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

Yaarel

Mind Mage
I am Norwegian. The æsir are goð but arent gods. They are animistic nature beings. Similarly Finnish figures.

Even in the West. Orthodox Judaism forbids idolatry ... and also forbids the "appearance" of idolatry. The status of D&D is disputed, and if a kid grows up in a community where the game qualifies as an appearance, then the kid will never play D&D.

In other parts of the world, things are way more serious with religious groups being genocided.

It is ethnocentric and ethically irresponsible for D&D to be messing around with religion for the sake of a game.

Make sure the game is inclusive and each player is comfortable. That is the only game rule that actually matters.
 

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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
First off, dnd Clerics arent Priests, Clerics are specially empowered to enforced the tenents of their Domain/god against potentially hostile forces (in DnD these are often supernatural).

Priests on the other hand lead the rituals of their community in interaction with the gods or their religious organisations. As such a Priest could be a commoner or a retired fighter or cleric no longer in the field.

so a Priest like Thulsa Doom (Conan movie) might led an army of zealots, others might be advisors to the Pharoah, and others might be the hetman of a small isolated village on the Tundra asking Leib-Olmai for a good hunt before the winter snow.
 

PRIEST -- Merriam Webster definition
someone who is authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God

One could say that Clerics are magic priests.

Paladins who serve deities could be considered warrior priests.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
PRIEST -- Merriam Webster definition
someone who is authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God

One could say that Clerics are magic priests.

Paladins who serve deities could be considered warrior priests.
That makes priesthood more like a setting background than a class.
 


Hex08

Adventurer
Maybe you havent been exposed to the concerns of other cultures?
Or maybe I have. Please stop making assumptions about me and go back and read my posts (and maybe actually reply to what is there rather just replying with a question/assumption about my life experience). At each point in our discussion I accepted the fact that other game groups may be different than mine and that these conversations might be necessary for them but in my personal experience it has never been an issue. Why is it so hard for you accept that discussions about real world religious beliefs has never been a concern for anyone at my gaming table?
 
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Yaarel

Mind Mage
Or maybe I have. Please stop making assumptions about me and go back and read my posts. At each point in our discussion I accepted the fact that other game groups may be different than mine and that these conversations might be necessary for them but in my personal experience it has never been an issue. Why is it so hard for you accept that discussions about real world religious beliefs has never been a concern for anyone at my gaming table?
I believe you. I am not talking about your table. I am talking about the ethical responsibilities of WotC to be more inclusive toward other cultures and ethnic groups whose religious sensitivities and obligations are part of its identity.

For example, rewrite the core Cleric class in the Players Handbook to be about any kind of sacred tradition (Xanathars cosmic power), and mention religion as one of the topics to doublecheck to ensure players are comfortable, during session zero.
 

Hex08

Adventurer
I believe you. I am not talking about your table. I am talking about the ethical responsibilities of WotC to be more inclusive toward other cultures and ethnic groups whose religious sensitivities and obligations are part of its identity.

For example, rewrite the core Cleric class in the Players Handbook to be about any kind of sacred tradition (Xanathars cosmic power), and mention religion as one of the topics to doublecheck to ensure players are comfortable, during session zero.
That's fine but your prior responses certainly didn't some across that way.
 

Corone

Adventurer
PRIEST -- Merriam Webster definition
someone who is authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God

One could say that Clerics are magic priests.

Paladins who serve deities could be considered warrior priests.
I should add, and should have added earlier, that while there are many, many titles for religious leaders and officiants, I use priest in the article as a general term, as the articles usually talk in general terms about religion, and mainly as I've got stuck in 2nd Edition. :)
 


Hex08

Adventurer
First off, dnd Clerics arent Priests, Clerics are specially empowered to enforced the tenents of their Domain/god against potentially hostile forces (in DnD these are often supernatural).

Priests on the other hand lead the rituals of their community in interaction with the gods or their religious organisations. As such a Priest could be a commoner or a retired fighter or cleric no longer in the field.

so a Priest like Thulsa Doom (Conan movie) might led an army of zealots, others might be advisors to the Pharoah, and others might be the hetman of a small isolated village on the Tundra asking Leib-Olmai for a good hunt before the winter snow.
In my campaigns I draw similar distinctions. Priest might be clerics but more often than not they are religious leaders of a church or community but don't have any spellcasting or other magical abilities or martial training whereas a cleric (obviously) does. Priests see to the spiritual needs of their congregation whereas clerics are, generally, holy warriors with powers granted by their deity and have martial training. To keep the cleric as a holy warrior separate from a paladin, in my campaigns, paladins can also be viewed as holy warriors but with more emphasis on the "warrior" part. Also, paladins don't necessarily draw their powers from their god as much as their own convictions (hence the importance of charisma).
 
