I am exploring an idea to do with Small Gods. I’m considering having them form covenants, agreements of exchange, rather than simply grant spells as normal gods do for clerics.
On the one hand, this opens the door to having non-clerics have access to powers from small gods (which is ideal, exactly what I want). In D&D 3.x and Pathfinder this is fairly easy to manage from a character build resource point of view, simply make them feats.
For OSR-style games, though… what are suitable build resources to use? Simple experience point cost is probably unhelpful because of how experience point costs for levels change so fast (typically doubling; 1000 XP at first level is somewhere between really big and immense for almost all first-level characters, but fifth-level characters might hardly notice). An experience point surcharge (‘penalty’ is the wrong word here) might be better for abilities that scale well with level.
With d20-based D&D you might also use something like prestige (or better, ‘paragon’) classes, where you advance “covenant level” or something, but first, I don’t particularly like that mechanism, and second, in OSR games I don’t know that you can readily ‘mix in’ other classes readily.
Perhaps treat them something like (non-physical) magic items? You have to earn them (you can’t simply ‘buy them’ by providing gold, you have to do something to get them), they do something for you that may be fairly tightly constrained in applicability, and if you break the covenant, your agreement with the small god who is your patron, they go away.
I think I have an approach now, prompted by conversation online. Mongoose Press’ Classic Play: Book of Immortals addresses this very thing with the rules for covenants.
Classic Play: Book of Immortals Covenants
In Classic Play: Book of Immortals it is possible to gain the patronage of a more powerful entity (where ‘entity’ isn’t necessarily a god, it could be a collective such as the Unseelie Court or the nation of Thaslabad). Once you gain the attention of the entity it may be possible to negotiate a deal, a covenant, whereby you gain something in exchange for service.
Service is almost ideal for my purposes, and can be scaled to my purpose and the benefits gained from a small god. Rather than trade character build resources, pull it up in play from time to time. Unlike Book of Immortals the covenants don’t have to grant steps toward apotheosis, they can be limited to more mortal concerns, but the structure itself covers a pretty broad range of costs.
There are several kinds of service identified. I will include below a brief description of each type of service (taken directly from the book).
- Allegiance: When an Immortal agrees to abide by an allegiance term in a covenant he accepts that other beings have the ability, if they follow the proper rituals, to command his time. The covenant must specify what beings can demand the character’s attention and what steps they must follow in order to do so.
- Bond: When an Immortal agrees to abide by a bond he agrees to do everything in his power to foster a specific set of conditions in the world. These conditions will usually favour the granting power in some way. However, they may also relate to expanding the role of one of the four mythic powers or to furthering the processes embodied by the abstract powers
- Commitment: The Immortal commits to the performance of specific practical duties on behalf of the granting power. These duties require at least 10% of the character’s time. The duty always involves some physical or magical action. Most duties involve something the granting power would have to do anyway or needs done by a third party for some metaphysical reason.
- Nemesis: When an Immortal agrees to take on a nemesis he dedicates himself to the destruction and humiliation of a particular opponent, race or people. He must do everything in his power to bring his foes low, even sacrificing himself if it is required of him. The granting power will bind the Immortal to a nemesis that opposes its goals; it may even be a former friend or colleague from the Immortal’s mortal days.
- Offering: The Immortal agrees to make regular offerings of a material, magical and metaphysical nature to the greater glory of the granting power. The Immortal makes offerings in public and in private. Public offerings must be remarkable, impressive and flashy enough to attract attention. Private offerings must involve deep personal sacrifice, to the point where giving up the offering actively pains the character.
- Quest: When an Immortal agrees to undertake quests as part of a covenant he must immediately undertake an epic quest in addition to the challenge he just completed. Once he completes this quest the granting power may, at its option, call upon the hero to perform a similar quest every decade. These secondary quests do not count as challenges for the Immortal, although they may aid or oppose challenges taken by others.
- Ritual: The Immortal agrees to enact specific, meaningful actions at specific times each year. These actions relate in some fashion to either the world’s mythic history or to the processes governing the universe. Failing to properly enact a ritual can have dire consequences: the seas may turn into blood, ancient demons from a forgotten time may escape from their prisons or the sun may lose its flame.
Obviously for my purpose the scope of each need not be so large, nor the consequences — the rewards are smaller, after all — but the structure of it looks like it holds a lot of potential for my purpose.
It pleases me that these are largely system-agnostic, as well. It doesn’t matter if the rules are used in a system that has or does not have feats, having to spend three days a month performing a duty is an inconvenience to the character. It might be handwaved in practice (a particularly character might simply be unavailable during the nights of the full moon), but I think I would like it to come up at least part of the time.
Similarly, it doesn’t necessarily matter what class a character is, and in fact it could be interesting to find a role filled by different characters over time. In The Dresden Files the Winter Knight is a role filled by at least two characters with some significantly different personalities and abilities, with their primary similarity being that they can Get Things Done.