Defining Religions in Your Campaign

Dr. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensional model of Religion is an excellent tool for world building and crafting your own religions. This article introduces the seven dimensions and how to use them in your game.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

What’s a Religion, Anyway?​

The problem with defining religion is that there are a lot of things humans do that are very similar. Many actual religions suffer from definitions that insist worshiping a god is an important factor. Some don’t have any gods and a few don’t offer what they would consider worship. Essentially, religion is a pretty mixed bag, and if you want to model it accurately in your games some of the fundamentals may surprise you.

Smart’s seven dimensions offer seven aspects that every religion will have in at least some form. For instance, the Ethical and Legal dimension might be one rule saying ‘Be nice to each other’ or a twenty volume legal treatise detailing a rule for every aspect of life. But as long as the faith has at least something, it has that dimension covered. So, when designing a religion of your own, make sure you cover at least one aspect of each dimension.

So, with that introduction out of the way, let’s take a look at the seven dimensions themselves:

Ritual​

All religions have some form of ritual, but it can take many forms. Personal prayer or meditation is very common, as are larger rituals like masses. Festivals also have a ritualistic component, making carnivals and bacchanals just as important in some religions. Ritual can be a group affair or individual practice, and be something anyone can do or something that requires a priest of some form. Most offer some form of ritual for at least birth, death and marriage at least. In a fantasy game, such rituals can easily offer magical effects as much as being simple ceremonies.

Narrative and Mythical​

People turn to religion for answers to the big questions, like, where do we come from and how the world was made. Even if it concentrates on the here and now, a certain amount of cosmology is usually required. As many deal with life after death in some form, the detail of what that is, and how it can be possible comes under this dimension. Essentially, this dimension helps the adherent find their place in the universe. Many religions have a wide range of stories and myths, often to either present the gods as heroes or offer moral guidance.

Experiential and Emotional​

Faith always connects to people on an emotional level. This experience can range from several people falling on the floor at a wave from a priest to the simple peace felt when entering a church. A religion needs to make you feel something, often at least a fellowship or a connection to the divine.

What will differ between religions is the sort of emotions that it mainly tries to inspire and how it goes about it. The Sith value rage and anger as a way to channel the power of the force, but the Jedi value peace and tranquillity so they can connect to the force through meditation.

Social and Institutional​

Like any gathering of a lot of people, religion has some logistical and administrative concerns. This dimension covers how a religion is organised among its adherents. Are there any hierarchies or special responsibilities, and if so who performs them? Even if the religion has no priests or leaders, someone might be needed just to remind people when it is time to pray or look after the holy book. Most have at least some form of priesthood, and within that priesthood may be several ranks. After all, unless the deities regularly manifest, someone is going to need to make decisions for the faith in the community.

Ethical and Legal​

Perhaps the most contentious dimension, the ethical one offers the rules of the religion. These are usually codified very specifically, but they can be simple and broad or very specific. In a pantheistic religion the rules might be shared by all the gods, or each one might have their own amendments and/or full sets of their own.

The amount and tone of the rules will depend on the faith. Some religions have a vast array of rules to ensure that adherents must always be considering them, and therefore their faith, almost every hour of every day. Other faiths might simply offer the rules as guidance for keeping the community together peacefully.

In most cases these rules are only ever enforced by the community at large, rather than being arrestable offences. But offending the community by breaking them might lead to social exclusions or even banishment. Essentially, these rules are designed to ensure everyone lives together peacefully and harmoniously to the tenets of the faith and for their own personal enlightenment. However, they are rarely up for discussion if anyone has a problem with just one or two.

Doctrinal and Philosophical​

Similar to the ethical and legal rules are the doctrines of the religion, this dimension focuses on the general principles those rules are derived from. For instance, the Doctrinal dimension details what is required for a happy life, and the Ethical dimension then puts that doctrine into the rules you must follow to achieve such a life. Where it is often hard to argue with the rules of a religion, its doctrine and philosophy might be widely discussed, and even challenged. There may be strictures detailing the level of learning/faith/experience required to be allowed to engage in debate, but others might welcome healthy discussion. Just as some adherents might be wary of the ‘holes in the argument’ and dislike seeing them discussed, others might believe that their doctrine is too strong to worry about a few malcontents.

