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In the Beginning… : Using Religion as a World-Building Kick-Start

August 15, 2012
Tips & Tricks

Tips & Tricks

One of the aspects of being a Game Master that I enjoy the most is world-building. I can easily lose myself in constructing various cultures, languages, histories, etc. for my various role-playing milieu. And in the course of that world-building, the parts that I usually find to be the most intriguing–and most inspiring–are developing the religious aspects of that world.

Perhaps it’s because I have an interest in religion in the “real world”. And in exploring that interest, I have discovered just how much a culture’s religious life informs and inspires all other aspects of that culture. Theology can easily become a through-line that flows through a country’s customs (saying “bless you” when someone sneezes), its holidays (or “holy days”), its government, and the daily life of its citizens (aka your NPCs).

As a result, when designing a new campaign world/setting, I tend to start with questions of religion and let the answers to those questions guide me through the establishment of various aspects of the region’s culture.

Keep in mind that this is certainly not intended to be the end-all list of everything you possibly need to create a good religion for your world. But I do think that by at least considering these questions, you’re well on your way to creating a religion that is vibrant and realistic. If this list inspires you to more questions, feel free to add them in the comments.

So, with that in mind, here are a series of questions you may ask yourself as you sit down to create a new and exciting sandbox for your PCs to play in.

The Nature of Gods

Is there one deity or many (or several)?

If many, are they worshiped as part of a pantheon (where the gods are inter-related) or simply pantheistic (where there are several individual gods with distinct origins/rituals)?

Is the deity a “creator”? A “destroyer”? A “watchmaker”?

Does the deity govern all aspects of existence or only certain spheres of influence (motherhood, war, life, death, taxes, etc.)?

Is the deity an epic hero or a “founding father” of the country/dominant culture?

Is there a “judgment” deity?

Is there an “afterlife”?

Does the deity walk amongst their worshipers? Or do they live in a plane removed?

Is the deity anthropomorphic? Or a force/essence? Or another manner of creature? Or have a variety of forms/avatars?

Is the deity immortal? Does it have a period of “rebirth”?

Is the deity active in the daily lives of its worshipers?

Is the deity a “racial” deity? Or does its influence transcend species?

Can mortals ascend to godhead?

The Nature of Worship

Do worshipers have evidence of the deity’s existence? Or is it a manner of faith?

Is “sorcery” distinct from religious prayer and ritual (invocation)? Are they inter-related?

Is there a “catholic” church of the deity, or many forms of worship?

Has there been a dogmatic schism within the faithful? Are there other denominations of the same basic faith?

Does the government/culture sanction the worship of the deity? Condemn it? How much secular power does the temple wield?

In what regard are priests/ministers/monks held by the populace?

Is the religion “the one true faith”? How is it related to other religions practiced in the region?

Is the dominant religion that of the conquerors or of “the people”?

Are weddings/funerals/births blessed by representatives of the religion? How important is it to have it done?

What are the temporal benefits of worship? Spiritual benefits?

Is the pleasure of the deity based upon actions in life (works) or upon ritual?

What would be considered blasphemy? What are the consequences for it?

What or who is the church/temple against?  Is there a religious opposition?

Where do non-human races fit into the beliefs of the temple/church?

Were the rituals/tenets of the religion handed down by the deity or developed by its worshipers? Or is this known?

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