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 others  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.

In what god’s name?!

I’ve been running and playing fantasy RPGs for over 20 years, and I am pretty certain that not once have I seen any specific god being relevant at any point. I’ve had some clerics that had slightly customized their spell selection and armaments to reflect a certain theme, but faith and beliefs have never appeared in any game in any form.

There’s a couple of deities from various fantasy settings that I find really quite neat and want to blatantly rip off in the Shattered Empire, but how do you make them relevant? Here I once again find my original mission statement extremely useful: “Create content that dirrectly supports classic dungeon crawling adventures.” The question here should not be how I can make the gods so that they will be interesting to the players and make them want to make them part of their characters. The question should be what function gods can serve in the exploration of a dungeon? I want to step away from making stuff that is just interesting, and instead create content that is functional. Now one of tbe aspects I had already determined earlier is that I want to keep the goods ambiguous and distant, so that people in the world can wonder how much difference worshiping the gods and performing the rituals actually makes, if any. That doesn’t have to be set in stone and can still be changed if something better comes along, but I want to see where I can go with that.

Gods in the Dungeon

The main mode of play in classic dungeon crawling is being in the dungeon, or on the path to the dungeon, and exploring the environment ahead. Can we include the gods in this? And as it turns out, yes we can. The gods worshipped by the people now are largely the same as the ones worshiped in the Shattered Empire. The empire was ruled by sorcerers, and sorcerers are regarded as something contradicting with worshiping gods, but the empire didn’t last that long and the people had been worshiping their gods long before that. When they build all their great strongholds and secret vaults and crypts during the wars of the successors, the people would have included the gods in the decorations and protections of the new constructions. The walls and doors of dungeons can be covered in religious iconography and symbols, and these dpictions can actually contribute greatly to provide insights into the places the players are exploring. With perhaps a dozen or so common gods, players can essily learn and remember their names, symbols, andprimary aspects, if they become relevant during play with sufficient frequency. Identifying the symbols of a specific god can help understanding the original purpose of an area and the potential dangers that could be encountered inside. Possibly even provide hints on how to deal with any obstacles that might be discovered. It’s not necessary to give the players homework to learn and recite all the gods of a new setting. Simply allowing the players to ask a priest or sage the next time they are in town, and getting some useful hints in return will already be contributing to make the gods feel like an actual part of the world.

Gods outside the Dungeon

But even once we’re outside of dungeons, we still can look for ways in which gods can become relevant for the players in play. Between adventures, parties will regularly return to towns to restock on supplies, get their hands on new tools they discovered they need, and to try fixing permanent problems that resulted from events in the dungeons. Typically, the main place to see for the later is a local temple where a friendly priest can treat all the forms of long-lasting damage that characters can suffer. Typically, you’re adventure town has one temple that can deal with all issues up to a certain spell level based on the level of the temple’s cleric. But what generally makes no difference is the god of the temple. All clerics can cast the same basic spells, so temples of forging, agriculture, and smithing can all provide the same services  as long as their clerics are of the same level.

But what if not? As I mentioned earlier, my plan is to not have clerics as a character class and not have the priests in temples be actual spellcasters. But the world does have sacred shrines where certain supernatural events happen that are attributed to the direct interventions of the gods. For example, it’s not the priest tending to a healing spring that can cure wounds, but the spring itself. The Companion Set introduced relics for elves, dwarves, and halflings, to give these peoples without cleric access to some cleric spells in their towns. That’s a brilliant idea and would even work just as well to remove clerics completely from the setting. But the relics as presented all produce the same  asic effects. Cure serious woundscure blindness, cure disease, identify magic items, and turn undead. What if instead we reduce the powers of each sanctuary to only two or three spells, which are all specific to one deity? This means tnat you can’t just go to the next temple and get what you need, regardless of whose god temple it is. Instead, for specific services, players first need to identify which god’s help they require, and then go searching for a site sacred to that god where miracles are made to happen. This can easily turn into small side adventures to have certain curses lifted, or to acquire special weapons to deal with a specific threat. This should give the gods a much bigger role in the minds of players, compared to grabbing a few health potion from the temple between restocking their rations at the market and selling 10 rusts daggers at the blacksmiths’s.

How well will this work in practice? I don’t know. But I am sure featuring divine symbols as useful clues in dungeons and making the services in temples specific to the gods will make them much more meaningful than in a typical D&D campaign.