The doctrine and rules of a faith are usually collated in some way, commonly as a holy book of some form. But many religions rely on oral traditions and pass such learning down by teaching and storytelling. Usually the more complex the doctrine and rules the more likely it is to be written down, but this is not always the case.

When it comes to holy books, these can come in many forms. Some are collections of teachings, others of stories, some resemble legal texts. This will often depend on the style of the faith and how important the book is. Some have a single text, while others also reference collected stories from the lives of leaders and prophets to help understand and clarify the rules and ethics of the holy book those leaders wrote or received.

Material​

This dimension is the easiest to see as it represents what physical items are part of the religion. All religions make some sort of mark. It might be the founding of many places of worship, to small roadside shrines, to sacred symbols or holy books. Even religions that emphasise freedom from possessions still offer small trinkets or particular clothes for adherents. Such items not only give the adherent something to physically hold as a representation of their faith in times of crisis, but also mark them as adherents and show the world how widespread the faith is.

Material items will always depend on what the faith declares appropriate. Some might insist building vast churches to show the glory of their deity is important. A god of travellers might just have a few roadside shrines to offer blessings. Sun gods might insist on vast stone circles or cairns that have particular effects when the sun strikes them at certain times of the year. The same goes for the personal dress of both priests and adherents. Do the priests wear grand robes to show they are special or dress simply to show they are no better than those they lead? Do adherents wear particular colours, and do they change across the year as the seasons change? Various holy symbols might be cast in gold or worn as small carved necklaces.

As the physical representation of a religion, it is the material items that are usually attacked by its enemies first. So a religion in hiding will often rely on special symbols to mark places of worship, shrines or practitioners so they can maintain their community.

In Your Campaign​

With these building blocks, you can now flesh out any religion in your campaign. Remember that you can have any emphasis on any of these dimensions, as long as there is at least something for each. Dimensions can also vary within religions. Some adherents of the same faith might just offer simple prayer, while others are screaming for redemption in mass gatherings. Most real world religions have different sects and cultural practices within them and there is no reason yours should be different, especially as these differences are often a source of conflict that might lead to story and adventure for your characters.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Yaarel

Mind Mage

A list of examples would be helpful for the discussion. What do you want to see?
I want to see the core Cleric class handle the prominent sacred concepts around the globe. A sacred tradition organizes daily experiences in a meaningful way. The sacred part is the deep structure that holds everything together, the essence of reality.

In some sacred traditions ethics is the fundament of reality. For D&D this can be an alignment. Or something specific, like love, compassionate actions, hospitality and welcoming the stranger, a just society, and so on. In animism, it is actually the community that is sacred, and both humans and other nature beings are members. Relatedly, concepts such as "the glory of Rome" can in itself have a sacred force for its adherents, likewise other political ideologies such as capitalism and socialism can.

In some traditions, the stuff we are made out of is the essence of reality. In Hellenism, the five substances are sacred: earth air fire water, plus ether understood as an immaterial physical element relating to consciousness and force, whence spirit and soul. In Daoism, there are the five ways of moving: water and fire, expanding tree and contracting metal, plus motionless soil. Yin and yang are likewise fundamental elements. Likewise, in modern contexts, fate and timelines, fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear), light and energy, quantum entanglement, the evolution of simple to complex, and so on can feel sacred in a nontraditional religious way.

In some traditions, persons are sacred, and the adherents engage reality in a social way, by means of personifications. In animism, a human body is a natural object that comes with a mind, and similarly, a rock, tree, river, or other object of nature is also a kind of physical body that also comes with a mind. In animism, it is the community of all of these nature beings including humans that is sacred. Relatedly, in theism the personification is a master who demands servants that are obedient for the sake of order, and it is the order that is the fundament of reality, opposite chaos. In mystical traditions of noncoersion and modern traditions of law, the free individual is the sacred fundament, existentially, and human rights and personal freedoms are the essence of reality.

There is a historical distinction between the cosmic and the transcendant. The cosmic is experiences that can be put into words, while transcendent is experiences that evade word, inherently moving from the finite known into the infinite unknown. A helpful methodology is to distingush between the cosmic "sacred" and the transcendant "holy". The sacred is the exclamation mark that can point at fundamental features, such as life, family, patriotism, tradition, work ethic, duty, dharma. The holy is the question mark that moves from the known into the unknown, such as ethical questions, scientific discoveries, paradigm shifts, freedom of speech, respectful debate, welcoming the stranger, imageless monotheism, enlightenment of nirvana, moksha from illusion.

