Whether you are Jewish, Wiccan or otherwise, December tends to be a special time for many religions. In fact, a great many of the special events in a year are connected with religions. Not just special events either, but laws, moral values, communication, and countless things are influenced on a daily basis by religions.
However, in many RPG systems religion is chosen based solely on what it might grant a character. What I’m saying is that religions are very poorly represented in most systems, acting as little more than a statistic on a character sheet. While I don’t think there is a place in RPGs for real life dogma, I do think more time needs to be spent to properly highlight the influence and power religions have on daily life.
A World with Many Gods
Most of the modern world is covered by monotheistic religions, that is, religions that only have one god. Conversely, the majority of RPG world settings are polytheist, having many gods. Having been heavily indoctrinated in monotheism since childhood, it can be extremely difficult to even conceptualise what life under polytheism might be like.
Education is the only way we can begin to learn what having many gods might be like. Most of the ancient world is polytheistic, so there is a wealth of archaeological evidence which hint at what it might be like. From the Old Norse pantheon through to the fragments left of the Sumerian religion, there are many practices you can draw from to begin understanding how rich and vibrant polytheism can be.
It’s important to understand that in the majority of pantheons, no gods were ever ignored. If a god wasn’t venerated, they were likely feared, so all gods were given offerings and had their own special holy time of the year. As a farmer you might hold a greater love for the god of the harvest, but that didn’t mean you snubbed the other gods. Every god was respected because every god was believed to be able to directly touch the lives of mortals.
Even if you play a paladin or cleric, you would never speak ill of the other gods unless there is some religious rivalry at play. A cleric of any religion should at least know the basic rites used by even the most ‘evil’ gods in case they must invoke them at some time. It is also very difficult to denounce the gods when you are in a world where a prayer can create a literal miracle.
Let’s not Forget the Small Gods
The worship of well defined deities are not the only religions common to the ancient world. Animism and various forms of occultism don’t even use well defined deities, instead calling on spiritual beings, spiritual powers or natural energies. These religions are often heavily impacted by cultural environs, so practices might differ from village to village.
While these practices might not be laden with the gilding and dogma of the bigger religions, the power of those religions are not any less, especially in the lands where the practices are most common.
Understanding these forms of religion might be even harder for our modern ways of thinking to grasp, because the religions tend to be very ephemeral. As a participant in a world with these religions, you really need to consider how the religion and rituals have come into being. Think about what the religion does for the people, which in turn reveals how the rituals have endured.
Above all else, never dismiss these religions as unimportant. These people might be called cultists or superstitious peasants by organised religions, but outside the prejudices of playing in character, players and especially GMs need to view these religions as being just as valid as the big religions, because something somewhere is granting the divine power to the practitioners.
Weaving Religions into a Living World
So how do we weave these powers into a game world to give them more meaning and bring them into life? For a start, religion needs to be more than just a plot hook. Sure, use the religion for plot hooks or as villains, but in doing so, make sure more of the depth of the religion is shown. These minions are not there just to round out an encounter, they are there because they truly believe in something to the point where they are willing to put their lives on the line for it. A cultist shouldn’t be attacking just because ‘he’s a bad guy’, he’s attacking because interlopers have entered sacred ground, or the cultist believes they are making the world a better place. Remember, most people are not comfortable with butchering other people, (unlike the murderhobo PCs) so it takes powerful belief to force a farmer to become an assassin.
Make sure your world has many festivals and holy days to celebrate the gods; all the gods. Many fit naturally into the world, such as offerings to the agriculture god at planting and harvest. Others might need more thought, such as what day is the god of the underworld venerated, and how.
The form that veneration takes should also be carefully considered. For example, among other things, the modern Sikh wears a turban, sword and chakram. However, modern laws do not allow such things, so the sword(kirpan) is swapped for a knife or pendant, and the chakram(Kara) has become a bracelet. A city should be alive with indications that the gods have value from the way a beggar calls for mercy through to the colours favoured by the nobles.
If a pantheon has infighting and prejudices, then those issues will change everything from town structure, to which shops someone can use. For example, a party might only be granted a quest because their party cleric has pledged to a certain god. This in turn might create complications during the quest as the party has to pass through a place ruled by an opposing religion.
Making Clerics Great Again
There is one huge perk of being a cleric which I find most systems miss. A cleric (or paladin) is a part of a much larger organisation, and those connections have perks. Paladins should not be granted as much as the average cleric, other than good arms, armour and a mount. Paladins are holy warriors who serve the church, while clerics can aspire to be the rulers of a church, even though technically they should act more like caretakers of the temples.
Clerics should be able to obtain many tools and instruments, either for free or at a discount, so long as she can explain how the goods will be used to advance the faith. For example, a cleric from a church which venerates heroism can easily argue that a few potions of healing are a small price to pay if his party can slay a dragon. Likewise, holy water should be on tap in a temple to a god devoted to destroying undead.
Care must be taken to ensure clerics don’t gain too much, but the religion should have some definitive advantages beyond just the types of spells which can be cast.
Ultimately, religion is something that should be a prominent part of society and game play, not a stat on a character sheet and a GM tool of convenience. Characters should have near constant reminders that religions play an integral part in the world. It shouldn’t just be for clerics and paladins either, any race and class should have their own beliefs. If a character doesn’t believe in the gods, then in a world where miracles are common, they should have some reason for their stubborn denial of the obvious.