Monday, April 25, 2016

Creating Exciting, Dynamic Fantasy Religions

In my last article, Thoughts on Creating Simple, Compelling Pantheons, I discussed several  ways to make deities and pantheons in Dungeons and Dragons games more compelling and distinctive. I have continued thinking and would like to resume that conversation.

In our previous article, I discussed different types pantheons and the practical differences between monotheism and small and large groups of individual deities; duality, which reconciles two or more opposing or conflicting ideas into a single, dynamic whole; and how creating a hierarchy of deities of differing power levels can inherently and effortlessly inject conflict and interest into your game world.

Today I would like to talk less about deities and more about the religions worshiping them. For the purposes of this post, I am writing with polytheism in mind, though many of these concepts may also be applied to monotheism and dualism as well.

Community Worship & Appeasement

Whereas pantheons organize a collection a gods and goddesses in relation to each other, religion organizes a them in terms of the mortals by whom they are worshiped and revered. We can construct fantasy religions in many ways. Throughout this article we will discuss several of them.

In most table top roleplaying games, each temple seems to worship a single god or goddess. In terms of real-world polytheistic religions, the exclusive worship of Zeus to the exclusion of Hera or Apollo would be utterly preposterous. In ancient Greek religion, Zeus, Hera, Apollo and dozens of other gods worked together to make up a single, united whole and were worshipped as such. While there the ancient Greek performed specific festivals and rites and erected temples in the honor of individuals deities, worshipers worked together to invite the gods’ gifts and prosperity into their homes and to ward away misfortune and divine retribution (see just any Greek tragedy for details).

Most ancient religions were community-oriented and operated under the assumption of appeasement. It was necessary to burn offerings and make sacrifices to Thor in order to ensure a community’s wellbeing and protection against outside forces. But pleasing Thor alone would not guarantee a productive harvest or keep violent storms at bay; the community must instead pay each member of the pantheon his or her dues. Without support from multiple divine protectors and the sacrifices made to calm the wrath of more destructive deities, the community would succumb to ruin and defeat.

This is a perfectly acceptable way to organize a religion for a table top roleplaying game. It gives PCs the opportunity to create stronger ties to their home base and sets up a struggle between mortal vs. divine forces or mortals vs. nature, which can have rather interesting consequences on gameplay.

This model works particularly well when regions don’t worship each deity separately, but instead revere the whole host as a single unit.

Adventures could include the PCs being sent to retrieve an important sacrifice (the Blue Bull of Minorus) in order to regain the Stormcaller’s favor or hunting down hubristic mortals who seek to upset the natural order of the universe, thereby diverting a deity’s displeasure.

Choosing Sides in the Unending Cosmic Battle
Most religions in official D&D settings operate by this model. Instead of community worship and making sacrifices in the hopes of appeasing an entire pantheon, communities and individuals align themselves with a patron god or goddess, usually for the purpose of an overarching cosmic conflict.

The nature of this conflict may vary. One group of gods versus another, the gods verse an outside force (demons, the great old ones, etc.), and petty gods scavenging for power and worship to increase their own individual power on a cosmic scale are but a few of the possibilities.

Depending on the extent to which deities can exert their own will to alter the physical world, worshippers may find themselves as little more than pawns on a chessboard, carrying out their patron god’s or goddess’s will in the mortal world. In a setting where the gods walk among men, worshippers may find themselves the subjects of a god-king or other divine ruler or act as soldiers in an army led by the Warbringer himself. On the other hand, in a world where the divine realm is farther removed from the domains of mortals, worshippers may be the only instruments able to wield divine forces in the physical world and must rely on their own wits and archaic religious texts to advance their deity’s position.

Marked by the Gods
In a world where mortals are far-removed from the divine, deities choose their own champions on Earth, marking them with great power and responsibility. These champions are, of course, clerics in D&D terms (or paladins, rangers, and any other divine casters, depending on edition, setting, and class interpretation).

Under this model, only their chosen champions have any real connection to the gods. While religious institutions may exist, they are out of sync with the desires of their deity. Clerics are often feared, seen as radicals, heretics, or liars rather than the prophets and divine champions they really are. In this world, religions are, at best, uninformed institutions used to support spiritual and political stability throughout civilization. More often, they tend to embody fundamentalist bigots, undermining the cleric’s divine authority and unjustly oppressing or taking advantage of the communities they profess to serve.

One World, Multiple Religions
In G.R.R. Martin’s popular series, a Song of Ice and Fire, there isn’t a single, overarching religion. No. There are dozens of cults of varying sizes spread throughout the world. While the Faith of the Seven is certainly the most widespread throughout the Seven Kingdoms, the old gods of the north; the Drowned God revered by the Ironborn; R’hllor, the Lord of Light; the little known Lady of Waves and the Lord of the Skies; and several others make their presence known and felt.

Eberron also does this with its Silver Flame, Sovereign Host, Dark Six, Blood of Vol, Cults of the Dragon Below, Path of Light, Path of Inspiration, Undying Court, and Keepers of the Past. They vary from being monotheistic to polytheistic or completely agnostic, but they all have two things in common: their clerics all cast spells and their legitimacy is, at best, ambiguous.

Containing multiple, unique religions can really bring a campaign world to life.

Finally, several different, completing faiths can worship  the same deity or pantheon. Take real world Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example, three competing religions built on the worship of the same, all-powerful father figure. Each has its own interpretations, but all follow interlinking religious texts and overlapping beliefs. Roman Catholicism vs. Eastern Orthodoxy and the Shia and the Sunni give us another real-world perspective. Just imagine a fantasy world with magically empowered terrorists of Set, working to dismantle the Egyptian faith from within or ridding the world of blasphemous heretics. It might be a terrible place to live in, but it’s certainly a great place in which to role dice.

The Question of Alignment
Alignment in D&D has always been something of a prickly point to many. On the one hand, it helps describe how an individual, community, monster, or deity behaves. On the other hand, it breaks down when taken to any sort of extreme or when you apply real-life psychology to it.

Even with those limitations, I like and use alignment in my games. I’ve never overheard that ever popular, internet-sensation, the conversation, “do we kill the orc babies?”, in real life. It just doesn’t come up, at least not at any table or group I’ve played with. For me, alignment is a useful shorthand. A LE god of trickery is quite different than a NE one. Using alignment, I don’t have to spend a lot of explaining those differences to myself or my players (though, in limited doses, that can be fun, too).

Furthermore, many proclaim that alignment it’s boring. On the contrary, it’s use livens up your campaign in several ways. The first is when the general religious body and the god(s) it worships are of conflicting alignments. Imagine a LE god of war oppressing and enslaving the NG community who worships him. They don’t worship this Warbringer out of love or devotion, but out of fear and obligation. The opposite can work just as well: an LE tyrant, hiding behind the face of a NG god of health and medicine.

The second trick comes up when priests of varying alignments and allegiances, competing against one another for political and religious power, fill a polytheistic hierarchy. This set-up remembers the real world most closely, with vying sects and assemblies squabbling under the banner of a single religion.

Lastly, create deities with the polar opposite alignments that one would normally expect. Imagine a LE god with the love domain, the patron god of S&M, or the LG god of death, using undead slave labor to raise her follower’s standard of living. Sounds like the perfect basis for one of those unnamed city states lying forgotten in the bottom corner of your campaign map.