A Question of Religious Character

At the forefront of any discussion of religion in campaigns are the clerics and priests who organise, develop, and spread it. These people are often the PCs.


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Not Everybody’s a Cleric...​

Religion isn’t just for the holy and it need not be career oriented. There is nothing wrong with having a religious character who isn’t a priest. Your barbarian might always look to the priest for wisdom and guidance; a wizard might ask about the morality of their magical experimentations, a thief might offer a silent prayer before scaling a building. Not every fighter follows the god of war, not every thief follows the god of rogues. A cunning warrior might follow the trickster deity in the hope it will help their strategy in war. A ‘Robin Hood’ style rogue might consider themselves fighting a war against poverty. Your barbarian may follow the goddess of home and family because he just really loves the wife and child he left back home (who he sends most of his treasure back to).

Your character is more than their career and picking a faith for them to follow will often expand their background in interesting ways if you look outside the usual deities in any pantheon. This goes for species too, as there is no reason a Dwarf can’t follow the ‘god of the Elves’ and vice versa. It’s just a trickier fit when it comes to meetings.

...And Not Every Cleric’s a Fanatic​

Even though anyone can follow a religion it will be a more central part of life for those who officiate within it. Having said that, not all priests are fanatics. Like anyone else they too can have a crisis of faith, or see the job as more of a councillor than a religious adherent. Some may just be in it for the money or because it’s what their parents wanted. Although it should be noted this need not make them ‘evil priests’ just not especially faithful ones. They still might want to serve and take care of their community. In general, don’t just take their level of faith for granted, it is always worth considering and developing.

Given that priests usually minister to a community, you should also consider how adventuring fits into not only your character’s position but their religious structure as a whole. The most obvious answer is for them to be ‘walking the earth’ spreading the word. But how is that more valuable than looking after a community of the faithful? Given they won’t find many converts down a dungeon, how do they justify those sorts of adventures as part of the job? The answer to some of these will depend a little on what the rest of the order does. If there are far too many priests ordained, maybe there are simply no open positions as village priest. Perhaps the order wants its priests to have some life experience before they settle down and so sends them out to adventure. But if that’s the case, will they be expected to retire to a life of community service at a certain level?

A Question of Magic​

Having settled what your priest does and where they fit into the faith, we have to take a look at their magic. No other power is more important to any other character. While a wizard’s ability to cast a spell or a fighter’s ability with a sword are vital, they are still just things they can do. A priest casting a spell is channelling the power of a deity they have dedicated their life to. While it may just be healing to everyone else, to the priest it is both communion with their deity and proof that their love and faith is reciprocated. Every spell matters, every time. As a player you should reflect that, and the experience of spellcasting. This feeling may be more potent the higher the level of the spell, and if they are having a crisis of faith the priests might not feel worthy enough to cast the spell.

Spells should be a blessing and a gift, and a reward for the faithful. It is quite reasonable for a priest character to expect a character to pray with them to receive the blessing of their deity. However, few will refuse to help those in need, no matter how annoying or disrespectful they are. In my Dragonlance campaign one of the characters was actually resurrected by Mishakal (the goddess of healing) and his first (rather ungrateful) response was ‘Well, if you think I’m worshipping you now, you’ve got another thing coming’. Mishakal simply responded ‘You are free to do as you will. I brought you back because I love you, as I love all of you,’ and then she wept for those she could not save before she vanished. The character didn’t feel quite so smug after that.

It is also important to determine not just how magic feels for the priest casting it but how it feels for whose on the receiving end of it. Do those healed by the magic feel blessed? Do those hit by a flame strike feel they should rethink their lives (more than anyone getting hit by a lighting bolt anyway)? Perhaps the blessings of the deity only work on those who believe in them. The gods can be fickle and some might not help those who don’t pay them homage, or at least believe in them. Even for more beneficent gods it might just be a fact of life that their power can’t affect unbelievers. Will the atheist fighter decide to go against their principles and offer a prayer just to get some badly needed healing? Will just a few words without any real faith be enough?

One way to bring some mystery back into priestly spellcasting is to, well, keep it a mystery. Instead of allowing the player to pick the character’s spells per day, the GM does so and keeps them secret. At any time the player wants to cast a spell they announce their character is praying for a blessing. If the GM sees a spell in the list that will help, it gets cast. If not, nothing happens. The higher the priest’s level the more chance there will be a useful spell on the list.

The GM can also use spells the player might not have thought of that might reveal other clues. This might be using a spiritual hammer spell on an enemy and knocking them through a false wall to reveal a treasure trove. Using this system might be a little frustrating for the player, but they are free to petition for certain abilities each day in the hopes the GM will pick those spells. The GM also have the advantage of knowing the adventure so can pick spells they know will be more useful to face what is coming. While it can be a lot of work for the GM, it will help the player to see using their power as praying and not just casting spells.

The Uncommon Divine​

In general, priestly spellcasting should never be taken from granted. You can’t just arrive in a town and ask the local temple for a resurrection as if you are ordering a pint of ale. Many priests will require acts of service for their help, not for themselves but for the deity they serve. While a donation of some gold may be suitable for low level spells, anything high level will need an act of real service.

