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

King Babar

God Learner
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?
I generally treat druids (and warlocks) as individuals who have more direct relationships with "small gods" such a nature, beast, and fey spirits. In contrast, clerics have an indirect relationship with a "big god".

I don't have a God of Magic, but I do have a God of Knowledge* who is credited with making the first spells (semantics). He taught this art to his followers, who over time would became mages and lawspeakers. Their temples, important places of learning whether you followed the god or not, became more "secular" as lay membership grew and sages discovered how to better harness magic without interacting with the gods.

He's essentially Lhankor Mhy, if that helps anyone.

Basically, in the fiction of my setting, many of the divisions between classes are less obvious. A wizard can be a follower of the God of Knowledge, or maybe not care much. Depends on the individual's culture and background circumstances.

I fluctuate between recognizing the distinction between arcane and divine magic. The system doesn't care, so I often wonder why I should.

*The God of "someone should probably write this down".
 

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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.
Being atheist, or refusing to heal, is not the real problem,
being uncooperative is the real problem.

being atheist can give a lot of opportunities for a cleric to talk about his god and faith.
You can refuse healing to protect a character from himself avoiding a dangerous and unnecessary fight. With a cooperative mindset you can make play that otherwise would be offensive.
A cooperative player can go into a Snob and hasbeen style character and make fun for everyone, while a selfish player can play a loyal paladin and make everybody angry.
 

Aldarc

Legend
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?
The 5e Arcana Cleric has the following domain spells:
* 1st: Detect Magic, Magic Missile
* 3rd: Magic Weapon, Nystul's Magic Aura
* 5th: Dispel Magic, Magic Circle
* 7th: Arcane Eye, Leomund's Secret Chest
* 9th: Planar Binding, Teleportation Circle

In addition, at 17th level, Arcana Clerics get Arcane Mastery, which lets the Arcana Cleric choose one spell of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th level from the wizard spell list and treat it as a domain spell. Yes, this means that an Arcana Cleric could choose Wish.

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?
Generally how D&D treats gods as have portfolios and domains that they trade like Pokemon cards is utterly bizarre. But odd part about D&D religion is that the deities generally don't reflect the sort of things that our human civilizations cared about, particularly when it comes to emphasis.

(RuneQuest tends to do a much better job than D&D here, because you get stuff like warrior sky gods who bring rain and male fertility, goddesses of childbirth and female fertility, and gods of cattle and animal husbandry, etc.)

I suppose in the envisioned worldview of D&D, magic is as much of a craft as smithing, carpentry, and the like. The Greyhawk deity Wee Jas commends its study, classification, and even mastery. And in the case of Eberron, magic forms an integral part of trade, economics, and labor.

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?
Druids do not venerate deities in the framework of the 4e World Axis mythos; they are animists aligned with the Primal Spirits who are part of the Material Prime. The Primal Spirits - possibly the result of gods meddling in the material plane - were caught between the Gods and the Primordials in the Dawn War. The Spirits rebuked both sides, which brokered the uneasy truce of the Dawn War.
 


Cadence

Legend
Supporter
The 5e Arcana Cleric has the following domain spells:
* 1st: Detect Magic, Magic Missile
* 3rd: Magic Weapon, Nystul's Magic Aura
* 5th: Dispel Magic, Magic Circle
* 7th: Arcane Eye, Leomund's Secret Chest
* 9th: Planar Binding, Teleportation Circle

In addition, at 17th level, Arcana Clerics get Arcane Mastery, which lets the Arcana Cleric choose one spell of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th level from the wizard spell list and treat it as a domain spell. Yes, this means that an Arcana Cleric could choose Wish.

It always feels odd to me when the clerics of a certain domain aren't the best at casting spells from that domain. So the clerics of the god of fire should be the best pyromancers, the clerics of the god of weather should be the best weather controllers, and the clerics of the god of arcane magic... get a little around the edges until they get to really high level.


Druids do not venerate deities in the framework of the 4e World Axis mythos; they are animists aligned with the Primal Spirits who are part of the Material Prime. The Primal Spirits - possibly the result of gods meddling in the material plane - were caught between the Gods and the Primordials in the Dawn War. The Spirits rebuked both sides, which brokered the uneasy truce of the Dawn War.
This seems to make a lot more sense to me. But I guess it's hard in the full-PhB set up to have all of: getting powers from nature gods, getting powers from big and small nature spirits, and getting powers from being nebulously attuned to nature, all fit together in one cosmology.
 

