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I am creating a campaign world that is supposed to be a “refuge from the gods”: no true deities can come here, no intervention in the affairs of mortals. People came here from the Forgotten Realms to escape domination by the gods.

The problem I'm running into is that, after reading the Forgotten Realms wiki entry on deities, I am a little confused about the line between "god" and "very powerful entities and creatures". What categorically differentiates "gods" proper in the Forgotten Realms Cosmology from other very powerful beings (for example primordials)? What can Gods do that other beings can't?

More background

I have already done some extensive work on this project. Much of the world’s history and lore revolve around a number of lesser primordials that came to this world to escape the jealous gods that tried to exterminate their kind in the early days of the formation of the multiverse. Many humanoids came here as well, mostly to escape wrathful gods on their own worlds.

Over time, the inhabitants of this world started to worship other things: fey and elemental spirits, dragons and other powerful creatures, and the country-sized primordials that walk along the surface of their planet. These creatures are powerful, and can do favors for their followers, but none of them can do anything close to a Wish: they can’t magically smite a mortal dead on the spot without actually being there to hit them with something, they can’t create new races of people from nothing, can’t oblige an entire race of people to give up their free will and stay evil for all time. They aren’t true gods.

I want very badly for this world to exist in the same multiverse, with the same lore and logic as the Forgotten Realms. For example, the goblinoid races of my world are all descendants of goblins, orcs, and hobgoblins that escaped the Forgotten Realms so that they could have the freedom to be “good”, now that they are no longer under the thumb of their evil gods. Followers of Maglubiyet visit my world from the Forgotten Realm to hunt down the ancestors of these original goblinoids, punishing goblins with Barghests etc. The feywild is also a very different place: without deities in charge of the winter and summer courts, the split between seelie and unseelie is a little more complicated.

Problem restated

I want to keep cosmology compatibility with the Forgotten Realms so that my world can be populated by refugees from the Realms, but I’ve become unsure which entities would exist in my world, and which would be banished by the anti-god property.

I'm not sure how can I draw a line between god (not allowed in my world) and not-god (allowed in my world) that would exclude Maglubiyet, Lathander, Gruumsh, and Torm (and also Titania and the Queen of Air and Darkness if possible), but also include primordials, fey spirits, and powerful magical creatures that characters could obtain divine magical abilities from.

Let me be clear that I am not just looking for a source of power for users of divine magic. I am trying to resolve a lore-continuity problem in the world I've created. My players are going to want to know what types of entities divine magic users can follow - I want to provide them a very clear-cut rule of what is and what isn't a god so that they can choose a source of power with clarity.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 26 '18 at 21:37
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Mortal use of divine magic often stems from a deity, but traditionally in D&D, there have been many sources of divine magic that are not from a deity. There have also been beings of extreme power who are very importantly not deities.

Much of this comes from the Planescape setting, a kind of “over-setting” to the various campaign settings available in D&D. Where each campaign setting describes a world—Oerth (Greyhawk), or Toril (Faerûn and the Forgotten Realms), or Athas (Dark Sun), or Eberron (...Eberron)—Planescape deals in the planes beyond those worlds. In other words, Oerth and Toril have nothing to do with each other and you can’t generally get from the Free City of Greyhawk to Waterdeep, but people in both worlds go to the same heavens and hells (and other planes). As the setting that deals the most with gods-in-person, it has the most depth in this regard. And as an over-setting, it generally applies to most D&D settings.1

So in Planescape, deities are not defined by power—other extremely powerful things exist—or by granting divine spells to their followers—as other beings also do that. This distinction is, occassionally, extremely important.

Some Examples of Emphatic Non-Deities

Just so you know what I’m talking about, I want to introduce a couple of beings in Planescape who are immensely powerful—among the most powerful in the setting—but are emphatically not gods.

The Lady of Pain

Sigil’s Lady of Pain is arguably closer to a physical law than she is an individual being. Her power seems to be incalculable—certainly, none of the gods across the Planes have any interest in testing her ban on gods within Sigil. Those upstart gods who have tried have been dealt with summarily and without fan-fare—for the Lady of Pain, this does not seem to be any great effort.

