How to Create Religions for Your Game World
From Garry Stahl
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #571
The impetus for this article started with a question on my phoenixRPG list.
OK, I keep trying to write up the religions of my game world, and I always run aground because my mind keeps rolling over into working up what a plausible religion would be like if gods were real and cared about human behavior AND I’m fascinated by the fringe-folk blessing and lucky charm trade that always grows up around any successful faith.
So I slam merrily into the same blind corner, and then I stall. I keep falling into writing what the gods want and will provide, because that is what setting books typically do. But if you search the internet, the magic that people want enough to pay for is luck, wealth, youth, beauty, love slaves, sexual prowess, popularity and revenge.
In a world with working arcane magic, religion would have to offer something lately, not an ‘age of miracles’ long past, to complete. … And what about when a religion splinters and the two groups preach diametrically opposed Truths concerning the same god? Is wealth a sign of god’s grace or are riches a trap and it is the poor who are blessed?
Few GMs put work into fantasy religion, but I believe well crafted religions add immensely to role-playing by giving the priest character something to hang his miter on.
In terms of Garry’s First Rule of Fantasy, all games are fantasy even if that is not the genre. So, in a broader sense, building up your religions adds to the background of your game world and its richness regardless of your game’s genre.
I breaking the religion creation process down into two stages. The first you perform once when making your game world, the second as often as required.
Let’s start with world building.
The Nature of Gods
The first thing you should consider when making your game world is whether the gods are real.
There are three possibilities to consider:
- Gods are real and active
- Gods are real but distant
- Gods do not exist
Let’s consider each option.
Gods Are Real and Active
If gods are real and active, you get what gods want. They can rein in priests with divine favor and disfavor-a pretty direct feedback system. There isn’t much to be said, because when god speaks, the clergy listens.
Something to consider about gods and religion was the way the ancients dealt with gods. The Mediterranean religions we usually associated with pagan polytheism. The Grecian-Roman tradition, safely dead so we can play with it, didn’t see gods as a parental all-watching force. If you wanted their attention you had to get it, and you made bargains with your gods.
“Hey Poseidon, get me safely to Alexandra and I’ll give you a sacrifice when I get there.” You shopped gods, and you gave worship to the gods you needed when you needed them.
The above list of typical wants (luck, wealth, youth, beauty, love slaves, sexual prowess, popularity and revenge) would be divided among a pantheon of service vendors, if you will.
So if the religion isn’t serving the needs of the community, the community will be looking for new gods. The gods might define what they want, but if what they want isn’t want people want the people will shop for new deities.
A world with real and active gods, and lots of them, is going to have service oriented religions.
A world with real and active gods and only one or a few could be a pretty bleak place to live. So we get the next category.
Gods Are Real But Distant
If gods are real but distant you can get more of a splinter mentality. I don’t deal with a subjective game reality. Being the ultimate god (GM) I decide what is right wrong, good and evil.
When gods are real but there isn’t a direct feedback system, you will get differences of opinion as to what is right.
So in the case of a prophecy with several interpretations or prophets, one prophet might be right, or they might all be full of crap. They cannot all be right. Just because some smelly hermit with bad hair predicted something 600 years ago doesn’t mean they were right.
There is also the case of everyone knows the prophecy and it is wrong. Something will happen, but the prophecy has wandered away from the correct wording or interpretation. This is all too common if the prophecy was in an obscure language with several translations between then and now, or the church fathers think a slight realignment will serve them better, and bite the ass of the congregation once they are dead.
When distant gods do not keep close tabs of the worshipers or the priests, we have the case of less feedback.
There Are No Gods
If there are no gods, the field is wide open. That is the case with Elvisites. “Magic” works because of conformation bias. No one remembers the 999 times the prayer or totem didn’t work, just the one time it did. And the good old gospel dichotomy. If it went my way, the gods provided. If it didn’t, evil interfered and my faith was not strong enough.
If magic is real, then it is of the arcane variety with a different bent to the spell list, lots of unnecessary ritual, and a built-in denial or outright lie as to what is going on.
Give priests in this environment a good deal of political power. They are real parasites. They might be the only legal dispensers of magic. Anyone not approved by them is a heretic devil worshiper that needs to be burned at the stake.
In a setting where the gods are not real, the primary job of the priest is making sure people need them and they can continue to not do real work. When real gods are not present, orthodoxy will be defended with fire and sword.
Once we have the nature of the gods defined we define the religion itself.
Building the Religion
My first step in building a good religion is understanding the nature of my universe. That’s easy enough as I am the builder.
Step two is understanding the nature of deities, which again I define.
Step three is the nature of people and religions. This I don’t define, but we have seen, I think, sufficient people reacting to and within religion to predict where that is going. Religion can be deep and spiritual and a source of strength for its adherents. It can also be abused where people will flip backwards to believe what they want, need and believe to confirm their own station in the universe. Religion can be profound but it doesn’t need to be reasonable. Sometimes the less reasonable it is the more people grab onto an idea.
