Gods in D&D

Do you have deities in your campaign? How many? What are they called? What are their portfolios? Are they active in the world or mysterious and withdrawn?

For some DMs, deities are one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building: a fun way to define their setting. For others, gods and demigods are just a headache, a chore, and something they wish the game could do without. In this article, I’m going to look at the history of deities within the game and some suggestions for how to introduce divinity into your game in perhaps more imaginative ways.

A (selective) history

Do clerics need a deity? Many players assume the answer is ‘yes’ and has always been the case. The reality is perhaps a little more nuanced.

Image result for 1974 basic set D&D

I wasn’t able to consult the 1974 boxed set (‘original D&D’), but from what I could find online, there is no list of deities, and clerics are more or less a half-way house between ‘magic-users’ and ‘fighting-men’. I’m not even sure there are any references to ‘gods’ or ‘deities’ in the original Men & Magic booklet. What’s more, from what I’ve read of Gygax and home campaign, he didn’t bother much with specific deities in the earlier years either. Since his players’ characters were generally low level, he assumed they were unlikely to interact directly with the gods, so he glossed over them. Some of his players ended up taking matters into their own hands and started to call on deities from Greek and Norse mythology and even Howard’s Conan stories. When his players evenntually asked Gygax to give them a deity of his own creation – something less vague than just ‘the gods’ – he jokingly invented Saint Cuthbert. In-game stats were eventually presented for Thor, Zeus, and so on in the fourth D&D supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, in 1976.

Image result for D&D red box basic set

The 1977 ‘Basic Rules’ (as opposed to ‘Advanced D&D’) describes clerics as ‘humans who have dedicated themselves to one or more of the gods.’ Are these gods listed? No. The ‘red box’ of 1983 goes one step further, saying that the cleric is ‘dedicated to serving a great and worthy cause [. . .] usually the cleric’s Alignment; for example, a cleric may be dedicated to spreading law and order.’ Strikingly, it goes on to say this: ‘In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs. This game does not deal with those beliefs.’ Correspondingly, no gods or deities are listed.

From what I can see, the 1st edition AD&D Player’s Handbook (1978) also doesn’t have much to say on the subject of gods. It states that ‘a cleric is dedicated to a deity, or deities’ (italics mine), and that their spells are ‘bestowed upon them by a deity for correct and diligent prayers and deeds’, but again, no list of deities is provided or referred to.

Image result for dieties and demigods

This all changed in 1980 with the publication of Deities & Demigods, a 144-page hardcover supplement which provided background details and in-game stats for 17 different pantheons: some from fiction (eg, Cthulhu), some for nonhumans (eg, Moradin and Gruumsh), and the rest from real-life sources (eg, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic). Deities & Demigods also addressed questions like how clerics of these religions should behave and how they are affected by the afterlife. The book was later repackaged as Legends & Lore to avoid potential conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, but the content remained more or less the same.

Like the first edition, the 2nd edition of AD&D (1989) does not provide a list of deities. Again, the Player’s Handbook refers to the cleric (now a type of ‘priest’) as ‘a believer and advocate of a god from a particular mythos,’ but goes on to say this, which is interesting: ‘In the simplest version of the AD&D game, clerics serve religions that can be generally described as “good” or “evil.” Nothing more needs to be said about it; the game will play perfectly well at this level.’ The game continued to assume that clerics were servants of a divine power, however, and a second edition of Legends & Lore was published using much of the original text.

An interesting change came in 2000 with the advent of 3rd edition. Here, as with the red box, the Player’s Handbook explicitly states that ‘some clerics devote themselves not to a god but to cause or source of divine power.’ The gods of the Player’s Handbook were borrowed from Greyhawk. Deities and Demigods returned to D&D in April 2002 and discussed different models of religion, from the traditional ‘loose’ pantheon of D&D, to monotheism, dualism, and animism. 4th edition in 2008 arguably tightened things up again, stating that a cleric ‘must choose a deity compatible with [their] alignment’.

And now 5e. Here again, as in fourth edition, it is assumed that clerics are ‘divine agents’. Indeed, the Player’s Handbook even states that ‘the most important question to eonsider is whieh deity to serve and what principies you want your character to embody.’ An appendix, ‘Gods of the Multiverse,’ provides a summary of various fictional and historical pantheons, but with none of the detail of Deities and Demigods.

