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

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
This feels a bit like begging the question though

No, it is begging for a definition.

: if nothing is defined as a god, then by definition there are no gods.

When one is busy saying there are gods, but have no definition, that presents a certain logical conflict that ought to be resolved for constructive conversation to progress.

Sure, but so what? Anyone stating that in a given setting X proves that something is a god has already told you the definition.

And, when that implied definition conflicts with other facts of the setting (like, "Gods do X, Y, and Z," but several things that are stated to not be gods also do X, Y, and Z), this calls for some discussion.
 

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Staffan

Legend
Remaking the universe from the dawn of time without the doubter in it kind of doesn't prove it to them, so that big gun is out. Rewriting their brain feels like cheating. And it would be annoying to give them eternal damnation only to have them keep yelling "you can't keep this up forever you big fake".
Feet of Clay said:
“Another priest said,"Is it true you've said you'll believe in any god whose existence can be proved by logical debate?"
"Yes."
Vimes had a feeling about the immediate future and took a few steps away from Dorfl.
"But the gods plainly do exist," said a priest.
"It Is Not Evident."
A bolt of lightning lanced down through the clouds and hit Dorfl's helmet. There was a sheet of flame and then a trickling noise. Dorfl's molten armour formed puddles around his white-hot feet.
"I Don't Call That Much Of An Argument," said Dorfl calmly, from somewhere in the clouds of smoke.”

Dorfl kicks butt.
 

ART!

Legend
I have to admit - I would love to see a D&D setting with Small Gods. Where a god is a spirit tied to a particular location and has little influence outside of that location.

Not sure it would work in most D&D games though which tend to feature a much broader scope.
I think you could work this into the Encounter Elements and Exploration Challenges in Level Up's Trials & Treasures book. Put a will or motive or impulse behind the CON save needed in Frigid Water, or how likely a Landslide is to occur, how difficult it is to predict, what needs to be done to avoid it or even prevent it, etc.
Indeed. The last time I made my own pantheon and religion for D&D, the people in that world considered all use of magic to spring forth from the divine. Clerics got their powers by being favored servants of the gods, sorcerers by their divine blood, wizards learned to tap into the divine, and warlocks made a deal with the de-, uh, divine powers to receive their abilities. That didn't make the wizard a holy man, only that he tapped into the divine but just did it differently from a cleric.
I also got rid of most religions and kind of took a page from Greek mythology. Everybody pretty much recognizes the same gods though some groups might favor, or have the favor, of one over another. i.e. There's no elf or gnome god. Instead both of them recognize the exact same gods as humans. They don't necessarily worship exactly the same but they recognize the same gods.
Do those elves or gnomes imagine those gods as elven or gnomish, respectively, or that the appear in different forms at different times?
 

MGibster

Legend
Do those elves or gnomes imagine those gods as elven or gnomish, respectively, or that the appear in different forms at different times?
I didn’t put much thought into it. I’m thinking it could be both. If Zeus can turn into a swan or a shower of gold then why not?
 

No, it is begging for a definition.
The game rules have a loose definition (things that grant cleric spells). Is there a reason to assume no one is using that a priori?
When one is busy saying there are gods, but have no definition, that presents a certain logical conflict that ought to be resolved for constructive conversation to progress.

And, when that implied definition conflicts with other facts of the setting (like, "Gods do X, Y, and Z," but several things that are stated to not be gods also do X, Y, and Z), this calls for some discussion.
Does it? It seem to me like a popular technique for derailing discussions with bad-faith calls for definitions of terms that are 1. already defined elsewhere and 2. are implied by the nature of the statement.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Does it? It seem to me like a popular technique for derailing discussions with bad-faith

Oh, please. Give the accusations of bad faith a rest. If you don't want to take part in this part of the conversation, nobody is making you.
 




AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Doing the good work of our Lord and savior Keith Baker.

Btw, @AcererakTriple6 , have you seen his last blogpost? He talks about Eberron and Fizban's. He breifly touches on how he would do First World sutff vs the progenitor myth.
Yep, I have. It's not exactly how I would approach it in my Eberron, but his rationality behind how he'd use it made sense. I do especially like the ideas of Thelanis dragons.
 


Therefore a definition of "things that grant cleric spells are a god" is a poor definition of D&D godhood for a lot of D&D. :)
Okay, sentient beings that grant cleric spells, but even that's flawed.

Whatever the dm says is a god, is a god. Any other definition is just a suggestion for the dm.

In-universe, there's always going to be a common understanding of what the gods are. (at least by region). Some people may challenge that, but it's starts being like challenging whether Francis is the pope. You're either being needlessly pedantic or just plain crazy.

