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As a DM who has almost always played with inexperienced or casual players, I find many or most of those players trend towards homogeneity. They choose a patron deity and alignment when they roll up, but then hardly consider those again.

I am starting a new campaign where I want religion to figure more prominently, but as mentioned, I find players are by default utterly impious. So I've been toying with different ideas of how to create a religious mechanic that would reward/punish them for following/violating their patron god's code of ethics.

I feel confident that a minor reward system (effectively replacing Inspiration) would go over well, but I am very torn about divine punishment. That said, I also feel the religious system would be ultimately unsatisfying if the players were never held accountable for their actions.

Is it too great a violation of player agency to have them be punished mechanically for choosing expedience over their god's moral code? Note that by any of my ideas, the punishments and rewards are small but noticeable (eg, if you have angered your god you get -1 on all d20 rolls until you atone). Does this unfairly compel players to behave in a very restricted manner?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a reason why you want a strictly mechanical system? Why not incorporate it into the setting? \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Jan 27 at 17:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Will your players enjoy this change in the mechanics? If they play impious, they might just not particularly care about playing their character's religion. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jan 27 at 18:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire As mentioned, the players are unlikely to spend time engaging with game elements that do not result in some clear and predictable effect. But I'm sure there are ways to improve the setting to suggest the phenomenal power of the gods. \$\endgroup\$ – frog Jan 27 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik My players tend to come from video game backgrounds and see the world like a game level rather than a place to be their character. My intention is to baby-step them into RPing by including minor mechanics that reward a player for better defining their character in-game. \$\endgroup\$ – frog Jan 27 at 18:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 27 at 19:58
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I think mechanics are the wrong approach here

You could come up with mechanics for involvement in a religion, or any other institution. Such mechanics have been written for many games, including D&D (though I’m unaware of any for the current fifth edition, and things change too much between editions to really use the older ones), and I’ve heard of them being used and appreciated.

Personally, though, I have always found them very awkward. They are, well, mechanical: fixed, set rules for adding and subtracting from your “piety score” or whatever. They can be gamed and they can be abused. A careful DM can prevent outright abuse, but it’s difficult to know where to draw the line—and even more difficult for players to know where you’re going to draw the line. Few people would consider toeing the line, and the DM carefully monitoring it, to really be in the spirit of D&D; it’s not the sort of thing most people are looking for from the game. But then you kind of get into issues where the person who guesses closest to the line has something of an advantage.

In the end, you have to trust your players, and your players have to trust you. That’s all it comes down to, and at that point... the rules don’t really add very much. They add complexity and, perversely, uncertainty, and provide little value.

Also, keep in mind that characters are more than just what’s portrayed at the table

Dungeons & Dragons necessarily assumes a whole lot of “background” activity that rarely comes up in actual play. Warriors’ care and upkeep of equipment, wizards’ studying of tomes and arcane theory, and yes—cleric’s, and others, prayer and meditation. Most games, most of the time, will have morning be something like “OK, you wake up, you all do your things to get ready, Cleric, what spells have you prepared today?”

This is an important part of the game—abstraction. It’s actually an important part of any game. Without abstracting away the details, you wouldn’t have a game at all—you’d have reality. Abstractions are what make a game manageable and playable. They keep the game moving.

So it is very much a feature, not a bug, that characters can be (not saying must be) pious in a way that doesn’t show up “on screen” much. It can be as simple as, when a new character is introduced, asking about their routine, how they spend their time, just asking how religious or not they are. If their faith has weekly services, do they make a point of attending? Only on particularly important days? Does their character meditate in the morning, or say prayers before bed? What about before meals? Do they attempt to lead the rest of the party in prayers—and if so, are they proselytizing their own faith or are they making an effort to make the prayer inclusive of everyone?

You can ask as many or as few questions as you think is appropriate to your campaign and what you need to know about their character. You can be specific and leading—as in my examples—or you can leave your questions broad and open-ended, taking how the player characterizes the character’s faith as representative. If the player doesn’t put much thought or detail into it, that could imply that their character doesn’t put a lot of thought or attention into their faith. (Be wary, though, of punishing the player and/or character for the player not having the same interests that their character does—it is entirely reasonable for someone who is not religious to play a religious character.)

Those answers might happen only when the character is introduced. They might be written down on a character sheet and/or in your notes, and never come up again. They might be purely background details. And that’s OK.

The real question is how to bring religion into the foreground

You characters’ background faith as being a problem for your campaign—but as I was just saying, it isn’t really a problem at all. It’s good for that stuff to be happening in the background. I don’t think you really want a game where the players have to be carefully dotting every i and crossing every t in order to score faith points—or worse, be punished for failing to do so, forcing them to bog the game down with constantly reinforcing their characters’ routine behaviors. The real problem is that this background faith is staying in the background.

