Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide
by Joe Wetzel (joewetzel at gmail dot com)
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Depending on your campaign setting idea, in the early stages you may only need a bare minimum of details about your religion. In cases like these make sure you flesh out any particular deities you need (for example if a character is a Cleric or Paladin describe that god in at least bullet points and note any needed game statistics or mechanics such as the god’s domains) and build up the religion later when it is needed or when you have an intriguing idea. This also gives you an opportunity to see how the players react to your religion’s skeleton and build on what they like and what is important to your evolving setting and story.
But if religion, gods, or a pantheon is a key aspect of your campaign setting idea, you’ll want to work it up in detail early during your fantasy world’s development.
Creating a fantasy religion can be as long and detailed task as you want. After all, tens or hundreds of millions of people participate in the real world’s most popular religions and many of those people are teaching, writing and adding to the religion in different ways.
Religion can provide another venue for conflict and drama in your game world. Detailing your world’s religions to any degree adds that same degree of depth to your world for a more rewarding experience.
Many fantasy worlds have one pantheon of gods that interact with each other. While people may follow one god they believe all the others exist as well. Followers of a religion with a pantheon of gods would hold one god whose domain most directly impacted their lives in higher esteem, but they would also pay respect to the other gods especially as circumstances merited the respect. A trader might hold a god of travel or trade above the other gods of the pantheon, but he would certainly pay the god of fertility respect when a child was born or even ask a favor from a god of trickery if he was dishonest. Due to a god’s domains (fertility, travel, trickery, etc.) some “evil” gods may gain some influence and power from non-evil followers. The personality and goals of the god may be independent of the god’s domains from the perspective of the people.
In the real world multiple pantheons of god(s) exist (even at the same time) and monotheistic and atheistic (here meaning a belief in a religious philosophy) religions exist as well. Depending on the specific culture and religion, followers of various religions may or may not believe gods from other pantheons are real or in the case of monotheistic and atheistic religions people do not believe any other gods are real. The Christian God is quoted as saying “put no other gods before me” which may imply that his followers may still believe in other gods as long as they put him first. The Romans were well-known to adopt many gods from the places they conquered. Despite these facts, there are also many cases where active wars were fought over one group disbelieving another group’s religion.
The notion of multiple pantheons often gets overlooked in fantasy games or relegated to simply the elves have a few different gods as do the dwarves, etc. But throughout history many pantheons have existed at the same time. Often these vary by culture (the Greeks had their gods and at the same time the Egyptians had theirs) but within major cultures there may be multiple major religions if the leadership is particularly tolerant.
Monotheistic religions or religions without particular gods are also often overlooked in fantasy settings. Too often people design a game world with a number of gods without considering that a religion might have just one god or no gods. A religion without any gods could be a pursuit of an idea such as logic or freedom. Therefore it is helpful to emphasize that here the term “religion” here is used for any religion, whether it has a large pantheon of gods, one god, or no gods.
And none of the above touches on another fantasy convention: the demon-sect. Another form of religion in fantasy is the demon or devil who is trying to break through a magical/divine barrier to devour mortals. Usually this entity is corrupting a sorcerer with promises of power in exchange for help to break the barrier. (And of course virginal sacrifices are almost always required.)
With that out of the way, there are multiple ways to handle whether or not your world has multiple religions (These classifications come from the excellent World Builder’s Guidebook by Richard Baker):
- Universal: The world has one religion. While different cultures may emphasize one god or aspect of the religion more than another, everyone generally believes the same gods or religious truths exist.
- Overlapping: The same basic religion exists throughout the world. However, different cultures and groups may refer to the gods by different names, have different approaches to achieve the same religious truth, or have slightly different stories about the gods.
- Contact: Each culture may have its own religion(s) and all of these religions truly exist in the game world. The gods of one culture know about the gods of the other cultures. They may even help or conflict with each other. Generally each set of gods has its place (Asgard, Mt. Olympus, the Abyss, etc.) in the game universe’s cosmology/planes.
