Advanced Worldbuilding: Homebrew Deities and Creation Myths
Fantasy literature sits in an odd juxtaposition in which we imagine outrageous and unbelievable things, but we relate to it better when it is grounded in our perception of reality. In any book, movie, show, or story, people tend to look for themselves or something they recognize that anchors them to that tale to more easily imagine the events taking place. Worldbuilding for an RPG is a tool at your disposal to do that for your game. There are many ways to make your game feel like it is taking place in a living, breathing, changing world. I have found that one of the best ways to evoke that feeling is to start at the ground and work your way up. Much like many people conceptualize creation through the book of Genesis for the Abrahamic religions, or others through the big bang, we all conceptualize a beginning. There are countless origin stories from all different cultures the world over. While I am in no sense a professional historian, philosopher, or theologian, I would consider myself a hobbyist in all three. The truth of the matter is that you don't need a Ph.D. in any of these subjects to be able to create believable myths and stories about creation and the gods in your RPG setting. There are a few tricks you can use to make your setting feel more like a real world with real people that have belief structures and worship something.
Why do people believe this?
The reason we're doing all this thinking on the origins, structure, and rules of divinity in our world is to answer the question, "What do the people of this world believe?" In a world where Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos can be clearly defined, something has to inform the people of the world's beliefs about those concepts. A creation myth is one method of structuring their beliefs. Not only that, but groups having differing ideas of what the truth of creation is can be a source of conflict between them. Not that it has ever happened like that in real life or anything. Why does one group view Chaos as inherently bad? Why does another view Law strictly as oppression? Well, if one group believes they were created by the god of Law while the other group was created by the god of Chaos, they likely wouldn't agree or even get along.
When NPC groups or factions disagree with each other on a basic philosophical level, you fill in the blanks for your players without them having to do the work to figure out why the two factions are in conflict. It saves you from the cop-out answer of "Well, these guys are evil because they eat babies." As a society, we understand and have seen, oftentimes firsthand, how disagreements about fundamental philosophies can drive division between peoples, thus causing conflict, a pillar necessary for storytelling.
There are rules to how things work
Depending on the RPG rules system you are using, you may have an idea of how the world works from a structural standpoint. Is there magic? How does it interact with the natural world? Can only certain people or life forms access magic? These and many other questions will inform how you can describe the creation of your world. This works because it is how we conceptualize our creation in real life. Regardless of your beliefs, there are commonalities between the different creation stories because they are different ways of telling the same story. They all have structure and rules; it's just that the rules are different for a lot of them.
So you have your world, but what are the rules? Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has a great lecture about creating magic systems over on YouTube, which is a great listen that illustrates the considerations you have to make when creating something like this whole cloth. That said, if you are using a TTRPG rules system, some of those rules are in place for you. You simply need to apply them to your world. Fitting stories and aspects of your world into an established rule system is obviously the simplest route as you need not concern yourself with the minutiae of the cost, flaws, and limitations of magic or whatever it is that sets your fantasy setting apart from our reality.
In a typical Western European style fantasy setting, you generally have one or more deities or some type of higher power that affects the world the heroes are in. The rules govern how those deities or forces interact with the world. In one of my homebrew worlds, the gods of the world have often appeared on the surface of the world. Many living people have seen the gods of war fight each other for conquest. In another, the deities do not directly influence or interact with the world, but rather through their followers enacting their will they achieve their power. These rules inform how the world came to be, how people feel about these deities, and ultimately how the players in my game view those who follow certain belief structures.
In many RPGs, we work with the term "alignment." A scale from Lawful to Chaotic and Good to Evil, many things fall into different areas of these spectrums. However, for the rules of a game to be effective with this concept of morality or belief structure, we have to accept some things as true:
- There is objective Good.
- There is objective Evil.
- There is an objective Order.
- There is objective Chaos.
If we accept these rules as true, we have a set of rules we can apply to our world and a basis for the creation of this world.
What is Creation?
To define creation is a matter that philosophers have been wrestling with since humanity formed its first coherent thought. That said, broadly, creation is how things are made. When we discuss divinity, godhood, and creation in a fantasy setting, we have to ask the same questions that Aristotle tackled in 350 BCE. In his famous writing Metaphysics, Aristotle proposes a concept known as the Unmoved Mover or the literal translation "'that which moves without being moved." The concept posits that something was the first thing to cause all "motion" in the universe, without having to be "moved" itself. Some religious scholars have pointed this to mean God, while others have decided it means something else entirely. Irrespective of what we as humans on earth interpret this as, for our purposes of writing a fantasy world myth that people would believe, we can use it as a central concept for the myth. "What started it all?"
You might not have an answer for that and, to be honest, you don't need one. But use it as an exercise in how to think about how your world was created. Fortunately, humans have been trying to answer these questions since, well, forever. Because there is millennia of thought on the subject in our world, you don't have to try that hard to find something that fits the theme of your world. The bare bones of many creation myths are that there was chaos, and a deity stepped in to create order to that chaos and structure the universe. There was either nothing or everything all at once, and some power stepped in to make it into something useful and structured. After that is when things start to branch off wildly into different stories and tales defining the morals and values of the faith, as well as the folk etiology of the region or peoples.
Ethan Richardson is a part time content creator and "Forever DM." As an avid student of ancient History and storytelling, it seemed only natural to enter the world of TTRPGs. You can find him everywhere on the internet @nerdmeat.