Fantasy role-playing, or any genre where spirits and deities are involved, gives us an exciting insight into an important element of human culture. Religion as separate from daily life is quite unique to modern times. In days past, certainly there were impious and blasphemous persons. In general though, people would follow the religious customs of their land and culture. In some places, it was genuinely believed that religious observations played a central role in deciding battles and averting natural disasters. The gods’ favor could earn a bountiful harvest and their wrath could mean famine. To play a character who lives in such a world and culture I list below four different ways to approach religion. It doesn’t matter that your character is not a miracle worker or a knight of the church, in a religious society almost everyone will incorporate religion into their life in one way or another. Here are my suggestions.
1) The Pious Layman
One does not need to be a member of the clergy to be devoted to one’s deity. Consider taking time to burn offerings to invoke good favor, or maybe offer gold to request peace for the souls of your ancestors? In a polytheistic setting the idea of converting people to your faith is likely totally foreign. But you serve your god well and try to live out the customs of your people as best as you can, with conviction and probably even pride.
I love this. Superstition, in a world of quarreling gods, spirits, and arcane powers is storytelling gold. It’s so very natural and human to revert to superstition. Real belief with little understanding is a breeding ground for superstition. And in a world where you don’t have science to answer the why behind the seasons and weather, earthquakes and invaders, and just about anything beyond human control, an easy answer to grasp is “spirits made it happen”. Your people may have superstitions or maybe your character invents their own. Consider interpreting anything strange as an omen.
3)The Lip Server
There are many reasons to go through the motion of religion even when your heart's not in it. Maybe to you religion is more about culture and identity. Consider a few basic rituals that connect you with your roots. Something more like a societal pledge then a deeply religious prayer. This character probably has little use for religious contemplation but when it comes to the ceremonies of their people it’s best to go through the motions.
4) The Powermonger
In any culture where religion is at the centre of life you will find people looking to become that centre of life. It’s become a Hollywood stereotype that middle ages bishops were greedy, power hungry manipulators. But many were in fact the princes and rulers of vast lands, they were politicians, not just churchmen. But consider as well the druids, shaman, and witch doctors of tribal societies. They demand great respect and held high positions of power in their societies. To play a powermonger one does not need to be evil, but consider what you might demand of those around you; loyalty, obedience,and perhaps a bent knee. The spirits and deities of fantasy realms are powerful and terrifying things, those who wield such power become themselves powerful and terrifying.
A great questions to always keep in mind could be something along the lines of: How would I act if I actually believed my character’s religion was real? This, and the expectation that other people in this world also all believe this religion is real. For me the biggest challenge in fantasy role-playing is adopting the polytheistic mindset that many fantasy realm settings have. As our own North American culture has roots in monotheistic Christianity it can be easier for us to draw inspiration from what we already may know, all four of these suggested character types fit well inside this framework. Developing our characters and worlds by taking queues from history and really dwelling on the divine connections our characters strive for can really bring our games to life.
Anthony is lifelong dreamer and hobbyist who approaches role-playing as one part storyteller and one part rules lawyer. Role-playing interests include world building, back stories, character accents and voices, and trying to keep his inner simulationist in check.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.