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

But there is nothing inherently "terrible" about believing on gods, or not believing in gods. "Terrible" would be human sacrifice, slavery, racism and the like.
This is not what was in question. It was a player mocking an other player. In this case, an atheist mocking the cleric about his god. That is simply not acceptable.
 

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Not true. Many polytheist religions don't. That is why the monotheist religions so easily displace them.
Which is not all of them. My statement stays. All religions spread. Successful or not. That the Monotheist religions were better at it is of no consequences. History proves that religions tend to spread until something stop them. Be it an other religion or something else.
Mocking another player is being a jerk, not being an atheist.
I fully agree. Making an atheist when there is a cleric amount to being a jerk. In a party where there are no cleric, making an atheist is "strange" for a game like D&D but quite acceptable.
 

Making an atheist when there is a cleric amount to being a jerk.
No, it's not. Mocking a cleric is being a jerk, believing the cleric is wrong but accepting them anyway is being an atheist. Because if you are an atheist what other people believe doesn't matter.

I am an atheist. Most of my family are Christian. We love each other just fine and have never, ever mocked anyone's beliefs.
 

No, it's not. Mocking a cleric is being a jerk, believing the cleric is wrong but accepting them anyway is being an atheist. Because if you are an atheist what other people believe doesn't matter.

I am an atheist. Most of my family are Christian. We love each other just fine and have never, ever mocked anyone's beliefs.
I, myself, am an Agnostic. My whole familly is Christian. So I can relate to you up to a point. The only thing is... it is the rare atheist that do not mock or persecute religion. At least, that is my experience so far.
 

Hussar

Legend
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.
Terrible or not, it's still delusional from a D&D perspective. ((Note, I'm presuming baseline D&D, not settings where the gods are unknowable like Eberron - that's a different kettle of fish))

In Scarred Lands, not following the gods actually harms people. It lessens the power of the gods who were needed to defeat the Titans. You don't have the luxury of sitting on the fence in that setting. Not believing in the gods in that setting is akin to not believing in gravity.

In Forgotten Realms, an athiest cannot be ressurected - pass straight to the Wall of the Faithless, do not pass go. Again, not believing in the gods has direct, measurable impact.

But, in any case, we're not going to agree here. ((Granted, I think in the real world, we are both 100% on the same page and I do completely understand where you're coming from)) To me, making an atheist character in a group with a cleric, druid or paladin is just being a jerk right out of the gate. Particularly in light of insisting that the other player must never do anything about it. That you can make a character that is diametrically opposed to the other character, but, no one is allowed to do anything about it and has to 100% accept it is not something I want to see at the table.

Never minding that the DM is in the same boat as well. If the DM thinks that the gods would not help you, then he's a jerk DM. If the player thinks this, they're a jerk player. But, for some reason, the player that's the root of this problem is never seen as a jerk. 🤷
 

Cadence

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Edit: Skip this and go to #409 below and then #418 to get back closer to the topic of the thread, hopefully for good.

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.

I, myself, am an Agnostic. My whole familly is Christian. So I can relate to you up to a point. The only thing is... it is the rare atheist that do not mock or persecute religion. At least, that is my experience so far.

The atheist doesn't have to announce it or antagonize the believers. They can simply be quiet about it... Like lots of them IRL. You are both personally sounding like anti-atheist bigots by insisting they do so in game or that most do IRL. Not particularly better than those who want others to accept racist or sexist actions in game or who say all whites or minorities or Christians are racist, sexist, or bigots, IRL. It's offensive. And repeatedly using insane as a bludgeon is verging on ableism. If the character is a jerk, they're a jerk. Being an atheist or not following the faith doesn't imply that.
 
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Staffan

Legend
All religions spread. The proselytize thing is more or less important depending on the faith and each individual.
Again, no they don't. Historically, polytheistic religions usually kept to themselves – "These are our gods, and they help us. You can't have them."

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.
In Avatar and Codex Alera healers are clearly using magic to heal. They might not call it magic in Avatar, but by any reasonable definition bending is magic.

In Elfquest, healing is clearly called out as "magic" by those using it. It seems to be psychic in nature, and skilled healers can use their powers to alter flesh in different ways.

