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


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should Theocracy be the only form of government in DnD?

Not IMO, but imagine if the king or queen must be crowned by a high-ranking cleric of the national religion. This is a problem if the king or queen doesn't worship that god, has the opposite alignment, etc. If King Bob marries Queen Alice from another kingdom for political reasons, and they have different religions, what religion would the child be raised in? This could be important if the new king or queen is expected to be a protector of the national religion. Could the national religion be changed? (This sounds a bit like Eberron-style politics.)
 

Another cool thinking is to consider setting gods as false gods, and the true god or gods are hidden and oversees everything. So some zealot can pray a Uber god even if it don’t manifest concretely to him via spells or apparition.
 


Toriel

Explorer
I've been thinking about creating a campaign world where the gods are the actual rulers of kingdoms and city states. You can petition them in person and see them in their domain. The area they can influence depends on how powerful they are and has some characteristics of their powers and domains. A god of war will have a large standing army and encourage competition within its communities. They are not omniscient so there is a lot of intrigue and plays by each god to get more influence. If someone could convince multiple gods to join forces, it would be possible to destroy a god.

The PCs would be embroiled in those conflicts (or try to stay out of them).

I think that it could make for an interesting game.
 

I've been thinking about creating a campaign world where the gods are the actual rulers of kingdoms and city states. You can petition them in person and see them in their domain. The area they can influence depends on how powerful they are and has some characteristics of their powers and domains. A god of war will have a large standing army and encourage competition within its communities. They are not omniscient so there is a lot of intrigue and plays by each god to get more influence. If someone could convince multiple gods to join forces, it would be possible to destroy a god.

The PCs would be embroiled in those conflicts (or try to stay out of them).

I think that it could make for an interesting game.
There is a hint for this in the DM guide.
The one world cosmology. Everything is on prime plane, god, demon, who can act as actual rulers.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Not IMO, but imagine if the king or queen must be crowned by a high-ranking cleric of the national religion. This is a problem if the king or queen doesn't worship that god, has the opposite alignment, etc. If King Bob marries Queen Alice from another kingdom for political reasons, and they have different religions, what religion would the child be raised in? This could be important if the new king or queen is expected to be a protector of the national religion. Could the national religion be changed? (This sounds a bit like Eberron-style politics.)
Not even this - like the pharoahs, one could claim to be a diety themselves (truly or falsely) or that they are the direct will of a diety (without being a god themselves). No clerical approval required - unless the high theocrat has an army up their sleeves to dispute the claim.
 

Not IMO, but imagine if the king or queen must be crowned by a high-ranking cleric of the national religion. This is a problem if the king or queen doesn't worship that god, has the opposite alignment, etc. If King Bob marries Queen Alice from another kingdom for political reasons, and they have different religions, what religion would the child be raised in? This could be important if the new king or queen is expected to be a protector of the national religion. Could the national religion be changed? (This sounds a bit like Eberron-style politics.)

Plenty of real history for this after the Protestants broke away from the Catholics, especially in France. And, of course, with the founding of the Church of England.
 

lyle.spade

Adventurer
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?
This is a great point. Rarely have I seen a cleric in DnD played as anything other than a character with powers wielded as the player wishes...what about duties to the god? What about spreading the word? What tenets of the faith are expected of believers and practitioners?

Beyond that, I think it's interesting that virtually no fantasy settings offer a monotheistic religion - either as a competitor to the typical pantheistic sorts, or as one of several monotheistic faiths. That's worth considering, and could make for some interesting story possibilities.

Finally...the default for science fiction seems to be no religion at all...why is this the case? Sure, Star Trek has Bajoran mysticism and throws some tokenistic Native American stuff around now and again (TOS, TNG, and VOY have presented that)...but somehow, for settings in which Earth is a thing, Christianity, Islam, and other major world faiths just...don't exist, and their non-existence isn't even addressed.

Serenity/Firefly did a nice job of incorporating a vague idea of pilgrims of faith - I suppose if the show had lasted longer we might have learned more.

Anyway, good post; good comment on which I am commenting, and I see a great deal of story potential here.
 

Staffan

Legend
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?
I very much agree with this. I find religion to be more interesting than gods. I guess that's one reason Eberron appeals to me, because it deals more with the cultural aspects of religion, and to some extent has the same gods worshipped in different constellations in different cultures.

I have two major problems with gods and religion in most D&D settings (or at least, the most well-known ones).

