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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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
Going the other direction, I wonder how the gods/clerics would take it if a character gave each of them the appropriate sacrifice, but dedicated their focus to the universal all that the gods were only an aspect of and doing their best to fulfill their own appointed role.
 
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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Coincidentally, I just got to "Ulan Dhor" in my reread of Dying Earth. It deals on great part with the power and role of belief, and of a god who can remake a city in minutes. Vance is still pretty good the third or fourth time through it.
 
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Why is it assumed the atheist is mocking anyone?

Certainly if a character was being a jerk to the cleric I wouldn't expect them not to be regularly healed. Just like if the bard's singing were mocked or the warlord's coat of arms was mocked, I wouldn't expect them to either.
Denying (to the cleric's face) that the god they worship exits, is kinda insulting. Especially if you justify this belief by saying that the cleric is in fact a wizard and just lying to everyone about what magic they are using (it's all illusions) and that they are part of a massive global conspiracy to lie to everyone and tell them that gods exist even though they don't...

Mocking is a word for it.

Of course, expecting healing magic in that case is also hypocritical, since the cleric doesn't have any divine power to heal.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
And it's a thing in 5e as well.

A 10th level cleric can directly petition appearances from the deity and will be answered, on average, about once per ten days - a Faerunian week. Tends to make the whole "We never see the gods directly" thing a bit more problematic in settings where the gods are making an appearance every all the time.

So, this is like being a VP of a minor subsidiary calling the CEO of a multinational conglomerate every day asking for favors and assistance, until the CEO shows up at their desk. You know what that CEO is showing up to do? Deal with the mess you have obviously made, an then fire your butt for not being able to handle your job! If you need to call in the big guns every single day, you clearly have been promoted over your ability.

It is not appropriate to take the most extreme behavior logically possible under a ruleset, and consider that a proof of a general case that should have more realistic mitigating factors on it.
 

I have never seen a game where a god has just popped in to create a mountain in front of the PCs. And I find it odd that one would do so just to convert one unbeliever. But sure, that would be impressive!!!
Never did it myself. It was an extreme example to show that the gods can do pretty much anything.

I'm not sure it would prove they were worthy of worship.
I fully agree. But gods can be petty at times. Just remember the stories about Zeus...

I wonder if some of the impoverished, Ill, drought stricken, and besieged followers of such a deity who observed that would eventually start wondering why the deity didn't spend some more of that omnipotence helping them instead of making them wait for their low level local priest to get his spell or two back to chip away at it the next day.
Maybe, but if that deity can strike you down from the heavens, you'd better ask through payers.


Is Lolth a deity? Tiamat? Asmodeus? How do they compare to the lesser gods? Can lesser gods make mountains like that? (In old versions they couldn't even grant ninth level spells, could they?)
With the kind of power greater deities have. Why do you think that such "lesser" deities want to get more and more worshipers?
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Denying (to the cleric's face) that the god they worship exits, is kinda insulting. Especially if you justify this belief by saying that the cleric is in fact a wizard and just lying to everyone about what magic they are using (it's all illusions) and that they are part of a massive global conspiracy to lie to everyone and tell them that gods exist even though they don't...

Mocking is a word for it.

Of course, expecting healing magic in that case is also hypocritical, since the cleric doesn't have any divine power to heal.

Denying (to the cleric's face) that the god they worship exits, is kinda insulting. Especially if you justify this belief by saying that the cleric is in fact a wizard and just lying to everyone about what magic they are using (it's all illusions) and that they are part of a massive global conspiracy to lie to everyone and tell them that gods exist even though they don't...

Mocking is a word for it.

How did it even come up? The the cleric ask the non-believer about it? Demand some form of expressed belief from the non-believer? Try proselytizing? Nag them to go worship?

Of course, expecting healing magic in that case is also hypocritical, since the cleric doesn't have any divine power to heal.
Arcane magic of bards doesn't heal?
 

How did it even come up? The the cleric ask the non-believer about it? Demand some form of expressed belief from the non-believer? Try proselytizing? Nag them to go worship?


