Fantasy Cosmogony 101
Any good fantasy setting needs a sense of religion, be it largely implicit, as in Tolkien's Middle Earth, or a major part of the action, as in Moorcock's Elric tales. With the possible exception of Arthurian Legend and the Gaelic Myth cycles that influenced it, there is no "default" conception of how religion works in a fantasy world. This ambiguity leaves GMs a great deal of latitude in creating settings that are unique in flavor.
cosmogony \Cos*mog"o*ny\ (-n?), n.; pl. Cosmogonies (-n?z). [Gr. kosmogoni`a; ko`smos, the world, + root of gi`gnesthai, to be born: cf. F. cosmogonie.] The creation of the world or universe; a theory or account of such creation; as, the poetical cosmogony of Hesoid; the cosmogonies of Thales, Anaxagoras, and Plato.
Any good fantasy setting needs a sense of religion, be it largely implicit, as in Tolkien's Middle Earth, or a major part of the action, as in Moorcock's Elric tales. With the possible exception of Arthurian Legend and the Gaelic Myth cycles that influenced it, there is no "default" conception of how religion works in a fantasy world. This ambiguity leaves GMs a great deal of latitude in creating settings that are unique in flavor. That freedom can be a great burden. To many GMs, conceiving an original and memorable pantheon of deities may seem like too much work.
Some GMs rely on pre-made fantasy pantheons such as the one found in the d20 D&D Player's Handbook, or the one associated with the popular Forgotten Realms setting. If all you want is a deity to fill a role, such as a healer god for the party cleric to worship, there's nothing wrong with populating your divine planes with one of these pantheons. I don't think they're very conducive to memorable campaigns, however.
As is the case with all NPCs, players tend to remember the characters they feel strongly about. If you want to make religion a distinctive aspect of your setting, you must develop gods that characters will love, hate, and even find inspirational. Your gods should be the best-drawn NPCs of all... they help define your universe and how it works.
The key to getting your players to care about your gods--one way or the other--lies in developing a cosmogony for your fantasy setting. More than a simple description of your gods and their attitudes, a cosmogony is a story, or better yet a collection of stories, that describes the origins of your gods and their relationship to the universe.
Where to Start
No matter who you are, I'm pretty sure you like gaming because you respond to myth and mythical archetypes. The monsters, heroics, and supernatural powers found in gaming possess some degree of mythic resonance. To be memorable and capture the imaginations of your players, your fantasy pantheon must utilize some of that resonance.
While brainstorming about your pantheon, stoke your love of the mythological. Do a few hours' research into your favorite myth cycles. If you don't have a favorite, pick one you don't know much about but find interesting. A good starting point is Encyclopedia Mythica. But don't stop there. If you have the time, become an amateur expert on your favorite mythos. That's not as hard as it sounds; you're not defending a doctoral thesis, you're just looking for a few aspects of mythology your players don't know about.
Myths are not falsehoods!
Every major religion has a wonderful cast of heroes, villains, and mythological creatures. If you are a practitioner of a religion yourself, don't neglect to study your religion's mythical characters and lore. Some people associate the word "myth" with "falsehood"; a few months ago, I inadvertently offended a very nice lady by referring to Judeo-Christian parables as "mythology." Myths are not falsehoods! Mythic tales have persisted because they contain some fundamental truth to which almost any listener will respond on an intuitive level. Sometimes the truth contained in myths is a symbolic truth, but sometimes it is a faithful, if distant, recollection of historical events.
The purpose of research into mythology is to find sources of inspiration. When in doubt, however, take your favorite gods and myths and steal them without apology. If you love a character or a tale so strongly that you become fixated on it, put it in your campaign! You may find that your enthusiasm for it is contagious.
A fantasy pantheon can have any composition you desire, from no gods at all to thousands upon thousands. However, it is my experience that the most memorable mythoi have the following things in common.
A recognizable cast of characters. This is the most important element by far, and it has two requirements: resonant archetypes and a small number of important figures. When fantasy myth structures fail to captivate players' imaginations, they usually fail because they do not fulfill one or both of these requirements.
First of all, your mythological characters must be resonant: your players must recognize them on some level. For this reason, you should stick to archetypes when designing the personalities of gods. It's ok to twist the archetypes a little, especially where the roles of the gods are concerned, but the personality must be recognizable as an archetype. If your gods don't have archetypal personalities, your players are less likely to recognize them... and therefore less likely to care about them. If you're not sure what an archetype is, think about stock characters in stories: the conflicted hero, the wise mentor, the artful seductress, and the wily trickster are all common archetypes.