Once you define the nature of godhood it is time to define your religion. Religions consider themselves the right and good way to do things. The Truth accepts no substitutes. Write from that perspective, not how their foes would see them or even the reality of the situation. You can have that in your private GM notes.
I use a question format. A form to fill out regarding the basic beliefs and practices of that religion. I’ll go over it item by item. I’ll try and keep the document explanation system free.
Remember the fact of the reality or non-reality of gods does not affect the existence of religion. Incidentally defining religion is one of my tools for not using alignment.
The method below assumes gods are real, but so does any religion.
First, here is the stat block condense for easy copy and paste. After, I’ll give details about what each item is about.
Religion Stat Block
Download an RTF file of this stat block.
- God worshiped
- Sphere of Influence
- Sacred Colors
- Sacred Animal
- Place of Worship
- Worship Days
- Holy Days
- Holy Writings
- Favored Deities
- Disliked Deities
- Favored Governments
- Disliked Governments
- Teachings and Other Information
- Worshiper Requirements
- Typical Worshiper
- Sex of Worshiper
- Minimum Age
- Worship of Other Gods?
- If Yes, Any restrictions?
- War and Fighting
- Love and Marriage
- Duty to Liege Lord
- Self Interests
- Others’ Needs
- Duty to Religion
- Afterlife Expectations
- Name of Order
- Statement of Mission
- Gender of Cleric
- Minimum Age
- Sexual Practices Allowed or Required
- Wealth and Magic Allowed
- Oaths of Ordination
- Special Attributes Needed
- Special Abilities Given by Level
- Weapons Allowed
- Armor Allowed
- Special Commandments
- Rank Tiers and Names
- Legends About The Gods
- Important Persons In The Church
- Church History
Religion Stat Block Described
Who or what is being worshiped and by what name? Religions do not have to be to a single god. Polytheistic religions can have sects that worship more than one deity. I even have gods with more than one religion.
Sphere of Influence
What does the religion cover? It can be as specific as a single trade or broad as everything.
The fewer gods your cosmology has the more each god will deal with.
Consider also how political the religion is. Are they a minor sect without clout or do they have the entire country by the short hairs? The more exclusive the religion, the more likely there is political clout.
The following two entries are optional. The beauty of this format is you can remove or add categories as required. Nothing is engraved in stone.
Sacred Colors (Optional)
Holy colors. If you have holy colors, are there sumptuary laws restricting who can wear these colors? The more politically powerful the religion, the more likely this is.
Sacred Animal (Optional)
You can also have plants, planets, minerals and anything you want.
Place of Worship
Where do the worshipers meet? Mystery religions or forbidden religions might meet in caves. Small religions might meet in the homes of worshipers. The ones with money and clout will have the big temples.
When is regular worship? Weekly, monthly? What time of day?
You might describe the worship service as well. “Three hours of chanting praise”, “a drunken party that lasts until the brawl starts”, “lectures on the glory of the gods”.
Festivals and holidays. The special occasions. God’s birthday, accession, the days sacred to “saints” or demigods, harvest feasts, and so forth.
I generally look for at least one feast a season. I give the day or days of the holy event and what is usually done there.
What do you bring to the god? Propitiation would be the daily sort of thing, onions and beer for the Egyptians for example (very important onions and beer), a tenth of your income, flowers and honey, it should reflect the nature of the god.
Sacrifices are what you bring for the big feast or special favor. It doesn’t have to be red haired virgins. Make the type of sacrifice fit the nature of the religion. A god of healing is not going to be big on baby killing, or anyone killing. Gods of war on the other hand….
Obviously, you do not want to write the whole book. Provide the name, author and age if you want, plus the basic summary. “Contains the life story and teachings of the god” or “parables illustrating moral principles”, for example. You can have more than one book. A religion of oral tradition (the ancient druids, for example) will have no books.
If the religion is monotheistic, leave this one out. If not (usually the case) who do they like and are willing to work with? Explain why.
Who do the worshipers dislike or are active enemies with? Explain why.
Politics. What governments will the religion work with and why?
Likewise, who is on the bad people list?
Teachings and Other Information
Worshiper requirements – we have defined who and what to worship. Now we define who does the worshiping.
Who worships this god and religion? Members of a given trade? Women? Do all adherents like this or not?
Sex of Worshiper
Is the religion restricted by gender?
Is the religion restricted by age?
Are there restrictions on what races worship the gods, or races that are officially recognized by religion?
Worship of Other Gods
This is important for polytheistic cults. One did not worship only Apollo and shun all others. You went to Delphi for knowledge of the future, or gave to Poseidon for safety at sea, Aphrodite for luck in love, Hymen for fortune in marriage.
