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

He 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

He 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

Hero
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

He 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

Hero
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. :)
 


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