I'm not super familiar with the Wheel of Time, but their Light seems quite separate from the One Power. You even have religious orders who believe the One Power is evil, and who seek to eradicate its users.

We are talking about D&D here.
You're the one who said "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."

My point is that making healing a religious thing is very much a D&D thing – not exclusively so, but it's definitely not the default in fantasy.

And making it an exclusively religious thing in D&D is bad, because it "forces" each party to have a cleric in a way that having a fighter or wizard isn't forced. And a cleric is connected to the setting in a very different way than other characters are, which in turn puts constraints on setting building.

One of the things I liked about 4e was that healing was not a Divine thing anymore , but instead a Leader thing. For in-combat healing, a Warlord, a Bard, an Artificer, an Ardent, or a Shaman would work just as well. For out-of-combat healing (e.g. restoring limbs, curing diseases, and such), you had ritual magic, but healing rituals were based on the Heal skill, not the Religion skill. Religious rituals were mostly divination-type effects like Speak with Dead, Consult Mystic Sages, or Loremaster's Bargain.
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.
No gods? In Exalted? Exalted is full of gods. Every village, every field, every tree has a god. There's even one character type that's designated as specifically working for Heaven's Bureau of Fate. But these are not gods that heal people (unless that's part of that particular god's schtick).

And Runequest is also full of gods. For some characters, choosing which god to worship is a major character decision, because it is usually through cults you have access to magic – mostly not directly divinely powered, but because that's the kind of common/spirit/battle magic the cult teaches. And sorcery is generally an intellectual pursuit, but just as capable of healing as battle magic is.

Ars Magica takes place in medieval/mythic Europe. Religion is a pretty strong force, but that doesn't prevent magi with skill in creation and/or body magic from healing.

Earthdawn has Passions that serve pretty much the same purpose as gods. They even give power to some of their worshippers, called Questors. But those powers are based on what the Passion is about. Only Questors of Garlen (the Passion of Hearth and Healing) can Heal. A Questor of Jaspree would instead speak to animals and make plants grow, and a Questor of Thystonius would make their allies stronger and protect them from harm in battle.

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.
I count Palladium and Rolemaster as D&D descendants (Rolemaster moreso) as they are clearly attempts to "fix" D&D. Older editions of Rolemaster even have lots of space devoted to using the rules with D&D. I'm not familiar with the OSR movement, but my impression is that most of them are attempts at recapturing the feel of early D&D.

Which is not all of them. My statement stays. All religions spread. Successful or not. That the Monotheist religions were better at it is of no consequences. History proves that religions tend to spread until something stop them. Be it an other religion or something else.
Again, Jews don't proselytize. You can convert to Judaism, but it's a fairly arduous process, and you don't have Jews knocking on doors trying to sell you on their version of God. And I've never heard of Shinto missionaries either.
 

The atheist doesn't have to announce it or antagonize the believers. They can simply be quiet about it... Like lots of them IRL. You are both personally sounding like anti-atheist bigots by insisting they do so in game or that most do IRL. Not particularly better than those who want others to accept racist or sexist actions in game or who say all whites or minorities or Christians are racist, sexist, or bigots, IRL. It's offensive. And repeatedly using insane as a bludgeon is verging on ableism. If the character is a jerk, they're a jerk. Being an atheist or not following the faith doesn't imply that.
Thank for putting me in the same bag as bigots and intolerants. I did say that in my experience, most atheist are often quite vocal about god not existing. And I repeat, my experience. Yours may differ, but so far, I have seen enough atheist claiming that those that follow god are complete delusional idiots to know that they can be as toxic as religious zealot people. Read what an Agnostic is. And check what some communist regimes did against religions. They claimed to be atheists.

I never said all atheists. Jeez...
 


Cadence

Legend
Supporter
IRL discrimination against atheists: Discrimination against atheists - Wikipedia

IRL about atheists, agnostics, and those of minority faiths hiding it

Labeling of atheists and their being forced to get mental evaluations:

I am quite positive I can come up with similar things about any particular religion having it's members discriminated against somewhere too, so it isn't just about one group or another being intolerant.

