Using Real Gods

Can you remember any memorable fantasy gods? The only one I can think of right away is Lolth. Tiamat and Bahamut almost count, I suppose, but they are halfway between god and legendary monster. I also remember Corellon Larethian and Moradin, but other than being “the god of elves” and “the god of dwarves” neither of them are interesting in the slightest. Vecna is also memorable, if you want to consider him a god. Actually, mentioning Vecna, a commonality with Lolth becomes clear: both were developed actively as nemeses in play rather than as setting dressing.

What about Set, the serpent lord? The Set of the Conan stories is certainly memorable and interesting. Or Loki, from the Thor comic? Both of those examples have something else in common: they come from actual world mythology. If you’re going to have a god of the underworld, why not just call him Hades? Does it add anything to create a new god of the underworld named Zarfleglok that has a slightly different portfolio of divine aspects? Keep in mind that unless you have an abnormally dedicated group of players, nobody other than you is likely to remember your new god’s name anyways. I also like the idea of tying gods to specific polities, much like Yahweh is depicted in the Old Testament: the god of the Israelites. Baal is also shown as the god of a rival city-state. And the guardian of Athens was Athena.

Fantasy settings with direct knockoffs of real world cultures usually bother me for some reason, especially if there are more than one such knockoff within the same setting. A setting that feels vaguely Celtic is okay, but if there is a fantasy Japan next door and a fantasy Rome across the ocean it just doesn’t work. Something about that sort of juxtaposition takes me out of the setting. One exception to this is if there is some diegetic reason for the juxtaposition, such as a series of dimensional gates, or aliens that have transported Earth cultures to some strange world.

I realize this may just be personal preference, but I suspect there is something more general going on here. Perhaps it is some sort of cultural version of the uncanny valley: close enough to be recognizable, but not close enough to be captivating. I remember being strongly put off by the Belgariad by David Eddings for exactly this reason (though to be honest I don’t remember the details anymore) and by the Seanchan from The Wheel of Time (a thinly disguised collection of East Asian tropes). This was one of the characteristics of fantasy genre fiction that drove me toward reading history instead.

For some reason, however, the Conan setting of Hyboria works where these other settings don’t. This is despite the fact that there are many clear analogs, including:

  • Nordheim = Scandinavia
  • Iranistan = Persia
  • Stygia = Egypt
  • Black Kingdoms = Africa
  • Khitai = China

And many others. I normally don’t like to quote Wikipedia, but in this case it is too good to pass over:

The reasons behind the invention of the Hyborian Age were perhaps commercial: Howard had an intense love for history and historical dramas; however, at the same time, he recognized the difficulties and the time-consuming research needed in maintaining historical accuracy. By conceiving a timeless setting – a vanished age – and by carefully choosing names that resembled our past history, Howard avoided the problem of historical anachronisms and the need for lengthy exposition.

Perhaps the problem is that some modern fantasy settings borrow from real cultures without acknowledgment. They have a totally made up map, but with various recognizable cultural signs scattered about that don’t quite seem to fit. Hyboria has no pretension to being an entirely contained and internally consistent mythos. More Wikipedia (same page):

The geographical setting of the Hyborian Age is that of our earth, but in a fictional version of a period in the past.

The map is also recognizably earth-like.

Now, I realize that some people may have their immersion interrupted by the use of real world mythology much as I am put off by culture juxtaposition as described above. I would point out, though, that most fantasy games import other culture-bound elements of real world mythology (dragons, hydras) without problems. Why is a hydra more at home in D&D than a ninja? I’m not exactly sure, but it does seem to be.

There is something else to say here regarding the ever more self-referential nature of Dungeons & Dragons, and how to combat it. (There are commercial reasons behind this too, as the invented mythology of, for example, Eberron becomes a property that can be controlled more easily than mythology with historical roots.) By drawing directly from real world mythology with no pretensions to complete world-building, one nips the canon-forming tendency in the bud and in addition makes the game setting more accessible to new players. It also works for a setting with a more monotheistic bent (and early D&D was implicitly Christian in many ways).

6 thoughts on “Using Real Gods

  1. faoladh

    I’m not fond of using real-world deities in games, in no small part because many of them (possibly all of them) still have people who revere them. It’s a difficult line to walk with any sort of respect (and if you have no respect for other people, I don’t want to play with you). There are exceptions (In Nomine can be run with a premise of real-world gods, for instance, and culturally-based games almost demand real-world gods), but they are exceptions for a reason.

    Anyway, as to your initial question: St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel, Pholtus of the Blinding Light (and I could go on about Oerth gods, but those two are at least representative), Orlanth (and all the rest of the Gloranthan gods)… perhaps I can’t think of any after Oerth and Glorantha. Admittedly, Hârn’s and Tékumel’s gods are pretty dull, and Mystara’s are incomprehensible. What other notable fantasy (not science-fantasy) worlds are there? Forgotten Realms? Those are largely derived from real-world gods. Eberron? I don’t play 4E. Cerilia is kinda like Hârn and Tékumel in terms of the religions, dull. Athas has a religious structure very different than most fantasy worlds, and so the question is largely irrelevant in regard to it.

    1. Brendan

      What is appropriate for one group may not be appropriate for another group. Some people (apparently; I have never seen this personally) are offended by religious aspects of games, not because they are religious but because they are not religious. With such a wide variety of real-world sensitivities, it is impossible to craft a one size fits all setting.

      That being said, I believe respect is all in the context and presentation. Though I personally am not religious, I have a great deal of respect for real-world religious traditions, and I think that comes out in my games. I am not suggesting using Deities & Demigods as a monster manual.

      I think there are similar dangers in basing fantasy cultures on the real world, and they must also be handled with respect (see, for example, the flap over the pseudo-Arab depiction of the “evil men” in the Lord of the Rings movies). Many settings that are based on East Asia glom together aspects of many different cultures in a way that that would very likely be offensive to an East Asian (try telling a Chinese or Japanese person, for example, that there is no distinction between the two cultures; yet, that is exactly what many such settings do, even mixing Chinese-style names with Japanese-style names).

  2. Alex J.

    Slaanesh, Khorne, Nurgle and Tzeentch. In fairness, I remember their demons. The gods themselves have always been in the background.

    Vorn, the grim gray god of steel and rain. Gor, bull headed god of law. Titivilla, goddess of all flesh, healing and mutation. I did just read about them, though.

    I remember Nerull from the Gord the Rogue books. He takes a poisoned dart to the eye socket, and eats it.

    I think your point stands: They have to show up to be memorable. FWIW, this is a very old sense of deity that has gotten displaced by the more transcendent conception. Adam and Eve could originally hide from God in the garden of eden, presumably in the bushes, and it took him a while to find them. The Greek gods lived physically atop mount Olympus and came down to Troy to shift particular arrows and get stabbed in battle.

    1. Brendan

      I would love to run a campaign with far more limited and material gods. Gods that, when you call them, fly down from on high (or whatever) rather than just appearing. Yes, their mount would travel faster than a mortal mount, but they would still have to travel. Or gods that live in the heart of a city’s ziggurats. Or something like the deity/demon in The Tower of the Elephant.


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