King Babar

God Learner
Generally how D&D treats gods as have portfolios and domains that they trade like Pokemon cards is utterly bizarre. But odd part about D&D religion is that the deities generally don't reflect the sort of things that our human civilizations cared about, particularly when it comes to emphasis.
One of the many reasons I dislike the Twilight Domain: vague fluff plus overpowered crunch (poor Nature cleric).

I wonder if this is a quirk of cleric subclasses being divided into domains. Similar to Wizard schools, I think this approach has robbed them of more interesting identities. I generally prefer the PF2e approach with its more numerous but less impactful domains. Homebrew exists, but it's a bit weird that we don't have an official Sea or Hunt domain, for example.
 

Terrible or not, it's still delusional from a D&D perspective.
I don't know why you are so hung up on that. As I already said, everybody believes in things that are not true all the time. For example, Newton's Laws. Those aren't actually True, although they are a very good model within a certain range.

But it doesn't matter if someone believes they are a jar of pickled onions, you still treat them just the same.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
Being atheist, or refusing to heal, is not the real problem,
being uncooperative is the real problem.

being atheist can give a lot of opportunities for a cleric to talk about his god and faith.
You can refuse healing to protect a character from himself avoiding a dangerous and unnecessary fight. With a cooperative mindset you can make play that otherwise would be offensive.
A cooperative player can go into a Snob and hasbeen style character and make fun for everyone, while a selfish player can play a loyal paladin and make everybody angry.

Yes, the thread topic is about how to make religions matter. Sure, having religious wars between pantheons (or individual gods and philosophical stances) is a way to make it matter, but intra-party it's a difficulty. I can see how it would make sense for a cleric of Gruumsh asking for cure light wounds on behalf of his elf friend, or the human friends who claim that orc gods don't exist, would make Gruumsh irritated and maybe withhold the spell, but there is no mechanical rules for that in the default setting AND it would only lead to intraparty conflict which is something to avoid. It might work in certain settings, where direct involvement of the gods in the spellcasting activity is more evident. Making religions matter more is certainly a worthy goal if your group can deal with it, but never at the price of creating conflict between the characters.

To get back to atheism and things that don't mesh well with classical settings, another stance that is difficult to include in classical D&D settings is intra-religion conflict. Could you really have a Reformation-like event within the church of Lathander when Lathander is known to make his will crystal clear and if needed you can just planeshift to the House of Nature and request an interview? I don't think so. It would be strange to have the typically proactive D&D god stay silent when his church is split in half to the point of killing each other over interpretation of his will.

As a result, we have a default strange mix of gods that are totally able to communicate their will clearly ("hello, I am the Hand of the Inheritor. Iomedae's will is written in Simple Language for you all to understand. Do not hesitate to call our hotline in case there is another misunderstanding") and yet usually have divine magic closely related to arcane magic, so there is no involvement of the divine being in the way the grant miracles.
 
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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
One of the many reasons I dislike the Twilight Domain: vague fluff plus overpowered crunch (poor Nature cleric).

I wonder if this is a quirk of cleric subclasses being divided into domains. Similar to Wizard schools, I think this approach has robbed them of more interesting identities. I generally prefer the PF2e approach with its more numerous but less impactful domains. Homebrew exists, but it's a bit weird that we don't have an official Sea or Hunt domain, for example.

Cleric is my most played class by far across the different editions, and the one I find myself most likely to build things for as DM. Being handed a list of generic domains always felt a bit strange -- and I was never quite sure in 3/3.5/PF why some spells were picked (beyond just the requirement of the mechanic that some had to be).

Back in 2e I remember making custom cleric classes for each of the gods in the campaign. (It's buried in a box in the basement, but I think I'll scan them in at some point to share).
 

I wouldn't adventure and trust my life on someone who think he's actually a jar of pickled onions, TBH.
Judge people by what they do, not what they believe. If the mad person always goes out of his way to help everyone and be kind trust him, not the arrogant noble who is too busy polishing his armour.
 


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