- No Contact: Each culture may have its own religion(s) but deities of different religions do not know each other. Mortals may play a role here settling conflicts between the religions as each religion tries to have more influence than the others.
One issue with multiple religions in a fantasy game setting is how can people handle multiple competing religions when priests for each religion can prove the religion’s existence through a simple cure spell? There are a couple of ways to handle this:
- In some cases people will disbelieve whatever they saw and say it was staged.
- Other disbelievers will claim some herbs were secretly used instead of divine power.
- In still other cases people can claim that the god in question is simply one of that person’s gods with a different name.
- Most people do not travel to other regions so they won’t be exposed to other religions.
Religious conflicts can be very pronounced through active wars or they may be in the background where religions are trying to out-influence each other. The conflicts may be a combination of these if there are several cultures in your game world and depending on how compatible the religions are to each other religion. If a violent conflict is desired, those religions need to vary in some prominent ways or have some other significant cause of the conflict.
Specific Religion Design
When designing religions for your game world, keep in mind that religions exist primarily for two reasons:
- Explain the unexplainable.
- Provide hope and purpose.
Your religion(s) should address these macro-issues. There are many examples from real world religions and other fantasy settings to borrow from. You can even import an entire religion from the real world (or another game world) into your own game world. However, unless you want to run an alternate history campaign or have an explanation using the same gods with the same names as a real world religion might be jarring for players interested in a fantasy experience. Further you may want to search for resources (a good book on the religion/mythology you are borrowing or a detailed on-line resource) to help you better understand the motivations and personalities of the gods or people who are part of the chosen religion.
If you already have a religious concept in mind that is key to your game world keep that in mind as you consider these next decisions. Also, you should have some basic ideas about the culture behind this religion as the culture should influence some of your religion design decisions. (A seafaring culture will hold a water god in high esteem or it may have multiple gods with influence over water for example. A culture with a harsh climate may have harsh gods. Etc.)
The first thing to consider is the size of the religion with respect to the number of gods. As mentioned above there are reasons a religion might have just one or even no gods. However if you are going to have a pantheon of gods and if it is going to be the “Universal” religion for the world consider keeping the pantheon on the large side. Or at least make sure the rest of your religion’s concept is expandable. A large pantheon would be few (2-6) major gods, (3-8) several intermediate gods, and many lesser and demi-gods (3-10 of each). But even if your religion is monotheistic, there may be a number of prominent heralds and leaders under the god such as Angels, Prophets, and Saints. Consider putting some time into designing these if it will add depth and prove useful to your game.
Another factor to consider is how is the religion organized. World Builder’s Guidebook gives several ideas:
- Family: The gods are an extended family with roles and friction based on their status in the family.
- Racial: Each major race’s key feature is embodied by a god. (The Dwarven god might represent Strength, the Elven god might represent beauty, etc.)
- Elemental: Each god represents an element (air, fire, etc.) or quasi-element (lighting, tornadoes, etc.)
- Celestial: Each god is a constellation in the sky.
- Heroes: The pantheon is made of mortals who were somehow elevated to god-status.
- Natural: The gods represent natural things such as the sky and mountains or a number of plants or a number of animals etc.
- Stewards: The gods are themselves creations of a higher power given stewardship over the world.
- Bureaucracy: Each deity is a department in a large bureaucracy responsible for managing the world.
- Mixed: A combination of the other ways the religion is organized.
A few others ways religions could be organized:
- Object: The religions is organized based on an object. The religion in the Rose of the Prophet books by Weis and Hickman was organized like a d20. Each god had his own side of the d20 and each edge or point was a domain such as Love, War, etc. A chess board is used as an example in a companion article here.
- Idea or intangible object: Perhaps each god’s name starts with a different letter of the culture’s alphabet or the religion is based on a single idea with different sub-religions based on different interpretations of the religion.
