So You Want a Pantheon For Your Game

A world-building-via-mechanics look at religious pantheons: how might the realities of ancient religious systems enrich your game design?

Pantheons are naturally alluring objects for systems designers. Designations like “Trickster God” or “God of the Sea” or “God of Combat” naturally align with tech tree branches, player classes, categories of dialogue action, or in-game moral stances.

In practice, ancient pantheons weren’t always that tidy. There certainly were interesting oppositions: indeed, a great deal of structuralist theory has been constructed around finding the ways that Greeks distinguished humans from gods, deities of the indoors from deities of the outdoors, and so on. There were also, however, a lot of complications.

Naturally game design often involves tidying up reality to turn it into something even slightly playable. However, there are a lot of interesting things about the construction of ancient pantheons that could help you enrich your mechanics and tell a more interesting story about your in-game universe. That’s what this article is about.

I’m going to focus on Greek and Roman examples because that’s where my own training lies, but I’d also strongly encourage checking out other traditions for inspiration as well.

Quick Background

The first thing to know is that Greek and Roman religion functioned very differently from religions in the Abrahamic tradition. There wasn’t a holy text to refer back to, or a standard doctrine or creed to adhere to. Priests and priestesses performed sacrifices and other rituals to honor the gods on behalf of their communities, but were mostly not concerned with the state of individual souls.

Believing in a god was not necessarily considered a prerequisite for worshipping that god: worship might consist of attending a big civic parade, for instance, which was more a statement about belonging to your community and its values and shared life, and less about whether you personally actually thought there was a supernatural Athena hanging about somewhere. In addition, at least some people clearly believed in the existence of divine powers without necessarily thinking that the stories about those powers were factually accurate.

(Some of these practices become more individual and more centered on ideas of personal belief with the rise of mystery cults, but those were not universal and were not the grounding of all religious practice.)

Modern superhero universes are not a bad analogy for thinking about certain cultural aspects of an ancient pantheon. Perhaps most of us are not setting up household shrines to Iron Man or writing curse tablets in the hope that Batman will beat the crap out of our enemies, but in both cases:

  • the system includes some characters who are very well-known, and others who are not
  • characters have variants that might carry different associations (the Adam West Batman is different from the Michael Keaton Batman)
  • there isn’t a single point of truth for lore; competing versions exist
  • fans might connect most with specific characters , origin stories, or relationship stories
  • some fan groups might really connect with a particular character, so much so that it starts to affect how everyone perceives said character
  • there is an iconography — a recognized language of symbols — that helps the viewer tell what they’re looking at, like Superman’s S or Spiderman’s spider suit

So with all that in mind, some thoughts on where we might start and how we might apply some features of ancient Greek and Roman religion to in-game content:

The Core System

Areas of influence. As a general rule, the more powerful and important a deity was, the less likely that that deity had only one function or area of influence in people’s lives. Athena was involved with wisdom, weaving, ship-building, olive cultivation, the craftier aspects of warfare, and the foundation of multiple cities, Athens just one among them. Artemis: hunting but also the protection of young creatures, wild animals and vegetation in general, the transition of young women toward adulthood, bow and arrow; sudden and unexplained mortality when it struck women; eventually, affiliations with the moon as well.

It may be that it only makes sense to assign one major area of gameplay to each of your invented gods. Even if that’s true, you might want some additional hooks for fiction, or some secondary responsibilities that will turn up as, say, advanced mechanics in late levels.

What else might people in this fictional world associate with your god? How do they explain his or her origin, and how might the origin story also shape the god’s identity? Is there a broad theme (like technical advancement and civilization for Athena) that might bring together a collection of roles?

Seated Hermes, speaking to the soul of a deceased person. Hermes’ distinctive staff, the kerukeion, identifies who he is. The vase is a white-ground lekythos, a water jug with a white background for the figure art, which was used for funerals. Both the picture itself and the context and style in which it is drawn tell us that we’re seeing Hermes the psychopomp, the escort who brings the souls of the dead to the underworld.

Cult names and epithets. In poetry and inscriptions, the gods are frequently given a second name that indicates which specific role or aspect is currently being invoked. Hermes dolios is Hermes the deceiver; Hermes chthonios is the Hermes who is in communication with the underworld. Zeus xenios is the protector of guests, strangers, and the laws of hospitality, while Zeus soterios is Zeus the savior, honored at Soteria festivals that commemorate successful battles.

Coming up with a small group of modifiers for the deity’s name may help expand their area of influence with some additional interesting add-ons. Mechanically, you might also consider them like conditionals: perhaps a prayer to the savior deity is useful but only when the player is at a disadvantage.