Arcane magic of bards doesn't heal?
In a perfect world and game. Bards would not exist or would be a subclass of the rogue. They would not cast spells and you could hang them as soon as you discover them. @Snarf Zagyg is perfectly right about them. I took their defense in the past, but they trump the logic of the universe way too much for their (and our) own good.
 

So for the umpteenth time, who says the atheist is mocking anyone? Why the assumption that atheists are militant.

Experience, I guess. If you came to me and said that you had a cool character you wanted to play, and that they were an actual atheist in my campaign world, I would assume that you were looking to cause chaos in my game. Because everyone else who has done that had the same objective; stir the pot and irritate the NPCs (i.e. me). It wouldn't be to explore an idea, or see how this belief would develop or change over time. It would be a major red flag that you want to screw around in my game.

Why would you and the atheist PC you play be any different from the jerks I've dealt with before?

Now, if you sat down with me and talked to me about your motivation for the character and I explained the supernatural aspects of my campaign, we could probably come to an accord. In my campaign the gods are real. Atheism is misinformed at best, insanity at worst. Maltheism would be more appropriate.

I'm other people's experiences and campaign settings differ.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Experience, I guess. If you came to me and said that you had a cool character you wanted to play, and that they were an actual atheist in my campaign world, I would assume that you were looking to cause chaos in my game. Because everyone else who has done that had the same objective; stir the pot and irritate the NPCs (i.e. me). It wouldn't be to explore an idea, or see how this belief would develop or change over time. It would be a major red flag that you want to screw around in my game.

Why would you and the atheist PC you play be any different from the jerks I've dealt with before?

Now, if you sat down with me and talked to me about your motivation for the character and I explained the supernatural aspects of my campaign, we could probably come to an accord. In my campaign the gods are real. Atheism is misinformed at best, insanity at worst. Maltheism would be more appropriate.

I'm other people's experiences and campaign settings differ.

Sheesh, how many people have you had to play with that have turned out to be jerks? :.-(
 

But to add to the thread.
Gods can and will act IF other gods agree with them. The stronger the god, the more likely it is that the god will get his way. Yes gods prefer to work through agents as whenever they openly act, they also give the right to other gods to do the same. The escalation might be the downfall of a whole pantheon (or minimally, the god doing the act).

Remember that gods are not unlike mortal in the sense that they too, have enemies waiting for a sign of weakness. Pelor might be able to stop Iuz in his tracks but would it open it for a strike by Nerul? Incabulos? Hextor? or a god from an other pantheon? The DM is the sole authority on what might happen if a god would directly intervene but the possibility is there.

Comparing a god to a CEO isn't such a bad analogy when you come to think of it. You'd better have a good reason to call on direct intervention. Of course, no player or NPC would foolishly call upon a god for such a trivial reason as a non-believer but to call on the god to curse the perpetrator of bad behavior would not be so far off. This would be the equivalent of a CEO making a phone call on a bad behaving employee. (adventurers are, after all things considered, a special breed).

So yep, gods can and will make apparitions, sometimes to bolster the faithfuls, sometimes to make sure people know they exists. After all, a good CEO do come down his/her white tower to meet the lower employees or simply to make some PR announcement. Or announcing drastic changes (or in the case of a god, plagues, war and so on....)
 

But, again, you WANT something. You are demanding that the cleric heals you and blesses you. You are insisting that the cleric's player is a bad player if the cleric's player doesn't accede to your demands.

This is on you.
You are expecting the cleric to treat you the same as they would treat anyone else with different beliefs to them. If they don't then then they are the jerk.

Note that believers are no more required to be jerks than atheists are. Your beliefs are your own, other people's beliefs are none of your business.
 

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.
Sorry for the delay in this response, I had ro check a bit.
1) reincarnation is not raise dead. You just get a new character with the memories of the previous one.
2) Yes are tenth level bards could read written spells devices (aka scrolls) but there were risks.
3) the process to be a bard in 1ed was so ridiculous, that I saw only one ever made. And even then, it would-be screwed to read scrolls as he would be 7th level or so. And again, reincarnate is not raise dead.