The next factor to decide is how involved is the religion. While any religion should have some daily impact on its followers, this factor concerns how active are the deities in the lives of mortals. They may be completely oblivious to the lives of mortals because they have other concerns or they have a mutual agreement between each other to keep out of mortal affairs entirely. Or maybe the deities may severely restrict their involvement with mortals for some reason. Moving up the scale, perhaps the deities have some involvement with mortals when they aren’t too busy and some mortals may gain their favor but the gods only take an active role when necessary. On the other hand, the deities may be very active with mortals. They may use mortals and wars between mortals as proxies for their own battles. They may frequently answer their followers’ prayers by granting favors and expecting sacrifices.
Nature of the Gods
Another factor to consider is what are the gods? Are they elemental forces, animals, spirits, or human (or humanoid since this is for a fantasy setting) beings with great powers (and maybe or maybe not humanoid failings.) While the vast majority of fantasy religions are personifications (based on human beings) the other possibilities may be a good fit for your campaign and may make your setting a little more different from others.
The nature of the gods is also impacted by their power level. Are they omnipotent or are there things they can not do? Where does this power come from?
While omnipotence may make sense for some religions and fantasy settings, drama comes from conflict and conflict is difficult if one side is all-powerful. Therefore the vast majority of gods in fantasy settings have a power level that is between omnipotence and the highest character levels.
Often the strength of a religion is proportional to the number and devoutness of the religion’s followers (including the religion’s leaders.) In other cases a deity’s strength might be related to his relationship with the other gods (whether that is predetermined as the first son of a father-god or changes as a god builds influence among his peers) or be based on the desires of a very small number of ancestor gods. Other explanations are also certainly possible.
In any case deities are often restricted in how they may interact with mortals. Therefore they may work through avatars which embody themselves in the world of mortals or through priests and other religious orders. The deities often try to spread their religion through these mortals when they can not take direct actions. Depending on the god, the religion may be spread through: conquest, proselytizing, increasing the population, answering prayers, calamities, or beneficial works.
Finally we can get to the point of assigning domains to the religion. As we begin to assign domains, keep in mind that while a god may have a focus certain domains, he or she is still a god and has some amount of power over everything. A ship passenger’s prayer for a safe voyage may just as likely be answered by whichever god he normally worships as it may be answered by a “sea god.” But depending on the religion and the person, a ship passenger may be more likely to think of praying to the sea god in this circumstance as he is to think of another god. Also depending on your religion while all gods may have some power to grant a safe voyage the sea god’s power may be a little or a lot more.
If the religion has one god or no gods, it may be best to choose several domains that the religion emphasizes. As mentioned above perhaps the one religion has several sub-religions with different domains (points of emphasis) and priests may be part of any sub-religion. Example domains are:
- Elemental: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Lightning/Thunder.
- Natural: Animal, Plant, Sun, Moon, Oceans, Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), Sky/Winds, Dawn/Dusk
- Alignment: Chaos, Evil, Good, Law, Neutrality
- Conceptual: Death, Destruction, Healing, Knowledge, Love, Luck, Magic, Music, Protection, Strength, Time, Trade, Travel, Trickery, War, Wisdom
When assigning these domains to your gods or religious aspects, try to have a reason why each god has each domain. Sometimes this may be obvious (a god of Death and Winter) but sometimes having no obvious reason can lead to a good story now or later. Ray Winninger has two key laws in his “Dungeoncraft” articles: #1 Never force yourself to create more than you need. #2 Whenever you fill in a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece. #3 and #4 don’t directly relate to worldbuilding. A good addition as #2.5 might be “Some of the best background stories come from explaining something that isn’t obvious in your campaign world.”
In that spirit, go ahead and pencil in a god’s domains as Death, War, and Love. Then within a few bullet points try to come up with a reason for those domains. If you can, it will very likely be interesting. If you can’t try it again with a different mix of domains.
