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November 19, 2008

4 Fundamental Questions That Religion Should Answer in a Fantasy Setting



It's been a while since I would imagine myself contributing my fair share into a blog carnival. Last month's Superheroes was just a subject that I was too unfamiliar to crack. This month's Religion while broad has managed to produce some really interesting and insightful pieces on the subject thanks to the wide amount of talents and thinkers in the RPG bloggersphere (that just keeps getting bigger!).

So here I go, with my first post (hopefully more will come) on Religion and here's hoping that it would be just as good as those that came before it. The title says it all so take it away.


Religion plays a big part not only in the lives of just the wandering adventurer but also to the common folk that stay in their farms and towns. Its influence can be overraching beyond the character's expectation and the fervor that it causes could even frighten the most toughest of adventurers. Faith is a power that cannot be underestimated, many good and evil has been and can be done in the name of faith, religion and gods.

Psychology aside, religion also plays an important part in fantasy settings because while scientific explanations is not usually embrace for explanining the planes, cosmology and magic, religion is one of the key knowledge that people see as the most acceptable (if not logical) explanation to the mysterious and supernatural.

These fundamental questions should underpin some of the important aspects of how religion plays a part in making a fantasy setting more alive to your players and at the same time provides a guideline for homebrewers when they are making their own pantheon for their setting.

What is the source of divine magic?
In a fantasy setting like D&D, there are classes which are inclined to a divine power source which grants them their spells. Clerics and paladins, for example, rely on their devotion to a divine source which translates into giving them powers for their devotion.

Religion should give a proper explanation of where the source of their powers come from because it is the first act of will of the gods that is prevalent from a cleric than a wizard. Divine servants are mortal beings empowered by their faith and how that faith translates into manifestable power is going to be the first question that people will ask when they see it on a daily basis.

The simplest explanation given in 3.x D&D is that gods had the ability to grant spells to their followers. They only have to pray, meditate or dedicate a certain number of hours at a particular period of the day and they will be rewarded with their spells.

But what if you wanted to try something different? What if divine magic did not come from the gods?

In the Forgotten Realms before the Spellplague, while clerics were granted their spells by their gods but the source of energy that powers their spells still comes from the Weave which is the embodiment of Mystra, goddess of magic.

This is one of the first mysteries that when designing of using a published pantheon that a DM should be able to give a straight answer to his players who needs to know an answer. Naturally, there could be many versions of the truth for different deities and pantheons but a cleric needs to know who is powering his/her spells and how.

Who are the gods?
As a servant of the gods, the servant must know what kind of relationship he/she shares with their patron. Naturally as a servant of a god, there is a bond that the servant must feel that he/she shares deeply with their god that would give him a source of power for his faith.This could depend on how the god/pantheon normally operates and the possibilities in a magical fantasy setting can be much more than in the real world.

There are many settings (Birthright, Forgotten Realms) with examples that gods had or do walk the earth alongside their mortal worshippers which means that the worshipper is able to see their god and interact with him/her/it physically.

Then there are gods who remain distant (Eberron, Dragonlance?) from the affairs of mortals and only provide their own words of guidance when they worshippers call their names or never give them an answer at all.

In 3.x and older editions, these answer will have implications on how spells like Commune or other divine divination spells work.

Only by being informed on how the gods will respond to their worshippers will their servants know when to call upon their name and have a greater understanding of how their work would expand the grand scheme of things in the universe/cosmology at large.

What happens when I die?
One of the main reasons why people believe in religion is to have an insurance against death and joining the clergy is one good way to get top marks in getting the best benefits in death. The reward that awaits after death is a great motivation for a servant to dedicate his/her entire life in the service of one god.

Thus the details will need to be laid out on why dying or being a matyr in the name of one god is better than the other god. One of the most common reward anticipated in a religion on the matter of death is going to heaven; a promised land where the soul can rest eternally in the most absolute and ideal way as possible.

Will a cleric for the god of war be satisfied if he is promised that he will be taken to the land of eternal peace and pacifism or the land of eternal battle, bloodlust and bravery?

Then there is also the issue of death and resurrection. In D&D, this is a quite a common question and problem because raise dead and resurrection spells are accessible by higher level clerics. What happens to the soul when it leaves it mortal shell? Does it suddenly wake up and find itself in whatever fate it is suppose to deserve or a spiritual journey must be taken to complete his exodus to the heavenly/infernal realms?

How are resurrection spells suppose to work in the context of how death, soul and heaven/hell is interpreted by that religion?

Perhaps souls that have reached their final destination and have passed through the gates of their metaphorical heaven means that the soul has committed itself beyond the mortal realm and cannot be called back to the living?

Then how does this answer the question about the position of the undead and the process of creating undead?

These are important questions because death and undeath is a common issue in most fantasy settings especially in D&D.

What is the Meaning of Life?
Modern monosthetic religions in real life have teachings, scriptures or doctrines that tends to tell mortals how to live their lives. A person who follows these tenets to the extent that he/she preaches them to others should have great foundation of belief in those values that he/she thinks could change the world.

By answering this question, it becomes very useful for players to roleplay their divinely enlightened characters. It usually starts with a few core values of what the god believes makes the world go round, what it should be and finally comes down to the mission.

Missions are the greatest pointers on how a cleric or paladin should act and lies as the main motivation for his/her action in everything they do. It has becomes the sole purpose that they believe that their god has given to them in life and this is what they must do. Although the application and implementation of their actions in accordance to their mission is widely variable to subjective repercussions but at least it gives them a sense of meaning for their actions, justified or not.

Whether it's the mission to evangelist and convert every non-believer into neophytes of the One True God, to enhance the knowledge of the ignorant folk for the god of knowledge or to slaughter every orc man, woman and child that is the abominable offspring of the orc god in the name of Moradin, the Soul Forger.


There could be more questions that needs answering and I just wrote whatever that popped in my mind. I really don't mind if any of you had others to share and your views on the subject. Hope you enjoy this and let me donate my modest contribution to this month's blog carnival.

3 comments:

Jim said...

A very nice write up.

wyattsalazar said...

Yep, really nice article. I'm rather glad my own Spirits of Eden setting passes these well!

Questing GM said...

Thanks jim and welcome to the blog!

Thanks wyatt, I would like to see your setting as well.

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