Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Example

Working through the Fantasy Religion Design Guide, our first step is to decide on the scope of religions on the world we are creating. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll have two different religions for two different cultures, although their areas of influence may overlap as in the real world.

The world could easily have more religions, but following rule #1 of Dungeoncraft (never force yourself to create more than you need) and because a clash of religions isn’t part of the early campaign, two religions is actually more than enough for now. If this article wasn’t designed to show some religious variety we would probably only detail one religion.

For the first religion, we’ll follow up on one of the examples (using an object–a chess board–to show the relationships between the gods of a pantheon) mentioned in the Fantasy Religion Design Guide. The second example illustrates an atheistic religion meaning a religion centered around a concept instead of a god.

If the two religions’ areas of influence overlap there would be “contact” between them. This might just be a matter of one religion’s gods figuring out why it is losing followers or it might be gods of two religions actively trying to convert followers as a proxy war between the two set of gods. In this case because one of the religions is atheistic, it has no gods to “contact.” Therefore if the two religion’s areas of influence overlap there is “contact” between the religions but in this case not the gods. There might be a competition for followers among the religious leaders and as history shows that will usually lead to violence unless both religions preach tolerance or non-violence. If there is no area of influence overlap the two religions may be oblivious to each other. This article isn’t designed to describe a war between competing religions, so an answer to that issue isn’t needed here.

Chess Example Religion

This example religion uses a chess board to provide its structure and relationships. One of the examples in the Fantasy Religion Design Guide for showing a relationship between the gods of a pantheon based on an object was a chess game. Each chess piece is a god in the religion’s pantheon. On one side are gods related to good, on the other side are gods related to evil. However many of the pawn-gods may switch sides because their relationship to good or evil is tenuous or marginal. Because the chess board has 16 pieces for each side, this will be a large religion. It could be either the religion for a large empire or a number of kingdoms that evolved from a large empire or perhaps it could be a “universal” religion.

The Fantasy Religion Design Guide’s section on designing a specific religion starts with a reminder that religions exist to “Explain the unexplainable” and “Provide hope and purpose.” These are things to keep in mind and we’ll come back to them as we start developing some of the stories behind this religion.

We’ve already mentioned the relationship between the gods is based on a chess game, so with that settled we can move on to the nature of the gods. Considering the concept of a chess game, if the pieces on the board are going to show the relationships between the gods and if each piece is a god, it makes sense that there are forces above the gods that are playing the game of chess. Therefore these gods can not be omnipotent. Furthermore each god’s power should be relative to the power of the chess piece he or she represents. In fact, while the Kings are the leaders and most important pieces, the Queens may be more powerful and may be more controlling or meddlesome. Likewise the Rooks may serve as confidants to the King because they serve as special protectors in chess through their ability to “Castle.”

This chess game concept lends itself well to the idea that these gods can play games with mortals, but have restrictions on what they can do. At this point we don’t need to detail those rules. It is probably enough to have that idea in mind for later in the campaign.

With all of that out of the way, we can finally make a skeleton for our pantheon listing the god’s names and their pantheons.

Below is a short description for each god:

Major Gods of Good

  • Anistus, King (Good, Knowledge, Magic)
  • Vashella, Queen (Spring, Plants, Good)
  • Samus, Bishop (Healing, Water)
  • Helsalana, Bishop (Love, Moon)
  • Melasophia, Rook (Law, Time)
  • Argus, Rook (Wisdom, Luck)
  • Avonis, Knight (Strength, Fire)
  • Mikkaner, Knight (Protection, Animals)

Pawn Gods of Good:

  • Belwyr (Death, Moon)
  • Pulk (Air, Thunder)
  • Bellosh (Earth, Travel)
  • Mishka (Plants, Healing)
  • Falomar (Magic, Protection)
  • Navum (Knowledge, Strength)
  • Kron (Sun, Time)
  • Aspondius (Music, Law)

Major Gods of Evil:

  • Barrack, King (Evil, Earth, Moon)
  • Illus, Queen (Winter, Evil, Chaos)
  • Birkan, Bishop (Destruction, Earth)
  • Miskiff, Bishop (Disease, Plants)
  • Ka-ok, Rook (Chaos, Death, Air)
  • Rumplehaslet, Rook (Trickery, Travel)
  • Veronus, Knight (War, Sun)
  • Nirvan, Knight (Thunder, Knowledge)

