Religion in Your Campaign – Priests and Congregations

As we mentioned in a previous article, you need not be a priest to follow a religion. So in this article we continue a look at religion in terms of how priests might relate to the religious communities they lead.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Are Priests Divine?

Every faith needs a body of adherents. Even the most exclusive faiths need a few lay members at least to keep the idea of the religion in the minds of a community. As priests are expected to minister to these congregations, they need to form a relationship with them.

It is generally assumed most people are ‘called’ to any faith. Essentially, you don’t become a priest and make the sacrifices usually expected of you unless you have a certain dedication and belief. But some religions go a little further to say their god picks their priests and calls them to their service. In some cases this can mean that priests are literally touched by the deity in some way and granted a piece of their divine power.

While spells are the most obvious embodiment of this, what we really mean here is that they are assumed to have a channel or conduit to the deity that others simply do not. In such cases this often means the priests are the only ones who can commune with the divine. While anyone can offer prayer, only those of a priest truly reach the ears of the deity. In all cases their connection to the divine is the only way for supplicants to reach their god. This puts priests in a very powerful position as only through them can the faith be accessed.

But priestly divinity is not always a given. Many faiths insist that everyone is equal in the eyes of their deity and while priests have a role to play in leading a congregation, anyone can access the divine and be heard by their god.

In game terms this most obviously applies to priestly magic and who can access it. If a priest must be called to service by their god, only those with that connection can cast spells, and by that measure all who do cast spells must have the touch of the divine. So non-priest classes who use such magic must either be blessed or cannot use such spells. This might even extend to magic items that use clerical magic, which might be inert in the hands of the unfaithful. If divinity is not required, then not only can anyone use cleric magic, but those who are especially faithful might find themselves able to do so regardless of class.

What Are Priests For?

While it is usually the job of a priest to officiate in a religion, that can mean many different things. Some faiths just need someone to look after the place of worship and open the doors for mass communion. Others are there to lead grand rituals and give the congregation a certain glamour and pomp. Some are simply there as advisors and caregivers.

Rather than officiating, some priests are meant to serve as examples for the congregation to follow. They might be working towards enlightenment or simply lead a purer or more dedicated life to show their followers that it can be done. This might also include walking a path so that they can advise and help others follow that path. This will often depend on the deity they follow and whether they focus on worship or the personal development of the faith’s adherents. While many priests follow a combination of the above, different faiths might prioritise certain things.

How Accessible Are Priests?

The more divine a priest is assumed to be, the more unapproachable they might be. While a priest is meant to minister to a ‘flock’ some might still be too important to be spoken to by just anyone as far as the religion is concerned. In general, a religion that refuses adherent access to its priests isn’t going to last long. But when they can speak to them and how they can do so might still be limited. This may also depend on their position in the church hierarchy. If it is a large one with many levels, do the higher ranking priests have less and less to do with the rank and file of the faith?

Even if a priest is available all the time, the religion may demand different things at different times. So they might listen to confessions only when the sun is out, or can only advise on marital affairs after a period of abstinence (and what they have to abstain from might be different for each faith). Often, rules like these are put in not to reduce the time a priest has to help their followers, but to make sure that time is apportioned for everything so no one’s needs go unaddressed. But this can still be frustrating when it is very important for you to know if you are allowed to go adventuring on an upcoming holy day and the priesthood only deals with adventuring enquiries during the summer months.

Can the Priests Command?

One of the reasons many players resist the idea of having a faithful character who isn’t a priest, is that they don’t want the priest character in the group able to tell them what to do. Here we come back to the idea that following a faith need not make you a fanatic. You can follow a deity and just ask your priestly fellow adventurer for the odd blessing or religious advice as you make your way down the dungeon. Conversely, you might have a wizard, barbarian or even thief who is very dedicated to following the tenets of the faith.

Very few religions insist that adherents can be ordered to do things by the priesthood. Instead, priests often lead by advice. They will have great sway in any community, as that community usually goes to them to ask what they should do in their daily lives. But there isn’t usually a church law that says they are bad people for not following that advice. Selfish or manipulative priests can do a lot of damage but they still have to be careful how they tell people what to do.

