kind of objectives for the players to pursue. When anything you could do is as good as anything else, then nothing is inviting to engage with. And at the start of a new campaign, especially when playing in a new setting, the players don’t really know anything about the world and what kinds of activities are even feasible or will lead to interesting and fun outcomes. When starting a new campaign, the players need to have some kind of guidance which goals and activities will be the most likely to lead them to the most interesting and exciting parts of the setting. In a Classic Dungeon Crawl, that suggested starting point is to look for old ruins and search them for treasures because of how the game mechanics work. In a Dragonbane campaign, and many other games, you have tell the players how they can set out to find the most interesting things in the world that you have prepared.

This reasoning led me to my first question to pursue to hopefully lead me to an answer on how to reach an overall concept for a campaign: “Why is any of this interesting?”

Why would players want to play a campaign in the Kaendor setting? What are the elements of the world that are the most interesting to engage, explore, and interact with? Now I can’t read the minds of players I’ve not even pitched the campaign to yet, but instead I can ask “What are the elements of the Kaendor setting that I find the most interesting?” As these will of course be the elements that get by far the most attention and details during its ongoing creation. The things that I find the most attractive in my concept for the world are the old ruins of the various ancient civilizations, the different typed of spirits and demons that lurk beyond the borders of civilization, the mysteries and possibilities of sorcery, and the numerous secret societies and cults.

Playing RPGs, and what makes them so fascinating and unique as a medium, is all about interacting with things. Questioning and negotiating with other people. Poking at things to see what they do. Opening doors to see what’s behind them. Investigating what the enemies are doing and interfering with it. So after having identified those most interesting elements, a logical next question to ask is: “How can the players interact with these things?”

All these elements have in common that they are things that the people currently inhabiting the world really don’t know that much about. They are mysterious and either inherently supernatural in nature or strongly influenced by it. So the very first thing to do on encountering them is to find out more about them. What is it that players could learn and would want to know about these things:

  • What is inside this ruin?
  • What was this ruin originally build for?
  • What is this unknown creature?
  • What is this creature doing here?
  • What does this magic item do?
  • Where does this magic item come from?
  • Who is this secret cult?
  • What is this secret cult trying to do?

And looking at this list, a possibly very interesting and compelling campaign concept already suggests itself. This is a world that very much lends itself to provide a lot of interesting material to engage with for characters who are a combination of demon hunters and archeologists. Which really isn’t that different from the typical Classic Dungeon Crawl PCs. They go into ruins to explore, looking for relics of ancient civilizations, and confront the supernatural horrors from the past.

But the incentive structure is rather different. It’s not so much to personally enrich themselves and gain a life of luxury, but because the PCs believe that it is important to learn the secrets hidden in the wilderness and understand the supernatural forces and entities at work in the world. They can be motivated by being worried about possible threats to the mortal peoples, or a deep personal curiosity about the supernatural unknown. Or, if a player wishes so, by the fact that the powerful NPCs who also share these motivations are willing to pay a lot of money to anyone who can bring them such knowledge.

It has always been bothering me a bit that the generic oldschool treasure hunters are only motivated by getting rich, which doesn’t lend itself to interesting social complications. And the typical adventuring heroes who constantly risk their lives to fight evil for strangers out of a sense of compassion or chivalry don’t very much lend themselves to players being proactive and determining goals for themselves. Such characters are kind of compelled to help every possible person in need they encounter, which doesn’t leave them much choices in setting out their own path. But PCs whose guiding motivation is to learn about the unknown and to determine if something might be a possible threat that could cause great damage in the future seems like a nice middle ground between those two extremes. They are characters who you can simply let become aware of a secretive society existing and it’s something that they might want to investigate. You don’t need to have them see the cultist murdering people or stealing a magic artifact to make it clear that they are an evil that needs to be smited immediately.

It’s an interesting approach to what PCs could be and how a campaign could be structures that I am eager to explore further. Any maybe it will be useful to other people to develop a concept and structure for new campaigns by asking “What about this world is the most interesting?” and “How could the players be interacting with it?”