Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Small Gods and Stone Soup: Deities made for Dungeon Crawling

Players see god in one of two ways: Vague source of magic, or high-level XP piñata. I propose a third: gameplay feature. Profane, no?  

The God Confusion

I bet you've asked, been asked, or at least overheard this question: How do deities actually function in this game? 

It's a valid question. If I'm going to be playing in a setting that is unambiguously touched by the unseen hand of potentially omnipotent beings, ones who are often directly tied in to the nature of existence itself, I'd like to know how this will affect my daily life. How can I tell I'm worshiping the right god, and am I doing it right? Why will this godly thing provide me freely with spells and powers, but won't just answer a simple yes/no question unless I use up a spell slot? 

Most of the time, the divine is treated with a light touch. Gods definitely exist - why would we have all these temples otherwise? - but their exact nature is rarely explained in useful detail. While it's understandable why designers are a little shy about clearly defining GOD, this fast-and-loose approach places the onus on individual GMs to answer any questions that might arise about the nature of godhood. Questions which, honestly, I can't blame you for not wanting to get caught on the spot with. 

Perhaps this "problem" is best solved by a change in scale. I, for one, would like an alternative to this standard "Untamable force of creation", because something as important as gods should be interesting to play with. I want them to be clearly interactive, without opening up the doors for the headache of ad-hoc decisions on the fabric of reality itself, or the tedium of having the heavenly just be the highest tier stat blocks for my adventurers to beat up. And, more heretically, I'd even be happy to just boil gods down to something simple, localized, and entirely defined - An additional, optional character feature that enhances gameplay and introduces new depth to players' options (and their peril).  

Luckily for us, I'm not the first one to have this idea, or even the first one to implement it well. 

Buckle in, elf-lovers. 

Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup is probably my favorite roguelike; its intentionally vague setting still manages to be very evocative, its tight gameplay and many quality-of-life features keep me coming back to its streamlined procedural death labyrinth, and its mercilessly cutthroat design philosophy is an inspiration to me. This article is about one of its most iconic features, and how it became the latest in a long line of concepts I've shamelessly stolen for my games. 

The feature in question is, you guessed it, the religion system. Players may choose to worship one of 27 25 gods, each of which provides an extremely specific set of powers and boons to the player. The deities vary greatly in their purpose: Some are straight-forward powerhouses designed to further strengthen certain character archetypes, some provide players with unique abilities to help round out their tool set, and some of them dramatically change how the game is played. Most of these deities aren't "free", and require players to fulfill specific pious conditions to gain access to the divine gifts, and they usually also place unique limitations on what players can do as long as they want said gifts.

This is all very straightforward. Now, let's get into the juicy, meaty, messy part you're here for: rules. 

Deities & Devotion (The Rules)

Right off the bat, I want to define what I want my "small gods" to be: 

A small god is a formless entity with an agenda, and pays no attention to you unless specifically given a reason to do so. If you worship a small god, it wants you do things that further its inscrutable goals, and in return it will grant you boons. The small god doesn't care about any worship you give it beyond the demanded conduct, and it will not provide you with anything other than the covenant's agreed-upon boons.

Converting, Altars

To become a follower of a small god, a character only needs to touch a small god's altar, and after contacting the small god, choose whether they accept a covenant with it.

Joining the religion should be relatively straight-forward, and conditions should be minimal. In my game, the only condition for worshipping (most) small gods is being Level 2. You might make some gods pickier; The "Good" gods wouldn't accept worship from those with demonic ancestry, for example.

The other barrier to entry is, of course, finding an Altar. Altars are actually kind of perfect for a Megadungeon or Hexcrawl-type campaign with high character turnover: New altars are an exciting thing to find, they give players good reason to revisit areas with future characters, and they make good waypoints for navigation. Defacing a small god's altar will incur its wrath. 

If your players' first instinct upon seeing one of these is to vandalize it, they deserve what they get. 

Abandonment, Penance, Wrath

Characters may abandon a small god at any time, or choose to ignore their deity's conduct - but this will anger the deity, and for a time they will have to weather the dangerous consequences.