This means that following the same religion as a priest player character doesn’t place you in their thrall. Priests are not often the party leader, but they are very often the party advisor. The paladins can lead the charge, but the priest will often suggest where they think evil can be found and what the best way to deal with that evil, or how to punish it, might be.

In general, in playing a priest it is important to remember that leading the faith community in some way is just as important as their personal relationship with their deity. Being a priest is as much about the job of looking after the faithful as it is following the word of their deity.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
Very few religions insist that adherents can be ordered to do things by the priesthood.
I presume you're talking about in-game fantasy religions, here? Cuz in the real world, even what we may know about ancient polytheistic systems, this happens preetttty much for/in any of them.

For thousands of years across thousands of cultures, priesthoods gain and maintain position and power by telling kings and generals, soldiers and slaves, what "the god(s) say(s)" they have to do.

The priests serve and, nearly universally, "speak for" the god(s). And -as you note- that has nothing to do with a priest/cleric's own, personal, "divinity." If the priests tell you something you have to do, you do it! If they tell you something you "should" do, its as good as saying "Well, God-So-and-So would like/approve of that..." and, for the most part, someone who adheres to some belief in that faith is going to at least attempt to follow the so-called "advice."
 


TwoSix

Unserious gamer
I presume you're talking about in-game fantasy religions, here? Cuz in the real world, even what we may know about ancient polytheistic systems, this happens preetttty much for/in any of them.
Exactly. Historical religions didn't exist to be a form of social club, they existed to codify behavioral norms and obligations to foster social cohesion.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
Are Priests Divine?
No. Priests are devout. They serve and perform the functions of their religions (which for most good, law/order, or neutral aligned ones includes serving their communities).

Not all priests in a given religion, in my world/setting, are automatically spell-slinging positive/divine energy channelling "clerics." In fact, the idea of being/becoming a cleric is what may lead a good number of devoted to pursue a life in a religious organization. Blessings all priests dream of receiving [outside of the stringent performance of rites where you invoke the deity for whatever purpose] and causing some internal politics/consternation for those who never receive those "explicit/direct" blessings/attention from the deity. Naturally, among the good deities at least, covetting such power is an excellent way to ensure you won't receive it.

Contrarily, not all clerics are "priests," per se. They may have been only a novice or initiate when they received their first display of divine power. They could be an aged scrivener in the archives, dutifully pouring over your latest manuscript copy of the holy story of "St. Goodlady's defeat over Demonspider" before you receive a vision of the evil you must personally be empowered to thwart! They could be a "Joan of Arc" figure, farm kid just minding their own business and are directly "touched" by the deity or destined through fate to receive divine powers. Poof! You're a magic-granted cleric now, like it or not.

For some religions, anyone can enter the service of the deity, and attempt the study and training to become part of a priesthood, eventually. For some religions, the intent is all you need and, "Poof! You're now a priest of such-and-such, go forth and be awesome!" For some, only some bloodline or other direct connection to a holy ancestor or even simply born in a certain place permits you to pursue the role of priesthood for a given religion/deity/order or hierarchy.

It really just depends how one "becomes" a priest. But, no, they are not innately or automatically "divine" in their own right.

What are Priests for?
The only definitive answer for this is "The Priests serve the deity." They are, for my world/setting, intended to be the Will of the deity expressed in the mortal realm. More often than not, this includes "speaks for [the deity's will] in the world." This nearly universally includes, but is not limited to, the conducting of the rites, rituals, and spreading the teachings/dogma of the organization built around the deity's will/faith.

Beyond that, is a complete matter of "depends"... on the deity, primarily, their alignment, and their portfolio...and the alignment of the religion/religious organzation within the world. The priests of the Chaotic Evil deity of war and bloodlust are not going "serve" their god in the same ways as the Neutral Good priests of the agricultural goddess.

Also on the order/branch of a given religion...if you go that deep into your world-/religion-building. I don't always, but there are multiple deities with various orders of different types.

