What Religion Means

November 20th, 2008

Another contribution to this month’s RPG Blog Carnival on religion.

Much has been posted this month regarding ways of looking at the gods and religion in your game, but today I’m dealing with a slightly different way of making your religions seem more real:  the interaction of religion upon society.

In some games I’ve played in, religion doesn’t have much of an impact.  The priests of this god or that build temples and hold services, and perhaps some of them are involved in local politics, but often the temple serves as nothing more than a passive nexus, a place where the party might go for information or healing, or where they might be given a quest.

In reality, though, religion is an important social force.  The teachings of most religions prescribe ways of living, and these prescriptions (and proscriptions) shape the society.  Where a certain religion is dominant, they become social norms, perhaps even laws.  Where it is not, they cause believers to stand apart, which can lead to becoming shunned or reviled; even if it doesn’t, it marks the believer as different.

So let’s consider the default fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons pantheon.  Before getting to specific gods’ roles, we need to consider the pantheon as a whole.  The standard assumption is that the world is pantheistic, and a given layman might pray to whichever deity seems most appropriate at the time — a farmer could pray to Pelor for a good crop, Erathis or Melora for protection against pests, and Bane or the Raven Queen to spare the life of his son who was conscripted into the local baron’s army.

Imagine, though, that the world is henotheistic:  a given person follows a specific god or two, and, while not denying the existence of the others, more or less ignores them as irrelevant.  In this case, you could have entire communities devoted to a patron god or sub-pantheon (much like the demi-human races were in previous editions).  In a village that worships Pelor, how is the family that reveres Erathis or Moradin treated?  Are they considered eccentric?  Misguided?  Heretical?  Are they greeted warmly in the street, or coolly, or do they need to keep their devotions secret in order to avoid threats of violence?

And of course you can go one step further:  the next village down the road might also worship Pelor… but that doesn’t mean the two get along.  Maybe this village is made up of Reformed Orthodox Pelorites, while the neighbors are Pelorites of the Order of the Golden Disk.  Differing sects can have very different interpretations of the same god’s commands — just think of the differences between, say, Catholics, Methodists, and Southern Baptists… or, at one step greater remove, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  In reality, religious beliefs tend to splinter into sects, yet in many fantasy worlds, the religions are monoliths of uniformity, aside from perhaps a few rogue orders.  Coming up with different religious orders, all under the umbrella of the same deity, adds nuance to your game.

But let’s consider the gods themselves.  The Player’s Handbook pantheon is pretty stripped-down, but it covers most of the bases.  One of the things you might think about for your world is how these different gods relate to important social issues.  For instance, let’s take charity.

It would be very easy to come to a conclusion along the lines that good gods favor, encourage, or even mandate charity, while evil gods refrain or oppose it.  That may be all you need for your game.  But it might be more interesting if that weren’t the case.  You might decide something along these lines, instead:

Avandra favors those who take fate into their own hands.  Though she’s a good-aligned god, her priesthood does not engage in charitable giving, because they believe that this creates a dependency in the recipients, discouraging them from seizing their own destinies.  The priesthood does, however, maintain good relations with various traders, and they will use those connections to place able-bodied individuals into jobs with trading caravans or sailing ships — dangerous jobs at times, yet potentially lucrative ones.  This furthers their god’s aims while, at least in theory, helping the needy.

Bahamut, god of protection, chivalry, nobility, and honor, favors charity toward the needy.  In some societies where Bahamut’s creed is strongly dominant, this rises to the level of a duty.

Bane, though an evil god, encourages acts of charity.  His followers see these as a way of indebting the recipients to them personally and to Bane’s priesthood in general, and thus as a means of conquering.  Bane’s priests are not shy about calling in such debts when they are needed.  Bane’s followers are themselves loath to accept charity, for they see this as a sign of weakness.  Should they be forced to do so, however, they will often take great steps to repay their benefactors and escape their debts honorably — the god of conquest is not above using deception and betrayal, but he also expects underlings to obey their superiors, and by accepting charity, the worshipper has acknowledged the giver as his superior.  When the recipient does stab the giver in the back, it had best be quick, brutal, and successful; Bane respects nothing less.

