There was emptiness. There was nothing, not even darkness. And then they came. There were four beings. In the emptiness they were, and they did not like it. They decided to do something about it. They have created the world.
Did you know that everyone has two faces?
Yes, so it is. We want our life to be simple, so we prefer to show only one face to the world. It is for this reason that you will seldom truly know anyone: people hide their other face. This is not about good and evil, or black and white. Both faces have something in common, both are in some way opposite. The beings this story is about have all two faces. But they are of a greater kind, for they have both their faces at once and are still the same being.
This is an experiment based on that premise: to base a world on only four beings total. Surely, the two faces make this look somewhat more. To include things like historical trends and have a chance to perhaps add a god if I like, I maintained a certain freedom:
1. The beings that created the world, are only four and forever will be. Their raw power is unimaginable; or rather, it is unlimited as they are the world itself. They are not all-knowing (or choose not to act on every whim), and apparently not free from making mistakes, however.
2. The faces I call gods, for they are different enough for most people to be seen as separate beings. But they are not. Gods have clearly defined domains, where they are almighty. Besides these unchanging powers, they can be worshipped in various ways(see Granted Powers).
3. The aspects are the way gods are perceived. Some gods have only one, some have more, often based on the race of their worshippers, or needs they began to cover. Aspects may evolve, so the former god of fire, however unchanged, is now worshipped as a god of family and agriculture. That is the way ordinary people perceive gods: some large humanoid figure, sitting on a throne and ruling their domain.
Additional Ideas (7)
Gods are powerful, and in their own domain, they are almighty. But their attention is limited, and sooner or later come some people and ask for help, not necessarily in that domain. What to do then?
One possible solution is divine intervention. That can mean a direct, or a channeled one.
A direct intervention means a deity focuses its attention upon desired spot and IT happens. BOOM, miracle has arrived. While relatively easy to do, it means that whenever people are faced with similar or other (usually lesser) problems, they beg for help again, and then again and again. To be considered is also the magical pollution created when you use your great powers. Effects may stay for centuries behind, improper dosage can level mountains etc., handle with care.
A channeled intervention means you choose a humanoid to be a carrier for a tiny bit of your power. Such a hero can solve most problems easily. To be considered however, is what happens to the hero afterwards. Investing powers into a living, intelligent being is hazardous, for it is very hard to estimate correctly. Less lucky wannabee-world-savers have simply exploded from the transfer, some have gone mad. Any amount of Power seems to fasten (un)natural evolution in said individual, which may turn quite exotic.
(Possibility for some unique mighty creatures, long outside the bounds of humanity. Used to be mighty heroes once, current form and abilities depend on THAT last quest and form of divine aid.)
Luckily, another solution was found. Magic is in everything, even in living beings. While it is too weak to cast spells, concentration may make use of it. Thus items made with love are slightly better than others. If you believe in something very strongly, it is slightly more probable to happen. If you focus your prayers on a god, or hope for something within his domains, that small amount of power travels to him.
Gods had already enough power to use, and found this bit not much useful. Is there a better solution than sending it back? The power of thousands of people was reflected to few. And it is a good thing, for the power comes from within living beings. This way, favorite followers don't get hurt. The power is also already shaped with the wishes those praying have. This is THE reason gods change in the mortals eyes: If enough people pray for it, priests will be granted that power. The amount and type of power a single priest receives depends on the god and on the followers and surely on the priest himself. No longer are clerics another kind of spell-slingers, they have to care seriously about followers, lest they find themselves powerless. This may have a special effect on priestly magic: in that it comes in random amounts (yes!). Powerful priests receive usually more, and any priest can expect in hard times some help. Extremely hard times may cause a deity to dissolve a bit of its own Power in the pool. Be careful, if you use that magic...
He became the Land we all live upon, and the Water that means life.
That which is opposed:
The Land and The Sea are deeply different. Unmoving the one is, steady changing the other. They make their war forever, neither wins for long.