Your world, your rules

Image result for shar selune

Todd Lockwood

Many D&D players assume that a D&D world has to have gods. Not just gods, but a pantheon of gods: something for every alignment, every domain. This is certainly an option, but there are others.

Monotheism. Perhaps the people of your world worship an overdeity or creator god. The different domains could be different aspects of the same deity. Perhaps the deity is worshipped by different names in different churches. Is the god neutral, at the centre of all things? Good: a force for hope? Or evil: an inescapable darkness that haunts every corner of the world?

Dualism. Instead of a pantheon, you could have just two deities in opposition with one another. What do they represent? Sun and moon? Law and chaos? Life and death? In the same way that the world of The Dark Crystal is ruled by the mystical urRu and the hideous skeksis, your world could be defined by two primal forces. Perhaps, like the urRu and the skeksis, your deities started as a single god that split somehow into two.

Pantheons. The default for many D&D worlds: perhaps you want lots and lots of gods. If so, consider the various cleric domains, the nine alignments, the twelve core classes. Is there someone for everyone to worship? You need to decide if it is a ‘tight’ pantheon where all the gods belong to one religion (eg, the gods of Asgard or Mount Olympus) or a ‘loose’ pantheon like hte gods of Greyhawk and Faerûn. Are there different deities for different ancestries: gnomes, dwarves, elves, and so on?

Animism. This is the idea that spirits inhabit every part of the natural world: animals, plants, stones, fire, wind. In Legend of the Five Rings, for instance, shugenja cast their spells by calling on spirits called the kami to aid them.

Cheats. Do you want to steal the deities from another campaign setting, or skip over the lore completely? Don’t feel bad about it! You can always introduce new elements later, and if it’s good enough for Gygax, it’s good enough for you. Even if you use the gods of Asgard and Olypmus in your world, they will still be defined by your fiction, not the myths and legends of our world. (I would, however, avoid real-life religions: apart from running the risk of offending someone, it’s also jarring, and potentially breaks the immersion in a fantasy setting.)

Whatever model of divinity you go with, you should probably think about your answers to some of the questions below.

  • Are the gods all powerful, or are there limits to their divinity?
  • What do they know that mortals do not?
  • How did they become gods? Is it possible to ascend to godhood or give it up? Can divinity be stolen or earned?
  • Do they need worshippers? Why do mortals worship them? Out of love? Fear? Gratitude?
  • Are the gods benevolent, hostile, or indifferent? Are they active or distant?
  • Where do they reside? Why do they live there? Can mortals reach them?
  • Can they die? If so, how?

In my current campaign, which started as a dark fantasy one-shot, the gods are almost forgotten: they slumber in distant worlds beyond the prime material, and the churches and cults that do exist are both corrupt and corrupting. Yet there are occasional glimpses of divine power: an answered prayer, perhaps, or an ancient artifact. It’s a story thread I plan to take further.

And no religion, too

Finally: there’s nothing wrong with a godless campaign setting.

‘Blasphemy!’ Really? Let’s take an example of how it might work.

Image result for aeris gainsborough

Meet Aerith Gainsborough (originally transliterated as ‘Aeris’). If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you played Final Fantasy VII. Aeris is never given a class in the game, but she is clearly part of the white mage tradition within the Final Fantasy franchise. She has high magic stats, fights with rods and staves, and her special abilities (‘limit breaks’) heal the party. In D&D, she would probably be a healing-domain cleric. She even grows flowers in a church. Yet there is no organized religion in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Neither are there deities, only ‘the Planet’ and a mysterious, ethereal substance called ‘Lifestream’.

To me, Final Fantasy VII is a really neat example of how you can have divine magic without deities. Don’t feel beholden to what has gone before: make your gods unique.

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Where Do D&D Monsters Come From?

There are some quite contentious claims out there about the origins of D&D’s creature catalogue. Was D&D inspired primarily by Tolkien and European folklore, for example, or was it more international? How many monsters did Gary Gygax invent, and how many are based on real-life mythologies?

