Before we start, I’m going say this and get it out of the way. I hate D&D pantheons. Not only are they full of overdone clichés, but there are generally way more deities to speak of than I could ever care to remember. Phew. Now that that’s taken care of, let’s begin.
A unique pantheon of gods and goddess and a couple of hints of the myths surrounding them can give your campaign its own feeling and flavor. However, if you’re anything like me, creating a decent collections of deities always seems like more trouble than it’s really worth.
To help myself correct this problem, I brainstormed a list of topics to think about when creating a new pantheon for an upcoming game. This isn't a how-to guide per-say, though that may (or may not) be coming in the future, just a list of possibilities to leap from.
Types of Pantheons
Traditional monotheism, the belief in the exchange of a single, supreme deity, is hard to pull off in a fantasy setting. Not only does it conflict with the standard planescape-y cosmology, but it generally contains such a vast sprawl of saints, angels, or “faces of god” that you end up building your own de-facto pantheon out of those elements anyway.
I do think there are ways to spice it up, though. One church might well have been very proactive in stomping out competing religions - maybe a War god or something. Now the nations of the area are under the yoke of the holy armies of this violent regime. Sects of forbidden gods exist, but only so long as the Church is ignorant of them. I think it has great possibilities for moral dilemmas. The church is good - it brings and sustains peace. But the church is also questionable: expansionist and intolerant of heathens. Which side do you choose?
Although also limited at a cosmic level, dualism has some real possibilities. The classic Good God vs. Evil God plays out well here. In 5e terms, Light, Life, Nature, and Knowledge domains best represent the Good God, Life, Nature, and Knowledge domains, while the remainder (Death, War, Tempest, and Trickery) could represent the Evil God.
Playing with which domains each of the two deities possess can bring out different dynamics, a sacred marriage between the sun and the moon, a civilization vs. nature theme, and many others. I'll leave you to experiment with the possibilities.
A nice, focused quartet is, in many ways, ideal for a short-lived campaign (as most of mine tend to be). It’s a nice number of deities to breath some life into the cleric class, but not too many so that you are constantly forgetting about them all. Four powers seems to create natural alliances and enemies that can seem interactive, whereas fewer Gods seems pretty cosmically static. The easiest way to do this, is based on alignment. Here’s a quick example to start you off.
These are NOT meant to be reflective of real religions except in terms of rough aesthetics and rituals as well as 'overall feel' from a fantasy perspective, not a theological one.
LG God of Light and Life, following a classic fantasy Catholic/Judaic model. Room for friendly Life types and more Crusader/Inquisition oriented Light clerics.
CG Goddess of Nature and Trickery, an animistic/fey flavored deity with touches of Tribal/Folk Religion as well as the anti-intellectualism of Taoism.
LE Goddess of Death and Knowledge, a bureaucratic soul-counter with a mix of the ritualism of Confucianism (and maybe touches of other ritualistic/orthodox religions) and a slightly fatalistic-contemplativeness of Buddhism.
CE God of War and Tempest, representing the worst parts of civilization and nature; using vaguely Hindu trappings, but most divorced from source material.
Note that any of these religions could just as well have been left unaligned. While alignment can sometimes be an interesting way to tie your deities to the cosmos, ambiguity is just as, if not more, entertaining. This ambiguity allows for more internal conflicts within distinct faiths.
Eight Gods for eight Domains. With 5e D&D in mind, this seems like the obviously place to start, but from a world-building perspective, it’s rather dull, even though it maps reasonably well to the eight alignments. After only a couple minutes of thought, I quickly ended up with LG=Light; NG=Life, CG=Nature, CN=Trickery, CE=Tempest, NE=War, LE=Death, LN=Knowledge. See, neither terrible interesting nor inspiring.
Eight deities with paired domains could be interesting, though (see Duality below). It adds a nice bit of variety and conflict. Just add four more to the gods above and you’ll be ready to go.
Past that the pantheon stops being less 'simple' for my purposes; however the idea of every two-domain combination (56 possibilities) building to a large pantheon does seem to be an interesting place to start world-building. Adding the Arcane domain from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and my six Domains of Myth, that’s 225 complimentary (or disparate) pairs. In other words, way too many to remember! Maybe adding all these new homebrew domains isn’t such a good idea after all.
This is where most of the truly unique gods arise from. A dualistic approach to pantheon creation takes two opposing or conflicting ideas and somehow reconciles them together into a single, dynamic whole. Once again, four divinities is a nice number, since each deity is best represented by two competing aspects.
You could have a god/goddess of both Life & Death, Light & Trickery, War & Knowledge and Nature & Tempest.
Other interesting combinations include Light & Death, War & Life, Knowledge & Tempest and Trickery & Nature.
Knowledge/Trickery (representing 'truth and lies') is another duality to consider. Nature/Tempest (nature at its best and worst); Death/Life; and Light/War (Light as 'Serenity' or 'Purity') round out a decent set of auto-oppositional powers.
All three sets of permutations could flesh out a less typical (for D&D) pantheon with different regional cults, intricate religions and even inner war/conflicts. Perfect!
Another interesting idea would be to combine some of these ideas into a hierarchy. One 'Over Power' theoretically representing all Domains who is highly abstract and unapproachable.
The second tier would contain two greater, highly distant Powers, forming a Duality of some sort. Under each member of the Duality are two Intermediate Gods each with two of the Domains from the Greater Power above them; These would be your traditional Pantheistic/Fantasy Gods.
Beneath them are eight Lesser Gods, one of each Domain; being more relatable beings, worshiped by individuals and in shrines rather than in larger, organized religions.
Not only does this provide you with numerous deities of various levels of power and importance, it also creates built-in relationships between them. Furthermore, an overarching hierarchy draws several lines in the sand for potential cosmological conflicts. Will the distant powers act as generals in a war over the fate of the world? Will the lesser gods rise up to overthrow their parents? Will the gods compete and squabble amongst each other to control and direct worldly forces (domains)? The possibilities are endless.