That which is common:
There is but stability in both elements. You cannot change them, they change you. Both are rarely directly worshipped, have few priests and few holy places or temples. But both are respected by anyone passing them, whether dwarves in the deep, or sailors on the sea.
Does not require great sacrifices, nor religious fanaticism. But demands respect from everyone entering their domain. This one changed the least in the minds of people. Is not even truly named, the Dwarves having The Lord of Stone, with the Sea usually seen as female, but few details outside this. Is slightly above everything, and seldom hears to prayers.
He is the Air that we breath and the Fire that burns in our hearts.
That which is common:
Both were soon accepted by humans. Both are widely accepted and most temples or shrines are consecrated to them. Their priests are forbidden from hoarding wealth, and followers warned. Priests are considered wise and easily become spiritual leaders. Both priests are expected to help people in some way.
That which is opposed:
Fire was from first moments associated with the community and the family, later were added all kinds of crafts, and at last came agriculture. Thus have humans forgotten his former aspect named Phyros (dwarwes still worship this one), and worship the aspect known by the name Geryon. His temples and shrines stand in all towns and most villages, still having open fire in their centre. His magic and priests care for unerstanding and wellbeing of the community.
Air was soon associated with freedom and loneliness. Magros is the protector of travelers and bards. Anyone that has a long road before himself prays for his protection, but only those that enjoy travelling and meeting others on their Way may become priests. The magic is mostly a defensive and masking one. It is known that at times a traveler on a long journey is transported across hundreds of miles, but without doing anything for it. This effect cannot be prayed for. Followers claim that being on a journey is the same as worshipping. Older priests often found temples that are open to all travellers.
It is nice to sacrifice sometimes, but still more is valued to be true to the ideals: the family and community, or the Path one walks in his life. This is considered the same as being a worshipper of a given god. Thus it may happen, that a simple person performs a minor miracle, and exactly this way are the priests chosen. Often observes its followers, giving minor blessings without too visible effects, thus helping them.
For they are forever together.
That which is common:
There are some things similar, for followers of both are close to fanaticism. As is clearly seen with one, and whispered about other, both religions are strongly structured. Both use magic intensively, and their magic is strongly defined with their beliefs.
That which is opposed:
Light and Darkness? Do you need any more differences?
Heliol the One-Eyed is known and feared, for he sees everything and no one can lie to him. Light, Purity, Justice, high are the ideals of his followers. Undead are hated enemies, truth is a way of life. Magic uses light very often and strives for seeing the world more clearly. His temples are tall and full of light, standing usually in bigger cities, get much public attention for their devotion, but are slightly out of interest for common people.
The Darkness or the Shadow has too its own name, or so it is whispered. No one but knows it, and those that know, should be evaded. So much folk wisdom. It is not about spreading lies and darkness, but to show that problems have more solutions. These priests are the masters of illusion, and any trick that can distort your view of reality. Little is known about them in public.
Likes sacrifices, values ideals greatly, does not care that much about common people. Inspires in his followers thirst for existing knowledge and creating new one. Likes to test them, sometimes giving them great power, then none. Wants to show that in one's ideals the true power lies.
Life and Death.
That which is opposed:
Life, or Nature is worshipped in a number of ways. There is the aspect of Artemia, mainly with Elven followers. A long time ago the orcs worshipped her as Khianna, the Mother goddess. Either way she is a symbol of healing and natural wisdom, giving powers in this domain. The orcs worship now Forg, a brutish fighter (a heroic figure of past), fighting and survival being the principle. They seem to have no magical abilities, but are considered dangerous.
Death has no religion. No priests, or indeed followers are currently known. You don't have to worship her (him?), she will surely visit you one day. You don't have to offer her anything, she will take her share, not more, not less. It is a custom to place a silver coin under the dead's tongue. Interestingly, grave robbers seem to ignore such coins most of the time. (A priest of Death, if such exists, would be unique. Only one, with strange powers, probably the most solitary creature in existence.)
