Religions In RPGs – Designing Religions For Your Game-World

From “Ghoul”

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0124

Religions In RPGs – Designing Religions For Your Game-World

Religious Ideas

Issues: Theology and ideology, sins and virtues

An important thing to initially create are some ethical and moral dogmas to be imparted by the religion.

Consider such issues as how real are the deities and how accurately does the religion communicate its deity’s message? Since what the church teaches will be what your PCs know, it’s best to start with that.

The next thing is to decide what the ethical ideals of the religion are.

Some Things to Think About

  • What virtues are prized?
  • What sins are condemned?
  • Is this a religion of love, compassion and forgiving?
  • Is self-perfection, meditation and understanding placed above everything else by this religion?
  • Perhaps the priests spread the word about the glory of battle and honourable death in a struggle?
  • Does the religion teach humility and obedience, or does it inspire each believer to search for truth by himself?
  • In this religion, are body and soul considered whole, or are they opposed?

Another major issue related to “Religious Ideas” is theology. What concepts are used and represented in the religion’s teachings?

Concepts like afterlife, spirit, soul, and reincarnation are just a few of the many possibilities. How will these be represented in this religion you are designing, if at all? [Ed. I suspect one might get some good ideas for answers to the following questions by taking the time and exploring the answers to some real religions.]

Here are some additional, texture enhancing questions regarding the religion you’re designing:

  • What metaphors are used in the religious teachings?
  • Who are humans (or whatever your world’s sentient race or races are)?
    • Where have they appeared from?
    • Why have they appeared?
    • Does the race have a divine purpose? If so, what is it?
    • Do individuals have purposes?
  • Why Do Bad Things happen to Good people?
  • What will happen in the “Final Days”?
  • What is the scope of power of the deities? Are there limits?
    • Are they omnipotent and omnipresent?
    • Or perhaps they are just perfected versions of humans (like the Greek pantheon), who still can be cheated, bargained with and so on?
  • How much attention do the gods pay to mortals’ lives?
  • How much tolerance does the religion allow?
  • Is anyone who doesn’t follow a strict religious code considered a sinner? Or is it enough to simply “be virtuous” and do “good works”?

Reality and Power

Issues: How real are the Gods?In many fantasy RPG settings, heroes can be saved from death by healing magics and unbelievers can be smitten with lightning-bolts. People in these worlds would probably agree in a heartbeat that the tangible reality of the gods and the earning of their favour is the most important issue.

Before we wholeheartedly embrace this view, we should realise that religion is usually the engine room for a society’s spirituality and much of their culture, including their traditions of art, learning, drama, literature and even the philosophy.

You should make a few decisions about the religion’s reality and power:

  • Are deities real?
    • If so, do they directly influence the mundane world?
    • If they do, are the righteous rewarded and sinners punished?
    • Or perhaps payments come only in the afterworld?
  • How much special power does the clergy have?
    • Can they raise dead and call lighting bolts from above?
    • Is their power more political or social in nature?
    • How much power do their blessings and curses hold?
    • Perhaps they are simply normal people with their “powers” confined to the more subtle benefits of having a spiritual rock upon which to base their lives?

Other Divinities

Issues: Making a pantheon – and do you really need one?Many GMs working within fantasy settings prefer large pantheons. While that offers great diversity, smaller numbers of faiths in a game world have benefits too.Unified, strong churches have a Temporal power to be reckoned with, giving the servants of the gods a say in the affairs of the world.

Even small numbers of faiths can come up with diverse bodies of thought, and the potential for dramatic conflict in your game world is great in both the PC’s timeline and historically.

Different sects, denominations, confessions, heresies, splinterings, and so forth are good ways of introducing this multiplicity without inventing different faiths. [Ed: Almost every faith has, at some point in its history, gone hand in hand with a culture, and initially, with a city, a tribe, or a small nation. Think about giving each of these faiths a geographical and ethnological epicentre, in which diaspora or conversion has spread throughout your setting’s history. Increasing the number of gods in your setting might therefore require multiple civilizations, diaspora, splintering of nations, migration of tribes, etc.]

