I am in a discord server with Deven, and when she posted this essay I asked if I could share it with you all. She graciously said "yes." She covers the basics of cleric relations with gods, gods in various D&D settings and how they're handled, different tiers of gods, how you can tweak them for your setting, and finally some features you can give your gods. Please leave a like and comment and enjoy the essay! - Sarah
I was around a discussion about using gods and religions recently and it made me want to examine the idea of gods in D&D and different ways they’re used. This isn’t to push one superior way to run them, rather to examine different approaches to gods for campaigns.
Gods usually have some basic traits in Core:
1) Gods have clerics. The most basic assumption is the cleric; gods empower worshippers with magic and have domains. This assumption is needed for the cleric class to work. So, no matter what, it's important that clerics can reach the end of the campaign unless the class is getting a major overhaul.
2) They’re immortal and can’t be easily killed - usually coming back, unless specific circumstances interfere. The death (and subsequent resurrection) of a god is a common plot in D&D stories and something players can get involved in and can be the hook of many adventures.
3) They are extraplanar – existing as beings of magic on other planes they rule. This keeps them from being very approachable at low tiers, but are central fixtures of planar adventures. When thinking about gods, consider the plane or realm they inhabit and how it reflects their agenda, your players may visit them in dreams, in death or in person.
4) They have power over a Domain – this is usually uncontested, so no water creature can usually rival a sea god for example. Their domain is usually their most defining feature and the first one players will look to when understanding a god. When making gods, consider how much a god’s connection to a domain is a thing that is apart of godhood rather than just a cleric mechanic.
5) They’re invested in souls – most settings have a death god but usually souls go to their god by default to dwell in their plane and when this doesn’t happen something messed up. When a PC dies and goes to their god’s afterlife, it opens up some great between resurrection scenes, and diverted souls is always good for a high level plot.
6) They’re worshipped – Gods tend to receive prayers, rituals and celebrations to them. Where gods are relevant to clerics or cultures, it’s worth thinking about the flavour of those rituals to help flesh out a cleric or how the god is venerated in their culture. Disrupted rituals and holidays are great set pieces for an adventure.
A common trope for gods is that worship gives power to the god, acting as a power source or sustenance. The idea that robbing a god of worship can weaken the god or even cause it to starve is also common. Personally, I don’t like this concept. It works as a great metaphor for belief in institutions, but it’s not something players can usually engage with except for already forgotten gods who are usually trying to reclaim their power.
For me it raises chicken-egg questions. If the gods created the world and creates a weakness that other powerful beings, like warlock patrons, don’t have, this makes gods feel less potent. It also gives the impression that their aid is a kind of con, which culminated in the thankfully retired wall of the faithless in FR where all gods condemned non-believers in death in order to sustain worship. It feels very reductive of what divine beings can be and closes off some more esoteric forms of gods.
A similar idea that has less issues is that worship grants influence. Through connection to their worshippers, gods can influence the world beyond their plane without having to personally show up. This creates a similar need for worship and justifies both the need and reason for clerics as well as why gods can act in some ways but not others. The gods need heroes (and villains) to oppose their enemies because they’re beyond the god’s reach.
Gods in Dungeons & Dragons
In core D&D, gods are usually assumed to be cosmic beings of epic level that are basically invincible and each act as a separate entity pushing their agenda in the material plane. But that’s not the only way D&D runs gods and clerics. Let's look at specific settings and how they handle gods.
Exandria: Gods in Wildemount are mostly based on the 4e pantheon. Gods are distant and few in number but once walked the world, cannot intervene directly but are very invested in mortal welfare so they need to work through agents. They are ancient, cosmic beings that made the world and every race on it and largely work as united factions while minding their own purview. Their actions defined the setting’s history.
Lesser divinities exist, which work as both warlock patrons and minor gods. Wildemount calls them lesser idols but 4e calls them exarchs, less setting defining beings like demon lords and archfey who build a mortal following.
Theros: In Exandria, the gods defined history and are distant; in Theros the gods define the present and exist on the world. It’s based on classical myth so the gods are epic beings of major concepts in the world and are responsible for the functioning of major forces in the setting. Their actions defining everything from countries to the natural laws of the world. Theros introduces a piety system that rewards you with innate spellcasting for serving your god’s agenda, regardless of class.