As has been noted, in game, it seems like it's being a jerk vs. not being a jerk that's the issue. But I would also note that the IRL similarities between game reasons and bad things IRL are part of the reason for the change in how race is being used in the game and how slavery shows up. Maybe we should consider it when doing religion - or non-religion - and use a less heavy hand.
 
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Oofta

Legend
So going around the table announcing their PCs, Bob goes first. He says he's running a wizard who is, by the way, an atheist. Sally goes next and announces she's playing a cleric. Why is Bob the antagonistic jerk and not Sally?

I have a simple "don't be a jerk" rule at my table. One type of jerk is a bigot - a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion. I don't care which PC at the table is being the bigot, which PC is being antagonistic or going out of their way to harm or by lack of action causing harm to another PC. If the behavior is persistent and shows a clear bias I'll talk to the entire group (including offline and private) if the group is 100% okay with it. If they are not the bigot PC will have to change or will no longer be part of the group. I don't care if it's the wizard "accidentally" including the cleric in the fireball or the cleric refusing to heal the wizard in the heat of battle when they would have healed anyone else.

I think it's about time this thread is shut down because of the refusal to accept that being an atheist doesn't make you a bigot. People are automatically assuming the atheist is the bad person in the game, just like happens far too often in real life.

P.S. I just had to go through this and replace "player being a bigot" and so on with "PC being a bigot". If you don't know a non-militant atheist, maybe it's just because they know it's better to keep their mouth shut while their co-worker asks in disbelief whether someone else really believes people evolved from monkeys. For many people, in many areas, being open about being an atheist will immediately make you a social pariah at best.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
This conversation was interesting... once. But that was when it was about making religion matter in fantasy. Then it became an irrelevant back and forth about atheism that is getting uncomfortably personal and accusatory from everybody invovled.

I'm sorry, made my last comments on it. I tried to go another way earlier by listing a bunch of books... and then it drifted back. :-( I wonder if a + thread on the same topic would work if this one can't just drop the atheism.

Thank for putting me in the same bag as bigots and intolerants. I did say that in my experience, most atheist are often quite vocal about god not existing. And I repeat, my experience. Yours may differ, but so far, I have seen enough atheist claiming that those that follow god are complete delusional idiots to know that they can be as toxic as religious zealot people. Read what an Agnostic is. And check what some communist regimes did against religions. They claimed to be atheists.

I never said all atheists. Jeez...
Jerks are certainly a problem. I apologize for the bashing above. I'm not an atheist, but have several friends who are, and was imagining their faces reading some of the above as I typed.
 

nharwell

Explorer
I'm sorry, made my last comments on it. I tried to go another way earlier by listing a bunch of books... and then it drifted back. :-( I wonder if a + thread on the same topic would work if this one can't just drop the atheism.


Jerks are certainly a problem. I apologize for the bashing above. I'm not an atheist, but have several friends who are, and was imagining their faces reading some of the above as I typed.
You have no reason to apologize. It seems that "in my experience" is becoming a similar phrase to "I'm not racist but...". It can be used to cover any number of unpleasant generalizations about other people with the incredibly weak justification that it's just "in my experience."

Seriously, this thread needs to be closed. It's becoming very unpleasant and has drifted far from the topic.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
-------------------
So, we're talking about in game religions...
-------------------

A thing I keep falling back on in my pantheon/cosmology design a lot in different campaigns is the distinction between L, G, and LG. So I'll often have a LN god of Law, a LG god of Justice, and a NG god of Mercy. They'll often be great working together against the hordes from the outer-realms or the undead or the demons, but have big issues when things are peaceful. You can imagine some every day laws - the LN wants helping the homeless banned near business areas because it's clogging up the markets, while the NG might be breaking those laws willy-nilly to help, and the LG is trying to find the balance. Does that seem like a useful division, or too shallow compared to having competing faiths of the same alignment?

Having the different religions of varying alignments also makes me wonder about the usefulness to running a game of detect alignment. How hard is it to have competing views outside of one alignment when it's easy to bin people. Would there be a "detect those of own faith spell"? Does having these spells be common remove a ton of infiltration stories? Does Wormtongue never get to Theoden if anyone has detect alignment? On the other hand, would it weed out a lot of "bad priests" really quickly? Is it really different in games where it only detects those of high level or outsiders?
 

