8 Ways To Spice Up A Campaign With Religion
From Neil Faulkner
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #121
In many fantasy games, religion is viewed in terms of what certain PCs or NPCs might get out of it, in terms of spells, powers, divine favours and such. This article does not deal directly with such things, as they tend to be system- specific and integrated into the game rules. Instead it deals with the trappings of religion as a social phenomenon, as it might be manifest in day-to-day encounters with the common (and sometimes not so common) folk.
Though drawn mainly from medieval Christianity, some or all of them can be adapted to other religious settings, but they are perhaps more appropriate for established, institutionalised faiths.
Medieval Europe was seething with monks. As well as the original Benedictines, there were Franciscans, Dominicans and Cistercians, as well as orders of nuns such as the Poor Clares. Some of these orders evolved from existing ones (the Cistercians were an offshoot of the Benedictines, the Poor Clares were founded as a companion order to the Franciscans).
In a fantasy world, even one which offers many gods, some equivalent of monasticism might exist. Monastic orders might develop for one or more different reasons:
- To provide an environment for spiritual contemplation.
- To act as an example to the common people.
- To perform spiritual labours on peoples’ behalf.
- The need to withdraw from mainstream society.
Monasticism might also function to serve other purposes, such as escaping from serfdom, or providing asylum for criminals, alongside the order’s ostensible reason for existing.
Fantasy monks and nuns can be assigned to an order aligned with a particular god or set of gods, and then given a role in society which reflects the god(s) they worship.
A fantasy monastic order might be associated with a particular economic activity (sheep farming, wine-making, quarrying) or some other specialist field (healing, teaching, producing books, perhaps even magic).
A monastic order might be the main or sole repository of a body of esoteric knowledge, which could be purely academic or something more practical.
The order might be reclusive, in which case its monasteries will be hidden away in remote spots, with the monks preferring not to receive visitors, though they need not be hostile to anyone who knocks on their door.
Or the order might be socially active, perhaps running schools or hospitals. The monks might be active proselytisers, forever roaming in search of new converts.
A community of monks might be unique, or it might be just one among many. Large and powerful orders might be present over a very wide area, such as an entire continent.
Local leaders and rulers tended to be generous towards monastic communities, granting them land and business rights as well as valuable gifts. Such obvious wealth might well tempt the less devout PC seeking shelter for the night in a monastery.
However, others might have gotten there first and plundered the lot, which might account for some of those treasure hoards that PCs stumble across. This might pose a moral dilemma – the hoard of a long-dead king is there for the taking, but loot from a monastery can be returned to its rightful owners, the order, even if the monastery it was taken from no longer exists. In a fantasy setting, of course, the hoard might contain enchanted treasures as well as mundane riches.
Although there is a danger of descent into caricature (monks and nuns are still individual people), defining one or more monastic orders can offer instant NPCs. The monks or nuns can instantly be recognised for what they are (if they all wear the same colour of habit), and the PCs – and hence the players – will come to know what to expect when encountering them. Monastic orders can become a reassuring element of familiarity in foreign lands, just as they were in the Middle Ages.
And if you think monks make for uninteresting characters, there is this Friar Tuck fellow you may have heard of…
The Templars, the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights and other such military orders have been described as the ‘monks of war’. Fantasy religions might also have their own military orders.Some reason should be devised for them to exist. The European orders were founded to fight for Christendom in the Holy Land, and were a convenient way of diverting traditional noble belligerence to the service of a good cause. They were the product of a conflict between religions.
Holy warriors exist to fight for a religion rather than a king, a nation or a people. If the gods settle their differences through the wars of mortals, military orders of some form or another might be found on both sides. They need not be knights, drawn from the ranks of the nobility – they might be ‘peasant paladins’, or the private armies of druids or shamans.
Military orders, like monastic orders, can be large and powerful. With their military strength, they can be even more formidable than non-martial monks, and possibly rival kings or emperors. Like monastic orders, they can also transcend national and ethnic boundaries, with the brethren housed in a network of castles and strongholds covering a vast area.
