Local Gods & Lesser Spirits
Most fantasy campaign settings have an array of gods and goddesses that establish a canon pantheon around which any aspects of the divine revolve. While having a rigid clarification of the divine beings that have an influencing effect on everything—from the fate of heroes to the rising and setting of the sun—is a very balancing aspect to story integrity, but it can also prove to be limiting.
As varied as the opinions about and aspects of any single canon deity may be, the odds are they will never be able to fill every divine role or meet all of the spiritual needs of every society within a campaign setting.
When developing a world, the most obvious solution to this issue is to simply add new gods to the existing pantheon—more specialized deities to fill those voids. However, this too can become damaging to setting integrity as each new deity appended convolutes the established structure of the canon pantheon as well as diluting the notoriety of the existing gods and goddesses.
A perfect method to fill these “divine voids” and specialized divine needs is to introduce lesser gods and local spirits to your campaign setting. These are entities or subpantheons that operate under the umbrella of the primary canon. They are limited, usually known only within a region or to a specific culture, and can even be reduced to smaller groups such as cults or messiah figures.
Types of Localized Gods/Spirits
The Ascended Hero
Whether by means of magic, planar or interdimensional influence, or pure essence of will, some heroes become more than mere mortal beings. The culture who idolized these figures in their lifetime may transition that adoration into a religion or cult following. In return, the ascended hero who in life performed great deeds for those people may choose to continue to aid her followers from the mysterious beyond to which she has ascended. In some societies it is assumed that the leader of that society (such as a king or queen) has ascended to godhood.
Death is not the end. Some cultures practice ancestor worship, attributing life’s joys and ills to the influence of the spirits of their dead ancestors. In some instances this veneration is extended to the spirits of all the dead of a particular culture, whereas the spirits of the deceased have multiple, every-day roles in the lives of the living. In other cases, particularly notable figures are venerated, such as patron saints, who are often considered to have a very specific influence over their followers usually associated with some notable deed or aspect of their personality during their lifetime.
The animistic perception of the world is one where everything, living being or not, contains a conscious spirit or supernatural essence. Every rock, every tree, every cloud in the sky is attributed to a spirit. Some of these spirits have names and mythologies of their own, being worshiped as specific deities that usually inhabit a region (such as a forest or a mountain), but others are simply respected as mysterious natural forces that influence the world in which they exist.
Daemons are natural spirits [well, maybe not the Pathfinder kind — MM] or sometimes even the spirits of once mortal beings that have been granted immortality by the gods of an established pantheon. Often serving as messengers for a specific deity or an icon or avatar of a god or goddess, daemons usually assume focused influence associated to the more generalized aspects of the deity they serve.
National or Tribal Gods
When a deity or divine spirit focuses on one particular nation, city, or tribe, it often becomes the spiritual trademark of those people. The followers of a tribal or national god often find that their deity places the well-being of their specific society above all else, lending little or no influence to outsiders. Many times it is a requirement in these societies to venerate their specific god above all others. In some instances, devout followers of this type of divine being are automatically considered to be a part of a society, even if they have never come into direct contact with the culture of focus.
It is not uncommon for a single culture to assign more than one of these types of localized gods and spirits to their belief system, or for neighboring societies to establish similar belief systems using a hodgepodge of identical regional divinity interlaced with aspects of local divinities.
A good example of these concepts would be the many Judeo-Christian belief systems of the real word, which assume a national god (as with JHVH, the God of Israel), ancestor veneration (as with canonized saints of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches), animism (as with the Holy Spirit of Christianity which imbues written words with divine spirit), and daemons (as with the concepts of angels and fallen angels).
Expanding Subpantheon Concepts into Gameplay
By interweaving local gods and lesser spirits into your campaign setting you are opening the door to endless possibility and vivid imagery that can be utilized to flesh out individual cultures without having to worry about “breaking” the established cannon pantheon of the game setting.
Once you have decided upon a local god or lesser spirit, and have established the essence and mythology of that entity, the next step is to work in the influence of that divine entity into the story itself. This can be done in a myriad of fun and creative ways that require little to no modification of actual game mechanics.
Magic Items & Artifacts
Magic items and artifacts can be designed to appear with the symbolism associated with a local deity, and their magical effects can be focused on aspects of that deity. For instance, if a tribe worships the spirit of a hawk, it would make sense for that culture to produce a winged statue that can cast fly upon its user.
While there are often established descriptions for the visual effects of spells, these can be altered to reflect the aspect of the local divinity worshiped by the caster without changing the mechanical function of the spell itself. For instance, if a cleric were a member of a cat worshiping cult, then perhaps when casting shield of faith, the caster is donned with an ethereal mount of a feline worn as a cloak, rather than the typical, “shimmering, magic field around the target” as described in the spell description.
Skills, Feats and Special Abilities
Another good way to emphasize the influence of a local god or lesser spirit is to have the NPCs that worship that entity specialize in a specific set of skills and feats related to aspects of their divinity. For instance, perhaps the people of a tribe who follow a local “horse” god would have a focus in the Ride and Handle Animal skills as well as a plethora of mount-related feats such as Mounted Combat and Spirited Charge.
Creating new and unusual creatures utilized by a society that reflect on aspects of their local deity is a great way to emphasize their belief system into the story of the game. For instance, a group of wayward good-aligned goblins who have formed a cult that worships the Boar Spirit that inhabits a local forest may use dire boars or celestial boars (provided by the power of their god) as mounts in combat.
There are many ways that specialized belief systems can be worked into a campaign setting, and these divine entities can have tangible and actionable influence over their followers without having to alter or unbalance the primary canon of the game world. The only limitation is creativity and a willingness to expand on the history and mythology of any given culture or society.