  • If you decide to create multiple deities, what will their relationship with each other be like?
  • Will there be a pantheon, like in Greek mythology?
    • If so, is it the case that some cities within the hegemony of the faith’s home culture lean towards one member of the pantheon more than others?
    • Or perhaps yours will be atypical in that the pantheon is worshipped as whole?
  • If the religion has multiple deities and they aren’t integrated into a pantheon, how do they get along?
    • How does this differ from how their followers get on?
  • Is the relationship of the deities one that varies when one perceives that the other has given offense? i.e. Do they play petty politics?
  • Do the deities actively promote hostilities between their respective communities of worshippers?
  • Will the gods themselves be possessed of a wisdom mortals lack, and simply not see each other as enemies?
  • If you opt for a single god – (or you conceive of all of the gods in the setting as “good”) what is the source of evil?
    • Will you portray it as being tied up in an entity, working against the god?
    • What role will chance play in any explanation of suffering?
    • Will the god itself be the source of evil?
    • To what extent will each individual’s choice to walk a path other than that laid out by the gods in their teachings be seen as the cause of evil?

Churches: The Bodies of the Deities

Issues: Unity, political influence, tolerance, corruption. This can be the most time-consuming part of creating a game world’s religion from scratch.

  • Is the church united, or are there various factions?
    • How strong is the conflict between the factions?
    • Would they fight?
    • Would they consider splitting the faith?
    • How are each of these sides thought of by their opposition? As Heresies? As merely being dangerous political opponents?
  • How hierarchical is the Church?
  • How strict is its organization?
  • Is it a monolithic organization, like the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages is portrayed in our high-school history lessons?
  • Is it practically structureless, with independent preachers and priests?
  • How much power and political influence does it hold? (And this may even be appropriate in the most anarchic and demagogic of “institutions”)
  • Does it leave earthly matters to secular government, or is it striving for (or has even achieved) theocracy?
    • Is it perhaps on the outer edge of the political arena? Perhaps even prosecuted?
    • Is it on the inner edge in the political arena?
    • Perhaps even the “official religion”?
    • Perhaps even the only permitted religion?
  • How tolerant is it to those who are different-minded?
    • Are non-believers burned on bonfires?
    • If not, are there perhaps zealots who are striving for this sort of power?
    • Are they at all open-minded about other faiths, accepting the possibility that some other world-views might also contain truth?
  • While there is almost certainly a spectrum of views in the community about unbelievers, which ones are popular:
    • Lost sheep?
    • Spreaders of the soul-disease of unbelief?
    • Implicit but unwitting servants of evil?
    • Willing servants of evil?
    • Fools whose souls are lost, but who cannot be helped?
  • How much is the church interested in earthly matters?
  • Does religion and spirituality prevail, or are they just a facade, behind which hides a power-hungry organization?

Free Will

Westerners owe a great deal of their outlook to Humanism. With it, we have come to appreciate, and some might even say become preoccupied, with individuality. Individuality and personal liberty are two ideals we are very much concerned with.With a preoccupation for personal freedom – and the corollary of a fear of oppression that most westerners have, a GM would do well to consider the response his religion will have to the idea of the place of the free will of individuals.

The importance of these issues is only increased by the fact that in RPGs in general, there are very strong assumptions about the importance of the PCs. This will cover a range of issues.

  • How much can humans (or any other sentient or even non- sentient beings) change in the world?
  • Are (N)PCs free to do whatever they wish, free to make mistakes, to sin, to create, to destroy, to even decide the fate of world? Or are they just pawns, marionettes, making moves decided upon in the beginning of time?

Your religion should take into account an explanation for the role of fate and free will, of the will of the Gods and the acts of mortals, demons, and magicians.


The actions of preservers of orthodoxy in faith have a place in some settings. Often, Inquisitions (or similar organizations, like Temple Avesti in Fading Suns) are misunderstood.In an age that has not known the humanism of Plutarch, nor the reasoned humanist doctrines of Erasmus, or above all, an age steeped in superstitious fears of devils and witches, the priorities of religious authorities are bound to be a bit different.

Fears of the spreading spiritual cancer of Heresy, combined with a Monarch’s fear of civil unrest in populations of mixed faiths and factions, can cause an Inquisition to be seen by some as the necessary fighter of the hordes of Evil in the name of the god(s).While they are certainly feared by many, and their secrecy condemned by many politicos of the day, we might imagine in a fantasy setting that they would command even more respect than they did in our own historical experience of Inquisitions.

If an inquisitor has the same role in your setting as it did in the Spanish Inquisition, then certainly many would fear them and hope to avoid contact with any Inquisitors.But if rumours of demonic activity were persistent in a village in a fantasy setting, it’s probably a safe bet that many of those villagers would welcome any solution with open arms – even if that could mean death to their relatives and friends.