I decided to do some research. For the sake of brevity (and my own sanity), I have restricted myself to the monsters listed in the 5th edition Monster Manual. I ignored the generic NPCs in Appendix B and the real-life fauna of Appendix A (including dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures like the sabre-toothed tiger). I also chose to ignore:

  • giant versions of real-life fauna (unless they have a specific literary origin somewhere);
  • swarms (unless they refer to creatures without stats elsewhere, like rotgrubs);
  • animated versions of real-life things (like flying swords and awakened shrubs);
  • ‘demicreatures’ like half-ogres and half-dragons;
  • juvenile or mature versions of the same creature (eg, the young remorhaz);
  • and, in general, subtypes of the same creature (eg, abominable yetis, grick alphas, different types of zombie, and so on).

Doing so gave me a list of 215 creatures to research.

A couple of disclaimers. Number one: this is a blog post, not scholarship. I may have made some mistakes here. In fact, I almost certainly have. By all means let me know in the comments! Number two: it is impossible to be completely scientific with such an exercise. Some monsters have very specific origins, like the couatl and the yeti. For others, pinning down an exact source is liking trying to decide who invented hummus. For example, many of the monsters that came to D&D via Tolkien were themselves based on other mythologies. [Update: I would also add a third disclaimer: this post is not exhaustive! I would go mad trying to write about every single one of the 215 creatures, so please accept my apologies for not doing so.]

I referred to a number of sources in making this but was particularly indebted to u/phdemented on Reddit. Do check out their posts for more detail!

Without further ado . . .

French (2)

There might not be many French creatures in the Monster Manual, but at least they can claim to have given D&D its most fearsome foe. The tarrasque (one ‘r’ in the original) is a Provençal legend about a fearsome dragon-like hybrid. The D&D tarrasque, however, is actually much closer to a Godzilla-esque kaiju. The word ogre is also French, and has other cognates in D&D like ‘Orcus’ and ‘orc’.

Update: there is some debate as to where gargoyles (‘gargouilles’) belong here. I include them further down, since the architectural feature pre-dates the mythological creature, but it’s a fair claim!

Roman (2)

Lemures (devil fodder in D&D) were restless, malignant spirits in Roman mythology. Manes (demon fodder) were also di inferi or ‘those who dwell below’, but according to St Augustine, where Lemures were generally bad souls, it was uncertain whether Manes ‘deserve well or ill’.

German/Central Europe (3)

Given the cultural influence of the Brothers Grimm, I was surprised how few D&D creatures could truly be traced back to German origins. I could only pin down three: the kobold (which is related to the colour cobalt), the imp, and the mephit (which was essentially just another form of imp, originally). Doppelgangers are not dissimilar to the changelings of Nordic and Germanic stories, but similar changelings appear in other cultures.

Unique origins (3)

The couatl is the only creature I could find with a Mesoamerican origin. The clay golem originated in Jewish folklore. Zombies come from the traditions of Haiti, which may in turn have roots in west or central Africa.

Egyptian (3 4)

Although mummified corpses have been found on every continent, the D&D mummy is clearly based on those of ancient Egypt. The jackalwere and the the androsphinx are also Egyptian in origin. (Curiously, the sphinx also existed in ancient Greece, but there it was usually a woman, not a man.) Update: while griffons appear in ancient Greek texts, their origins lie in Egypt and Iran.

East Asian (5)

The dragon turtle (Lóngguī) is a legendary Chinese creature that combines two of the four celestial animals of Chinese mythology. The gold dragon was also based on Chinese dragons. Kenku and oni, meanwhile, have their origins in Japanese mythology.

One curiosity here is the arcanaloth. @DeerServas on Twitter suggested that this may have come from The Book of Imaginary Beings where it is listed as ‘the Chinese Fox’. This may in turn have come from the Japanese stories of kitsune. [Update: another possible origin is the French stories of Reynard the Fox. We might not be able to find a true source for this one!]

Arabic, Islamic, and Persian (6)

The djinni, efreeti, ghoul, manticore, marid, and roc all come from one or more of these sources. (The term ‘efreeti’ is actually a mistake, as Keith Ammann helpfully points out, and we should probably call them ‘efreets’.) Curiously, the last of the four genie, the dao or earth genie, is an invention for D&D. Presumably the original game designers wanted one genie for each of the four elements. Update: the griffon probably belongs here or in the Egypt category, too.