Pawns Gods of Evil:

  • Varskus (Death, Law)
  • Quard (Fire, Lightning)
  • Marken (Water, Travel)
  • Millick (Animals, Chaos)
  • Xylus (Magic, Destruction)
  • Primevus (Time, Knowledge)
  • Liskin (Moon, Healing)
  • Pankenick (Luck, Trade)

These primary domains were largely assigned based on their connotations. For example, the Knights on the side of evil had the primary domains War and Thunder while the Knights on the side of good had the primary domains Strength and Protection.

The secondary domains for each god were based somewhat on each god’s connotation, but their primary domain was also a significant factor as well as any ideas that might have been forming when looking over the selections so far. For example, Melasophia’s secondary domain of Time was based on her primary domain being Law. Because Law is orderly and strict, it seemed Time would be a good fit because that is also orderly and strict. On the other hand, Belwyr’s secondary domain has more to do with a mythic story that came to mind: Upon death, goodly souls are taken up by Belwyr to the moon and the souls take a mysterious journey from there based on the desires and haggling of the gods.

Mythic Stories

Before we provide any further details about any of the gods, it will be helpful to put together a couple of mythic stories to help us better know what each god is like. As we develop the stories, we want to remember they need to help serve the purposes of religion mentioned above. (“Explain the unexplainable” and “Provide hope and purpose.”)

The first story helps to explain the change of the seasons: Vashella (the good Queen goddess of Spring) is responsible for bringing about spring each year. Many, many years ago the world was like spring and summer year-round. But through a trick of Rumpelhaslet’s (evil Rook god of Trickery) Vashella’s guide for marking time (Melasophia, good Rook goddess of Time) was diseased by Miskiff (evil Bishop god of Disease.) This disease causes Melasophia to weaken for the last part of each year and she doesn’t fully recover until about one-quarter of the way into the new year. Without Melasophia’s support, Vashella’s power doesn’t match Illus’s (the evil Queen goddess of Winter) power.

A second story gives the people purpose, and gives a reasonable explanation for why people may worship specific gods, even those that may be “evil”: On death, most souls are taken up to the moon by Belwyr to await a sort of auction among the gods for each soul. Each god bids on each soul based on the person’s devotion to the god and good works or whatever other criteria each god has. In some cases for a particularly tasty soul the “evil” gods will make a high bid on an accomplished and devout follower of a “good” god. What happens to each soul after the auction ends depends on the desires and needs of each god. However, complicating this is Ka-ok. As the evil Rook god of Chaos, Death, and Air, he doesn’t believe in this orderly process. (Illus also occasionally circumvents the process as well.) Ka-ok uses some celestial events (shooting stars, eclipses, etc) to intercept some souls on their journey to the moon. No one knows what becomes of these souls.

Based on the second story, one purpose of most people is to do right by at least one of the gods to ensure that person has a place in the afterlife. The “evil” gods may have distorted stories of what they do for their followers in the afterlife, which may explain how they gain some followers. (Others may follow them because a particular domain of influence is important to that person and that person rationalizes the god’s “evil” actions.) What actually happens in the afterlife with each of the gods is outside of the scope of what we need from the story.

Now that the skeleton pantheon is set up and we’ve put together some mythic stories we can detail a few of the gods that are either important because:

  • A player will be a priest, paladin or some character type that has a special relationship with a god.
  • They play a role in one of the mythic stories we developed.

Vashella, Queen (Spring, Plants, Good)

Vashella is responsible for bringing about spring each year and that is her primary domain of influence. Because plants are a symbol of spring, Plants are her second domain. As Queen of the gods of good, Good is the third of her main domains. She is beautiful and her gentle personality only enhances that, but Helsalana’s (good Bishop goddess of Love) beauty is unrivaled.

Although devastated by the disease bestowed upon Melasophia, she now no longer tries to banish the winter because she sees a reason for winter to exist: it causes people to appreciate the spring more than before.