You may wish to experiment with this exercise a few times to get a set of domain groupings that is appropriate for the religion and culture you are developing.
Based on the assignment of domains, the religion/gods can now start coming to life. Again, if you had a comprehensive concept for your religion in mind refer back to it to make sure the religion that you create will work with ideas you had.
Myths & Mannerisms
As noted above the primary purposes of religion is to explain the unexplainable and to provide meaning and purpose. In a world with little science the people will use religion to explain their world. The most important of these stories is why or how was the world created? Some examples are:
- There was only chaos until the gods tricked the forces of chaos to create the world.
- A mother-god existed and wished to have pets to look after, therefore she created the world and all creatures on the world.
- The world is a large flat canvas drawn by the gods.
But other divine myths exist describing the gods’ accomplishments and emotions and interactions among themselves. The mannerisms of your deities may be based on the domains and each deity’s position in the pantheon. But their mannerisms may also be influenced by simply whatever will make a good story. Some examples of these stories are:
- Hades’ entrapment of Persephone causing fall and winter.
- The constant trickery of Loki in the Norse Pantheon.
- The creation of Medusa and Minotaur and other creatures.
Then there are sagas where the gods play a periphery or behind the scenes role, and mortals are the main characters:
- Noah rescuing two of each animal during the 40 days flood.
- The trials of Heracles by Hera.
- Prometheus stealing the secret of fire from the gods.
Let your imagination run wild with these stories. Each religion can have its own, and a religion may even have more than one. If a key goal of the story is to stop a demon from returning to the world then you should work out why he was banished and the related particulars along with his current tactics, resources and plans. On the other hand, don’t spend a lot of time on these stories unless they will have a direct impact on the game or you simply enjoy the mental exercise. However, having a couple of these stories for each deity you need to develop at the beginning of your campaign will help you to know who the deity is when making decisions about how the deities relate to each other and how their followers worship them.
When borrowing from real world religions or just pieces of them it is important to consider how being a fantasy game impacts the religion. For example, the Christian bible has two creation stories. You would have to develop a good reason why people might believe both in a fantasy world where high priests communicate with the god in question. Furthermore, a key feature of fantasy settings, magic, may impact the game world’s religions. What is the source of magical energy? Is there some contention between priests and mages? These may be important questions in a fantasy world.
Religion and Game Rules
Now that you have some notes for a given god in your religion you can turn your attention to possibly tweaking your fantasy game’s rules for the followers of that god or religion. Some game systems have classes while others do not have classes, but they still allow characters to pick individual skills and abilities. To add color and depth to you game, you should consider customizing your religion related classes (paladins, clerics, priests, druids, monks etc.) or character abilities based on the character’s chosen abilities.
These customizations can be minor ones that have no impact on the game such as the character’s holy symbol, the color of any energy released during a prayer, etc. Or you can change the character’s abilities to better fit the religion. For example, if the deity is known to wield a particular weapon, such as a sea-god with a trident, the deities followers should be allowed to use that weapon despite other restrictions. Perhaps a fire-god would allow a priest to swap a given prepared prayer for a similar strength (level) fire based prayer.
Note that the game is generally balanced and depending on the strength of the ability you are granting followers of the god you need to remove or reduce some other ability. For example a healing god may grant more effective healing spells, but this change should be matched by a similar in scope change to the priest’s fighting skills. A nature god may grant extra spells related to nature, but eliminate some spells that are not related to nature.
Sometimes a new ability can be abused in unforeseen ways. In these circumstances work it out with the player to reduce the ability or develop an in game reason to lower the effect. Perhaps the ability should have a limited number of uses per day or per encounter. Perhaps the god feels the ability is being abused and has lowered its effectiveness and will increase it as the character becomes more powerful.
