Worldbuilding - Fantasy Religion

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    Inkwell Ideas

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    Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide

    by Joe Wetzel (joewetzel at gmail dot com)

    [If you like this article, check out the other Worldbuilding articles on this website, particularly the LocalArea Design and theHex Map GIMP Brushes (about drawing hex maps) articles.]

    Depending on your campaign setting idea, in the early stages you may only need a bare minimum of detailsabout your religion. In cases like these make sure you flesh out any particular deities you need (for example

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    if a character is a Cleric or Paladin describe that god in at least bullet points and note any needed gamestatistics or mechanics such as the gods domains) and build up the religion later when it is needed or whenyou have an intriguing idea. This also gives you an opportunity to see how the players react to yourreligions skeleton and build on what they like and what is important to your evolving setting and story.

    But if religion, gods, or a pantheon is a key aspect of yourcampaign setting idea, youll want to work it up in detailearly during your fantasy worlds development.

    Creating a fantasy religion can be as long and detailed taskas you want. After all, tens or hundreds of millions ofpeople participate in the real worlds most popular religionsand many of those people are teaching, writing and addingto the religion in different ways.

    Religion can provide another venue for conflict and dramain your game world. Detailing your worlds religions to anydegree adds that same degree of depth to your world for amore rewarding experience.

    Multiple Religions?

    Many fantasy worlds have one pantheon of gods thatinteract with each other. While people may follow one godthey believe all the others exist as well. Followers of areligion with a pantheon of gods would hold one god whosedomain most directly impacted their lives in higher esteem, but they would also pay respect to the other godespecially as circumstances merited the respect. A trader might hold a god of travel or trade above the othergods of the pantheon, but he would certainly pay the god of fertility respect when a child was born or evenask a favor from a god of trickery if he was dishonest. Due to a gods domains (fertility, travel, trickery, etc.some evil gods may gain some influence and power from non-evil followers. The personality and goals othe god may be independent of the gods domains from the perspective of the people.

    In the real world multiple pantheons of god(s) exist (evenat the same time) and monotheistic and atheistic (heremeaning a belief in a religious philosophy) religions existas well. Depending on the specific culture and religion,followers of various religions may or may not believe godsfrom other pantheons are real or in the case ofmonotheistic and atheistic religions people do not believe

    any other gods are real. The Christian God is quoted assaying put no other gods before me which may implythat his followers may still believe in other gods as long asthey put him first. The Romans were well-known to adoptmany gods from the places they conquered. Despite thesefacts, there are also many cases where active wars werefought over one group disbelieving another groupsreligion.

    The notion of multiple pantheons often gets overlooked in fantasy games or relegated to simply the elveshave a few different gods as do the dwarves, etc. But throughout history many pantheons have existed at the

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    game world) into your own game world. However, unless you want to run an alternate history campaign orhave an explanation using the same gods with the same names as a real world religion might be jarring forplayers interested in a fantasy experience. Further you may want to search for resources (a good book on thereligion/mythology you are borrowing or a detailed on-line resource) to help you better understand themotivations and personalities of the gods or people who are part of the chosen religion.

    If you already have a religious concept in mind that is key to your game world keep that in mind as youconsider these next decisions. Also, you should have some basic ideas about the culture behind this religion

    as the culture should influence some of your religion design decisions. (A seafaring culture will hold a watergod in high esteem or it may have multiple gods with influence over water for example. A culture with aharsh climate may have harsh gods. Etc.)

    The first thing to consider is the size of the religion with respect to the number of gods. As mentioned abovethere are reasons a religion might have just one or even no gods. However if you are going to have apantheon of gods and if it is going to be the Universal religion for the world consider keeping thepantheon on the large side. Or at least make sure the rest of your religions concept is expandable. A largepantheon would be few (2-6) major gods, (3-8) several intermediate gods, and many lesser and demi-gods(3-10 of each). But even if your religion is monotheistic, there may be a number of prominent heralds andleaders under the god such as Angels, Prophets, and Saints. Consider putting some time into designing these

    if it will add depth and prove useful to your game.

    Another factor to consider is how is the religion organized. World Builders Guidebookgives several ideas:

    Family: The gods are an extended family with roles and friction based on their status in the family.Racial: Each major races key feature is embodied by a god. (The Dwarven god might representStrength, the Elven god might represent beauty, etc.)Elemental: Each god represents an element (air, fire, etc.) or quasi-element (lighting, tornadoes, etc.)Celestial: Each god is a constellation in the sky.Heroes: The pantheon is made of mortals who were somehow elevated to god-status.Natural: The gods represent natural things such as the sky and mountains or a number of plants or a

    number of animals etc.Stewards: The gods are themselves creations of a higher power given stewardship over the world.Bureaucracy: Each deity is a department in a large bureaucracy responsible for managing the world.Mixed: A combination of the other ways the religion is organized.

    A few others ways religions could be organized:

    Object: The religions is organized based on an object. The religion in theRose of the Prophetbooksby Weis and Hickman was organized like a d20. Each god had his own side of the d20 and eachedge or point was a domain such as Love, War, etc. A chess board is used as an example in acompanion article here.

    Idea or intangible object: Perhaps each gods name starts with a different letter of the culturesalphabet or the religion is based on a single idea with different sub-religions based on differentinterpretations of the religion.

    The next factor to decide is how involved is the religion. While any religion should have some daily impacton its followers, this factor concerns how active are the deities in the lives of mortals. They may becompletely oblivious to the lives of mortals because they have other concerns or they have a mutualagreement between each other to keep out of mortal affairs entirely. Or maybe the deities may severelyrestrict their involvement with mortals for some reason. Moving up the scale, perhaps the deities have someinvolvement with mortals when they arent too busy and some mortals may gain their favor but the gods

    only take an active role when necessary. On the other hand, the deities may be very active with mortals.