A single religion might contain a number of military orders, each distinct in its own right.
It might be characterised by:
- Restrictions on membership, be that ethnic, sexual (men only, women only, or mixed) or religious (if the religion is large enough to exist in several diverse forms).A preference for particular weapons or styles of combat (lance and sword, archery, ambush and reconnaissance, etc.).
- Restrictions on the type and form of armour worn by the brethren.
- Restrictions on behaviour. The Templars, for example, stayed out of the sack of Constantinople in 1204 through their refusal to lift their swords against fellow Christians. A fantasy order might have a similar ban on, for example, slaying elves – or the imperative to attack them on sight!
- Specialisation in particular fields of activity. It is easy enough to imagine such military orders as the Knights Mariner (pious pirates!), the Swords Surgeon or the Pilgrim Defenders.
Exemplars of true faith can come in many guises, but all are reckoned, in some way, to be closer to the god(s) than ordinary mortals. Martyrs, reformers, senior clerics, heroes, even monarchs can all end up as ‘saints’. (In a fantasy religion, they might not be called saints as such. They might be called Devouts, or Chosen Ones, the Favoured, Responders to the Call, etc.)
Saints have a fair bit of potential:
- As patrons of places.
- As patrons of trades or professions (including monastic and military orders).
- They might have days set aside for them, which might be celebrated in a particularly noteworthy way (especially by the places or professions they patronise).
- They can be associated with legendary tales, miracles, or perhaps more concrete deeds which the PCs can encounter in their travels (the formulation of a law, the founding of a city). They may have possessed items through which their miraculous deeds were performed, such as a staff or sword.
- They might be associated with particular beasts or birds, which then assume an importance of their own. Suppose the PCs come to an island where it’s considered blasphemous to ride horses? Or to kill chickens for food?
- They might inspire the development of particular cults or sects, perhaps only mildly at odds with orthodoxy, or perhaps deemed heretical and outlawed.
Similar to saints are prophets. The role of a prophet is not so much to foretell the future as to act as the voice of the god(s), revealing what has hitherto been obscure and clarifying the vague or unknown. Prophets can be associated with the evolution of a religion, perhaps its divergence into two related or entirely separate faiths. Prophets, like saints, can have legends associated with their name, or become the foundation of cults or heresies.
Relics abounded in the Middle Ages. Churches aspired to collect as many as they could, sometimes with confusing results. It was possible to see the skull of John the Baptist in two different places on consecutive days (but as the keeper of the second skull was apt to explain, “What you saw yesterday was the skull of John as a younger man!”).Relics could be produced by the principle of Contagion. Simply touching a mundane object to a similar genuine relic turned the mundane item into a relic in its own right.
The contents of whole graveyards could be turned into relics through contact with the bones of a saint.A relic has to come from something, usually someone. The remains of saints and prophets is an obvious source, as too are the clothes they wore, or items they possessed, or some object associated with a crucial event in their lives.In a fantasy world, relics might be genuinely powerful. They might be able to cure otherwise terminal diseases, to fend off demons or undead (even in the hands of a non-cleric), to annul curses or bestow divine gifts. False relics, of which there might be plenty, will not be able to perform any of these deeds.
‘Secondary relics’, produced by Contagion, might be false, or less powerful than the ‘real thing’, or perhaps equally powerful.
Powerful relics were often paraded around medieval cities to fend off would-be attackers (or by those same attackers, to hasten the end of the siege) – in a fantasy game, this might be more than mere superstition, with the fate of a city depending on the return of a stolen relic. Relics can certainly be stolen. They might also disappear, in transit from one place to another. A relic might have several claimants, any of whom might hire the PCs to retrieve it. Or the PCs might stumble across the relic, and hence face the problem of who to give it to.
Relics were kept in reliquaries – caskets or otherwise suitable containers to protect the relic from casual mishandling. Reliquaries tended to be valuable in their own right, being made of precious metal or adorned with gems. Another temptation for the less scrupulous PC. A mission might be devised in which the PCs need to acquire the reliquary rather than the relic itself. Alternately, an empty reliquary might come into their possession – do they take steps to track down and retrieve its contents?