The Lady of Pain is also an enigmatic, aloof, and uninvolved ruler. She literally never speaks to anyone—and I don’t mean she’s mute, because she never really communicates through any alternative means, either, excepting sometimes through her mysterious servants, the dabuses. Her laws are extremely few, and she mostly ignores the goings-on of her city. One of those few laws, however, is that it is illegal to worship her. The punishment for worshiping the Lady of Pain is death by flaying, a punishment she delivers personally and immediately.

Asmodeus

Another excellent example is the Lord of the Nine Hells, Asmodeus. Asmodeus is a devil—the devil, in some ways—but he is adamantly not a god. He doesn’t object to worship as the Lady does, and cultists to Asmodeus—and other archdukes of Hell, who are also not gods—receive divine spells, but it is nonetheless very important to his plans that he is not a deity.

According to one (unreliable) bit of lore, Asmodeus and the couatl god Jazirian are the remnants of the “Two Serpents of Law,” immensely powerful beings that were involved in the creation of reality. Both grievously wounded, Jazirian took up godhood in the heavens, while Asmodeus avoided that remedy and eventually got himself to the top of Hell’s hierarchy. At this point, Asmodeus is one of the most important and influential players in planar politics—Jazirian is an obscure god worshiped almost solely by one minor species.

So what is a deity?

Deities are defined by two things:

  1. the belief of mortals in that god, particularly the devotion and prayers of the faithful, and

  2. the divine portfolio they hold, which in turn is also affected by mortal belief and value of that portfolio’s contents.

Without a divine portfolio, a being isn’t a god. And a god starved of belief and prayers dies. But it isn’t just that they need to convince people to pray for them, or that their portfolio defines what they have power over—those are both true but there is more to it than that.

Specifically, gods are, and they must be, what they are believed to be. The mortal masses who believe in that god shape them, shape what it means to be that god, and gods are not free to change who or what they are. And, in fact, few gods would be capable of even considering the idea; the desire to be other than what they are is completely alien to them. The few gods who have actually attempted to change have lost almost all of their power, and usually died in the attempt—or just found it impossible, and reverted back to what they were always believed to be. A god could probably, slowly, influence his or her followers to change their perceptions of him or her, and thereby change themselves, but it would have to be executed extremely carefully.

This is why the Lady of Pain and Asmodeus refuse divine portfolios—they refuse those restrictions. In the Lady of Pain’s case, she is probably more powerful than she ever would be as a goddess, so a divine portfolio would just limit her. Asmodeus would be personally empowered by being a god, but Asmodeus would never consent to allow others to define him—and even if he was more personally powerful in some objective way, hampering his flexibility would prevent him from holding his position as well as he has, and interfere with his schemes. Ultimately, leading Hell and having all the irons in the fire at once is more valuable to Asmodeus than any divine portfolio would be.

  1. Mystara is notably difficult to force into the Planescape cosmology, and Eberron too makes a lot more sense if it’s separate—but both can be forced into Planescape if you really want to.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 26 '18 at 21:37
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In the Forgotten Realms, Deities are those whom Ao has officially marked as deities.

This answer is generally true for previous editions of Forgotten Realms. It's possible that some changes may be made for 5th edition, though the Forgotten Realms is generally pretty good about maintaining continuity (including various cataclysms to explain edition changes).

Ao is the Overseer of the Forgotten Realms, and can raise, lower, or modify divinities at will, granting or removing portfolios. He has full control over what portfolios are held by what beings, both through direct intervention and through making rules about how portfolios interact. The essence of a divinity for the Forgotten Realms is in the possession of a divine portfolio.

Portfolios are generally accepted as being necessary in order to maintain persistent, stable cults. It is possible to acquire a cult temporarily by just convincing people, but those don't generally last (unless Ao chooses to recognize the work by bestowing you a portfolio). Deities are able to sense significant events that happen with respect to their portfolio, are able to pay particular attention to these events once aware of them, and have some degree of ability to directly influence their portfolios.

