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Religion For Roleplaying Games

A crucial early stage in creating a fantasy roleplaying game setting is designing its religions. A religion’s role in the campaign setting work on two levels: the deities themselves and the followers.

The deities themselves may or may not be an active part of the story, depending on your preference.

The followers are often more interesting than the gods themselves because now the mortals enter the picture, and faith, heresy, sin, and redemption become part of your story.

This post is a follow-up on a previous post Writing Fantasy Religions with gaming in mind, and focus on the nuts and bolts of making religious deities, characters, villains and nonplayer characters work in your campaign setting.

The Cleric: The Walking Plot Device

Prophets have a way of dying by violence.

Frank Herbert (Dune, 1965)

Religious characters are often fun and easy to play and are also convenient plot device for the Game Master.

Religion believes in something greater than themselves and has a purpose. Whenever religious characters are in doubt, they can look up the tenets of their deity, and where are usually an adventure hook nearby to investigate.

Religious characters come with a built-in plot hook, if you are willing to use it, although using the religion hook can be tricky for at least two reasons:

  • Religion must be handled respectfully if your audience doesn’t share your own beliefs. That is not our concern in this blog, and I will leave this in your capable hands.
  • Faith is an easy plot device. Many religious characters, especially spellcasters, are literally on a mission from their god. A religious character means you have a walking plot hook in the middle of the group right from the start, which means you can torment the cleric whenever you are short on plot ideas, so of course religion always ends up as the secondary theme of any of my campaigns. You can easily overdo it, and your game becomes all about that religious character.

Pros

Once you got this sorted, consider the benefits:

  • Religious characters come with a powerful built-in plot hook merely because they believe in something. You can introduce an enemy of the church in the vicinity of the religious character, and that church expects the character to deal with that in some manner, even if rushing out and attacking that enemy is excessive.
  • If the church is struggling with sin and heresy, you have a conflict that threatens nations more than your average monster hordes. The character is now obliged to save the church.

Cons

Religion is alluring. It is easy. It is also a slippery slope for the game master.

  • Religious plots are compelling and can easily hijack whatever story you have prepared. I’ve run many campaigns, and even if religion rarely is the main story (saving or destroying the kingdom usually is), religion is always a major subplot.

Example: Your Plot is Not Working, so Let’s Torment the Cleric Instead

Let’s say you have painted your story in a corner. You have foolishly followed the plot that seemed most interesting, but it came with the catch that it relied on a minority of the group. This in itself a problem since a roleplaying game is a group story. Then matters get worse as that focus player is absent, or even quit the game.

You need to get the story back on track, and quickly.

How to Include Religion in Roleplaying Games

The Deity

Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder Roleplaying Game religions have a handful of basic characteristics:

Worshippers: Who is most inclined to serve and worship the deity.

Holy Symbol: Symbols that represent the deity.

Alignment: The deity’s moral codex, perhaps on the good-evil and law-chaos axis.

Domains: Groups of spells and special abilities only available to certain religions.

Portfolios: Broader spheres of influence for the deity, like life, death, nature, and magic.

Weapons of Choice: The favored weapon of the deity.

Planar Allies and Divine Servants: Planar creatures that serve the specific deity.

Divine Enemies: Each religion needs at least one designated enemy, and preferably one that shows up regularly in the game. Enemies like devils, demons, and undead are great to ensure the religious character’s usefulness to the group.

Spheres of Influence

You have many spheres of influences at work in most fantasy settings.

  • Life, love, death.
  • Sea, nature, sun, moon.
  • Crafts, trade, law, writing.
  • War, catastrophes.
  • Magic, elements, shadow.
  • Law, chaos, good and evil.
  • Every class.
  • Every race.

This will be sizable pantheon for sure. Each deity has more than one sphere of influence of course, but if you use the good-evil and law-chaos axis, that alone gives you nine deities.

The designers of the 4th and 5th edition of D&D created the sample Dawn War pantheon, surely with a similar list of considerations in mind. They ended up with 20 deities.

Example: Interesting Enemy Choices

If you work through your list of deities and flip their spheres of interests, you may get an idea of what each church would consider sin and heresy.

So is a pacifist Athena cleric a sinner? Perhaps. What about a socialist cleric of Hermes?

So if we play Pathfinder by the book, this means the cunning God of Trade sponsors inquisitors. So what does this inquisitor hunt? Not the greedy, and probably not the slothful. We jokingly figured that the merchant inquisitor probably hunted communists.

The Fast and Dirty Pantheon Design

The easiest way to design a deity, as pointed out in the Midgard Campaign Setting (2012), is to pick a name, two domains (as religious spheres of interest are defined in 3e D&D), a weapon, a symbol and you are done.

The hardest part may be coming up with a name for each deity.

You could even iron out the details randomly if you want to push the envelope. Roll in each column any number of times required and see what you get. A neutral good khopesh-wielding priest of shadow and beer anyone? You get the point. Expand the table as necessary. Let’s have some fun.