And screw bards.
 

Hussar

Legend
So for the umpteenth time, who says the atheist is mocking anyone? Why the assumption that atheists are militant.

The elf doesn't revere the dwarven God any more or less than the atheist. In any case, if a player's PC ever refused to heal a fellow party member we'd be chatting about "don't be a jerk." 🤷‍♂️
For the umpteenth time, how is believing that the other character is entirely wrong and delusional not a bad thing?

Or, is the character just a silent athiest, never brings it up in game, never talks about it, just something written on the character sheet and quietly forgotten?

If the atheist character never actually tells anyone that they are an atheist, then well, who cares? Atheist, not atheist, since it's never actually established in game, it doesn't exist.

So, just like a cleric character SHOULD be talking about their deity from time to time an atheist character SHOULD be talking about their beliefs. Otherwise, that's not an atheist character at all. It's just one whose beliefs are entirely undetermined.
 

Hussar

Legend
So, this is like being a VP of a minor subsidiary calling the CEO of a multinational conglomerate every day asking for favors and assistance, until the CEO shows up at their desk. You know what that CEO is showing up to do? Deal with the mess you have obviously made, an then fire your butt for not being able to handle your job! If you need to call in the big guns every single day, you clearly have been promoted over your ability.

It is not appropriate to take the most extreme behavior logically possible under a ruleset, and consider that a proof of a general case that should have more realistic mitigating factors on it.
Where is that written anywhere in the books?

It says you have an X percent chance of calling in a favor from your god. There's nothing whatsoever about any sort of cost for doing so.
 

For the umpteenth time, how is believing that the other character is entirely wrong and delusional not a bad thing?
Because you are free to believe what you like.
Or, is the character just a silent athiest, never brings it up in game, never talks about it, just something written on the character sheet and quietly forgotten?
They can mention it, they just don't have to try and force their opinion on someone else, and other characters don't have to try and force their opinions on them. It's called agreeing to disagree.
 

Oofta

Legend
Does everyone in the party have to agree about every feeling, belief and motivation? Why do people equate having a belief with proselytizing that belief? Can't it just be an interesting motivation and thought experiment that occasionally gets calmly discussed amongst friends? Have you never had a polite conversation about how you completely disagree with someone even though you still respect that person and their beliefs?

It feels like people want anyone with a different opinion and idea to be the bad guy, screaming in their face that not only are they wrong, but they're an idiot. My PC was never a jerk about his atheism. He didn't denigrate people for believing. He just didn't believe gods were anything special or worthy of worship. He thought that when you died, you just ceased to exist.

You can be respectful while disagreeing. You can believe that something exists, even has power, without elevating it to the level of divine. If you automatically assume that anyone who disagrees with you is mocking you, maybe the problem is not the person that disagrees.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
If the atheist character never actually tells anyone that they are an atheist, then well, who cares? Atheist, not atheist, since it's never actually established in game, it doesn't exist.

So, just like a cleric character SHOULD be talking about their deity from time to time an atheist character SHOULD be talking about their beliefs. Otherwise, that's not an atheist character at all. It's just one whose beliefs are entirely undetermined.

Can't characters display their backgrounds and beliefs in lots of ways without explicitly narrating them? Did the character stay outside to guard last time the cleric went in to the temple? Maybe they didn't donate in the church donation box to expand the temple, but instead gave to the poor? Maybe the player mimics their character and looks like they're daydreaming every time the cleric's player has them sermonize? During downtime does the player pass a note to the DM saying how they donate to the local charity that helps the families of those executed for heresy or to the local bard who provides healing to religious refugees? Do they try to distract the Paladin of Gygax with something more pressing evey time it wants to go kill the humanoid children? Do they talk to the experts, and commoners, and clerics of other faith with the respect due all people due to their common sentience and try to get information peacefully without forcing a tract on them?