Now, whether one think the pope is worth listening too remains an interesting question, but requires knowing the setting's lore and history.
 

cbwjm

Legend
I think something that has been lost over editions, in regard to the Forgotten Realms, was that you did in fact worship/pay homage to all the gods in the pantheon. They may not have got into it much in the previous editions but even if a blacksmith had Gond as his patron god, if he lived in a small farming community then he'd still attend festivals and give prayers to the Chauntea for a good harvest.

I think a lot of the weirdness came in with the whole time of troubles and gods vying for worshippers as if a mortal can only worship a single god, but I think that all of the gods would be getting a bit of faith out of a single person, the lion's share might be going to their patron god but the others are still getting some prayers for aid or to avoid trouble (you probably won't pray to Umberlee for aid but rather to avoid her wrath).

This has slowly been eroded as we've moved through editions, and perhaps people missed it in earlier editions as well (I know this is gone over in 2nd edition FR), so that players believe that their character has to have a single god and no other before them.
 

Bluebell

Explorer
I think the part I'm struggling with when it comes to creating my own pantheon is the existence of "celestial" as a measurable power. If a god's divinity is instantly detectable by a first-level spell, that does seem to suggest that gods are easily defined, fixed beings, inherently distinct from fiends or fey.

There was talk earlier about a "small gods" system, with gods of small localized areas or objects. So what makes something become enough of a god to be measurably celestial? Can belief turn something into a celestial being?

But then I have further questions, like in a broad pantheon, there is no reason to assume gods are inherently "good." But then if there can be neutral or evil gods, why are fiends so rigidly defined as evil? The celestial/fiend dichotomy seems like a somewhat Christian binary baked into the system despite the assumption of polytheism.
 

Voadam

Legend
In-universe, there's always going to be a common understanding of what the gods are. (at least by region). Some people may challenge that, but it's starts being like challenging whether Francis is the pope. You're either being needlessly pedantic or just plain crazy.
I disagree. I think there would be as much common understanding on what is a god in a D&D setting as there is in the real world. There can be folklore understandings, theological understandings, historical understandings, theoretical understandings, dogmatic traditions, etc.

In Eberron are the sovereign host and the dark six gods or mortal narrative constructs? The three dragons? Are the Lords of Dust gods or not? The Undying Court and elven ancestral heroes are gods or not? Do all mortals have the spark of divinity in them?

In Dragonlance where there is the closed and defined pantheon, the classic DL period has the dominant in-universe religion being Seekers who worship false gods and knowledge of the true gods is mostly lost after a 300 year postapocalyptic god absence. It is a big plot point for the core campaign.

In the Forgotten Realms you have lots of henotheistic priests with significant church organizations and a polytheistic populace where the gods have walked the Realms and there are lots of god stories and competition among the gods for faith to power gods. So there is in-universe incentive for propaganda proselytizing and using bards to make your god sound super cool and possibly to sabotage other gods' followings. Also there are a ton of powerful magic beings of a variety of types and power levels to confuse the issue. Do you count the beast and monster cults as worshiping gods? I can see a variety of views on understanding what is a god in-universe in the FR.
 
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If Neo (in the Matrix) met a 'God'... is that God really a God?
This risks something like the Sorites paradox: when is a collection of grains of sand a heap, and when is it just sand? When is a powerful spiritual being a "god" and when is it just a powerful spiritual being?

Part of this is that the term "god"--particularly with the way you've capitalized it there--has become rather hijacked by Christianity in English (and most European languages). To the Greeks and Romans, there were gods everywhere. Some of the early Christians, such as St. Augustine, wrote scathing commentary on the Roman tendency to proliferate deities, e.g. they had three different deities solely for doors (Cardea, goddess of the hinge; Forculus, god of the doors, plural, because Roman houses usually used double doors; and Limentinus, god of the threshold.) To the modern English speaker, "God" has come to narrowly mean "the sole monotheistic deity that created the universe and is responsible for all that exists," with some extra stuff like "the source of all good-ness" etc. We set our expectations of "god(s)" very high today because of this, whereas it very much seems that, to the ancients, just about anything could be sacred enough to warrant being watched over by a deity.

If we take a more ancient Greek idea of what a "god" is, then yes, Neo could absolutely meet a god. But a lot of people today find that in some way unsatisfying, expecting some nebulous more-ness out of meeting a deity. Is that right? I dunno. It's just what a lot of people seem to want.

For myself, well, I'm pretty comfortable with the idea of a deity being a living concept (given how expressly my religion specifies that God is Love, giving rather a lot of attention to exactly what that specific thing means). I can't say whether that would make Neo from the Matrix feel like he'd actually met a deity or not. But if you met a being whose literal existence was truly connected to the very concept of Hope and Justice, to the point that fostering hope and justice in the world directly gives that being power, and giving that being power causes more hope and justice to occur in the universe, and likewise if you killed that deity it would seriously damage (not destroy, but SERIOUSLY hurt) the causes of hope and justice in the universe at large...would you be willing to call that thing a "deity"?
 

