Saturday, September 3, 2011

Extant Religions in RPGs

A few days ago I posted about using made-up religions in RPGs, and I created a set of tables to generate these made-up religions. I mentioned in passing that using real religions was something I thought was cool, but didn't give it much more mention.

There were two reasons for that. The first is that I try (often unsuccessfully) to keep my blog posts unified and not excessively long. The other reason is that, while I know more than most people about a lot of religions, I don't know much at all about using real religions in RPGs. I've never done it and never seen it done.

I know that some other bloggers out there use real religions in their games. FrDave is the classic example. I was surprised and interested to see that one of the first characters Rob Conley ran the Wilderlands for was a Christian. Antion commented on my religion post that one of his clerics follows a real life religion. Of course, the inspiration for this series, Jeff Rients, is currently running a campaign with clerics who follow extant religions as well. There are probably more of you that are reading this that also run games with extant religions.

I'm wondering if you could talk about what that's like. Is that really different in any way from running games with made-up religions? Do you have a mix of real and made up religions in your game, or only extant ones? Do you make an effort to be at least basically accurate in your portrayal of these real religions?

Also, does anyone at your table follow any of the religions in your game? Does that complicate things? How do you deal with the differences between the actual religions and the way Clerics work in D&D? One of my biggest hesitations in using real religions is that I can't think of any extant religion that offers power, but only a certain level of power until you reach the next level the way D&D works… instead, most religions that offer supernatural power usually will teach that the power will meet the problem, not the person who is the channel of that power. I'm especially thinking of Christianity here, but it's true about every other religion that comes to mind. Anyway, do you, and how do you, deal with that?

You can answer in the comments if you want, but many answers will probably be too long for the comments. If you answer this with a blog post and let me know about it (or I see it on my own) I'll add a link to your post to this post. Thanks!


  1. I think there's lots of evidence that clerics were originally designed with Christian tropes in mind (Archbishop Turpin smiting saracens, Friar Tuck hitting people over the head with shanks of mutton, Van Helsing using his wooden stake...), so I don't think it's much of a stretch to justify the wider range of clerical spells and powers in a medieval Christian setting.

    Also, if this medieval setting is tinged with a vaguely apocalyptic Weirdness (using Raggi's capital-W Weird), the GM can further justify it with something like: "In difficult times like these, some say that God grants special miracles to those fighting for the faith..."

  2. I've only ever run 1 character who used a real religion (he was a rabbi in a od&d modern game).

    I've never had a player use a real religion in any of my games.

  3. @Cygnus: I'd say that you're correct in that the inspiration for Clerics in the first place was Christianity, but that Christianity was not at all any kind of Christianity that's ever existed in real life. In some ways, there's a question of whether the Christianity in the literature and film that inspired the Cleric should be considered a made-up religion or an extant religion.

    So far as God granting special miracles, that's just my point- most religions teach that God grants miracles that are in proportion to the need, not the particular level of the one praying for the miracle. So, for example, a Cure Light Wounds spell only curing some of a characters' wounds sounds really weird to me the character casting it is a Cleric of an extant faith. I can't think of a single faith off the top of my head that claims sudden, miraculous, but only partial, healing to have been the work of whoever they worship. Whatever religion we're talking about, the norm is that when divine healing occurs, it occurs completely.

    @David: How much did your character's Judaism get played out? Was he a rabbi in name only, and you ran him like any other cleric, or did the fact that your character was a rabbi flavor the way you played him?

  4. The part of using an existing religion that can be fun, is the fact that people have a handle on what its about, what it represents. On the downside, people have a nasty habit of getting bent out of shape if the way you portray a religion doesnt fit thier view of it.

  5. I've never tried to use real world religions per se in my games. However, I've certainly used real gods and religious practices. I think doing so adds a level of realism and a feeling of history that's difficult to achieve when you're creating your own gods and religious practices from scratch.

  6. @Evernevermore: Both of your points are very true. My question is how to portray an extant religion in D&D, both keeping at least the basics of the religion in the game and not significantly tweaking the D&D mechanics.

    @houserules3e: Yep. If players are familiar with something in the real world and you include it in your game, it's a shorthand that immediately communicates more than what you've described, so you can spend time describing something else that's alien to your players.

  7. I think using real religions can be problematic, too much risk of offense, and even I don't really care about such things, I would want my players to have a good time and not worry about that kind of thing. At the moment I've been thinking a lot about using the way real world religions work in a fantasy game. Longer thoughts here, but basically, what if the gods of a fantasy world were like those of the real world, and there was no proof they actually existed.