My goddess of life & healing, "the Merciful Mother, Gilea, the White Rose," has a general following and reverence among many (especially commoner) peoples. She has a general "priesthood" (fairly standard RPG "temple" organization) who conduct rites, go into the community, serve as midwives, healers, conduct marriages and dole out blessings for families/births, promoting kindness and compassion, and all of that. They, generally, have vows against causing harm to other living beings and would die before taking up arms for any reason but self-defense.

There is also an all-female order, "the Revered Daughters [of Gilea]," who are the premiere healers, in both medical practice and curative magics, in the world. They are complete pacifists and are forbidden from taking up arms or consciously doing harm to another for any reason. They are focal functioning of Gilea's temple and many consider the 'priesthood" of GIlea to basically all be Revered Daughters, but their primary function is not to be "priests."

There is another branch/organization of Gilea's temple, again all female, who are granted special dispensation to use arms and armor, using their divinely granted power for the defense and protection of Gilea's faithful. One of these servants of the Merciful Mother is called a Whitethorn Protectrix. The Whitethorns are all clerics and more than capable of conducting themselves as priests...but their role in the organization is definitely NOT the general function and conducting of rites of the general priesthood...but any who look upon them would consider them the goddess' "priests."

The priests of the goddess of the seas and waterways, almost universally, are assigned to travelling and serving ocean-faring ships or the tending of sacred waters or waterways (fonts, springs, keeping particular river crossings safe, etc...). She also has an order -kept well hidden- of virginal seers/oracles. The latter are entirely magical/psychic "directly chosen ones." The former are not and may be cleric or simple devout sea-faring priests who know about the functioning of ships/sailing and marine life as much as the rites and prayers for good-winds, smooth seas, and putting the souls lost to "Her Blessed Depths" to their final rest.

Other priesthoods only concern themselves with the perfecting of battleskill or the pursuit and recording of history or engaging in feats of unquestioned honor and courage.

What priests are "for" is up to what their deity's will (revealed by teachings, mythology, portfolio, alignment) has "told them" - and thus the religion/organzation built up around- they are.

How Accessible are Priests?
Again, sorry to become a broken record, this is a "depends on the deity" and the specific order of the priesthood.

The above mentioned goddess of the sea/water, Tyris. Her general priests, that most people are going to encounter, are going to be very accessible in ports, coastal villages, and on ships. Less so in, say, a desert area. Her virginal seer-priests sequestered high in some intraversable mountain vale at a sacred -untouched by mortals- mountain lake...not so much accessible.

Deities that espouse things like benefiting or serving communities are going to, probably, by fairly easy to find and engage with directly.

NOW, there are also hierarchies for various religion organizations. SO there are the priests that you can easily access...and then the upper eschellons of high priests and/or supreme leader of an entire continent-wide religion/church/temple...who have more important things to do (i.e. communing with/being/getting closer to the divine realms and direct divinity, as much as possible) and, so, are probably not going to show up to give you advice or conduct your wedding ceremony.

Can the Priests Command?
Their faithful? Absolutely. Their subordinates in their given temple/organization? Oh yes. The uneducated or inexperienced of other (or no) faiths, who know damned well that there are gods..."somewhere up [and down] there"...and magic is real in this world? Yeah, an unscrupulous or particularly militant priest could probably elicit compliance from commoners -out of fear, if nothing else.

Does anyone kow-tow to a self-proclaimed "priest of so-and-so?" Absolutely not.
 
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Ixal

Adventurer
Another way to see the nature of priests would be a more warlock style give and take. I do whatever your book says and you give me power and spells.
That would be more in line with how many polytheistic faiths worked where it was not so much a question of believing in a god (because you had multiple options) but instead to perform rituals and sacrifices to gods because you wanted something from them (including being left alone)

This article has imo quite a monotheistic/christianity spin to it which is at odds with how most fantasy faiths work.
 

Are Priests Divine?
IMO yes, they have to be. You live in a world with literal magic. Compare to the real world, where cultists can claim they're "divine" and can give you blessings. Sure, that's fake, but how can you distinguish between the cultist and a "real" priest?

