Religion is one of the most powerful organizing forces on earth, and one of the most contentious as well. Religious institutions have built empires, and cannibalized them. Religious feeling has led to the most powerful and evocative works of art of this planet. Religious fervor has also led to some of the most appalling atrocities.
Similarly so, Religion in D&D can provide a massive font of creativity, combat depth, and character growth. Sadly, in many campaigns, this resource is left untapped; PC faith resigned to mundane box-checker personality info akin to eye color. More often, blood ties and the desire for treasure take the motivation main-stage, with religious inclination just inviting something cool to say when you smite a skeleton. Even amidst a swath of textual guidance, new players still struggle to incorporate and inhabit religiosity into a well rounded PC. Cast aside trepidation and unfamiliarity, fellow dice-believers. Religion-done-well in a campaign is a Godsend, and this message has been sent from above to show you how!
Define the Deity
The as-written D&D Gods are very primeval. A polytheistic pantheon consisting mainly of enlarged humans with enlarged human personalities who are tied to certain elements and experiences in life. D&D Gods have quarrels, trysts, triumphs, and the occasional city-destroying wrath. They war amongst each other, pick fights with mortals (and some times were originated from them!), and even do battle with powers greater them themselves. While this structure provides interesting lines of thinking and avenues of progression, it behooves the player (and the DM) to think about parallel concepts of just how the Gods exists in the campaign, their relation to the material world, and the role the PC fulfills through worshiping them.
Just who is your God anyway?
One member of a greater sports-team of deities you happen to have been born under?
A wetnurse’s farce told to frighten children, that has no place in the brutal margin where your arrows are loosed?
An omniscient force who absorbs all opposites and is everything and nothing at once?
A raging beast from beyond the stars who is only capable of acting through you and your spiked chain?
Big booty and Bigger Booty?
The religious life of your PC becomes much more interesting when you uncouple the concept of ‘God’ with ‘gigantic man’. Perhaps your God is an actual plane of existence that neophytes strive to attain to and live within? Or an aura of pure love that is made manifest only after the greatest war in history is waged, purging all societies of their desire to fight. This is where the creativity of the Players and the DM can blend. Just how far from the norm to you want to stray when talking about divine forces? Don’t get me wrong, the structure is useful, like a house is. It’s up to you to put up the curtains and deck-chairs.
Characters, Not Caricatures
So far, I've rolled dice with Muslims, Atheists, Wiccans, Catholics, and people whose thoughts on God could fill a library of libraries. These experiences have taught me that, when designing your PC’s attitudes toward their deity (or non-deity), it cannot be stressed enough that you avoid crude stereotypes. Choosing a PC’s religious views out of spite, or unknowingly, in order to lampoon a view of religion contrary to your own leads to toxic party interaction, negativity, personality bleed-out, and generally a bad time.
Someone who has a bone to pick with Theists rolling a thick-headed fundamentalist Paladin would not go over well in a table full of Christians or Sikhs. Similarly, Theists creating a flippant, offensive ‘doubting Thomas’ Rogue for the sake of besmirching Atheism is also not advised. Not only is it spiteful and childish, but the characters become one-dimensional and impractical. Even if everyone at the table is ‘on-board’ with you, you are just cementing habits of intolerance and discrimination that may harm you in the future.
In my previous article, I wrote that, as good players, you must be constantly aware that you are not your character. That strategy is incalculably more necessary when talking about PC religion. Your beliefs are not your PC’s beliefs. What your PC does or says does not represent what you would do or say in the same situation. You should not be angry when your PC is angry. You should not be offended when your PC’s religion or lack thereof, is insulted or belittled.
Inter-faith debates and conflicts are some of the most powerful tools in D&D to reveal character motives, provide opportunity for growth, and act as dramatic set-pieces and turning points. The caveat is that they can very easily bleed over and players can find themselves emotionally involved in a real-world sense, defending their own beliefs through a flimsy pretext. Keep professional distance. You are writing a story as it happens. Don’t be afraid to get messy and attempt to smash a fellow PC’s or NPC’s ideology, or kindle a spark of faith for another religion. Just remember to wash your hands after, put away the mask, and become friends again.
Be Flexibly Inflexible
PC religion provides interesting ‘sharp edges’ to a character that can promote conflict and intrigue. Perhaps your character has brutal dietary restrictions, or must perform some ritual every day at an appointed time. Maybe his sword never leaves his hand, even when bathing. Or has sworn to never touch a weapon. It could be that a PC’s religious views stop her from any attempt at sneak attacks, choosing instead to scream the name of her deity before every battle. On the flip-side, the necessity of party solidarity suggests that PCs would not be so rigid in their religious practice as to exclude associating with characters of another faith. In other words: you are already working together. Keep that in mind as you attempt to slaughter a fellow player for taking the Raven Queen’s name in vain.
Your character’s religious views should also grow and change along with everything else. How does your character feel about gaining new powers bestowed by their God? How does being in a society of a completely different religion affect them? Do they being to doubt? Do they react with anger, indifference, or a desire to convert the heathens? Does your PC learn lessons from the religious or non-religious practices of other PCs? Perhaps your PC has trouble with their original faith, and decided to convert (or does so mid-campaign!) Or maybe their powers resulted from a vision they had seen of a strange God absent in their homeland who only now is being recognized in another culture.
A good fallback for quickly structuring PC religion is look for positive/negative couplings. In what way does their faith help them in interactions and combat, and in what way does it hurt them. How is their world view right and how is it wrong? A character’s faith in Kord might allow them to bear any level of physical pain, knowing pain as the sweet wine of battle, but similarly he might be incapable of dealing with emotional pain like loss, or grief, choosing to react with violence. The legends told in a Fighter’s youth may have granted him incredible power with a sword, but causes him mistake natural events like tornadoes to be manifestations of his God, causing him to go chasing after them. A Runepriest’s astounding powers perhaps issued from a tearful vow to Moradin to unlearn all other languages.
Think Practical, Think Magical
The two major avenues of exploration when talking about PC religion is the Law and the Feeling. Often, players exclusively focus on one aspect, and run into trouble when quickly having to explain the other on the spot.
Just how does your religion work? What are the precepts? Do you pray? Go to a place of worship? Take ritualized drugs? Is there a canonical scripture? Blood sacrifice? Was, or is there currently, a prophet? Is that prophet you and if so, do other members of your faith agree with that? How do you become a member of your religion? Is that even possible, or can you only be born into it? How do you treat non-believers? Does the law of your religion affect the way you speak, do trade, or execute enemies? Perhaps you are ordered by Bane to drink the blood of every fallen enemy, which may prove perilous in the undead monetary. Or maybe you’re forbidden to eat with anything other than your hands.
What about the direct connection your PC feels to their God? Is it respectful or fanatical? Have you seen the workings of your deity in the material world? Can you explain it? Can your God enter you? Do you hear imagined voices? Do you hear real voices? Is your body taken over by mystical energies to fight battles? Perhaps love for your deity causes tears to stream down your face, which then evaporate in the flaming hate for your enemies. Or maybe your ultimate goal is to overthrow the God you falsely pray to?
I believe that religious choice in a PC should have its place in the sun. It's a valuable facet of PC personality structure and provides consistent avenues for creativity, conflict, and growth. My hope is that, with these holy tools in hand, you may forge forward to create complex, multifaceted religious persuasions that will push the boundaries of the battlegrid. Roll on!