Pairings. When you have two gods with different interests, the relationship between those gods becomes symbolically important as well. Hermes is a god of many functions including travel; Hestia is the goddess of the hearth. Pair the two of them and you might signaling an idea about contrast between the safe home life and the life of wandering abroad. Or again: Apollo and Dionysus are both associated with the oracle at Delphi, and with poetry and dramatic performance. Apollo’s manifestations tend towards the rational, safe, and controlled; Dionysus’, towards mystical, inebriated, or animalistic experiences.

In many temple structures, you might find a sanctuary dedicated to one “main” god but with many small subsidiary temples to related gods.

Meaningful pairings between members of your pantheon can be rich material for tech trees or character definitions: you might have a player who identifies most strongly with Goddess A but has a secondary alignment to God B, giving them a specific flavor of engagement.

Your Pantheon and Social Mechanics

If you have player-NPC or player-player relationships in your game, how might your pantheon fictionally or mechanically relate to those systems?

Establishment of norms. Some gods are associated with rules about how people are supposed to treat each other — especially the most powerful gods, who are presumably the best empowered to punish those who go wrong. Zeus is associated with hospitality and with oath-keeping, two fundamental practices in a culture where non-violent forms of enforcement weren’t always available.

Gods might be associated with particular play styles or opt-in rules, such as a pacifism run. They might even be associated with multiplayer interaction norms on particular servers.

Waterhouse — Sleep and His Half-Brother Death

Family relationships. In many ancient polytheistic systems, and certainly in Greco-Roman myth, the gods belonged to a big family tree. Sometimes those relationships had an abstract allegorical meaning, like the idea that Sleep is the brother of Death. Often, the connections were a bit more arbitrary. These relationships did furnish material for many stories about family and intergenerational conflict. The opportunity to use the gods to talk about fundamental human relationships was obviously important.

Where your game mechanically supports relationship states with other characters, it might be interesting to reflect those same types of relationships among the gods in your pantheon – to communicate how they can be developed, and how they can be broken.

Environmental Storytelling

How might your pantheon shape the physical world of your game? Where would one find evidence of gods or worship?

Some gods in the ancient world were worshipped very publicly, with dedicated spaces, buildings, and statues, as well as ceremonies and games. There are several other categories of engagement with the gods that are less obvious, though:

  • household worship. You might have individual shrines in the home where you pray for wealth or protection; you might have a small statue guarding your door or the outer wall of your house complex
  • funeral and underworld worship. When making offerings to dead heroes or to underworld gods, the Greeks often celebrated by pouring blood into a lowered pit rather than burning something on a raised altar. These alternate forms of worship were not considered evil, but rather applied to a different sphere or aspect of life
  • pastoral or wilderness worship. Groves, caves, and other notable natural spaces were sometimes treated as sacred to particular divinities and in some cases decorated accordingly
  • crossroads and other places associated with travel. It was common to leave an offering to Hermes in his role as god of travel at a crossroads, or to put a temple to Poseidon where it would be prominently visible from the sea

DLC and Sequels

How do gods and divine perceptions change over time? In new regions? In response to significant cultural alterations? What might you do to your pantheon to keep it interesting in new content?

Accretion of additional roles. In his earliest manifestations in Greek poetry and art, Hermes is associated with trickster roles, pastoral functions, travel, and bringing messages from one place to another. In vase paintings from before the fifth century, he’s often shown as a guy with a broad-brimmed hat and a beard. In the later classical period, he also picks up associations with workouts and gymnasia; with journeys to the underworld, and with curses. Later still, he’s associated with the Roman Mercury and those trade and money-changing functions. Changes in the culture of worship produced changes in how the god was perceived and understood.

Sequels might show the same gods developing some additional responsibilities — and might even use those changes to communicate to the player fictional information about how the game world has evolved.

Local deities. Many cities had a particular set of gods they worshipped most often. Those cities sometimes had their own special stories about the gods in question; special names for them (“Athena of the Bronze House” referred to the Athena revered in a particular Spartan shrine); even sometimes contrasting origin stories that went against the standard explanations. In Crete, for instance, there is a cave that was locally said to be the birthplace of Zeus, even though that contradicted the generally accepted mythology.

Syncretism. Many polytheistic religions are much less committed to a concept of orthodoxy than the religions of the Abrahamic tradition. Their reaction to encountering other polytheistic systems was often to adopt some of the new gods, or to recognize a new deity as being conceptually the same as one of their own.

Sometimes, that meant gluing the two names together and acknowledging the deities as a single entity, like Sulis Minerva in Bath, a goddess who combined the Roman Minerva with a Celtic goddess who was local to the area.

One way to illustrate cultural interaction in a new gameplay region would be to introduce gods who straddle the line between the familiar pantheon found in the rest of the game, and new powers or names associated with this new location.