Portfolios are also unique to a given deity within a particular pantheon. If there are deities in the same pantheon with overlapping portfolios, it is only when one of them is a strict subset, where the holder of the subset is a demigod. Demigods, lesser gods, and greater gods all exist and qualify as deities, but their portfolios have different degrees of power.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 27 '18 at 11:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I get the feeling this would be a great answer, if I could understand it?! What is a 'portfolio' when used in this fantasy sense? \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan The Leach Oct 30 '18 at 8:45
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Three non-deity sources are already available

My players are going to want to know what types of entities divine magic users can follow - I want to provide them a very clear-cut rule of what is and what isn't a god so that they can choose a source of power with clarity.

In the PHB, divine magic comes from three things, two of which are not gods;

The spells of clerics, druids, paladins and rangers are called divine magic. The spell casters' access to the Weave is mediated by a divine power - gods, the divine forces of nature, or the sacred weight of a paladin's oath. (p. 205 PHB)

  1. For Druids and Rangers (and arguably for Nature Domain Clerics) you have the divine forces of Nature. This source of divine magic fits with your primordial theme. You can expand the primordial theme into a great many detailed channels for divine magic, to include conduits into the Weave from the elemental planes by personifying the primordial essence of the elements from the inner planes. The Spirit of Air or The Spirit of Fire fit within this theme.

  2. For any paladin: you have the sacred weight of the paladin's oath. A paladin's oath is not necessarily bound to a deity, although it can be.

  3. The third source? Forces and Philosophies as proposed in the DMG.

    As we discussed in this answer, divine magic can come from something abstract. The DMG (p. 11-13) presents "Other Religious Systems" and sources of divine power.

    Forces and Philosophies Not all divine powers need to be derived from deities. In some campaigns, believers hold enough conviction in their ideas about the universe that they gain magical power from that conviction. (DMG, p. 13)

    Examples of forces and philosophies you can use: Life, Light, Darkness, Death, or use meta sources like Chaos and Law.

    • That last source reaches back to some original D&D ideas on divine power. There is powerful precedent for the Law and Chaos as a divine source: clerics and anti-clerics in D&D's original three books had to declare for Law or Chaos at 7th level.

      Note that Clerics of 7th level and greater are either "Law" or "Chaos", and there is a sharp distinction between them. (Men and Magic, 1974, TSR, p. 7)

    • You can describe this as 'the source of their divine power' even though it wasn't stated in those terms in the rules text. D&D had not yet gotten that sophisticated. The anti-Cleric was the opposite of the Cleric, and had some spells that had reverse effects: Raise Dead became Finger of Death. (Men and Magic, p. 34)

Sources beyond the three above; you don't necessarily need deities

As mentioned in the Paladin Oath of the Ancients (PHB) there are "the Old ones" from "the old faith" who can take any form that you like. Primordial or nature based, you call it.

Arriving at "not a god"

A Great Old One style being, or a being along the lines of the Archfey(more primordial thematic stuff). There's a lot of room to work with that already present D&D 5e structure.

You can also, to use only 5e source material, pick from the list of domains in the deity and domain Appendix of the PHB. Use a domain as a thing in itself to grant power to your divine casters; personify it. This overlaps a Force or a Philosophy and is not a god, and it doesn't require being worshipped. It can be served without being worshipped.

  • Death: as a source of divine power (They call him The Reaper)
  • Light: a source of divine power (Called her The Illuminator)
  • The Storm/Tempest: a source of divine power (Called it The Maelstrom)
  • Life: a source of divine power. (Called her The Spark)
  • Justice: a source of divine power (Called him The Gavel)
  • Balance: a source of divine power (Called it The Scale) (Inspiration there is the novel "The Dragon and the George")

Lastly, given your primordial theme, including elemental sources of divine magic in a manner similar to the Dark Sun campaign setting (from previous editions). This will fit what your are trying to do in your world building. If you only want current 5e sources, you already have the elemental planes as a potential sources for elemental based divine power. Embody the essence of Earth, Water, etc into a being. That being does not need a name, and does not have to be a god.

What's a god?

