I have never believed in a higher power. The same applies to most of my family. In fact, here in my native Iceland we have one of the highest proportions of atheists in the world, despite not having separation of church and state. But I respect whatever faith anyone has and am not out to convert anyone. I expect the same from others.
At the gaming table, things are different. The gods are very real and their influence is felt. In many fantasy RPG’s and especially in D&D and its offspring, the gods are omnipresent and their agents are an active and important part of the game. However, the handling of the gods and faith is highly variable.
Clerics are more than portable plasters
I rarely get to play, I’m almost always on the GM side, but my favourite D&D class by far is the cleric. I’ve played clerics in several editions and very different kinds. The cleric is not my favourite because of the healing abilities or power against or over the undead, or the fact that a properly prepared clerics is the most monstrously overpowered opponent in the game. The cleric is my favourite because he is a direct agent of a god, demon, spirit or other higher power, bestowed with powerful abilities that he or she can manifest in the world of mortals. Aside from the mechanics of this, the roleplaying possibilities are great.
Until 3e, there were no “official” gods as D&D had no official, default world or setting. The 1e clerics were pretty much exactly alike, the only distinction was whether they were good or evil. In 2e, they got a big boost. There was made a distinction between the cleric and the priest. The cleric was more or less the same as the 1e cleric but the priest was a whole new beast whose abilities are largely based on what the higher power he or she served influenced and therefore any two priests could be wildly different. I was borderline obsessed with this for a time, pondering which spheres of influence every god would touch and had copious hand-written notes on that and obsessively read every book on the gods. And when TSR opened up the possibilities of specific powers for priests of every power I was completely hooked.
Then came 3e. While many old school fans lament how everything was boxed into a universal ruleset, the fact is that it was necessary and made most things more streamlined, especially on the creative end. But one of the victims of this was the cleric. While 3e was the first edition to supply gods with the basic rules (a selection of Greyhawk gods), it wasn’t possible within the framework to have each god or power entirely unique. However, the 3e cleric is an absolute monster. You could over time easily (and without powerplaying) create a cleric that was practically indestructible. So the 3e cleric made for a hell of a Big Bad End Guy villain.
The cleric remains a powerhouse built on this model in subsequent editions. In my system of choice, Pathfinder, the clerics are similar to the 3.5 version but instead of turning undead they channel either healing energy that harms the undead or negative energy that harms the living. Their domain powers are also more versatile and interesting.
But what about the other classes?
The picture gets a little murkier when it comes to the other divine classes. Is the druid a priest of nature that gets powers from nature itself or a special kind of priest that gets powers from the gods of nature? How about the ranger? Are paladins divine warriors for the greater good or for their god? There is no right or wrong answer to this, it depends on what kind of game you are running and/or in what world. I change my approach to this based on both. They don’t always have to be the same.
Where do they find the room?
The various settings throughout the years have had very different approaches to the roles of the gods. Let’s examine a few.
In the Forgotten Realms you can’t turn a corner without bumping into a god. They’re everywhere and influence everything. In fact, one of my main problems with the Realms is the ever looming shadow of the gods. They are in my view far, far too meddlesome in the affairs of mortals – especially on the side of good. On top of that, there are about a million of them.
Dragonlance took a different path. The gods effectively vanished for centuries until returning in a big way and becoming a vital part of the world. Dragonlance has always been cursed with having its greatest asset also its weakness. The novels were excellent fantasies and so well written that many players and GM’s wanted to incorporate elements of it in their game and the gods were no exception. The gods were direct agents in the novels and had a tendency to show up at gamer’s tables.
Pathfinder’s world of Golarion has a healthier approach to the gods, with a rich pantheon and a strong mythology. The problem there is Paizo’s somewhat obsessive attitude to demons and devils. There are dozens of fiendish lords and princes, each with an active cult and even within the ranks of the actual gods there is one devil prince and one demon lord, confusing the issue even further.
