3 Rules for Creating Compelling Fantasy Religions
Whether you are creating your own setting or just adding your own flare to an existing setting, creating your own fantasy religions can be fun for both you and your players. The gods and their religions is a way to emphasize something important in your campaign. Learning more about the god of stealth is important when fighting the thieves’ guild; discovering a particular blacksmith is a follower of the deity of war equipment may tip off the players to the NPC being more than they appear.
So how can you go about making your own, without shamelessly ripping off real world religions? Before I answer that, I wholeheartedly endorce “borrowing heavily” from mythology. Some exceptional tales are there and are a classic for a reason. Pick up a book on them, read and borrow.
But if you still feel you need to create a religion from whole cloth, I have three rules for you to follow.
1) Pick a Theme and Run With It
Start with a core concept that is going to be important enough that it could draw followers. Clearly define it in 1-3 words: war, art, thieving, servants, farming, birds, a particular celestial body, and crafting are but a few examples. Now take that core concept and let your mind wander on what else is related to that theme. Servants work hard all day long for little reward. Who else does that? Employees. So this moves beyond a Noble’s servants and incorporates the baker’s lowly assistant, the dock workers, the one that cooks for to the caravan guards, and so on. So this deity is not a good of servants, but a god to the downtrodden. When the downtrodden are about to be beaten by their master’s for some minor mistake (or because the master is in the mood), they call upon their deity and the deity shows them some place to hide, perhaps even helping them to plan for such eventualities. So this deity is also a god of forethought and hiding places. Now this deity is both fun and more fleshed out than just “servants.”
2) Add in Something Unexpected … And DON’T Explain it.
Players will latch in to that oddity and think about that far longer than anything else, trying to figure out how they work together? Why does the deity of understanding, reason, and time have a groundhog as their spirit animal? Sure it makes total sense if you’ve seen the movie Groundhog Day, but if you hadn’t, how long would you try puzzling that one through. More importantly, what crazy ideas would you come up with trying to make that one work.
The most important part of this step is to limit it to one or two things. Anything more and the theme to your carefully thought out deity starts to look like a collection of random ideas rolled up together. This is definitely a less-is-more situation. Take the deity of servants from the previous step. What if we make them associated with purple flowers? Or instead its sacred animal is a particular breed of goldfish? Maybe followers should always turn their glass or bowl of water counterclockwise three times before taking their first drink for the day. Obviously, there is a perfectly logical explanation for whatever oddity is chosen, but leaving such reasons said unspoken both adds an heir of mystery and makes the world feel more lived in. Besides, it is entirely possible no one knows why such oddity is the case. It could have been lost to time over the last 1,000+ years. Maybe the deity never felt the need to explain such oddities to their followers. Heck you could make the answer explainable should someone ask, but they have to ask someone in world so they can give an in-world explanation. No matter what it is, treat it as ordinary as a Catholic priest putting a wafer into your mouth saying that it is from the body of someone that died about two thousand years ago and you should eat that dead person’s flesh.
3) Describe How Mundane Followers Interact With Their Faith
In my experience, this more than anything else is forgotten by game designers and GMs when describing religions. While the religion is focused around the deity/deities, the followers are no less important. Without followers, gods lose power. Terry Pratchett described this relationship perfectly in his book Small Gods. The great god Om said several times throughout the book, “Smite you with lightning bolts!” when he got angry at someone, yet nothing happened until he gained a single follower. Even then, he got hit with the equivalent of static electricity. When many people believed in him, he swelled with power.
Mind you, that book was really about how the people in the church of Om had no faith and simply did the ceremony without knowing the reasons why. However, a religion without some type of regular way for the followers to participate in is a religion that is going to lose followers. How many books are forgotten after their author dies? Sure some classics are remembered, like Mary Shelley’s The Modern Prometheus is well remembered, but Percy Shelly is not nearly as well remembered despite the fact he was an established author when his wife created Dr Frankenstein and his monster. Same idea.
So yes, any religion needs a consistent way for the followers to interact with their faith. All of these should interact with stuff we decided above. Prayers at select times or for certain reasons. Eating / not eating certain foods on certain days. Regular community gatherings with preferred offerings. Ceremonies to mark important events in the religion as well as the lives of the followers. Perhaps the god of servants has a ceremony marking someone’s promotion. Similarly, prayers for enough energy and strength to make it through a hard day’s work comes at dawn while prayers of protection against an angry master’s wrath can come at any time. Compare that with a god of intellect and arcane study: prayers to that deity should be before sitting down at a desk to do some heavy reading and study. That same deity probably talks about the evils of eating excessive carbs as they will make one drowsy before a long night of study by candlelight.
I hope these tips help you create compelling religions in your game. Be sure to check out all of JBE’s Pathfinder 1e, D&D 5e, 13th Age, and Traveller at the JBE Shop.