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I've been reading a lot of Brandon Sanderson lately, and the thing I love most about his worlds, aside from the magic systems, is the treatment of religion. The characters have personal beliefs that interact with a societal set of belief systems in a very believable way that also impacts their lives on a daily basis. The Austrism religion from Warbreaker colors every aspect of the characters' lives who follow it, whether they are rejecting the religion or embracing it. The debates between Shu-Dereth and Shu-Korath in Elantris are fascinating. These are full world views, not quirks.

To contrast, in my experience with D&D most cleric/paladin players don't actually play their religion very much, or if they do, it's reduced to very simple concepts... for example: St. Cuthbert is the patron saint of hitting monsters with big hammers, worship of Pelor involves charity and self-sacrifice... these are surface level things, quirks, but it's all I've ever encountered in D&D thus far. More commonly, religion takes a major backseat to the character and the game.

Obviously it doesn't have to if we don't want it to. But... my question is, if I want to play a character where religion is a very big part of their lives, in a more Sanderson kind of way, what religion in a published D&D setting has the most detail that I can play with? Where can I find details about it to flesh out my character?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've always looked to the Greeks, especially The Iliad, for examples of how to make the religions deeper. Holding feats and making boasts before important battles, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tom
    Mar 25 at 23:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ "The Austrism religion from Warbreaker colors every aspect..." I see what you did there. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Jun 25 at 1:56

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There have been some decent sourcebooks focusing on D&D religions in the past, such as Faiths and Avatars and Deities and Demigods, but to explore D&D religions, it might be more appropriate to read D&D novels. Actually, particularly for the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings, a multitude of world building novels touch and detail deities and their priests. Some examples are:

  • The Cleric Quintet by Salvatore details the adventures of the cleric Cadderly Bonaduce, and constructs a lot of the lore around Deneir's religion.
  • The Avatar series of five books details the Time of Troubles when the Forgotten Realms deities walk amongst mortals, and the subsequent rise of Midnight (Mystra), Kelemvor and Cyric to godhood.
  • The Lady Penitent trilogy pits priestess of Lolth against those of Eilistraee, with a complex background involving other drow deities like Vhaeraun and Kiaransalee. (Various Drizzt novels are also great in detailing Lolth's religion, as mentioned in another answer.)
  • In the Dragonlance Legends trilogy, a powerful wizard is trying to challenge Takhisis and assume her place in Krynn's pantheon of gods. The story also provides a background on the Cataclysm that occurred as a result of the actions of the Kingpriest, the theocratic ruler of Istar.

Finally, I suggest searching for the word "heresy" in the Forgotten Realms wiki, and have a look at the articles that you find that way. The various schisms in the religions had actually helped me in building my own Forgotten Realms and fleshing out the role of clerics, allowing me to come up with satisfactory answers to questions like "Which magic deity would be a good fit for a specific witch-hunting cult?" on the rpg.se.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for this. Definitely looking for the Cleric Quintet at my library now. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9 at 11:00
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If you're feeling evil...

I can't prove it's the most comprehensively covered religion in D&D without having read every book in every edition, but I can say with confidence a lot has been written about the Church of Lolth over the years. The Drow (dark elves) have been around since AD&D, and the Church of Lolth, the Spider Queen, is usually a central part of their societies.

The Drow were mentioned as only a myth in the AD&D monster manual in 1977, and the adventure module Queen of the Demonweb Pits introduces Lolth as their deity. A lot has been written since then, and between writers and editions some things have changed over time. But in most depictions of Drow society, the Church of Lolth serves in a theocratic role and would play a very large role in most Drow's lives. In earlier editions, this is near-universal among Drow, but later publications have tended towards less monolithic societies for the different races.

Of special note is R. A. Salvatore's series, The Legend of Drizzt, following a Drow Ranger protagonist, which is at 37 books at time of writing and still going. That series has been responsible for a lot of Drow PCs over the years.

If you're looking for a faster reference than reading a fantasy series that's been running since the 80's, I would recommend starting with the Church of Lolth, Lolth, and Drow pages on the Forgotten Realms wiki. The pages link to a lot of other background lore, and cite their sources from the vast sea of D&D rules material and Forgotten Realms fiction published over the years which give a long reading list of follow-up material.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer! Alas, I'm not feeling evil, so it doesn't help me personally, but she does look a lot more fleshed out than, for example, St. Cuthbert! \$\endgroup\$ Mar 25 at 6:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @IronWilliam There is some debate over whether or not Bahamut is actually a god: rpg.stackexchange.com/a/192495/36850 \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Mar 25 at 11:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ From Fizban's: "Bahamut and Tiamat, the primordial dragons and the purported creators of the First World, are the closest things to gods among dragonkind. Since they share the same fundamental connection to the Material Plane as their dragon offspring. Bahamut and Tiamat are ontologically distinct from the gods that hail from the Outer Planes. But for practical purposes they are divine [...]" \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Mar 25 at 11:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @IronWilliam I would recommend just including some info about Bahamut in the answer, we try to avoid answers in comments, though there is some wiggle room when we get under an answer looking for further info. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 25 at 12:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ "37 books at time of writing and still going", yes indeed :-) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 27 at 12:34
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Any of the real world faiths that are represented in the game

Real world religions have been part of the game in all its incarnations. The original first edition Deities & Demigods described some 17 pantheons, of which five were fictional and a full dozen were in-game representations of real-world religions and mythoi. In 5th Edition, Appendix B of the Player's Handbook has a section on the Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, and Norse panthea, including alignments and suggested cleric domains for numerous gods.

