In terms of Dungeons and Dragons, Wizards of the Coast assumes that a setting will have gods. Gods are directly included in The Players’ Handbook and are made quintessential to gameplay because of divine classes. So it makes sense that a Dungeon Master (DM) would spend considerable amount of time developing creative deities, often inspired from various historical and fantastical sources.
However, when developing their campaign settings, DMs rarely make active choices on how those creative gods will interact with their world. They may consider a god’s appearance, portfolio, mythology, worshippers, and even alignment. Yet, few avid setting builders give much thought on how physical their deities are and to what extent players and characters in their world can interact with the divine.
All deities in D&D (and perhaps roleplaying in general) exist on a spectrum from extremely tangible deities with monster blocks to remarkably abstract deities resembling a philosophical principle or a celestial force. Selecting where your setting’s deities fall on this spectrum is paramount to world building. The right choice will not only give your world the feelings and themes you desire, it will also influence your players’ choices and how they interact with the broader world beyond your deities.
To help you understand the difference between tangible and abstract deities as well as the entire spectrum between them, I will explain some basic characteristics of either side of the spectrum. I will go over their mythological sources, the themes they represent in a game and their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Requirements of Deities
Before we get into categorizing and analyzing deities though, it’s important to establish some ground rules here. Regardless of their location on the tangible-abstract spectrum, your deities must perform certain functions in your campaign setting.
According to the Player’s Handbook, divine classes, such as Clerics, can use magical and supernatural abilities bestowed to them by their deities. These abilities range from combat spells like Spiritual Weapon to class features like Divine Strike and Channel Divinity (Player’s Handbook pgs. 58-59, 62, 278). Furthermore, certain spells allow the players to contact deities or higher powers directly, such as Commune (Player’s Handbook pg. 223). And more notoriously, there is Divine Intervention: a 10th level class feature that allows a Cleric to ask their god to intercede on their behalf with a random chance of success (Player’s Handbook pg. 59). By 20th level, this feature becomes automatically successful and allows for an assortment of deus ex machina in a game
With these types of mechanics at play, D&D makes it impossible to have a truly atheistic game without banning certain classes or using a high degree of homebrew. Active gods, in a sense, function as a foundational building block of your setting. Like other foundational building blocks, like arcana/magic or the Planes of Existence, you could exclude it, but in doing so you are negating aspects of the game and must tread carefully as a DM. This is reflected in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which provides a whole sub-section about creating deities for your setting (pg.10-13).
However, the requirements places on your deities are not insurmountable nor are they incompatible with deities anywhere on the spectrum. All that changes when a god is made more abstract or tangible is the method in which your deity meets these requirements. Both tangible gods and abstract gods can and should play an active role in your setting and meet the mechanical needs of your players.
If your deities do not meet these requirements though, they are arguably not function as gods, no matter how you label them. This is the case for a tangible demi-god that has a physical form and 26 Challenge Rating monster block, but does not bestow divine power to his worshippers, or an abstract god that exists as a philosophy, but does not perform divine intervention.
Tangible gods are deities that can directly interact with players and can act more like individual characters in your setting.
As their name would suggest, these gods have a physical form that players can meet and even fight. Typically, these deities reside on a plane of existence that players can contact or travel to with the aid of magic found in normal game mechanics. Likewise, tangible gods often take corporeal forms (such as an “avatar”) to visit and interact with the Material Plane. Through these means, tangible deities can speak with their worshippers directly, have children with mortals, as well as play as a “living” actor in world events.
Tangible gods also have a known and firmly established character. In a sense, they are comparable to mortal NPCs in your setting. Possessing more than just a divine portfolio, these deities are easily personified and usually have an established alignment, personality, and other individualized character traits (such as clear goals and motivations, human-like emotions, and the ability to hold grudges). Usually, these gods also have the ability to explain their reasoning and their thinking in a manner that can be understood by mortals. For this reason, players worshipping these deities can learn to know and understand them like they would any other character. These gods’ intentions and desires can be established into dogma and religious doctrine. To put it another way, worshippers of tangible gods, especially those who have direct contact with their deity, know what is expected of them and what their god is doing to influence the world.
The most extreme form of tangible gods have monster blocks, commonly in the form of “avatars”. These monster blocks transform the gods from a foundational part of your setting into game obstacles that higher level players can eventually overcome, if not outright kill, through combat mechanics alone.
Inspiration for tangible gods derives from hero myths found throughout our world’s history. In these stories, a hero (or a group of heroes) manages to defeat a great evil, survive a perilous journey, or learn some moral lesson through the aid and interference of gods. The most popular examples of hero myths come from Greco-Roman mythology, such as the legend of Hercules or the Iliad and Odyssey epics. In each of these stories, gods directly have a hand in either causing the initial plot or moving the plot forward. Similarly, heroes may rely on the help or advice from a deity or they may be tricked or tested by the gods. In a way, the gods function as main plot devices for the story and as main characters in the story’s cast. As such, they have clear motivations for helping or harming the protagonist(s) and have distinguishable features that make them understandable and enjoyable to the audience.
Official D&D settings like to fall on the tangible side of the divine spectrum. This makes sense considering D&D’s preference towards heroic stories. One notable example is Forgotten Realms, which is full of tangible gods (like Mystra, Bane, or Cyric) that have directly contacted mortals (if not ascended from mortal-hood) or have physically manifested onto the Material Plane in order to shape major world events (e.g. the Godwars or the Spellplague). In a way, tangible deities are regularly perceived as the “default” for D&D games. Whether this should be the case is a topic for another day, but there is no disputing that this belief exists in both official content and in third party content (see Kody’s Review for Gods and Goddess by Jetpack7).
