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

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.
 

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Ixal

Adventurer
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.
And if they do all the required rituals to not get the whole village affected by a disaster because a god feels neglected. Doesn't mean that he has to believe in it, he just needs to do them.
 

Voadam

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.
 



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?
Here's the thing: the second part doesn't hinge on the first. They can be gods and unworthy of worship, they could be "just very powerful divine entities" and worthy of worship.
 

ART!

Legend
So, what is the difference between a god and a very powerful extraplanar being, if there is one? I wonder if some different terminology is needed.
 

DM guide offer all the liberty to create pantheon and multiverse as various and silly as a DM may want. So there is no restrictions there.

Religion can take various place in a kingdom or empire.
Almost inexistant.
A kind of public service, helping the poor, supervising social ceremonies.
An organize power capable to challenge current government. Owing land, having troops, having political influence.
The next level is either, being the government or being the real power behind a muppet government.
 

Voadam

Legend
"impiety" is not the same as atheism - it requires actively mocking gods, not just disbelieving in them. But in Socrates' case his execution was on trumped up charges because the state felt threatened.
"the accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities"."

This seems in contradiction to "The average polytheist doesn't care what other people believe" :)

Convicted and death penalty imposed.
 

Voadam

Legend
So, what is the difference between a god and a very powerful extraplanar being, if there is one? I wonder if some different terminology is needed.
That depends on the cosmology.

Take mythic Norse.

The Aesir and Vanir are generally considered gods. Open question on the Giants, Light Elves, Dark Elves, Dwarves, and such that live in the other non-Midgard worlds.

D&D has sometimes defined gods as being a specific type of extraplanar powerful being with various inherent god powers and sometimes power connections to worship. Other extra planar powerful beings don't have those specific powers or connections to worship.

Fiend Lords sometimes are and sometimes are not deities in D&D history/various editions.

This is something that has varied a lot over editions and settings.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What do you think a god is? Isn't "extra planar powerful being" pretty much the definition of a god? What more do you need?

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.
It's such a bad faith play by the player.

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

This declaration says very little about anyone but yourself.
 

For gods intervention I see there levels.

Distant god. No impact other than cleric spells and powers. Serve as ideal and faith focus.
Direct intervention are legendary but happen once a thousand years or more.

Active god. Gods have agenda, send request to cleric, may alter cleric casting capacities, may send celestial Or fiend, ask for results. see Lolth.

walk among mortals. take humanoid form, seduce, challenge, teach, punish, lure mortals by direct contact. see Greek or Norse mythos.
 
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So, what is the difference between a god and a very powerful extraplanar being, if there is one? I wonder if some different terminology is needed.
If we're using real-world polytheism as a reference point: scale. I think. The difference between the nymph of the brook that runs through my friend's property and the goddess of the Mississippi river is just how big/powerful/important they are.
 

Oofta

Legend
So, what is the difference between a god and a very powerful extraplanar being, if there is one? I wonder if some different terminology is needed.
That is part of the problem, isn't it? I mean, I considered my old PC an atheist because not only did he not believe the gods were worthy of worship, but that there was no reason to believe that they would exist if they did not have worshippers. Other people seem to be saying that a mass hallucination is still a god because people believe it to be true. In addition, my PC didn't believe in an afterlife either. It was one of the reasons he sought ways to extend his life as long as possible, it was a driving force for him. Even liches were not really the person that had undergone the ritual to transform themselves, they were just a magical construct that believed they were the original person.

But lightning bolts from the sky didn't mean anything, many wizards can cast lightning bolts. Visions from on high, gods appearing in the clouds? Illusions. His position was that all people have is their life and what they did with it, there was no greater purpose, there was no great beyond, no cosmic laws or rules. On the other hand, he wasn't militant about it. He thought people were ignorant, but what other people thought didn't really matter. He accepted that there were other forces out there, he just thought it was magic shaped by people's beliefs and prayers.

So to me that fits into a definition of atheism, for others it doesn't. It's not rejecting the premise of a campaign, I don't understand how having an atheist PC in and of itself would be controversial. Depending on the campaign they could be totally wrong, but people believe things that are wrong all the time. 🤷‍♂️
 

That is part of the problem, isn't it? I mean, I considered my old PC an atheist because not only did he not believe the gods were worthy of worship, but that there was no reason to believe that they would exist if they did not have worshippers. Other people seem to be saying that a mass hallucination is still a god because people believe it to be true. In addition, my PC didn't believe in an afterlife either. It was one of the reasons he sought ways to extend his life as long as possible, it was a driving force for him. Even liches were not really the person that had undergone the ritual to transform themselves, they were just a magical construct that believed they were the original person.

