Religion in Fantasy Worlds

This post was inspired by a post at the KORE rpg blog about the topic. And it got me thinking, which is sometimes not a good thing…

monk_bwReligion is definitely one of those hot buttons in the real world, like sex, money, politics, and many other hot buttons. As soon as you breach the subject however, some people want to either convert you or condemn you – and neither option really appeals to me.

I’m an atheistic-leaning agnostic… or an agnostic-leaning atheist. Just depends on the day. From my point of view, religion is a good thing for a lot of people, so I don’t make a fuss about it. If you want to talk to me about religion, that’s fine – but I don’t like being preached to. Just a personal thing. The door-to-door folks concerned with saving my soul should just move along. (I’m nice about it, but don’t want to waste their time or mine.)

What’s funny is that it’s also not one of the things I typically think about in my roleplaying. I’m more likely to play a cleric or priest as an NPC than a PC, which goes along with my leaning towards creating worlds with conflict these days.

My Immortals’ Wake setting has a church – the Church of the Mother – that has been twisted in the last thousand years to preach a message of no tolerance. History in the real world shows that many faiths have had issues with tolerating views other than their own. And I wanted to bring that aspect into my setting.

And, as with all things, there are those people within the Church who are more liberal in their views of brotherhood than others. A militant arm has sworn to destroy a group of so-called “demons” simply because they are an affront to what they believe. Other groups within the Church are more tolerant of the “demons” and even helps them from time to time.

However, priests in my games tend to be focused on the personal aspects of the mortal condition – helping the sick and poor, aiding those seeking sanctuary, providing spiritual guidance, and so on – not just the traditional D&D cleric point of view as far as mobile MASH and holy smash unit. As mentioned, there are militants in the Church of the Mother who certainly focus on what they think of as fighting the good fight. But most priests would rather tend to their flocks than fight I think.

As such, my priest NPCs tend to be more philosophers and scholars than weapon-wielding crusaders of faith. They’re more likely to talk you to death than beat you with a blessed club. These folks are also just as likely to be warped by greed or lust as any other mortal, so they may not be the paragons of virtue they’re made out to be. They’re simply men and women doing a job they believe in (or want you to believe in).

This is not to say that they don’t apply their healing abilities to those who need them. Nor do they stray away from praying regularly to the focus of their devotion. And miracles do happen. But these are mortal representatives of their faith who only rarely become vessels to the divine power of their gods.

When you bring in the whole wizard vs. cleric debate and wonder whether a priest might directly oppose a wizard and try to have them lynched. Many priests would decry that wizardry is evil and therefore should be destroyed. But many others would state that if their divine hosts could work miracles through the faithful, why would they allow magicians of other types not to exist? What’s to say that the wizard isn’t working divine miracles of his or her own and simply doesn’t appreciate the divine side of the equation?

A priest whose power base is threatened might turn his flock against a rival wizard, but that would erode his power base. The wizard would most likely fall to greater numbers eventually, but how many members of the priest’s flock would die first? Wouldn’t that give them pause?

So there is definitely room for religion in my games. I’ve only had one player ever convincingly play a priest in a campaign I ran. But I’m always hoping for another!

How do you use religion in your fantasy games? Is it a force to be reckoned with?

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8 thoughts on “Religion in Fantasy Worlds”

  1. I have to have a really clear idea of a faithful character (cleric/paladin/whatever) before I am comfortable playing such a character. But when I have a strong vision of such a character, they have been a lot of fun to play.

    It depends on what the players want out of a campaign. While religion is always a subtext to my campaign worlds, it usually only plays a major role if the players want it too.
    .-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..Through the Lens of History 3 – Winter Festivals of Old Europe =-.

    1. @Sean Holland – Though I’ve understood the motivations of many priestly NPCs with strong convictions, I’ve never played one myself. I tend to shy away towards exploring the faithful side of things with my own tendency towards agnosticism/atheism. But I can say without a doubt that the NPCs are fun. I think having a strong vision of the character makes a huge difference.

      I’m definitely with you on not pushing the religion aspect on the PCs. In the Immortals Wake world, I have to say it’s a bit more front and center than some might like. But the gray area Church members inhabit in the world is what gives it the ever-present potential for conflict – which is fun to GM and play. 🙂

    1. @Zzarchov – I have to say Miracles are one of the areas I’m struggling a bit with in my own system. Rules for miracles are tough to balance with the rest of things. How do you adjust the rules to make this work in your games?

  2. First off, thanks for the comment and ping back over at KORE RPG.

    As for playability, I agree that the general notion of playing the benevolent side of clerics or paladins isn’t a very fulfilling role. One can only garner a limited amount of play out helping the sick and the dying. After a few game sessions, during the down times, it’ll just be accepted that’s what the character is going to do. Something overt in the campaign needs to be in the game to make it a note worthy task.

    Apparently, I’m of an opinion on the topic that isn’t common. A game with active, vying gods could catapult the game play of the religious oriented classes upward. Consider a world where gods derive power, in part, from the number of believers and followers. Now battles will ensue to convert the unbelievers, destroy the opposing god’s followers, etc. If one god could eliminate another through the actions of his devoted and gain additional power, what would happen?

    I can see a few of my players being on the malevolent side in such a setting. Yet its not uncommon for the benevolent to become malevolent when their faith, power and lives are stake.

    1. @Mark – No worries at all. I like it when topics raise my interest. 🙂

      I think a game with active gods would be very interesting. I toyed with the idea of a world where gods walk among the people and mortal cities clamor to be a “Godcity” where a god once lived… Imagine the destruction that would result if some of these wandering gods had armies of followers and fought repeatedly over the millennia.

      As for malevolent vs. benevolent – that’s an interesting point. I’ll have to ponder that one. 🙂

    2. As for the malevolent vs. benevolent… that’s where people get hung up on the crazy idea of an Alignment being all inclusive. Another topic for another time but suffice to say even the most law abiding, generous individuals can be pushed into action they would never consider under the right circumstances. Nudging a character into choosing actions outside of their view of morality could happen easily in such a world. Doing so would invoke the RP in RPG. It has the potential to be a thing of beauty. 🙂

      1. @Mark – Alignment is sooooo much fun. I’ve had that debate before. We’ve gone to using a mix of alignment and allegiances in the D&D 3.5e game we’re playing, but I have to say I’m not a fan of the “good vs. evil” thing myself. I find myself squarely in the gray… somewhere. 🙂

        I like putting good characters in bad situations from time to time myself, so I certainly get that aspect. Roleplaying. [gasp] What a concept. 🙂

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