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I'm thinking mostly from a DnD3.5 background, but am open to input for any setting - even non-fantasy - but my focus is on fantasy settings.

How can you add character to religions so that they're more than a single word listed under "deity" on a character sheet?

For example, I once suggested that Dwarves have to pray daily facing a particular mountain they consider sacred.

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12 Answers 12

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Some very simple things first...Understand the differences between 'deity' and 'religion'. If your character sheet has the listing, 'deity' on it, it is not doing you any favors. Cross it out and replace it with 'faith' or 'religion'. A religion is normally the man-made, socially organized, interpretation of the place of the gods or philosophy in that setting. It may include more than one god; it may be very a very imperfect understanding or it may have competing sects of the same faith with separate shrines and temples in the same geography.
So I'd recommend move your thinking in this direction first.

Secondly, write a few lists of beliefs, rituals, holy days and holy books (maybe a famous worshipper or saint) out for any religion. This crazy little laundry list fleshes out a religion faster than you will ever believe. For example, the Church of Direction in my setting (Celtricia) invloves Oblimet, Devilkin Duke of direction and Purpose, as well as Arlieng, PLanar guide, and a few saints. When My PCs find an early version of, "The Book of Travels", which is the holy book of that religion, they get a lot more out of it than if I first introduce it as a simple 'Holy Book'.

Thirdly, think of them as living, breathing, changing things. The older a relgion is, the more it will have changed and split and got back together and affected the history and landscape of your world. See it this way. Dropping a historical note that a church in a town used to be used by another religion until they got bigger and built/bought a bigger building makes it seem more real and enhances the , "World In Motion' ideal.

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I see in your edits on the Question that you were hoping for more specific character additions to religions. That's really going to take more specific questions. – LordVreeg Aug 28 '10 at 18:35
+1 As a designer of character sheets, you've prompted me to go replace the word 'deity' in a dozen places. – Marcus Downing Sep 3 '10 at 23:24
This is a while later, but right now I have two characters in the same party in different sects of the same religion, and one of the two is also secretly in a Mystery Cult subset...And the way it affects the dynamic of the game is intense. – LordVreeg Jan 16 '12 at 16:22

Buy Book of the Righteous, from Green Ronin. It is the most complete "create a whole living breathing religion" supplement ever produced for D&D.

Beyond that, take inspiration from the complexities of real world religions. The "Dwarves facing the sacred mountain" is a good one. Also remember Rl religions are not homogeneous, there are all kinds of sub-sects within them as well as individuals with wildly varying beliefs within them. And that there are things that are truly a part of the religion's core beliefs, and then there's other related stuff - like if someone IRL has a shelf full of Precious Moments figurines, it means they're an evanglical type Christian. Perhaps there's a little goofy thing that a lot of followers of that dwarf god do in the same way.

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Great answer, but people need not even be in a sect or sub-sect to have different beliefs from the majority adherents of a religion. A real life example would be to consider that an illiterate Afghan horseman would have a very different understanding of Islam from a highly educated Moroccan scholar, even though they both identify themselves as Sunni Muslims. – Sheikh Jahbooty Aug 31 '10 at 22:36

The other answers give good replies. What I will add is that remember that religions are comprised of people. The ceremonies, rituals, and customs add a lot to how the players perceive the religion (or any organization) but where comes down to is the people that are part of the religion. Think both of the typical and the atypical members. Remeber not to make the typical adherents cookie cutter. Done right that will make the religion come alive for the players.

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Another really great answer. Think about how many Catholics actually observe the 7 divine offices of each day. Plenty of Muslims never see the inside of a mosque unless it's Ramadan, never mind saying the 5 prayers each day. Once you've come up with a fantasy religion, and all the trappings and rituals that go along with it, a great next step is to think about how pious the average person is, and how many of the religion's rituals are actually observed on a daily basis. – Sheikh Jahbooty Aug 31 '10 at 22:39
  1. Define the base tenets, not just the "spheres".
  2. Define the nature of the religious "text". Is it
    • Oral Recitations (Hymns, songs)
    • Written texts (Scripture)
    • continuing revelation
    • Tradition
    • pure ritual
  3. define who is in charge
    • ranks of clergy
    • who picks clergy
    • how long clergy are trained for
    • how the clergy promote within their system
  4. define what is required of
    • the faithful
    • the clergy, possibly differing by rank
  5. if there are sources other than continuing revelation, identify the primary ones and make a few decisions on what they cover. (Think of how the Book of Gi'quan is used in B5... and as players cite new stuff, add it to the list.
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I wouldn't use this scheme for the average religion, but for building a religion to centre a game around this is a great answer. – SevenSidedDie Sep 12 '10 at 3:53
For the average religion, I do use 1,2, and 3, and the base level of activity of the faithful, IE: Weekly 1 hour service, or 5x a day 10min prayers, or 6 hours once a month... The tenets are the core of it. Knowing who is in charge tells me what kind of NPC's to ue, and knowing the nature of the texts helps me decide who is in charge. In general, it's a 5-10 minute evaluation to that point. Defining out the clergy duties often is much more. Step 5 I do mostly in play... by having players make a quote, then the roll, and if made, entering it in the list. If failed, entered altered. – aramis Sep 12 '10 at 8:13

