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.
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?
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.
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.
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.