I'm sorry, made my last comments on it. I tried to go another way earlier by listing a bunch of books... and then it drifted back. :-( I wonder if a + thread on the same topic would work if this one can't just drop the atheism.


Jerks are certainly a problem. I apologize for the bashing above. I'm not an atheist, but have several friends who are, and was imagining their faces reading some of the above as I typed.
I am certain you did not meant any harm. We just have different experiences with atheists and religious people. I have seen fist fights over the question if God exists or not... I tend to gravitate away from both people if I can. I am 100% that there are good people on both sides.
 

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So, we're talking about in game religions...
-------------------

A thing I keep falling back on in my pantheon/cosmology design a lot in different campaigns is the distinction between L, G, and LG. So I'll often have a LN god of Law, a LG god of Justice, and a NG god of Mercy. They'll often be great working together against the hordes from the outer-realms or the undead or the demons, but have big issues when things are peaceful. You can imagine some every day laws - the LN wants helping the homeless banned near business areas because it's clogging up the markets, while the NG might be breaking those laws willy-nilly to help, and the LG is trying to find the balance. Does that seem like a useful division, or too shallow compared to having competing faiths of the same alignment?
Agreed.
Good religions will tend to work together. Especially since outer plane exist and are real! Demonic being are not a figment of the imagination in these world. They are real and will come to get you. Monsters are real, so yes, religions will work together, make alliances and actively protect and help the people. Their approaches will vary, but their goals will be close enough for them to be able to work together.

Having the different religions of varying alignments also makes me wonder about the usefulness to running a game of detect alignment. How hard is it to have competing views outside of one alignment when it's easy to bin people. Would there be a "detect those of own faith spell"? Does having these spells be common remove a ton of infiltration stories? Does Wormtongue never get to Theoden if anyone has detect alignment? On the other hand, would it weed out a lot of "bad priests" really quickly? Is it really different in games where it only detects those of high level or outsiders?
Know alignment should never have existed. That spell destroyed many secret plots over the years. Of course, the reverse, "undetectable" alignment existed too. But...
Back in the days, Detect alignment would only work on mortal if they were religious characters (clerics and paladin) and on characters of "name level" only. The reason being that religious characters are literally radiating their alignment unless protected by the "unreadable alignment" spells. If you were evil, by name level you would have done enough evil in your career to justify that the spell would work on you. If you were good, it would work for the same reason. And the logic stood for law and chaos.

This meant that an evil priest that wanted to infiltrate a good church would have to use the spell unreadable alignment quite often.

EDIT: Know alignment would work on everyone. Detect good/evil were the ones where only high level characters would be affected by them.
 
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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Two others that get me sometimes are having a "God of Magic" and how clerics might relate to the arcane.

What kind of spells would a cleric of the god of magic get?

Does having one really change how magic is dealt with in game - does it imply magic is just like smithing or fire or healing or the weather or anything else with a god?

In one of my favorite series where clerical magic isn't really a thing, one of the priests (not of a god of magic) practices arcane magic on the side. Would that be really common in a world that was designed to have only arcane but not much divine magic? Would there be things back and forth where some groups would try to act like it was divine magic and others would try to debunk that (since they're own faith would be in doubt if they didn't)?

I guess a related question is, how do non-god-worshipping druids work (or do they not) in a world that has a bunch of nature deities?
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
This meant that an evil priest that wanted to infiltrate a good church would have to use the spell unreadable alignment quite often.

EDIT: Know alignment would work on everyone. Detect good/evil were the ones where only high level characters would be affected by them.

I'm running a group of non-demi-humans through the Goodman adaptation of B2 for 5e. There are a lot of "Amulets of Protection from Good" floating around which can really change things, and felt really different compared to the default 5e take on alignment.

I also forgot to use them for the first combat :-/ Two of the party members were good and it would have really made it a lot harder, it had just been a month or two IRL since the role-playing opportunity to show alignment had come up and I had forgotten.
 

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