You can also add other general practices from real-life religions. Like finding a cleric to confess your transgressions to before heal spells will work on you. Or tithing 10% of your silver to the sacred pool to gain a blessing. There are other things you can do as well. If your character is militant, they may be called on to lead a battle against unbelievers, or the undead, or whatever the religion is currently opposed to.

A cleric player of a religion may be called to confirm lower level members of the faith to service, to oversee a ritual blessing on a monarch, or ever to consecrate a new temple site.

Religions provide a whole other raft of adventure ideas apart from the lord ordering you to go after bandits. A higher level cleric of your faith might need a courier to run a religious artifact to an outlying temple, or even to transport a dangerous evil artifact to the Mother Temple for safe keeping. Villagers who have been ravaged by orc raids might call for succor and comfort, and once they feel better, look for divinely supported revenge.

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I'd think hard about the source of the religious practices. In our history, some religious practices can be seen as practical advice. E.g., many religions have prohibitions against marrying a close relative. Why? Well, the gods or God said so, but it's also just a bad idea. Taboos often arise from that sort of practical consideration, even if they wind up drifting into something unrecognizable.

In a fantasy setting, there's no question that the gods are probably giving direct advice. However, people being people, some of the taboos are still going to originate in practicality. In a desert land, the goddess of war Sauntee may tell her people to tie bands around their ankles and wrists to show their devotion to her -- or it might just be that some bright priest back in prehistory needed an excuse to make people take precautions against scorpions getting inside clothing.

In general, religions (like any cultural institution) aren't static. The evolution of your religion over time will go a long way towards making it seem real, even if it's only background material that doesn't affect characters directly.

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Many pagan religions were concerned with rituals to keep evil forces at bay or guarantee the successful functioning of the world as we know it. Sometimes people sacrificed to gods to keep them placated. Sometimes people sacrificed or otherwise observed in order to keep the fields fertile, the sun rising in the morning, or in the case of the Maya, the universe from being destroyed.

All those are great for a campaign where religion and living, active gods play a large role. If you don't perform sacrifices, various dark/proud/jealous gods of your people will mess with you for forgetting them. You wouldn't even consider taking a sea voyage, going underground, meeting with an important person, sowing crops, investing your money, hiring a servant, etc, without making sure that the right gods are appeased--to do otherwise invites disaster.

Another major function of religious ritual is to enhance the public standing of private individuals. If you are a rich guy, you put on feasts, sacrifices, celebrations, games and other ways for the public to make sure the gods are happy... and notice that you are particularly blessed. You might participate in the ritual, overseen by the priests who know how these things are conducted. Heck you might even have to make sure to do it correctly (skill test?) or cause big problems for yourself and your community.

Last thought: if you read Greek myths, gods are always playing out their petty rivalries with mortal followers (Odysseus and Athena/Posiedon, for example). Instead of a modern, monotheistic concept of opposed deities (God of Law will destroy follows of God of Chaos!!), play gods as peers. You definitely don't want to piss off the God of Chaos, even if you are dedicated to the God of Law. He's a God! Only piss them off with a good reason (like you've been ordered to do so by some other God).

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I realize this doesn't fit your edited guidelines, but I think this is a key (general) point where most RPG religions are lacking:

Add a little mythology.

It doesn't have to be a lot. Even a single simple story about each god (with cameos providing extra appearances) should do it. This has the benefit of bringing the religion alive in a show-don't-tell manner, and breaths life into the gods, rather than making them abstract labels. It can also, if done right, give some context to religious edicts/dogma as well.