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MGibster

Legend
A general term is "adherent".
Which means what exactly? Because adherent is not a general term for priest or clergy.

A term like "priest" is ethnocentric at best.
This seems like your particular hang up rather than a problem most people have. While I think it's great to be inclusive, I don't think the writers of D&D should erase their own identity to appease everyone.
 

Aaron L

Hero
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."
Absolutely. In fact, the word Hierarchy itself comes from the command structure/organization of a priesthood.
 

Aaron L

Hero
One thing that I really wish more D&D settings would get right is the portrayal of actual polytheistic cultures, where all of the Gods are acknowledged as real active forces in the world that cannot be realistically denied and are actively worshiped/appeased by just about everyone, and people who choose to devote themselves to individuals Gods are in the extreme minority (just as Atheists would be quite rare, with the term in this case adhering to the original Ancient Greek meaning, not the modern use of the term.) People who devoted themselves to individual Gods would be members of that God's Cult, with Cult being used in the classical, non-pejorative meaning of the term, coming from the root of the "cultivation" of a God. Several settings include a few paragraphs where they try to explain this polytheistic setup, but then the majority of adventures and setting details have the writers just reverting to treating religion as some kind of hodgepodge of "multi-monotheism" with most people adhering to a single God and virtually ignoring the rest. Actual polytheism doesn't work that way.

Almost all D&D writers just treat the respective settings' religions as being like modern American monotheistic practices, with the common people choosing a God out of the lineup to devote themselves to, instead of looking into the actual practices of real polytheistic societies like Ancient Greece or Rome to get an idea of what such a religious culture would be like. Even using the Shinto practices of modern Japan would be a fantastic paradigm for modelling polytheistic/animist religious cultural practices. Instead, we basically just get some kind of assumption that Sunday mornings are filled with all the villaage Lathanderites going to their local church for morning services, while the followers of Tempus go to His church, and the Sharities all go to the undergound Church of Shar for their Evil Church Service, or something. Where the reality should be that 95% of normal people don't single out any one individual God for devotion and there aren't any Sunday Morning Services with the Priest of Tempus giving his congregation a sermon on the glories of war. Because, unless you are a devoted member of a specific God's Cult, you would run the risk of offending all of the other Gods. Only actual Cult members would restrict themselves to a single God, such as Priests, Clerics and Adventurer-types, and even they wouldn't dare to deny the divinity of the other Gods. But those are people who live in a parallel culture of people who live outside of mainstream society and therefore need to adhere to more mystical, magical principals to survive in a harsh world of magic and monsters and politics.

Also, I have always stressed to my players that the priesthoods of Gods are absolutely not made up of all, or even mostly, Clerics. Clerics should be a definite minority in most religious hierarchies, as they are specifically the militant fighting arm of a Cult, trained in arms, armor, and combat magic; they are most certainly not everyday priests. And the head of any religious hierarchy should almost definitely never be a member of the Cleric class, unless it is the priesthood of an especially militant religion such as Heironeous or Tempus. A local Priest of Pelor who manages the village shrine should be someone trained in counseling people and have no Cleric levels, and most likely have no levels in anything (or, in the case of 3rd Edition, have levels in Expert, or perhaps Adept if they were especially well-educated.) I have always wanted to play a PC who is a Priest of, say, Heironeous, but who is just a Fighter without any Cleric levels. Having the social position of Priest does not require one to have the profession/class of Cleric.
 

Also, I have always stressed to my players that the priesthoods of Gods are absolutely not made up of all, or even mostly, Clerics. Clerics should be a definite minority in most religious hierarchies, as they are specifically the militant fighting arm of a Cult, trained in arms, armor, and combat magic; they are most certainly not everyday priests.
This raises a question... paladins sound an awful lot like clerics in this scenario. Otherwise I agree.
 