Players may at some point wish to Abandon their small god; perhaps they wish to convert to another deity, or they simply can no longer deal with their daily deific demands. Alternatively, they might find themselves in a situation where they decide to break their agreed-upon conduct. These decisions will incur the god's Wrath. (Note that many small gods will often forgive a worshiper for breaking divine conduct... but not all of them are so kind)

Wrath varies per god, but it should be painful, obstructive, dangerous, and potentially deadly. Different gods may incur different wrath: They might afflict the penitent with terrible ailments, subtly make their lives more difficult with tiny changes to the world around them, or bombastically attack the unfortunate fool when they're already in peril - Players will certainly think twice about abandoning Trog when an ogre they encounter suddenly flies into a berserker rage.

Angering or Abandoning a god will give the player a certain amount of Penance. They might not know the exact amount, but they'd have a rough idea. While under Penance, players will not be able to benefit from their god's powers, and more importantly, will be subjected to Wrath. 

Each time Wrath is incurred, their Penance ticks down. Once all their Penance is used up, the god will be over it, and things will be back to how they used to be, not counting any permanent damage the PC might have suffered, if they survived. Abandonment is usually the worst transgression, and will result in 6 points of Penance. 

Conduct and Piety

Small gods accept worship not out of vanity, but because they want their will exerted upon the world. Those sufficiently pious in their work will receive their reward.

Your Conduct is what your small god wants you to do, and not do, in exchange for its boons. This might be slaying enemies (perhaps of a certain type), retrieving or sacrificing treasure, gaining experience, or simply exploring the world. Your small god might appreciate multiple things, and the exact conducts required of them can be one of the major reasons for a player to pick or avoid certain deities; a frail magic user might not be inclined to worship a deity that demands landing killing blows and the burning of spellbooks.

Acting in a way that your god depreciates will inflict their Wrath. Doing the things your god appreciates will grant you Piety, which gives you access to god powers. For most gods, I say that a worshiper may have up to 6 Piety, and each point of piety has the same requirement. The destructive Makhleb, for example, demands 5 creatures be sacrificed for each gift of piety. 

One of the most important rules about small gods is: you must make your conducts interesting and gameable, but not easy to abuse. If your players can easily generate all the piety they want without any risk or cost, then you might as well not have conducts. There's a fine line between clever players finding ways to optimize their piety, and those same players breaking your system. Always try to ensure that pious actions are only possible through continued and interesting play. By making acquiring piety dangerous, risky and/or costly, you're making it matter.  

Where there are monsters, there is piety.


All worshippers ultimately desire the power of their small gods, and as long as they are pious, they will receive it. 

The fun starts here. Small gods might be recognized by their conduct, but their entire purpose is the Powers they provide. Offensive and defensive spell-like powers, boosts to existing attributes or the introduction of new ones, whole new mechanics that introduce depth to a character's options - anything is on the table, if you can make it fun and functional. 

The Powers provided by a small god can be numerous and varied, or they can be few but potent. They might be abilities that are activated, or they might be permanent effects. There really are no wrong answers for how to do this, but if you want some examples, read on.

Small Gods won't grant access to all their powers immediately. Most (or all) of a god's powers require the worshiper to first accrue a certain amount of Piety. Once a given power's piety threshhold is crossed, it will remain available to the worshiper for as long as they don't go below the piety requirement. 

Unless you're sure you know what you're doing, granted powers shouldn't be "free" even after they're unlocked. The most obvious way to do this is with Piety - each usage of an ability would cost 1 point of piety (or more). This means that it's possible to lose access to powers until enough piety is regained. This is good - it gives the player a reason to keep being pious. Some passive boons might be in effect without a price, which can easily be offset by the god having other powers that cost piety; players will have to choose between making use of their big useful powers, or holding onto their lesser-but-constant effects.. 

Alternatively, some powers might be "paid for" by the players becoming debilitated in exchange for the ongoing effect; Cheibriados slows the movement of worshipers down in exchange for stat increases, and these two effects cannot be separated. 

Example Gods

The Shining One

On an eternal crusade against evil, The Shining One demands followers follow the code of an honorable warrior, and rewards them with the power they need to face the forces of darkness.

Altar: A shrine of solid gold, with a radiant, jewel-encrusted sword embedded in it.