She is not known to meddle in the affairs of mortals directly, although she does her best to answer prayers offered up to her. She serves as a confidant and source of inspiration to the pawn gods of good.

Her places of worship are simple yet elegant and decorated with flowers throughout the year. Vashella’s holy symbol is a cut-glass tulip.

Illus, Queen (Winter, Evil, Chaos)

Illus isn’t just self-centered and “evil.” She also openly challenges Barrack and is well know to abuse any rules for her own gain. As suspected by most of the other gods, based on the suggestion of Rumpelhaslet (evil Rook god of Trickery) she lent some of her power to Miskoff (evil Bishop of Disease) to allow Miskoff to give Melasophia a disease through a kiss.

Illus is obsessed with power of all types and does anything she can to get an upper hand. This obsession also causes her to be rather short-sighted, however.

She has been caught meddling directly in the affairs of mortals on more than one occasion. A number of powerful tyrants were her offspring. Barrack, her King, doesn’t care about her meanderings as he is concerned with his own pursuits and conquests.

Illus’s temples are ornate and large in an attempt to display her power. Her holy symbol is a white gold snowflake.

Ka-ok, Rook (Chaos, Death, Air)

Ka-ok is an exception to the gods in that he doesn’t actively seek out followers or have places of worship. He takes the souls he is interested in by intercepting them on their journey to the moon. The people believe he does this by riding shooting stars and such, but in truth this doesn’t matter. If the person he intercepts had a great deal of influence and could be corrupted they might become powerful undead that ultimately serve him. Otherwise he uses the soul to generate more power for himself.

Ka-ok is actually a handsome man with dark hair and eyes. Looks are sometimes deceiving! He has a cold and calculating approach to situations.

While he doesn’t have any known places of worship, there are a few cults dedicated to him usually led by some powerful undead, but usually these leaders are very much behind the scenes. His holy symbol is a black shooting star.

[Note that Ka-ok is the only non-King or Queen god with 3 domains. Later we may add a third domain to some of the other gods. But at this point he was the only one simply because it fleshed out his concept: Chaos because he doesn’t follow the rules, Death because he has a lot to do with death and specifically undead, and Air because he intercepts souls on their way to the moon.]

Class/Character Changes

For the purposes of this example, we’ll assume the party will have a Cleric of Vashella. To add atmosphere to the game, we can tweak the Cleric class slightly based on Vashella’s description. Because the examples here are designed to be rules-neutral as much as possible we’ll speak broadly about these changes:

  • Vashella’s followers must have some plant/herbalism knowledge. This may be satisfied by taking the closest skill available if your game system uses skills. It could even be a bonus granted to her clergy. This minor requirement or bonus would probably not require a counterbalancing change.
  • At each prayer level, Vashella’s priests are given a bonus prayer related to one of her domains. Some game systems may already include this customization. If not, this power must be counterbalanced by some other change of similar power.
  • Vashella might grant her priests the ability to move through wooded areas without leaving a trace. This may be limited by simply making the priest’s movements harder to track (a penalty to the tracker) based on the priest’s level. In this case a small counterbalance would be needed. If you wanted the priests to be untrackable, a major change is needed, such as Vashella forbidding her priests from using heavy or metal armor.

Final Points
Returning to the mythic stories, we may see the beginnings of stories for other gods: Miskoff (evil Bishop god of Disease and Plants) may be the cause of poisons that come from certain plants; Samus (good Bishop god of Healing and Water) may be responsible for creating a number of well known natural springs with healing properties; etc.

We don’t want to forget about Dungeoncraft rule #2: Whenever you fill in a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece. We have a few mysteries based on this religion:

  • Who are the forces above the gods that are using the gods as a game of chess?
  • What happens to the souls claimed by each of the gods?
  • A more specific mystery example might be that a villain in the campaign is a child of Illus.
  • Why do the evil gods bid for the souls of good people? Or did those people have some sinister secret?

We don’t need to answer these now. If there is a good story in mind already it doesn’t hurt to note it, but the story can always be changed or developed from scratch later.

