Worldbuilding: Using The Creation Story To Help Design A Belief System
Is a faith system vital to any fantasy story? Definitely. Even in a fictional setting, people need a raison d’être and comforting explanations for the mysteries of life. Religion is an excellent way to enrich a world. It provides it with clerics, shamans, priestesses, temples, oracles and prophesies.
Religion is one of five main components a worldbuilder should design first in any fantasy world before delving into smaller details, the others being climate, magic, races, and society. I strongly recommend working on the religion aspect first, unless you are largely inspired to work on another one of these parts. Every other component I mentioned above is affected in some way by the gods or supernatural forces, so it helps to have a system of beliefs in place when it is time to work on civilizations, values, magic and such.
If you are having trouble coming up with a decent belief system or pantheon, a good way to establish a basis is to start at the creation point. Every world has a beginning. Draw up the story of how your world came to be. Creation stories are excellent blueprints for designing religions, because these legends establish the main aspects of the world’s religion. No matter how your world began, whether it was made, born, or the end result of a random explosion, you can glean your main factors, such as the principal gods, the forces that shape the universe, and the origins and grand-scheme purpose for sentient life, from the creation story.
The Complete Priest’s Handbook, a supplement to the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, has a useful mythic history creation sheet. Here are the questions it lists to help DMs come up with a creation story.
How was the universe created?
What is the shape of the world and universe? What are suns, moons, planets and stars?
Characteristics of the Gods
Are the gods immortal?
Are the gods indestructible?
How much direct influence do they have?
How much interest do they have in the world?
What are their intentions toward the world?
Does anything inhibit them?
Humans, Humanoids, Animals, Plants: How were they all created?
Fall From Grace
Did sentient races fall from grace? If so, how?
What is the afterlife believed to be like?
Are there any legends about the future of the world?
Who are the main gods and what are their attributes?
What are the main legends known to the player-characters?
The last question is geared towards role-playing characters, but can be applied to any character, race or region. Also, these questions help design the blueprint for one particular pantheon. If you plan on having multiple pantheons, you can use one creation story as the basis for each pantheon, or create a different story for each group of gods. The only rule is to make the creation story short and concise. As you flesh out your world, you can expand on the creation story, but at this point you only need a frame of reference.
Gods are optional. You don’t have to base your world’s religion around gods. You can also have your races worship non-sentient powers. Roman and Greek mythology would assign one or more attributes to each god, such as Apollo, god of the sun or Hecate, the goddess of magic (among other things). These attributes can be worshipped directly by your races instead. Even philosophies can be compelling enough for a race, community or civilization to derive faith from worshippers and provide powers for holy men and women. Atheism is also an option, but you probably won’t need most of the questions above for your creation story if you go for a godless world.
Using the mythic history creation sheet questions above, I did a quick creation story as an example. I was thinking about a nice hot cup of Earl Gray as I wrote, so please forgive me.
In the beginning, there was nothing but a river of tea, flowing through the Riverbed of Eternity. Then, the flow shifted, and out of the ripple arose Tet, the god of Tea. Tet swam in the tea river until he became lonely. So Tet decided to bring forth a few companions. Tet made ripples, and out of the ripples arose PeeGee, Bigelo and Lipto.
They swam and played until they became bored. So PeeGee and Bigelo took some of the tea and separated it into earth and water. PeeGee became the goddess of Water and Bigelo became the god of Earth. They gave some earth and water to Lipto to play with. Lipto used the earth and water to create trees and animals, and became the goddess of Life.
Tet became bothered by the mess the others made in his river of tea, so he took the earth from Bigelo and formed it into a great boulder. He then took PeeGee’s water and covered the boulder with it. Tet then set the boulder high up over the river and warned PeeGee and Bigelo not to make any more earth and water. Bigelo and PeeGee were angry and created more earth and water in defiance of Tet.
The three gods then fought, and Tet’s anger created fire that threatened to burn everything. Then Lipto took the new water Pee Gee had created and made air out of it. Lipto used the air to cover the fire and buried it deep within the boulder, but some embers escaped and floated around the boulder, becoming the sun, moon and stars.
Now the other gods feared Tet and his dangerous temper, so they decided to leave the river and live on the boulder. They called their new home Pekoe and lived in a grand kettle on the highest mountain, hidden in the clouds. Lipto planted her trees and plants on Pekoe and set her animals loose to roam. The three gods played and cared for the plants and animals.
But Lipto became sad and began to miss Tet once she discovered that life did not last very long for her creations away from the Riverbed of Eternity. To remember her brother, she grew the Great Tea Tree. The tree grew tall and blossomed. The blossoms then withered, and great green pods swelled from where the blossoms had dropped. The pods then opened and dropped humans, elves and halflings onto the ground. The three gods were delighted.
But Tet once again became lonely, and had not forgiven his brother and sisters for abandoning him. Tet threatened to burn everything into oblivion unless the other gods rejoined him in the river of tea. Bigelo and PeeGee refused to return, but Lipto missed her brother dearly, and she decided to return to Tet, as long as he left their brother and sister in peace on Pekoe. Tet agreed, and welcomed her back into the river. Grateful for her sacrifice, Bigelo and PeeGee agreed to send the souls of the humans, elves and halflings back to Lipto in the river once their lives on the boulder were over. The virtuous souls would spend eternity swimming in the blissful river of tea, while the unworthy ones would be devoured by Tet.
The creation story above now provides a premise. I have the main gods and their domains of control, a supreme, unifying force (the tea) that I can possibly use as a source of magic, the origins of man, elf and halfling, and a setting for an afterlife. I can even incorporate some type of philosophy or sacred mantra such as: Do not forget that you are tea, and to tea you shall return. If I wanted to expand the pantheon, I could have the gods bear progeny, or have them mate with the sentient races to create demigods. But that doesn’t have to be in the creation story. It’s simply about having a basic premise.
Make it as simple or as complicated as you wish. It is your world and your creation story, and that is what makes worldbuilding so much fun.