One Bad Egg/Highmoon Games' Gods of the Shroud does a little of this, and is what brought it to mind, but even it could use a bit more.

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I like to make up holidays.

Like so:


The date of Bahamut's birth, or perhaps the day of the birth of his first children with Tiamat. The chronicles are unclear and the dragons aren't clarifying.

It is said that Bahamut has a child who poses as each of the races (yeah, player races). This holiday, for non-dragons tends to be about them, asking them to speak to their father on behalf of said species and see to their empires becoming strong, children smart/cunning/powerful.

It is a day of gathering, usually families stop working for the day and go out into the fields or the forest and find things to give to their loved ones. At night, there are hot, mulled beverages and the giving of gifts, always found during that day. The Dragon-born are said to draw the holiday out over twelve days of searching and twelve nights of gift-giving, making the process far more complicated.

Among Tiefling crime families in urban areas, the -found- items are often stolen. Peoples have different takes on the holiday in different places.

The Night of a Thousand Ravens:

This is the night in which the Raven Queen herself sees to each of the dead personally, as her servants are given the night to their own pursuits. Ravens flock the streets, imitating people and stealing shiny bits. Angels with black wings are said to seek romances forbidden on any other night, leaving half-angel children who can talk to the dead in their wake.

Those who are on death's door get a visit from the Raven Queen herself and those who choose to, may die silently, with dignity. Orcus cults are known to hole up and hide during this holiday, not wanting their murderous ways to draw her attention. Occasionally, a high level servant will attempt to murder someone dear to the Raven Queen, in an attempt to draw her out and ambush her. This has historically not gone well for them. Groups of ravens are called an unkindness for a reason.

Wall and Glade Festival

This festival takes place in one of two places, either on the edge of a city, where you can see both the city's walls and the natural surroundings beyond or a natural park within the city.

In this festival, the two women are joined in marriage, with the high priestesses from the temples pf Erathis and Melora representing their goddess in the flesh. Sometimes couples who are made up of one person from a city and another from the country are married at the same time.

When the festivities are rowdy enough, the boasting begins, with each priestess declaring their own goddess as superior and how they will go about defeating the other, overrunning the city with vines or expanding the walls into the heart of the forest. Races, riddle-games and competitions of friendly martial prowess occur between the country folk and city folk until the wee hours.

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One of the things we're doing with the Dark Golden Age setting at bySwarm is something that any GM could do that wants to make religion more meaningful. In order for a character to continue to receive spells from their deity, they must do something on a regular basis that ties into the god's pantheon. A god of fire might require that expensive incenses be burned. A god of murder might require a ritual sacrifice on occasion. The main point is that the action must either cost a non-trivial amount of money or that it must be a burden to perform. It can still be handled during downtime, but it must be relevant. If a divine caster doesn't' do this, they will begin to lose access to their spells at the GM's discretion.

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I think making the Gods fickle and the religions that worship them full of contradictory caveats. Perhaps the commandments of the gods are vague or by following one rule, you break another. You then get arguments between factions within a given religion. Also have people of different religions can either be at war with each other or using religion as an excuse for war.

On the ground level, religion can be represented with splendour in amongst squalor and people spreading the word. Ensure that when a character has a deity on the page that things happen to them because of it. You can only make it matter if the NPCs react to the PC's religion.

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Another great answer, especially the part about using religion as an excuse for war. My friend from Bombay said to me that in India, religion is often the public excuse for violence, since people think of it as worth fighting for, even though everyone knows the real more petty reasons for the strife. In a fantasy setting, a religion could be attached to a nation or political faction even though their values don't match or are are even directly contradictory, and they would claim to be fighting for their deities, even though they are really fighting for some other reason. – Sheikh Jahbooty Aug 31 '10 at 22:55

I'm a lazy DM so I try to prepare very little. In order to make things more interesting I use two ideas:

  1. The gods have at least one drawback and one benefit each to explain why evil gods still have worshippers and to give players a seed of an idea. For example in my setting is the god of undeath, but he promises eternal life to his followers and his priests will raise the dead if nobody else will.

  2. The gods take an interest in characters that do things affecting their domains. This attention is like a reputation score that goes up or down. To use Orcus again: turning the undead or raising the dead will grant you negative or positive reputation respectively.

For an example, see the list of gods in my campaign.

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