Fixing Religion: History, New Mechanics, and Advice

There is an interesting recent post on Goblin Punch that has sparked discussion about religions in our RPGs. That inspired this post which I believe fits into the kind of thinking occurring over there.

Note that I refer a lot to Dungeons and Dragons. I’m aware that this is only one of many systems but I think these points are broadly applicable, and it’s hard to deny DnD’s influence on the OSR.

I want to express why religion hasn’t been working.

Game design fundamentals are this: if you want your players to do something, there needs to be mechanics which encourage that behavior. The corollary of that philosophy being: whatever behavior your game’s mechanics encourage, that’s what your game is about. 5e Dungeons and Dragons has tons of combat mechanics, defines its characters through combat classes, and 1/3rd of the rules is a book of monsters, ergo 5e is a game about fighting monsters. Nothing earth shattering here.

What are DnD’s mechanics to encourage PCs to interact with religion? The common line of thinking has been inherited from early editions of the game. Consider this paragraph:

“As characters advance to higher levels (possibly as high as 36th), clerics obtain more spells of greater power, having proven their faith to their god or goddess. Because of this, it is very important for clerics to be faithful to the beliefs of their religion and alignment. Should a cleric behave in a manner that is not pleasing to his or her deity, the deity may become angered and punish the offender. This punishment could take many forms; some examples are a -1 penalty on “to hit” rolls, sending the cleric on a dangerous quest, or refusing to give the cleric any spells at all! The DM may decide what the punishment might be in such a case. To regain the favor of the deity, a cleric might find it wise to donate money and magic items to the religion, build a church or temple, gain large numbers of converts, or defeat some great foe of the religion. Again, the exact details are left to the DM.”

Dungeons and Dragons Expert (1981)

This consideration of religion gets more vague in the Mentzer-edited BECMI, replacing those last two sentences with this:

“Your DM will tell you what the character must do to recover good standing.”

Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1983)
Image: Todd Lockwood and TSR

This image isn’t super relevant, I just wanted to make sure people saw this. Jesus, look at him.

The advice to strip your clerics and paladins of their powers for disobeying their deity was finally and permanently removed in 4e, but it wasn’t really replaced by anything. The official supplements which are specifically about religion, like 1e’s Deities and Demigods (1980), 2e’s Faith and Avatars (1996), and 3e’s Deities and Demigods (same name, this time 2002), are just encyclopedias of dozens of gods, their portfolios, and physical descriptions. Oddly enough, 1e and 3e’s supplements of the same name, Deities and Demigods, both include detailed stat blocks for every god they list, including Armor Class and Hit Points, while the supplement published between, Faith and Avatars, contains this statement:

“No statistics for the powers and abilities of true deities are listed anywhere in this book. The power of deities is impossible to quantify. Statistics quite simply become meaningless when dealing with the powers of the Realms.”

Faith and Avatars (1996)

Divine stat blocks continue with the very limited examples of the Lolth in 4e and Tiamat in 5e, with the maybe-god Orcus and a variety of demonlords sprinkled throughout. While these editions haven’t completely taken god-killing off the table (a CR30 Tiamat technically has hitpoints, I guess), you can see the persistent shift away from the idea. At the same time, the section devoted to worldbuilding in the official Dungeon Master’s Guide has moved from the back half of the guide in 3e and 4e to the very front of the guide in 5e. The position of the subsection on religion has moved from the back of worldbuilding in 3e to all the way to the very front of that section in 5e. This means the 5e DMG’s advice on religion is one of the first things you read when you pick up the book. Obviously, the designers of 5e believed they were emphasizing religion.

These subsections on religion, particularly in earlier editions, are fairly informative and useful if the referee is coming to the table with zero knowledge about worldbuilding. They include plenty of information on how pantheons might look and about how NPCs in your setting would practice their beliefs, between rituals, celebration, or life goals. Earlier editions even have some decent advice on how much in-game emphasis to place on religion (to wit, a lot) and how players should engage with their religion. But the 5e Player’s Handbook section on clerics contains phrases like “many clerics are” or “most clerics maintain” and verbs like “might” or “can”. This is on purpose but leaves us with an understanding of what clerics could be, but not what they must be.