The Shining One appreciates the slaying of hostile intelligent creatures, and especially appreciates the slaying of Demonic and Undead creatures (6 HD of enemies per point of piety, gain doubled for demonic and undead foes).
The Shining One depreciates sneak attacks and attacks against fleeing opponents (2 penance), the use of necromancy and other unholy items or spells (3 penance), attacking non-hostile holy beings (4 penance) and the attacking of allies, innocents and non-hostile beings (5 penance).


0 Piety: Divine Halo 
The Worshiper is granted a shining halo, which provides 10' of bright light per point of piety. Attacks against creatures within the halo's light are granted a +1 to hit. The halo cannot be extinguished or hidden, and renders all stealth utterly impossible. 

1 Piety: Divine Shield | Cost: 1 Piety
Worshipers may summon a floating shield, lasting 10 minutes, that protects the user as a +1 Shield would. The shield is controlled by The Shining One; it stacks with regular shields, and doesn't interfere with the worshipper's hands.

3 Piety: Divine Flame | Cost: 1 Piety
Invoking this power creates an explosion centered on the worshiper, causing all foes within 15' to suffer 1d10+1 damage. This damage is doubled against Demonic and Undead foes.
Non-undead or -demonic foes slain by this will not count towards piety gain.

5 Piety: Summon Divine Warrior | Cost: 3 Piety
The worshiper may summon an angelic ally to battle, creating a friendly Angel that remains until the combat is finished. 


The Shining One will punish the penitent up to once per combat. At the beginning of combat, and at the beginning of each round after the first, roll a d8, with the wrath occurring on a 8.  

Roll a d10:
1-4: The most dangerous enemy in the battle is granted a Divine Shield and Divine Halo.
5-6: Creates a loud noise at your location, potentially attracting more enemies to the fight.
7-9: The PC is struck by a Divine Flame originating from their location.
10: A permanent, hostile Angel is summoned to aid the worshiper's foes. 

Sif Muna, the Loreminder

A contemplative deity that holds all knowledge and information to be important, served by those who seek magical knowledge. Followers who triumph over their foes can call upon the Loreminder to refresh their minds and empower their magic ability.

Altar: A faded statue of dark blue stone, showing an unidentifiable figure, clothed in flowing robes, reading from a great book.

Sif Muna appreciates exploring the world (+1 piety each time the character enters a previously-unexplored location) and gaining experience (+1 piety for every 1000 XP gained).
Sif Muna depreciates the destruction of any sort of written or stored information such as books, maps, paintings, signs, engravings and the like (2 penance), and especially depreciates the destruction of spellbooks and magic items (4 penance).


1 Piety: Strenuous Understanding | Cost:1d4 HP (cannot be cast while at 4 or less HP) 
The Worshipper may use this power to either instantly absorb the information within a written book, or to immediately cast either Comprehend Languages or Identify.

2 Piety: Channel Magic | Cost: Piety equal to Spell Level
Worshipers may spend a point of piety to cast a prepared spell without expending it.

3 Piety: Created Memory | Costs 2 piety
Sif Muna will broaden the memory of the worshiper, granting them an additional spell slot of the highest level normally available to them. A worshiper can have up to 2 Created Memory spell slots at a time, though the piety price for the second one is doubled. Non-spellcasting classes may make use of Created Memory slots as well, using their own experience level as their effective caster level.
Non-casting classes will only be able to prepare spells from the Magic User spell list.

4 Piety: Gift of Knowledge
Every time the worshiper would gain a point of piety (starting with this one), the worshiper has a 10% chance of receiving a spellbook containing 1-2 spells. The spells are selected at random from the spells that would otherwise be available to the worshiper, and are guaranteed to be spells that they don't already have in their library.
Every time the gift chance doesn't trigger, there will be an additive 10% to each next roll, resetting back down to 10% once the gift is given.
Sif Muna may also have a special spell list from which spells are granted, available only to worshipers.