Eberron: Gods in Eberron are a matter of faith and religion; religion ascribes divine will to natural forces in the world, and defines them as gods of a pantheon. Clerics gain power from their belief and innate connection, and accept on faith that the gods have their hands in the world and that the cleric is one of those "hands." Some religions ignore the idea of gods but still gain clerical power from their faith and rituals and practices. Gods may exist, but as cosmic forces, not discreet beings you can interact with.
Ravnica: Like Eberron, Ravnica has no discreet gods. Unlike Eberron, Ravnica has no gods at all. Cleric is just one kind of magic and mostly similar to warlocks; powerful beings like the demon Rakdos, angel Aurelia and fey trinity Trostani, recieve worship and have clerics but are primarily focused on their role as political leaders. The religious guild, the Orzhov, is a banking syndicate that binds souls, but while it has doctrine it has no idols. Being a cleric in Ravnica is basically a profession.
Forgotten Realms: I often describe Faerun as a patchwork quilt of fantasy ideas and that applies to its gods. Faerun sets the direction of gods in D&D, but at the same time anything goes for a given story. Gods in Faerun are countless, each concept can often have a different god for each race, and there are a number of only slightly different concepts. All Faerun gods are assumed to be epic level and dwell on the outer planes but exceptions exist, usually due to special circumstances (see Rime of the Frostmaiden). How much gods can or will interfere is based mostly on the needs of a story. Sometimes they show up casually, other times it takes extreme measures, but rarely do they solve problems themselves.
Exalted: Exalted is not a D&D setting but it has an interesting take on fantasy gods worth noting; more like the Chinese Shen than Greek or Christian style. In Exalted, gods are just celestial spirits in a heavenly bureaucracy. They are assigned a job by the bureaucracy which gives them power equivalent to the thing they are assigned to look after. The more important the job the more power the god has.
So, while the gods of the Sun and Moon are incredibly powerful, you have a pyramid of less powerful gods working under eachother; some who watch over entire domains like war and are suitably epic, others who are assigned to a single mountain, city or river and are much less powerful, akin to tier 1 or 2 creatures. Gods are normally ethereal unless they expend power to take physical form, so you don’t see them often, even when they’re there.
Turning the Dials
D&D is happy to tweak and reinvent its gods for its settings. Here’s some various dials that can be adjusted to help gods fit your game.
Gods as epic – D&D usually assumes gods are epic and unbeatable. Tiamat was CR 30 in her adventure, but there’s no reason gods need to be this strong. Auril in Frost Maiden was only about CR 10, and many feats ascribed to gods in myth are things appropriate to tier 2 or 3 play. A god’s strength can depend on how you want to use the god in your game. If they’re weaker it may be worth considering if this is normal or exceptional and how this affects worshippers both living and dead. This lends itself very well to local pantheons, where each culture has their own gods, without cluttering the planes with unbeatable epic foes. Also consider what dragons and other epic beasts think of gods less powerful than themselves and how that effects their relationship with the divine.
Gods as immortal – Considering gods aren’t supposed to die, D&D has a vast graveyard of dead gods and you can too! Normally gods respawn when killed, but 4e posited the idea that each god has a weakness that can kill them permanently and Faerun had dozens of situations that killed gods ‘for good’. If you’re going to run a deicide game, it’s worth deciding if this is something precedented in your setting or if it requires extraordinary circumstances. What happens when a god dies? Do their clerics lose their magic? Does someone take their place? Does their plane collapse? Does the world? Does something else arise?
Gods as extraplanar – D&D usually assumes that gods aren’t turning up to solve everyone’s problems or run their societies, but myths often feature gods showing up and chilling out in the wilds or the halls of kings (usually right before the cursing starts). If gods show up casually in your world, it’s best to think about how this effects your societies, your adventures and your players. If the god is too helpful they can feel like a GMPC, but if they’re too obnoxious it can be aggravating if they can’t be messed with; lower tier gods might be good for this. Consider also the planes of your setting, what happens to souls if the gods aren’t hosting them and where do various extraplanar beings come from.
