Religion in Fantasy Settings

As a preface to this post it probably makes sense to describe how I view religion in the "real world" as it surely has an impact on how I view it in fictional settings.


I was raised a Roman Catholic and I remain one though I suspect if the pope ever had a chance to have a chat with me he'd probably show me the exit in short order. I believe in marriage equality (aka same-sex marriage), believe the church's teachings on the ordination of women and contraception are flawed, and I don't believe Catholics or Christians have an exclusive claim to salvation - to be honest I'm a believer in making this world the best it can be. I am a huge fan of Jesus who spent an awful lot of time telling people to love one another and not much time talking about birth control or homosexuality. Generally speaking if your religion gives you what you need and leads you to a compassionate life I'm fine with it. Heck if your lack of religion takes you there, awesome too. A lot of my philosophy was shaped by the former Catholic nun turned atheist turned theist Karen Armstrong and her Charter for Compassion.

I've found people to admire in a wide array of religions, including my own, and I've found people to despise in a wide array of religions, including my own. I've got a pretty strong hunch that the infinite is beyond the ability of any one set of beliefs to describe.


I begin with this long statement to give an idea as to what I like seeing in portrayals of religion in fantasy settings, whether for a setting for RPGs or for fiction. I generally am not too crazy about settings that have "one true way" - a pantheon of gods that regularly interacts with mortals. It is not an exercise of faith to believe in a supernatural force that regularly visits the world. While I greatly enjoyed the Dragonlance novels when I was younger as I grew older this became a point of frustration for me with Paladine and Takhisis walking the face of Krynn.

Issek of the Jug from TSR's
"Lankhmar: City of Adventure"
I have enjoyed fantasy settings where the gods have worshippers but those worshippers tend to be without "clerical magic" - though sometimes it is suggested there may well be something to these gods. For example, in the short story "Lean Times in Lankhmar" Fafhrd becomes an acolyte of Issek of the Jug but neither he nor anyone involved with Issek has any supernatural ability. Conan refers to his deity Crom numerous times but there is no expectation of ever seeing Crom taking direct action.


One fantasy gaming setting which I felt did an excellent job portraying multiple religious beliefs was the Eberron campaign world for Dungeons & Dragons. It featured multiple faiths. The most common faith was the Sovereign Host, a pantheon of nine mostly benevolent deities. Their counterpoint was the Dark Six, six malevolent deities. You had the church of the Silver Flame, dominant in one nation but able to be found elsewhere. You had elves worshipping their ancestors (who could often be found wandering around in a sort of undead state). You had death worshippers, forbidden cults. Worshippers of all these faiths gained spells but even with that the worshippers actually weren't certain as to the actual source to their powers. The deities in question did not make their wishes or even their existence known. It's not even certain in the game world that the deities are the sources for these powers. This is an approach I greatly liked as it gave the expected powers of clerics but it added the real-world ambiguity that all religions have. Additionally, this made it easy to portray religions in multiple lights. In one adventure I had the main villain be a zealot of the Silver Flame. In another adventure there was a heroic NPC who worshipped the Silver Flame. In most settings the deities are monitoring the behavior of their clerics and withhold spells from those clerics who abuse the tenets of the faith. No such luck in Eberron. Just like in the real world these people may be judged harshly in any afterlife but in this world they may well get away with their subterfuges and abuses of their faiths.

RuneQuest is one game which has embraced multiple world views. While I am not an expert on Glorantha (truth be told Glorantha kind of frightens me), I recall the 3rd edition of RuneQuest having practitioners of shamanism, divine magic, and sorcery write as to why their beliefs represent "the one true way" and why followers of other beliefs are totally wrong and some horrible fate awaits them in the afterlife.


From my exposure there seems to be less portrayal of religion in fantasy literature than in fantasy gaming. For example, there's not a priest to be found in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The Chronicles of Narnia represents one exception and even has multiple religions but only one of those religions is "correct".


Winterfell Godswood from HBO's "A Game of Thrones"
One fantasy series whose portray of religion I greatly enjoy is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The continent of Westeros has two main faiths, worship of the Seven and worship of the Old Gods. The Seven are more popular in the civilized south whereas the Old Gods are worshipped more in the north. Sacred trees with carved faces are dedicated to the Old Gods and in later novels we learn there is actually something to the belief that the Old Gods can speak through the trees - though not in the way that most worshippers would imagine.

The worship of the Seven reminds me somewhat of Christianity's place in medieval Europe, with officers of the faith having great temporal power and their holiness varies from true dedication to all-out charlatans.

The worship of the god R'hllor and belief in a dualistic evil other is prevalent on the nearby continent of Essos and begins to become a factor in the politics of Westeros, with one of the rivals to the Iron Throne of Westeros becomes a worshipper of R'hllor. Interestingly the priests of R'hllor are found to have some powers, especially of divination, though they are far from infallible.


These ideas have been bouncing around my head as I contemplate how to portray religion in my Dungeon Crawl Classics game. Clerics in DCC need to stay in their deity's good graces which tends to indicate some amount of certainty as to how you're doing with your god. But... it shouldn't be difficult to throttle back on the certainty. Yes, these angels are telling me I'm telling me I'm doing a lousy job. And unless I make them happy I'm going to have a hard time with magic. But am I absolutely certain they come from my god? Also, I plan on making it possible for a worshipper to forsake his holy vows and still have access to magic - though in such a case he is now effectively getting his spells from a new source and needs to keep that source pleased with him...Yes communing with the divine is possible, but the results of doing so are less than reliable, similar to the problems priests of R'hllor in Westeros and Essos tend to have when interpreting visions they see in the sacred flames...

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