By definition, every sacred tradition relies on sacred finite concepts that are the fundament of reality. But most sacred traditions also develop a holy infinite concept that is a dialectic of them. Some tribes among the animistic Indigenous of the Americas have Great Spirit. Even Norse animism that is extremely this-worldly, has Ginnungagap as an ineffable mystical encounter. Daoism has the Dao transcending either Yin and Yang. Celtic polytheism has the sacred magic of paradox. And so on. In D&D, this holy infinite is beyond any and every multiverse.

5e surprised me, because the Xanathar formulation of a "cosmic force" is excellent. It puts the finger on what all of these reallife sacred traditions share in common. The cosmic force is the institutional essence of any religion. It is also worth mentioning the transcendental force that makes most sacred systems a "holy" open system, that continues to grow and learn.

I want the "cosmic force" to be exactly what the core Cleric class is about. Then give a brief example of animism, elementalism, ethics, monotheism, polytheism, enlightenment, freedom, and philosophical worldview, as an example of a cosmic force that a player might want to choose for their character concept. Note, a single religious institution normally has several cosmic forces and trancendental forces in play. An individual can feel affinity with one of them and prioritize it over the others. The Cleric is about a sacred community and the concepts and symbols and customs that the community employs to engage the sacred and the holy.
 
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jgsugden

Legend
I want to see the core Cleric class handle the prominent sacred concepts around the globe. A sacred tradition organizes daily experiences in a meaningful way. The sacred part is the deep structure that holds everything together, the essence of reality....
Good post, but I'm not sure why you can't serve those goals with the cleric as established. The issues you have identified seem to not be about the cleric mechanics, and more with the spirituality within a campaign setting and a preconception of how divinity, spiritualism, etc... work in a game. However, I belive these to both be highly adaptable. In other words, I don't see anything preventing you from exploring the concepts you raise in a campaign setting and using the cleric as a compatible element within that structure.

The mechanics of the class seem to work for monotheism, polytheism, animism, rastafarianism, polysporinism, and all the isms (except one which would be j ust dirty - but then again, probably for that one as well). You might want to lean away from some options, but you can build a cleric that relates to real world religion (although I stand by the belief that direct appropriation can be problematic/offensive and we should instead look to the real world for inspiration) using the core mechanics of the cleric.

Or am I missing something? Are there specific mechanics you'd like to suggest to demonstrate what you see lacking?
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Good post, but I'm not sure why you can't serve those goals with the cleric as established.
Without the "cosmic force" options, the Cleric class description is ethnocentric (Celtic/Roman). Rudely polytheistic. And frustrating when trying to utilize the class to represent the sacred traditions of other cultures.

The issues you have identified seem to not be about the cleric mechanics,
The 5e Cleric mechanics are awesome, especially when

"Domain" = "cosmic force"

and more with the spirituality within a campaign setting and a preconception of how divinity, spiritualism, etc... work in a game.
The core rules of D&D support different kinds of settings, including different cosmologies and worldviews. The Cleric class description that assumes and imposes only one polytheistic reality, makes the D&D game ethnocentric and noninclusive.

However, I belive these to both be highly adaptable.
The framework of a choice of "cosmic power" is more helpfully adaptable, to the setting that the DM chooses and the character concept that the Cleric player chooses
 

Another great piece on designing religions when worldbuilding. But, at this point, I'm less interested on how to construct realistic, thoughtful religions and much more interested in how to communicate the cultural impact of those religions in play, especially for non-cleric PCs and laymen NPCs.

The cleric is usually the ambassador for religious doctrine and philosophy, but the other PCs should already have some experience with the concepts and traditions as part of living in the world, doubly so if it's a popular or state-aligned religion.

I want to know what prayers the Fighter knows from their childhood as a rigidly raised noble. I want to know what songs the Bard plays that includes religious figures. I want to know what god's name the Rogue habitually invokes for luck, even if they're not a worshipper.

Getting a cleric player on board with the concept that they live in a religiously rich and complicated world is the easy part. Getting the other players on board, understanding it still affects them outside of received healing or wisdom from the cleric, is the real challenge of worldbuilding imo.
 

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