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

Oofta

Legend
In theory, this is totally true. And there are some fantastic books out there. But, in play, I find that most of the time, the players couldn't give a rat's patoot about it unless they specifically need something. So, unless the character is a divine class of some sort, faith doesn't exist. Which is kinda the point of this thread.

How do you make it matter in play?

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And yet you would never consider booting the player for being the reason why the cleric is refusing to heal? That's the issue I've been having all the way along. I've been told that we absolutely should never tell another player how to play their character, and yet here, you are 100% forcing the cleric player to do something, regardless of what the cleric player wants, and then blaming the cleric player for the problem. Remember, in the context of this thread, that the only reason that the cleric player is doing this is because another player deliberately chose to play a character that would cause conflict in the party. Never minding that the player is also 100% forcing the DM to accept this character concept and forcing the DM to treat the character a certain way, regardless of the setting. How is that player not at least part of the problem?

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Being a jerk includes choosing not to support fellow party members as part of the team. I'm quite open about the fact that I expect the group to work as a team most of the time. It's included as part of the "don't play a jerk" section. The group doesn't have to hold hands and sing kum-bah-yah together, but I expect them to work together.

I don't want someone on the team so petty that they'd let a team member die by their inaction in their chosen role because they had a disagreement. I don't remember ever being in a group that would disagree with that statement, at least not a functional one. If you were in the military and the medic was of religious sect X and refused treatment because they were of religious sect Y, it would be grounds for a court marshal.

Again with the "the only reason to play or be an atheist is to be a jerk". Good grief.
 

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Oofta

Legend
@Helldritch, @Hussar I'm not going to discuss the atheist thing with you any more.

Do what you want at your tables. If I was ever at a table where the cleric refused to heal someone else for the PCs having different religious beliefs I would refuse to play with them. We deal with enough bigotry in the real world, I don't want to deal with it in game.

Raise dead is a separate issue, and something left up to the DM and how they see it working.
 

Refused to heal someone in the party!
Classic piss off play style, that some table enjoy very much, but usually they don’t even need religion to do so!
 

Refused to heal someone in the party!
Classic piss off play style, that some table enjoy very much, but usually they don’t even need religion to do so!
I think a number of people are wondering why it's okay to piss off the cleric(because a "you god is a lie" atheist is often played that way) but not for the cleric to piss off someone else.

I suppose it's possible for a "there are no gods, you're all just liars or dupes" atheist to be played in a way that isn't disrespectful to the cleric, but I don't see how.
 

I think a number of people are wondering why it's okay to piss off the cleric(because a "you god is a lie" atheist is often played that way) but not for the cleric to piss off someone else.

I suppose it's possible for a "there are no gods, you're all just liars or dupes" atheist to be played in a way that isn't disrespectful to the cleric, but I don't see how.
DnD is at the base a cooperative experience.
Some party like to play the dysfunctional family for fun. See the guardians of the galaxy.
but otherwise, find other players or DM.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
I think a number of people are wondering why it's okay to piss off the cleric(because a "you god is a lie" atheist is often played that way) but not for the cleric to piss off someone else.

I suppose it's possible for a "there are no gods, you're all just liars or dupes" atheist to be played in a way that isn't disrespectful to the cleric, but I don't see how.
I think there's a major difference between "I don't believe in your gods and think that you're dumb for believing in them" and "I will literally let you die because you're not a member of the same religion as me".

To be clear, I'm not advocating in playing jerk atheist characters like that, I just wanted to point out the false equivalency.
 

Staffan

Legend
The role of a cleric.
The cleric is not only a healer, but he is also charged to spread the word of his god.
Why though? Just because (some) Christians think everyone should worship their god it doesn't mean all religions act that way. Judaism, for example, does not proselytize. I'm pretty sure Shintoism doesn't. In a polytheistic world, there's even less reason for clerics to try converting people. The world needs both farmers and craftsmen, both scholars and warriors. These would (using the FR pantheon as an example) primarily worship Chauntea, Gond, Oghma, and Tempus. There's no need for a cleric of Tempus to try to convert an Oghma-worshiping scholar or a Chauntea-worshiping farmer.

