Of Men and Gods

Why D&D Gods Make No Sense

There is a big difference between our real world gods and the gods in a D&D world. The gods in D&D worlds exist and are real (at least to the characters). The gods in our real world don’t exist are an act of faith. Despite this major difference, religions in D&D always mimic the structure of real world religions and this makes no sense.

Faith Based Religions

Putting aside the question of the existence of a god, all religions in the real world are based on faith not proof. Believers go to church or the mosque or whatever and worship in the believe that somehow their life will be better. Not imminently or even when they are alive but at least when they are dead, the afterlife will be much better because of their devotion to god.

Consumer Based Religions

Your average inhabitant of a D&D world knows that gods exist, they can see priests performing miracles all the time. In some high-fantasy worlds, they may even see the gods occasionally. There is no faith involved. The gods are real.

So why would your average peasant worship god X over god Y or even worship any gods at all?

The simple answer is a question – What is in it for me?

The average D&D peasant knows that all the gods want their worship just as they know that all the shop keepers want their gold. Consequently they will spend their worship accordingly. In times of war, they worship at the temples that offer the most protection, in times of plague, they will worship at the temple that offers the most healing. A temple that gives out “Cure Disease” spells to all that worship there is going to be more popular than one that charges its worshippers 250gp a time.

Brand Loyalty and Sports Fans

Despite D&D gods being reduced to consumerism, choosing which god or gods to worship will not be a logical choice. Economic and psychological studies show that people make the most irrational choices when spending their money. Why else do people follow sports teams that have spent years at the bottom end of the league? How much of your expenditure is spent on big name brands? You know there are cheaper or better brands out there but you still buy Apple or Nike or BMW anyway.

Geography will play a large part in a person’s religious loyalties. A peasant in a small village, with just one temple is going to worship there. Whole areas may be under the sway of one god, just like the real world where we have christian areas and muslim areas, sunni ares and shiite areas and so on. However, people in these areas may not have the choice of which god to worship but they have the choice over whether they worship or not. Even in areas where one god is dominant, the priests must give something back to their worshippers. If the clerics only sell their cure spells to the rich and don’t help the poor, the poor won’t come to the temple anymore than football fans will support their local team if only the rich actually get to watch the match.

Death is just a State of Mind

All real world religions make promises and threats about the afterlife that come down to eternal luxury or eternal damnation. Does this fit in with the realities of a D&D world? Priests can raise the dead, powerful priests can do it when the person has been dead for months or years. What do those people report when they come back? Have they been rudely pulled out of the halls of Valhalla, saved from a rectal examination with a red-hot poker or simply experienced nothingness?

Natural Disasters

Gods & religions have to explain why natural disasters happen. Sudden, terrible events need a reason and in the real world they have generally been blamed on “the gods being angry” and punishing the wicked. Does this make sense in the D&D world where the clerics have Commune spells? Would the gods try to claim credit for an earthquake, blame it on other gods, tell the truth about tectonic plates or simply admit their ignorance?

It’s Religon Jim but not as know it

How religion works in your D&D campaign is entirely up to you. It is a fantasy game after all. But it seems very unlikely that religions in a world where priests have miraculous powers everyday, will look and act like religions where the priests are just ordinary men.

This post is part of the November 08 RPG Bloggers Carnival

One comment

  1. While I appreciate your assessment, I think you’re conclusions are a bit off.
    Comparing real world modern religions to D&D pantheons doesn’t work. If you feel the need to rationalize gods in D&D, you need to look to ancient historic religions for answers.

    The ancient Greeks for example believed that the gods were real and played a direct role in their lives. Anything that couldn’t be explained easily could be blamed on the gods. It was faith, but the Greeks didn’t know that.. they were able to rationalize countless examples of gods acting in the real world.

    And they didn’t just worship one god at a time or choose which one was appropriate. Each god in the pantheon had a role, and you had to appease them when appropriate. A married woman would be sure to make offerings to Hestia for the good of her household, Hera when she was pregnant, to Athena for wisdom and for guidance in household crafts. A Greek might have a greater affinity for one god (a fisherman would spend more time appeasing Posiden), but wouldn’t ignore the other gods.

    If anything, D&D’s version(s) of religion leave a lot to be desired. In no small part because of the fear of offending non-gaming, hyper-religious groups who equate playing a game with worshiping the devil. While some attempts have been made to document ancient religions and pantheons in official game literature, for the most part fitting that into game worlds has been simplistic at best.

    These ancient religions developed organically over time, and made great sense to the people living then. To make religions work effectively in D&D, you have to integrate the mythology you borrow or invent deeply into the societies you create. Doing a little reading and research will make the process of creating a memorable religious system in your game easier and very rewarding creatively. In addition, if a pantheon lives organically in your game world, your players will be equally rewarded.

    But, there are some important questions you’ll have to answer to make it work. If spells allow the dead to be resurrected, why would anyone die permanently? How would you have plagues if you can cure disease with a spell? Famines if you can easily create food with a spell? Perhaps the answer is that these spells should be much more difficult to cast effectively. It’s quite an exercise to examine spells with an eye to how they would work in a real, ancient world setting. I think the answer is that they would have had an enormous impact, and that clerics would have been the true powers in most societies. That same could be said for magic users of all stripes.

    I myself favor a world where magic is very rare, and very difficult to invoke, feared as much as it is desired. I like the idea that clerics have access to spells of power, but it requires some level of sacrifice for them to casts those spells.

    For the most part, there’s no need to actually get into any of this. It’s just a game. I don’t need an explanation of why Park Avenue and Madison Avenue are next to each other or how the Community Chest really works when I’m playing Monopoly. But if the DM has worked out some of these details in advance, your players will soon realize there’s more depth to the experience and get a lot more out of your game.

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