Hex08

Adventurer
This raises a question... paladins sound an awful lot like clerics in this scenario. Otherwise I agree.
I make the same kind of distinction that Aaron L does in my campaigns. I can't speak to cleric vs paladin in his situation but for me paladins differ in that they put more emphasis on the "warrior" part than a cleric does (it's not a great analogy but think of it as a regular military soldier vs a member of special forces) and their powers don't necessarily come directly from their deity but from their conviction in their faith.
 

RoughCoronet0

Dragon Lover
How the church works is something I have been contemplating in regards to my world for a little while, specifically due to the fact that faith and the granting of divine power works a bit differently in my world from the rest of the multiverse.

My gods don’t get power from belief and devotion like typical D&D gods, but instead their divine power comes from mortal souls that become willingly bound to their dominion upon death. Mortals choose their afterlife by essentially attuning themselves to a particular god or pantheon, which allows them to go to their Demi-plane instead of back through the reincarnation cycle. The more souls they collect, the stronger their divine power becomes. Because of this, the gods tend to be a bit more active in the world and more active in communicating with their followers, although how they communicate differs from god to god (they are also active in the world due to the fact that they keep the world stable after near cataclysm that threatened to rip the plane asunder and still threatens to do so should the gods powers falter).

Faith can grant those with it a small amount of power connected to their deity (ie., the piety system I have in place), but typically those with true divine magic are granted such power by the gods themselves from their own collective power source. As such, Clerics are rare and highly revered, and must truly be devoted and loyal to their gods or pantheon in order to keep said power. The only members of the church who are clerics are the Grand High Priests, of which each god has one who oversees all of the faithful across the world, and cleric that have retired and choose to spend their remaining days among the church.

Typically, if a priest or other high ranking member of the church have power, it comes from a different source.
 

My gods don’t get power from belief and devotion like typical D&D gods, but instead their divine power comes from mortal souls that become willingly bound to their dominion upon death. Mortals choose their afterlife by essentially attuning themselves to a particular god or pantheon, which allows them to go to their Demi-plane instead of back through the reincarnation cycle. The more souls they collect, the stronger their divine power becomes.
I like this a lot. From what little I've read about D&D afterlife, normally you just become a petitioner, which is really weak.
 

One thing that I really wish more D&D settings would get right is the portrayal of actual polytheistic cultures, where all of the Gods are acknowledged as real active forces in the world that cannot be realistically denied and are actively worshiped/appeased by just about everyone, and people who choose to devote themselves to individuals Gods are in the extreme minority (just as Atheists would be quite rare, with the term in this case adhering to the original Ancient Greek meaning, not the modern use of the term.) People who devoted themselves to individual Gods would be members of that God's Cult, with Cult being used in the classical, non-pejorative meaning of the term, coming from the root of the "cultivation" of a God. Several settings include a few paragraphs where they try to explain this polytheistic setup, but then the majority of adventures and setting details have the writers just reverting to treating religion as some kind of hodgepodge of "multi-monotheism" with most people adhering to a single God and virtually ignoring the rest. Actual polytheism doesn't work that way.
The Forgotten Realms is specifically henotheistic, which is where one accepts that many deities exist, but they choose to only worship one. Old Testament Judaism is a real world example, although I've never seen the term applied to them. The rest of D&D seems to have fallen into that model as well, but I don't know when the concept was introduced (or if was just assumed from the beginning).

In my Greyhawk campaign, I've decided to break things down by race and culture. Dwarves are purely polytheistic, worshiping all of the gods more or less equally (Moradin gets the lion's share though). Elves are generally henotheistic, but due to their long lifespan, often change deities. Orcs are henotheistic, forced to worship whatever god their tribal priest does. Humans are an even mix of henotheistic and polytheistic, with the Baklunish being polytheistic. There's the Church of All Season, who worships 4 nature deities, with the focus on the one who matches the current season. There's also the Church of Pholtus, who has many monotheistic members that believe the other "gods" are either trickster fiends or servants of Pholtus (depending on the alignment of the god). Finally, there's the Old Faith, which has an odd relationship with the gods, generally ignoring the existence of non-nature deities. There are a few atheists, found only among the most scholarly that postulate that the gods are nothing more than powerful beings that have simply claimed divinity.

Having the social position of Priest does not require one to have the profession/class of Cleric.
Absolutely agree. Clerics are special, in that they can actually channel the power of a god, but they are not even necessarily accepted as priests of a church (they could be considered a heretic).
 

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