But you’re the DM—you control the world. If faith is a very-important part of the world, then make it come up. Have NPCs ask PCs about their faith—as a matter of course, like this is as basic a question as asking about the weather or their trip into town. If NPCs share a faith with any of the PCs, have them greet those PCs appropriately—including, if someone’s been shirking attendance at services, calling them on it. Or avoid calling them on it, tip-toeing around the issue because they perceive it as embarrassing and rude to call out. And some NPCs will be rude, and call out not only the PCs but those NPCs who avoided mentioning it. These are ways that real-world people bring up their faiths in real-world situations, and it’s how you can do so here.

Have events happen at religious services. Religious services are also community gatherings—they’re where news is shared and opinions gathered. Have NPCs who want the PCs help invite the PCs to the weekly service so they can talk to everybody—because everybody will be there. Or have things happen when the PCs don’t go, and have the NPCs wonder why they weren’t there—maybe hold it against them, if they feel the PCs should have been there.

Have faiths be at odds. Campaigns often require PCs to balance the vying perspectives of rival factions—that can be churches as easily as it can be nobles, or guilds.

And give players hooks based on their faith. Nudge them to be involved with it—if they’re trying to decide what to do next, who to talk to next, you can mention that services might be a good place for information, or that a priest might be willing to talk to one of the faithful, or what have you. Reward them for noting their faith and bring it up.

You are what you do in the dark

You bring up concerns about how players are approaching things like dungeons, away from NPCs who might be having services and noting the PCs’ presence or absence, who might greet the PCs with a particular blessing, and so on. And yes, PCs can be devout-seeming in public, but ignore it when out in the wild. That’s a valid characterization—so ask your players if it’s an accurate characterization of their PC. Ask them if they are praying over meals, equipment, fallen foes, fallen comrades. Ask them what they usually do. Ask them again in particular instances that might challenge their usual behavior—do they pray for a particularly despicable foe? Do they pray even when time is of the essence?

Players are not their characters. Their characters can do things, and know things, that the players don’t do. Just like the player might not be inclined—or even capable—to run around swinging a sword, they may not be inclined—or again, capable, due to not knowing the words or having the time—to say all the prayers their characters are saying. If a player wants to mention that their character says a prayer at various times, that’s great—but if not, that’s fine. Don’t expect players to read your mind, either—if you want to know in a particular circumstance how a character reacts, ask about that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a thought to add to this answer - different gods have different values and expectations of their faithful. Pelor may expect his faithful to pray in the morning when it isn't impossible, but Heironeous may not care about a follower failing to pray regularly if they are questing to slay evil creatures. The DM can also avoid "My Guy" syndrome when playing the gods and other NPCs by adjusting what the expected parameters of a follower are based on what the players are doing, within reason. \$\endgroup\$ – IllusiveBrian Jan 28 at 0:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ It might be useful to point to other RPGs or to settings where interactions with religion are much more prominent -- the new edition of Runequest, for example. \$\endgroup\$ – Marq Jan 28 at 15:32
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Use minor but consistent behaviour by NPCs.

  • Most shopkeepers have a religious affilation, and they give minor discounts and/or better service to co-religionists.
    • Say the inn is full. But if the right character asks, wearing the right symbols or using the right phrases as greeting, a room will be found.
    • A merchant will be more merciful when haggling, but not so much that he sells at a loss. Just a slightly lower profit margin. In the name of insert deity, yes, I agree.
  • Some NPCs explain their actions in religious terms.
    • The mayor wants to turn some bedraggled adventurers away because "they will bring monsters on their trail." A priest says "let them in, my god says so." Not divine relevation, just the traditional interpretation of the sacred texts. Do unto others and all that.
    • The PCs behave in "lewd" ways and the local priest collects a mob with pitchforks. No priestly magic or the like, just an impassioned speech.
    • Before the duke answers a request or suggestion by the PCs, he consults several priests who argue different positions based on their religion.

Players will be required to pick a side, and that side brings them instant friends and foes. Picking no side puts them on the side of the cynics/atheists, which is also a side in a way ...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your response! Those are great suggestions for improving the religion via the setting. The main concern of mine however is changing how the players feel about religion, say, while they're in a dungeon. Can they be consistently shown the gods are watching without pigeon-holing them into always 'just doing what theyre supposed to'? \$\endgroup\$ – frog Jan 27 at 18:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @frog, that's more tricky. If there are witnesses, limit the benefits of reliigous attachment to members in good standing. Or have NPCs ask. When did you last go to confession, son? Do you want to confess now, before you go back into that dungeon? PCs could lie or evade, but that would be a kind of thinking about the religious angle, too. \$\endgroup\$ – o.m. Jan 27 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I tend to agree with this approach, though. The benefits should mostly be in setting terms rather than in mechanical. Even in video games there are concepts like this where choices are reflected in how NPCs treat you rather than straight bonuses and penalties. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Jan 27 at 19:00

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