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As a GM, how can I make a player-character's religion help drive the story?

I'm going to be making up a local religion for the region that most of the party is from, and I'd like it to really matter in the game. In so many settings, religion is just colorful details -- the monks around here dress in brown, and they carry a snake emblem on a staff, etc. I'm not looking for color, I'm looking for ways to make their religion get them into adventures.

The party will probably be spending some of their time among their coreligionists, but knowing this group I expect they'll spend plenty of time out in foreign lands, exploring the world. This is a very low-magic setting, so there's nothing like D&D-style clerical spells, or divine artifacts in the world.

By the way, this isn't limited to answers that deal with large, political, organized religious groups.

(This is basically a religion version of this question about weather.)

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One way for religion to matter, as you suggest, is for it to cause adventures. At a surface level, this is no more difficult that getting any other factor to cause adventures-- Give that factor power and the authority to hand out quests or obligations, and go from there. Even the narrow history and literature of western Europe presents several broad ideas:

  1. Military expansion or conflict: The Crusades
  2. Object quests: The Holy Grail
  3. Semi-peaceful expansion: Missionary Work

At least two of those can be easily inverted such that the characters' culture is the object or target of the crusade or the missionary work. Really, almost any purely political motivation can be translated to a religious one without too much effort. These can also be made arbitrarily complex with faction complications.

A second very broad class of making religion matter, especially in a game with exploration themes, is to make some or much of the sense of wonder, or sense of exploration, revolve around religious differences. This comes with a steep cost in world-building effort, however-- you may need to design (and establish) not only a religion for your PCs' area, but for wherever they go to as well.

This does not cause adventures, per se, but it can certainly lend inflection to them.

And finally, if you really want any given factor in a game to matter, whether it be the weather or a religion, it should force the PCs to make difficult choices. This does not necessarily mean forcing impossible ethical choices on the characters, but it should mean making decisions that come with real short-term or long-term trade-offs and consequences: Do we break a local taboo in order to achieve a long-term goal? Do we break our taboo and possibly offend our own gods or our patrons back home? Our co-religionists over there are unfortunately in our way, but these unbelievers over here, have reasons for helping us-- do we accept? Those heretics over there just made us an offer we can't refuse... but really should; now what?

The key, if you want these decisions to matter, is to force the consequences to matter. Whether this is purely mechanical (you broke a taboo, your gods penalize you) or purely social or somewhere in between is possibly less important than the fact of real consequences, and consequences that are in some degree understood beforehand, and internally consistent to the setting.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is an awesome answer. It hits on a lot of things that I considered when creating some religion-related lore for my setting. The last two paragraphs are perhaps the most important, transcending the mechanical aspect of the question and really helping the world's religion(s) inform the narrative better. Who's to say that Church of A isn't going to be totally upset when agents of the Church of B are conducting peacekeeping missions in their "territory"? \$\endgroup\$ – jaichele May 24 '16 at 19:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 from me. Any thoughts on how these concepts could apply to small, non-organized religions? (I'm having a hard time imagining, say, Siberian shamanist crusades or missionaries.) \$\endgroup\$ – Joe May 24 '16 at 22:25
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Religion can lead to a lot of adventures in real life. (The Crusades come to mind...) The key, I would say, is that you think about the values and culture beyond just the trappings. Is the religion evangelical, with mission trips abroad? Large, with important conferences and councils? Are members dedicated to local service in the community? Are they politically active, and how is that received? Do they advocate for peace, or war? In other words, what do they stand for, and how far are they willing to go for it?

Some specific examples to get you started:

  • Deliver food and supplies to areas hit by war or disaster.
  • Pressure the local government to [not] get involved in a particular conflict, through public demonstrations or private conversations.
  • Retrieve an important manuscript or artifact (of cultural/historical/religious significance, if not magical.)
  • Escort one of the faithful through dangerous territory.

There are plenty more. This is a great idea - best of luck and enjoy!

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Churches have hierarchies and structures like kingdoms, and even among true believers in the same gods, there can be power struggles, factions, disagreements. You could have the order become divided. You could have a corrupt person become the leader of the organization (especially if the God isn't an interventionist God or hasn't been seen for a while).

Artifacts don't have to be magic. They can be symbolic and still be very important and be items that the church wants to acquire for historical value.

Most real churches work to serve the communities. Why would the religions of D&D not do the same. They could do good works which seem menial to a group of heroes, only for that the lead larger plots. While the group is helping clean out an old woman's attic they uncover a map to a forgotten temple, or the like.