End note: The problem with bards able as best as a cleric means that the religious and miraculous aspect of healing in D&D is now dissociated with the gods. A bard will be able to do the same as a cleric without the religious hassles that comes with a cleric.
This is the opposite of a problem. Putting an important ability like healing into the game and specifically linking it to religion was a Bad Move and has continued to be a problem ever since.
This can be a blessing in some campaign as it promotes more different character orientations and goals. But it is also a very bad choice for 5ed as most if not all examples of Fantasy usually put the true healing in the hands of clerics/druids.
Now that's an odd perspective. Healing as a religious thing generally only happens in fantasy descended from D&D. Elrond is known as the greatest healer in Middle-Earth, and he does that via skill, not faith. Aragorn heals by using herbs. In Elfquest, healing is elven magic which is essentially psionics. Both Avatar and Codex Alera has healing as water magic. The Aes Sedai of the Wheel of Time use the One Power to heal.

Looking at RPGs, Shadowrun for example has Heal as a spell just like any other. Runequest has healing available both via spirit magic, divine magic, and sorcery. Earthdawn gives PCs pretty strong inherent healing, and magical healing mostly serves to augment this healing and the spells to do that are Elementalist spells. Ars Magica has magi using healing magic, but requires them to spend vis in order to heal permanently (otherwise the wounds reopen at dusk/dawn). Exalted has Solars using magic-empowered skill to heal both themselves and their companions at ridiculous speed. In Mage the Ascension, you have practicioners of Life magic from all sorts of traditions, both religious and not.

In my experience, non-D&D-descended fantasy either doesn't have easy magical healing at all, or does it without links to religion. Links to nature are fairly common, often via herbs or "life force", but not necessarily druidic in nature. Generally speaking, god-powered magic is pretty rare in fantasy overall – you'll often find "cults" holding some kind of magic, but that's more akin to secret techniques they don't share with outsiders, and not magic actually powered by their gods.
 

Bluebell

Explorer
Why though? Just because (some) Christians think everyone should worship their god it doesn't mean all religions act that way.
Also, I have never gotten the impression that this was a requirement of D&D clerics. It's not like there are perks for recruiting the most followers listed in the player's handbook (thank goodness).

I played a cleric from level 1 all the way to 20 and her relationship with her goddess was such a major part of her character that it wound up being a focal point of the campaign. There was a ton of exploration of belief and what gods are and how they fit into the world from the whole party. I never proselytized or tried to convert any other character, and in fact got along just fine with members of my party who actively hated my goddess for historical events. The key was that as a party we actively still supported each other and made it clear that our beliefs didn't affect how we felt about each other and we never disrespected each other's views.

If my DM told me that my job as a cleric was to actively convert people, I'd probably not play a cleric. That sounds way too much like real world religious baggage that I want nothing to do with. But likewise, if a player had actively tried to antagonize me as a cleric for my character's beliefs, I would probably quit the game. Either way it sucks all the fun out.
 

Hussar

Legend
DnD is at the base a cooperative experience.
Some party like to play the dysfunctional family for fun. See the guardians of the galaxy.
but otherwise, find other players or DM.

Totally agree. Which is why I would never choose to play a character that deliberately opposes someone else’s character and then dare them to do anything about it.

Let’s not forget here that the only reason the cleric player is being a dick is because the other player deliberately chose to make an atheist character. Putting everything on the cleric player and the DM as well since the dm is also not allowed to have npcs react in any way, seems just a trifle one sided.
 

Let’s not forget here that the only reason the cleric player is being a dick is because the other player deliberately chose to make an atheist character.
There is no difference between an atheist character and and a theist character who follows a different god to the cleric.

Indeed there may be more reason for conflict if player A's god hates player B's god, which is often the case in the Forgotten Realms.

An obvious example would be if someone decided they would play a cleric of Auril in RotFM.
 
