How to Use Meddling Gods to Make Life Very Interesting for Your Players
Posted by: Jendor -- August 26, 2015
By: Johnn Four
To celebrate the upcoming release of the Mythic Gods & Monsters Guide, I wrote the following tips about interesting ways to use deities in your games.
I'm kind of an hourglass world builder. I first create the frame, then I did into the small details where the campaign and first adventure will take place. I leave the middle part out. The kingdoms, long histories, non-campaign regions, geography, weather, sea trade, races and other work I do later in the process. So, it's top-down to the middle, then bottom-up to the middle, then fleshing out the middle.
Why do I do it this way?
My framework always starts with the gods because they influence my fantasy games so much. Gods should be active agents in games. Meddlers in conflict with one another. And possibly in conflict with cosmological evils. This instantly gives me adventure hooks, villain ideas, and campaign possibilities. The gods don't just sit back and watch their favourite show on World TV. Instead, they play chess, sacrificing pawns to capture rooks, knights, queens, and kings. And as always,the PCs are affected.
So that's why I worked with Roleplaying Tips columnist John Large to create the Mythic Gods & Monsters Guide. I wanted a quick and easy way to create meddling gods with distinct personalities, and to bring those gods down to the adventure level. For that, we needed a God Generator, Pantheon Generator, and Religion Generator, which the guide contains.
I also wanted the fingerprints of the gods at the encounter level. Without having to always use the route of divine intervention - encounters with gods should be epic, climactic, and rare - I wanted divine meddling to make life interesting for the PCs. So we create the Mythic Monster Generator that spawns creatures touched by the gods to roleplay and fight the PCs. Monsters of myths and legends to hook an adventure or five room dungeon around. Monsters with a backstory and ties all the way back to the heavens where the chess game plays out with deadly consequences.
The problem is, once you've got some awesome gods and pantheons created, what do you do with them? It's boring just having deities in your notes playing chess. You want them involved in the affairs of mortals! Through monsters and other means.
So today's tips are about how to get more gameplay out of the fantastic gods you'll create using the Mythic Gods & Monsters Guide.
1. Stir The Pot
In my current Phandelver campaign, the PCs almost became murdering bandits who preyed on the innocent. A short player discussion set some game boundaries and the group decided to play neutral, not evil. The PCs still robbed an innocent farmer and his family, but they did not kill anyone and they returned some of the stolen gold in the form of equipment looted from goblins.
In sessions past, just days ago to the player characters, the party was all about the god Torm. A paladin worshipped the god and was active recruiting in his name. Another PC was about to convert to the god. NPCs in the village of Phandalin were being swayed to add Torm to their friend list.
Torm is a good god, and he took notice of the good work the party was doing in his name. But then with the paladin dead and the party heading down a dark path, he's noticed that as well. And he's decided to adopt the party and make them accountable.
I will have him act indirectly, though agents => NPCs. This gives me a way to stir things up and make the PCs' lives interesting, sometimes with terrible timing.
You can use this tack too and make life interesting for your PCs.
First, add divine interactions to your adventures and encounters.
Second, let the PCs do their thing. You and I both know how that's going to turn out. :)
Third, have the god react, but in subtle ways or through NPC agents. Use the god's domain or personality to flavour the response so you get a great theme going.
For example, turn one of your ruined locations into an old church. Add some holy items in there. Stuff important to the god and his followers, but not necessarily worth a lot as treasure. Then monitor what the PCs do. If they desecrate the place, that gives you a green light to intervene. If they fail to abide by the god's rules, say offering a small sacrifice as thanks if you stay in the church overnight, that gives you a green light to intervene. If the PCs loot the place but then fail to return the holy items to followers or if the party lets the holy items get damaged, then yup, it's time to stir the pot.
NPC followers are another good approach. How do the PCs treat clerics, pilgrims, and agents of a god?
Divine items are a third way to get gods involved in an in-game, "PCs dig their own holes" kind of way. Have that new magic item the cleric loves so much be created for another god. Unless proper rites and thanks are given, that god is going to get upset.
Once you've got the opportunity and trigger figured out, next decide the reaction. How will you stir the plot? Here are a few ideas:
Last, think up a couple ways for the PCs to make amends. These make great quests, side-plots, and stories. You can also offer the party opportunities to consult diviners, fortune tellers, and NPCs who will tell them why they've been cursed. Or you could have the PCs learn this through dreams. Then let the party come up with their own ideas for penance and you make their choice work out if the group is successful.
My PCs have offended Torm. There will be consequences. And this will make good gaming.
My last campaign, Riddleport, revolved around a divine plot arc. A dead god created a vacancy in the pantheon. Powerful demon lords, devil princes, monstrous champions, and other villains competed for Ascendance along with a few forces of good. An artifact hidden in Riddleport was the key. Learning the operation of that artifact was the main plot arc, in a backdrop of intense rivalry and competition amongst several factions.
Each faction had a divine patron. Because the gods wanted allies amongst their peers. If they could influence what mortal Ascended, and make sure the mortal was loyal to them, they'd gain advantage in the pantheon.
