Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
So we’ve hit the end of our prompts and parts of fantasy religion development. By now you’ve hopefully worked out your divinity, history, politics, factions, practices, relics and locations. You’re starting to have a pretty robust worldview to use at your table. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t offer some final guidance and cautions as you go to put it into practice. Here are some things to consider before you implement your faith.
This might be more of an individual preference than universal truth but try to avoid a 1 to 1 translation of an active, present day real world faith for your game. This is going to be an immediate source of headaches. Real world faiths are complex and massive and most have centuries or even millennia of history, tradition and practice rooted in the actual world we live in. The core assumptions of most fantasy worlds are radically different and trying to slam the two together will become problematic very quickly.
A good buffer will also help you avoid a lot of opportunities for offense. Even with a good Session 0, real world religions are one of the most volatile subjects you can be poking at. You can never be sure who you might be pushing away from your table (or the hobby as a whole).
Instead of going for a close translation ask yourself “What about this faith am I interested in exploring?” Draw out those elements and remix and reimagine the rest of the faith around it (fitting it to the fantasy world you’re inhabiting). To give an example, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to not have a Cleric of Jesus in your game. Just don’t. Please.
However, If you wanted to explore themes of self-sacrifice, forgiveness or martyrdom, the Forgotten Realms deity Ilmater covers all of these. You can tell a story with the same vibe without engaging in a problematic approach. You don’t have to give up an interesting aspect of storytelling and you can avoid taking a hammer to game immersion.
Archetypes, Cliche and Stereotype
(CW some offensive religious and cultural stereotypes referenced below as negative examples)
Another way to think about implementing a faith is in terms of Archetypes, Cliche and Stereotype. Archetypes and Tropes can be valuable tools in your storytelling toolkit. There are certain overarching story and character types that are common to certain narratives. The knight’s quest is an archetypal sort of story, with Arthurian legend being the most blatant or famous point of reference. You can embrace the archetype and take your character on a journey of growth, temptation, overcoming adversity and strengthening faith. You could also subvert or throw a twist on the archetype and show a failed or abandoned knight’s quest. These archetypes can help give you direction, themes and mood for your character. Folks will subtly notice when you skip or modify a beat in the classic structure. It will also help communicate to the DM the kind of story you are wanting to tell and participate in.
Cliche occurs when we lean too hard into overused archetypal stories. If you never offer any variation to the classic formulas you can run the risk of a boring and predictable character. One who never surprises or shakes up the script. A character who is always good or always vile becomes bland after a while. Giving characters contrasting points of light and darkness and color and variation will keep your character and the story of their faith fresh and interesting.
But while cliche is perhaps unsatisfying storytelling, it is stereotype that moves us into destructive behavior. Stereotype pulls out an exaggerated and often negative portrayal of a specific group or people. If you want to have a character that exemplifies certain traits of the Jewish faith, such as observing a tradition of holy rituals and laws passed down from their ancestors, worshiping only a single god exclusively, observing specific holy days of rest every week and keeping certain dietary restrictions, there is probably a tasteful way to do that if you engage with respect and care (and some research and consultation is always helpful, even for a home game!).
But as soon as you layer a problematic character or cultural trait like greed over that you’ve now tapped into a hurtful stereotype (echoed in famous works like the Merchant of Venice and the greedy and vengeful moneylender Shylock). It’s not just that these traits are negative but that they have been historically weaponized by prejudicial and hateful actors. Avoid at all costs! (that’s part of that research/consultation we mentioned.) You might not even realize you’re stepping into a mess or don’t understand how badly it might be received. A little forethought will go a long way.
Another way to avoid stereotypes is to take full advantage of our faction advice. Even within a single religion show a wide variety of character traits and types, even conflicting organizations or institutions. While it doesn’t eliminate all issues around stereotypes, this diversity of representation goes a long way to avoiding the monotone presentation that easily calls up stereotypes. If every member of a faith with clear overtones of a realworld faith is a violent zealot, you are inadvertently making a statement (and having a boring game). Show a diverse range of experiences, personalities and stances within the tradition to alleviate this.
Session 0 and DM/PC Agreement
The role of religion and faith in your game is an important Session 0 topic. Not only is it important from a lore and worldbuilding angle, it is also a worthwhile topic on a list of possibly difficult or triggering topics for some folks. Some folks have had trauma in religious spaces, some folks have been traumatized by others because of their religion. It’s good to know these going into your game just like you would want to know phobias or other sensitive or traumatic topics.
This is also a good time to work out the comfort level and expectations between a religious PC’s player and the DM. Any religious presence in the game probably brings along a whole cast of unique NPC’s, locations and general prep work for the DM, but more than that the DM has to have a certain level of comfort in roleplaying or responding as a deity, principle of power or cosmic force. This might be weird for some folks. Don’t wait until you’re in the situation to realize that one or both of you is deeply uncomfortable with spoken prayer or demonstrations of faith in character. And know this going in. A Cleric, Paladin, Druid or Warlock who is expecting a vocal and involved deity or patron might end up disappointed if they don’t make any appearances.
Also have a consensus on what a divinity or object of faith might demand and how actions might be rewarded or punished. Some Clerics might want a deistic deity who doesn’t much care what they do with their powers, it’s not part of the excitement for them. Others might be more comfortable with deities or patrons that are more demanding and might even offer negative consequences. Losing spells and class features is a common option for punishing flagrantly disobedient Clerics, Warlocks or Paladins. Maybe even a subclass or class change could be possible.
Work out the possibility of these things ahead of time and keep talking about them as you play so that you can be on the same page. There are some great examples of how these mechanics can shape storytelling (it’s basically an entire character arc in Critical Role Campaign 2) but the actual player experience can be brutal and should never be imposed from the outside w/o conversation and consent.
Hopefully these tips (and this series) have been helpful to you all. This entry especially is a bit volcanic so if you see something you think should be discussed or clarified let us know! And please drop us a comment and let us know how these things are playing out at your tables! Thanks for reading!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.