Sometimes all you need for the start of a good story is a set of archetypal forces in conflict. The simplest—good vs. evil, light vs. dark—have been done to death, and more complex dynamics can really keep your characters on their toes.
Here is a bare-bones yet dynamic set of divine archetypes a role-playing game (RPG) referee can use to build pantheons, schools of magic, political factions, and races. Or, if you’re not into RPGs, an aspiring fantasy writer could use it as the basis for a story.
As game master (GM) or author, you can work out this dynamic however you like. You can assign different classes to different forces, or give classes different styles in each force—certainly your magic-using classes. You can assign different fantasy races to different forces, or assign sub-races to different forces. You can make different countries align up with the forces, and align the gods of the forces however you like. Maybe they are all at war. Maybe a few of them are allied.
Let’s dig in!
THE CENTRAL FORCE
The Triple Sky. This could be a trio of powers, three faces of the same power, or a central power with three subordinates. One could imagine a Sky God with three daughters, or an enigmatic Sky Spirit with three faces, or three gods who arose from a primordial emptiness.
The Sky, symbolized by various shades of blue, is separated into three aspects:
Day. This is the power of the warm sun, summer, and the open daytime heavens. Generally a force of life and productivity, but also a force of drought. Imagine light magic and glowing angelic demihumans.
Night. This is the power of the cold, open heavens of the dark. Perhaps the moon and stars are a part of this force, or they could represent intruders from the daytime. Dark spells and nocturnal spirits.
Rain. This is the power of storms and fresh waters from the heavens. An ambiguous force of life but also the source of floods. This lends itself to wind and water and lightning sorcery, not to mention the peoples who dwell in or on rivers and lakes.
THE GREATER FORCES
These three forces surround The Triple Sky along the borders between Day, Night, and Rain, so that each shares equal connection to two of those aspects. These can be separate, single gods or small clusters of gods, or just philosophical and spiritual foci.
Earth. On the border of Rain and Day, Earth is the fruitful power of the soil to bring forth life organically, both vegetable and animal. One can imagine the druids, rangers, and elves aligning here, unless of course you want those groups to branch out into other forces. Farmers and hunters draw on this force, and all sorts of magic inhere in the power of the Earth, shapeshifting and vegetative magic.
Industry. On the border of Day and Night, Industry is the productive power of mortals to bring forth things artificially. This naturally lends itself to dwarves, humans, and the more urban classes (like rogues and wizards) aligning with Industry, but there’s always the possibility of these groups expanding to other realms. There may be a conflict with the natural power of Earth, or aligned with its productivity against the corrosive power of Otherworld.
Otherworld. On the border of Night and Rain, Otherworld is the power of death and corrosion and winter, the end of life and productivity. A cold realm utterly separate from the world of the Day, it is the source of decay that eats at both the products of Industry and life from the Earth. This lends itself to the undead, to evil races, to necromancers and sorcerors. But the final alignment is up to the imagination of the GM.
THE LESSER FORCES
These three forces surround The Triple Sky directly beyond Day, Night, and Rain, and between the Greater Forces, giving them strong ties inward and to either side.
Fire. Between Earth and Industry, this power distills the heat of the Day’s sunlight. Fire enlivens the creations of Earth and Industry, but can also turn against them in destruction. One can imagine dragons here, but dragons might breathe more than fire, giving them opportunities to branch out into the other forces. Fire mages likewise have a natural home here, as well as all sorts of flame-based creatures and fire cults. Fire also lends itself to being the natural enemy of Otherworld. As in Game of Thrones, perhaps fire is the best way to fight the undead. And yet, fire is one path to death. The relationship is very dynamic.
Shadow. Between Industry and the Otherworld, this power epitomizes the Night’s shade. Shadow is one of two powers that lead the living to the Otherworld, but it can also be employed to protect the living from harm. A natural place for assassins and other dark classes, it also seems home to certain types of undead and other night-dwelling monsters. The Shadow provides a neat counterpoint to the life-giving power of Earth, perhaps an eternal war between the races and classes of the dark and those of the wilderness. And yet, the foliage of the living world provide shade; all sorts of interesting interplay is possible.
Sea. Between the Otherworld and Earth, this power receives the waters of Rain. Sea is one of two powers that lead the living to the Otherworld, but it can also be tamed to help the living prosper. A clear focus for seafaring classes and sea-dwelling creatures, it also provides an opportunity for either alliance or conflict between the powers of salt water and those of the fresh water of Rain. And, never forget the potential of undead ties to Otherworld. The Sea is also directly opposed to Industry, and the seafaring forces of Industry riding its waves could be seen as an intrusive element, constantly negotiating differing interests.
I hope this rough sketch of an archetypal framework inspires you to create a world where this helps bring your vision to life. Whether you’re creating an RPG world or a fictional world for a fantasy story, if you incorporate this structure please let me know and cite the source. I’m offering this as Open Source under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Reference it as the “Divine Forces” model and use my name. Thanks, and have fun creating!