Divine Dungeon-Mastering: Roleplaying the gods

Multiple tabletop fantasy rpgs now have varying classes where a player-characters’ abilities and powers are granted to them by a higher power, but it’s not as common for the player’s to ever have a chance to roleplay their relationship with their god. In some games I’ve played in, the character’s relationship with their deity or patron is never once addressed. Personally, I think this is a mistake as this strips the class of much of its flavor, and they’re basically just a wizard with a different spell-set.

Often times, I leave a player without divine-abilities to roleplay how their character views their religion as they see fit, but when a character actually has abilities, spells, and powers granted to them by their god, it gives me some opportunities to create some interesting roleplaying encounters. When running a new game for these types of characters, I ask them what gods they are granted abilities from and do a little bit of research before the game. I find out that god’s agenda, personality, and little quirks. Throughout the session, I may ask them about how they view their god, the first time their god spoke to them, etc.

Then in combat, that player begins casting spells, laying hands to heal their allies, channeling the divinity of their god. Here the flavor of the cleric, the divinely favored soul, and the paladin shine. Depending on their deity or oath can change the flavor and the look of these abilities. A Cleric of Kelemvor turning undead is different from a Paladin of Iomedae. Out of combat, you can impart whispers and secrets to these players, actually bringing the deity to the table as a fleshed out character and an important part of these characters’ lives.

Recently, in the server I DM for, there was a player-character who was a paladin of Bahamut. His actions in the last few games he’d participated in, coupled with the character’s somewhat Darwinist philosophy “the strong survive and the weak perish” had left myself and a few of the other DMs feeling like a fall was in order. He was failing to uphold his oath to his god.

I’d already worked with this player to establish his relationship to his god, even roleplaying out a flashback of him meeting the mighty dragon lord and being imbued with these powers. So when it came time to take them away, I wanted it to sting, to feel like a grand epic moment, a fall worthy of legend.

It is important to note here that my purpose was not to punish this player. Rather, the opposite, I wanted to respect his choices. A good game-master follows the choices of their players, altering the game-world based on the actions of its main characters. In this case, abandoning a comrade-in-arms and the weak in their time of need was something that the great silver dragon would not tolerate from his chosen disciple. My hope, was that this would start this character down the epic path to redeeming himself in the eyes of his god, a personal arc in his longer story.

So I gave the greatest dad-lecture a dragon has ever given, and before a vital combat-encounter, removed our paladin’s abilities. “Until you learn the true meaning of strength, I strip you of all the power I ever gave you.”

At first the player resented this, crushing his holy symbol of Bahamut when he returned to the guild hall. He tried to declare an oath to himself to have his powers returned. Eventually, we offered him the Oathbreaker Paladin features and he accepted that.

A few sessions later and I’m in the player’s seat, playing alongside the paladin who’s powers I’d removed as the DM. It was a grueling session full of tricky encounters, both combat and roleplaying. Our characters were being pushed to their brink, and we ultimately failed in our quest. We returned back to the guild hall, weary and defeated.

I had my character turn to this paladin and ask, “Do ya ever get tired of failing?” It was a natural question. My character had been on several failed runs by this point, always just barely surviving.

Then he turned to me and said, “If you never fail, you can’t appreciate your victories. If you’re always on top, you lose empathy for those who suffer.”

It was such a radical shift from the cocky dragonborn boasting about his abilities in the guild-hall, bragging about all the monsters he’d killed. The DM looked to me for permission, and we both agreed. Bahamut’s light filled our once-arrogant paladin and restored his powers, now having learned and grown as a person.

Without the attention to details like that, without actually getting to know our PCs deities and choices, we wouldn’t have had this moment, this truly wonderful character growth. He’d have been just another arrogant paladin, swinging his sword and smiting while acting like yet another murder-hobo player character.

Consider adding some more flavor to your games by getting to know your PCs choices in terms of their deities. Strike a big booming voice at the table when appropriate for a god’s anger, and a small whisper for their sage words of advice or signals of approval. These entities are a massive part of fantasy game worlds, so adding a personal touch will make them come alive at your table, and create some truly epic moments.

Dorian Dawes is the author of Harbinger Island and Mercs. Their non-fiction work has been published in the Huffington Post, Bitch Media, GayPopBuzz, and YourTango. You can support their work at patreon.com/doriandawes