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


The painting exists. My PC would not believe it is anything other than a painting.

I think you're tying this into rhetorical knots ... it doesn't really matter if the PC was right or not, they believed what they believed.
Ah, now this is a slightly different thing.

If you are perfectly willing to entertain the notion that your character is wrong then I have no problems. That's not atheism, that's agnosticism. The whole "gods don't need my worship" schtick is agnosticism as well.

Atheism is the outright denial of a deity. In a setting where the DM is telling you that gods exist, that's flat out telling the DM that the DM is wrong. OTOH, "My character believes whatever he or she believes, regardless of whether it's right not" is a rather different matter.

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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?

Given the number of problem paladin threads, and people who have posted banning the class in their games, yes I think so. Clerics not so much.

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?

No. It all comes down to "don't be a jerk about it".


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?
So long as you accept that your character is wrong? Nothing.

So long as you accept any negative consequences for this with good grace? Nothing.

When you tell your DM that Thor is nothing but an advanced illusion and then insist that your character is right? That's a problem.

No witches were burned, all people who thought they saw a witch burning were hallucinating that the burning occurred.

Of course there weren't any witches burned, or drowned or murdered in any other way, because the real ones got away.

And on the Atheism talk in general, I think some people are confusing the Atheist with the Agnostic. I am perfectly fine with saying all known and practiced religions and their god/s are fake, while still saying there could be something out there that could count as a real god. You can disbelieve the known, while not disbelieving completely. A Cleric/Priest could easily be Agnostic and understand he is getting his power from something out there and not know how to define it. A Druid who just reveres Nature, but not any of the Nature gods, would be like this.


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.
And that's a different kettle of fish from denying the gods exist outright.

The agnostic is probably the default form of play at most tables. Which is kind of the impetus for this thread - how to make religion matter. To which some people automatically seemed to take umbrage to the idea that we should make religion matter in the game. The immediate response of "Well, my character denies all gods and he's an atheist!"

Which is more or less why this thread spun down this rabbit hole of "is atheism reasonable in a D&D setting"? Which, again, is a rather different issue than "how to make religion matter in Fantasy RPG's."

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.
Interesting. I'm not that knowledgeable on AD&D.

In current D&D how is it explained - in game - that the gods don't seem to take a stance or have much affect upon people who aren't actively their followers? I'm being slightly facetious, but it seems like a too-neat way to sidestep all the complicated, and in my mind interesting, parts of religion, the conflict, hypocrisy, mysticism and overreach.

It's probably a feature in the game's design: make gods and religion compartmentalized and milquetoast, and minimize their impact on setting cultures, to avoid difficult conversations. Hmm.


Interesting. I'm not that knowledgeable on AD&D.

In current D&D how is it explained - in game - that the gods don't seem to take a stance or have much affect upon people who aren't actively their followers? I'm being slightly facetious, but it seems like a too-neat way to sidestep all the complicated, and in my mind interesting, parts of religion, the conflict, hypocrisy, mysticism and overreach.

It's probably a feature in the game's design: make gods and religion compartmentalized and milquetoast, and minimize their impact on setting cultures, to avoid difficult conversations. Hmm.
5e leaves it very open ended so it can vary by DM and setting.

There is some minor references of clerics and their relationship to gods in the PH and a little bit about various pantheons in the appendix and an acolyte section in the backgrounds, but it is mostly just not discussed. The 5e DMG has a section on pantheons and FR setting books have some discussion of religion in the Realms.

D&D religion can be medieval based church model that is very important throughout society, or Conan ancient world polytheism type temple stuff, or not a big deal at all.

The nature of gods in 5e is left vague and options are provided in the DMG for some different models, but there is not really a default.

A lot is left up to the DM.

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