We might be tempted to depict Inquisitors as stupid fanatics. Most of them would certainly be fanatical, and a few would be corrupt characters interested only in earthly power, but for the most part, your Church organization’s members will be people who are trying to battle evil, believing in what they are doing, and experiencing the trust of other believers who do not doubt the purity of their mission.

Most high-standing Inquisitors would be smart, well educated and well travelled. Depending on your setting, they might be like modern lawyers, judges, police detectives, or private- eyes. They would need the ability to look for clues, to find the guilty and to prove their sins. Certainly, it would be a challenging job.

All this is to say that Inquisitions could be viewed as being necessary, and even just organizations in your settings, if you chose to make them that way, and other political factions, media, and religions might not have the voices to help the populace speak out against injustices.

Hopefully, these questions will give you food for thought as you try to form your campaign world’s religions. By thinking about your answers to these questions for each religion, you’ll have made a pretty good start on religion building in your setting.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use An “Ism” Now And Then To Add Tension And Fuel Stories

From Knaight

Racism, Sexism, and all of the other “isms” can add great tension to a game. Recently I had a reformed dark-elf NPC fight alongside the PCs and do some really noble and heroic things. The Duke of the city summoned the PCs and the dark- elf to his palace. There, he rewarded the PCs with tremendous gifts, but he only gave the dark-elf a pouch with a few gold, despite the fact that the dark-elf had done just as much work as the PCs and was entitled to the same honours.

The Duke simply assumed that the dark-elf could not have done anything of worth. No one questioned the Duke, but after they had left his presence, the PCs expressed that they felt horrible and told the dark-elf that they would somehow make it up to him. This tactic was so successful that I plan to use it quite a few more times throughout the adventure.

Comment from Johnn:

Here’s a few “isms” for your games:

  • Classism (i.e. anti-mage)
  • Alignmentism (i.e. maybe the Neutral Goods fear the Lawful Goods?)
  • Alienism (More than just racism, perhaps it extends to whole sections of the galaxy, or encompasses any being with a tail)
  • Regionalism (i.e. small town thinking)
  • PCism (What sets the PCs apart from the rest of the world? They prefer dungeons to farming? Burn them, I say!
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Tip On Running Ambushes

From Bob

I thought of something I do that (occasionally) drives my players crazy but leaves them smirking and laughing about their scamming GM. When there’s an ambush or other significant pace changing event that will require an Awareness/Perception type roll, I run the encounter along in “nothing’s happening” simulation mode until about 5 or 6 rounds into it. *Then* I pop back to round one, announce the ambush, have everyone roll their Perception, and run the combat with all the characters doing their previously played actions.

This gives me 5 or 6 rounds of declared actions where the players can’t meta-game there being an ambush and their character not realizing that yet, and the players *love* the feigned realism.

Each round, characters who haven’t caught on continue with their previously played actions before the ambush was announced, and they roll their Perception again until they succeed in learning about what’s going on.

The big, dumb guys with great helms aren’t always an asset in battle. Try it. You might like it.

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Creating Names For Multi-Lingual Groups

From Elena of Valhalla,

First of all thanx for your newsletter: great job! I always read it and I have found many useful suggestions.

Regarding Tip #5 from Issue #111:

> An incredibly easy way to create names and words for your > games is to use foreign languages…[like the] Google > translation service…

That’s true. The only problem is, I’m afraid, this won’t work for most Europeans. Take the average Italian, he knows at least one Romance language (Italian, some also French) and usually has a good idea of a Germanic one (English), so he has a good chance to recognize roots and meanings in most of the languages available on Google or a similar translator.

Unluckily, after reading the tip, our GM and I realized with shock that in our group we not only have people knowing or at least understanding every language spoken in Western Europe, Latin included, but among us there are some who have studied ancient Greek. And we happen to find familiar even the sounds of Eastern European languages, Hebrew (all of those biblical terms learned when we were young :), Arabic, Japanese (too many anime :), Sanskrit, Quenya and Sindarin…

Luckily, though, we found a way to make the tip useful even to people who share our “Babelic” curse

We take words from our own languages, spell them as a foreigner would (usually an English speaker, as it sounds more fantasy-like), and speak it aloud. If it sounds good we use it, otherwise we re-write it with our phonetical rules, spell it with foreign rules again and, if needed, make some minor change. This way we have the names we need.

