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How Might D&D Religions Differ From Real Life Religions?

GSHamster

Adventurer
Has anyone else been slightly puzzled by how D&D religion is often basically a henotheistic theology (pick your god of choice) that does not really follow similar polytheistic ecclesiastical structures of let's say the Greco-Roman pagan world, but more monotheistic-like (i.e. medieval Christian) ecclesiastical structures?

I think the primary reason this is the case is because the interaction with religion is almost entirely through one class, the Cleric (two if you count the Paladin).

And with the Cleric, there is a pressure to focus on one god because it provides a point of differentiation. A Cleric of Bane is different than a Cleric of Pelor, and that has often been backed by mechanics. Players always like options when making characters. Making choice of god an option for Clerics with mechanical repercussions was an obvious leap. But it does end up setting up the focused churches.

One interesting technique I've seen in fantasy literature, but not games, is to have the churches mirror the pantheons. A good example is Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion novels, where acolytes of the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard participate together in rituals, even though they belong to different orders.
 

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steamboat28

Explorer
Honestly, the way things are set up, D&D faiths (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions) aren't technically polytheistic, in regards to worship at least. There are multiple faiths, each with its own god (or sometimes pantheon), just as there are in real-world religions. They're presented as a single pantheon in the PHB for 3.5, because that's a super-distilled version of the default campaign setting for 3.5, where the relations between deities and their cults is more complex.
 

Bagpuss

Adventurer
As long as there is 'obvious' evidence of a god's existence, i.e. the ability of his/her priests to do magical things, then it's going to make a dramatic difference to the world.

  • Atheists will not exist - or would be considered crazy. It would be like not believing in elephants, or possibly like being a Holocaust-denier (not wanting to raise politics, just provide an analogy)
  • Heresy is harder to establish if a god's 'opinions' are clear cut. One of the major factors in real world religions is schisms between different factions following the same gods. Protestant vs Catholic, Sunni vs Shia, etc. These can only really occur if there is any question about the god's actual opinion on issue X. If when Martin Luther posted his proclamations on the door of the church in Wittenberg god had struck him dead (or he'd lost his cleric powers) there would have been no reformation. This may or may not come into a fantasy religion depending on how clear cut a god's opinions are and how much that god interacts with the mortal plane. You do also have the possibility of a god of lies providing power to heretics of another god to create a schism in the flock.

Just some thoughts for now... might come up with more later.

I'm going to address these to points.

First Atheism.

I think it would be entirely possible to be an atheist, wizards do magic without claiming any divine origin and it works okay, primal classes get their powers from nature spirits and the like, genies and other creatures can provide wishes and services.

You could believe
  • These things claiming to be gods are little more than slightly more powerful spirits. No worthy of worship.
  • While clerics claim these powers are divine they are as internal as arcane magic no greater creature provides them.

Heresy again depending on how involved the gods are religious schisms are more or less likely to occur. In most fantasy settings the gods rarely get that directly involved in affairs, even the spells that are supposed to directly commune with the deity only give vague responses to limited questions at lot of the time. Plus when you had the eight axis alignment system a Lawful Neutral or Chaotic Neutral god could have followers that were on the Evil or Good axis. You can bet that is going to create a schism.

Back in the day we played a God level campaign where all the characters played Gods and their avatars, I played a CN God of Fire that actively encouraged the CE part of it's cult to go round burning things to the ground. While at the same time accepted offering from CG firefighters, bakers and metal workers that dealt with fire in their every day lives. So long as each worshipped me and thus improved my power I didn't really care.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Honestly, the way things are set up, D&D faiths (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions) aren't technically polytheistic, in regards to worship at least. There are multiple faiths, each with its own god (or sometimes pantheon), just as there are in real-world religions. They're presented as a single pantheon in the PHB for 3.5, because that's a super-distilled version of the default campaign setting for 3.5, where the relations between deities and their cults is more complex.
Polytheistic simply means belief in the existence of more than one theistic deity. Henotheism, as was popular in much of the Ancient and Classical world, simply placed veneration of one deity over all the others (e.g. Yahwistic religion of Judah) - typically as a city's patron deity - but its assumptions are inherently polytheistic.
 

HungerSquid

First Post
What features of real life religions couldn't apply to D&D religions?

What features probably wouldn't apply?

In what ways would (or could) D&D religions mirror real life religions?

There are no wrong answers, or at least I don't think there are.

Your thoughts?
I see a lot of advice out there about making D&D religions like real world religions. However, I tend to disagree with a lot of the notions I see in this advice. As a person who believes that all real world religions are all just superstition, I think D&D religions would be much different.

Some people like the idea of using conflicts between different sects of the same basic religion because of the drama it can provide. While this is true, I don't think a god that actually exists would allow this to happen. And I think you can get just as much drama in conflicts between followers of different gods, even ones with the same basic alignment.