The amazing Planescape had something of a problem because the planes are the domains of the gods. That meant that every god had a place but no influence to speak of. On top of that all the archangels, demon lords and devil princes and princesses were pretty much locals as well. My solution to this was simple. I threw most of them out, creatures native to the planes considered them to be very powerful beings, but ignored their divinity and clerics were not agents of gods, but philosophies or ideals. In other words, the gods were very real, possibly your neighbours or employers, but their godhood mostly ignored.
I was quite fond of the approach Eberron took to the gods. There were established religions and cults but the actual existence of the gods was in doubt. There weren’t too many of them either. The churches were not just a collection of clerics either. The head of a church could be a bureaucrat with levels in an NPC class or a wizard. It showed how organised religion isn’t just the domain of those with the strongest connection to the divine but all believers – something I’ve lifted for my own games.
And then there is my beloved Greyhawk which I think has the best of all worlds (but I’m heavily biased). There is a rich pantheon, or to be more precise, pantheons. There are several human cultures in the Flanaess, each with their own history and mythology – very much like in our world. Since the cultures have mixed together the gods are now more universal but retain their roots to varying degrees. There are a bit too many gods, many of which can be ignored in all honesty. But the role of the gods is the real strength here. As a rule of thumb, the more powerful a god is, the less he or she will be involved in the affairs of mortals. So Boccob is the god of magic, a major force in Greyhawk, but is called the uncaring since he is entirely neutral in the affairs of mortals. On the other hand one of the greatest threats in the world is the demi-god Iuz, son of the greatest witch the world has ever known and the demon lord Graz’zt. The gods are very real and their influence can often be felt, but most of them are not particularly meddlesome in mortal affairs
What about you?
Clerics are direct servants of the gods and the same can be said to a lesser or greater extent of all the divine classes. But just like in real life, religion is a big deal to the believer and only a very small group of them will be clerics. One would think that a fighter might be a worshipper of the god of war. On the other hand a ship’s captain might make an offering or sacrifice to the god of storms or the god ill fortune before heading for the sea, not out of worship or devotion, but to gain favour for a short while.
There are often several gods who influence the same thing. In Greyhawk there are at least three war gods but they are wildly different. In the Oeridian pantheon, there is the valorous Heironeous but also his tyrannical brother Hextor, while in the Flan pantheon there is the beastly and savage Erythnul. Their worshippers are very different and so are the customs of traditions of their churches.
Conflicts between the various faiths can be obvious. However, one thing has always annoyed me about faith in D&D. The one, true god issue. In most game worlds there are several gods and they are very real. People know they exist and show them proper respect. Far too often players of divine-focused characters play them as single-minded evangelists trying to spread the word and even forcing others to take up the faith. We’ve all seen the lawful stupid paladin from hell at one time or another. That’s poor roleplaying to me. Think of the faiths of our world, I’ll use the Norse gods as an example. Óðinn (Odin) is the father of several gods. You’d think a cleric of Þór (Thor) would show respect to the clerics of Óðinn and seek their guidance for things that do not concern their god. Loki is arguably both chaotic and evil but he is a part of the world of the gods. He and Óðinn had several adventures in the mythology, as well as with Þór. Although he is punished by the other gods in the end, he is one of them. Why should clerics of philosophically different gods of the same pantheon automatically be enemies? Isn’t it just as likely that two very similar gods of differing pantheons would be antagonistic. Such is the case in Greyhawk, where there are two rather rigid but benevolent gods of law that cannot stand one another, St. Cuthbert and the Oeridian god Pholtus.
The touchiest of subjects
Religion and faith are as deeply personal subjects as there and should be left on the doorstep when it comes to gaming. But the various gods of fantasy can and should have a significant role in the game.
I like to detail my gods very much. How do you recognise a worshipper or servant of the god? Are there notable customs, relics or holy texts? How do they feel about the other gods? What beings serve them or are connected with them? I even go so far as too make up detailed agents of theirs, to prepare for things like planar ally or gate spells.
But whatever you do, I recommend that you leave any and all references to real world religions out of your game unless you’re absolutely certain they’re appropriate and everyone is comfortable with it.