Monday, September 29, 2008

Mix and Match Pantheons

Erlik, Hanuman, Ishtar, Mitra, Set.

Athena, Odin, Seker, Thor, Thoth.

Loviatar, Mielikki, Oghma, Silvanus, Tyr.

Look at these lists. This is how you build a pantheon for a pulp fantasy setting: by stealing liberally from real world mythologies, warping them into what you want, and then adding details to make them better suit your setting. As ever, Robert E. Howard was the trailblazer. The deities of the Hyborian Age were often -- though not always -- based on those from historical cultures, much like the cultures of Hyboria themselves. I mentioned previously that I consider Howard's fictional prehistoric world to be one of the most perfect fantasy settings ever created. Part of it is the way that REH takes names that we either already know (or that sound like ones we already know) and then turns them to serve his own purposes. He gains the benefits of familiarity without any of the drawbacks, in the process creating a setting that manages to transcend pastiche. In my opinion, that's exactly what any good referee wants to do in creating pantheons for his campaign setting.

When I was younger, I found this "mix and match" approach to be unsatisfactory. It seemed "unrealistic" to me and I obsessed over trying to come up with what I saw as believable collections of gods. As I've grown older, I've come to embrace the liberating power of incoherence a bit more. I've also realized that, just because I might swipe a name or a concept from real world mythology, that doesn't mean I'm bound by its specifics. Indeed, I should use the real world referents as touchstones for unleashing my own creativity. That's what Howard did and that's what Gygax did. It's a fine pulp fantasy tradition and I think the random goulash of gods stolen from any source not nailed to the floor is one that should be promoted more widely.

Over the next few days, I'll try to post some of my notes as I create my own pantheon to show you how and why I've made the choices I make. It's my hope that I can illustrate better some of what I'm talking about here, in addition to creating something that I (and perhaps others) might find useful in their own campaigns.

Stay tuned.

14 comments:

  1. I have always enjoyed this approach to pantheon creation, so I look forward to your forthcoming fabrications!

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  2. I can't find the darn thing at the moment, but years ago I wrote up dice charts for building your own pantheon out of the DDG.

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  3. I was hesitent to do the same when I was younger. There were a lot of really cool divine entities in Deities & Demigods, but I didn't want to haul an entire myth circle along just to use the ones I liked.

    I eventually realized that the only people who were going to see "my" gods were my players, not some larger audience. Once I got over that little hurdle, I got down to cherry-picking my favorites and added them to a brew seasoned with my own homebrew gods.

    Now I have a major pantheon for the old empire that contains Math, the celtic god of magic, a couple of Finnish goddesses, a Chinese goddess, the Norse god of Winter, Issek of the Jug, Yamamoto Date, Hastur, Xiombarg, Yig, the Evil Elementals from the Fiend Folio, Murphy the god of ill-fortune, and Omm the Many Legged from an issue of the Conan comic book. Thow all those up against a creation myth that mentions that some of the early gods came from Somewhere Else during the formation of the world and it somehow works.

    I just figured that the old empire was very Roman in their attitude toward borrowing gods from other cultures. It's my world anyway. I'd rather use things that I find neat rather than make a poor replica to replace them.

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  4. Mike,

    That's terrific. Sounds very similar to the kind of pantheon I hope to come up with.

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  5. Exactly what I did

    here http://home.earthlink.net/~wilderlands/gods.html

    DANNU (DAN-NU) - The Mother of Mercy, Lady of the Green Earth, the Hearth Mother
    SYMBOL: A Sheaf of Wheat on a Green Circle

    HAMAKHIS (HA-MA-KISS) - The Deathlord, Lord of Undeath, The Final Judge
    SYMBOL: A White Skull

    KALI (KAA-LEE) - The Black Mother, The Death Crone, Lady of Illusions
    SYMBOL: The Kris Knife (Wavy Bladed Dagger)

    MITRA (MI-TRA) -The Red Maiden, The Lady of the White Hand, Lady of Paladins
    SYMBOL: The White Hand on a Red Circle, The White Lion

    NEPHTHYS (Nep-thee-is) - The Bargainer, The Golden Lady, The Queen of Opalescence
    SYMBOL: Three Golden Coins

    PTAH (TAH) - The Craftsman, The Star Lord, The Father of Multitudes
    SYMBOL: A silver chime with a golden hammer.