Some sites acquire a reputation for being close to the god(s). A deity or one of his/her divine servants may have appeared in such a place, or a saint may have performed a miracle on the site. The birth places of saints, or the sites of their death (perhaps through martyrdom) can also become recognised holy places. Whatever the place – a pool, a waterfall, a hill, a rock, a tomb, a flight of steps or a town square – it will have a story behind it (not necessarily completely true).
Like relics, holy places can have a reputation for miraculous effects, and such reputations may be very tangibly deserved in a fantasy world. It may be that kneeling on the flagstone where a celebrated paladin was martyred really does grant the knight of true faith a boon that might save him in a future battle.The PCs needn’t go to the place – it might come to them, in the shape of flasks of water from a holy spring, or chips struck from a holy rock. Such objects may or may not bring with them benefits – to the devout, of course.
Some sites may be regarded as holy by one or more religions, perhaps because of a common historical background, or perhaps because of an intrinsic sense of holiness about the place itself. If the latter, then the different faiths might acknowledge their mutual interest and declare it open to all, perhaps even to outright rivals. But if the former, rival faiths might fight over possession of it.These attitudes can, of course, be reversed, and might change over time as mutual hostility intensifies or wanes. The PCs might reach a previously safe place to find a holy war in full swing, whilst the less scrupulous might start one to suit their own ends.
Even if they are merely intending to pass through, they might suddenly find that their religious allegiance bars them passage, forcing them to take a long and (to the GM) satisfyingly dangerous diversion.
Unless war or pestilence decreed otherwise, the roads of medieval Europe were heaving with pilgrims. A pilgrimage offered a legitimate reason to travel and see a bit of the world beyond home. Package tours to the Holy Land could be bought, complete with chits to exchange for passage by ship and accommodation on arrival. The stained glass windows of churches were often donated by the local shoe-makers’ guild, since one of the first things a pilgrim purchased on arrival was a new pair of shoes.
Relics and holy places will attract pilgrims, possibly in their thousands. Towns might subsist almost entirely on the pilgrim trade. In the summer, pilgrims might outnumber the local residents.Starting a new campaign and need a reason for the PCs to be travelling together? How about a pilgrimage? Even if they follow different – though perhaps not rival – gods, they might still have a common destination, or at least need to share the road awhile. Of course, you will probably have some event up your sleeve that will lead them astray.A well-travelled pilgrim might well be a fount of knowledge about the world, and not just of the places he or she has visited.
He or she will have collected many travellers’ tales, not all of which are necessarily true. Some of them may tell the PCs more than the pilgrim realises.Not all pilgrims are who they purport to be. Some might be smugglers, or refugees, outlaws, or bandits. Adopting the guise of pilgrims might be the PCs’ best chance of getting into an otherwise inaccessible city or temple, in the same way that Richard Burton – the explorer, not the actor! – slipped into the ‘forbidden’ cities of Mecca and Harar. (An earlier, lesser known predecessor of Burton, Rene Caillie, used a similar trick to become the first European to visit Timbuktu.)
Pilgrims gather from a wide area, and from all classes of society. Sites of pilgrimage and established pilgrimage routes therefore widen the scope for interesting encounters (such as the rather exotic new PC one player has just designed). PCs might bump into old friends – or enemies – just when they least expect to, and probably when they least want to be recognised.
Good Books And Bishops’ Crooks
A Christian has the Bible, a Moslem has the Koran – what holy book or books do the PCs have? If theirs is an entirely oral tradition, then there won’t be one, but any established faith will probably have something written down. In a pre- literate society, of course, only a select few will be able to read it, but that won’t stop it being cited as the fount of all wisdom and the ultimate arbiter on how or how not to behave.
We instantly recognise a Catholic bishop when we see one – the vestments, the mitre and the crook make him unmistakable. What distinguishes clergy in the game world’s religion? What do they wear, or carry? What are these things called, and what do they signify?Is any particular posture adopted when offering prayers? Should prayers be made before a particular symbol, or facing in a particular direction?Even if the PCs are professed atheists, or at least act that way, chances are the overwhelming mass of the people will be believers and their faith will permeate their lives.
