Non-Class Development and Small Gods

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.


  1. I’m reminded of Erfworld’s magical contracts, and also Freeciv’s treaty mechanics. The types of clauses that can be added to the covenant are defined and enumerated but there’s no fixed “exchange rate” between the different kinds of clause. Whether or not a proposed covenant is acceptable to both parties depends on their preferences. You can’t mechanically evaluate it as “fair” without knowing what each party wants and how badly they want it.

    Where a covenant diverges from a generic contract is, in my opinion, that the severance penalties are especially severe: death isn’t unreasonable for a major covenant (maybe “small gods” don’t require such important covenants, though). The covenant might have a specified expiry time, but woe betide you if you break it early!

    • I was just coming around to the idea that I don’t actually have to ‘balance’ the covenant terms to the benefit gained. Some will be better than others (for one side or the other).

      And you’re right about the consequences. I’ve always liked the trope that gods, demons, and other primal powers typically have unescapable behaviors. That is, gods of truth might have difficulty being deceptive, and outright falsehood should be almost impossible. It should be almost impossible for a small god patron to break covenant (but entirely appropriate for some to include escape clauses that can let them end the covenant, even unilaterally), and someone who can choose to break covenant is probably viewed as something of an aberration (even apart from the potential embarrassment or inconvenience of the broken covenant). Patrons may well be totally okay with fearsome consequences attached to covenants because — not breaking covenants — such conditions do not apply to them.

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