Erathis, god of civilization, instructs her followers to provide shelter and other basic needs to those in distress.  There is an expectation that the recipient will, in turn, be of assistance to others in the future; in some areas, they must swear an oath to do so.  Where Erathis is dominant, no one is refused charity, but all such recipients are put to work in the service of the community.

Ioun cares little about charity, leaving her worshippers to their own devices in most regards, but there is a sect of her priesthood that practices a rite called the Gathering.  Once every year, on a holy feast day, Ioun’s priests of this sect open their doors to any child, from the scions of nobility to the orphans in the gutter, who wishes to study in their great schools.  These children are tested; those who show sufficient intelligence are Gathered, and spend the next decade in intense study.  Those who graduate the program are highly sought after as experts in their chosen field.

The priesthood of Tiamat considers charity the greatest of sins.  The chromatic dragon’s devout abhor the very thought of giving away money or services — they only willingly part with such when they feel they will see a greater return, as in an investment.  In areas where Tiamat’s faith dominates, the poor are left to their own devices; the closest thing to “charity” such areas see is that the bodies of those who starve in the streets are removed, lest disease run rampant.

Vecna operates by a simple quid pro quo:  those who wish charity of his priesthood must first offer a secret, for which they will be paid in proportion to the value or interest of the knowledge.  Though the god is evil, the priesthood operates scrupulously in this regard; it’s true that they tend to value all such secrets low, but they never fail to provide compensation in exchange for these secrets.  It’s widely whispered that they use such secrets to tear communities apart at their whim, turning neighbors against each other and dethroning powers other than themselves — but in areas where Vecna dominates, the desperate have no other recourse.

Zehir pursues a single course of twisted charity:  his priesthood seek out likely orphans, searching for the best pickpockets and sneak-thieves.  These are given food, shelter, clothing, and training, and those who survive ultimately become temple assassins, stealthy killers in the name of their god.  The price of entry into this shadowy society:  the orphan must kill a person — any person they choose — while the recruiting priest observes.  Those few orphans daring and lucky enough to choose to kill the priest are soon contacted by another member of the order; these are trained to become high-ranking priests of the order in turn.  An orphan who refuses or fails at any time during this process is put to death.

Similar positions could be drawn on any social issue, and having a framework such as this in mind allows you to enrich your world.  When the party rides into a town and sees grey-and-blue-robed men and women cleaning streets, building roads, and the like, they can recognize this as an area where Erathis’s religion is strong — or where a particular sect of it is.  Similarly, if the duke’s vizier is a Graduate of Ioun Temple, they’ll understand that he’s incredibly knowledgeable and talented.  If a follower of Bane begs their indulgence, they’ll know that he can be trusted to repay them — as long as they keep an eye on him.

In short, they’ll know what a given religion means to its community, and they’ll be able to guess how both the religion and the community will respond to them.


Related posts:

  1. Losing Your Religion
  2. Rampant Sects
  3. Fox Magic: Inari
  4. Superhero Lessons for Fantasy Games
  5. Defining the Raven Queen

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  1. Pingback: ROUNDUP - RPG Bloggers Network Carnival - Religion - The Dice Bag | The Dice Bag on Tuesday, December 2, 2008
  2. Pingback: Rampant Sects | A Butterfly Dreaming on Saturday, April 25, 2009


  1. Jim, Nov. 20, 2008, 12:22 pm:

    A very good and indepth article. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Scott, Nov. 20, 2008, 1:43 pm:


  3. Ben Overmyer, Nov. 20, 2008, 4:07 pm:

    That’s a very good article, indeed. Would you be willing to allow Silver Gryphon Games to reprint it in issue #3 of Silver Gryphon Monthly? If so, email me and we can discuss the particulars.

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