You took your worship to the temple that met your need. This aspect of polytheistic religion is often lost on those raised in a monotheistic tradition where it is one god and all others are opposed.
If Yes, Any restrictions?
The god of healing might not like you paling with the god of war. Does the religion have those religions that are opposed? The gods of another land, for example.
Define what is and is not right to do. One commandment per category is not the rule. Use as many as you need or as few. This is not just the flavor text and list of rules of your religion, it sets the tone.
Authoritarian, relaxed, prosaic, lyrical. Here is where you put in that extra touch. I have done everything from old Testament style “Thou Shalt Nots” to a question and response style.
War and Fighting
The rules of war or fighting, and for dealing with violence of any kind. Is violence a sin or not? Everyone has something to say about it.
Love and Marriage
Love, sex, marriage, and child-rearing all fall under this category.
Duty to Liege Lord
How you should deal with the temporal political powers?
How you should treat yourself? From live large to mortification of the flesh.
How you should deal with other people? This can range from give them everything to give them the back of your hand.
Duty to Religion
How you should deal with the religion itself? My cultures have had everything from “no other or anything before me” to a laissez-faire take it or leave it attitude. There is not just one answer.
OK, I’ve been a good worshiper, what is my reward? Again there is no cut and dried answer, and try to vary answers between religions in your world.
Was anything missed? Is there a something you don’t think is worthy of a category?
Religions have priests. What does it take to be a priest? These are important functionaries in the organization and are often expected to provide leadership.
Name of Order
Pick an interesting name. Some religions might have multiple orders of priests or brothers/sisters who fulfill various roles.
Statement of Mission
What is the stated goal of the priesthood?
Gender of Cleric
Gender restrictions, if any.
Age restrictions for clergy members. Fantasy offers interesting possibilities here, as non-human life spans and maturity rates can differ a lot. Perhaps you need to be 1000 years old before allowed to live clergy life.
Racial restrictions or preferences for clergy members.
Sexual Practices Allowed or Required
This is important. Don’t overlook it. The sphere of the religion will say a lot toward this one. Celibacy is not the only choice here. Priests might be required to marry, may marry but only within the clergy, or they might have to shag everyone in sight.
Wealth and Magic Allowed
With some religions a wealthy clergy member is a sign of sin, within others it is a sign of success. Look to the sphere of the religion for guidance on this one.
Oaths of Ordination
I don’t usually write them out but state what they do: poverty, obedience, service to the poor, etc.
Special Attributes Needed
This travels into game information. Minimum wisdom, intelligence and the like.
Special Abilities Given by Level
This is also game information. What does the cleric get game-wise for being a cleric and when do they get it? Your system might not have levels, so adjust accordingly.
Weapon restrictions or preferences, if any. Reference the religion’s view on violence to guide this choice. Exotic weapons will require special training considerations for clergy, as well.
Armor restrictions or preferences for clergy members, if any. You might also consider what the religion considers acceptable for other kinds of defense (and offence). Can clergy members ride dragons or have basilisks as pets?
Clerics are often held to a standard greater than the lay people. Detail those rules here.
Most religions have a hierarchy. Give a breakdown of the hierarchy here.
Rank Tiers and Names
What is the rank called and when do you get it? Tier could be based on achievements, time served, when the gods say so, and so on.
Not all religions will have vertical hierarchies. Less political ones especially may have special designations or branches that do not carry less or more power or prestige within clergy ranks.
What roles and responsibilities are involved per tier?
What boons, rights and perks is each tier granted?
What do clergy members wear within each tier? This is important for game flavor and to help players navigate the nature of a religion’s clergy. When talking with an NPC, for example, the players would appreciate clues as to whether they are parleying with a high rank clergy member or a simple scribe.
My final section is usually pure flavor text.
- Legends about the gods
- Important persons in the church
- Church history
This is a second chance to add some depth and flavor to you world.
More GM Religion Resources
A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs
Challenges GMs to look beyond the religious trappings of theology and confront the philosophical and existential realities within their campaigns, such as “What are the Gods?”
Religions In RPGs – Designing Religions For Your Game-World
These questions will give you food for thought as you try to form your world’s religions.
8 Ways To Spice Up A Campaign With Religion
Inspiration for day-to-day encounters.
Deus Ex Machinas And The Plot Implications Of Divinity
Looks specifically at deities and how their existence and capabilities affects campaigns and adventures.
Theologies at 30 paces: The Hell of Evil in D&D
Devils and demons and how they fit into a D&D Campaign.
Now Roll Your Own
In this article, I’ve shown you how I create religions for my game world. You can find examples of my religions at my website, such as The Centaur Gods, the Church of Mephistopheles and The Fellowship of Plenty – a merchant’s creed.
I hope this guide helps you inject more life and belief into your clerics and world.