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.

Pathfinder: Religion for Non-Priests

One thing that always bothered me about D&D is that I have seen few characters have any faith beyond those of clerics. There have known a few to buck the trend (some of whom I have played), but the large majority I have known only gave thought to religion during character generation, choosing the obvious choice (i.e. dwarf character takes the main dwarf god, druid choosing the nature god). To help build the role playing aspect of this, what appears to be my first product for the Pathfinder Role Playing Game will help the non-Cleric to make their faith an integral part of their life.

Looking back at the long history of characters I have played, the one that I remember the most fondly were the ones with some major contradiction or non-obvious mashup of ideas. Among them was a fighter that worshiped the god of magic. He came from a family of wizards and wished to be a wizard himself, but was never smart enough to study the arcane arts. That internal conflict kept him interesting and memorable.

In Book of the Faithful I: The Power of Prayer, we explore ways for faithful followers of a deity to tap into a small bit of that divine power without multiclassing. We do this through a familiar mechanics: feats. Prayer Feats, the specific type of feats detailed within, gives a follower a daily reward for faithfully praying to their deity. Whenever a cleric prayers for their spells, the faithful follower must also make a short prayer, not nearly as long or intricate as the cleric. And for that prayer, the god rewards the character one time during the day at a time of the god’s choosing, not the character. In game terms, the player chooses when to use the power of the feat at whatever time they feel is most opportune.

Unlike clerics which may choose the majority of their spells from a large collective pool of spells, a god can only grant prayer feats based on the domains the deity may grant their clerics. Below are two that appear in Book of the Faithful I:

Shield of Divine Gust (Prayer)
The gods of air blow a single strike from you.
Prerequisites: Worshiping a deity with the Air Domain
Benefit: Against a single ranged attack per day, you gain a divine bonus to your armor class equal to (1/2 your character level). When multiple ranged weapons work off a single attack roll (such as a Manyshot attack), they count as a single attack.

Vine Skin (Prayer)
The gods of plants make you the protection of a plant against the elements.
Prerequisites: Worshiping a deity with the Plant Domain.
Benefit: Against a single blow per day, you gain resistance to either electricity or fire equal to (1/2 your character level).  You may decide to use this and which energy type after a successful attack roll but before damage is rolled.

Upon first glance, these feats may appear overpowered, but they are balanced by the fact these can only be used one time per day. It is the difference between the Maximize Spell feat (which requires the spell occupy a higher spell slot) and the Sudden Maximize Spell Feat (which did not require a higher spell slot but could only be used once per day) from the “Complete” series of book series. In the same way, this gives the character the feeling of being touched by their god without breaking the game.

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