So really, the whole campaign was a divine mega-plot, with holy and unholy involvement at all levels (literally from 1st level onward, and figuratively from the streets to the heavens).
I like this top-down approach to campaign planning. It makes things simple to figure out and flesh out.
If you start with the most powerful agencies in your world and what they want, you can quickly spot the major conflicts and see what's at stake. Then you do this fractally at each lower power level until you reach party's level.
Throw in other agencies to take on the role of change agents and foils, and you've got a ton of material and inspiration to work with for each adventure and session.
Riddleport was the first time I recall making a divine mega-plot explicit. In the past I've created these plots but made them invisible to the PCs. You can take this approach too, as it gives you a lot of flexibility. The gods fight behind the scenes and manipulate mortals, which results in adventures for the party.
For example, the forces of an evil god might make a massive lair as a base of operations. 100 years later it is done and evil begins to taint the land. Are there any heroes who can stop this evil and save the world? The adventures are all about the PCs learning the source of the evil and figuring out the keystones and linchpins they need to take out to cause the collapse of the huge evil lair. And the god angle is there, working in the background.
This approach also gives you many strong yet subtle puppet strings to manage the campaign with. Enemies get funding, allies, and magic boons from mysterious patrons, for example. Meantime, you have the backstory figured out to keep things consistent. The curtain is there and you know what's behind it, in case the PCs ever want to find it and sweep it open. This gives you a lot of confidence while GMing.
You can also use divine mega-plots for world-building. What better and easier way to theme a world or region than to make it the battleground of the gods, whether it's armies making overt war or agents running an invisible one.
Yes, mega-plots are definitely a cool way to use gods in your game.
In my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign last decade, as a house rule, cleric PCs dealt directly with their gods when praying for higher level spells. These became intense roleplaying scenes and a source of plot intrigue.
I set it up so praying for 1st to 3rd level spells meant you dealt with an aerial servant who was the assigned PC's "handler." The servant was a full NPC complete with personality, own goals, and own way of doing things.
I played one as a rude, selfish jerk reluctant to grant spells. You could have a helpful one who passes along clues or shares information, one that lacks confidence and needs the party's help, or even one who's a spy for an enemy god.
During play, most mornings the cleric would get his spells without incident and we gamed on.
But sometimes, morning prayers resulted in personal interaction with the aerial servant. He would ply the priest for news and information about what was happening in the village of Homlett. He was especially interested in sightings and interactions the party had with other clerics, demons, and devils. And other times he would demand small payments or services from the cleric. "Go to this place and tell me what you find" or "Give me that book you found in the library."
A caveat with this set up is the aerial servant has all the power here, because he approves the cleric's spell requests. This puts the player in a weaker position and at a disadvantage, so wield this situation with care. First make sure your player is ok roleplaying a subordinate. In my case, I knew my player could handle a bullying boss, and after a couple of tentative roleplays with the aerial servant I then dove into the role full steam, but first not without trying the waters.
I also gave boons to compensate for the pain-in-the-ass factor. The aerial servant would often appear the day of a big upcoming battle or dangerous journey. He'd grant bonus spells, maximized spells, and buffs. As I knew what was coming up, I'd often give benefits tailored to the challenge.
The servant also passed along information on a need-to-know basis. This sometimes helped the players end party debates faster, and gave the group useful tid bits to encourage them to explore certain people or places. I also used the servant's gossip and information to help guide the party back on desired tracks. It was always up to the PCs whether to act on the information or not, but as I was running a published module I sometimes needed help keeping the PCs within the front and back covers. The aerial servant was a perfect vehicle and in-game voice to manage this.
Once clerics needed 4th level spells and above, they dealt with their god directly. Again, the god got a full NPC treatment with motives, personality, and flavour. I described how a divine link would be created during morning prayers and the god would fill the PC's eyes and ears. In truth, it was an avatar or shard of the god, but the character did not know and that was a secret I did not get to unveil before the campaign ended. The reason this was important was the shard was not immortal, and I had plot plans for him.
The god shard would interrogate the cleric, pumping him for intelligence on Temple operations and what the various villains were up to. He'd create urgency for the party to continue fighting the Temple and kill or imprison the high priests who ran it.
When the party learned of other direct divine involvement via factions within the Temple, the PC's god became enraged and we entered a phase of the campaign where the party was privy to divine politics, grudges, and backstories, which everyone seemed to enjoy a lot.
I roleplayed the god as a selfish jerk, but that was just to break stereotype. You can create any personality for your god, and roleplay him as you see fit. The key to this tip is to have the god and their agents involved in the campaign and influencing events via their mortal servants and pawns to create intrigue in your game. Morning prayers made this easy and immersive. And granting spells gave me enough GM leverage to make it into a fun game for players and PCs.
4. Plane Tourism
I've always loved Planescape. It's my favourite setting. The books are beautiful, and the ideas within their pages always lights my imagination on fire.
However, I still prefer a low-fantasy type setting for the PCs to tromp around in. I like having the planes and multiverse there in the background, offering strange creatures, dark secrets, and grim plot hooks.
