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

Voadam

Legend
Now with the bards and druids able to heal almost as good as cleric (not counting the life cleric) it is easy to see how some players can be dismissive of the gods. But the cleric is the only one that can raise the dead by default (knowledge bards... I know).
FYI Raise Dead and Resurrection are core bard spell list spells in 5e.

5e PH page 207.
 

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Oofta

Legend
Personal spritual belief questions off. 5 on 5 on that good sir.

Now. Faster than light.
The Caern in Beligium might have done it with a particle. It is not a space ship, granted and we're far from that. But so far, calculations seems to back up their claims.
It seems that the God's particle, the graviton has been observed but not registered. We might finally get some results sooner than later as more and more scientific teams are now actively searching for that particle.
As for the warp bubble
A theory so far but combined this with a possible discovery of the graviton and its reverse and... Engage!

Yeah, there are theories that Star Trek's warp drive may work after all as well. Minor details like you'd need exotic materials that may or may not exist and that when you drop out of warp you'd release the equivalent energy of a supernova. Or maybe we'll just teleport ourselves to distant planets. Assuming of course that the transporter doesn't just kill you and make a new copy somewhere else. :)
 

FYI Raise Dead and Resurrection are core bard spell list spells in 5e.

5e PH page 207.
I know. Just removed them from the list at launch. This is a thing I tend to forget. But the rest of the post stands. They still must speak with the god to raise the dead one.
And also... Bards are BS. They should have been a rogue subclass. Snarf Zagyg is right about them. Let them burn! Drag them into a black hole and forget about them.
Edit: This class just makes no sense in 5ed. The 2nd edition approach was much better.
 

Voadam

Legend
I know. Just removed them from the list at launch. This is a thing I tend to forget. But the rest of the post stands. They still must speak with the god to raise the dead one.
And also... Bards are BS. They should have been a rogue subclass. Snarf Zagyg is right about them. Let them burn! Drag them into a black hole and forget about them.
Edit: This class just makes no sense in 5ed. The 2nd edition approach was much better.
In AD&D 1e and 2e reincarnation was a 6th level magic-user spell. Rogue Bards could cast 6th level wizard spells in 2e and bring the dead back to a new life. ;)

I believe it was the same in the OD&D original pre-Dragon Magazine The Strategic Review article where bards first showed up.

In 3e wizards could use sixth level limited wish to cast a 4th level druid reincarnate spell.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The Caern in Beligium might have done it with a particle.

Do you mean CERN, which is in Switzerland?

I know of no suggestive results from CERN on the matter that haven't wilted as more data was taken. Cite, please, on what you're referring to?
 


Do you mean CERN, which is in Switzerland?

I know of no suggestive results from CERN on the matter that haven't wilted as more data was taken. Cite, please, on what you're referring to?
Yeah... CERN. Saw that pass in a science magazine a few months ago while I was at the Ophtalmologist. Still have no confirmed data but they were working on it. Sorry for the wrong country.

Edit: Here is the article: Neutrino : plus vite que la lumière ?
But it is in French. Hope you can read it.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
You do not need to travel the planes to meet the gods. In 1ed the clerics meets their god everyday they pray for 5th level spells and up. There is no:" I do not know what my god want" at high level. It is more: "I know exactly what my god expects from me". And the clerics have the mean to back up their claim. The "miracle" aspect of the cleric class can come in handy. No casting, no dispelling.
Right, my point was - in default, kitchen sink D&D, it feels like what counted as a god would be debatable and debated. Lolth and Tiamat have clerics, are they gods? The djinni and high level wizard can "grant wishes", are they gods? Is that Solar or Pit Fiend a god? Is it because they can't grant powers, so what about that Warlock's patron? Does that cleric over there just get their powers straight from the plane of Olympus or the idea of good? What about the druid? Is your pantheon's Thunder god just an aspect of mine? When we conquer you and absorb part of your pantheon, name share some, and consign others to the dustbin of history, were some of them fake or copies all along?

In a more tightly constructed world it might not be a thing many folks at all would wonder about.
 