10 thoughts on “So You Want a Pantheon For Your Game”

  1. Thanks!
    I wonder about some alternatives to the Greek/Germanic “big men” image of gods.
    The Latin idea of abstract notions (the appearance of the top leaf of wheat is a god), or the West-African idea of the essence of local natural feature (big trees, boulders, rivers, surf waves) being spirits – would such conceptions, that don’t tend to lead to mythology, be useful in a game setting?

    1. Very likely! Some of the more abstract concepts align a bit with how Nobilis powers are defined; that’s tabletop rather than digital, but an interesting one to look at.

      I don’t know the African material nearly well enough to speak about it myself, and I tend to be cautious about using the spiritual imagery of cultures that aren’t part of my own heritage. But I’m certain in the right hands that material could also lead to very interesting outcomes.

      1. Thank you.
        I wouldn’t say I *know* the African material, but having lived in West-Africa for over a decade, and having met this stuff in my work as a counsellor, I have seen how strongly it defines life in those who haven’t freed themselves from it. The fact that all those spirits are evil, and only do good if they get more evil back, lies like a dark cloud over the whole issue – and over the lives of many. The saying that all Africans laugh at the outside and weep at the inside is at least true for many of my (obviously self-selected) clients.
        The one main myth that exists (in many shapes) is how this came to be. In one version, it tell about the great Creator God coming down one day to see how the world is doing, and being hit in the eye by a woman who was pounding and didn’t look up to see where the other end of her pestle went. Since then, the Creator sits in heaven, pouting, with all the good spirits whom He has called back up – leaving only the evil ones for us to deal with.
        (One reason Christianity spreads so fast there is that it has a direct answer: yes, we hurt God, but He is not pouting, but wants to re-establish the relationship, and came down again for that.)

  2. Mind if I link to your article if I write a piece in Pillars of Eternity’s concepts. Will be a case study of how they implemented their gods from a players perspective. With some light referral to Frazer’s Golden Bough and Levi-Strauss’s Myth & Meaning. Would take me a while to write though…

  3. I want to suggest yet another similarity between Greek mythology/religion and superheroes: Every once in a while, somebody comes along to retcon conflicting stories and put everything in some kind of system. That would be Hesiod for mythology and Roy Thomas for DC and Marvel, who found ways of accomodating both golden and silver age stories of superheroes.

    1. I wouldn’t frame the situation quite that way: for one thing, I’ve been writing content for Fallen London and related projects for nearly a decade now, so in that regard, being a Failbetter employee is less of a transition than it might seem; and for another, I don’t tend to think of the universe of Fallen London as primarily defined by its gods per se.

      However. I’ve always liked writing for that setting, in part because it does offer the author a wide range of resonant characters, institutions, and locations to deploy in stories. There’s enough specificity that it never feels like moving allegorical tokens around on the board.

      If you’re asking about the more general case — what does it mean to walk into a project of meaning-making that was started before you got there? — I’d say this.

      Engaging with pre-existing structures and lore is not the exception. It is the majority experience of writing within a mythology. Most authors who have ever written about ancient gods, or about superheroes, or about fairy tale figures, or even about heavily mythologized historical figures, are not inventing the characters or the lore. Instead, they’re finding the places in that structure where they have something to say, and they’re expanding or revising the story to contain their contribution.

      Sometimes that means rewriting something well known from an underrepresented perspective (how did the Wicked Witch of the West feel about Oz?) or overturning some aspect of canon (Helen never actually went to Troy at all) or revisiting a famous story in terms of what it means to us now (what does the life of Alexander Hamilton have to say about America’s identity in the 21st century?).

      You can find your place in a mythology by considering what you love about it, where you see yourself reflected. Or where it bothers you, where there’s something about the story that touches on a pain or dilemma in your life. Or you can find your place by identifying what you can’t stand, what offends you, what rings false, what desperately needs to be corrected. Or you can be a working professional assigned to expand on a particular area of an IP, and who has enough craft to develop plot hooks and character arcs when they’re made available to you.

      Perhaps the last option seems cynical. I don’t think it is. For many professional writers, writing is a practice by which we try to understand the world and share the truth that results.

  4. The bit about gods being associated with particular codes of conduct and reflecting that in conduct challenges really makes me think of the worship system in Desktop Dungeons, where your ability to obtain boons from your gods depends on a Piety stat, which increases when you do things your god likes and decreases when you do things your god doesn’t like. So, for example, if you’re worshiping the god of death, you gain piety whenever you kill a living thing, and lose piety whenever you use healing magic. There’s a trickster god who likes it when you use teleportation or confusion effects, and dislikes it when you take combat damage. It’s less absolute than “pacifist run” type challenges — more like an indulgence system, where you can afford a few transgressions now and then if you’ve been keeping your piety up generally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s