Gods as moral – D&D ascribes a specific alignment to each god, and the Gods of Good vs Gods of Evil divide is a major theme in D&D. But like alignment itself, it doesn’t need to be used for gods. Perhaps alignment is just something cultures use to view gods; a god who is the patron of a city is viewed as good by that city but evil by that city’s enemies. Same for gods of races; perhaps Gruumsh is a lawful good god of survival and strong leadership to orcs, but a chaotic evil bloodthirsty monster to elves. Perhaps law and chaos are the big divide between the gods and good/evil is just the temperament of individual gods in the pantheon. Perhaps gods are more like natural forces and their alignment is reflective of the viewer’s expectations. Do away with alignment completely and make divine divides between something different like a central family and outcasts, or those who tolerate a type of monster and those who don’t. Consider how this effects religious heresies in your game and how good clerics can be considered evil in certain cultures (and vice versa) as well as how this impacts interactions with the divine such as the Commune spell.
Gods as singular – D&D usually assumes a cleric worships a god who is worshipped alone, but there is no need for this to be the case. In history, many mystery cults would worship a handful of connected gods in a pantheon, or one high deity and then call on various lesser ones for specific things. For example, perhaps each race has its own pantheon which is worshipped as a whole and gives specific domains, or three gods of night, the moon and dreams are worshipped in tandem by an elven sect, giving the twilight domain. A cleric’s ‘god’ could also be a collective of lesser spirits too weak to have their own clerics, all crowdsourcing them together. Finally there is a lot of examples in D&D of clerics just worshipping a cosmic force like ‘good’ or ‘storms’, opening the door to non-deistic clerics and religions. Consider how a cleric might be depicted when worshipping a larger, conflicting or less distinct set of deities and if there are any myths they hold sacred.
Gods as creature category – Gods in D&D tend to be their own category of creature, even when stats give them a creature type, they are a god first, anything else second. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Perhaps various creatures in your world are worshipped as gods and provide divine power; a great wyrm worshipped by a dragon cult, an archfey who is revered by artists, or the unwitting priests of a slumbering Old One. Normally these would be warlocks but perhaps they don’t have that kind of close relationship, instead gaining clerical powers from the worship of a being. Critical Role c2 provided a great example of this with the Traveler. Consider how this worship effects both the being and other gods and how this challenges the assumptions of religion in the setting.
Gods as active - Gods tend to be passive actors in the setting, their main job is to empower people with magic and the world works as it does on earth. Gods don’t really need to do anything beyond be inspiring. Exceptions exist, but usually for more esoteric things like the Raven Queen judging souls or Mystra managing magic. Myths abound with nature being managed by gods; the sun and moon, storms, even laws of the land required divine support to function. Pelor could take the sun for a walk every day or cultures need to consecrate changed laws to Erathis to prevent legal corruption. In less overt examples the gods subtly managing nature could cause omens, with soothsayers being a common profession. Consider how best to communicate these breaks from reality and ways players can interact with them. Can religion be used to determine omens? Could a high level party walk the sun around the world for Pelor while he deals with a far realm incursion?
Tiers and Gods
Gods can be represented at various tiers of play as the setting and plot needs, but it’s worth considering how a god would come across at various tiers based on the power creatures have at that level when players actually encounter them directly.
Tier 1 gods: Gods at this tier are minor spirits and likely fairly common. The kind who would show up at a farmer’s shrine to flit around the woods or bless a small field. Gods don’t really have the power to be more than dudes doing their god things. The Twinga from Tomb of Annihilation model this idea well. Studio Ghibli movies present inspiration for gods of this strength in My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away. Clerics of Tier 1 gods likely can’t become PCs unless gods are working in tandem to empower a cleric or acting as an intermediary for more powerful gods. Otherwise the cleric will rapidly outpower their god, who would be better to use the supernatural gifts system.
Tier 2 gods: Gods at this tier make good small gods of specific things; the guardian of a river or a mountain or perhaps a god who has has forsaken their role or been weakened like Auril. Gods at this tier are pretty much indistinguishable from fey and more sapient elementals and that may be their role. Mythical nymphs and land spirits make good inspiration for a tier two god. Clerics of tier two gods tend to have more localized concerns, since most games don’t reach tier 3, clerics of tier 2 gods usually won’t outpower their god in actual play.