    SET (SET) - The Serpant Lord, The Dragon, the Night Hunter
    SYMBOL: A serpant head on a black circle

    SILVANUS (SIL-VAN-US) - The Forest King, The Dreamlord
    SYMBOL: A Azure (Blue) Bowl

    THOTH (THAWTH) - The Immortal Sage, The Bearer of the Lantern
    SYMBOL: Lantern

    THOR - The Lord of Icy Winds, Thunderer of the Gods.
    SYMBOL: Hammer

    Enjoy
    Rob Conley

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  6. I always have trouble deciding the path to take in this area.

    1. Pseudo-Christianity + pseudo-druidism + pseudo-diabolism.

    This has always seemed like a perfect fit. It fits the original Law/Neutral/Chaotic alignments. The “old school” Cleric looks awfully pseudo-Christian.

    I’ve always had something of a Arthurian + historical medieval bent in my approach to D&Damp;.

    2. REH style.

    Steal deities from history and twist them to your needs. Each nation tend to worship a specific deity.

    I am trying to cultivate a more pulp fantasy bent.

    3. REH → pantheon

    Steal deities from history and twist the to your needs, but they now form a pantheon instead of being individual national deities.

    4. Anything goes

    All the deities in D&DG exist. And more.

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  7. 1. Pseudo-Christianity + pseudo-druidism + pseudo-diabolism.

    That's one of my defaults as well, but I wanted to get away from that for this new campaign setting, because it's got a less "medieval" feel to it and one that's more rooted in pulp fantasy.

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  8. I find it interesting that the 3rd set you've put together is a subset of the Diety's that exist in Ed Greenwood's FR. There are a few others stolen from pantheons, but the rest of his are creations, or the demihuman pantheons.

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  9. I find it interesting that the 3rd set you've put together is a subset of the Diety's that exist in Ed Greenwood's FR.

    Greenwood's Realms. The real Forgotten Realms is an old school setting. I've been re-reading some of Ed's old articles from early issues of the Dragon and it's remarkable how different the setting he describes in them seems from what TSR/WotC made of it.

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  10. For that matter, neither the World of Greyhawk or Castle Zagyg are really Gary’s campaign world. They are “cleaned up” and expanded for publication variations on the theme.

    Perhaps Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign is the closest glimpse we get to what a real, working “old school” campaign looked like.

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  11. Perhaps Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign is the closest glimpse we get to what a real, working “old school” campaign looked like.

    It's certainly a contender, although I'd say some of the Arduin stuff comes close as well.

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  12. Greenwood's Realms. The real Forgotten Realms is an old school setting. I've been re-reading some of Ed's old articles from early issues of the Dragon and it's remarkable how different the setting he describes in them seems from what TSR/WotC made of it.

    Oh, I agree completely. I started playing the FR with the articles he created, and jumped on the box set when it was released in '86. I even managed to get Ed to sign them at the local con in Peterborough. He had some interesting comments to make this year about how things are going.

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  13. I think the mix and match pantheon is a wonderful thing if you make some attempt to disguise your influences (as, say, Ed Greenwood does). Just shake things up a bit, change the look or the sex of a deity or maybe write some new mythology. I've borrowed from all sorts of pantheons in a world where the Norse Ragnarok has already taken place and the world survived. I've also given PCs the chance to take the test of the gods and many attained godhood, so many old favorite characters are mixed in with my mix and match pantheon. I think it will work quite well.

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