Indian and South Asian (6)

Devas, nagas, and rakshasas appear in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Mariliths, though an invention of D&D, bear a strong resemblance to Hindu and Buddhist demons, and in a similar vein, weretigers closely resemble rakshasas. Finally, yetis are a cryptid from the Himalayas.

Toys (6)

Bulettes.jpg

Seriously? Yes! Six of the most iconic D&D monsters – the bulette, carrion crawler, owlbear, purple worm, rust monster, and umber hulk – were invented by Gary Gygax based on a bag of cheap plastic toys.

English (6)

Several, including bugbears, duergar, and will-o’-wisps. Hobgoblins can be found in English and Scottish stories. Cloud giants were inspired by the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. The basilisk and the cockatrice have a shared origin (and indeed, the terms were almost interchangeable).

Occultism (6)

Several ‘outsiders’ like the azer, barbed devil, barlgura, bearded devil, planetar, and solar have their origins in occult texts like the Ars Goetia (17th century) and Lewis Spence’s An Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920).

Real world (6)

As I wrote at the outset, I tried to rule out real-world monsters from this research, but a few special cases are worth mentioning. The axe beak (Phorusrhacidae) and the dire wolf (Aenocyon dirus) both have prehistoric analogues. The quipper is essentially a piranha. The salamander of legend is rooted in the exaggerated stories about the amphibian of the same name. Gargoyles and scarecrows are both objects in real life.

Norse/Nordic/Scandinavian (6 7)

I was surprised by how few of the monsters in the Monster Manual were drawn directly from Norse mythology. From what I could find, only the drow, ettin, fire giant, frost giant, and kraken are truly Scandinavian in origin. [Update: the wights of Tolkien are inspired by draugr, which also feature in the video game Skyrim.] Despite the name, D&D trolls are really not much like the trolls of Norse mythology at all: along with the paladin class and the D&D aligment system, they are mainly indebted to Poul Anderson’s novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Scottish, Irish, and Celtic folklore (7)

The banshee and the fomorian are Irish in origin (the name ‘Balor’ was in fact the name of a fomorian originally), while behirs and green hags (also called shellycoats) are Scottish. Merrow are Scottish and Irish. Pixies are Celtic and sprites are Cornish.

European folklore (7 8)

A fair few here: the goblin, the night hag, the nightmare, the revenant, and the werewolf (which goes back to ancient Greece and Rome). The cambion, too, is a European creation. Shakespeare’s Caliban was a cambion.

Update: although dragons are fairly universal and found it many, many cultures worldwide, D&D’s dragons are clearly modelled after European types (the gold dragon being an exception). Curiously, though, and this is something Tolkien himself points out in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, dragons are actually rare in European literature, and there are only a few that are significant.

Tolkien (9 8)

For many years, Gary Gygax downplayed how much D&D borrowed from Tolkien’s work. Possibly for legal reasons: the threat of copyright action from the Tolkien estate prompted D&D to stop using terms like ‘balrog’, ‘ent’, and ‘hobbit’. Nevertheless, Tolkien was clearly a huge influence on the early game, and it’s primarily from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that we get creatures like balors, giant eagles, orcs, treants, wights, worgs, and wraiths. [Correction: wights are based on draugr from Norse mythology, so I have moved them there.] While I wouldn’t go so far as to put them in this category, the werebear is reminiscent of Beorn from The Hobbit, and red dragons closely resemble Smaug. Goblins and stone giants are also extremely Tolkienesque, despite appearing in other cultures and traditions.

Universal/multi-origin (13 12)

Many of the creatures in the Monster Manual have no single origin and appear around the world in various forms. These include: dragons, ghosts, hell hounds, hill giants, iron golems, lizardfolk, lycanthropes, merfolk, skeletons, stone golems, unicorns, vampires, and wyverns. They are, in essence, ‘citizens of the world’. Claims can be made for some of them – unicorns may have originated in the Indus Valley Civilization, possibly as a representation of aurochs – but they are not uncontentious, and there are often conflicting claims elsewhere. Vampires, for example, can be found in almost all cultures in some form or another, including Asia, Africa, the Americas, and ancient Mesopotamia.

Works of fiction beside Tolkien (14)

A long list! Horned devils come from Dante (the lazy Malebranche of the Divine Comedy); elementals, in their D&D form, seem to be inspired by the work of Michael Moorcock; flesh golems are clearly modelled on the Monster in Frankenstein; grimlocks are essentially the morlocks of The Time Machine.