Staffan

Legend
That's how I like to play it when I DM a Forgotten Realms game. One of my homebrew is the same, where the god of winter has gone mad and retreated north. Since then, nothing regulates birth, growth, death, and decay, and the world is sick because of it. Science, other that that of knowing the right ritual for the right god for the right supplication, has little to do with it.
That reminds me of an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, of all things. I don't recall the details, but the gist of it was that Ares had lost his divinity somehow and since there was no god of War to manage hostility people started getting angry with one another and fighting all over the place. And of course, Xena had to help him get his mojo back.
 

Right, my point was - in default, kitchen sink D&D, it feels like what counted as a god would be debatable and debated. Lolth and Tiamat have clerics, are they gods? The djinni and high level wizard can "grant wishes", are they gods? Is that Solar or Pit Fiend a god? Is it because they can't grant powers, so what about that Warlock's patron? Does that cleric over there just get their powers straight from the plane of Olympus or the idea of good? What about the druid? Is your pantheon's Thunder god just an aspect of mine? When we conquer you and absorb part of your pantheon, name share some, and consign others to the dustbin of history, were some of them fake or copies all along?

In a more tightly constructed world it might not be a thing many folks at all would wonder about.
The more power a being has, the more it can pass for a god. It is an age old trope that has been used over and over again. The false god!
But in a world where many pantheons coexists, there are some wars that are bound to happen. Some will ally with other gods/pantheons and maybe the losers simply lose their godhood?

But, yeah, in a tightly knit one pantheon world, these are less likely to happen unless... You create an alternate prime invasion! They come with their pantheons to destroy the heathens that worship false gods.

And even in canon 5ed, you have the above approach with Maglubiyet, the goblinoid over god. For the goblinoid race, all other gods/pantheons are false. So a pantheon war could well be made by goblinoids, especially hobgoblins.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member

Cruentus

Explorer
When it comes to clerics does anyone require that healing is only for followers of the same deity or pantheon? If, say the cleric is a dwarf and the person needing healing is an elf, they probably worship different gods. Does it matter that the elf doesn't revere Moradin? Isn't it enough that the dwarven cleric decides that the elf needs healing?
I haven't done it, but have considered it and similar things like it for my worldbuilding. I'm running a pretty straight FR campaign set in an earlier age, but the 73 different gods are particularly exhausting, and the complete lack of cleric/paladin/deity interaction is boring.

So for my next campaign, I'm 1) going to decide to even have clerics or not in the campaign; 2) If I do, lay out a religious structure for the realms/greyhawk/whatever that makes sense - whether it is the "all the gods are the same 5 or 6 gods, just worshipped differently" or two or three sets of gods that are worshipped regionally. But its definitely going to be more structured. and

3) I'm either going to create myself, or ask any clerics (assuming there are any) to design and build up their religious practices.
a. Where is the center of worship for your deity? If its not a major deity, where and how to people worship?
b. What are the regular religious rituals that clerics perform associated with your deity?
c. What is your deity's relationship to other deities and "non-believers" What is the doctrine of your faith?
d. How does your faith view things like charity, helping others, offering healing, etc.? (To Oofta's question of do you heal those of other faiths)
e. What are the major religious festivals and when are they?
f. How much do you tithe to the faith? (Not do you, how much do you).

The same things would apply to Paladins. Now, since clerics and paladins aren't restricted by alignment, so people's actual actions can be all over the map, but that would be RP stuff, and might affect their relationship with their fellow clerics, their church, and potentially their deity.

I've given up on the kitchen sink pantheon stuff, because then it rarely registers in world, or there are so many clerics you trip over them everywhere. If you are a cleric, its assumed you went into this calling for some reason. What is it? Just for the healing? Just for spiritual hammer? If you want to smack stuff, be a fighter. If you want to heal, take up herbalism. :) I actually like the BECMI and older editions where the cleric didn't get spells until 2nd level to "show their devotion" to the faith. Then they were awarded greater power. Imagine that.
 