Secondly, you must restrict the number of major roles in your mythological drama. Trust me: nothing confuses players like a five-page list of gods and their functions. Remember, you're looking to create a mythical story that your players can remember and reference while they play. Even if your world includes many thousands of gods, you should still be able to identify the key actors in the mythology. A manageable number of major gods is a dozen or fewer.
When you've drawn up your first list of gods for your campaign, look it over. Which ones are your favorites? Which ones don't seem very original, or even very necessary? Try to boil down your mythos to the most essential characters. Even if you end up retaining the other, more minor deities, this process will help you immensely in developing your cosmogony.
A brief history of time. Every good mythology needs a creation myth. This story need not be more than a few sentences long to be memorable: in this case, brevity is truly the soul of wit. It doesn't even have to explain everything. All the same, your players need to have some context for the religions of their world. Give them some idea of where mortals think the universe came from, or where they think the gods came from, or both if you can manage it. Also remember to use mythical symbols: light, darkness, and water are all prominent motifs in creation mythology, as are fire and blood.
A source of conflict. A moment's reflection should tell you that all mythologies feature some kind of divine conflict. Christian teachings portray the struggle between the heavenly host and the followers of the rebel angel Lucifer. Norse mythology tells of the final battle between the Aesir and their allies from Asgard against the forces of the Rokkr, or "Jotuns." The Greco-Roman gods fought for dominance against an ancient, mysterious group of gods known to us as Titans, and later squared off against each other in their partisanship of the Trojan War. Whether it is a war, a betrayal, a murder, or a lie, there must be some kind of strife in the history of your gods. Certain gods should be opposed to others, and the two sides should be easily recognizable and clearly defined.
Myths aren't just stories.
A divine family tree. This need not be a literal family tree, even though it is in many pantheons. It's helpful to your players if they can remember who is the spouse of whom, who is whose progeny, and so on. If you don't use a family tree, you at least need to develop a hierarchy that explains the power relationships between the various divine entities.
Reasons for the way things are. Myths aren't just stories. They attempt to explain, whether symbolically or literally, why the world is the way it is. If your fantasy mythology is too full of details such as "And the god Slarkibor slew the god Ningadek, and then he slew the giants of Fuminor, and then the blasphemers of Kodred," your players probably won't be able to retain these details (and they might laugh at your inability to come up with good names!). If, however, you tell them that Slarkibor slew Ningadek and used his spine to create the Ningadene Mountains over which they are now traveling, they're much more likely to remember Slarkibor and his deeds: they can see how the god's actions influenced their world.
Systemic consistency with your theme. A real weakness of the high fantasy gaming genre as popularized by D&D is that it integrates a bewildering mish-mash of mythic sources, some of which are quite jarring when included side-by-side in the same cosmos. Identify the theme of your mythos, and strip down whichever game-system you're using to match that theme. Be ruthless. If your players can see how the world they live in is defined by the nature of the gods, they will identify more strongly with both the world-setting and the gods themselves. Echo the theme of your mythology through the choice of available character races, skills, and classes; the spell list; the bestiary; and the equipment list. If, for example, you were aiming for a classic Greco-Roman mythological setting using D&D rules, you might prohibit players from selecting the bard and monk classes as well as all the standard non-human races (gasp! NO ELVES?!?); you would remove all spells that felt too "medieval" to you; you would use only classical beasts such as the centaur, the medusa, and the chimera from the Monster Manuals and Fiend Folio; and you would restrict the level of armor and weapons technology to that of the Bronze Age or the early Iron Age. The more I mature as a GM, the more I feel that less truly is more. Don't despair of all those cool monsters, spells, and classes you decide not to use; there are always other campaigns, and keeping your theme distinct from "generic" fantasy is likely to pay considerable dividends.
The Nature of the Divine
What separates mortals from deities? Are mortals the way they are because the deities made them that way, or have the deities' natures been skewed by mortal worship? The answers to these questions will profoundly impact players' perceptions of your campaign setting.
It seems typical for a fantasy setting to give little thought to the origins of the gods, and to tack on additional gods and pantheons piecemeal as necessary. For example, I can't think of the god of the Lizardmen in the generic D&D setting, if there even is one. If a need for such an entity arose, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that one could be added with little trouble.
This mode of thinking troubles me. In our world, the existence of the divine is open to question: whether or not you believe in divinity is often a matter of personal choice. But in a fantasy world, the actions of gods could affect the world directly, and demonstrations of their power--through the vehicle of priestly magic--would seem to be commonplace. Denying the existence of the gods would be madness. So why didn't we know about this Lizardman god all along?