In the past a great deal of attention was payed to a deity’s and his followers alignments matching. As stated above these should instead be treated as largely independent because people may pick a deity based mostly on the deity’s domains or some other factor. Instead of limiting a person’s choice of a favored god based on alignment, each follower’s alignment can impact how he interprets that god’s actions to a large degree. The follower can disbelieve some of the god’s actions or interpret them in ways that most closely match the follower’s alignment. This is a relative concept however because it would be very hard (and therefore require a great story) to explain how a god who is very evil may be worshiped by people who are basically good.
If a character’s alignment doesn’t match his god’s alignment he may be asked to do things outside of his comfort area. This is another excellent source for good drama. This drama can largely be satisfied by compromises or explanations, but in some cases where one side or the other is steadfast there may be some consequences that impact the character in particular.
Color and Depth
In addition to class or ability changes, a fully formed fantasy religion needs to provide several other things to provide the campaign setting with color and depth. This is another place where your imagination could run wild, but you should temper that instinct due to time restrictions and because it may be good to add more details later.
Below are several factors to consider that will add color and depth:
- Holidays: These should be celebrations of the religion’s important events. They may have many varying rituals and reasons.
- Organization: This point addresses how are the religion or deity’s followers organized. In some cases (particularly for lawful deities) it may be important to have a strict hierarchy. In other cases a hierarchy except in the loosest sense would be inappropriate as in the case of some nature gods. Another possibility is that the religion is fractured where there are many different groups that all worship the same religion or deity, but they have different approaches or conflicts over portions of scripture.
- Worship places: The religion needs to have a place to worship, places for the religious leaders and some followers to live and work and other buildings and structures to make their presence known. These may take the form of simple churches, ornate basilicas or mosques or temples, hidden monasteries, roadside shrines or prominent statues. Depending on the religion’s popularity in a given area these structures may be frequent reminders or perhaps there is nothing in the area.
- Worship services: How and when and where do the followers worship a god or gods in the religion? Do they meet at a church once a week? Do they have to perform a private prayer several times a day? Are the services centered around a sacrifice or singing or dutiful recitation of some sacred scriptures?
- Obligations: What must the religion’s followers and especially its leaders do? There may be some regular, daily requirements such as reading a scripture each day or never eating a forbidden food. There may be less frequent requirements such as performing service to others one day each week or month or one week each year. There may be annual obligations such as fasting for a period of time in recognition or sacrifice of some religious event or undergoing some missionary service. Missionary service may also be required for an extended period of time at one point during a person’s lifetime. Visiting a sacred place is another possible once in a lifetime obligation.
- Rituals: Birth, Marriage, and Death are often marked by religious ceremonies. What are these ceremonies like in the religion you are creating?
- Sacrifices: Depending on the god (especially a demon-sect) these may be true sacrifices, but in many other cases token sacrifices are made. Cutting a male child’s foreskin or not eating during daylight hours for a month are a couple of real-world examples.
- Worshipers: Based on the domains the religion influences and the religion’s nature so far, who would be part of this religion or worship each god in the pantheon? For example, if the god’s domains are water and travel, obviously sailors will likely worship the god. How will this impact the religion? Many of the god’s priests will have skills related to sailing. Many of the god’s temples will be near the docks of port cities. The religion may be spread throughout a large area. Etc.
This extensive article should give you a comprehensive start to creating religions in your game world. While considering each point will lead to a religion with a great deal of depth, remember Dungeoncraft rule #1: Never force yourself to create more than you need.
That said, a custom religion provides an excellent way to add a great deal of color and depth to your game world which will help make your campaign memorable. The religion design choices to make are endless, but the text above describes the major options available for the major design choices. Based on the choices you make, you can dive in to as much additional detail as you need or want to create.
See also: Creating an example religion based on these guidelines and considerations.
Text Copyright 2008, Inkwell Ideas Inc.
- “Down to Earth Divinity” by Ed Greenwood, Dragon magazine #56, TSR.
- “So Many Gods So Little Time” by Andrew C. Gronoshy, Dragon magazine #140, TSR.
