Custom Pantheons Are Easy!
Creating a homebrew world for your next Dungeons and Dragons campaign can be intimidating. There’s a lot that goes into a world. So many nouns! Countless people, places, and things that you must invent out of your own imagination! And, of course, the entity or entities that created or maintain all those things: the gods themselves!
Inventing your own pantheon looks like a lot of work, especially if you hold up other pantheons in history or fiction as the standard. The pantheons of the lauded and well-developed worlds of The Elder Scrolls series include a total of 67 divines and daedra. The ancient Egyptian pantheon famously included over 2,000 deities! Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had 109 named gods, Fourth Edition listed a mere 30 (including nearly a dozen defunct or dead gods) in their core books, and even the Forgotten Realms in Fifth Edition boasts 42. While there are humbler examples, such as the primary figures in the Greek pantheon numbering only 12, these figures can be a turn-off to dungeon masters hoping to create their own divine infrastructure! Sounds like a lot of work…
And even when that work is done, will it come up all that often? Will your players care, or remember these gods and what makes them special? Will anyone but the party cleric remember even one of their names, or what they do?
Yes they will, and it will require much less effort than you think! All you have to do is break the work down into manageable, memorable pieces that will stick in you and your players minds going forward. Though there are lots of ideas out there for how to do this, the following tips and tricks have had great success for me and my players.
Keep it Simple
When setting out to design a pantheon you want your players to remember and have their characters reference in the game, it’s best to keep it small and/or thematic. Simplicity is key!
First, choose a theme for yourself. Sticking to a theme will make the individual members of a pantheon have a group identity that will stand out against all the chaos of the rest of your fictional world. Have the theme be something that you and your players are already familiar with, and can easily list many, if not all, of the components therein.
For example, you could create a pantheon themed on the elements: earth, fire, wind, and water. No one at the table will have difficulty remembering just four gods, or what they’re responsible for. Or a pantheon that revolves around the core races in your fantasy world: a god of the Humans, a god of the Elves, of the Dwarves, and so on. There are nine playable races in the Player’s Handbook, and that’s a good place to start. Or you could base your pantheon’s theme on the alignment chart for D&D. Perhaps a god for each alignment: each combination of Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic, Good, and Evil, up to a total of nine. Or maybe limit it even further to simply a god of Law, of Chaos, and of Neutraility (that’s what I did for my first ever campaign, and it worked very well)! Three-god pantheons are quite punchy, and often feature two directly opposed forces and a mediator. As another example, a goddess of the day, a goddess of the night, and a goddess that governs the twilight between. Or a divine entity to represent and preside over each of the four seasons?
In each of the above cases, the final number of entities in your pantheon is less than ten! That’s a great start, and it gives you a defined stopping point. When creating a pantheon, you run the risk of never finding a suitable stopping point, same as when you’re creating a world. I have a town, but what’s beyond that town? Or over those mountains? Or across that sea? It’s important to know when you’ve reached a logical stopping point. Going too far and creating too much is wasted effort on your part, and complicates something you and your players will be trying to easily remember.
Sticking to a theme when creating your pantheon has the added benefit of assigning an identity to your gods. Using familiar concepts to inform your creation process will allow you and your players to come to the table with a set of assumptions about your gods. Lean into that, and allow those assumptions to be true. It will make your gods more memorable and differentiate themselves with one another.
Let’s use the earlier example of the elemental pantheon. What do you imagine a god of earth would be like? What traits would you ascribe to them? Steadfastness? Immutability? Perseverance? Stubbornness? Odds are, your players would answer similarly. When you present this god to them, their minds will begin to fill in the blanks before you do. That’s because we have shared impressions of earth and stone, and expressions like “solid as a rock” and the like that give us a shared impression of things related to or associated with them. This makes your job as the person creating the pantheon pretty easy! Just lean into those characteristics.
Try completing this exercise with the remaining elements: fire, wind, and water. List a few traits that they might embody. No more than three or four. It will be enough.
Approval and Anger
Gods, like people, have likes and dislikes. Charity good, murder bad, or vice versa. Some will want you to care for those in need, others will encourage you to allow them to fend for themselves so that they might become stronger though their hardship, while still others might urge you to take advantage of them while they are downtrodden and desperate. Whatever the case, your gods will have strong feelings about how things should be handled, and they will expect their followers to act according to their personal preferences.
This may seem pretty obvious, but it is worth saying. Devout followers of certain faiths will want to act in ways that please their divine patrons. In turn, that particular god or goddess will show favor to those that adhere to their sensibilities. And, on the other hand, will decline to help, or maybe even actively work against, those who conduct themselves in ways that the deity dislikes.
The god of war likes war, and is fond of proud warriors. Followers of his faith are likely warmongers, knights, soldiers, commanders, and kings. The god of war and his faithful are likely opposed to pacifists, conscientious objectors, and cowards.