But lightning bolts from the sky didn't mean anything, many wizards can cast lightning bolts. Visions from on high, gods appearing in the clouds? Illusions. His position was that all people have is their life and what they did with it, there was no greater purpose, there was no great beyond, no cosmic laws or rules. On the other hand, he wasn't militant about it. He thought people were ignorant, but what other people thought didn't really matter. He accepted that there were other forces out there, he just thought it was magic shaped by people's beliefs and prayers.

So to me that fits into a definition of atheism, for others it doesn't. It's not rejecting the premise of a campaign, I don't understand how having an atheist PC in and of itself would be controversial. Depending on the campaign they could be totally wrong, but people believe things that are wrong all the time. 🤷‍♂️
There's a couple-three definitions of atheism floating around:

1. Pelor doesn't exist, all of you are just being silly. This is... a weird position to take in a setting where Pelor might show up at a temple and tell people to do stuff. It's not like real-world atheism in many DnD settings - it might be closer to "the Pope doesn't exist," or, if there are small gods in the setting, "Churches don't exist."

2. Pelor isn't "really" a god and is unworthy of your worship. This can be done well or poorly, but in-universe it would be a very controversial take at least. (Some of us have had bad experiences with this kind of character.)

3. Pelor may be a god, but you shouldn't worship him. This is usually doable, but many will say it's not really atheism, but anti-theism or some other term.
 

d24454_modern

Explorer
Someone pointed out that in real life, people often worshipped destructive and evil gods because they believed they could stave off the gods’ wrath if they do.

That would be one reason why in Golarion, they named a month after Rovagug, the most dangerous of gods.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
That is part of the problem, isn't it? I mean, I considered my old PC an atheist because not only did he not believe the gods were worthy of worship, but that there was no reason to believe that they would exist if they did not have worshippers. Other people seem to be saying that a mass hallucination is still a god because people believe it to be true.

I'd argue that this isn't atheism, in that "this doesn't exist except for people's devotion" is not the same as "this does not exist at all." If a thing comes into existence through the action of people, it has still come into existence. If it requires constant maintenance or input to continue to exist... well, it still must exist to receive that maintenance.

There is even a term for a spiritual entity brought into existence by the will or belief of people - tulpa.

Whether the entity is "worthy" of worship seems to me a separate question from their existence.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
1. Pelor doesn't exist, all of you are just being silly. This is... a weird position to take in a setting where Pelor might show up at a temple and tell people to do stuff.

It is weird in a setting where Pelor does so frequently, such that a large number of people have had the experience in living memory. If Pelor shows up unpredicatbly, only once in a generation, and usually in some small town nobody's heard of, in a world without mass communication it is not weird to consider that just a story people made up.
 

Oofta

Legend
I'd argue that this isn't atheism, in that "this doesn't exist except for people's devotion" is not the same as "this does not exist at all." If a thing comes into existence through the action of people, it has still come into existence. If it requires constant maintenance or input to continue to exist... well, it still must exist to receive that maintenance.

There is even a term for a spiritual entity brought into existence by the will or belief of people - tulpa.

Whether the entity is "worthy" of worship seems to me a separate question from their existence.

If I make a painting and say "this painting is god" and get a bunch of other people to agree with me, that makes it a god? Even if, in the D&D world I cast a bunch of spells on it like magic mouth, programmed illusion, some other triggered effects so that it responds to it's "worshippers"? There's no denying painting exists and that some people worship it like a deity. That doesn't mean my PC can't point out that it's just a painting.

My PC didn't believe the deities were any more real than that painting. Deities had no independent internal thought processes. He could have been totally 100% completely wrong. He was still an atheist.
 

Oofta

Legend
There's a couple-three definitions of atheism floating around:

1. Pelor doesn't exist, all of you are just being silly. This is... a weird position to take in a setting where Pelor might show up at a temple and tell people to do stuff. It's not like real-world atheism in many DnD settings - it might be closer to "the Pope doesn't exist," or, if there are small gods in the setting, "Churches don't exist."

If my PC wizard cast a simple illusion spell he could also say that he was Pelor. Doesn't mean he's a god.

2. Pelor isn't "really" a god and is unworthy of your worship. This can be done well or poorly, but in-universe it would be a very controversial take at least. (Some of us have had bad experiences with this kind of character.)

3. Pelor may be a god, but you shouldn't worship him. This is usually doable, but many will say it's not really atheism, but anti-theism or some other term.
 

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