On the other hand, maybe some chaotic deity might get his kicks watching followers argue over details. Maybe a chaotic evil war deity would enjoy seeing bloody conflict between his sects. Who knows?

I don't see that you could have clerics that were terribly corrupt when their God actually exists. If the God did not smite them outright, they would likely at least refuse them spells, which should out them to other clerics as not pious enough. I suppose there might be two types of priests; those who do miracles and those who do not. Maybe the non-casters could be corrupt. But what religious hierarchy would give them any real power when there are many demonstrably faithful miracle workers?

I see a lot of DM's using one or a few main human religion(s), like the Catholic church in the middle ages. I like the idea of polytheism carried forward to the middle ages. If there are numerous real gods, wouldn't competition likely keep things more balanced rather than one deity having way more power in the world than others?

Not that campaigns that go against my ideas can't be fun. I've played in numerous ones, and had lots of fun. I'm just saying what I think might make more sense in context.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
D&D religion is weird. Basically you have dozens of monotheistic faiths next to each other which all acknowledge that the other gods exist.
It makes much more sense if people would not have a primary god and instead turn to whoever is currently useful, more on a bartering kind of system than actual worship.

Similar how ancient polytheism in Europe worked.
 

Politheism from real world are possible in D&D worlds, but we should be careful about the Hinduism, a religion with millions of followers in the real life. If it is in your tabletop and no Hindu knows what happened, then you are free for actions like the facts from the videogame saga God of War.

Maybe there aren't true atheists in D&D worlds, but misotheism ("I hate gods") or maltheism ("my opinion is gods are they are cruel and they don't take no pity on mortals").

The trope of the sinnister minister, the wolf with lamb's clothing may be very known, but this can so dangerous like the homophobia or racism. Let's remember today "Lone with the Wind" has got a previous disclaimer about the slavery, or the crows, the characters from Disney's cartoon movie "Dumbo" aren't wellcome for the current standards. Maybe your opinion is anything isn't wrong and it shouldn't be cancelled, but others can disagree you. Or the rules about politically correct could change in the future.

I disadvice totally divine spellcasters in sets based in our real History to avoid troubles like some poisoned questions: Could the Rose of Guadalupe save you against attacks by supernatural monsters, or to heal supernatural creatures as vampires and lycantropes? could a priest by the Chinese patriotic church be as good as a true Catholic exorcist to expel demons, and a female anglican priestess? or could the sacred power defend the leader of the Anglican church, the UK queen, against spells casted by a neopagan witch? could vampires be hurt by bones by a martyr, a Irish fray killed by Lutheran corsairs?
 

Haiku Elvis

Explorer
Politheism from real world are possible in D&D worlds, but we should be careful about the Hinduism, a religion with millions of followers in the real life. If it is in your tabletop and no Hindu knows what happened, then you are free for actions like the facts from the videogame saga God of War.

Maybe there aren't true atheists in D&D worlds, but misotheism ("I hate gods") or maltheism ("my opinion is gods are they are cruel and they don't take no pity on mortals").

The trope of the sinnister minister, the wolf with lamb's clothing may be very known, but this can so dangerous like the homophobia or racism. Let's remember today "Lone with the Wind" has got a previous disclaimer about the slavery, or the crows, the characters from Disney's cartoon movie "Dumbo" aren't wellcome for the current standards. Maybe your opinion is anything isn't wrong and it shouldn't be cancelled, but others can disagree you. Or the rules about politically correct could change in the future.

I disadvice totally divine spellcasters in sets based in our real History to avoid troubles like some poisoned questions: Could the Rose of Guadalupe save you against attacks by supernatural monsters, or to heal supernatural creatures as vampires and lycantropes? could a priest by the Chinese patriotic church be as good as a true Catholic exorcist to expel demons, and a female anglican priestess? or could the sacred power defend the leader of the Anglican church, the UK queen, against spells casted by a neopagan witch? could vampires be hurt by bones by a martyr, a Irish fray killed by Lutheran corsairs?
"Could the sacred power defend the leader of the Anglican church, the UK queen, against spells casted by a neopagan witch?" Hell yeah! She's at least a 13th level cleric and I bet she wielded a mean warhammer back in the day. Don't believe me? Do you ever see any undead around Buck house? No. Case closed.
Slightly more seriously what religion is and how it interacted with society today is so different from what it meant in the ancient world you can't really compare. It wasn't about belief in gods as much as what you believed was the best way to curry favour and avoid their wrath. Polytheism was such a given that there was no point fighting over what you believed in. If you encountered a new people with different gods you just mapped them onto the ones you had or added them in if they seemed new. Even Judaism the originator of Today's Monotheism had the original commandment "thou shall have no other god before me" not no other God exists. The way tradional and historic Catholics treat saints is a closer match for how the ancient world treated gods.
 