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MGibster

Legend
I don't want someone on the team so petty that they'd let a team member die by their inaction in their chosen role because they had a disagreement. I don't remember ever being in a group that would disagree with that statement, at least not a functional one. If you were in the military and the medic was of religious sect X and refused treatment because they were of religious sect Y, it would be grounds for a court marshal.
I think sometimes people forget that a D&D party is a para-military unit who have banded together for personal profit and rely on one another for their very survival when facing perilous threats. Any member of this group that steals from the party, refuses to heal, or engages in cowardly behavior is likely not going to remain a member of that unit for very long. You don't go into a fight with people you don't trust if you can help it.

This is the opposite of a problem. Putting an important ability like healing into the game and specifically linking it to religion was a Bad Move and has continued to be a problem ever since.
While I'm not too keen on divine versus arcane magic, I've never really found it to be a big problem in any of my D&D games.
 

MGibster

Legend
Many years ago, I made a Fighter and on the character sheet under deities I wrote in "As needed." The DM got a good chuckle out of that but I was serious. When the harvest came in my character prayed to the appropriate god, before going to battle he prayed to the appropriate god, and if he needed to be cured of mummy rot he prayed to the appropriate god.
 

Hussar

Legend
There is no difference between an atheist character and and a theist character who follows a different god to the cleric.

Indeed there may be more reason for conflict if player A's god hates player B's god, which is often the case in the Forgotten Realms.

An obvious example would be if someone decided they would play a cleric of Auril in RotFM.
A character who denies the existence of the cleric's deity is pretty much in the same boat as the character that worships a hated deity. Playing an atheist character in, say, Forgotten Realms, in a group with divine characters is no different than playing a priest of Gruumsh when you know the other player is playing an elven priest of Corellon.

Let me rephrase a bit on reflection.

Player A is playing a cleric in the group. Everyone know that. Player B comes in an declares he wants to play a cleric of a faith diametrically opposed to Player A's faith. Not only that, Player B insists that Player A accept this, not react in any negative way, and so must all NPC's the group meets as well.

Is Player B being reasonable?

Declaring yourself an atheist automatically makes you antagonistic. Declaring yourself an atheist and then demanding that the cleric provide healing for you (and NPC clerics as well) is not a healthy table environment.
 
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Yora

Legend
I wrote about just this last month, might as well link it here.

My two main ideas are to have temples to different gods offer different services and spells, so that players have to think about where to turn to with a given problem, and to work religious iconography as hints into dungeons. If depictions of religious scenes or common symbols of the gods can provide clues on what they are dealing with or what lies ahead, religious elements in the adventures become something relevant to the players' goals, and as such are much more likely to have them stick in their minds.
 

A character who denies the existence of the cleric's deity is pretty much in the same boat as the character that worships a hated deity.
No it isn't. Atheists (at least the non-jerk ones) do not oppose what other people believe, the just don't believe it themselves. Whereas a cleric of a good deity actively opposes a cleric of an evil one.

All humans believe in things that aren't true, it's the only way they can make sense of the universe. They just vary over which untruths they choose to believe in. Another Pratchett/Hogfather quote: “Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. and yet... and yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some... some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”
 


Yora

Legend
I don't think it works that way. People with "terrible" beliefs are hard to see as decent people and good friends.
Religion isn't just a philosophical question about the nature of the supernatural. It's a matter of right and wrong, and about averting calamities from society.
 

Why though? Just because (some) Christians think everyone should worship their god it doesn't mean all religions act that way. Judaism, for example, does not proselytize. I'm pretty sure Shintoism doesn't. In a polytheistic world, there's even less reason for clerics to try converting people. The world needs both farmers and craftsmen, both scholars and warriors. These would (using the FR pantheon as an example) primarily worship Chauntea, Gond, Oghma, and Tempus. There's no need for a cleric of Tempus to try to convert an Oghma-worshiping scholar or a Chauntea-worshiping farmer.
All religions spread. The proselytize thing is more or less important depending on the faith and each individual.
So. In a context of Gods exists and gods gets power from their worshippers. It is normal that religions will make active attempts at spreading.