They don't need to be particularly powerful, but they need to be able to demonstrate their bona fides. It could be as simple as dressing the right way, knowing the basics of the faith, speak the holy language if there is one, and being able to cast the "I'm a priest of X" orison. (And yes, a wizard might be able to defraud people with knowledge and magic, but it would be harder and require more effort than in the real world.)

What are Priests for?
I took a peek at some polytheistic religions for my own setting. In many such religions, there are no regular services. You go to the temple on holidays, weddings, and funerals, but not weekly. Still, the priests are there for helping people with marital problems, grieving widows and widowers, showing up when someone is giving birth, and so forth. Those things aren't important for most PCs but are very important for many NPCs. Stay on the church's good side or you won't receive the sacraments or equivalents.

In a magical setting, I figure priests would spend a lot of time performing long-term rituals or very minor rituals. Perhaps the graveyard is enchanted (or hallowed) so that no undead can be raised in it's area. This is very handy when the next great necromancer comes to town, like the Grey Lord who wreaked havoc here last century. Perhaps the necromancer can dissipate the holy effect, but that takes time and effort (like picking a lock) and they have to do so at every graveyard. So to me a god of repose makes sense and has a purpose in the setting; it's their clerics who are doing this, and they supervise the lay employees who do the actual physical labor. If people started losing their faith and so stopped the upkeep at the graveyards, things could get grim pretty quickly.

The minor rituals would be something like the ceremony spell from Pathfinder. These are blessings that have an actual impact on NPCs. Perhaps the marital blessing makes having healthy children more likely, but requires an annual donation (so only the nobles can really afford this service), and is broken if a spouse cheats, so it has a direct impact on NPC behavior. This creates an opportunity for politics and so forth: perhaps the clerics are refusing to let the King of X marry the Queen of Y (for whatever reason), so any such "marriage" would be unsanctioned (the heirs aren't "legitimate") and run the potential risk of heirs dying of illness. Getting married would involve negotiating with parents, other nobles, ambassadors, priests, and so forth, each of whom has some sort of veto. Even getting crowned is probably a ceremony that requires permission from the priests of the national religion, which involves putting on a powerful magic crown (even if you're a very low-level incompetent NPC) and maybe turns you into a Fisher King.

Ceremonial priestly duties creates space for "evil" religions, or at least religions where evil acts are tolerated. Bigger ceremonies could include things like human sacrifice. Horrifying, but what if the priest conducting the ceremony can prove there's an actual benefit from it? Sacrifice one person per year and the fishing will be good for a year. And if for some reason the fishing is bad, um, you might want to do it again. If the lord of the area belongs to a religion that is opposed to sacrifice, but they require a certain amount of taxes from the fishers, you now have a conflict baked into the setting.

Can the Priests Command?
This is too dependent on the religion in question. Can a cleric of the god of repose give you orders? Probably not. But if you don't listen to them, they will not bury you in their graveyard, you won't have a tomb or pyramid for people to remember you by, your corpse may become some sort of undead and your place in the afterlife may be threatened. There are consequences, but of course some NPCs and some PCs won't care. That's fine. Just as long as you can modify the behavior of some NPCs then it works.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Prior to 3E in my homebrew, about 80% or more of priests of a given faith didn't have spells or powers. Usually only those very high in the hierarchy had direct access to god-granted abilities, or those fanatical individuals who were on proselytizing quests had access to abilities, and the rest followed by faith. The gods were bound in a way they were not allowed to directly interfere with mortal affairs, could only channel their abilities through those who were willing vessels, and only had so much power they could spread around to infuse the faithful with - and in so empowering a vessel took a chance of losing that power if something untoward happened to the individual.

Sometime in 3E, I dropped all that, and haven't been using that since. I found my players weren't interested/comfortable attempting to RP a fictitious religion and just wanted to game with a character that could heal. This article has me pondering about going back to redevelop the RP aspects and those restrictions, possibly with certain taboos, traditions and rituals to go along with it (for NPC's, primarily) - so long as they don't stop players from wanting to choose "divine" characters.
 