In the case of our elemental pantheon, what might the god of the waters approve and disapprove of? Would they laud fishermen and sailors as appreciating the bounty of the seas and revelers in its wonders? Or would they dislike the intrusion, preferring the sea be untainted by outsiders and landlubbers? Do they have the same opinion of naval officers and pirate captains? As a substance that always molds to the shape of its vessel, does it admire or despise constraints? Is freedom a virtue or a needless illusion?
For each of our four elemental deities, come up with two things that each of them approves of, and two things that each of them dislikes. There can be some overlap! Something one god likes may be something another hates, or the other way around. More on that later.
Now that we have established what your gods are all about, its time to decide what they govern. The natural processes and aspects of life that we mortals enjoy are presided over by the gods in our fantasy world. In many mythologies, these things were actually established by the gods in the first place!
The term “divine portfolio” means everything that a particular divine is concerned with and responsible for overseeing. A god’s portfolio represents their areas of expertise and interest. This is the part where we decide what ours gods are the gods “of.”
Lets take Apollo from Greek myth. Apollo is the god of the sun, but he’s so much more than that! He’s also the god of music, poetry, medicine, light, archery, and much more! While the gods we create do not need such diverse or extensive portfolios, it is important to define them at least somewhat.
As an example, my custom deity Deimus is a god of wealth and industry. He thinks fortune literally favors the bold, likes hard work, and hates thieves, gamblers, and con men. He is “The Great Rewarder of Efforts.” What aspects of life do you imagine he would govern?
If you answered along the lines of trade, craftsmanship, commerce, banking, investments, or capitalism, you’d be on the right track! He also dabbles in whistleblowing, legal action, and the penning and honoring of contracts. His portfolio closely follows his interests, and is pretty predictable based on his likes and dislikes.
Try creating a portfolio for the gods in your elemental pantheon. Not every aspect of life needs to be represented, but each god should be responsible for two to four things. Decide which, if any, of their portfolios include war, peace, family values, birth, death, music, travel, charity, and magic.
Now that we have our gods designed, we need to know what to call them! Sure, they probably have names, and those names are probably some abominable conglomerations or fantasy gibberish that you and your players alike will struggle to recall, but that’s not what we are interested in. Were interested in what the gods are “called”, not what they are “named.”
Sibris Edhellon is a difficult name for a god, both to remember and to spell! Players at your table will have a hard time bringing that name up at the table… but it’s possible, even likely, that the characters that populate your world might have a more common moniker for the goddess. Something along the lines of “The Huntress”, or the “Lady of the Wood”, or the “Woadmother”.
Titles like these make the gods in your setting easier to remember not only for the fictional characters in the setting, but for your players around the table as well! They also give clues as to the identity and dispositions of your gods, as well as their divine portfolios. What to you imagine is the temperament of the “Lady of the Wood” or the “Woadmother”? What does she care about? What might please her, or incur her wrath?
Given everything we’ve done so far in creating our elemental pantheon, what might you call each of our four deities? Base your answers on aspects of their personalities, if you can, not just their elemental nature. For example, if your fiery god is seen more as a destructive force, something like “The Raging Flame” might be appropriate. Or if they are seen more as a regenerative, purifying agent, “The Cleansing Fire” may suit better.
Finally, as with all members of any social circle, your gods and goddesses likely have particular feelings about one another. You probably began to realize this as you went through the “Approval and Anger” and “Divine Portfolios” sections of the article, but some members of your pantheon seem like a match made in heaven, while others would have no chance in hell of getting along.
A god of war and a god of the forge likely have much in common, but a god of peace and a god of war likely won’t share any common ground. The goddesses of the moon and sun may never get along, but might both enjoy the company of the gods of dawn and dusk. And it is likely that many members of your pantheon do not have strong feelings one way or another about the majority of the others that neither directly oppose or align with them.
In your elemental pantheon, decide which, if any, of your gods do or don’t like one another. What positive or negative relationships exist?
So, to recap, when creating a custom pantheon for your next campaign, it can be helpful for you and your players to keep the numbers down, especially if the gods that make up a pantheon follow a consistent theme ( good vs evil, law and chaos, the heavenly bodies, the months of the year, etc). Assign traits to these entities that befit their personalities and responsibilities, and decide which behaviors they consider praiseworthy and which they condemn based on their preferences. Give them aspects of life that they govern depending on their rapidly-forming identities to fill out their portfolio, then decide if their whole deal is particularly agreeable or objectionable to any of the other deities in your pantheon.
While there are further steps that could be taken, this is more than enough to run a satisfying and believable game of D&D. Pantheons are nothing to be afraid of when you break the process down. I happened to lay my personal pantheon out in an Excel document, which is accessible to you HERE. This one has been added to and developed over the years, but it began with just 3 gods: Law, Neutrailty, and Chaos (Jolen, Maro, and Faves), and my players and I built from there over the course of many campaigns!
You’ll be amazed how different your game feels when the gods in your world roll off the tongues of your players immersively and naturally. Go forth and create, Dungeon Master!