Deities, Laws, and the Consequences of Choice

For today’s article, I’d want to take another look at worldbuilding, specifically, some of the things that help a campaign world feel “alive” to your players.  We’re going to talk about choice and consequence.  One of the biggest selling points of tabletop roleplaying games is the freedom.  When a GM asks, “What do you do?”, the open-ended question can be answered (assuming the GM is not trying to railroad the players and focuses on having a “Yes, and…” attitude as we have discussed elsewhere) with a multitude of responses.  Roleplaying games, in theory, allow you to try literally anything you can think of that your character could reasonably attempt.  The fact that certain actions are statistically more or less likely to succeed is immaterial to the character’s ability to attempt them.

What happens when a character chooses to do something, however?  How does the world react?  If a character is alone in the woods, perhaps it does not react at all (or, if the character decides to set the forest on fire, perhaps it reacts both naturally and poorly for the character).  If the character is around other people, however, perhaps in a city, such interactions become much more complicated.  As in reality, for a world to feel “real” non-player characters must have their own beliefs, tendencies, quirks, and attitudes, and those may or may not mesh well with every player character that crosses their paths.  Let us examine a couple of common devices in both traditional and modern roleplaying games that a savvy GM might use for guidance on such matters.

We’ll begin our discussion with deities.  We all know them, or at least of them. Zeus and Hera, Odin and Freya, Ra and Apophis to name the most known of the ancients in the modern world (and we use those simply because polytheistic worlds seem to be the most popular in tabletop roleplaying games/settings). While not universal, some gaming worlds (the fantasy, particularly ones that could be labeled high-fantasy) seem to have them most often.  Dungeons and Dragons incorporates both the mythos of the different historical pantheons and has several gods of their own devising (Garl Glittergold, Bahamut, and Tiamat, among others – the list is massive but these are a few), along with customized pantheons for different settings such as Forgotten Realms, Tal’Dorei and Wildmount of Critical Role fame, Eberron, and others.

Are deities important in your game? Well, that’s a “yes and no” question, in my opinion.  They are only as important as the players and GMs wish to make them.  Mechanically, in Dungeons and Dragons before 5th Edition, to play a divine caster you were expected to choose a Deity to worship (primarily as a narrative explanation for receiving that character’s spells on a daily basis).  How much that Deity was involved in your character’s life was entirely between you and the GM (and in most cases, it never came up again). When 5th Edition was released, the requirements became more lax mechanically and the requirement was removed, even the Paladin Oaths were changed.

Flavor-wise on the other hand, deities can be very important if you allow them to be so. Priests as heads of state are often useful, and if you look at human history you can see the way the words of a single person, or even a group of them can change and either elevate or corrupt a population. I’m not going to list them here because I’m not giving a history lesson, nor am I interested in starting a debate. However, you can use examples from history to change and build your game world based on the deities, both good and evil, and how they communicate with their people.  Once you’ve done that, you can begin to look at how your NPCs’ actions would stem from a belief in the tenets of this deity or that one and how it might shape their reactions to your players’ characters.

Civil laws are another mechanism that one might use to do this.  They come in all different forms in the modern world. We have the standard laws that are meant to help society as a whole, but we also have laws that are confusing and strange (for example, there was a law in Alabama that it is illegal to walk down the street with an ice cream cone in your back pocket).  Most campaign worlds are assumed to have laws in one form or another, and they may even be broken down further into specifics for you.  If you look at Monte Cook Games’ recent release of Ptolus, they included a handout that had a list of Laws and the consequences for breaking them (see below). Laws are useful for both GM and player to give you a sense of structure of the society you are in and what is important to that society.  For example, if you look at America’s history, laws written in early cities like Boston or New York focused on very different things than laws written in the old West among the farming and ranching communities did.

A portion of a handout from Monte Cook Games’ Ptolus: the City by the Spire

As you put more emphasis on the deities and laws in your campaign world, you have to put an equal amount of emphasis on the consequences.  Those levels of emphasis need to feel like they match, otherwise the laws and deities don’t matter, and the players (and consequently their characters) won’t care about them, nor will they be able to use them to focus their efforts with your NPCs. Consequences for laws can be as simple as a fine to as deadly as an execution.  Consequences surrounding cultures of worship, however, can be much more nebulous, ranging from a simple increase in the price of goods sold to a nonbeliever, all the way up to ostracization from a community from being branded a heretic.  No matter what the consequences are, they need to be enforced for the world to continue to feel real.  

For example, if a group of NPCs worship a specific Deity, and your party dismisses it, or tries to badmouth it, how likely are those NPCs to talk to or deal with the party? We see this issue in the modern world, where people use their ‘words of god’ to degrade or dismiss other people. It’s not right, but it happens.  What about that rogue that just loves to pickpocket every single NPC that he can get to turn their back or loot every house they come across?  Thievery and punishment for it has been a thing for thousands of years.  Not only do we as humans like our stuff, we like it to be in the place where we left it when we go to look for it next.  We tend to get upset when it’s not there and cries of “hanging” begin to echo in the ears. On the other side of the coin, when a player chooses to follow a deity, it should also mean something. Guy Sclanders of “How to be a Great GM” did an excellent video on this entitled “Why Your Character Should be God-Fearing”.

Yes, tabletop roleplaying games are about making heroes and characters that the players themselves would not likely or could not likely be in real life.  But that does not mean that there should be no consequences to their actions.  A well-built campaign world will have those consequences flow from the setting organically, from the pieces that make it up and the core tenets of the power players in that world.  Could the players conceivably become powerful enough that they could rewrite those laws as they saw fit?  Of course, but there are consequences to that too.  There are always consequences.  Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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