Hussar

Legend
I would also recommend to everyone this four-part series of articles on Polytheism in the Ancient World: Practical Polytheism. It criticizes D&D Religion and looks in a generalized overview at how polytheism, particularly around Mediterranean cultures, operated as well as how its practitioners thought about gods, theology, and cultic institutions in their societies.
/snip
Thank you. Fantastic read and lots to think about.
 

Voadam

Legend
I think something that has been lost over editions, in regard to the Forgotten Realms, was that you did in fact worship/pay homage to all the gods in the pantheon. They may not have got into it much in the previous editions but even if a blacksmith had Gond as his patron god, if he lived in a small farming community then he'd still attend festivals and give prayers to the Chauntea for a good harvest.

I think a lot of the weirdness came in with the whole time of troubles and gods vying for worshippers as if a mortal can only worship a single god, but I think that all of the gods would be getting a bit of faith out of a single person, the lion's share might be going to their patron god but the others are still getting some prayers for aid or to avoid trouble (you probably won't pray to Umberlee for aid but rather to avoid her wrath).

This has slowly been eroded as we've moved through editions, and perhaps people missed it in earlier editions as well (I know this is gone over in 2nd edition FR), so that players believe that their character has to have a single god and no other before them.
FR has had a mix of Henotheism and Polytheism.

Individuals need a designated patron god who accepts them for their afterlife destination plane or else they get Wall of the Faithless. References to the Wall of the Faithless situation continued in the 5e SCAG but the references were errata'd out in online errata.

Throughout editions there has been descriptions of the general FR polytheism and most everybody praying and making little offerings to gods for specific association activities (Umberlee when sailing on the sea, Chauntea when planting, etc.) This has been there but FR is so full of lore it can be easy to skip over. I don't particularly remember any of that everyday polytheism coming through in the dozen or so FR novels I read or any of my FR modules though.

Clerics and other divine classes are big time one god henotheists in FR.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I disagree. I think there would be as much common understanding on what is a god in a D&D setting as there is in the real world. There can be folklore understandings, theological understandings, historical understandings, theoretical understandings, dogmatic traditions, etc.

In Eberron are the sovereign host and the dark six gods or mortal narrative constructs? The three dragons? Are the Lords of Dust gods or not? The Undying Court and elven ancestral heroes are gods or not? Do all mortals have the spark of divinity in them?

In Dragonlance where there is the closed and defined pantheon, the classic DL period has the dominant in-universe religion being Seekers who worship false gods and knowledge of the true gods is mostly lost after a 300 year postapocalyptic god absence. It is a big plot point for the core campaign.

In the Forgotten Realms you have lots of henotheistic priests with significant church organizations and a polytheistic populace where the gods have walked the Realms and there are lots of god stories and competition among the gods for faith to power gods. So there is in-universe incentive for propaganda proselytizing and using bards to make your god sound super cool and possibly to sabotage other gods' followings. Also there are a ton of powerful magic beings of a variety of types and power levels to confuse the issue. Do you count the beast and monster cults as worshiping gods? I can see a variety of views on understanding what is a god in-universe in the FR.

In D&D, would it change anything if there were elves that kept written records (or any trustworthy folks that lived 700+ years) and casters that might be on the lookout for major events with the help of scrying?

Having textual differences creep in at 1/7th the rate, and having better eye witnesses, IRL would sure be informative. Of course it would also change science and history and....
 

cbwjm

Legend
FR has had a mix of Henotheism and Polytheism.

Individuals need a designated patron god who accepts them for their afterlife destination plane or else they get Wall of the Faithless. References to the Wall of the Faithless situation continued in the 5e SCAG but the references were errata'd out in online errata.

Throughout editions there has been descriptions of the general FR polytheism and most everybody praying and making little offerings to gods for specific association activities (Umberlee when sailing on the sea, Chauntea when planting, etc.) This has been there but FR is so full of lore it can be easy to skip over. I don't particularly remember any of that everyday polytheism coming through in the dozen or so FR novels I read or any of my FR modules though.

Clerics and other divine classes are big time one god henotheists in FR.
It does get a little weird for sure. Ideally most clerics in a pantheistic society would be pantheists who served the whole pantheon on behalf of the people, though in some cultures like Egypt, the temples had priests that served only the cult. They'd likely still pay homage to the rest of the gods though, but they very much belonged to a temple for a single god.

The Romans had priests who served the pantheon but also had the flamines that were responsible with appeasing a specific god (I think, I'm less certain on the Roman side of things).

I often get a headache when trying to work these things out for my own games and sometimes just revert back to a loose pantheon of gods who want all of the worshippers of the culture for themselves.
 

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