This is not just to be difficult either. It shouldn’t be enough to just reach into your pocket to repay the blessing, particularly if the characters are wealthy. The service they perform will make them work for the blessing and make them remember who they got it from. It need not be some grand adventure either. Most good-aligned religions take care of communities and a certain amount of community service is perfectly acceptable. The characters might work in a soup kitchen, give out blankets, find shelter for the homeless etc. If they think any of these jobs is somehow beneath them, then maybe they aren’t the heroes they think they are.
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


No rule is inviolate
However, I rarely see that much effort put into it. :/
I'm going to give that part a go in Session 0 in our pending Dragonlance campaign where the disappearance of the gods and having faith (without having powers) is a big deal. The timing of the article hit home with what we're aiming to do. It's almost a roleplay challenge: who's up to RPing a cleric once you see the cleric as a servant to a greater cause, one who has willingly turned their life over to furthering an ethos?*

It's a lot easier if you ignore this part of the roleplay experience.

* I aim to make each new campaign capture something special, whether it be the harshness of Dark Sun and its world of no deities and no higher moral purpose driving anyone, or the edge of the world (Savage Tide AP), or a dark-fey, Celtic-theme kingdom builder as we are running now. Delving into faith (albeit fantasy faith) will be a new area that maybe gets overlooked.

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It's almost a roleplay challenge: who's up to RPing a cleric once you see the cleric as a servant to a greater cause, one who has willingly turned their life over to furthering an ethos?
I agree that this can be a big part of playing a cleric (or paladin, or monk, or fighter with the acolyte background, or . . .). But I don't see that it generates any special demands on players or GMs.

Ideally, the player and DM should have some sort of conversation on this as a session 0 sort of thing. That way they can define, together, the god's ethos and all that good jazz.
I don't see how this needs to be any different from the details of a character's code (of chivalry, bushido, military law, guild rules, or whatever might be applicable or interesting), or the details of a character's love (for family, or romantic partner, or . . .).

The way I see things, the game works best when the player decides what their PC's commitments are, and then the GM brings those things out and perhaps puts them under pressure in the course of presenting situations for the players to engage with via their PCs.

Has anyone ever thought about porting the Paths in an amended format from VtM that is suitable for D&D? That way the DM (and possibly even the player) has the power to call for a roll if something is done against the prescripted Path/Code/Belief (as @pemerton includes), but it is not always a given that the character will break their code and thus suffer any consequence.

To me that seems to be the bridge between the various playstyles.

Tsuga C

I don't see why the player can't take the lead in this respect, during the actual course of play.
Players routinely display "flexible interpretations" of what their deity expects of them which are tailored to suit the player's present circumstances. It's the job of the DM to enforce a standard of proper and acceptable behavior once it's been agreed upon.


Follower of the Way
They are more like Greek, indian, germanic, celtic. The gods are really just Superhero powered people.
Personally, I find that a very boring approach to divinity. If the gods are just superheroes, then just make them superheroes and skip the spiritualism.

In my home game, religion is a personal matter. No one--not even the One Themself--can prove to you their religious claims beyond a shadow of a doubt. Divination magic doesn't work for viewing events that long ago, and everyone old enough to have any kind of first-hand knowledge is definitely biased. The Safiqi Priesthood claims their deity, the One, is the infinite and eternal creator of all things, but it is a matter of faith if people believe this. Even if the One actively engaged with mortals (which the Safiqi claim They do, but only with Their chosen priests, of course), a couatl pointed out to the party Druid that there is no test that a created being could invent which would unequivocally prove that the One is indeed the creator of all things, since They could always just be a very powerful non-corporeal being. That lack of provability is perfectly fine by Them, though, because They don't want (or, rather, Their celestial servants claim they don't want) slaves or automata, They want children who will grow and create and enrich the tapestry of existence.

In a more "traditional" D&D pantheon, one where there are several gods of approximately equal authority/weight, I very much prefer the "living concept" perspective. Bahamut is not simply a superhero that can give other people goodies. He is very literally a living manifestation of what Hope and Justice and Mercy and Courage are, as abstract pillars of reality. That does not require that Bahamut be omniscient or omnipotent, nor that killing him would destroy these things. But killing such a...confluence of these things would dramatically weaken them for a time. Eventually, things will equilibrate again. But the interim will suck for a lot of people as injustice and despair run rampant.

To reduce gods--implicitly incredibly weighty beings--down to mere superhero tribalism cheapens the D&D experience for me.

It stands to reason that, in the fiction, a cleric should typically follow the will of the god(s) they worship.

But there seems to be a near-universal assumption at the table that this equates to the player doing what the GM thinks is appropriate. To me, that assumption seems unwarranted.
Also the "cross the line and you fall" just leads to so much bad storytelling with everything from "We think there's a traitor in the Paladin order? Everyone in the courtyard and we'll see who can no longer lay on hands" to cutting out any slow descent and fall narratives because the Gods instantly take action when a line is crossed

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