Arcana: Divine Intervention

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In fantasy worlds, gods can walk among us. In some campaigns the gods might be amorphous beings who rarely dabble in mortal affairs, such as Cimmeria’s Crom. In campaigns on the other end of the scale, the gods might be as common as in Greece, where any passing swan can be a god in disguise.

How often do the gods involve themselves in mortal affairs? Are there divine conflicts above and beyond the important mortal conflicts of the game? Or are mortal conflicts also the concern of the gods? Which gods exist? You can pull pantheons from our own history, from fiction, or make up your own. Or you can combine all three.

Divine Intervention: Motivation

Gods can have many reasons for caring about or playing with mortal fate. These reasons can range from the petty to the grand. There might be a grand conflict playing out between the partisans of each moral code, each trying to gain the upper hand over the other. Or, the gods might be jealous, bickering super-humans, ready to smite rivals on a moment’s notice if someone starts thinking they’re smarter, faster, or more beautiful than the gods. Such gods can fall in love with mortals, and be jealous of their mortal rivals.

In between, the gods can, rather than taking direct part in mortal affairs, offer aid to mortal heroes, as in the events leading up to the battle of Troy.

Divine Intervention: Power

It is important in a fantasy game to remember the difference between “the gods” and “God”, especially if you are currently a worshipper of a one-omnipotent-god religion. The “one god” is generally an all-powerful being whose self permeates, and probably is, the universe. When God thinks, things happen. In the Jewish and Christian Old Testament, God decided to make the world, and it was made. In pantheonic religions, it isn’t as easy to create a world. Maui had to fish land from the ocean to make room for mankind, for example. And before him, other gods argued about how to separate the Earth and the Sky, who themselves were gods. Some gods wanted to destroy Earth and Sky, others wanted to separate the two gods peacefully. After the peaceful option won, battle raged between the factions.

These gods are not omnipotent. They’re not someone you want to cross in a fight, unless you’re a god yourself, and even then the result is not going to be pretty in mortal lands. These gods have greater or lesser power over, or gain it from, some aspect of nature or mankind, and may see things happen in the world through this aspect. They are difficult to kill—even if you chop them up and spread them to the wind, somehow they manage to find a way back, although their penis might end up in the wrong place. They often live in another place, land, or heavenly plane, such as Mount Olympus or Asgard. They live forever, or at least until killed by another god.

Moral codes

Do gods follow moral codes? In ‘real life’, or at least real legends, gods do pretty much whatever they want, seemingly petty in one story and honorable in the next. In your game, it will depend a lot on what the moral codes mean. Are they simply guides for players? Then they’ll probably be guides for the gods as well. Are they an over-riding ethos, implied if there are exemplars in your game? Then gods who choose a moral code will be bound to them as much as or more than mortals.

Some options are:

• Gods are not bound by moral codes at all, existing independently of them.

• Gods may be aware, unaware, aligned, or unaligned. The more powerful the god, the more likely they are to be aligned.

• Moral codes exist through the gods’ creation. Gods are not bound to them in the same way as mortals are.

• Moral codes are the overriding supernatural powers of the world, and bind even the Gods, or exist beyond the Gods as the Gods exist beyond mortals.

Demigods, elder gods, spirit gods, and heroes

The main portion of any pantheon is held by the “normal” gods of that pantheon. Zeus and Hera, for example, among the Greek gods. Many religions include earlier gods whom the current gods overthrew, or who for some reason withdrew on their own. Because of the influence of Lovecraft, these elder gods are often seen as immensely powerful, but it doesn’t have to be the case. In Greece, the elder gods were mostly vanquished, left to perform elder-god-like things such as hold up mountains.

Heroes are people who have left an astounding impact on the culture and religion. Most of the saints are heroes of Christianity. Demigods are those heroes or legends whose exploits resonated so well with either the gods or the people (depending on your theory of where gods receive their power) that they have attained god-like status in the religion. Hercules and Mary are demigods of their respective religions.

Spirit gods are gods invested within a particular location, such as a special grove or river. The influence of spirit gods may wane the further the prophet travels from the spirit god’s center of power.

Player character prophets always have access to four spirit types, plus the prophet spirit type. Spirit level is limited by the character’s wisdom. If a deity worshipped by a player character is some form of lesser god, then that player’s character is or will become the favored prophet of that deity—the only one who is able to use higher-level spirit manifestations and a full complement of spirit types.

Non-player character prophets will have limited access to spirits if they worship demigods, spirit gods, or heroes, and potentially if they worship elder gods.