And there are more: the demilich and the wererat resemble creatures in Fritz Leiber’s work; perytons seems to come from Jorge Luis Borges; the name gnoll may have come from Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder: How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles Update: Gary Gygax himself attested that the gnoll was a mash-up of a gnome and a troll (!); and the grell seems to be based on the medusae of Jack Williamson’s Three from the Legion (1980) [Update: user on Reddit pointed out that grells appear to pre-date this source. Thank you, kinarism!]. Thri-kreen may have been modelled on the four-armed green martians in John Carter of Mars (1917), while liches can be found in the work of several 20th-century writers, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard, and Ambrose Bierce. Finally, displacer beasts, despite being considered the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, have an uncanny resemblance to the Coeurls of A E van Vogt.

Greek myth (18 17)

Here was perhaps my most interesting find. Once you exclude real-life fauna and creatures invented by the game itself, Greek mythology is the single biggest origin of 5e monsters.

The list is huge: centaurs, chimeras, cyclopes, dryads, empyreans (essentially titans), erinyes (the Furies), griffons, gynosphinxes, harpies, hydras, lamias, medusas, minotaurs, pegasi, and satyrs are all clearly taken from Greek myth. I would also add two more: the storm giant (which closely resemble Zeus) and the wereboar (which reminds us of Circe and the swine in the Odyssey). The hell hound and the iron golem, too, while not exact copies of any creatures in Greek mythology, do nonetheless bear a resemblance to Cerberus and Talos respectively.

One creature I excluded from this category, though, was the gorgon. Despite the name, they are not based on Greek myth! They have some similarities to the bulls of Colchis or Khalkotauroi, but their true origins seem to be Edward Topsell’s 1607 bestiary The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts. In Greek mythology, the gorgons are the three snake-haired sisters: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa.

Update (1 Feb): another creature I excluded from this list was the skeleton. ‘But Jason and the Argonauts!’ I hear you cry. Turns out, the Spartoi of Greek myth are simply warriors, and never described as skeletons. You can blame Harryhausen and his wonderful special effects for that one.

D&D (at least 20)

Another huge list: so many of the monsters of D&D seem to be an invention of the game itself. Many of the demons – for example, the glabrezu, hezrou, nalfeshnee, and quasit – came from the imagination of Gary Gygax: so, too, did blink dogs, various oozes, troglodytes, and the xorn. Other D&D creations include ankhegs, githyanki (a name which came from George R R Martin), mind flayers, modrons, twig blights, and the iconic beholder, although these did not necessarily come from Gygax. Flumphs and quaggoths were player created. These creatures may have never existed if it were not for D&D.

The winner: unknown! (at least 50)

And then there’s the rest! About a quarter of the monsters I looked at had unclear origins, and we might never know who created them. Like the list above, they may very well be a product of the game itself. Examples include dracoliches, driders, ettercaps, flumphs, gricks, mimics, myconids, otyughs, quaggoths, ropers, shambling mounds, and vrocks. Some may have real-life origins (the original ochre jelly art resembled a giant amoeba), and others may be nods to particular cultural references (ultroloths recall the stereotypical grey alien), but others are just a bit of a mystery.

Honourable mentions

Although none of the monsters in D&D are taken from Lovecraft directly, several are ‘Lovecraftian’ in form. These include aboleths, chuuls, ghasts, ghouls, gibbering mouthers, kuo-toa, mind flayers, and slaadi. Likewise, a number of creatures from the Monster Manual can be seen in similar forms in 20th-century pulp fiction. These include aarakocra (Flash Gordon), black puddings (The Blob), and the gelatinous cube.

Conclusions

I learned a lot from doing this. I was suprised by the extent to which it borrowed from Greek myth, for example, and how few creatures, comparatively, were Norse in origin. My research does seem to bear out the suggestion that D&D’s origins are heavily weighed towards Europe, however: the number of monsters from Asia, Africa, and the Americas is really quite small, with none that I could think of from Australia and Oceania. What struck me most of all, though, was the sheer plurality and inventiveness of the game’s sources, emphasizing, once again, that there is a place for all storytellers in the world of D&D.

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