Amrûnril

Explorer
But priestly divinity is not always a given. Many faiths insist that everyone is equal in the eyes of their deity and while priests have a role to play in leading a congregation, anyone can access the divine and be heard by their god.

It's also worth noting that some faith traditions express this perspective by expanding who, from a theological standpoint, is considered a "priest" and using a different title for the associated leadership role ("priesthood of all believers" is a phrase used to express this idea in some protestant traditions). "Clergy" might be a better/more general term for the people filling the leader/officiant role that's primarily being discussed here.

Some additional topics/questions to consider:

Training: How much education is expected of a prospective clergy member? Formal or informal? In what fields? Doctrine? Rhetoric (useful for preaching)? Counselling? Comparative Religions? History and Languages (important for understanding the context behind religious texts)? Magic? Expectations and priorities here can say a lot about a religious tradition or institution.

Governance: Any institution is going to operate according to some set of rules. In the context of religion, that could mean anything from consensus-based decision making in autonomous congregations to a worldwide hierarchical structure. This structure will determine how clergy are chosen, what forms of authority they have, and who they're expected to answer to. In many settings, church governance structures are also likely be intertwined in some fashion with state authority. And if a setting features deities who express themselves in frequent and unambiguous ways, it's worth considering what influence this will have over governing practices.
 

When the campaign uses a polytheistic setting with actual deities and miracles known as fact in the world, some knowledge of the afterlife would be a must-have in my opinion, so that people won't be hesitant to embrace a faith due to wondering what the other gods have to offer for eternal rest. A bit of transparency is needed when competing for a share of people's daily lives even if they worship multiple gods at the same time.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Religion belongs to the players. Not the DM. Certainly not the WotC designers.

Ideally, the core rules of D&D are inclusive, and encourage each culture sensitvity and each individual to create ones own sacred Cleric concept that one is comfortable with.
 

Hex08

Adventurer
Religion belongs to the players. Not the DM. Certainly not the WotC designers.
In a published game with set rules and/or if you are using a published setting then it belongs to all three. While you can certainly ignore or change anything published by WotC and remove them from the equation, in a cooperative game, which most RPGs are, both the player and the DM are involved. Some DMs may be more open and let the players have free reign, others may be running games with very specific religions and ideologies which will impose restrictions on the players.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
In a published game with set rules and/or if you are using a published setting then it belongs to all three. While you can certainly ignore or change anything published by WotC and remove them from the equation, in a cooperative game, which most RPGs are, both the player and the DM are involved. Some DMs may be more open and let the players have free reign, others may be running games with very specific religions and ideologies which will impose restrictions on the players.
Mostly agree.

The thing is, the topic of religion is a "session zero" conversion along with other sensitive topics to make sure everyone is on the same page.

The default has to be that the core Cleric class encourages any kind of sacred tradition, along the lines of the "cosmic force" in Xanathars. Shaman, elementalist, priest, miracleworker, teacher, sage, elder, oracle, psychic, etcetera, animist, atheist, polytheist, monotheist, monist, ethicist, etcetera, are all valid examples of a "clergy". It depends on the culture and its concept of the sacred.

I agree the choice of sacred tradition involves both the player and the DM. The player 100% controls the character and the DM 100% controls the setting, and religions are one of the areas that overlap. But this is also the case for background, language, choice of race, place of birth, etcetera.

However, religion is a reallife sensitive cultural and ethnic identity issue, and it is the responsibility of the DM to be inclusive and to make sure each player is comfortable with how a campaign will handle religion. Thus it is a session zero conversion.
 
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Hex08

Adventurer
The default has to be that the core Cleric class encourages any kind of sacred tradition.