- “Dungeoncraft” by Ray Winninger, Dragon magazine #258, Wizards of the Coast.
- “Do-It-Yourself Deities” by Stephen Kenson, Dragon magazine #283, Wizards of the Coast.
- “Dungeoncraft” by Ray Winninger, Dragon magazine #283, Wizards of the Coast.
- “Dungeoncraft” by Ray Winninger, Dragon magazine #284, Wizards of the Coast.
- World Builder’s Guidebook by Richard Baker, TSR 1996.
- Wikipedia’s History of Religion has a comprehensive list of real world religions through time and detailed articles about each religion.
Wow Joe this is not a blog post its a paper!
Actually I like the way you broke it down from macro to micro and by categories. I rarely make such in depth considerations when creating a world but I am rethinking that now. Organic definition is what I generally rely on.
Actually a very brilliant article, and quite useful.
I have to disagree with one point you made: it is fairly easy to explain a Good person worshiping, even being a CLERIC of an evil god: Reversed Spells and Appeasements.
For example, you might have an order of “Physicians” who serve the God of Disease, “Khelios.” Khelios hates humans with a rank passion and is always trying to torture and destroy them. The Physicians work tirelessly to appease him with their surgeries and purgatives. Occasionally he relents, and allows them to destroy an entire class of Disease (such as Polio). (Same with “the lord of the flies”, a volcano god, a God of storms, etc.)
For the other extreme, we have a Spider Goddess who was originally worshiped by hunters and trappers. (IMC- in my campaign.) When a group of her worshippers were driven underground, they became bitter and began praying to her for vengeance, for the power to trap their enemies and, finally, each other. IMC There are still hunter-gatherers who worship her good side…and generally have no idea why humans run screaming from them. Most scholars looking at this consider her somewhat insane.
Personally, I skirt around the issue of “good worshipping evil” and things of that nature by making all the gods in my campaign’s pantheon above alignment. I tend to think that a divine being would exist in a state of consciousness far beyond simple mortal moral concepts. In this fashion I’m making the various worshipper cultures the good or evil of a god. Like in the above example, good-willed hunters or evil drow might worship a spider goddess (or in my campaign, a god of beasts) and even call the same god different names. Their cleric powers are essentially the same, but the implementation of those powers will be radically different. One person uses a rope to help someone out of a well, another one uses it to strangle someone. In either case the rope itself has no moral code. I use gods in much the same fashion.
I also tend to cross “spheres”. My elder gods each have several spheres. The fire god is also the sun god and the god of summer. The earth god is also spring and the mortal realm. The ice god is also the god of darkness (whom flees from and chases the sun god’s fiery chariot, his star-riddled black cloak trailing behind him) and winter. The wind goddess is also goddess of the moon and autumn. In this way the spheres of the individual gods have things that I feel make sense for them but their spheres are broad enough to not be pinned to a moral force.
Leave the morals to the mortals, just like in the real world. 😉
I am becoming a regular to your site because of articles like this, and your hexographer tool. I honestly have been inventing pretenses to design worlds just so I can use the articles and tools you provide.
You also, because of two references I think I read from you, caused me to dig out my copy of “world Builder’s Guidebook” which has survived two Ebay book purges. I just couldn’t let it go.
If only I could find enough time and gamers to fill the void populated with worlds left static….
Thank you for your continued contributions to the community. They are appreciated.
Excellent article. I noticed a few things in the References/Further Reading section:
The “Down to Earth Divinity” is in Dragon #54 (I thought I knew those issues fairly well and it caught my eye)
There are 2 earlier pieces in Dragon:
“Choir Practice at the First Church of Lawful Evil (Orthodox) the Ramifications of Alignment” #24
“Of the Gods” #29
And #142 has “Made-To-Order-Clerical Orders”
I know there are a few more and I’ve been amazed that something that plays such a big role in the game has such little coverage (trust me, I have been hunting high and low) so this article was GREATLY appreciated. 🙂