Making Religion Matter in Fantasy RPGs

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Religion is a powerful force in any culture and difficult to ignore when creating a gaming setting. Here's some things to consider when incorporating religions into your campaign.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Question of Gods​

When we look at religion from a gaming perspective, the most interesting thing about it is that in many settings, the existence of deities is not in question. One of the most common arguments over religion is whether there even is a god of any form. But in many fantasy games especially, deities offer proof of their existence on a daily basis. Their power is channelled through clerics and priests and a fair few have actually been seen manifesting in the material realm. This makes it pretty hard to be an atheist in a D&D game.

While the adherents of any faith believe the existence of their deity is a given fact, having actual proof changes the way that religion is seen by outsiders. In many ancient cultures, people believed in not only their gods, but the gods of other cultures. So to win a war or conquer another culture was proof your gods were more powerful than theirs. While winning a war against another culture can make you pretty confident, winning one against another culture’s gods can make you arrogant. Add to that the fact you had warrior priests manifesting divine power on the battlefield, you are pretty soon going to start thinking that not only is winning inevitable, but that it is also a divine destiny. Again, these are all attitudes plenty of believers have had in ancient days, but in many fantasy worlds they might actually be right.

Magic vs. Prayer​

If a world has magic, it might be argued that this power is just another form of magic. Wizards might scoff at clerics, telling them they are just dabblers who haven’t learned true magic. But this gets trickier if there are things the clerics can do with their magic that the wizards can’t do with theirs. Some wizards might spend their lives trying to duplicate the effects of clerics, and what happens if one of them does?

The reverse is also interesting. Clerics might potentially manifest any form of magical power if it suits their deity. So if the priest of fire can not only heal but throw fireballs around, is it the wizards that need to get themselves some religion to become true practitioners of the art? Maybe the addition of faith is the only way to really gain the true power of magic?

Are the Gods Real?​

While divine power might be unarguably real, the source of it might still be in contention. A priest might be connecting to some more primal force than magicians, or tapping into some force of humanity. What priests think is a connection to the divine might actually just be another form of magic. As such, it could have some unexpected side effects.

Let’s say this divine power draws from the life force of sentient beings. As it does so in a very broad way, this effect is barely noticed in most populations. A tiny amount of life from the population as a whole powers each spell. But once the cleric goes somewhere remote they might find their magic starts draining the life from those nearby. In remote areas, clerics might be feared rather than revered, and the moment they try to prove they are right by manifesting the true power of their deity, they (and the townsfolk) are in for a very nasty surprise.

Can You Not Believe in Them?​

There are ways to still play an atheist character in a fantasy game. However, it does require more thought beyond "well I don’t believe in it." That's a sure way to make your character look foolish, especially after they have just been healed by a cleric.

What will also make things much tougher is having a character that refuses to benefit from the power of religion due to their beliefs. They might insist that if they don’t know what in this healing magic, they don’t want any part of it, especially if the priest can’t really explain it outside the terms of their faith. That this healing works will not be in doubt. So are they being principled or a fool? If the explanation for magical healing isn’t "this is just healing energy" but "it’s the power of my deity, entering your body and changing it for the better" the character might be more reticent about a few more hit points.

When it comes to deities manifesting on the material plane, it’s a little harder to ignore them. But this isn’t always evidence of the divine. A manifesting deity is undoubtedly a powerful being, one able to crush armies and level cities, but does that make them divine? While the power of a deity is not in dispute, the definition of what is actually divine in nature is a lot muddier. This is ironically harder in a fantasy world where lich-kings, dragons and powerful wizards can do all the same things many deities are supposed to do.

What Are Gods?​

So we come back to the question: Whether you are a cleric, adherent or atheist, of what actually is god? What quality of them demands or inspires worship beyond the fact they are powerful? Plenty of philosophers are still trying to figure that one out. While in a fantasy game their existence and power may not be in question, whether they are holy or even worthy of trust and faith might be much harder to divine.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


Cadence

Legend
Supporter
We're currently between segments of a campaign where all of the gods were widely worshipped and integral to day to day life -- and it was not known to any except a few in the high ups of the religions that they were all ascended mortals. At the end of the first arc all of the gods died at the same time and all of the powers they granted their worshippers just stopped (no spells, etc...)

The follow-up arcs with other characters feature characters that used to be clerics of those gods dealing with the aftermath (starting at 3rd level with 2 levels of cleric, druid, or paladin, and one level of another class - many of the original class abilities don't function anymore).

The characters are each struggling to come to grips with this; mine is trying to take that the gods before were originally mortals to mean that a world full of mortals should be able to carry on and it could be a hope of optimism (we can all be heroes if we just try). We'll see if the folks who are really angry kill the party when they find out we all used to be priests before we can make something of our plans.
 

