D&D gods are very different than how God is portrayed in typical religion. While each world has different ways to handle gods, your typical D&D gods are closest to the Greek gods.
D&D gods are flawed, symbiotic beings. In most cases, they require followers to exist. Without them, they will die. Some of the common D&D gods that you will read about include Pelor, Lathandar, and Cyric. Beyond this, there is another tier of gods that do not need worshipers, and different rules can apply in different worlds.
This is a very broad overview of the gods. There are many differences depending on the setting that you are in, but almost all have commonalities that we will explore.
What Makes a D&D God?
In short, in D&D a god is an aspect of reality. They may come into existence either through faith, or prominence.
For example, The light that washes over you is part of your reality, and can be worshiped. If it is worshiped by enough people, a god can be born from faith alone. This creates the god of light through faith.
Nature, on the other hand, has existed before faith was a concept. This force of the world is so strong and prevalent, that something sentient is born from nature. That sentient aspect of nature wields the power of nature, and thus is a god.
This is how a god is created, but as you can already guess some aspects are greater than others. Nature encompasses the world. Murder happens less often, is thought about less, and probably has less followers. This makes the god of murder less powerful than the god of nature.
There are gods with multiple aspects instead of just one. Instead of being the god of murder; that god might be the god of both murder and hate. This would make the god stronger, and is why multiple aspects for a single god are usually best. One strong aspect might still be stronger than multiple ones, but it has be extremely potent for this to be the case.
D&D gods cannot have too many aspects or they might go insane. That is why most gods represent aspects which embody, or are adjacent to their main one. The reason for this is because gods are an exemplification of their aspects. If you are the god of hate, you are a writhing, frothing hateful being. The god of nature might be indifferent to your suffering, but expects you to strive for survival. Moralities are very subjective to each god since they are an aspect of reality.
While each god is an aspect of reality and jaded by their aspect/s, mortals do have an impact on the gods. Each god needs to have mortal followers or they will die. The strength of each god is mostly determined by the amount of followers that they have. Nature alone can be powerful, but if the god of nature only has 1,000 followers vs the god of food having 100,000 followers, the god of food will be more powerful.
While believers aren’t the only way to have power, they are vital to any god’s survival. There have been instances where a god has become forgotten, or all their followers killed. The god then slowly withers away to nothing. This isn’t a quick process since it may take decades to centuries, but the god will eventually die. This is why they need followers and are influenced by followers to attract more.
Take a noble god for example. If they are the exemplar of justice, they themselves should embody that trait. This isn’t hard for them since their nature veers them toward being an aspect of reality, but they need to be somewhat relatable.
Who do you relate more to: a perfect person who has no flaws, or a person who tries their best but isn’t perfect? This question has an obvious answer. If the gods are perfect, this is off putting to mortals who can never reach or understand them. A flawed god who is constantly trying to improve will have more followers, and this is a prevalent theory as to why many gods are flawed.
Other theories of mortal influence making the gods flawed are less likely, but possible. Some gods asended to godhood from being mortals, and retain their original flaws. Gods at creation might have been made with flaws, or are just more powerful humanoids. There are many theories, but one thing is for certain. The D&D gods are not perfect, and have more in common with humanoids than a pure aspect of reality.
Influence on the Mortal Realm
D&D gods differ from world to world. Some gods didn’t need the faith of believers in the past, but now do. Others have always had a vested interest in the mortal realm, but gods always meddle in almost every single setting.
The gods meddle to make more followers. They need believers to increase their power, but this isn’t the only reason why they meddle. Gods have a lot of power, but sometimes you need to give a minor task to an employee. If you managed a restaurant, you can’t take the position of every server and cook and still do your job. You need minions to help you run everything smoothly. This is how the gods use mortals in a mutually beneficial setup.
Gods are also not content just existing. They are closer to humanoids than not, and thus have ambition. Due to the gods having ambitions, they are always plotting, scheming, and attempting to increase their standing. In order to this, they need mortals to work for them.
Mortals can help their gods by increasing the number of believers, decreasing other god’s believers, or making the god’s aspect more prominent in the world. Many of these things can only be accomplished by mortals who bypass the barrier.
In each D&D setting, there is a barrier that prevents the D&D gods from meddling too much. There are ways to circumvent this barrier, but it is difficult.
With a barrier in place to stop them from acting directly and their very livelihood depending on these mortals, the gods meddle heavily in the mortal realm. They send visions, powers, or almost anything to get the aid of mortals and change the course of the world.
With this incentive, it is no wonder that the gods meddle heavily in the mortal realm, but there are gods who are above this.
In Dragonlance, there is the High God. In The Forgotten Realms, there is Ao. Almost every setting has some form of an Overgod. These overgods are much closer to what we think of as God in the real world. They are aloof and impossible to understand.
Overgods do not need followers, and are able to rule over, destroy, or do whatever they wish to any D&D god on a whim. These overgods are rarely seen, and almost nothing is known about them. They are more foreign to the gods than D&D gods are to mortals, but there are some things that we can discern with confidence.
There are multiple overgods.
We are able to discern this is the case because of Spelljammer. We have an article on what we know about Spelljammer in D&D 5e, but the whole point of Spelljammer is to connect different worlds. Everything in Krynn does not conflict with Aber-Toril, and both have overgods. Thus, there are multiple overgods.
Overgods are primeval and possibly 4th dimensional beings.
Overgods were here before all other gods, and time does not seem to matter to them.
Their involvement is negligible.
Overgods have only ever acted a few times in history, and their existence and purpose is a complete mystery.
We can make educated guesses on a few other things, but these are not definitive:
- They might have a hierarchy.
- They may be assigned to specific parts of the universe.
- There might be something higher than them!
These last three are speculation, but very plausible with our current information. In the end, we will never truly know much about these overgods, and that is by design.
The Limitations Of D&D Gods
We have already explored some limitations on D&D gods. They have a barrier that restricts their full power and a limit to their power. They can die, and are subject to overgods . This may seem like a lot of limitations, but there are even further limitations to what D&D gods can and cannot do!
First off, D&D gods cannot affect planets outside of their territory. If they could, then the god of nature for Aber-Toril would be in conflict with the god of nature for Krynn. Strangely enough, some gods could count multiple worlds as their territory, but that is rare and up to your DM.
D&D gods are generally restricted from directly interfering with other gods. They cannot go another realm, battle, and fight for aspects or titles. In order to accomplish this, they generally need mortals. This is because gods are strong in their own realms, but frail in comparison when they leave their divine home.
D&D gods have a lot of work to do, and thus don’t have as much freedom. They cannot just do whatever they want, and the aspect/s that they are in charge of are first and foremost to a god.
The last obvious limitation is the free will of others. They cannot make others do what they wish, and it has been a constant problem for many gods in the past. Mortals may screw them over, and that makes gods cautious when trusting mortals.
D&D gods need mortals in order to live, and are very human in their nature. They are flawed beings for one reason or another, and while quite powerful, are also limited in what they can do. The gods in D&D even have other gods that are above them, and they are beholden to their whims.
There are many caveats to being a D&D god. It seems like a great idea at first, but when you put into perspective how dependent you are on lesser beings, and the restrictions on really wielding your power, it is questionable if being a D&D god is actually something you would want.
Each world or setting has some differences with how to handle their gods, but there are quite a few commonalities that force mortals to have the spotlight. Mortals are the real influential ones, and that brings the focus to the players, as it should be.
I hope that this has helped you understand a little bit more about the D&D gods, how they function, and how to discern who is or isn’t more powerful, and what they can or can’t do.