While D&D writers seem to have been content thus far to assign non-human sentients their own pantheons, I think some interesting possibilities are being missed. Are these gods of the Orcs really different gods, or are they only the different names the Orcs give to the same gods? It's possible that divine entities are the same everywhere, but that their manner of worship varies strongly from culture to culture.
Alternate Perceptions Of The Religious Theme
I have recently begun to experiment with the idea that the differences in fantasy religions within a fantasy setting are cultural differences rather than reflections of a disparate reality between fantasy gods. I used familiar philosophical approaches to distinguish the ways that different observers could report the same phenomena.
in our world, the existence of the divine is open to question
Monotheism: The monotheists acknowledge the existence of all the gods, but argue that only one of them is actually a God (or Goddess). Monotheists see the other "gods" as powerful celestials, infernals, or other outsiders.
Polytheism: The polytheists worship all the gods, regardless of any disparity between the alignment of the deity and the worshipper. To a polytheist, the gods are the gods; you might have a favorite or "patron" among them, but you worship them all. Even if the God of Magic is good, for example, evil mages still pay him homage and attempt to curry his favor. This mode of religion may be unfamiliar to the mentality of modern players, but can be very enjoyable to those who manage to get the hang of it.
Atheism: The atheists agree that the gods exist, but argue that the gods are not really gods. Atheists claim that any being of sufficient power can pose as a god, for how would an ordinary creature be able to disprove its claims? In a world where magic can prolong life almost indefinitely, bring people back from the dead, and so forth, the atheists have a strong case. If you want to bolster their claims, have the player characters encounter an atheist cleric who casts "divine" spells through the force of will in an attempt to demonstrate that anyone can cast divine magic (in D&D terms, you can rationalize this as a WISDOM-based form of sorcery).
"Metatheism": The metatheists believe that the gods exist independently of, and beyond, the material universe. An interesting variation on this theme is that the gods manifest in different forms in different universes.
These varying modes of perception allowed my campaign setting to have rich cultural differences between nations and races, all the while preserving the notion that everyone essentially worships the same entities in different ways.
Recommended Reading: Where To Steal
- Leiber, Fritz. The Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stories. These tales have a wonderful pantheon of diverse, original, and memorable deities.
- Moorcock, Michael. Moorcock's epic stories of the struggle between the gods of Law and Chaos had a huge impact on the creators of D&D, and they provide an instructive look at how a mythos can contain countless deities, identifying only a few by name, and still tantalize the imagination. The Elric stories are my favorites, but the theme runs throughout Moorcock's work.
- Kay, Guy Gavriel. A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of al-Rassan, and The Sarantine Mosaic. Kay has a talent for taking real mythic systems and reinvigorating them with a bit of fantastic flavor.
- The Bible, the Apocrypha, and the myths of Islam. Judeo-Christian-Islamic myth is an oft-overlooked source of inspiration, but contains numerous interesting tales and a host of supernatural entities. Pick a favorite character and see where your research takes you: you might be very, very surprised where you end up!
- Price, Robert M., and Tierney, Lawrence. "The Throne of Achamoth." This superb little short-story mingles Zoroastrian/Gnostic mythology with the cosmic horror of the Cthulhu mythos. A highly entertaining primer on how to construct an entire cosmology in only a few pages.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A bit dense, but a must-read for any serious cosmogonist.
- Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Goddesses in Everywoman and Gods in Everyman. Though I would dispute these books' utility as psychological treatises, they provide an entertaining examination of the Classical Greek archetypes and how they relate to modern personalities. A great source of inspiration for those desiring to create resonant, memorable deities.
- Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman. Neil Gaiman may know more about mythology than any other living person - almost certainly more than any other living comic-book writer. These comics masterfully weave all myths from all lands into one memorable cosmology. Go on, read them: once you're done, I'll bet you couldn't forget the Seven Endless if you tried.
- Hesiod. Theogony. As far as primary myth sources go, this is one of the better reads. Cosmogony 101 in a nutshell.
I don't recommend researching the existing D&D mythoi or becoming an expert on Tolkien. These myth-systems seem tired and thin to some readers, and there's a good reason for that: they borrow heavily from other myths! Go to the source, and craft your own visions of the cosmos. If you must delve into Tolkien's Middle-Earth lore, check out Tolkien's Ring by David Day, an examination of the source myths that inspired our beloved master of fantasy world-building.
The key to building a myth-system your players will enjoy is to keep your work comprehensible. Weave creation stories, focus on your theme and the most interesting gods in your pantheon, and never forget that your deities are a living part of your world. If you put thought into how your gods relate to your setting, rather than tacking a few more divine residences onto the Outer Planes, your players are likely to notice your effort. With a little research and some genuine care, you can create a mythology that your players will still be remembering fondly for years to come.