However, religion is a reallife sensitive cultural and ethnic identity issue, and it is the responsibility of the DM to be inclusive and to make sure each player is comfortable with how a campaign will handle religion. Thus it is a session zero conversion.
I have a feeling we won't see eye to eye here (and that's fine), but I don't agree that the default core Cleric class has to encourage any kind of sacred tradition. Yes, religion is a sensitive issue but I think we are talking about fantasy religions here and the in-game worship of Corellon Larethian or Cyric is not the same as a discussion of real world religions. Sure, if a player and DM are new to one another I grant that some people may feel the need to discuss religion but, in my 40+ years of gaming, I never have. I have 2 gaming groups and across those groups I have/had players who are atheists, pagans, Jews, Christians and some players whose religious beliefs never came up and the ages range from early 20s to mid 50s and there has never been a need to have such a discussion.

I am willing to grant that other gaming groups are different from mine and that may call for different styles at those tables but, from my perspective, the default core Cleric needs to fit the cosmology of the game and that all involved have a say within the bounds of the game. Maybe that means that I won't mesh well with some players I may meet in the future and if so we can part ways if our gaming styles are too different, no harm or foul.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
I have a feeling we won't see eye to eye here (and that's fine), but I don't agree that the default core Cleric class has to encourage any kind of sacred tradition. Yes, religion is a sensitive issue but I think we are talking about fantasy religions here and the in-game worship of Corellon Larethian or Cyric is not the same as a discussion of real world religions. Sure, if a player and DM are new to one another I grant that some people may feel the need to discuss religion but, in my 40+ years of gaming, I never have. I have 2 gaming groups and across those groups I have/had players who are atheists, pagans, Jews, Christians and some players whose religious beliefs never came up and the ages range from early 20s to mid 50s and there has never been a need to have such a discussion.

I am willing to grant that other gaming groups are different from mine and that may call for different styles at those tables but, from my perspective, the default core Cleric needs to fit the cosmology of the game and that all involved have a say within the bounds of the game. Maybe that means that I won't mesh well with some players I may meet in the future and if so we can part ways if our gaming styles are too different, no harm or foul.
Polytheism is a real life religion. The Players Handbook even mentions figures like Thor and gods like Zeus.

Perhaps you dont understand how serious these issues are in some ethnic groups around the world?
 

Hex08

Adventurer
Polytheism is a real life religion. The Players Handbook even mentions figures like Thor and gods like Zeus.

Perhaps you dont understand how serious these issues are in some ethnic groups around the world?
Polytheism is real, the worship of the gods of Grayhawk isn't. Remember the pagan I mentioned in my gaming group? He believes in the Norse gods.

I do understand that some people take religion seriously. However, not every serious issue has a place around the gaming table and while I certainly wouldn't be a jerk to someone at mine because of their religious beliefs these are the kinds of discussions that would suck the joy out of my game if I had to have them. As I mentioned, in 40+ years of gaming with people of various faiths (or none) across wide age groups this has never been an issue. Since you aren't willing to grant that we have differing views on the topic and that maybe that's ok, should I then assume that you are telling me that I should change my habits to accommodate something that has never been relevant? Are you telling me that if I accepted a new player at my table and their religion came into conflict with the way our game is played that myself and the rest of the gaming group should change to accommodate that person? Why wouldn't it make more sense for all involved to realize that the new player just isn't a good fit and everyone move on?
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Polytheism is real, the worship of the gods of Grayhawk isn't. Remember the pagan I mentioned in my gaming group? He believes in the Norse gods.

I do understand that some people take religion seriously. However, not every serious issue has a place around the gaming table and while I certainly wouldn't be a jerk to someone at mine because of their religious beliefs these are the kinds of discussions that would suck the joy out of my game if I had to have them. As I mentioned, in 40+ years of gaming with people of various faiths (or none) across wide age groups this has never been an issue. Since you aren't willing to grant that we have differing views on the topic and that maybe that's ok, should I then assume that you are telling me that I should change my habits to accommodate something that has never been relevant? Are you telling me that if I accepted a new player at my table and their religion came into conflict with the way our game is played that myself and the rest of the gaming group should change to accommodate that person? Why wouldn't it make more sense for all involved to realize that the new player just isn't a good fit and everyone move on?
Maybe you havent been exposed to the concerns of other cultures?
 

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