For example: we began with “cetriolo” (cucumber – the “c” is spelt tch), we read it “in English”, rewrote it as “sitraiolo”, and then we had Sir Triol.

> For example, the word “shirt” from English to Italian is > “Camicia”…a great name!

With camicia it was even easier. It became Camisia which sounds like an Italian medieval name.

I think it can be done with most languages, especially with two from different linguistic families…

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What To Do If Your Players Have Stolen Your Campaign

From Vitenka

What do you do if your players have made a slightly surprising reaction to events of a session and jumped in a slightly unexpected direction thus leaving you with no short term plan and yet the players are happily writing fan-fiction and diaries that show that they are creating a wonderful campaign?


My tip? Run with it. Always, always, always roll with your players’ punches. Saying ‘no’ is just a bad idea. So is steamrolling them back onto ‘your’ plot. The game is as much theirs as it is yours. And they outnumber you.

That advice is all well and good if you can improvise campaigns on the spot, but assuming you can’t, what CAN you do?

Take A Breather

  • Run a fill-in story.
  • Take a small detail and blow it up to huge proportions.
  • Settle back whilst the players argue over trivialities and consider things.

If your players really are creating the story, then a back- plot village that you didn’t intend to be anything other than an uneventful night’s rest can become a strangely memorable pause before the coming storm, as the players take the opportunity to plan, to scare themselves witless, and to give you any number of good ideas.

Let Things Go Their Way

If in doubt – the players win.

The players really are their own worst enemies. They can dream up horrors that you would never have imagined would be considered “fair” to them. They will come up with worst case scenarios that you could never top.

Don’t try. Anticlimax, done well, can be as good for a game as a climax, and it helps set the proper pace. The players will begin to realise that they are only at the *start* of whatever it is they think is going on.

Let The Players Create The Story

I’ll just give this as an example. I decided to take a breather session because one of the PCs had decided to split off from the main party.

Rather than trying to split my time and bore people, I decided to run most of the session with just that one PC – and a whole lot of NPCs that they met (played by the other players).

I handed out quickie character sheets with minimal background (just enough to give an idea of what the character is like–I find that that’s a great help in getting players to improvise a character) to the other players and let the group make a whole stack of my background that I hadn’t really intended in fleshing out this fully.

The players created my background for me, the player who went off to get more information got it successfully, and nobody was bored.

Well, that’s the plan anyway.

Important quick tip: don’t make plans when you’ve been awake for over twenty hours, it’s not wise.

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Co-GMing Tips

From Johnn Four

A Tips subscriber asked me for some tips about running a game with two GMs. I thought there might be an item or two in my reply that you might find of value the next time you co-GM a game.


I’ve co-GM’d over a dozen games and here’s what I’ve learned: communication is the key. Especially communication between the GMs.

Here’s some tips on that:

  • Have a meeting before the game to discuss how things will work.
  • Depending on the personalities involved, it’s far better to have a main GM and an assistant GM than two peer GMs. The main GM’s word is final. Two GMs arguing in front of the PCs is not cool and a little embarrassing. Choose who will be the main GM and do not argue with them unless the issue is extremely important, or the GM is basing her/his decision on incorrect information.
  • Divide the responsibilities into discreet “portfolios” and divide the portfolios up between each GM. Splitting a portfolio between two GMs is asking for trouble and arguments.
    • Rules
    • Combat
    • NPCs
    • Monsters
    • Story creation, development, and in-game telling
    • Mapping
    • Final decision making
    • EXPsIf you want to collaborate on a story, that’s fine. But someone’s say has got to be final or you could end up disagreeing with each other strongly and the campaign will fall apart.
  • If you feel there could be a personality clash, draw up a Charter of Goodwill between GMs. Outline what will happen if there are disagreements about things between games and in- game. What will happen if neither of you can agree on something? What will happen if one GM can’t show up? What is each GM responsible for and expected to plan/create/provide?Get it all out in the open in order to properly set expectations.
  • Finally, think of all the ways two GMs can enhance a session (and email them to me! That should provide some motivation to strive to make things work.

The very best session I ever GM’d was a two GM game where we split the party up and used illusions and doppelgangers to throw the players for a fun loop. Dual GMs added to the paranoia and it all worked out well. In February, I ran a 3 GM game where I was the monster GM. That worked out well too as I let the Mighty GM make all the final decisions and did not resent him when he overrode mine. The three of us had a healthy team spirit and that helped us work together smoothly.