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So now we’re digging into the topic of D&D religions! I cleric IRL and have almost a decade of religion and theology academic background and I want to help you add some realism and texture to the religions in your world. Whether you're making a whole pantheon from scratch or just looking to polish up a sourcebook Deity, these tips and tables will help you make your world feel a bit more lived in and give your Clerics, Paladins and other religious characters something to really dig into. I've kept the tables down to dice numbers so you can always roll and generate aspects of the faith randomly.
And of course we can’t get too far before we talk about the central focus of the faith.
And I use a somewhat vague word like focus intentionally. Religion is a very, very broad category in real human history. There are a wide array of approaches to the earthly and the divine. This doesn’t even necessarily have to be a deity. There are prominent real world faiths that have little or no theistic components. And in the ancient world the line between religion, philosophy, science and politics was basically non-existent.
So first let’s ask, what is the center of your faith? Here are some very big categories. There are definitely way more out there but these generalizations will give you a starting point.
1. Principle. Your faith doesn’t centrally feature a deity at all. What is the fundamental truth that your faith is built around? Is it a dispassionate system of cosmic justice? Is it a cycle of reincarnation or transmigration of the soul? Is it the singular pursuit of enlightenment or oneness with the universe?
The principle you pick will radically affect your character’s worldview and ethics. In this approach there is not often a specific personality behind the faith but instead an expectation of tangible consequences, good or bad, for human choices. This will look less like worship and perhaps more like philosophy or martial training. Deities might exist but be subject to the same system at a higher level. Real world equivalents would include some branches of Buddhism and Daoism.
2. Pantheon. Your faith is centered around a whole array of gods, goddesses or other divine forces. What is their relationship to each other? Are they connected by blood? Are they part of a divine institution or bureaucracy? Are they all part of the same faction or do they strive against each other? Do you primarily worship one deity or all of them?
A pantheon can be a lot more work but pay off in a lot of great theological drama for your world. Followers of different deities butting heads or even the deities themselves getting into conflict. This also usually assumes less powerful deities (see more below) who are more intimately involved in human affairs and often more capricious and human-like.
3. Personification. The center of your faith is revered as a deity but only as an embodiment of some virtue or force. What is it you revere? Is it Wisdom, or Might or Magic? How are their personality and peculiarities shaped by their origin?
This is a simple but powerful tool for building out a religion. Ioun seems to function this way to her followers in Critical Role’s setting, less of a tangible personality and more of a divinely empowered aspect of Wisdom and Knowledge itself. Her followers chase after and preserve knowledge and uncover the truth. They don’t necessarily worship in a traditional sense but commit their lives to specific actions and behaviors just as strongly. Some followers like Beauregard rarely interact with her in a traditionally religious sense and yet enact her teachings with their very lives.
4. Cosmic Deity. Your deity is a true cosmic powerhouse with all the omni’s. Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence etc. Is this deity also the creator? Are there other deities in your setting at all? What is their relationship to one another? Is this god particularly personal or active or are they detached and distant? Is this deity closely controlling your world? Why do they allow evil or opposition to occur?
This is what folks often imagine when they start talking about religion. There are a lot fewer of these than people imagine in real human history. A lot of times these deities are largely impartial and unreachable, unconcerned with specific human events. There might be a divine hierarchy underneath them that actually handles the day to day. The issue for TTRPGs is that cosmic deities create massive plot holes if they are at all involved in affairs. You need some explanation for why they don’t just resolve every major issue. Perhaps impartiality or free will. And of course do these deities even care about the PC’s individually? There’s a lot to consider here before you give your world a Cosmic Deity.
5. Demi-god or Spirit. Your deity or center of worship has a very specific domain or area of power and might not even be the primary deity of that domain (or a deity at all!). What are their specific concerns and abilities? Do they answer to a more powerful force themselves? Have they fallen from a more lofty position or are they ambitious and seeking to ascend? How many other worshipers are there?
This is actually how a lot of deities were revered in ancient cultures. Deities were considered to have limited areas of interest or influence. Deities were often regional and thought to be geographically limited in their power. Invaders would often seek to appease local deities to avoid their wrath when they operated in the region and specific spirits or deities would be invoked for highly specific concerns. This type of deity would likely be much more approachable but also less powerful than others.
6. Nature. Your deity or center of worship is nature itself, either in total or some specific element of it. This could be elemental beings or a completely non-anthropomorphic reverence. What form does your focus take? Are they highly specific to a certain species of flora or fauna or are they present across the whole world? Is it one being or do various natural elements each have their own small spirits? Is the focus unaffected by present events or is it directly helped or hindered by the way nature is treated by humanoids?
While sources are spotty, this is likely the sort of worship practiced by real world Celtic Druidism or the more well attested Shinto practices of Japanese religion. This can be a quickstart religion for a Druid, Ranger or Nature Cleric but really consider how you can add some additional uniqueness beyond just “nature.” If you want a more active religion, many small and hyper local spirits of nature can make for great quirky NPC’s and plot hooks for all characters.
It’s also possible that there is more than one vision of the deity. Depending on your source Heracles was considered a full fledged Olympian with a very traditional domain of strength, little more than an ascendant demi-god or even a kind of chthonic wishing spirit who could be petitioned in magic rites. Jupiter was sometimes thought of as a relatively emotionless cosmic deity impossibly removed from human affairs and other times famously seen as something of a deeply flawed, very human-like figure (simply one with incredible power). There could even be different visions of the deity between branches of the faith or even variant deities (a concept well developed in later Percy Jackson novels).
But one way or the other, these are all major decisions. This will have some significant roleplaying consequences for your religious characters. Every Cleric, Paladin or other religious PC is essentially adding a deity (or a whole pantheon!) to the list of campaign NPC’s and it’s something a DM has to be prepared for.
Think of some of the iconic actual play scenes involving the gods. Merle and his laid back relationship with Pan (TAZ: Balance). Yasha’s mysterious stormy visions (Critical Role Season 2). Or even Kingston Brown communing with the city of New York (Dimension20: Unsleeping City). Each of these divine beings communicate in differing ways and have different ways of relating to their worshipers. This adds a lot of flavor to each faith and it gives the PC in question a tangible way of interacting.
Here are some additional traits you can consider in your faith:
Communication. How does your deity, pantheon or divine principle interact with believers? Are they very communicative or do they only speak rarely or through special spokespeople? What kinds of things do they speak about? What is an unusual element of these visions or communications?
Personality. The object of your worship is famous for its divine temperament. Is your deity or principle harsh or forgiving with believers? How do they regard outsiders? Do they experience emotions in a similar way to humanoids or are they more alien?
Judgment. The object of your faith is well known for the way it evaluates humanoids. Is your deity or principle capricious, impartial or charitable towards people? What qualities do they value? How do they show their displeasure or joy towards an individual?
Involvement. How closely does the object of your faith interact with the world? Is your deity cosmic and unreachable? Or are they very actively at work and keeping a close eye on things? Do they work through agents or intervene directly? Do they monitor how their gifts and blessings are being used?
These basic categories will give us the framework that the rest of the faith hangs on. We’ll be following up with lots of additional details to help you build a robust fantasy faith.
So what are the deities like in your story or TTRPG world? Do you have a favorite religious character? Tell us about it in the comments!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.