---

Changing it from the original set up If a player says to you as DM, "I know it's just a game, but I'm not comfortable having my character worship a different way than I do in real life - I think roleplaying it is something I can't personally do. Is it ok if we just gloss the religion part when it comes up for what my character has to do so I don't have to imagine them expressing or supporting belief that way? I'm good with the the paladin and cleric in the party, just like I'm good with folks of other beliefs in real life, I just don't want to go to their church services or nod along in agreement to their beliefs and theology." Would you have the clerics in the game deny them healing?
 
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King Babar

God Learner
So in the interest of turning this discussion back to something productive, I'm going to talk about my current campaign.

I'm running a pointcrawl where the party is tasked with helping reestablish a town in a region that had been depopulated by a demon invasion years ago. The invasion is long past, and much of the region has turned into wilderness dotted by abandoned villages and castles; perfect for adventuring. Each session has been centered around helping this town grow and thrive while dealing with potential threats (violently and diplomatically).

The expedition began in the early spring, so the main goal of the villagers (after taking the town back from some opportunistic bandits) was to start planting crops (food security). This is all happening while the party is off fighting undead, monsters, and also figuring out what exactly happened in the intervening years.

Reestablishing the town has culminated in a festival to celebrate the end of the planting season, and to beseech the Storm God and Earth Goddess for their blessings. The festival became a good opportunity for character development, with PCs and NPCs getting spotlight moments . The festival, while religious, was also a chance for people to let loose, so there was feasting, games, and contests (our Wizard is apparently the best long-distance runner in the party because of d20 shenanigans). The paladin led the ritual to gain the gods favor, did well (proving himself as a potential leader), and the whole thing went smoothly, with it all ending in the party blacking out from an improvised drinking contest.

My intention with this was to show how religion is a social thing, and allows communities to come together to bond and celebrate life, like with Carnival here in Germany. I like the idea of using the Religion skill not only as a knowledge skill, but as a social one as well, because I think too often we may perceive religion as something isolated from the rest of culture, especially if the discussion almost immediately gets into ivory tower bickering about divine metaphysics and what is and isn't a god*.

Fantasy religion can be fun because it allows for a different worldview from our own reality; earthquakes aren't because of plate tectonics but because a god became angry, the world really is flat, stars are ascended heroes, there's an underworld you can walk to if you're crazy enough, and all these rituals and superstitions are actually real and important. For me, embracing this weirdness and mysticism is part of the fantasy of the game.

*I think this is totally in-character for a wizard, since wizardly magic has a natural philosophy/protoscience aspect to it.
 

Hussar

Legend
@King Babar - you are absolutely right. Sorry for the tangent folks. We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one I think because we're just talking past each other and digging in deeper trenches and it's not productive. Although, to be honest, I'm not sure that the answer to "how to make religion matter in fantasy RPG's?" is "play atheists". :D

It's actually kinda interesting. I think part of the problem is that many people have never actually experienced a polytheistic society, so, the only religion they actually have any experience with is Western Judeo-Christian culture. And, frankly, that's a terrible model to work from.

I've lived in a polytheistic culture for the past twenty years. Japan has two religions - Buddhism and Shinto - and Shinto is a polytheistic faith. But, the thing is, in Japan, while deeply spiritual culturally, they aren't particularly religious. The notion of morality deriving from religion is largely absent. You don't head down to Dazaifu Tenmangu (a local shrine) to learn about morality. You head there when you have a big test coming up and make offerings to bless your attempt at the test.

It's a totally different approach to religion than what is typically presented in genre fantasy. You don't "worship" a particular god at all, really. It's more like "I have this thing coming up, there is a shrine dedicated to that over there, so, I go and make an offering at that shrine." Otherwise, you really don't have much at all to do with that shrine at all.

I know my students are often totally bewildered by the fact that my home town has six churches and the congregations of each church are different. It's such a foreign concept to them.
 

infinityman

Explorer
It seems to me that it always has mattered, in fact some of the first supplements were all about it. RPGs are a great way to play with faith!
 

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