Random Deity Generator Table

Worshippers Holy Symbol Alignment
1 archers book good
2 artisans chalice neutral
3 commoners cloud evil
4 craftsmen dagger chaos
5 farmers flame law
6 guardians hammer
7 horsemen hand
8 lovers lightning
9 merchants mask
10 mothers moon
11 murderers mountain
12 nobility scroll
13 pranksters serpent
14 rangers skull
15 sailors spear
16 scholars star
17 thieves sun
18 travelers sword
19 warrior tree
20 wizards wheel
Domain
Portfolio Weapon
1 knowledge agriculture club
2 life beauty falchion
3 light courage glaive
4 nature darkness greataxe
5 tempest deception greatsword
6 trickery fertility khopesh
7 war hate longbow
8 charm healing longsword
9 darkness hunting mace
10 death justice maul
11 destruction love quarterstaff
12 healing luck scimitar
13 luck magic scythe
14 madness rivers shortbow
15 magic sea shortspear
16 protection travel shortsword
17 strength tyranny spiked chain
18 sun vengeance trident
19 travel war warhammer
20 weather wisdom whip

Sample Divine Systems

There are a few choices to make when you build your pantheon:

  • Is religion fact or fiction?
  • Do you want racial pantheons?
  • Monotheism or pantheism?

This list of choices gives some variations to choose from the religious system for your world.

Ancient Earth: Regional Pantheist Religions

The template offered by the old Legends and Lore is regional pantheist religions, much like ancient earth. The Greeks worshiped the Olympic Pantheon, the Aztecs worshiped the Aztec gods, and so on. There is little overlap as written, and allows the pantheons to exist at the same time but in a different region. The worshipers treat the deities as facts and often appears among the mortals. Each pantheon has its perception of the cosmology.

You need to figure out what happens in border areas. For example, where do the Greek pantheon end and the Roman pantheon begin? Also, you need to decide if Mars is merely Ares by another name, or are they two different entities? Real world academia sees Ares and Mars as the same god, explained by linguistic or cultural differences,  but that does not have to be the case in the world you are designing. Regardless of your decision, do the worshipers know or even accept this answer?

Forgotten Realms: Universal Pantheist Religion

Faerûn, the heart of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting has a (mostly) universal pantheon shared across the lands, including racial pantheons.

Universal means that all deities are recognized everywhere, if not worshipped. The churches fight when they disagree, not because they deny the other deities’ existence.

This approach is the underlying assumption of Dungeons and Dragons, and the Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook (5e, 2014) includes an abridged list of this pantheon.

Midgard: Overlapping Pantheist Religion

Kobold Press’ Midgard setting has deservingly gotten positive attention for its deities. Midgaard is using a variant of the region pantheist religions, but with a twist. Midgard has overlapping pantheons, and the deities have different names and variant dogmas.

The twist is that this confusion – called masks in the setting –  is not chalked up to mortal linguistic or cultural differences, but actively used by the deities for protection and part of their divine agendas.

Planescape: There is no Pantheon, Only Individuals

If you probe deep in the underlying assumptions of the Dungeons and Dragons game, and its sources of inspiration like real-life pantheons and literary sources like Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer, you may end up in the Planescape setting.

Planescape is D&D turned up to eleven. It casts you into the multiverse head first, where the gods and their philosophical conflict are everywhere. The setting is the entire Great Wheel, and references to real-world or campaigns setting pantheon appear anecdotal. The multiverse is much bigger than that.

Likewise, the deities no longer seem like gods, and more like powerful individuals lurking in their domains across the Great Wheel.

Example: The Monotheistic Planar Campaign

A personal favorite I’ve played in started in an oppressive monotheistic civilization and moved into planar adventures similar to the classic Planescape setting with little or no explanation. We had no indication whether our beliefs were correct, or if our deity even existed, but everything we encountered indicated that our One True God at best had limited influence on the cosmology.

Dragon Age: Monotheistic World Religion

Thedas, the setting of Bioware’s Dragon Age franchise, has its system of religion. The humans and city elves of known Thedas worship the Maker and his prophet Andraste, but what that means are vague and open to interpretation.

The church of the Maker is fractured, with two regional churches with competing heads of the church and teachings. The church was split historical struggle and convenience and not for religious reasons.  The religion is firmly in the faith category, there is no evidence of the Maker’s existence, and Bioware refuses to confirm or deny anything.

The setting’s cosmology included a the dreamworld, the Fade, which is a source of magic and is supposed to contain the seat of the Maker. The Fade is at the heart of the conflict as human mages brought corruption to the world when they entered the Fade and usurped the throne of the Maker. Or so we are told at the very beginning of the series.