Sif Muna cruelly punishes the penitent in ways that are most inconvenient to them. At the start of a day, roll on the Wrath table below, and inflict the resulting wrath at a moment when it will further complicate an already bad situation. If no such situation comes up during the day, their penance is not reduced.

d10 Wrath table:
1-3: Sif Muna causes the penitent to become illiterate. This lasts the rest of the day.
4-6: The penitent and their allies are inflicted with a false memory, causing them to get lost, bumble into an otherwise known trap, etc.
7-8: the penitent becomes completely incapable of understanding, or being understood by, those they talk with. This lasts the rest of the day.
9-10: A random spell prepared by the penitent is cast in the way most harmful to them; if it's an offensive or disabling spell, it is inflict against the penitent and their allies. If it's a defensive, empowering or utility spell, its effects are bestowed in a way that most harms the penitent.

For example, a strength buff might be cast on an opponent in combat, while a teleportation spell might be cast on an ally to make the fight more dangerous for the party.

Cheibriados, the Contemplative

Cheibriados is the ponderous god of deliberation. Those who imitate the leisurely nature of their god will achieve perfection of body and mind, as their every move becomes more languid and intentional.

Altar: A large bronze hourglass, seemingly untouched by time, covered in snails.

Cheibriados appreciates the slaying of creatures that are faster than you (+1 piety for every 5 HD of faster creatures slain). 
Cheibriados greatly depreciates any source of magical speed or haste, used on yourself or on others (4 Penance). Cheibriados will not punish you for hasting effects created unintentionally or by your foes, but the haste will be blocked.


0 Piety: Slowing Metabolism
Starting at 0 piety and for every point gained thereafter, Cheibriados will permanently reduce your maximum movement speed by 1/8 of it's natural maximum (that's 5' per step if your base speed is 40'). Your speed cannot be reduced below 5'. 
Cheibriados will also slow the effects of any poison or sickness that affects you. Additionally, you only need to eat and drink once every [Piety] days.

1 Piety: Sluggish Support
For each point of piety you have, Cheibriados will increase all of your attributes by 1.

4 Piety: Slouch | Cost: 1 Piety
Causes all enemy creatures within 60' to take 1d3 damage for every 5' they move faster than the worshipper.
Creatures killed with Slouch cannot generate more than 1 total Piety.

6 Piety: Greater Step From Time | Cost: 2 Piety
The worshiper moves to nowhere and lets time pass. They will reappear after an amount of time of their choosing, up to 48 hours later. The worshipper may bring up to 5 creatures with them when they Step From Time.


Cheibriados' wrath is long-lasting and deliberate. Each time the penitent enters a potentially dangerous combat, roll a d6. On a 5-6, choose one of the following and use it at the most effective moment:

- The penitent loses 1-6 points in 1d3 random stats for the rest of the day.
- The penitent is affected by a potent slow, reducing their speed to 5' (or, if their speed is already 5', they are instead rendered unable to move from their place for 2d4 rounds).
- The penitent is put to a deep, unbreakable sleep for 1d4 rounds.
- The penitent's non-magic armor or weapons rapidly age and turn to dust over 1d3 rounds.

In addition to these effects, the penitent's lowered maximum speed will remain until their penance has expired. Additionally, any sources of magical haste will be blocked after 1 round.

Xom, the Unpredictable

 Xom is a wildly powerful and unpredictable god of chaos, who seeks not worshipers but playthings with which to toy. Many choose to follow Xom in the hope of receiving fabulous rewards and mighty power, but Xom is nothing if not capricious.

Altar: A large stone head, which constantly changes its expression (although onlookers will not be sure that it's actually doing that).


Unlike other gods, you have no piety. Xom's moods change and shift suddenly and unpredictably, and there is no real way to influence the nature of Xom's actions.

Xom does, however, have Amusement. Whenever a player is afflicted by misfortune or tragedy (almost always things that are out of their control, such as triggering traps, getting transformed into a duck or being struck by lightning), this may Amuse Xom, slightly increasing the odds of Xom doing Good Things.


Xom doesn't grant any powers or abilities. Instead, Xom will occasionally Do Something. This should be utterly unpredictable: One way is to roll a large die, up to a d100, every time you check for encounters, each time a round of combat starts, or whenever nothing is happening; Xom will Do Something on a 1 (and perhaps also a 2 or 3, if sufficiently amused/bored). These may be Good Things or Bad Things, which is determined with a second roll - low numbers mean Good Things, high numbers mean Bad Things. Amusement increases the likelihood and/or severity of Good Things happening.

