Gods - what are they for?

In the game-settings we play with - worlds, universes, multiverses - there is almost always some reference to gods, religion, mystic forces and the like: often these are the driving forces behind the story.

Gods and religion serve many roles in games and stories. It's important that in gaming - collaborative story-telling - we all know what we can expect from the gods and their followers.

Although I'm a non-religious person, I'm quite happy to entertain myself and fellow players with religious themes, mystic visions and other tropes - but I think that the delicate topic of religion and gods in fiction (and gaming in particular) could do with some analysis.

Otherwise, how will we all end up on the same hymn sheet?

In-game reality

What is the truth of the gods? Are they proven to be real, or is their presence ambiguous? If Zeus regularly abducts lovers and begets heroes, who would doubt his existence?

Let's split the camps into two: proven and unproven. I'll deal with unproven first, as it covers the more familiar ground (for me, at least).


The gods - if there are any - are unproven. Their existence cannot be unquestionably and concretely demonstrated.

This situation is, of course, most like our every day real world. No matter how strong the faith of any individual or group of people, no deities' existence is empirically proven. 

  • Traditions & superstition
  • The intelligensia don't consider the gods to literally be true, but their traditions and superstitions are powerful tools. No-one believes that the priest in the god-mask is actually the god incarnate, but tradition dictates that all treat him as such.
    • Manipulative priesthood: The gods are known to be false, but the priests lie. The population is deceived.
    • Symbolic priesthood: The gods are metaphors for right behaviour. The worship of the gods does not rely on their stories being actually historically true, but more that the parable of their acts teaches the population how to behave.
(As an aside, it ocurred to me that - SPOILERS AHEAD, KIDS! - Father Christmas is a prime example of benign manipulation. Most of the population is well aware that they are the ones buying presents for the children, but we all go along with the manipulation that there is a magical present-giving entity, who rewards the good and punishes the bad. Consider a church that works like that... Interesting, yes?)

  • Absent & subtle
  • Belief in the gods is widespread and accepted at all levels. The intelligensia have complex and often philosophical ideas about the gods, while the layfolk have straightforward faith.
    • Faith through teaching:  The priests have faith, and they preach this and enforce the will of their god or gods. No-one can show that the gods are real, but it serves the priesthood to indoctrinate people into belief. This may be benign, as with Santa, or it may be purely to perpetuate the power of the church.
    • Faith through observance: The reality of the gods is socially given, but not readily apparent. No-one questions the gods - their existence is self-evident from casual observation.
Faith through teaching is what is required when people question the power of the church, whereas faith through observance is the state enjoyed when the reported acts of the gods are not in conflict with observable reality - either because we can't observe as closely as required to notice the discrepencies, or because those acts are in accord with reality.


The gods are a fact of life, with verifiable evidence to back them up.

This situation is not like our real world. The gods are known to act in the mortal realm, to intervene on behalf of pious worshippers. Even the most cynical would respect the invocation of the gods - there will be no atheists here.

  • The "myths" are all true
  • The fantastic stories about the gods' exploits - from their creation of the multiverse, to their appearance, to their powers - are all literally true. Still the gods may have powers and interests beyond mortal ken, but as a minimum, we can trust what their scripture says to be 100% fact.
    • Gods are all-powerful, unlimited beings. Omniscient and omnipotent beings, the gods are literally able to achieve anything they desire.
    • Gods are beyond mortal power, but limited. The gods are constrained by limits of some sort - perhaps according to their station in a heirarchy, or their patron sphere

  • Gods are powerful outsiders 
  • The gods are extra dimensional beings of some sort. They are worshipped, but they may not even claim to be gods - or if they do, it is in order to exploit those who worship them. Scripture about these gods may be an imperfect record of the actual events.
    • Hero-gods and saints. Hercules, the Caesars and so on were elevated to godhood - larger than life heroes. Saints take their place in the afterlife as intercessionary being on mortals' behalf with the ruling deitiy.
    • Meddlers in mortal affairs. Ultrapowerful being seeking to interfere with the lives and development of lesser entities - Star Trek's Apollo, Q, (and others), or Star Gate's Ra.
    • Alien, unknowable entities. Incomprehensible beings whose motives are unclear. They act without explanation - Lovecraft's Cthulhu et al, 2001's monolith builders.

What is truth?

What constitutes proof of the gods in the game? You need to consider what absolute evidence is available, and what is questionable - so that you can decide how people outside the faithful circles react to that evidence.

