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

Thunder Brother

God Learner
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?
Depending on how he's portrayed, saying Thor is just an illusion is almost like saying weather isn't real.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point, but I don't see how a god would be less of one just because they came into existence through the collective actions and beliefs of mortals. That's basically the origin of the Chaos Gods (and other Warp entities) in Warhammer 40k.
 

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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I'm befuddled about the immediately jumping to the concern that the player who's character is going to be an atheist is going to be a jerk about it?

Is there a similar worry that everyone who wants to be a cleric or paladin is going to be overbearing about it and try to convert the other party members? Is a devout church going player having to listen to an atheist character doubt the gods different than an atheist player having to listen to a religious player's religious character proselytize in ways IRL people do?
 

Hussar

Legend
You're missing the second half of the argument, which is that there's nothing about the so-called gods that makes them worthy of worship or authorities on moral matters. I mean, sure, Zeus exists. He throws lightning bolts at titans. Why should I care? And why should I care what he or his priests say on things? Is it just because he might otherwise throw a lightning bolt at me? Well, that's just bullying, isn't it?
Oh yes. Absolutely. It absolutely is bullying.

No one said that gods were nice.
 

Hussar

Legend
The idea that an atheist is "an enemy of faith" comes from real world monotheism. The average polytheist doesn't care what other people believe so long as their gods give them stuff.
Well, fair enough. Then again the notion of atheism is also rather modern as well. Denying the gods exist when the DM outside of the game is directly telling you that they do is rather Flat Earthing the whole thing.

If you accept that your character is insane, then fair enough, but, if your character believes in nymphs and wood sprites, and various other monsters, then why are gods any different?

Note, atheism and "I don't worship" is not the same thing.
 

If the gods exists and can grant favors and powers to those who observe/pray, why can't they punish or "learn" atheists directly? Direct godly intervention would be filled with as many horror stories about the downfall of non-believers as much as delivered miracles, you'd think.

I'm guessing this option isn't often entertained in game because it can lead to BIG arguments around the table about free will and hubris. Many tables have a razor thin line between the perceived will of the gods and the intentions of the DM.

But - if you want to really get into why atheism might not be that common - there could be some delivered wisdom and fables that have little to do with the hysteria of groups and most to do with the downfall of individuals and empires via a god's displeasure.

Why is atheism a safe "opt out" philosophy in a world where mercurial, nosy and powerful beings who would take umbrage at the idea?
 

Hussar

Legend
I think it is perfectly in-genre to play a Conan style character who uses gods' names to curse, but never prays. It is also a lot of fun. Playing my viking character I would say things like "Tyr's severed hand!", "Odin's eye!", and "Surt's flaming sword!".

I've played an Elric style character who interacted with multiple gods, but never prayed or worshiped. That was a priest's job.
Conan is a great example. That's a character that most certainly isn't an atheist. He absolutely KNOWS Crom exists. There's never any doubt.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Well, fair enough. Then again the notion of atheism is also rather modern as well. Denying the gods exist when the DM outside of the game is directly telling you that they do is rather Flat Earthing the whole thing.

If you accept that your character is insane, then fair enough, but, if your character believes in nymphs and wood sprites, and various other monsters, then why are gods any different?

Note, atheism and "I don't worship" is not the same thing.
If the gods exists and can grant favors and powers to those who observe/pray, why can't they punish or "learn" atheists directly? Direct godly intervention would be filled with as many horror stories about the downfall of non-believers as much as delivered miracles, you'd think.

Why is atheism a safe "opt out" philosophy in a world where mercurial, nosy and powerful beings who would take umbrage at the idea?

My guess, following multiple posts by others above who sounded to me like it's what they're saying, is that the character isn't disbelieving that these sky, tree, mountain, elemental, and extra-planar beings exist, it's saying that they have no reason to privilege them over the arch-fey or arch-fiends or random other really powerful extraplanar being.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, are there powerful extraplanar beigns who are not gods? Like, demons and devils and daemons - are they gods? If not, then we need something to differentiate gods from non-gods.


Oh, for goodness sake, more with "bad faith."

This declaration says very little about anyone but yourself.
Not really. The player is directly telling everyone at the table that their characters are wrong. Not only that, the player is directly telling the DM that the DM is wrong about the setting. And then expecting everyone at the table to be okay with it, not have to suffer any consequences for it and be able to play his character exactly that way without any problems.

Do you actually think this is behaving in good faith?

Like I said, people would go absolutely nuts if I outright told them that something wasn't true about their setting. That I insisted that my version of the truth must be respected in this game, regardless of what the DM says.
 

ART!

Deluxe Unhuman
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.
Maybe this is a form of antitheism, not atheism?
 

Voadam

Legend
If the gods exists and can grant favors and powers to those who observe/pray, why can't they punish or "learn" atheists directly? Direct godly intervention would be filled with as many horror stories about the downfall of non-believers as much as delivered miracles, you'd think.

I'm guessing this option isn't often entertained in game because it can lead to BIG arguments around the table about free will and hubris. Many tables have a razor thin line between the perceived will of the gods and the intentions of the DM.

But - if you want to really get into why atheism might not be that common - there could be some delivered wisdom and fables that have little to do with the hysteria of groups and most to do with the downfall of individuals and empires via a god's displeasure.

Why is atheism a safe "opt out" philosophy in a world where mercurial, nosy and powerful beings who would take umbrage at the idea?
Mostly the gods in D&D give favors and powers to those dedicated to them who have been invested with divine magic power - divine magic classed individuals. At various points D&D has said that the gods are interested in supervising their cleric's adherence to their precepts and change or deny spells requested or impose quests or atonement requirements.

D&D has sometimes had divine intervention rules where calling on a god might give you a 1% chance to get some help, but mostly the gods in D&D are default not interventionist unless you are a divinely powered divine minion (cleric, paladin, etc.).

AD&D had rules where saying a demon lord's name had a chance of drawing their attention and I have played in a game where that extended to all gods which was interesting and fun and thematic. But mostly the gods in D&D are not directly screwing around with mortals during the mortal's life.
 

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