Through all this, the only explicit religious mechanics we’ve seen are the ones controlling how the gods fuck with clerics and how PCs can kill gods! I suppose we can include the implied mechanics of there being temples offering holy magic like healing, Remove Curse, or Restoration spells. Being on the good side of these holy people is clearly useful but hardly required. In the end, worshipping a god is like being a sports fan: I like the Lakers and you like the Celtics and we’re both right and it doesn’t matter.

Ancient people in our world universally engaged with their religions, daily, hourly, and minute to minute. Rituals and worship were cornerstones of their lives and these were people for whom divine intervention was infinitely more subtle than your bog-standard fantasy setting. In a fantasy setting, first-hand evidence of miracles is everywhere and they would know that displeasing the gods has consequences. Given all that, we would expect worship to be one of the top three things in our PC’s minds at any given time but for the most part, it isn’t.

If we want our PCs to treat religion with the gravity we’re suggesting through our extensive mythologies and cosmologies, then we should have mechanics that reward that. If you’re a cleric of Lliira, the goddess of joy, and you cut off some guy’s head for jaywalking, there’s nothing in the religious mechanics that punishes or cares about it. We’ve embraced systems that treat religion as optional or as background. Is it any wonder that many players treat religion as transactional?

This is why the recent post at Goblin Punch was so exciting. You should read that post now, not only for context but also because it’s great. Arnold put together some basic religion mechanics, by which I mean tools the players can use to interact with the setting’s mythology. For example, if you refuse to leave this page and read it, things like augury (go to a shrine, state your intended course of action, make a sacrifice with something like chickens, cattle, money, and receive an omen telling you whether this course of action is favored by that god) or oaths (name a god, bind yourself to a course of action in their name, choose a curse to receive if you fail). Encoding these things is important, and the genius of their design is that they are beneficial but optional. In my experience, the best way to get players to enthusiastically do something is to reward the action rather than punish the absence of the action. There’s no chance of resentment, only results.

Actually, as a brief critique, I think the chance of resentment is there. The explicit promise of augury is that when the god replies with a terrible omen and you decide to continue with that plan, it will go terribly wrong. As Arnold says: “the DM is well within her rights to collapse the entrance, trapping you in the tomb.” The divine response is mysterious, unknowable, so PCs can’t really know what to expect until it happens. If the augury returns an auspicious omen, then what happens? Does the referee step in and cause a failed roll to succeed? Once, twice, five times? Does the referee make a bad plan succeed? Additionally, invincible gods coming down to directly intervene is great for lore and backstory but in practice it’s damn hard to pull off; there’s a reason that deus ex machina has become a negative trope. The intervention would certainly be well-telegraphed but the exact moment intervention can go badly if it’s not skillfully executed. These are not reasons against these proposed rules, only points to consider.

I want to highlight another blog post I saw from late last year from Espharel which has a parallel line of thinking about the use of shrines. Although it’s framed for the GLOG, the idea is broadly applicable. In short, one or more PCs will stop at a shrine and pray for a blessing. If they uphold the tenets of that god, typically not more than 3 brief strictures like “help innocent people” for example, then they will get a one MD spell (which is to say low level but useful) to use daily. The spell could be more powerful depending on if they make a sacrifice and crucially, it can be used by anyone in the party as long as they all adhere to the strictures. This is a brilliant, and again optional, mechanic that will drive investment into the religion of your setting. Players will seriously say to one another “Do we save this guy? I know, we hate this guy, but our oath to Goatzelbub says we should and we’ll lose his blessing if we don’t.”

Image: Francisco Goya

“Bring me more juicy children or I’ll take away your daily cast of Goodberry.”

“Take him, Goatzelbub! Damnit, why do I love Goodberry so much!?”

I want to end with some advice and a question.