1. You have gods that have no claim to omnipotence that still regularly oppose one another and seek to "convert" people to their "faith", instead of having one religion with multiple deities for different purposes. I can see clerics having to devote themselves to one deity to gain powers, but it should generally not be the case with laity. Using the Faerûnean pantheon as an example, a young farmer should pray to Chauntea for a bountiful harvest, to Sune when wanting to woo the pretty girl over in the next village, to Waukeen when going off to sell his goods, to Helm or Tempus when defending his village from raiders, and to Kelemvor when burying those lost in the raid. But FR strongly portrays a world where everyone chooses one main patron deity and focuses on their dictates and taboos. Which leads me to the next problem:

2. Most D&D religions are reskinned Christianity. There's a particular Holy Book, one or a few Holy Days, worship takes place in temples/churches with an altar at the front (with treasure underneath, of course) and pews where worshipers can sit and listen to a priest giving sermons on whatever virtues the god likes. Why should all religions be like that? You want to worship Malar, go on a hunt and bring down the biggest beast you can find. You don't do that in a stuffy old house.
 

King Babar

God Learner
Beyond that, I think it's interesting that virtually no fantasy settings offer a monotheistic religion - either as a competitor to the typical pantheistic sorts, or as one of several monotheistic faiths. That's worth considering, and could make for some interesting story possibilities.

Finally...the default for science fiction seems to be no religion at all...why is this the case? Sure, Star Trek has Bajoran mysticism and throws some tokenistic Native American stuff around now and again (TOS, TNG, and VOY have presented that)...but somehow, for settings in which Earth is a thing, Christianity, Islam, and other major world faiths just...don't exist, and their non-existence isn't even addressed.

Serenity/Firefly did a nice job of incorporating a vague idea of pilgrims of faith - I suppose if the show had lasted longer we might have learned more.

Anyway, good post; good comment on which I am commenting, and I see a great deal of story potential here.
This is an interesting point, and I struggled to think of good examples:

Fantasy
- Malkionism from Glorantha ranges from monotheistic to henotheistic.
Sci-Fi
- Dune has both weird developments of Old Earth beliefs and Bene Gesserit shenanigans.
- The Catholic Church (now in Space!) is prominently featured in Hyperion.

Then again, my fantasy/sci-fi knowledge isn't that extensive.
 


Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Well... what does God need with a starship?

Apollo and Ra might like the upgrade from chariot and boat, respectively. Thor seems to like the one in Guardians of the Galaxy. Q sure likes to visit.

But back to topic, Babylon 5 and the Hyperion book series of books both have religion. (The wikipedia page on religious ideas in science fiction has a bunch).
 





No great loss - it was arguably the worst Star Trek movie ever made.
I have inserted the relevant clip in my post above.

I don' know I thought Star Trek IV was pretty good. It is one of the ones I still like rewatching from time to time. It was V when it started going off the rails for me. But the 2nd through 4th movie I quite liked. And it has an 82 % freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes
 

This is a great point. Rarely have I seen a cleric in DnD played as anything other than a character with powers wielded as the player wishes...what about duties to the god? What about spreading the word? What tenets of the faith are expected of believers and practitioners?

Beyond that, I think it's interesting that virtually no fantasy settings offer a monotheistic religion - either as a competitor to the typical pantheistic sorts, or as one of several monotheistic faiths. That's worth considering, and could make for some interesting story possibilities.

Finally...the default for science fiction seems to be no religion at all...why is this the case? Sure, Star Trek has Bajoran mysticism and throws some tokenistic Native American stuff around now and again (TOS, TNG, and VOY have presented that)...but somehow, for settings in which Earth is a thing, Christianity, Islam, and other major world faiths just...don't exist, and their non-existence isn't even addressed.

Serenity/Firefly did a nice job of incorporating a vague idea of pilgrims of faith - I suppose if the show had lasted longer we might have learned more.

Anyway, good post; good comment on which I am commenting, and I see a great deal of story potential here.

I always liked the way Babylon 5 dealt with religion. It just felt very plausible to me the way it incorporated existing religions, made new ones, etc.
 

ART!

Legend
This is a great point. Rarely have I seen a cleric in DnD played as anything other than a character with powers wielded as the player wishes...what about duties to the god? What about spreading the word? What tenets of the faith are expected of believers and practitioners?
I feel the same way, although i accept that how much of that a player wants to get into is, of course, up to them. But I would like to see more of it, and when I play clerics I definitely work on fleshing out what my characters daily religious/spiritual practices are, whether they feel the need to be in certain places or kinds of places at certain times of year, what aspects of their faith they focus on, etc.
 

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