That which is common:
While they understand the natural order of things, both are against pointless killing, people live their lives to die someday. Did you give life to anyone? No? Then don't be too eager take it away. It is not YOUR right. You must have a strong reason to kill, and even that may not be enough.
Does not care much about individuals, observes the overall actions of many. Detests killers without reason, may curse them. Is basically against Undead.
... could it be possible you still do not know which Power to follow? Maybe the next guidelines and principles will help you. (Note that these are the views of the respective priesthoods, not gods.)
Keeping the word: luckily, it seems that most religions know the importance of promising and keeping the word. The followers of Heliol and Forg insist very strongly upon it. Others try to keep their word if possible. The followers of Shadow are rumoured to twist their word occasionally, it is unknown which principles (if any) they follow.
Holy Water can be created by priests of Geryon and Heliol, with the latter one stronger orientated against Undead, thus being more effective against them. It si possible that Artemia allows such a thing, the brew having but more curative abilities.
Undead: Both Heliol and Artemia are strongly against their very existence, eradicating them is a holy duty. Geryon marks them as unnatural, but does not command their slaying at all cost.
Magros speaks about following the Path, and helping those who are lost. Mindless undead may be just bashed till they stop moving, but intelligent Undead are something different. Some undead like ghosts and poltergeist are clearly souls lost on their Path, which should be helped too. This is not the same as mercifully killing, these undead have usually a problem unresolved, without that they cannot leave.
Shadow is actually the only Power that does not forbid creation and usage of Undead. It does not aid in this, however.
Wealth is an object that should not be too strongly strived for. The priests themselves are but limited in hoarding: above all, priest of Magros may never own more than they can carry, or be helped with a single beast of burden. The Church of Heliol requires tithes from their members. Supporting their church is expected from any priest.
Holy Symbol is truly needed only for the followers of Heliol. Forg's warriors have something similar: it is their sword or weapon of choosing. Lastly, those on the Path sometimes choose a holy symbol. If they do, it is but highly individual and personal item.
Combat and Weapons are more a question of style, than of duties. What counts most is the technique, and how the beliefs will be translated into the fight. Note that most religions are strongly against harming of innocents.
... some deities unmentioned here do not force upon its follower particular views upon these topics, are too unfamiliar to the public (like the Shadow and Death), or I simply did not decide yet. Choose the option you like best ;)
When the very Gods created the world, there was nothing that could be called Afteworld. And there was no Afterlife, when they created the first race to grace the world. The first Elves walked it, and many perished to its dangers. Too many fine souls have vanished without a trace, the moment their bodies have died.
The gift of immortality, and the ability to learn and achieve wisdom, have eventually made these beings free of most threats of Life. Alas, the gift turned sour. The unlimited span of life to learn and become more powerful has made them feel as if there was no limit. They started to ignore the Gods, and despise smaller things, knowing they will grow beyond everything sooner or later. In time, many died from the conflicts they themselves produced. Some ended their own lives, when their abilities failed to grow with their pride.
A failure is hard to accept, even for gods. New races had to be created, but what should they be like? Immortality is too large a burden, but without it new beings will be dieing, often before reaching their full age, a loss to their people and to themselves.
And so mortality became both a curse and a gift: the bodies of mortals are imperfect, and will fail eventually. Their soul, too, slowly grows out of touch with this world, and stops to support the body at some moment. But thanks to the divine essence, that is part of it since the mortals' creation, the soul continues to exist, granted a part of the way Gods see the world; able to step from one mountain tip to another, and finding infinite amounts of beauty amongst two blades of grass.
Such is the Life after Death; close to the world of Living, and still too far. Prevented from too much interfering with Living (but limited contact is possible...) many spirits choose to study this new world. And they slowly change, becoming mere shadows of shadows, ghosts of ghosts. Then they die their second, final Death, as they shed any resemblance to their former existence.
Such is the Spirit World.