Doing religion “right” is a tall order, but what I can tell you plainly is that having these encyclopedic lists of major and minor gods that we so often see, with one and only one god responsible for each concept (war, farming, knowledge), each god falling on some strangely rigid alignment chart, their likes and dislikes, their canonical histories, their shoe sizes… this is the wrong move. It’s the wrong move because these things are impossible to remember. For everyone. The Angry GM noticed in 2018, in his long-winded, unscientific, but interesting way, that players probably won’t be able to remember more than five gods. Even that is probably too many. That’s not to say you can’t have more gods than that, but elaborately detailing them in advance is either masturbatory or masochistic, depending on your tastes.

I’ll argue that it’s also wrong purely because it rigidly defines your pantheon. You should have answers for when players ask about their specific religions but every answer needs to come with the context that this is what they would believe. This is what their society believes and this is the information they have. Don’t lecture your players on theology but don’t shrink from the fact that each god can be many things to many different people. This is what it means to have different sects of the same religion. This is what it means to have heresy. This is why we have Mormons. Some of the greatest conflicts in history occurred between members of, ostensibly, the same religion. Know that every additional sentence you write next to that god’s name is only going to apply to a subsection of your NPCs. Some other nearby NPCs probably think your canon is blasphemous bullshit! The practical advice is: leave space for, or explicitly write, other interpretations for your religions. Rigid answers and absolute truths kill all that is mystical, numinous, and wonderful about our religions. We can preserve this sense of not knowing by actually not knowing.

This is the same reasoning that I used in a previous post about why Magic is Messy:

Our intuitions are also that magic is messy. This is a key feature of nearly all magical fiction that we consume. It may be a matter of taste, but most people feel that magic should be, narratively speaking, unpredictable, difficult to classify or pin down, wonderful and amazing. A magical system where all spells are already classified and organized loses much of what makes it magical: it becomes science, just with different clothes. There is nothing unexpected. There is nothing left to discover.

We have come to accept the ludonarrative dissonance that occurs when every spell that exists in our TTRPG appears in a list in the back of the players’ materials. Newly learned spells can not produce wonder because they aren’t new. We know them all.

This leads to practical advice number two, which is don’t over-write. It’s good advice for most parts of your campaign but especially for a secondary aspect like religion. It’s hard advice for the worldbuilder and for the type of person who reads blogs like this. We want to create, damn it! But if your notes are going to be extensive just so you’re prepared, only so you can have that sick moment when you unload a proper fable at the right time which will captivate your players, be aware that most of the time it just won’t come up. If you have a large pantheon… great! But limit, to as few as possible, the number of gods your players heavily interact with so they can actually remember them (AngryGM says five, I think probably three). If the PC is extremely pious, give them all the info they want about their god. If they ask about the specifics of a different god, you should have a canned one liner, not more, unless they really pry. Make them go question a priest. If the PC would have a broad knowledge of many religions or gods, send them a list of one-line explanations to refer to, but not more. This may sound restrictive and perhaps pessimistic, but unless you have extremely invested players, this is the amount of information they can remember.

Let’s jump back and finish with the religion mechanics (created over a Goblin Punch, Espharel, and of course others) in order to pose some questions. These ideas are cool, definitely, but it’s fair to ask if we actually want to impose mechanics built around religion? There are referees for which the answer will simply be “no”. I’m sure many of you reading have perfectly fun and healthy tables with a minimal focus on religion. My tables have gotten along just fine without these rules, with numerous clerics, paladins, and warlocks engaging with the whole god thing when they want to. Forcing paladins to act like tightwad virgin douches to keep their magic powers is clearly the wrong method but is that really so common? Is it strictly true that, as Arnold puts it in his post, we’ve been “doing religions wrong this whole time”?

It’s fair to notice that there are systems which do use mechanics to encourage religion. In games like Burning Wheel or King Arthur Pendragon, these mechanics are part of larger unified mechanics governing behavior. If you define your character as religious and they do religious stuff, you are rewarded. If you don’t, you’re punished. These mechanics are intrinsic to their systems and can’t readily be pulled for use in my DnD stew. In a real sense, these aren’t the type of specifically religious mechanics we’re looking for. If you know of any systems that we might be able to mine for religious mechanics, leave a comment.