Religion in the genre of fantasy has become such a staple, so normative, that the very few fantasy novels I can think of that had no religion or had atheistic cultures stand out as odd and unusual. Religion just works so well in fantasy. The genre of fantasy is our modern way of creating a fictional mythology and what would mythology be without the realm of gods and spirits?
I love religion. I believe my actual faith in my religion and how important it is in my own life inspires my own worlds to be filled with equally devoted, equally faithful people. Bringing religion to life in our fantasy role-playing can richly shape your gaming world and gives us amazing insight into the minds of our own characters and NPCs. Below are what I consider to be the four most import points for running a fantasy role-playing game with genuine and very human (or non-human) feeling cultures.
1- The Superstitious Masses
There is a terrific scene from the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. As bad luck descends upon the ship, the crew looks to the story of Jonah the Prophet and becomes convinced that like Jonah, God was bringing calamity upon their vessel because of something one of the ship’s junior officers had done. The combination of genuine belief in the almighty, ignorant superstition, and the mind games of desperate people drive the young officer to toss himself into the depths of the sea. The masses of our worlds are not theologians; they generally are only going to have a basic idea of the gods, spirits, or deified forces of their world. But their certain belief and uncertain understanding makes superstition a fantastic mindset to cast over peoples of our world settings. Our ancestors genuinely believed that changes in the weather, the outcomes of battles, even how long your shoes lasted for were due to the intervention of spirits and gods. Our fantasy characters can believe the same, even when (or especially when) they don’t understand how it all works.
2- The Terrifying Spiritists
It can be very easy for our adventurers to walk into a new culture like a 21st century anthropologist, understanding that very much indeed the local religion is important to the people, but it’s not real right? It’s merely a social construct is it not? What terrible mythology that makes for! It doesn’t take high challenge ratings and powerful abilities to make the shamans, druids, and priests of your world to evoke fear and demand respect from people of the world (and your lower level player characters). What if the people believed the druid had to make blood sacrifices to protect the village from evil spirits? Or the shaman could curse your first born to die? Better yet, what if you convinced your players it could happen? I don’t suggest that they must be evil, but I do suggest that they should be terrifying. The idea of a benevolent god and philanthropic clergy isn’t strictly unique to Judeo-Christian faith, but it is rather uncommon outside of it. Classical paganism or shamanism doesn’t typically exude warm fuzzies.
3- The Unified Church
This is how advanced civilizations tend to do religion. The classical pantheons of fantasy role playing with a shrine to every deity in every major city has never worked well for me. The economics of it make no sense. How a disconnected pantheon of minor gods could sustain any persistent orders just doesn’t add up. When deities are presented as an all you can eat buffet where you can take what you want and leave the rest, it feels kind of incongruous. I prefer a universal church with monasteries, cathedrals, and militant orders; something that unites the nations and becomes indivisible from empire; a Church that doesn’t exist alongside the political order, rather the church is indistinguishable from the political order. Think of the medieval Catholic Church which owned up to one third of the land in Europe, where popes crowned kings and bishops ruled over principalities. Or the Muslim Empires and Buddhist China as more examples of where scholastic and political elite were also the religious leaders of the land.
4- Miracles not spells
It really is a shame how temples and shrines often serve little use other than as instant healing shops to where a little gold can cure your fatigue and heal your wounds. It’s convenient, sure, but it’s in no way immersive. Spell lists, cast charges, mana pools... all this is necessary to the mechanics of many games. But please don’t let the characters (or worse, the world) view divine spells this way. I’m a huge fan our divine characters (and npcs if needed) being miracle workers: rare and mysterious people through whom the gods have decided to interact with nature. As a GM you can use a couple of tricks to accomplish this. Firstly, NPCs in the world should be amazed and filled with wonder any time a miracle happens, even it it only restores 1d8 hp. Add some theatrics to the spell: sounds and lights, clouds parting, and angelic voices singing. Secondly, if you do have divine casting NPCs, maybe limit their abilities and don’t have them work perfectly or predictably all the time. Keep everyone, even those with a rule book, wondering about the nature of the supernatural and the divine.
The biggest thing in all of this is to remember that religion is very real to the people of a fantasy world. How people express this reality can very much be borrowed from our own history and make for an amazing backdrop to any fantasy world.
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.