Good Things include affecting worshipers and their allies with good spells, smiting their enemies with various forms of harm, altering the terrain around worshiper in a helpful way, summoning allies to help in a struggle, or granting gifts (which could be anything from pebbles to potions to magical items, but tend towards maximum annoyance). Many results may be "good things" in that they're at least unlikely to hinder the party.

Bad Things include hitting the worshiper with harmful (but not directly lethal) spells, buffs to monsters, creating additional monsters or transforming existing ones into something scarier, confusing the party with illusions, teleporting the party to a random location in the dungeon, or various other things. Due to the chaotic nature of these effects, they might actually end up helping the party, but we call them "bad things" because they're likelier to hinder.

Note that I have not posted my actual list of possible good and bad things. That's because it's more involved than a simple list, because it'd take up entirely too much space, and most importantly - because I don't want my players knowing what might happen.


Xom's wrath, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not all that different than Xom's mercy; the only difference being that for the duration of the wrath (which can be anything between a few days and a couple of months), Xom's actions will tend towards Bad Things.

You'll never guess which of these used to be the party.

All The Extra Notes I Couldn't Fit In Elsewhere

From the examples above, I hope it's clear that you can make your small gods as simple or as complicated as you want. If you don't like any of the above examples, good - these were explicitly made for my own campaign (admittedly using the DCSS template), and any you use for yourself would ideally be created to suit your game's own design and vibe.

Small gods being added to your game naturally means that players will gain a power boost; even with their accompanying conducts, most small gods are a net positive to the abilities of players. Keep this in mind when adding them: they're great if you want to throw a bone to PCs in an otherwise brutal game, or if you want to give a little kick to already-potent parties, but they might create problems if your system is tightly balanced and doesn't have room for shenanigans.

If you fear players are going to become complacent with their piety - only being pious until they "fill the tank" and then sitting on their gains until they need them - you might introduce piety decaying over time. The gratitude of Small gods is fickle and fleeting, so this is a fine justification, but you should be careful not to make it too punishing - you don't want players to feel like they're losing piety faster than they're gaining it. You can also decide to give only some Gods piety decay, which is a good way to balance out deities that grant piety much more freely.

Gods that grant piety for things such as exploration can be made slightly more forgiving by tracking locations per-deity - that is, Sif worshipers will gain piety for entering a location that has never been visited by another Sif worshiper, even if the location has otherwise been visited before. And if you're wondering what a "location" is, I personally treat megadungeon floors and sub-floors, individual smaller dungeons, and overworld "biomes" as locations. Adjust this to the scale and pace of your own game!

Can multiple PCs worship the same god at once? Maybe! To make things interesting though, I like to make altars go inert for a few days after one PC begins worshiping a deity, because that way players are likelier to mix things up and create interesting compositions rather than all just piling on top of one god that seems especially strong.

A party of TSO worshippers decides to drop the Angel Bomb on a particularly tough foe.
If you're too married to the idea of the divine being huge and all-important, or think that this is a terribly unexciting way to summarize such a being, feel free to retheme the preceding as "fairies", "chaotic forces", "subclasses", or whatever else floats your ecumenical boat. Furthermore, you are under no obligation to have these be the only kind of god in your game - in fact, that one campaign I won't shut up about actually had two kinds of deity: the capital-g Gods that clerics get spells from, with all the typical trimmings; and the small gods that exist within the valley, which this post described. The "Real" gods either don't know or don't care that you worship the small gods (although their clergy might), and the small gods are only interested in their own agenda, and that you're not worshipping any other small gods.

How does this representation of gods solve the problem of players asking questions about the the nature of the universe? Because we fully define every mechanical aspect of how those gods work, and because we outright tell players that these small gods are limited in scope and utterly disinterested in interaction beyond fulfillment of conduct in exchange for power. It might not be the most airtight solution, but you're gonna get way fewer questions if there's no gray area. 

How do you present gods to your players? That's up to you - you can make it something vague and mysterious that they need to figure out the functionality of, or you can just straight up print little cards that have all the gods' details printed on them. You may also decide to omit certain pieces of information - players will probably appreciate knowing their conduct, how to generate piety, and what powers they have access to, but you might decide to not tell them about the god's Wrath - other than the fact that it exists - until they decide to take that plunge.