I'm about to run a Ravenloft campaign with a lot of personal flourishes. Are the Gods "real"? Unknown. But something is granting clergy spells. I think the hard barrier to maintaining vagueness is the use of spells which allow for more direct communication with deities. Time will tell.
 

Oofta

Legend
One of my first PCs was an atheist wizard. He believed that the gods were basically constructs fueled by prayers and worship. Every prayer was like a raindrop, the gods were no more than glorified rain barrels. The basic idea is also used in a fair amount of fantasy, one example being The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison.

So yes, gods were "real" in the sense that a golem or wagon is real. It was also the reason that there were "old" gods slowly faded away as their worshippers disappeared and different cultures had gods that reflected that culture.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
If someone is looking for some good ideas here, I'd check out "Petty Pewter Gods" by Glen Cook, it's number 8 in the Garrett Files.

The gods are powerful beings that escaped from another world, and their power is based on how many worshipers they have. This is indicated by which temple they occupy on the Street of Dreams. If a new pantheon shows up with some worshipers they might cause a reshuffling on the street and the loser might find themselves kicked back "home". Which is bad.

I don't think it's as strong as the first 6 in the series (the later ones are still mostly good with some great ideas, but I think each has something I find beyond my cringe tolerance; in the case of #8 it is some male-female relationship things, nothing graphic, but still bleh writing in those parts).
 
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Does it matter that there is a large grey zone between the most divine being (gods) and the mortal nobody in the street?

There are archfeys, demon lords and all kinds of weird beings of immense power, and of course the player characters (anywhere from L1 to L20). It makes for a fun game if you think that you may level up to be powerful to actually meet a real god, if not slay them. In that regard, the gods in the D&D realms are a lot closer to the greek/roman gods who would also have interacted with mortals.

So, in D&D, what actually is a god? It's a very powerful being. Period.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
Does it matter that there is a large grey zone between the most divine being (gods) and the mortal nobody in the street?

There are archfeys, demon lords and all kinds of weird beings of immense power, and of course the player characters (anywhere from L1 to L20). It makes for a fun game if you think that you may level up to be powerful to actually meet a real god, if not slay them. In that regard, the gods in the D&D realms are a lot closer to the greek/roman gods who would also have interacted with mortals.

So, in D&D, what actually is a god? It's a very powerful being. Period.
I've played the gods in D&D in various ways, but the way that I like the most is that they're just powerful entities - the Star Trek approach. The line between demon lord, archfey, powerful celestial, devil prince and god all being blurry.

Adding the Warlock class does mix things up a bit. What really is the difference between a Warlock and a Cleric other than mechanics? You could say that the Cleric is a believer while a Warlock just wants power, but in sword and sorcery fiction evil priests are often in it for the power. So that line is blurred too.
 


Aldarc

Legend
D&D seems to color this analysis, as there are a fair number of "fantasy RPGs" out there - whether games or settings - where cultic religion, theology, and deities matter significantly, including RuneQuest.
 

One thing a lot of games tend to skip is the actual religion - there's just gods and the powers they grant.

Religion also includes ethics, cosmology, law, purity, ritual, festivals, taboos... and there's almost always a structure to the whole thing.

Basically, the gods are the source of the religion, but what are the actual beliefs? What do your scriptures tell you to do?
 

Voadam

Legend
This seems more a discussion about proof and belief in gods than religion.

In Ravenloft and Eberron divine magic works but it is not clear whether gods exist at all. Ravenloft had an explicitly false god religion.

In Planescape where you can go to the god's realms there is a whole faction who believe that the gods are simply powerful beings. This seems a reasonable belief in D&D where gods have at various times/editions been portrayed as statted out powerful beings.

There is a significant issue of defining gods. Are they cosmic powers? Are they tied to fundamental aspects of the world? Are they magical creatures ranging in power from Nymphs to Olympians? Are Arch-Fey, Warlock Patrons, and Fiend and Celestial Lords deities or not deities? The answers have varied across editions and settings of D&D.

I find the cleric power argument unconvincing as proof of the gods. In 5e non-theistic bards can do all the healing and resurrection that clerics can. Also non-theistic clerics and religions can be part of D&D.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
It's a big deal that can help make your gaming world come alive.

We're currently using a fantasy Celtic pantheon where the primary gods operate like members of a tribe (everyone contributes something), and demons provide the "lesser" gods that are the things of cults. I keep a calendar with holy holidays, and it's just a big part of everyone's life. There isn't a village without at least a shrine, and clerics are involved in many daily activities like blessing crops, political advisors, militia training, and correct animal husbandry techniques. Every god has some noticeable influence on daily life.

For example, the death god doesn't permit raising the dead without consulting his priests, and those who defy risk a visit from an avatar of death. Druids are the exception with reincarnation (and no one is quite sure why). This affects laws, and in most kingdoms, if one is raised, they lose all titles and rights to inherit. A resurrected king is no more than a commoner under the law. My gamers really latched onto this as a cool concept, and in role-play spirit, some who have had a character with noble ties perish have explicitly told the others "don't try to raise me."
 

