Friday, January 7, 2011

Religion Art Right Here

JB of B/X Blackrazor asked a very interesting question (to me, at any rate) in his recent post "Religion Where Art Thou?" Given my own proclivities toward the subject, I thought I'd take a moment to demonstrate several easy ways that religion (a psuedo-Christianity) can be injected into a campaign to add that little bit of depth that only a religious world-view can bring to the table.
  • In my own games, I tend to follow in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, who uses Aslan as an analogue for Christ. I've done this before, but for my Lost Colonies campaign, the fictional Christ-figure is called Isten.
  • Symbols have power, especially when they convey a story. There are three holy symbols available to those who follow Isten:

Wolf Hook: This symbolizes suffering. Isten was hung upon a mountain-side by a pair of wolf hooks jammed through his shoulders.

Blood Eagle: This symbolizes both sacrifice and the single person of the God-man. When the wolf-hooks did not kill Isten, he was subjected to the blood-eagle — two slits made in the back through which the lungs are pulled out like wings. The holy symbol always features a two-headed eagle, representing both Isten's natures (God and man) in one person.

Blood Drop: This symbolizes sanctification. Through Isten's suffering and sacrifice, which resulted in his blood being shed, the world is sanctified and made new in him. [This, by the way, is the favorite holy symbol among my players].
  • I use bishops and priests as patrons. This is built into the way I use the Cleric class. All adventuring Clerics are deacons and are attached to a bishop. This serves to feed adventure seeds to players as well as put a religious spin on adventuring.
  • I use saints...a lot. Every church and temple is dedicated to a different saint. Divine magic items are associated with/named after various saints. Religious relics behave like magic items. Characters will be visited by visions of saints and every now and then by the saints themselves. This adds a nice level of detail to the world and elevates humdrum everyday magic items into religious relics with their own unique back story.
  • A major theme of the campaign is the recovery and restoration of lost religious sites. The tent-pole megadungeon is an abandoned monastery. There are lots of religious iconography, symbols, vestments, etc. that have been desecrated/left to rot. This place isn't simply a place where monsters live. It is a place which was lost.
  • On the flip side, the major villains of the campaign represent and embody the seven deadly sins. Thus, these aren't just monsters the players are fighting against.
  • Bonus spells for Clerics are determined randomly. This provides for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Isten gives his clerics these spells because he knows they will need them. The players want to cast them (especially utility spells that never seem to have a use) so they can get another spell. Therefore they are always looking for (and finding) a creative way to cast them — proving that they needed the spell.
  • Any time my players do something religious or something out of faith, I reward them. These rewards are not mechanical — I don't roll a die or add a bonus. They are story-driven. A classic example is my players encountered a pool of acid that a chaotic tribe of humans was using to dissolve their sacrifices to a demonic image (as a rite of passage, they would cut off their own arms, which they would then replace by grafting on giant insect limbs/claws etc.). One of the clerics cast a Purify Food/Water spell (one of those bonus spells) on the acid and another non-cleric player decided to throw his holy symbol into the pool. This bit of religious action was rewarded by the pool being destroyed — it cracked and the acid drained out. Not only that, but it won over a hostile NPC who still loyally adventures with the group.
  • Finally, I don't try to re-invent the wheel. Scripture uses metaphor all the time and Christ spoke in parables. In other words, these stories are applicable no matter what the context. As long as the metaphor remains the same, you can easily substitute names, items, etc. for virtually every story in the bible to make it relevant to any campaign world.
Most of these things are done passively with very little effort on my part. Yet, my reward for that small effort is a group of players who see religion and religious action as central parts of their characters — even those who aren't clerics. It makes for a very rich campaign world without having to write up a detailed history of everything.


Erin Smale said...

It makes for a very rich campaign world without having to write up a detailed history of everything.

This is quite timely - I'm revving up a new campaign, and I want to use apply a psuedo-Christian flavour. This is my first attempt at such a campaign, but I think it will provide a good basis for (1) adventure hooks, (2) campaign religion, (3) social and cultural motivations, (4) magic and monsters, and (5) getting alignment to make sense.

Can I infer that the holy symbols above have corresponding orders within the Church? Would these, in your estimation, give rise to such? For example, the Wolf Hook would be favoured by aethestics, while the Blood Eagle a fighting order within the faith?

Just curious - as I outline my campaign, I'm shifting from my usual focus of 1 culture = 1 pantheon, but I still want to ensure sufficient variety within the Church to stimulate adventure hooks and interesting historical background.

FrDave said...


You bet. To date, I haven't had an occasion to introduce these orders into my own campaign, but they certainly do exist. Don't forget that you can also have orders based around saints (think Franciscans, Benedictines and Jesuits) and that there can be several variations on the symbols, each representing a different cultural region (check out the differences between the Greek, Byzantine, Coptic and Russian crosses, for example). There is plenty of room for variety.

velaran said...

Since you mentioned Aslan, I'm surprised there isn't a lion rampant somewhere on the page.

The Abandoned Monastery-
Very D&D.

Isten was hung upon a mountain-side by a pair of wolf hooks jammed through his shoulders.-
Yikes, like his parallel, that's harsh. Issek of the Jug comes to my mind as well. And, I think, the forgotten Realms God Ilmater.

I always saw Clerics as Templar type guys, so the Benedictine Rule, with Cisternian influence,(or some such in your game world) would apply in these situations, I gather.

I better start at the beginning....
*heads to archives*

The Jovial Priest said...

"All adventuring Clerics are deacons and are attached to a bishop. This serves to feed adventure seeds to players as well as put a religious spin on adventuring."

This is an excellent idea to keep clerics as more individuals serving within an established church rather than as a order of knights, separate somehow from the church. In effect the clerics are the muscle men of a church. The Indiana Jones of a University vs the adventuring cleric of a Bishop, bringing back wealth and artefacts for his patron.

It can immediately explain why bishops and priests are normal men but clerics, through special divine ceremony, are separate. Perhaps clerics could retire as Bishops or Abbots, but are likely too worldly by then.