Because of their mythic inspirations though, tangible gods are going to make your setting more mythical and less realistic. The more tangible your deities become, the more your game’s storytelling reflects the legends from mythology. This can be great for those who want to create a epic story of heroes or a power fantasy for their players. Additionally, these gods can work great in games of high fantasy, battles between good or evil, or stories where the entire multiverse hangs in the balance. In those kinds of games, tangible gods interacting with players will make them feel important, vital to the world’s survival, and akin to characters from renowned hero myths and Greek tragedies.
Abstract gods, on the other hand, are deities whose influence, characteristics, and motivations are obscure and perplexing. They interact with players through indirect means (such as dreams) and resemble a force often beyond mortal comprehension. This nature allows mortals and outsiders to debate and discuss an abstract god’s intentions as well as the scope of their powers.
Although abstract gods have firm portfolios (an abstract god of fire will appear to concern himself only with fire and light) and still intervene in the world through bestowing divine power, their influence is less obvious and explicit. Particularly, abstract deities speak or commune with players and the faithful in manners that are open to interpretation. Plot devices like dreams, visions, natural disasters, omens, magical phenomena, or strange coincidences are all forms of communication for abstract divinities Yet, unlike the direct words and dogma from a tangible deity, players and other characters in your setting can dispute these messages in terms of their importance, meaning, or mere existence.
Moreover, abstract gods lack a true physical form. Instead of residing on a higher plane of existence, they may appear to reside outside of the known multiverse or exist in multiple places simultaneously. For these reasons, they lack avatars, and if they do have champions, servant outsiders, or chosens, these creatures only receive cryptic messages like the player characters and are forced to come to their own interpretations of their god’s will.
This obscure messaging and influence can lead to disagreements and divisions between worshippers. Broadly speaking, worshippers of an abstract god will all concern themselves with the same portfolio and domain. However, other aspects like the god’s alignment, true name, gender, and personality can be open to deep theological discussions. Likewise, certain places in the world may dispute an abstract’s god existence, change aspects about the god to match local customs, or claim that one or more gods are actually one in the same. This means that worshippers and cults of various alignments and doctrines can worship the same god in different ways and still receive divine power. As well, these disputes and differences can boil over leading to charges of heresy or even holy wars between the faithful.
Like tangible deities though, abstract gods exist along a spectrum and can vary in their degree of abstraction. Most abstract gods will still have a common name and mythology associated with them, but the exact form their worshippers perceive for them can vary from humanoid to animal to energy. An abstract god in the greatest extreme will be those that are defined as a form of philosophy or an indescribable force of the universe Examples of such extreme forms of abstraction can be seen in “deities” like “The Way” found in Taoism or the fictional “Force” found in Star Wars. Both of these examples have defined way of interacting with the universe and have religions based around them, but their ultimate forms resemble an enlightened law of nature rather than any personified deity.
Inspiration for abstract deities comes from integrating the real world into your setting. Religions in the real world are full of discussion, interpretation, and, of course, claims of heresy and blasphemy. Abstract gods allow for your world to have religions and mythologies that match their real world counterparts. This allows you and your players to approach religion in a similar manner to how people do in real life. Moreover, abstract gods and their worshippers’ various interpretations match the historical reality of religions centuries and millennia ago. Back then, religions often incorporated and altered one another’s gods and myths. For proof of this argument, look no further to the Egyptians merging the gods Horus and Apollo or the adoption of the Great Flood Story in Sumerian, Babylonian and Judeo-Christian mythos.
Therefore, abstract deities are best in games that wish to maintain a sense of realism or games that wish to focus on faith. The more abstract your deities becomes, the more realistic your world will be for your players. Hence, abstract deities are great for games where religion is a setting piece but not the main focus of the game. Abstract deities are also amazing in games about horror and terror, where keeping things unknown until the ultimate reveal is vital. In addition, low-fantasy games focused on smaller disputes, like games of intrigue or political theater, can benefit from a hands off approach by deities who could quickly make matters into cosmic affairs. Lastly and most importantly, abstract gods are paramount for games aimed at testing the faith of divine characters. Because an abstract god’s existence and motivations are disputed, a divine character faith will be constantly tested and challenged by existentialism, negatives events, and other characters throughout your game.
Find your Spot on the Spectrum
Gods are a mandatory part of a full D&D experience. They are needed in order to allow divine magic as well as the entire Cleric class. Yet, when DMs conceptualize deities for their settings, they often forget to consider how their gods will interact with players and their broader world.
How you address these questions when building your setting will have a phenomenal effect on your game, changing not only how your players solve problems in your world but also your game’s themes and overall atmosphere.
Nevertheless, the choice is not a simple binary. Gods can range from remarkably tangible to extraordinarily abstract. What is right for your setting depends on your goals. In other words, the choice should reflect the type of world and game you want to create. It is possible after reading this blog, that your gods may match the above definitions of a tangible or an abstract god perfectly. But, it is also possible your gods may incorporate aspects from across the spectrum.
What’s more, gods from different parts of the spectrum can co-exist in the same setting together. This undoubtedly requires a great attention to detail and possibly an elaborate pantheon, but such an idea is expressed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide when explaining the difference between Greater, Lesser, and Quasi deities (pg. 11).
Obviously, there is way more content to cover here when it comes to the tangible-abstract spectrum and D&D gods in general. .In fact, I believe that I have only scratched the surface through giving some definitions and hopefully opening your eyes to a new way of thinking. I intend to return to this topic in future blog posts. In those future discussions, we will further expand on how to best incorporate both tangible and abstract deities into your world.