Creating Cosmologies: starting simple, getting complicated.

I read this blog post, The Myth They Tell in Vandakar and it reminded me of the 10 Minute D&D Pantheon and just got me thinking about building religions and cosmologies in general.

The deities of Vandakar start simple, four gods each cursing humanity.  The D&D pantheon linked above is based on the old 9-point alignment system.

The Trinity: Earth, Moon and Sun

More recently it reminds me of a Burning Wheel campaign we started a few years ago.  We riffed the cosmology off of the Sun, Moon and Earth.  The Sun was a resplendent mother goddess.  The Earth was a stern father who oversaw death and the Moon was a transgender deity, sometimes depicted the child of the Sun and Earth.  The vikings to the north beyond the sea were heretics because they worshiped the Stars, Sea and Moon…heretics!

The kingdom was split into 3 parts, with each part prioritizing a different one of the trinity.  For family names I grabbed words from those three concepts: Sun (Corona, Helios, Sol, Yavanna, Aule, Apollo, Laurelin, Surya), Moon (Luna, Tilion, Orome, Mani, Hecate, Crescent, Gibbous, Horned) and Earth (Gaia, Terra, Steele).

The con scenario I ran recently had a heretic holy knight of an order who worshipped the World Serpent.  In a game about spending a dragon’s hoard, I only chose the World Serpent in order to keep draconic imagery all over the place but its a rich enough myth and honestly, just plain cool-sounding enough that it evokes cool fantasy stuff.

The World Serpent

In the house-game I ran with the World Serpent heretic, a failed Faith roll getting help from a dozen nuns led to the nuns’ eyes flashing open with reptilian pupils.  After the word of the World Serpent came through the helpful nuns, they were all left blind and mad.  In the con game, Mayuren’s incarnation of the heretic called on a Minor Miracle to strike down a greedy duke.  Upon a successful roll, the dragon’s head in the cart came to life, eyes glowing and it breathed fire, burning the duke to cinders.

So, fast cosmologies:

  • Based on simple concepts (Earth, Moon and Sun), Numbers (four deities cursed humanity) that can lead to further complexities and mysteries unveiled through play.
  • Mine the simple concepts for cool imagery and names.
  • Cosmologies should hint at something greater, different points of view and ambiguities but you don’t have to bake that in to start.  Start simple and let the mysteries, heresies and complexities happen through interactions with the players and their conflicts.

Thoughts, comments and examples of such things from play are welcomed.

13 thoughts on “Creating Cosmologies: starting simple, getting complicated.

  1. Love the possessed nuns, great imagery there.

    For the Sea of Stars, the basic cosmology was dragons and gods go to war, gods lose and are all killed (except the Sun). When remnants of the old gods are found, it is always in the most general terms: earth mother, death god, and so on though players are welcome (and encouraged) to add more detail.

  2. I prefer to leave cosmology out of my games. I’ll have powerful creatures and wizards and such, but creating cosmology and doing it right is far too much work for me.

    Real cosmologies are complicated.

    Of course it could be interesting to do one campaign, and then do another campaign set a 1000 years later in the same world where the people and creatures that the party has fought have become deities but changed almost unrecognizably. It would be even more fun if the PCs were cast as the villains in whatever new mythology was dreamt up.

  3. I haven’t yet created a cosmology; woe is me.

    But I find the most interesting element of cosmologies to be figuring out what the societal effects are. Different religions – and sects of the same religion – can go in such different directions. Even taking the same D&D gods and forming them into different trinities opens up a wealth of symbolism and a new view of their respective roles.

    Numbers do have power to realign what we think we already know.

    In my first campaign, the primary city worshiped the goddess of trade, the goddess of civilization, and the goddess of death and fate. It had been that way so long that even the institutions of government were all organized along those lines. When they broke into the city archives, they had to figure out that the filing system was based on the goddesses’ division of labor: fate covers birth and death records, trade covered economics, and civilization included the military and public works.

    And the decennial athletic, oratorical, and gladiatorial competitions to decide who the patron gods would be made it almost like a religious democracy. Every god has a chance.

    Can you tell I was a social sciences major? 😉

    I’ve strayed a bit, but the tl;dr version:

    Even the standard pantheons can be made your own by applying some of the your concepts for fast cosmologies. Gods look different when they’re forced to associate with each other in official capacities.

    • Dude, you can’t bust out something cool like a city that worships dieties of trade, death and fortune in such a way that it makes its city offices based on its religious practice and tell me that you haven’t made up a cosmology. You totally did right there!

      I absolutely agree that cosmologies are no fun unless they have a clear impact on the world and society and more importantly on the campaign the players are in – be they powerful forces walking around, vague ideas that drive situation and conflict or somewhere in between.

      • You’re probably right, though the gods I was using were the vanilla ones straight out of the 4E Player’s Handbook. That’s why I said I hadn’t really invented a cosmology yet.

        “I haven’t invented any gods yet” is probably more accurate.

        I just use my Recycling experience on the gods I have. Speaking of which, I’m really looking forward to your hinted-at Freemarket post. *pester pester pester* 😉

  4. Loved this post. It’s a conceptual place I’d love to spend more time in. I’ve got loose thoughts scattered about my mind about two ongoing projects, and this post added a nice perspective to the pot.

    On another note, I tend to enjoy more complicated cosmologies for some reason. I think it stems from verisimilitude. Reality is complex, so any cosmology created for a game must be too.

      • Neither one of them is professional, for-pay work. The first is completely mine, so I’m free to talk. I’ll maintain some confidentiality on the second only because I’d rather err on the side of caution.

        One’s simply a conversion of Planescape to 4E. I had a good bit of steam when I started with the races, but I’ve lost focus and drive when tackling the planes. I started that project because I’m not all that fond of the 4E cosmology (see my earlier comment about complexity).

        The second is a D&D campaign I’m involved in that ran with enough house-rules that our DM decided to make a go of crafting his own system. I’m currently working on some setting stuff. Basic premise is that some of the races have power due to agreements made long ago with powerful entities (like the tiefling). Because of the way my mind works, I’m thinking I have to have some kind of cosmology in place for that. This post is helping me streamline my thought process, as tackling an entire cosmology was starting to overwhelm me.

  5. I wonder if it’s possible to create an atheistic fantasy culture, or if the rules of the genre disallow it. Even China Mieville has a Hell in his New Crobuzon novels.

  6. Pingback: In the beginning | Metropollywog

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