Atheistic Example Religion

Atheism is not always a disbelief in all religions. Instead it is a disbelief in any particular deity. Some theologies are atheistic and a few religions may be. However some religions that are primarily about a concept elevate the status of an early leader causing the religion to be less than truly atheistic.

Earlier in these examples we already covered how these religions might relate if their areas of influence overlap. Once both religions’ skeletons are complete we’ll revisit that.

Again we need to keep in mind that religions exist to “Explain the unexplainable” and “Provide hope and purpose.” These ideas are even more important to the religion when there isn’t even one god to describe.

Without a group of gods to describe, we can begin describing the religion itself though mythic stories that will detail its history and beliefs.

Mythic Stories

This atheistic religion will be centered around logic. The religion was started by a group of priests (of a now dead religion) returning from a failed crusade. Based on their failures they second guessed their belief in their old religion and decided to look for some other way to explain their world and provide purpose.

They developed an early version of the scientific process (Consider a problem and try to make sense of it; Form a theory to explain it; Consider the consequences if the theory is correct; Test the expected consequences.) This process was taught to others and helped to bring them more followers.

Through the religion’s thousands of years of existence they have made a number of other discoveries such as:

  • Laws of logic (transitive, reflexive, etc.)
  • Stars are far away suns, the moon causes the tides, etc.
  • How to use the stars to guide a ship, agricultural improvements, etc.

There is one other discovery worth mentioning in detail. Although the religion is not violent (it has been involved in minor skirmishes, but due to its origin from a failed crusade it preaches violence only in self defense) the religion’s discoveries have had major military implications. One of these was first used in defense of one of the religion’s monasteries. The defenders used longbows for the first time allowing them to pick apart the attacking army almost twice as much as expected. This technology has now spread to other military forces.Another core part of the religion is the belief that negative emotions (jealousy, vanity, etc.) should be channeled positively. Followers of the religion do not believe in repressing any emotions, however when a negative emotion is encountered they will often quietly self-reflect on the emotion until they understand its source and have overcome it in a positive way.

Followers of the religion wish to help others understand this philosophy as well as explain the world around them using the theories they have learned.

The religion is administered by a group of seven high priests, based on the seven original priests who founded it. Each major place of worship is led by a high priest, but there may be more high priests that are not part of the council of seven.

The religion’s worship places are out of the way keeps and compounds in relatively harsh environments. Each follower is required to spend one month of the year at a worship place unless on a special mission commissioned by the religion’s leaders.

Class/Character Changes

Without at least one deity in the religion, at first it may seem difficult to allow priest characters with spell-like prayers as part of the religion because you need get the power for the prayers from somewhere. Monks seem to be a much more natural fit for this religion. However, it is possible to explain at least some priest prayers through ancient knowledge handed down through each generation and the priest’s harmony with the world around him.

However adjusting a priest class to fit this religion would be outside the bounds of this article (it would have to be very specific to a particular set of game rules) but generally we would look at the priest’s individual prayers and imagine if each one could be performed through ancient knowledge or the priest’s harmony with his environment. Depending on how much this limited the new priest class we would give him some other abilities. If we wanted a more warrior-like priest we would grant him some extra fighting abilities. On the other hand (and more likely for this non-violent religion) if we wanted a more thoughtful priest we would look at other spells that might be a fit for him or other knowledge-based skills and abilities.

Final Points

Based on the stories above, a few mysteries come to mind:

  • What happened to the gods of the priests who founded the religion?
  • What other discoveries have the religion’s members discovered?
  • Where are the places of worship for this religion? How fantastical are they?

One question we need to come back to is how would these religions relate to each other if they were part of the same or nearby cultures? Because the atheistic religion preaches non-violence except in self-defense, it could be overwhelmed by the polytheistic religion where at least some of the gods are violent. However because of its technological advantage it could hold its own against all comers, even if they have some godly help.

On the other hand they might tolerate each other. In fact the philosophies in at least some cases wouldn’t be incompatible so it would be possible for a follower of Valshella (for example) to also practice the atheistic religion. Both Valshella and the atheistic religion are peaceful, the atheistic religion could provide a calming influence while belief in Valshella might explain some things that are far beyond explanation by the atheistic religion.

Text Copyright 2008, Inkwell Ideas Inc.

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