It can be manifest in almost anything imaginable – the clothes they wear, the food they eat (and when), how they interact with each other, figures of speech, etc. From a GM’s point of view, this represents a tough call. Getting bogged down in the minutiae of design can get in the way of keeping a campaign going. Never mind, there are ways around this.You can add details as you think of them, so long as they don’t contradict anything that’s already been set in stone.
Or you can pass the buck onto the players, and encourage them to supply the little details.A player running a priest PC will probably (if he or she’s running the character properly) want to know lots of things. When are services held? What form do they take? What responsibilities does a priest have towards the community? What social privileges attach to the priesthood? Can a priest eat meat, drink alcohol, get married? When the player asks, shrug and smile and say, “I don’t know -you tell me.
“Hopefully your campaign world will get richer in detail with minimal effort on your part. You can, of course, reserve the right to have the final say on any player’s suggestions.
Heresies (And Lesser Deviations)
A heresy, put simply, is an interpretation of a religion’s creed that deviates too far from orthodox doctrine. If this new interpretation threatens those who hold power within the religion’s framework, then steps will be taken to stamp out the heresy. Isolated heretics, with little more than a handful of followers, are relatively easy to deal with. But if a heresy captures popular imagination, then the powers that be will have to act hard and fast.
Perhaps the best known Christian heretics of the Middle Ages were the Cathars of southern France. Many atrocities were committed in the crusade called by the Pope to crush Catharism, best summed up by the attitude of one crusader commander in the storming of Beziers – “Kill them all – let God sort them out.”Not all deviations from orthodoxy need be heretical. They may involve ambiguities in the less important backwaters of doctrine, or they might entail a different approach to practicing the faith.
A large, continent-spanning faith is liable to have a number of such variants. Monastic and/or military orders might be their most obvious manifestation.(The Franciscans, for example, were founded as a reformist movement within the Church, but sufficiently orthodox for Innocent III to ratify their legitimacy. This was a shrewd political move on his part – the Franciscans, committed to poverty, stood to gain enormous popular appeal, which would restore faith in a Church that was falling out of favour in some quarters.)
There is, however, a potential problem here. In many game systems, the gods are known – not merely believed, but known – to exist, because of the favours such as spells that they grant to their mortal servants. If a heresy is truly heretical, does that mean that its priests can’t receive such favours? If so, then the heresy is clearly false, and hardly anyone will subscribe to it. But if heretic priests do receive such favours, where do they come from? If from the god, then surely that means the so-called heresy might not be heretical at all.
Some possible solutions to this might be that:
- The god does exist, but is happy to be worshipped in more than one way, perhaps in any way.
- The heretics are unwittingly worshipping another god, perhaps a previously unknown one.
- The heretics are unwittingly worshipping the enemy of the god they think they’re worshipping. (A possible alternative is that the orthodox faith has been doing this all along, and it’s the heretics who have reestablished contact with the ‘true’ god.)
- The favours received by heretics do not come from the god at all, but from some other source (demons, the source of magical power, whatever).
- All favours received by all priests of whatever faith actually come from this source. The gods don’t supply any of them – possibly because there are no gods!
The GM really ought to have an answer to this one, since it is fundamental to the relations between magic and religion in the game world. However, that doesn’t mean that he or she has to tell the players how things really work. After all, the PCs aren’t likely to know. Faith in a god makes demands on belief, not factual knowledge.
But representing belief in a role-playing campaign probably deserves a whole article to itself.
A Brief Word From Johnn
NPC Design Topics — Feedback Requested
The good news is I’ve got a cool contract to write a d20 book on NPC Design. Yippee! The bad news is I’ve already got writer’s block, lol. I think I’m just freaked out by the whole “it’s a book” deal, whereas if I just think of it as a series of articles or tips columns I could stop staring at the screen and start typing.