This myth has developed throughout the series, with a massive revelation in Trespasser, the final DLC to Dragon Age: Inquisition. That said, Bioware is tight-lipped, and in-game sources are usually unreliable narrators, so I am betting we are nowhere close to the “truth.”

Diablo: Demons vs. Angels

The world of Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo franchise has its take on fantasy religions. The settings lore feature references to gods and religion, but the heart of the setting is the battle between angels and demons, and humanity’s place between those two forces.

Both angels and demons are facts and appear in vast numbers, and heaven and hell divide the cosmology. The moral compass seems to be clear-cut at first glance but is more complicated given humanity’s place in the middle of the conflict, and hits of both angels and demons looking for ways to end the conflict.

Fallen Faith

The world builder needs to decide whether the church will recognize the fallen clergy, or is the heresy allowed to continue in secret?

The character needs to decide if he or she embraces hypocrisy, or if he or she wants to reform the church.

The answers should be obvious. What is the most interesting story?

Example: Chicken Bones and Phony Blesses

One of the funniest characters I have encountered was a priest who sold chicken bones as holy relics and bestowed insincere blesses. The monotheistic religion resembling a modern religion removed distractions and highlighted the character’s hypocrisy and falsehood. For better or worse, it would not have been as meaningful if he worshipped a vaguer ancient Greek god.

Example: Athena and the Greater Good

Let’s consider heresy, using the Greek goddess Athena as an example. The Deities and Demigods (1e, 1980) states that Athena is a lawful good goddess of combat and wisdom. Let’s say her clergy has free will.

A cleric of Athena that emphasis law over goodness could then cross some moral line and become a tyrant. Athena’s orderly and good community is suddenly an oppressive regime and the church of Athena a corrupt and oppressive organization. Other clerics may enjoy combat a little too much and have embraced outright slaughter, similar to her chaotic archenemy Ares.

What about Athena herself, if she even exists in your world? Will she respect her worshipers’ free will and continue to grant spells? Will Athena agree to any “greater good” argument? If so, is she as good as she claims?

Is this morally ambiguous cleric a follower of something else entirely? Ares may be interested in a fallen chaotic cleric of Athena, or an archdevil like Asmodeus may welcome a tyrannical cleric of Athena. Does the character realize he or she has fallen from the established, or true faith?

The fallen cleric has a few choices to make if Athena takes action and cease to grant spells. The cleric must choose to either seek redemption or in desperation to turn other, perhaps darker gods.

So what if Athena has differing manifestations for different species? How would Athena fit in a dwarven society? Athena, as described in the Deities and Demigods, makes a pretty decent dwarven goddess as a patron for dwarven rulers and a center point for dwarven settlements, and an excellent alternative to Moradin, a commonly used dwarven God of Creation. I am pretty sure Gimli would disapprove of the current state of affairs.

The Reading List

How to Include Religions in Roleplaying Games

The Reading List

The following includes affiliate links.

News

Dungeons and Dragons have had more than its share of controversies regarding religion in the past. Travel back in time with these two articles:

Game Books

There are many books on deities for roleplaying games.

The various editions of the Deities and Demigods and the Manual of the Planes are hard to omit when talking about Dungeons and Dragons deities.

Faiths and Avatars by Julia Martin and Eric L Boyd (1996) remain a milestone for deities and pantheons in roleplaying games, raising the bar from the first Deities and Demigods to the standard we recognize today, with full page (or more) descriptions of the deities and their churches.

Green Ronin Publishing’s adaption of the Bioware Dragon Age computer game is worth checking out. The setting and the rules are both included in the book, and the primary option for a deity is the Maker and the church of Andraste.

The Book of the Righteous, another fun Green Ronin, is a classic from the d20 era and now in a new edition. The first edition presented a complete pantheon for use with any campaign setting.

The Midgard Campaign Setting (2012) offers an interesting take on the gods. The deceitful gods of Midgard are likely to care less about heretical beliefs, which makes it all the more interesting if the followers do.

2 Comments

  1. Same old same old…
    Have you ever thought of doing a real religion? I am studying the Book of Genesis at the moment which contains girls sleeping with their father, drunk Mr Noah, Dinah being raped and avenged, Cain murdering his brother and then not caring…
    The Bible, that much abused book, is much much more than silly people think. It is full of really good stuff for gaming.
    email me if you like.

    • I suppose you are right. My post is pretty much traditional variants of how D&D has included religion since the 70s.

      A new religion has never interested me, beyond creating a pantheon for my homebrew D&D game, and now recently my attempts at writing fiction. The latter is work in progress.

      Regarding the Bible, you made me realize I’ve omitted the Caine myth in Vampire: the Masquerade, especially the Book of Nod, which is brilliant and may interest you.
      I should also have included Exalted, but I have yet to read it, so I left it out for now. I need to update this post sometime in the future.

      Another book of interest may be Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth, but I imagine it’s hard to find today. It was a mixed read, but I was probably not ready for it at the time.

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