Three ways to give depth to your game's religions
Posted Sunday November 16, 2008 at 03:59 AM
This month's RPG Blog Carnival topic is religion.
Most fantasy settings have particular domains of interest and influence assigned to each god, but very few actually bother to say what the followers of the gods actually believe. It's a strange omission when designing a faith.
I was thinking about this when I was putting together the gods for the Iron Valley region for the Edge of Empire campaign. I decided that each god would not only have the traditional set of domains, but also some basic tenets that define how followers are expected to behave and what the church believes. Here are three ways you can add depth to gods and their followers' faiths in your setting by thinking about the nuts and bolts of belief.
1. Five tenets of the faith
Write down five things for each god that their followers believe or do. These can be prohibitions, duties, articles of faith, details of devotions, or principles of living.
Prohibitions are easy: things like wielding edged weapons, touching dead meat with bare hands, or speaking during the dawn are the sorts of things a god or its church might forbid.
Duties are the flip side of prohibitions. Always making an offering of food before eating, tithing 10% of your earnings to the local church, community service in the name of the god (imagine a weekly stint in the mortuary for a god of death!), never sleeping above the ground floor, and taking a vow of chastity are possible duties.
Articles of faith are what the followers of a faith hold to be true. They might believe that running water is the incarnate body of their god, that they are manifestations of a part of their god's soul, that ritual combat is the only proper way to resolve disputes, or that the world must be prepared for some future event.
Details of devotion are more fine-grained. A church might require its faithful to pray in a particular language. Perhaps holy water of a fire god can only be blessed while boiling. A god might require that a cleric confront incarnate evil by singing.
Principles of living is a catch-all category for anything that doesn't fall into the first four. A principle might be that followers should live in the moment because all things die and are forgotten, that giving to chartiy is for chumps, that followers should dedicate their every action to the greaty glory of their god, or that being soft-spoken is virtuous.
Focus on tying together the tenets with a theme in order to get across what a god is "about", and you might not even need to rely on the domain-of-power trope. Consider throwing in one seeming contradiction to imply greater depth without having to do too much more work. (For instance, followers of the god of death might be cheerful and flighty: they know all things end, so they are instructed to enjoy life before their master claims them.)
Also don't strain to hit each these categories—consider how a faith that has only duties gives it a distinctive flavour compared to a faith that has only prohibitions. The categories really aren't important and are just there to inspire a variety of tenets.
2. Devotion time
The god that has no holy days or times of particular importance is a rare god indeed. Holy days and other times of prescribed honouring add interest to the setting's culture and give priests of a god rites they have to perform. You can roll this into the list of tenets if you think it fits.
Times of significance to the god in particular or to the culture their church is a part of are good choices for holy days. Changes of season, the migratory patterns of herd animals, or the first rain of the year might be marked with feast or fasting days. The anniversary of a god's ascent, the longest night of the year, or the renewal of a pact would require certain rituals. A particular time of day might require meditation.
Events might call for particular devotions. The first birth in a new settlement might be marked with rituals, the coming of the spring floods, the first thawing of the sea ice, or the appearance of a dragon in the sky might call for certain rites.
3. Where is that written?
Gods in fantasy games have a habit of just coming right out and telling their followers what they should do and believe. Most gods are more circumspect, though, or maybe they just have better things to do than to constantly micromanage their followers. In that case, all this stuff needs to be remembered and passed on somehow.
Some cultures and faiths will pass it on from person to person, initiating new members into the rites and tenets of the faith as they prove themselves. These churches keep the details alive in an oral tradition. Others will write it down somewhere. Perhaps there was a prophet who spoke the god's will. Maybe there are oracles wired into their god who do nothing but write into the great libraries of the church.
The details aren't so much important as just figuring out the form these teachings take and how they're taught. A church might keep everything secret, divulging only what is necessary to tend the lay followers. The holy words might be inscribed in foot-high letters on a five-sided obelisk in the centre of the capitol. Maybe it's all written in one magnificent book, or stored in hundreds of yards of scrolls kept safe underground.
Putting it together
I've already mentioned bits of my setting's death god in the examples above. I'm going to give you a look at the Iron Valley's version of Isis though, since she and her church are of particular relevance to the characters at this point in that campaign.
The tenets of the Istan Church are:
- Nourish and nurture wherever you go.
- Preserve mysteries, and seek them in your travels.
- Revenge the destruction of natural beauty.
- Things magical are the domain of Isis, who knows best how they are kept.
- Honour Isis with a daily libation.
This isn't a cut-and-dry goddess or church. It's mostly a "nice" church, doing charity work and preserving knowledge. It's also a selfish church, loath to share that knowledge and aggressively seeking out and seizing—by force if necessary—artefacts and items of power. It can unleash a terrible wrath when beauty is destroyed, which is all the more terrible for the gentle face that the church habitually presents.
The written expression of the core tenets of the Church of Isis are recorded and kept by monks in libraries constructed within the sacred grottos inside the Spire of Cantos. The libraries are constantly being expanded as priests seek the depths of the mysteries of their Lady.
The seekers attempt to commune directly with Isis. Devoted for life, these oracles are semi-amphibious and spend their waking hours in trance, floating in the currents of the crystal pools that well up in the sacred grottos. Alien and cryptic in their pronouncements, monks carefully record every word a particular oracle has ever said, and many a monk devotes their entire life to deciphering the larger truths their words reveal.
I will probably give Isis a holy day apart from the daily libations, but I'm leaving that open for now. Likely it will be something to do with the spring planting, as fertility is one of her portfolios.
Sunday November 16, 2008 at 05:25 AM
Love this post.
Religion is something one doesn't really think about until it comes up. This is a solid, simple structure to get a good, unique, and believable religion. Absolutely love it mate!
Sunday November 16, 2008 at 05:29 AM
Good advice! Having had to write a lot about religion for my Spirits of Eden setting, I did a lot of these things. I think there's a lot of room to make religion a very flavorful theme, and not just for clerics!
Wyatt’s last blog post: Religion In Eden (RPG Blog Carnival)
Sunday November 16, 2008 at 06:35 AM
@Michael: It's a good base to build other details on, too. A bullet-point approach is good for the details of a ritual, major features of the priestly vestments, or formative historical events for the church. It gets the juices flowing while discouraging the tendency to get mired in the glue that holds the points together.
@Wyatt: I've started reading through that massive post on religion in Eden. I really like it! I was thinking along those lines when I wrote about spirits and spiritcraft in Tayel, the previous setting I was working on.
The Edge of Empire setting has been influenced a bit from my thinking about Tayel too, in that I made the major gods out to be the Four World Spirits. They are much like your Nine Spirit Powers (which is as far as I've read yet). They abide in the world, but in places that blur between abstract and concrete, like "the roots of the mountain" or "the brightest flame". There are a few other gods in a less worldly place (the trickster-creator and a void-evil among them), but they aren't nearly as relevant to most people's daily lives.
Sunday November 16, 2008 at 01:53 PM
Excellent contribution. Definately something I'll refer back to when I start putting together my next New World campaign setting.
jonathan’s last blog post: The New Cleric is the Old Cleric (Part 4)
Monday November 17, 2008 at 02:06 AM
I'm glad you like it d7! I read some of Ardesia in that link, and I rather enjoyed it. We had a lot of the same influences, I see, but you chose to make your spirits more mysterious, while mine are pretty much everywhere. It's very interesting how differing tastes can each do a concept in wildly differing ways.
Wyatt’s last blog post: Fleurian Pact Warlock