Rather than choosing a fictional god that is nevertheless well-documented, you do have the option of choosing an in-game version of an actual historical deity. Doing so would give you access to a wealth of information and perspectives from completely outside the gaming community. If you want to play a character for whom religion is a big part of their life, you can access accounts of real people for whom the religion actually was or is a big part of their lives. The sources of information can include historical and anthropological accounts of the religion itself, psychological studies of what concepts in the religion represent (such as the work of Ginette Paris, who analyzes the Jungian archetypes present in Greek gods), and contemporary accounts of actual worshippers of reconstructed religions (here Neopagan adherents of the Norse pantheon seem particularly numerous). For example, the 5th edition Forgotten Realms deity Tyr is based on the actual Norse god Týr. In your research on how to play a cleric of Tyr, you would have access to accounts of the complex and nuanced worldviews of both historical and contemporary people who actually are adherents of Tyr.

How this has worked for me

One of my first players was, in his personal life, a Wiccan and practicing Neopagan. One of his characters was a cleric of Brigid, who he saw as an in-game version of the actual goddess Brigid. Although he was not in particular a devotee of Brigid, he did honor and celebrate the Triple Goddess, and his own research and experience were used in asking, what would this cleric of this goddess be like in a world where monsters were real and religion and magic were tangible? The goals and motivations of the character were informed by his understanding of the actual religion.

One of my first 5e characters was a monk who did not believe that magic was real. I could have tried to imagine an entire fictional monastic order around this central conceit. Instead, I decided to play him as Buddhist-in-outlook-but-not-name, with a belief that the magic in the game was just a particularly egregious example of how the world of the senses was maya (illusion) and was a mental block to his attaining enlightenment. My actual understanding of real-world Buddhism was considerably more shallow than my player's understanding of neopaganism, but it did provide me with a ready perspective for many circumstances, and a steady supply of stories and sayings and thus a richer role-playing experience.

Important caveat

As in any endeavor in which you are imitating the sincere beliefs of others, there is the potential for cultural appropriation and even sacrilege. Try to be mindful of this. Ask the other participants in your group how they feel about you playing a character of a real-world faith, keep your play in a private (not public) setting, and be up front about your intentions when requesting information from people. For example, if you are going to borrow a book from or interview a friend about their participation in a religion, let them know that it is for the purposes of playing a character in a game. If this use would offend them, respectfully take your search for information elsewhere.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is a great answer, if anyone is like me and explicitly do not want real-world religion in their games you can easily "roll your own" by reskinning an existing religion as a fictional one for your setting. This has the added benefit of showing more respect to these religions if that's something you care about because it's not putting them "in a box" so-to-speak and it should also feel like you have more freedom to make stuff up on the fly. Then you'll still have swathes of information on the internet you could look up for your religions, it's the best of both worlds in my opinion. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sleepwave
    Apr 15 at 21:26
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It's hard to find a comprehensively detailed religion in D&D lore however there are often hooks that you can build a solid character concept around. I would say Lathander would be a good example, although not the only one.

FR wiki has: Lathander, whose title was The Morninglord, was a deity of creativity, dawn, renewal, birth, athletics, spring, self-perfection, vitality, and youth. He favored those who dispelled the undead and blessed those who planted new life.

Lathander's most important ceremonies are held at dawn, and involve drinking well water touched by the rising run. More important temples are often showy, with great windows facing the rising sun. The most important festivals are held at Midsummer, and the equinoxes. There are also temples to bring hope to troubled places: for instance one was a rare refuge amidst the ruins of Myth Drannor. Perhaps your cleric would like to spend time at or even found such a temple one day?

Lathander supports art and athletics, so your priest might be some sort of fitness freak. He might also be a poet or artist in his spare time (and maybe not a particularly good one). Or maybe he is a guerrilla gardener. Maybe he has lost (or gained) a large sum of money investing in startups? Lathandrites are suckers for the latest thing.

Lathander is a rather optimistic god, so maybe your character is young and naive and rushes into things without thinking. Or maybe, your character is getting on a bit and has to struggle constantly against his natural cynicism.

Lathander favours deeds over words, so well fits the life of an adventuring cleric. His superiors are well suited to providing healing or resurrection, although at a price.

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I keep seeing people bring up the Drizzt series and the godsforsaken Lady Penitent books, yet no one has bothered to bring up the War of the Spider Queen? Shame on you all, truly.

If you're looking for more detail on the beliefs of the Drow, that would be the one I'd personally suggest. It touches on both the main Lloth cult from various angles as well as of those of Vhaeraun and Eilistraee and Lloth herself, her attitudes and how the society of the Drow was shaped by her religion are central to the plot in a very direct way throughout the six books.

Now, the one downside of them is that they all have been penned by different authors (under Salvatore's care, supposedly, but it feels most of the time like little to no oversight has been spared other than perhaps for the setting itself), so the characters tend to fluctuate in how they are depicted or how they behave between the books with relative inconsistency (book 4 is one of the worst offenders on that front to me, personally), but otherwise provide a pretty decent read with a pretty good insight into both the religion and the political intricacies of the Underdark.

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