Voadam

Legend
One thing a lot of games tend to skip is the actual religion - there's just gods and the powers they grant.
I agree.

A bunch of city level settings will have temples designated and there will be a bunch of villainous cults scattered around. At the town level you will usually get a small church or shrine or two. Occasionally you will get a theocracy like Thrane in Eberron or the Theocracy of the Pale in Greyhawk. Some settings like Forgotten Realms will have statements on how important religion and praying are in normal daily life, but mostly D&D uses gods and religions as background material for divine magic PCs and as story potential stuff for adventures.
Religion also includes ethics, cosmology, law, purity, ritual, festivals, taboos... and there's almost always a structure to the whole thing.

Basically, the gods are the source of the religion, but what are the actual beliefs? What do your scriptures tell you to do?
I would disagree that gods are basically the source of the religion. Many versions of Buddhism or Taoism come to mind. Blood of Vol in Eberron is a good D&D example.

Also scriptures are very important in the monotheist real-world traditions but not really the basis for say ancient world polytheistic ones that we know about.

Religion can be very varied.
 


DeviousQuail

Adventurer
Deciding how the gods and religions work in a setting is one of the first things I do when making a new setting. It's fun trying different approaches and with clerics being a thing it's kinda necessary to know these things.

The one consistent choice I make is that Warlocks aren't granted power the same way clerics are. Warlocks are given access to forbidden knowledge, dark secrets, and shortcuts to power. Once they have it, they have it. If they ditch their patron the only things they lose are the patron pact feature and pact boon. Clerics get their power from their god(s) and if they ditch them they lose pretty much everything but the hitpoints. I don't go in for the whole warlocks are just clerics with worse advertising bit.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
One thing a lot of games tend to skip is the actual religion - there's just gods and the powers they grant.

Religion also includes ethics, cosmology, law, purity, ritual, festivals, taboos... and there's almost always a structure to the whole thing.

Basically, the gods are the source of the religion, but what are the actual beliefs? What do your scriptures tell you to do?

For one game, the DM had provided:

God of Wind (CG) and that they weren't one of the ones with a very organized church or hierarchy.


So I rounded it out a bit and submitted the below for approval. It shaped the archetype, weapons allowed, and gave a wide range of things for the character to fit with (and how they reacted when the god died).

The scent of the flowers,
the dog tracking by smell,
the rustling branches and bubble of the fountain,
the song of the birds at the day,
the whippoorwill and owl at night,
the lions roar over the miles,
the crack of thunder,
the musician and bard,
the woodwind, horn, and string,
the raptor hovering without flapping,
the butterfly moving with the wind,
the end of the hot hand as quick as it arrives,
the smell of the courtesan and of courting,
the inviting waft from baking bread,
the sweet cloying smell of death,
the whirling quarterstaff,
the feathered arrow flying,
the secret whisper and passed on growing legend,
the curious breeze and cleansing gale,
the creaking branch and slamming shutter,
the premonition of hair standing on end,
the caress of a gentle breeze through the heat,
the smell of long needed rain,
the gusts before the hurricane,
the spiraling cyclone,
the moment of stillness,
the change of fortune,
the second chance,
the sympathetic ear,
the yell of outrage,
the unexpected arrival.
 
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Stormonu

Legend
Creating fantasy pantheons is a lot of fun, but I have several gamers who have no desire to RP religious aspects in the game. Not just folks playing clerics either - I've had players who refuse to have their characters worship a fantasy deity for one reason or another. That likewise needs to be considered - know your players.
 
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I've looked into non-Christian religions just to have an idea of how other religions operate for flavor purposes. Many religions do not have "regular" services, with temples only being used for holy days, weddings, funerals, etc. Some religions require worshippers to maintain the graves of their ancestors annually (and yes, this does mean that an NPC might be unavailable while taking care of this task that is important to them).

Medieval Western European fantasy has a religion simulation problem, in that it's based on a culture with only one large religion. I've looked into several cultures (such as China and Japan) where there are two or three semi-competing religions, and in many cases no equivalent to the pope, to have an idea how different churches could coexist, compete, and even sometimes engage in conflict.

I like spells such as Pathfinder's underpowered ceremony ("your marriage has been blessed, literally"). I could picture a sea captain insisting on casting such a spell to appease Umberlee (or whoever) any time they go on a sea voyage. Even non-Umberlee worshippers going aboard might be expected to participate. These kinds of rituals don't require clerics, or even necessarily any sort of divine caster. The cleric is an adventuring class, and frankly has a broader range of power (in any edition) than is strictly necessary for the religious role. I don't expect a minor priest of death to have healing magic, but they should probably be able to keep the dead from rising. A PC cleric of death, however, needs that healing magic.
 


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