This is the opposite of a problem. Putting an important ability like healing into the game and specifically linking it to religion was a Bad Move and has continued to be a problem ever since.
No. The miraculous healing effects of healing has always been done through religions. No matter the place on earth. We are not only talking about a healer here. We're talking about a character that can literally regrow an arm or even raise the dead from thin air!

Now that's an odd perspective. Healing as a religious thing generally only happens in fantasy descended from D&D. Elrond is known as the greatest healer in Middle-Earth, and he does that via skill, not faith. Aragorn heals by using herbs. In Elfquest, healing is elven magic which is essentially psionics. Both Avatar and Codex Alera has healing as water magic. The Aes Sedai of the Wheel of Time use the One Power to heal.
And these (save for the Wheel of Time) are all healers with the either the skill Medicine or herbalism. Nothing in relation with miraculous healing. The WoT is a special case. Can we say that the One Power is quite close to be a religion when you read how people revere it? It is quite akin to the "light" in World of Warcraft. In fact, it is almost a copy of how the "powers of the light" are treated in both Diablo and WoW.

Looking at RPGs, Shadowrun for example has Heal as a spell just like any other. Runequest has healing available both via spirit magic, divine magic, and sorcery. Earthdawn gives PCs pretty strong inherent healing, and magical healing mostly serves to augment this healing and the spells to do that are Elementalist spells. Ars Magica has magi using healing magic, but requires them to spend vis in order to heal permanently (otherwise the wounds reopen at dusk/dawn). Exalted has Solars using magic-empowered skill to heal both themselves and their companions at ridiculous speed. In Mage the Ascension, you have practicioners of Life magic from all sorts of traditions, both religious and not.
We are talking about D&D here. How other games approach healing just shows how healing has devolved into giving bards healer capacity. What have these games in common? No real gods. We suppose that the "gods" exists in these games, but it (or they) are silent.
And if you want to name game systems, Palladium has cleric as healers, Role Master had this as well, OSRs (the whole bunch of them as there are more than one) have this feature as well. So nope D&D is not alone in this approach.

In my experience, non-D&D-descended fantasy either doesn't have easy magical healing at all, or does it without links to religion. Links to nature are fairly common, often via herbs or "life force", but not necessarily druidic in nature. Generally speaking, god-powered magic is pretty rare in fantasy overall – you'll often find "cults" holding some kind of magic, but that's more akin to secret techniques they don't share with outsiders, and not magic actually powered by their gods.
And again, we're in D&D where the gods are real and can take an active part to the world if they want to. What you are talking would be akin to the healer's feat, herbalist skill, medicine skill all with a bit of alchemy in the pot. Nothing to compare with the power clerics have.

And this is again a matter of player vs player. As I have said, D&D is a game of cooperation. All this started because in one post, a premise was thrown in the water with an Atheist mocking the cleric but still wanting to be healed. As a player, if my character was mocked this way, it would not stand. That I would be a cleric, a bard or simply would have "healing skills" would not matter. Use your HD during short rests I would say. I would not let that character die, but I would try to make a point. If the player still goes for the "mocking" way then so be it. It would either be me or him.

As a DM, the player mocking the other player's character would get a stern warning. If the bad behaviour would continue, that player would simply lose his/her place at my table. (and if it is an "itinerant" player, bye bye after immediately if that player does not amend).

D&D is a game of cooperation, if a player is down to withhold his power because of another, speaks a lot of the state of the table where you see that behaviour. At character creation, you should always make it so that characters are bound to get along.
 

I don't think it works that way. People with "terrible" beliefs are hard to see as decent people and good friends.
Religion isn't just a philosophical question about the nature of the supernatural. It's a matter of right and wrong, and about averting calamities from society.
But there is nothing inherently "terrible" about believing in gods, or not believing in gods. "Terrible" would be human sacrifice, slavery, racism and the like.
 

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