Making Religion Matter in Fantasy RPGs

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.

Status
Not open for further replies.
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.

fantasy-3186483_960_720.jpg

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.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Oofta

Legend
This whole atheism debate comes down to context, honestly. I don't think a single sweeping rule one way or another about what atheism means and whether it's an acceptable position for a character can really work.

There are settings where the gods are actively involved in daily life and there are settings where they are distant, unseen forces whose existence has to be taken on faith. There are settings where religion is of vital importance to social order and there are those where it's just a minor footnote.

Whether playing an atheist is jarring or disrespectful to the DM and other players really depends on how the player is actually interacting with that world, whether they're choosing to be a jerk about it, whether it's an aspect of refusing to buy into the setting the DM worked hard on, or whether it's something that can easily coexist with the setting as it's designed and even create some interesting interactions.

In a campaign where it's revealed that the gods really are just lesser beings masquerading as something more powerful to trick people into worshipping them, a skeptical character would be welcome! But in a setting where the gods are the arbiters of good and evil and are descending from on high to give the PCs a holy quest, an atheist character might be disruptive and annoying at best.

Are some people who run a PC that are atheists jerks? Sure. But it has nothing to do with rejecting the DM's campaign stance on the existence of gods. As a player I may accept that the world my PC lives in has gods while still playing an atheist PC. I've played plenty of PCs that believe things I do not. There's no correlation between a PC rejecting some premise and the player being a jerk.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Oofta

Legend
Put the atheism debate another way. I don't really believe that Thor is a god. My paladin PC does, and has dedicated himself to being the hammer of Thor.

So why is it bad if my other PC believes that Thor is nothing other than an advanced illusion that is the result of glorified wishful thinking?
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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.
Remove those spells from the game.
 

Mind of tempest

(he/him)advocate for 5e psionics
I'd be fine playing in a game where the only spell casters are Wizards.

Clerics were always a weird add on that didn't fit the literary roots of D&D.
the cleric has more or less gained a useful function in parties I have always wanted to see some more write something else that can take up the function which s more true to the literature that inspires d&D
mostly because despite my love of fantasy faith I can rp it at all but I think I would do rather well as the healer.
 



Staffan

Legend
There's also the slightly milder form of antitheism espoused by the nation of Rahadoum in Golarion: gods exist, but mortals shouldn't worship them. This was caused by wars between various religions, and eventually people got fed up and forbade religion entirely.

In the context of typical D&D gods (multiple gods that each want near-exclusive worship from their followers and tell you how to live your life), this is not an altogether irrational attitude. Basically they are saying that mortals should be ruled and governed by mortals, and even so-called good gods do not provide a holistic perspective on running a nation or living your life.

The nation in question has gotten a bit more prominence in Pathfinder 2e as the birthplace of numerous advanced non-magical medical techniques, as reflected by various skill feats available that allow for pretty strong non-magical healing.
 

Put the atheism debate another way. I don't really believe that Thor is a god.

I would say your personal beliefs about the real world are irrelevant.

My paladin PC does, and has dedicated himself to being the hammer of Thor.
Okay.
So why is it bad if my other PC believes that Thor is nothing other than an advanced illusion that is the result of glorified wishful thinking?
It's fine as long as you are willing to accept the potential consequences from other NPCs and metaphysical side effects. Aesir healing magic might work poorly on you, if at all. You might alienate the shopkeeper. Depending on the setting assumption you might be regarded as just another guy or a crazed madman.

But are you being a jerk about it? Are you bringing millitant atheism to a table that has devout church goers in real life? As you following a philosophy that is contradicted by the in-game fiction of the immanence of the gods or powers? If the setting is like Eberron, that seems reasonable. If it's like Tekumel it's not.
 



Status
Not open for further replies.

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top