TLDR – Kill the gods of your world for interesting roleplay and story possibilities. Give it a hook that makes it significant to the Player Characters but don’t limit them too harshly.
Several traditional mythologies feature a battle royal between the gods and the epic forces of destruction. It might be a generational struggle like the Olympians against the Titans (titanomachy) that resolves itself with a victory by the new generation and a break in the cycle that brings order and the rule of law into a society that once was governed by more primal forces, reflected in an increased sophistication in the Olympians who still held most of the portfolios of powers of the primordial Titans who came before them. It could be a battle against the end of the world itself like the Norse Ragnarok that wipes out almost all the gods but ushers in a new age. Some mythologies describe a more cyclic rotation of ages, from chaos to order and gods reborn to new forms that reflect those eras. For a table top RPG, these sound like pretty great starting points for a campaign story.
If you happen to play in the current default D&D setting of the Forgotten Realms, the death of gods is a pretty frequent occurrence. Some return (Helm), some are believed to be reborn as new incarnations (Lathandar / Amaunator, or that Mystra gets reincarnated every time that a cataclysm happens …). Others scurry about as Avatars seeking a return to godhood like the Dead Three. Leira, goddess of illusions was supposedly killed by Cyric, but eventually is revealed to not be dead, generating conflicting beliefs as to if she had faked her death (as followers of Leira claim), was killed and her powers gained by Cyrics (as some followers of Cyric claim, or that she was in fact the daughter of Cyric (which could be a new truth, and old truth now revealed, or just another misdirection from the goddess). Tyche as a goddess of all fortune was cursed then struck down by her fellow gods only to have two new gods arise from her death who split Tyche’s portfolio into Tymora (good fortune) and Beshaba (misfortune). The lore as written literally supports religious factions arguing about it, yet the spells continue to be granted and the gods aren’t revealing their secrets to mortals on it.
That’s a lot to unpack and it’s only a single setting.
From a purely metafiction view, edition changes called for world altering events and the death or transformation of the gods and the cosmology is about as world altering as it gets. It might occur off stage in the distant past or even twenty years prior to set the scene. It might be something about to happen if the Heroes do not complete the quest before them. It could even be what’s happening right now and creating all manner of chaos as the battle spills into the physical realm.* The important thing is to focus on HOW THIS AFFECTS THE PLAYER CHARACTERS. Whether it is lore discovered in a dusty tome or a cleric who must contend with the death / disappearance of their deity, if it doesn’t hook into the PC somehow then it really doesn’t impact your game.
As a Gamemaster, a couple of examples come to mind for dealing with PC spell casters or other followers, taking inspiration from mythologies and various fantasy novels:
- My God is Dead, Long Live My God
The simplest approach is that the death of a god cerates a new god from those energies or absorbed by another god.
If it’s a god of a similar ethos or the head of their pantheon, then there isn’t much mechanical change for a PC but there are good roleplay opportunities for how the PC reacts to this change.
If the powers go to the god who killed the original, then does a PC change their faith, maybe goes on a vendetta to hunt down the cult responsible. maybe decide to change their entire class or just multiclass into something to meet the new challenges.|
- Why Am I Forsaken?
If a god in your world dies, disappears, or leaves, this might be reflected in a mechanical reduction of available spells, like nothing above 3rd level can be prayed for. This is a pretty major blow to a player who really wanted to play a cleric and had no forewarning of this drastic limitation. I would recommend to avoid this for a PC, though it makes a great backstory for a former cleric turned fighter. Another alternative is for the PC be special enough to carry a fragment of their god (or quest to find it) and uses that for gaining spells (See the original Dragonlance Chronicles for an example of how someone becomes a cleric to an absent god)
Story wise, is there a reason to do this to the PC? Is there an end goal that perhaps the PC can be part of the solution to return the powers of that god as part of the quest before them?
- Clerics of Chaos
Divine magic is no longer reliable. The raw energy of the dead god are still around but yet to find a worthy successor. Praying to the energies are similar to a Wild Magic Sorcerer (construct a table of random results or use the Wild Magic Table) on a d20 roll of ‘1’ after casting a leveled spell. Some DMs are immediately tempted to make the range greater based upon the spell level, but in my experience that has only made spell casters more hesitant to cast and sucks much of the fun out playing a caster. An alternative might be an Arcana or Religion roll vs DC 8 + the spell level to avoid additional wild effects.
Even if playing in a pre-written world, it becomes your world through play.
- If you desire an epic apocalyptic end of the world battle of the gods, then what can the Player Characters do to affect the outcome through their actions / adventures?
- Maybe there are too many gods for you to keep track of so you wiped out all but twelve of them in a god war 100 years prior to the campaign start, but someone seeks to kill the remainder or harness that energy for their own wicked ends or perhaps to become a god themselves (similar to the case of Tomb of Annihilation and other stories of apotheosis or see Order of the Stick for an example of an entire pantheon lost to save the world)
- The gods have temporarily been cast into mortal form or have simply disappeared. The adventurers are set upon the path to gather artifacts that will restore their godhood or summon them back. Are there those that act as rivals to gather those artifacts first or is there a faction that actively seeks to finally remove those meddlesome gods (except for their own of course).
- In the original D&D, there were rules for becoming an Immortal, like unto a god themselves. When stats were written out for gods, PCs started hunting them down. That might be a bit much, but gods using the PCs as agents and judicial gladiators required to defeat the minions of a rival god still gives those mortals something interesting to do.
What are some of the more interesting deaths of gods that you’ve had at your table?
*I was once in a game which took place in the immediate aftermath of a god war. A major city had been cut in two by a god sword, leaving a massive crevice dividing the city, or as our DM called it – a pit of adventure! Meanwhile we were discovering how the outcomes of the war impacted the clerics …