What do the kingdoms think about the religions? Could the state start persecuting believers? Could the church try to dethrown a king for saying something against the religion? Could a rival religion threaten to win over worshipers from the character's faith? What does the church think about the happenings at the local taverns/gambling establishments/drug dens/slave trade/etc. etc.?

Lastly, deity. Perhaps the character of faith has a dream that their deity tells them to do/preach/find/etc. something. Is it just a dream or did something really talk to him? Is it really the deity or impostor? How does the church take to the new revelations? What if that thing is contrary to wishes of the character's own heart (think of God telling Abraham to sacrifice Issac)? What if their God misleads them or is wrong (The thing the character is sent to find is dangerous mission, and at the end someone else has already taken it, etc.)?

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There are a lot of good answers here, but there are some things that haven't been mentioned.

Religion plays a big part in the life of those who are a part of it, if not controls most of the actions of one's life.


In most religions, you are going to have some sort of prayer, and dedicate time to that prayer.

  1. Some religions only pray on certain days (i.e., Sunday).

  2. Some religions pray once per day.

  3. Some religions pray multiple times per day.

  4. Some religions have set time for prayer, that could be associated with of the above.

You could create a character that would have to dedicated a certain amount of time to prayer per day. This enables you to create story elements such as "if you don't pray at 5pm every day, for at least 30 mins, your chances of turning into a demon increase by 35%" or something along the lines of your character continually gets closer to becoming a demon, and you have to pray to negate that effect, at a certain point.... or something else to make the story interesting.

Since you specifically asked

I'm looking for ways to make their religion get them into adventures.

You could use the above in order to search for items that could aid in your story.

For example, if you find the "Book of Ages" you can decrease time spend on prayer per day, or decrease time from when last prayed, to when you need to pray again, which would enable you to spend more time doing other things in your world.


Religions can have events where you need to collect specific items, which might be in distant lands, and prepare them in certain ways according to tradition.

This can enable you to go on adventures in 2 ways, while creating more story elements.

  1. Find the items for the festival in distant lands, or at least acquiring these items will require an adventure of some sort (Slay the Dragon and acquire it's tail for the brew of tonight's feast)!

  2. Learning to cook, or create items for the festival could bring you to interesting places in your world.

This adds story elements, because your characters could build experience in certain things such as "Crafting, "Alchemy," or some other skill-set you have enabled in your game.

It also adds the story element of these items being useful in your adventure later on. Maybe you learned how to cook a special healing food that is an ancient item that appears in this special festival once every 500 years, and is passed down in a special way which you had to spend a lot of time, money, etc to acquire.


There are many possibilities for "Religion" to be a part of your story.

You could have a religion of demonic summoners who use their own life as summons.

or a religion of people who are able to create golems, i.e., put life into objects (possibly also using their own life, or some sort of energy).

In reality, you need to look at what a religion is. You said that appearances is something you noticed i.e., Monk, but there's so much more than that. A religion is the bond between you and something else, most notably a God, or some other Deity, but there are idol worshipers who might worship a structure, or other "idol."

Religions have shown that if you are "religious enough", that you can gain something. This is the important thing to note.

You pray to your god enough and he will grant you the ability to summon the demons above, or create golems, heal people, gain the God's ability, etc.

Good luck!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow.. I really got downvoted... Why? \$\endgroup\$ – XaolingBao May 25 '16 at 7:18
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To make this involving across the group and to make the importance of religion clear, keep nudging your players back to those themes. When one of them make a decision just ask "how would your god feel about this?" "Are you following one of The Precepts now?" and use that to explore how the characters interact with religion. If it is a religious society then they will know that missing Matins is a serious matter and so you can ask "is this worth missing your morning prayer for?" If they decide it is, ensure there are consequences to that. Religion is as much about orderly society and social relations as it is about gods and mythologies and so the social consequences of religious transgression ( or exceptional zeal ) are likely to be significant. All of these can serve to affect their progress through whatever adventures they are having.

Also by asking the players about their religion, you can give them a hand in shaping the world to a degree, giving them more involvement in naming historical figures, significant texts, precepts and so on. Obviously the degree to which you do this depends a lot on the type of game you are running and sometimes you need to apply the iron hand of GM veto, but it can help to add depth and colour to the world and also make the form of the religion more colourful.

It is interesting to read about the foundation of the religious situation we experience in much of the world today by taking a look at what was happening in the middle east in the first millennium of the common era - a world both driven by and shaping religions that went on to change everything over the next thousand years. One can certainly find some interesting game ideas in that.

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