In some previous FR cosmology, a partial definition for what is a god was a being that was worshipped. That's a workable definition, but as soon as a cult arises to worship a devil like Zariel (a devil detailed in Mordenkeinen's Tome of Foes, D&D 5e supplement), does that make Zariel a god? In this edition, it does not. The gods (with the exception of Tiamat who in one of the adventures has an avatar that may confront the PCs) don't have stat blocks. An implication of that is that gods are beings who cannot be killed by the PCs. (Compare that to the stat blocks of deities in AD&D 1e, for example, which suggested that perhaps deities could be overcome and slain).

What's a workable definition of a god that fits the 5e cosmology? A god is a being that cannot be killed, that does not have a stat block, that has at least one domain (beyond the Life domain which all gods have) under its area of concern and power, resides in the outer planes, and has worshippers.

The "cannot be killed" criteria does not fit in some previous FR cosmology, depending on the edition, since Bhaal to name but one was a god that died. So far, for 5e "cannot be killed" is a criteria but it is not the sole criteria.

Another criteria is: it's a god if it is listed in the back of the PHB as a deity. That's an out-of-character answer, not an in world answer. The "in-world" version of this is per @BenBarden's answer: a god is whomever Ao says is a god.

Since your players want to know how to source their divine power, the initial piece of this answer provides options for them. You can personify an element, or an abstraction like Law, or Chaos, or Justice and make it a non-god something for your players to serve and thus channel divine power through. You have to flesh out the details of that for your unique world. (Which looks like a fun one!)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 26 '18 at 21:37
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In D&D, a deity is not "any creature that can bequest abilities to worshippers". What separates a deity from other powerful entities is that it is a being whose existence is dependent on having worshippers. Even if noone knew about a primordial, let alone believe in it, they could still be there, but without worshippers there are no deities. That is the "line in the sand" that separates deities and not-deities.

D&D being a fantasy game, there are always exceptions to pretty much any rule. But overall this one is relatively reliable, particularly since the 2nd edition. Many Planescape products talked about deities dying of neglect. A good example is the death of Kiaransalee, a drow deity of vengeance and undeath. Wizard Q'arlynd Melarn performed a high magic ritual that wiped her name from the minds of all beings, even Kiaransalee's herself. Without worshipers she just faded from existence.


Here is some extra information supporting the logic of this answer and outlining its scope so you can decide how to implement various viewpoints into your own setting. Regarding how deities came to be, there was a discussion in the 2e Planescape book, On Hallowed Ground (pages 35-36), a book about deities from all the AD&D campaign settings of 1996 (Planescape was meant to be a meta setting in which all the others were embedded):

One story says that, long ago, the powers were spirits - created by legends of a place either benign or malign, appeased by shamans of this other world, and venerated by the people of the land. The spirits absorbed the worship of the mortals, feeding on it, growing ever more able to influence the lives of their devoted. ... As they grew in the hearts and minds of the people, the spirits started to grant demonstrable signs of their power to certain worshippers. ... The chant spread throughout the masses, and more and more folks gravitated to the spirits' ways of thinking, ...

'Course, that's just one theory of how it all came to pass. Another says the powers were the ones who created the mortals, so the sods should be beholden to their gods. ... Whether this is true or not, most folks dismiss the idea as propaganda from the powers themselves.

PS: How would the characters in a game separate deities from primordials? The answer is difficult; but if they are powerful enough to cast high-level spells, they can gain some clues. Since deities are beings feeding off of belief, a decent fraction have realms in the Outer Planes, where belief/mythos/philosophy is the stuff things are made of, not matter. This is not a clear guideline, as archfiends and various fey also reside in the Outer Planes, clues like this might help the characters to piece together the puzzle's pieces.

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The Forgotten Realms Wiki has generally excellent articles on the setting, including an article on deities. Drawing on Forgotten Realms sourcebooks published in earlier editions of D&D's rules, the defining factors of a deity in that setting include:

1. They draw power from worship

According to Faiths & Avatars, p. 14, a deity relies on worship in order to continue to exist (note the use the AD&D 2e term power rather than god):

Deities need the power provided them by worship to exist. One way for a power to die is for it to have no more worshipers. To intentionally cause a power's death through this method is difficult even for most greater powers. Basically, all the worshipers of a deity have to die, or the power has to lose worshipers so slowly that it does not realize its inevitable fate until it can do little to stop it. Powers can hang on as demipowers as long as they have even one worshiper.