Do you have priests who gain their magic from divine energy (and how is that demonstrably different from wizardly magic)?
Would it matter if Apollo turned out to be some errant super-being, rather than a "real" god? What is the difference?
I'll consider these questions along with Function, below.


So - what is the point of gods in your setting? What story purpose do they serve? How important are religion and / or deities to your setting?

I can break this down into three functions:
  • Background flavour
  • Political groups
  • Active characters

Background flavour

The gods and their religions are simply a background flavour - something to increase verisimilitude. Throughout real human history there have been cults and churches, and it would seem unreasonable for these to be absent from a fantasy setting.

These gods and religions are not especially important, except as role-playing and story-telling props.

Political groups

Massive congregations, infalible heirarchies and divine power can make a church an absolute ruler of its culture, even above secular leaders. Historically this has been the case for real world faiths for certain periods.
On the other hand, a religion can rule along side the secular throne. Wise advisers to the emperor hold enormous political influence.
In polytheistic socieities, the various deities' priests might jocky for supremacy with the mortal rulers - who may in turn elevate the status of the deity.

These gods and religions are important because they are the motivators of political groups - orthodox or revolutionary - but it is the people who act, rather than the gods themselves.

Active characters

The gods are present in the real world in some way, like the Greek Olympian gods, living on a holy mountain top, or like the Norse gods, living in some otherworld. In either case, they are real entities who will act on the game setting in some way.

Perhaps the gods manifest themselves through influencings nature - through storms, lightning, earthquakes, sickness and other events. Rather than manifesting in some physical form, the gods manipulate the world to do their will.
This sort of god is subtle and doesn't seem to directly influence the world, moving in mysterious ways. You can use this in games to set up divine coincidences to move the story - random fate becomes divine favour.

Maybe the gods do take on physical form, as perfect immortals, or divine animals - and perhaps these forms influence their bahviours, so that they are as petty and capricious as mortal culture. Just look at the Greek gods - stealing sexy women, starting wars out of jealousy, fighting amongst themselves, cursing mortals on a whim.

Such interfering gods can be the driving force behind adventures.

Divine magic

A common trope in fantasy games is that worship of gods gains the followers magical power.

If priests gain magic from the gods, is this the only form of magic? Are there also wizards? Is there a functional difference between wizardly and priestly magic? Or is the difference only political?

You might have priestly magic concentrate on life and death, fear and morale, and so on - whereas wizardly magic might be concerned with manipulating the elements.

Or if only politics separates divine from arcane, perhaps there would be jealousy between the two styles, so that wizards are outlawed, and the church investigates any magical practice by the layity.

The presence of divine magic in a fantasy game allows for magical differences between followers of different religions - followers of the Death god gain different sapells to the followers of the Creator god, and so on.

False gods

What is the functional difference between an ultrapowerful entity claiming to be a god, and a "true" god?
Leaving aside real-world current religious answers, let's think about why Zeus (who is a god, acording to the Greek mythos) is more qualified as a god than say, Manwe (who is not a god, according to JRR Tolkien's legendarium).
Neither are all-powerful. Neither is the creator of the world. Neither is infallible.

Functionally, then, there is no difference between "true" and "false" gods, except the political implications of the claims.


There are lots of ways gods can appear in fantasy fiction. Depending on the preferences of your player group, you can use any god or gods you like - but it's usually a good idea to think about whether you'll offend anyone before you use real-world religions, or churches with similar traits to real-world organisations. If in doubt, ask.

Me, I like to have multiple religions in multiple cultures in my game settings, and I tend to have deities fit into the "Powerful outsiders" and "Unproven" categories - I'm interested in the political interaction of faiths.

Whatever sort of deities you want to have in your game, understanding their role and being consistent in their portrayal is key to making the world seem real.

Circuit ultra-running

There's an interesting article on the BBC News site about the circuit ultra-run this weekend in Gloucester.

Circuit ultra-running is daunting - rather than running a long course, it's just laps of a standard 400m track.

The changing scenery and sense of achievement I get from running long distances? Nope, none of that for circuit ultra-runners, just endless laps.
There's much bigger mental challenge in circuits. When I get tired 10 miles from home, I know that the only way to finish is to keep going.
On a circuit, rest is never more than 100m away. The grit to keep going is far more abstract, far more about personal discipline than about necessity.