#RPGaDay2020 Day 5: "Tribute"
Deities are a staple of every fantasy RPG game. To keep the fighters from dying, you need a cleric keeping their hit points up, and so you need gods that those clerics can worship. The first edition D&D rules even had very clear rules about which gods could do what. It was something like "Greater gods could grant 7th level cleric spells, lesser gods could grant 5th, and demigods could only go as high as 3rd level." So clearly, if you were in the game for the long haul, you wanted to worship a greater god to maximize your spell options. And as a cleric, one of your jobs was converting other people to the cause, because gods want to be worshiped--either for ego reasons, or it increases their power. Easy, right?
Except, I have two different games I run or play in, and that model doesn't actually fit any of them.
One is the Three Kingdoms campaign run by the person I trade off the GM role with. In his world, the gods died out years ago. The entire system of clerics and religions and power struggles doesn't involve the gods. As people pay their tributes and perform acts on behalf of the gods, those tributes are going somewhere but it isn't the gods...they aren't around to care. This raises an interesting question of who is answering the phone when divination questions are asked, and how the spells clerics cast are being granted. If someone goes against the religion, do they lose their spells, and who makes that call?
In Trinity, my own world, the gods actually exist to form a "web" to catch the souls of the dead. The different aspects of philosophy, outlook, role, and so on are covered in a complex web made of four cycles that house 30 gods. The gods are very real, but generally do not care if you worship them. Rather, when you act in a certain way, you are aligning to a god. This puts clerics in a role not of "gaining worshipers" but bringing out the philosophical depths of their god.
In the second level, which has two cycles of two, the Cycle of Duality contains Hamur of Justice, from the white house, and Moriga of Vengeance in the Black House. If a farmer who worships Kera of Fall is wronged, and seeks just compensation with wise and thoughtful consideration of the balancing of crime and punishment, then in that action, they are aligned to Hamur--despite their worship of Kera and regardless of whether they have ever given Hamur a thought or not. If that same farmer wishes to make their tormentor suffer for their crime, perhaps out of proportion to the crime, then that action aligns them to Moriga.
This means that people may pay tribute to a deity, ask for favors, or attend the local priest each time they speak, but if their day-to-day actions are not aligned to that deity, their soul will follow the deity or house that they are most aligned to.
There is another philosophy of gods, which is that the gods exist because people believe that they exist. For this view, there is no better source than Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett. Without spoilers, I will say that in this world, the power of a god is directly proportional to the number of true believers in that god. In this case, it is very important that gods have people that believe in them, because belief makes it so. Not only do gods in Pratchett's world first exist because people believe in them, but more believers means bigger gods; fewer believers means smaller gods in pretty direct proportion. There are some major subtleties to this point, but they involve the plot of the book, so I'll not get into them here.
To sum it up, when you pay tribute to a god, you do so by performing an action or providing a gift to the god. In real world religions, the gods may or may not notice, and they may or may not provide a boon for your offering. They may even reject your offering, if they find it unworthy--punishing you if you said you were sacrificing the best cow, and in fact only sacrificing the second-best while keeping the best for yourself. And whether the gods notice or not, people are taught to pay the tributes anyway, for fear of offending the gods.
In fantasy RPGs, the gods may be real and standing next to you; they may be real but distant, or they may not even be real. If you sacrifice a cow in Three Kingdoms, there are no gods to accept the offering, though the church will be happy. In Trinity, the gods won't even notice, as that's not what they're after, but the church may be happy. And in Small Gods, the gods may or may not care...depending on what's going on when you do it