When the PCs summon an elemental, I like to know it's coming from a wondrous place. When the group confronts a demon, I like to run him as an agent of evil patrons. And when the party stumbles onto the weird and unexpected, I enjoy having the planes there as a story source to draw upon.
But I've never been a fan of a whole campaign spent plane hopping. For one thing, it's a lot of work unless I restrict the PCs' movements. For another, I like depth of a consistent milieu, with recurring NPCs, locations, and items.
Gods, however, give me the best of both worlds. They create a bridge that lets me have my Greyhawk or homebrew gritty fantasy world while letting the PCs occasionally venture into the planes for some crazy adventures before returning home.
In my cosmologies, gods can touch all the planes. And each has their own plane or part of a plane they draw power from and use as a home base. In past campaigns, PCs have visited their god's divine realm, usually by invitation. I whisk the party away for a grand feast or awe-inspiring meeting with a god or, more likely, his agents.
The PCs explore the area and get into mischief or uncover a plot to foil and earn the god's favour.
To bring the PCs to a god's realm for roleplaying an adventure, I've used all of these methods:
When bringing the PCs to a god's plane, I'll have other mortals there to for the party to interact with. It gets taxing being mere ants amongst powerful beings. If you bring your PCs to a god's feet, consider adding NPCs to the scene for the same reason.
Also, have at least a few encounters or encounter ideas in your back pocket. If the party wants to explore this amazing setting, or if you want to do more than roleplay a brief meeting between diety and party, then you've got material ready to GM.
I like to reveal some weakness, too. It gets tiring for players to face immortal, omniscient, invincible NPCs. This is another reason to sprinkle the adventure or scene with mortal NPCs. In addition, though, a sign of weakness adds plot to your campaign. You might not run this right away, but it's something now in your back pocket to unfurl when you want. And the players will enjoy the moment when they learn either the god could be in jeopardy or the all-powerful have secrets too.
Have PCs visit divine realms from time to time, allowing you to insert the planes seamlessly into your campaign.
5. Divine Intervention
Remember in AD&D there was a chance of summoning a god and getting divine intervention?
We used this a lot. Whenever a PC was in dire jeopardy, we'd get out Deities & Demigods, calculate the percent chance of summoning a god, and then the player would roll.
Even with a 1% or 2% chance, players managed to summon gods on several occasions.
I also added a chance on the opposite end of the scale, 99 or 00, for something different and bad to happen, like a demon to appear instead.
You should consider adding this option to your campaigns, because you can do a lot of cool things with it.
First, if a god does appear, know he is not beholden to the PCs (at least, under my house rules). He's not under their control or even influence. So, I always turn it into a negotiation, with a quest or service the price of the wish. Often, this resulted in saving a PC's life in exchange for triggering a whole new adventure. As GM, I'll take that trade any day.
Second, you can add a delay. This buys you time to think and plot. It also prevents the PCs from attempting to summon every time they get into trouble, because they know it's usually not an instant summons thing.
Third, I charge a price to just begin talking with the god. Either in the form of a ritual for the summons that drains party treasure, or a demand from the god when he does appear to make it worth his time immediately or he'll disappear. No god likes being interrupted, so most have some simmering anger that needs appeasing.
Fourth, a god does not have to be the one summoned. An avatar, aerial servant, or agent could be the one brought to the PCs. Such is the way of a bureaucracy. You decide, and play it from there.
Fifth, allow just about any god to be summoned. The PCs choose, plan the anticipated payment, and roll. If the god does appear, he'll want to take advantage of the situation. Often, this might be an additional requirement that the party starts following the god. Now they've got multiple bosses to answer to, and that always makes for interesting gameplay.
My answer to how gods let themselves be summoned is it's the nature of the universe. It's woven into the fabric of reality that deities must have an open door policy.
Also, if you like the idea of divine intervention being a treasure siphon, an adventure hook generator, and a character dilemma machine, but if you think actual gods appearing is too coarse for your setting, you can always arrange subtler manifestations.
For example, in a Forgotten Realms campaign years ago, we did divine intervention only through dreams. Or you could have Plane Tourism in effect, which gives you license to play with timeline and all sorts of things as the PCs are physically taken to the god's realm and must wait (and qualify) for an audience.
You could make it a prayer-based system. Instead of direct divine interaction, PCs roll for major prayers to be answered.
I think any opportunity to bring in a plot-inducing force at a PC's request is a cool one to take advantage of. Decide the nature and flavour of how this works to suit your campaign, but consider how you might use it to enhance your games.
Likewise, consider how having gods and pantheons in your games opens up many possibilities in your campaigns. You can play them subtle or not. Have them be sources of roleplay and intrigue, or just be your backstory to make things logical and interesting. You can run gods as awesome NPCs as well as their agents. Or you could make them important influences that add more depth to your world and give PCs a bit more accountability within it.
That's the beauty of gods and pantheons. They are fantastic GMing and storytelling tools. I use them often and hope you think about these tips for use in your games as well.