The D&D 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting says:

Because they lose strength if their worship dwindles away and is forgotten, deities task their clerics and others to whom they grant divine spells with spreading their praise and doctrine, recruiting new worshipers, and keeping the faith alive.

2. They are formally recognized as deities by the god Ao

D&D 3e's Faiths & Pantheons, p. 4:

Finally, only Ao can recognize the ascension of a mortal to divine status or permit a deity worshiped on other worlds to be worshiped in Toril.

3. They have a portfolio, or control over some aspect of the world

A deity can be the god of something, such as the god of elves, or the god of war, or god of caves. According to D&D 3e's Faiths & Pantheons, p. 4:

The Overgod also ensures that with the exception of demigods, no two deities of the same pantheon can truly claim the same portfolio.

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I put this in an edit to @KRyan's answer, but I'm not sure if or when that edit will be accepted, so to save time I'm writing it up here as well, along with expanding it greatly to include additional new details to make it more worthy of being an answer in its own right.


To provide a direct quote proving that Asmodeus not only is a god, but that he wanted to be one:

Asmodeus was not a god, but still the king of the Hells and craved every scrap and snippet of power he could gain. The tieflings in the world, well, their lives hung on his balance. He sought to make them all his slaves, because he could.

But a devil loves a deal, and Bryseis Kakistos offered him the chance to become greater than an archdevil, a very god if he took the chance

and then a few chapters later

"If you go back in time, it was never a secret that the king of the Hells wanted godhood," Lorcan said. He spoke without softness, without care. As if he meant for her to feel every blow. "Whether they offered the sacrifices or he demanded them isn't clear. But thirteen tieflings made a pact with Asmodeus—a mass sacrifice of fiend-born, plus their own souls and blood, for the chance to wield the powers of the Hells.

Both quotes from Brimstone Angels: Lesser Evils


Asmodeus is a god. He wasn't one for a very long time, but today he is. Originally he became one by consuming the Divine Spark of Azuth (killing that god in the process). Later Azuth came back to life from within Asmodeus, and the two split. In order to remain a god, Asmodeus was allowed to take the divine spark of an ancient god by the name of Nanna-Sin, in return for bringing Nanna-Sin back to life as a non-divine immortal.

Becoming a god (along with a few other small factors largely outside the scope of this answer) enabled Asmodeus to end the Blood War between the Nine Hells and the Abyss, a state of affairs that lasted for over a century before the war was apparently started again.

This tale tells us that divinity is something which can be concretely measured in some way. Gods have a "divine spark", and consuming that spark is one method to achieve apotheosis. There's some talk about the spark itself being weaker or stronger based on factors like worship, and how a spark can be brought into existing through a sufficient amount of worship, but ultimately possession or lack thereof of a divine spark is what defines true divinity.


The best source for this information is in Erin M. Evans' Brimstone Angels series of D&D novels, in particular the third, The Adversary, and the final, sixth, one, The Devil You Know. A brief account of parts of the story is told in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide 5th edition D&D sourcebook.

Something that may also interest you from that series — particularly the fifth (Ashes of the Tyrant) and sixth (The Devil You Know) books — is the world of Abeir. Abeir is Toril's twin world — Toril being the world on which most of the Forgotten Realms takes place. Abeir is a place forsaken by the gods and is instead ruled over by primordials and dragons. Divine magic does not work there, and neither does standard arcane magic like a wizard might use. Only the innate magic some creatures possess, like a primordial's elemental magic or a dragon's breath, work properly in Abeir.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you - I was continuing to build my world + do research on Forgotten Realms cosmology, and I was really getting confused about Asmodeus. This is an enormous help. \$\endgroup\$ – Pink Sweetener Jul 29 '18 at 13:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ My guess is that @KRyan is not up to date on FR lore. What they said was true in 3.5e and earlier, but became inaccurate as of some time shortly after 3.5e, near the beginning of the time skip between editions. 5e keeps this aspect the same as 4e rather than reverting it. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Cullen Jul 30 '18 at 12:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fun fact: Kakistos in Greek, means the baddest of them all \$\endgroup\$ – Drunken_Guy Aug 17 '18 at 7:13

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