For NPCs, gods and elder gods will dispense any level of spirits (in some cases, elder gods will not or will be forbidden to). Demigods will dispense spirits of first to eighth level, spirit gods of first to sixth level (up to eighth level within their domain), and heroes of first to fourth level.

For NPCs, gods will dispense five spirit types, demigods four, spirit gods three, and heroes two. One is almost always the prophet type.

Heroes rarely use prophets. The relationship between a prophet and their spirit god is usually even more intimate than with other gods and often has a specific purpose.

Divine Intervention: Avatars

It is difficult for gods to die on the mortal planes in most fantasy worlds. Gods rarely fully manifest in the mortal world. They normally come in mortal guise, sometimes not even in human form. Zeus was well known for coming in the form of animals or even rain. Jehovah called to Moses as a burning bush.

These mortal forms of gods are called avatars. In Christianity, Jesus, and the flames that came to rest on the apostles’ heads, were each avatars of the One True God of Christianity. This is part of the meaning of the Trinity, the “Three who are one”. Each form has autonomy, but each form is still but a part of the whole.

Sometimes, the avatar doesn’t even know it’s a god. Dr. Donald Blake didn’t know he was the thunder god Thor, even after he assumed the thunder god’s powers.

The avatar may, at times, contain the whole of the god’s self. Dr. Donald Blake was Thor, confined for humility to human form. In Kevin Smith’s “Dogma”, with Jehovah’s avatar placed in a coma the god was unable to resume his god-like persona as long as the avatar remained alive but unconscious.

Sometimes, gods come to the mortal planes in avatar form by their own volition. Other times, lesser gods will be forced to come to the mortal planes by their ruling god (Odin, Zeus), either as punishment or to learn some lesson. In some fantasies, even mortals may control when an avatar is formed. H. P. Lovecraft’s horrific gods were often unable to take form unless at the behest of mad priests, or at the mention of their name by foolish scholars.

Often, when an avatar is defeated in the mortal planes, the god is unable to return to that plane for a specific period of time.

It is difficult to create hard and fast rules on the use of avatars in your campaign. Avatars can be different from fantasy to fantasy and even from god to god. Their power may wax and wane with the seasons, the stars, or the actions of their followers.

• Avatars might be powerful or weak.

• Avatars might be knowledgeable about their status or oblivious.

• Avatars may have the full knowledge that they have as deity, or they may have only a subset of that knowledge.

• Avatars might be born of mortal blood, or might be created fully-formed by the god as needed.

• Avatars might be mortal or immortal.

• Avatars might be here of their own volition or under orders from another deity.

• Avatars might share in the current vision of their central god-like form, or might know only so much as they knew when they took avatar form.

• Avatars might be oblivious to mortal needs such as hunger and lust, or might be fully affected by such needs.

• Avatars can exist for noble reasons or petty reasons.

• Avatars may exist at will, or at some special occurrence, such as an astrological event or the mention of their name.

Involving the gods

When you choose to involve the gods in your campaign, you need to be very careful. This is a story about the player character heroes, and the player characters need to remain at the center of the story.

All rules are made to be broken, but I might recommend that if player characters meet a god or two at lower levels, that these be powerless avatars, present only to manipulate or guide the heroes. At higher levels, the characters might receive more direct guidance, but will also face more direct dangers as a result of that guidance. If one god is taking an influence in the course of mortal affairs, there is probably at least one other god who is opposing that influence.

The influence of the gods should be slowly revealed over the course of many adventures. Such involvement will not be the stuff of a single adventure.

Worshippers at war

In real life, many wars have been fought over different interpretations of the same religion. For whatever reason, the gods have not intervened directly, and as far as we know not even indirectly, to correct whichever side was wrong. In a fantasy world, with the gods intervening for so many other trivial things, why wouldn’t they get involved when their worshippers fight with each other?

It’s something you’ll need to think about. Some gods probably like it when their worshippers hone their combat ability and ruthlessness on each other. Others might be horrified. They might appear as powerful avatars, or send a prophet or exemplar to teach their followers the right path.

Another interesting question is, what happens when worshippers worship only slightly different pantheons? Is Zeus really Jupiter with a different name? Sometimes, conquering cultures would “assimilate” the ruling gods of their conquered lands into their own pantheons. What happens in “heaven” when this occurs? Is the god truly assimilated? Or merely humiliated? Will such gods seek revenge for themselves or their conquered worshippers?

More information

For some interesting rules on using gods and avatars in fantasy campaigns, see The Primal Order by Peter Adkison. For some great unique gods as well as ideas on creating your own deities, see the Old-school Role-playing Community’s Petty Gods.

For one take on why gods have fractured reflections across different cultures, see The Tablets of Enki at

  1. Special effects
  2. Arcana
  3. Places of Power