We should take care when we use elements from the real life. For example in the old Far-West movies the indians, the North American aborigines were the bad guys, but decades later the point of view is different. Adding details of the type "DaVinci Code" may very dangerous.

If your story is in the ancient Israel, you can tell about the periods of moral decline, and a good example is the story of the prophet Hosea and his sinner wife Gomer, but pagans can't defeat Israel but when Yahweh wanted the golden calf whorshipers to be punished. Don't you notice the potential controversies? For example a Irish saying pope Pious V and Joan of Arc could defeat Dracula or other vampire-lord because they are saints, literally, but Henry V of England and Elisabeth I couldn't because they are excommunicated, with a "bad karma".

Or "the vampires are supernatural creatures, they scientific origin is not possible because blood is not enough nutritious comparing with the meat or the carrion, and blood by animals should be enough". Could I use a picture of X-Pijing instead Christians holy icons to expel jian-shis (Chinese vampire)? Could a vampire to be hurt by water from the source in Lourdes (where Virgin Mary appeared), and from the Ganges river? Could Hong-Xiuquan be a divine spellcaster in D&D? (No, he couldn't, he was a fool, a false prophet). Could be the corpse of Muhammad Ahmad be a sacred relic? (No, it couldn't it because today practically no Muslims believes him to be the mahdi).

Other example, you get into troubles if in your story the Muslims are the good guys, fightings against the pagans for the ridda wars, in the time of Abu Bark, the first calipha, destroying the temples of the Jahiliyyah (age of ignorance, pre-islamic Arabia). Or the DM has Chinese roots, and her story is about the legendary heroes from Chinese mythology helping the characters against the Otoman empire. Here the Turkeys could be angry if they were informed.

Only real religions could be added in your campaign if all factions share the same faith (and players shares a similar point of view about the faith). It is too risky with the antagonist faction follows a different religion. Of course cardenal Richeleu can be the antagonist if you are playing in France XVIII century, but if the villain is a Joseph Smith's disciple, like the victims of "A Study in Scarlett" the first Serlock Holmes's book (it is not a spoiler if I say the murder wanted vengeance) then the things may be different.
 


Interesting topic.

The proof thing: Since mages and clerics both exist and both wield power who is to say that both abilities do not come from the gods?

One thing that could have a big influence would be direct appearance and intervention by a deity. On the other hand if powerful illusions exist who is to say that these manifestations are not created by mages and that the clerics and mages are not the "real" gods?

All in all the existence of magic and miracles in and of itself may have little impact on the nature of faith. Faith by its very nature does not require proof. And if miracles and spells are considered "proof" the question then becomes, proof of what?
In AD&D1E & 2E, and in Cyclopedia, the "Gods" had a very clear and impressive display... When they appear in manifestation, all mortals must save or be frozen, and it's not easy. There's also the inherent at will magic resistance... and antimagic at will, as well.

An AD&D deity can, in their presence, stop any mage or cleric. More importantly, tho', the clerics. A cleric in good stead gets 1st and 2nd level by belief and investure from the deity. 3rd to (IIRC) 5th are granted from the subordinates, and 6th and 7th (remember, those editions only went to 7 spell levels for Clerics). A cleric in bad stead with their deity can't cast at all... (Details in Spelljammer and at least one other AD&D2E)

Clerical magic has this key difference: if they don't behave according to their deity's rules, they lose their power. A wizard doesn't. But neither casts in the presence of a deity without permission or a really high level of experience.

D&D Deities, however, are not even as deific as the traditional pagan deities of our world were claimed to be in the eras and places of their worship. (Which includes several still in use, including Hinduism, Asatru, Hellenism, and Shinto.) But they are a known factor of/in the settings. They do, however, take a much more obvious and active role.

My joking answer was that there would be not much difference between the behavior of pantheon-based societies from a monotheism-based societies. That's the real question, to my mind, because most people in polytheism-based societies were pretty sure that their gods existed because they worked miracles every day.*
The big difference is likely to be the level of liturgical formality and uniformity. The dominant modern religions are monotheistic and liturgically formal. Each has multiple sects with variations on the liturgical praxis - both required of the faithful and required of the clergy.
Many also have optional praxis additions.

In a "single pantheon with multiple different faces" - such as the Hellenists and Romano-Hellenists, where each major deity was a 1:1 correspondence in each pantheon, the real world praxis differed, slightly to moderately... when Rome added Egypt to the Empire, they correlated again, and praxis widened. There was little uniformity. And the formality for many was low - libations for the deities of wine, for example, are a very low formality... but were highly uniform in the Romano-Hellenistic world.