You might also decide to make certain small gods have more demanding conducts as their piety increases: Cheibriados, for example, makes their worshipers slower and slower as their abilities become more and more enhanced. This is a particularly deadly one, at least in my game, since not being able to just run away from a bad fight means that the player must be much more careful in their play. This is great fun, but make sure that these trade-offs are clear to players when they're deciding whether to worship a god.

Are your players afraid of abandoning their god? Good. Wrath should be scary, especially for low-level PCs. It makes worshiping a deity a more significant decision, and also creates an interesting dichtomy between gods that are more useful to low-level PCs and gods that are more useful to high-level ones - should you take the early powerhouse and have to deal with abandonment later, or do you immediately go for the lategame deity and have to accept that you won't have as much help against dangerous low-level threats?

If your game uses alignment, you may decide to give some (or all) of your small gods alignments and alignment-specific mechanics. This is fine, and it can add a bit more variety to god selection; for example, The Shining One would certainly refuse the worship of any evil characters, as well as the undead or demons.
Frankly I don't understand how anybody could refuse this guy's worship. 

Ultimately, what's fun about Small Gods is that they're really flexible. You can make them as wild and as game-breaking as you want. While my above examples have been somewhat "basic" (in part because I was adhering to a very specific set of gods for the example, and in another part because I don't want to spoil my players too much on what's out there), I hope that the potential of this idea will inspire you to make your own weird, complex, and downright interactive gods. And if you ever find yourself telling your players about the pack of Death Yaks that has spontaneously appeared in the chamber they're resting in, tell them I send my love before you start rolling for surprise.  


  1. Good post, much better than other attempts to "make religion relevant" in OSR games that add lots of annoying rules for players to argue over. This concept would benefit from more variety in piety gaining actions. Walking around and killing things are fine behaviors to reward in a video game where those are the two primary activities. They feel underdeveloped for a full on RPG where the players have a much richer menu of options available to them for "conduct".

    1. Yeah, you can absolutely go wild with the options for what might give piety. I just (mostly) stuck with the established DCSS ones because they're straight forward, but also because they translate very well into my desired piety gain rules - that it's hard to get, in (relatively) limited supply, and that it always requires risk or expenditure.

  2. Really like it! Makes me think there would also be a lot of small gods that aren't especially useful for murder hobos, but are worshiped by farmers and normal people (crop, weather, fertility gods) and could generate weird NPC behavior (Wicker Man, Children of the Corn, etc.)

    What's neat is that a DM could even use this just for 1 small god at 1 weird altar in their world without necessarily making it a new system for how deities work generally.

    But it does make me wonder:
    What do non-clerics get out of worshiping a "big" god?
    Would a cleric get anything out of worshiping a small god?

    1. Thanks! Yeah, you could take it as wide or as narrow as you like. Even though I pointedly went for Gods For Dungeon Crawlers in this article, I'd love to see people adapt the idea to a wider canvas.

      Regarding your question, I think there's a lot of interesting ways to handle it. The way I see it, "Big" gods are the ones that get the temples and priests and worshippers in return for being parts of myth acting as sort of theological and magical pillars of the setting (and giving spells to clerics, presumably), while your Small Gods are immediate and accessible, providing very clear and direct demands in return for unambiguous, immediate and localized rewards. You worship a big god because you want a moderate season, a good crop and bountiful harvest next year, and you worship a small god because they invigorate your plough horse and prevent your tools from breaking. Maybe this is normal in the setting, maybe small gods are limited and a status symbol, or maybe there's a divide between people who worship big gods, people who worship small gods, and people who do both.

      And yes, in my game at least, clerics can worship small gods with no repercussions; as said in the article, big gods are either unaware or disinterested in small gods, and small gods only care about their mysterious demands getting fulfilled.

  3. I love to see another take inspired by DCSS. Reading this finally got me to cohere up my own version from my last campaign into a readable format. I think the main problems with piety as a design space are "does this mean I have to track another variable", which I typically find distracting. At any rate, you might enjoy my take:

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