Voadam

Legend
I haven't done it, but have considered it and similar things like it for my worldbuilding. I'm running a pretty straight FR campaign set in an earlier age, but the 73 different gods are particularly exhausting, and the complete lack of cleric/paladin/deity interaction is boring.
I highly recommend the 2e FR god books such as Faiths & Avatars for some great description of a bunch of issues for the major gods of FR and their henotheistic clerics/polytheistic religion. Some great stories about the individual gods, descriptions of their temple hierarchies and centers of worship, and stuff like doctrines their clerics promote.
 

Cruentus

Explorer
I highly recommend the 2e FR god books such as Faiths & Avatars for some great description of a bunch of issues for the major gods of FR and their henotheistic clerics/polytheistic religion. Some great stories about the individual gods, descriptions of their temple hierarchies and centers of worship, and stuff like doctrines their clerics promote.
Thanks! I do own that book, which does really get the creative stuff flowing. There is a lot of great material there, which makes the very bland 5e approach to clerics seem sad. That being said, all of those specialty clerics, specific deity spells, etc. can be overwhelming, that's why I'd curate the deities a bit to have the breadth I need, and combine some.

I was following the FR Deity survivor to see who the last 5-10 Deities were, as a possible "pantheon" if they covered enough bases :)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
When it comes to clerics does anyone require that healing is only for followers of the same deity or pantheon? If, say the cleric is a dwarf and the person needing healing is an elf, they probably worship different gods. Does it matter that the elf doesn't revere Moradin? Isn't it enough that the dwarven cleric decides that the elf needs healing.

I think that, from a gameplay standpoint, that'd be too restrictive to the party as a whole and/or the cleric's player in particular, to be a good choice.

From a narrative standpoint, unless the deity is omniscient, the deity needs clerics to exert a little free will and judgement. Second-guessing every single heal spell is micromanagement not in line with that need. If the cleric makes a habit out of healing people entirely opposed to the deity's goals, that's a problem. But if the elf isn't a bad person, and effectively supports the cleric in their mission, that should justify healing magics.
 

It's almost like the player and DM should have a conversation about the social importance and immanence of the gods and powers of the campaign.

There was a miniseries on Netflix we watched a bit ago, Midnight Mass.

This is a fantastic miniseries that everyone who appreciates relatively non-graphic horror should see!
It can get a bit grim in parts, but it's really well done.
 

ART!

Legend
I can think of two approaches to making religion matter in a fantasy rpg, assuming the game or setting has gods who are worshipped and who bestow divine powers on certain people:

1. The GM includes (to some degree) scenes, challenges, plotlines etc. that involve religion or spiritual traditions. This could involve anything from wars among the gods, religious wars, pilgrimages, local holy day traditions, reminding or requiring a player to engage in daily rituals, etc.
2. The player puts some emphasis on their religious character's daily rituals, calendrical observances, pilgrimage plans/goals, etc.
 

Voadam

Legend
I can think of two approaches to making religion matter in a fantasy rpg, assuming the game or setting has gods who are worshipped and who bestow divine powers on certain people:

1. The GM includes (to some degree) scenes, challenges, plotlines etc. that involve religion or spiritual traditions. This could involve anything from wars among the gods, religious wars, pilgrimages, local holy day traditions, reminding or requiring a player to engage in daily rituals, etc.
2. The player puts some emphasis on their religious character's daily rituals, calendrical observances, pilgrimage plans/goals, etc.
Those are great but seem to not require gods at all.

If the religions are something like Fred Sabrehagen's Red Temple Blue Temple setup, or nature worshiping druidism, or Jedi force traditions, or different versions of Taoism and Buddhism those still work.
 

ART!

Legend
Those are great but seem to not require gods at all.

If the religions are something like Fred Sabrehagen's Red Temple Blue Temple setup, or nature worshiping druidism, or Jedi force traditions, or different versions of Taoism and Buddhism those still work.
Oh, absolutely - that's why I included the notion of "spiritual traditions" as well as religion (which is arguably a square to spiritual traditions' rectangle). Figure out what kind of spiritual beliefs, practices, complexity and size of organization, pervasiveness of traditions, offshoots, etc. that make sense for the setting - and these can differ from deity to deity or pantheon to pantheon, should such things exist in the setting.
 


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