With active and magic-granting deities, how that affects psychology depends upon how invested one has to be to get magic...
If it's RuneQuest style "everyone gets a little, priests get more" and the deities don't zipyank spells just for doubt... it's going to be pretty ritualized but also only as formal as grabbing the right tool for the job. If the spells require dedicated belief, and everyone has access to some, and jealous patrons will withdraw their spells from anyone doubting, it's going to reinforce that they exist (even if they don't), because belief is important in the visible miracles.
 

Zubatcarteira

Now you're infected by the Musical Doodle
It'll just depend on the gods' personalities, if they're fine with their followers praying to others, if they need prayers to survive, if they can communicate with mortals, and if the pantheon as a whole has some agreement regarding on who can get prayers from who. You can't really compare it to real life pantheons since the gods can just work in completely different ways, and societies in the game should be a lot different with magic, monsters and devils undeniably existing.
 

I suposse you are talking about "monolatry", when you worship only one deity, but you accept the existence of others. Somebody says the ancient Israel was closer monolatry than true monotheist, and maybe it was true, at least for a time.

For storytelling elements, I miss the vestiges from3.5 Pact of Magic. I liked the idea of potential conflicts between the binders and the divine spellcasters. Also I love the psionic ardent, because these were perfect to create stories about hate-love relations with the rest of divine spellcasters. Here Asian philosophies could be a source of inspiration.

Sometimes I imagine a new class mixing the summoner from Pathfinder, the vestige binder, and the incarnum totemist shaman, about summoning totem spirits and these giving monster traits as "feats". Some powers would work like martial maneuvers, the middle point between at-will and once-encounter.
 

ART!

Hero
The mistake, I think, comes more at the table when players and DMs bring their own experiences with religion, overwhelmingly through the ubiquitous monotheistic religions of today.
This has been my experience. On to of that, popular culture tends to deal in stereotypes, so lots of assumptions are made about spiritual thought and practices, churches, etc. Without efforts to prevent it, at the table the result of all that tends to be bland portrayals of large religions, "primitive" belief systems, and their leaders and practitioners.
 
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We shouldn't forget the possible complains about cultural apropiation if we used elements based in no-Western cultures.

Other point is if a commoner can see with their own eyes divine spellcasters or a supernatural monster, then he worries about the trial in the afterlife and the eternal punishment. Even the richest social classes would think twice about the salvations of their souls.
 

jeffh

Adventurer
Setting aside most of the discussion and just touching on the original question, the biggest thing for me is that in a world like the Realms where the deities can be pretty active in directly interacting with mortals, there should be a lot fewer doctrinal disputes. When you can go on Reddit and see a thread that says "I'm literally Athena, goddess of wisdom, AMA" it seems like it would be a lot easier to get these things sorted.
 

ART!

Hero
What features of real life religions couldn't apply to D&D religions?

What features probably wouldn't apply?

In what ways would (or could) D&D religions mirror real life religions?

There are no wrong answers, or at least I don't think there are.

Your thoughts?
Assuming a setting where the existence of the gods is clear and not in question - the result of their repeated and clear presence and intercession in people's lives:

With actual proven gods whose agendas are clearer, there would be less doubt about whether to fight the other folks who worship the other proven god with the other clear agenda that threatens your gods agenda. This assumes that any given god will want their worshipers to fight for their agenda.

There might be more understanding between the followers of different gods, since there would be less interpretation of gods' agendas? this doesn't mean more or less fighting, of course.

"Mirror real life religions" gets into too many assumptions about "religion", which is a term often used to cover too many things, so I'm just going to skip that.
 

Haiku Elvis

Explorer
Assuming a setting where the existence of the gods is clear and not in question - the result of their repeated and clear presence and intercession in people's lives:

With actual proven gods whose agendas are clearer, there would be less doubt about whether to fight the other folks who worship the other proven god with the other clear agenda that threatens your gods agenda. This assumes that any given god will want their worshipers to fight for their agenda.

There might be more understanding between the followers of different gods, since there would be less interpretation of gods' agendas? this doesn't mean more or less fighting, of course.

"Mirror real life religions" gets into too many assumptions about "religion", which is a term often used to cover too many things, so I'm just going to skip that.
Or to put it another way

"Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exists, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman."
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
 

I have watched in youtube a video telling a sypnosis of the Korean supernatural thriller "Hellbound", and the social impact of certain doubtless supernatural event. And it is curious because, and it is not a true spoiler if I say it, the consecuences of the faith without mercy. Everybody accepts there is a supernatural punishment for the sinners, and most of people try to be better, but the fear to the hell without mercy, is a very bad combo. They want to save their lives and their souls, but they forget ethical values as the respect of the human dignity. Let's imagine the family of a sinner punished by a outsider, being rejected by the rest of the society.
 

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