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    They may use mortals and wars between mortals as proxies for their own battles. They may frequentlyanswer their followers prayers by granting favors and expecting sacrifices.

    Nature of the Gods

    Another factor to consider is what are the gods? Are theyelemental forces, animals, spirits, or human (or humanoidsince this is for a fantasy setting) beings with great powers

    (and maybe or maybe not humanoid failings.) While the vastmajority of fantasy religions are personifications (based onhuman beings) the other possibilities may be a good fit foryour campaign and may make your setting a little moredifferent from others.

    The nature of the gods is also impacted by their power level.Are they omnipotent or are there things they can not do?Where does this power come from?

    While omnipotence may make sense for some religions and

    fantasy settings, drama comes from conflict and conflict isdifficult if one side is all-powerful. Therefore the vastmajority of gods in fantasy settings have a power level that is between omnipotence and the highestcharacter levels.

    Often the strength of a religion is proportional to the number and devoutness of the religions followers(including the religions leaders.) In other cases a deitys strength might be related to his relationship withthe other gods (whether that is predetermined as the first son of a father-god or changes as a god buildsinfluence among his peers) or be based on the desires of a very small number of ancestor gods. Otherexplanations are also certainly possible.

    In any case deities are often restricted in how they may interact with mortals. Therefore they may workthrough avatars which embody themselves in the world of mortals or through priests and other religiousorders. The deities often try to spread their religion through these mortals when they can not take directactions. Depending on the god, the religion may be spread through: conquest, proselytizing, increasing thepopulation, answering prayers, calamities, or beneficial works.

    Domains

    Finally we can get to the point of assigning domains to the religion. As we begin to assign domains, keep inmind that while a god may have a focus certain domains, he or she is still a god and has some amount of

    power over everything. A ship passengers prayer for a safe voyage may just as likely be answered bywhichever god he normally worships as it may be answered by a sea god. But depending on the religionand the person, a ship passenger may be more likely to think of praying to the sea god in this circumstanceas he is to think of another god. Also depending on your religion while all gods may have some power togrant a safe voyage the sea gods power may be a little or a lot more.

    If the religion has one god or no gods, it may be best to choose several domains that the religionemphasizes. As mentioned above perhaps the one religion has several sub-religions with different domains(points of emphasis) and priests may be part of any sub-religion. Example domains are:

    Elemental: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Lightning/Thunder.

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    Natural: Animal, Plant, Sun, Moon, Oceans, Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter),Sky/Winds, Dawn/DuskAlignment: Chaos, Evil, Good, Law, NeutralityConceptual: Death, Destruction, Healing, Knowledge, Love, Luck, Magic, Music, Protection,Strength, Time, Trade, Travel, Trickery, War, Wisdom

    When assigning these domains to your gods or religious aspects, try to have a reason why each god haseach domain. Sometimes this may be obvious (a god of Death and Winter) but sometimes having no

    obvious reason can lead to a good story now or later. Ray Winninger has two key laws in hisDungeoncraft articles: #1 Never force yourself to create more than you need. #2 Whenever you fill in amajor piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece. #3 and #4 dontdirectly relate to worldbuilding. A good addition as #2.5 might be Some of the best background storiescome from explaining something that isnt obvious in your campaign world.

    In that spirit, go ahead and pencil in a gods domains as Death, War, and Love. Then within a few bulletpoints try to come up with a reason for those domains. If you can, it will very likely be interesting. If youcant try it again with a different mix of domains.

    You may wish to experiment with this exercise a few times to get a set of domain groupings that is

    appropriate for the religion and culture you are developing.

    Based on the assignment of domains, the religion/gods can now start coming to life. Again, if you had acomprehensive concept for your religion in mind refer back to it to make sure the religion that you createwill work with ideas you had.

    Myths & Mannerisms

    As noted above the primary purposes of religion is toexplain the unexplainable and to provide meaning andpurpose. In a world with little science the people will usereligion to explain their world. The most important of thesestories is why or how was the world created? Someexamples are:

    There was only chaos until the gods tricked the forcesof chaos to create the world.A mother-god existed and wished to have pets to lookafter, therefore she created the world and all creatureson the world.The world is a large flat canvas drawn by the gods.

    But other divine myths exist describing the godsaccomplishments and emotions and interactions amongthemselves. The mannerisms of your deities may be basedon the domains and each deitys position in the pantheon.But their mannerisms may also be influenced by simplywhatever will make a good story. Some examples of thesestories are:

    Hades entrapment of Persephone causing fall and winter.The constant trickery of Loki in the Norse Pantheon.

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    The creation of Medusa and Minotaur and other creatures.

    Then there are sagas where the gods play a periphery or behind the scenes role, and mortals are the maincharacters:

    Noah rescuing two of each animal during the 40 days flood.The trials of Heracles by Hera.Prometheus stealing the secret of fire from the gods.

    Let your imagination run wild with these stories. Each religion can have its own, and a religion may evenhave more than one. On the other hand, dont spend a lot of time on these stories unless they will have adirect impact on the game or you simply enjoy the mental exercise. However, having a couple of thesestories for each deity you need to develop at the beginning of your campaign will help you to know who thedeity is when making decisions about how the deities relate to each other and how their followers worshipthem.

    When borrowing from real world religions or just pieces of them it is important to consider how being afantasy game impacts the religion. For example, the Christian bible has two creation stories. You wouldhave to develop a good reason why people might believe both in a fantasy world where high priests

    communicate with the god in question. Furthermore, a key feature of fantasy settings, magic, may impactthe game worlds religions. What is the source of magical energy? Is there some contention between priestsand mages? These may be important questions in a fantasy world.

    Religion and Game Rules

    N...