It’s been a long while since I saw a 3.5 pantheon I really liked. When I played Eberron, I never got a good enough feel for the pantheon. The Forgotten Realms has always felt pretty cumbersome and huge to me, if more accessible than Eberron. (Granted, this accessibility comes, in part, since the FRealms was the setting for those great old Black Isle CRPGs, but at least names like Waukeen and Tymora mean something.) Greyhawk’s wasn’t bad, but it felt pretty basic: there’s a reason it was cut down to become the main setting in D&D. I remember picking up the Book of the Righteous during one of the Green Ronin closeout sales, and being underwhelmed by it. BotR isn’t a bad book, but it’s not terribly useful if you don’t take the pantheon whole-cloth, it’s dense like a brick, and just didn’t do anything for me.
In a lot of other examples, we end up with an amateurish hack-job of real-world mythological deities chumming it up together with a bunch of vanilla “new” deities; this is one of the things I like least about 1st ed AD&D, especially because Necromancer Games (and a swath of indie d20 publishers) stick by the trend. (I’m sorry, ripping off a myriad of real-world deities and expecting them to make rational sense in another world has not worked since the 1970s, and is a poor slap-dash replacement for creativity and originality.)
Considering my 3.5 pantheon woes, it’s a good thing that the core Pathfinder pantheon is the best I’ve seen for 3.5.
In our switch to Pathfinder and its 3.5 Adventure Paths, one of the first things my group connected with was the pantheon. Our first crew were a cleric and ranger of Saranrae, who got a paladin of Saranrae some sessions later, so reading up on Saranrae was a “freakin’ duh” move. But reading up on Saranrae led to reading up on the other gods, and the pantheon as a whole, so now most of the twenty core deities are fairly familiar. To me, they make Golarion come alive: there’s a heavily established background there, with logical explanations on why they don’t show themselves, on how gods can die and be replaced, and on gaining godhood. It even expands the basic pantheon with the morass of minor deities, philosophies, and the like, getting rid of the FRealms’ problem of top-heaviness while retaining a huge variety.
The accomplishment here is that the deities are generic enough to be easily understandable, realistic enough to be believable in a fantasy world, and complex enough to reflect the feel and themes of Pathfinder. Paizo managed to pull it off with flying colors. Take Cayden Cailean, for example, the drunken hero. It says a lot about a setting when its chaotic good god is a scruffy fighter who got drunk one day and took the test of the Starstone, emerging a full-blown deity. His holy symbol is a mug, presumably of ale, which explains really all you need to know about him. Asmodeus, the lawful evil devil lord, is one of the most vaguely likable evil gods in 3.5 history, especially when half the good deities begrudgingly accept his advice. Paizo’s traditional high standards of art and design pull through yet again, in this case helping to make all the deities truly memorable. Calistria, vengeful goddess of trickery, is memorable because of her yellow and black color pattern and fondness for wasps, while the butterflies-and-stars motif helps define Desna, goddess of dreams, stars, and travel.
The best part is that the Golarion (well, Inner Sea) pantheon was detailed in the $17.99 Pathfinder Chronicles softcover, Gods and Magic.
Gods and Magic is a 64-page Pathfinder Chronicles softsplat meant to detail all of the Golarion-based deities, or at least a huge chunk of them. The world’s twenty core deities are detailed, each getting a two-page spread. A great deal of the text is fluff, concise enough to give a great overview without inundating the player with a complex pantheon. The role of the church, the deity, and their followers are explained in brief, as well as basic religious tenants, and (in most cases) a short friends/foes list in relation to the other deities.
Minor deities also get a short stint in the spotlight, with a wide number of obscure religions, non-human deities, and other miscellaneous religious tidbits, all given their own chapter. It’s nice to see such a wealth of “interesting” deities resigned to the second-rate slot; they’re good enough to use, but not quite as interesting as the main pantheon. Another great addition is that the book doesn’t limit its information to just clerics, but mentions all sorts of followers, including druids, rangers, monks, and paladins, which is a great help in developing characters. And it’s all very slick, too, with standard Paizo high standards for art. A few of my players usually scoff and dismiss such fluff, but Gods and Magic is generally considered necessary for a Golarion-based game.
On top of that, there’s enough crunch to justify picking it up for a Pathfinder GM. All of the listings come with a new spell, often very utilitarian (e.g., highly balanced) but fitting the deity’s themes. For the most part, they’re all low-level, meaning the players will actually have a chance to use them for a long while, helping customize each cleric. Each deity also gets a short list of spell changes, learning some at lower levels, and for a few, casting sor/wiz spells as divine spells. Last for the crunch is the long section of magical artifacts and items in the back of the book, one for all of the major deities, all of which are useful.
Much as the Pathfinder Society is the postmodern explanation for why adventuring works—or, rather, a justification for traditional fantasy adventuring parties—the Pathfinder take on religion is the postmodern explanation for how a fantasy pantheon works. With Pathfinder, deities feel like all-powerful beings, but ones that are grounded enough to be vulnerable. They die and go missing in a fairly realistic way, with realistic repercussions, like how Aroden going AWOL has had major ramifications. Similarly, part of the game’s explanation for the creation of deities is the Starstone, a meteorite which crashed to earth, and where anyone brave enough can take the test of the Starstone to ascend into godhood. It’s nice to be able to repeat the oldest D&D high-point and ascend your characters into deities, but through a more grounded method that doesn’t always work.
This book was immensely helpful in selling the new pantheon to our group: it’s well written, with a wealth of material to aid in fleshing out religious characters. Having both crunch and fluff to use in developing individual religions is a brilliant move, as was detailing classes other than cleric (however briefly). The pantheon is clear and interesting, and the individual deities are unique enough to be memorable. For a 3.5-based game, I’d argue that Gods and Magic is the best deities book released, especially considering the bang you get for your buck.