Tier 3 gods: Gods at this tier are like gods of greek and norse myth; powerful divine kings, great immortal heroes who can slay giants, capable of feats beyond what normal folks can do, but don’t have the casual cosmic power that’s common in really high tier D&D. Gods at this tier are grand personages that are nonetheless still mortal in their mannerisms and flaws, and their epic feats still require effort on their part. Clerics of these gods are likely part of cultures directly patroned by those gods, and heroes can actually imagine being able to trick, defy or defeat them.
Tier 4 gods: Gods of this tier are functionally equivalent to beings listed as warlock patrons, epic planar threats but not invincible. In a lot of respects, there isn’t much difference between a god like Tiamat and an archfiend; immortal powers of evil bound to other planes that can threaten a world by their mere presence, widely worshipped by secret cults of evil creatures, served by powerful monstrous beings. Gods of this tier blur the line between divinity and planar power. While the game often presents gods at tier 5, fiction often presents them at this one, being fallible and vulnerable if the story needs them to be. Tier 4 gods are what the game considers lesser god or Exarchs and usually have more specific purviews than tier 5 gods. For clerics there is little difference between a tier 4 or 5 god but a tier 4 god can make a much more feasible final boss for a campaign.
Tier 5 gods: Gods at this tier are the standard, CR 30 beings of phenomenal cosmic power that still need your help, dwelling on planes they rule as uncontested powers since the dawn of time. Their actions likely defined the setting: building the world, creating the mortal races, scars of their conflicts likely created major plot hooks. Gods of this tier are functionally invincible. If they can die at all, it takes another god or extraordinary circumstances to kill them and likely will never come up in play. Gods at this tier are more like fixtures of the setting than actors, defining the various factions but not really getting involved, their role is more to provide depth and backstory to clerics and various monsters and plots than to be someone a character interacts with.
Considering all the ways gods can show up, it’s quite possible to need to give a god stats so the players can fight them. A few gods (Tiamat, Bahamut, Auril) have received unqiue statblocks that can be used as a baseline. However, Domains of Delight presented the idea of using Archfey as a template you can add onto any existing creature and there is no reason that we can’t add godhood to a creature in the same way.
When applying a god template it’s important to decide what the minimum tier of CR a creature needs to be in order to have the template. Also remember that most campaigns won’t go from level 1 to 20 so it’s likely wise to apply it to a creature the players can actually fight.
Here are a few abilities you can commonly apply to a god, though it’s wise to give them some unqiue abilities as well. Some abilities aren’t appropriate to every tier of play. Not every ability needs to be used for every kind of god.
Resurrection (tier 1+): When this creature drops to 0 HP, its body vanishes and its essence travels back to its domain and reforms some time later. Not even a Wish can prevent this but the god may have a unique weakness that can permanently kill them.
Divine Innate Casting (tier 1+): The god can innately cast some spells appropriate to its concept once or three times per day each.
This could be spells from its domain spell list, one or more cleric spells (Tiamat could cast Divine Word) or a set of spells appropriate to its concept, such as a storm god casting Storm Sphere. It's best not to give them full access to the cleric spell list. While divine, many spells may be athematic or too much hassle to track in combat. If you want to give them flexible casting just let them cast Wish or a unique effect with similar flexibility.
Divine Being (tier 1+): This creature can’t be surprised and can’t be changed into another form against it’s will.
This is Auril’s trait and it’s a good one, ensuring the god remains a functional enemy. In addition, immunites to shutdown (like stun and incapacitated) as well as non-magical weapons help to reinforce the god’s impact. For higher tier gods, Tiamat also has Limited Magic Immunity, giving immunity to spells of a certain level and lower. This helps keep a more epic feel for the god.
Legendary Resistance (tier 2+): The god can use legendary resistance a number of times equal to its tier. If it’s mythic, then it can use half (rounded up) and gains the other half in its mythic phase.
Mythic Creature (tier 2+): 1/rest if the god would be reduced to 0hp, it instead resets its hp to full, regains the use of any expended abilities, removes any conditions affecting it and gains access to its mythic actions (two additional stronger legendary actions).
This mechanic was introduced in Theros and used again in Fizban’s and it’s a good mechanic for creating an epic boss battle that a god may suit very well.