So, if you have a moment, perhaps you could help me out by sending in topics and requests for what you’d like to see in an NPC design guide. Then, I could group and order the topics and “how to” requests, get inspired from your direct feedback, and start writing.
Send any feedback you might have to: [email protected]
I appreciate it. Thanks!
Blocked Emails — More Follow-Up
More reader tips on managing your email if your ISP (such as Hotmail or Yahoo!) is filtering Tips issues:
“Another idea, if your subscribers are having trouble, is to filter anything that comes from your email straight to the Inbox. The filters take precedent over the bulk mail filter so no more problems. That’s what I had to do after I thought you had unsubscribed me for a few months. Shame to find it was all just getting flushed.”
“Another option for Yahoo! mail users: Create a new folder called ‘Roleplaying Tips’ and then create a new filter. Place ‘Roleplaying Tips Weekly’ in the ‘If Subject contains’ line and direct it to the new folder. All incoming e-mails with ‘Roleplaying Tips Weekly’ in the subject line will arrive in the ‘Roleplaying Tips’ folder.
Having done this I’ve not had a problem receiving the newsletters.”
Darwin’s World – d20 Post Apocalyptic RPG
Darwin’s World is a role-playing game set in the wild inhospitable world of mankind’s ruin, decades after a series of devastating wars that brought the human race to the brink of extinction. In a world where radiation altered the very course of nature, genetic variations are the edge separating a species from life and death.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Snow Dwarf And The Seven Wights
From Ed R.
Sooner or later the players in your game are going to make a party where everyone except the guy who likes to be different agrees on a group concept. You have seven players and six of them make glorious paladins, clerics and holy sorcerers of a great patron god. And then Sandi wants to know why her Han Solo rip-off smuggler thief can’t play. Welcome to life in the GMing insane asylum.
The quickest answer most GMs give here is “NO”. While this certainly is easiest and probably makes the most sense, you are unlikely to pique Sandi’s interest for the foreseeable future after she is forced to make a I-go-to-church-every- Sunday-and-pretend-to-love-it priest to fit in. Then again, saying “yes, your loner I-hate-everyone smuggler will be just fine” and then basically ignoring this character for your entire campaign is not a solution either.
Simply put, do the Batman thing. If you know anything about our favorite fashion-challenged super hero, he is perhaps the poor cousin of the super hero family. He has no powers. He doesn’t get along with anyone either. He does however have tons of experience, tons of money, and tons of information and influence. The nobler and more powerful guys can’t do without him sometimes. You need to make your oddball character invaluable to the group just like Batman is. It is the only way the others will accept him/her.
Players As Villains
For an added bit of challenge, for both you and your players, have one or more players be an enemy for a campaign. It gives them a look at things on the opposite side and encourages innovation. It gives the main party a chance for a truly deadly foe: a player who knows their tricks as well as they do.
In Vampire: The Masquerade, I enjoy doing a variant of the enemy PC trick. Make all but one PC a vampire, as normal…but make one PC (preferably someone who enjoys roleplaying a lot) a werewolf. Note that the odd character out is human at the beginning…but eventually, the party will find out their secret. Now the question is…What do the PCs do when they find out that their friend is a werewolf?
OK, here’s my thought on some cool bad guys. It’s better if they have their own motivations, not just RULE THE WORLD or TAKE OVER TOWNSVILLE sorts of things. The best rivals are the kinds that need to win just as badly as you do. Here are a few good ideas for making your antagonists more believable:
- Family Member In Trouble: may seem cliche, but what if the villain needs the pancreas for his little sister back home? What if he’s just trying to save his own mother, and the PC’s mom is just the only person who could be used to save his mom?
- Freedom: Someone may be forced into doing something as a slave/prisoner. While you both may not want to fight, he can’t control the matter (i.e. mind control, death machine [i.e. bomb, whatever] in his body, etc.)
- Pride: Some bad guys just can’t stand to be mere peasants when they used to be noble and your villain’s trying to assassinate the king to get his place back.
- Religion: Some villains might be fanatical and refuse to do anything but kill if they believe a mandate from the heavens has guided them to.