Religion, Ideology, and Philosophy in a Role Playing Campaign

When it comes to world building, one of the first things I look at when designing civilizations and groups of people are primary motivations. These are usually connected to religion and philosophy. I find, however, that many people are uncomfortable with delving too deep into that territory when it comes to role playing games. Either because they find it boring (most likely), or because the relationship between fantasy role playing and real life religion has been tenuous in the past. (Though, you should keep in mind that this is all anecdotal.)

When I think about the common equivalent or analogous era and human time frame of fantasy role playing, that is the medieval era of Europe, I find it very difficult to ignore religion, seeing as how throughout most of it religion was one of, if not the, primary motivation for a lot of what happened.

In this discussion, I want to talk about how I approach (or want to approach) religion, ideology, and philosophy when it comes to world building, as well as why I think it’s important to think about for fully fleshed out worlds. I would also, of course, love to hear your personal opinions and advice when it comes to this subject.



Religion, Ideology, and Philosophy in a Role Playing Campaign

I think first we should discuss the default assumptions when it comes to religion and cosmology in Dungeons and Dragons. Generally in any given edition of Dungeons and Dragons, individuals worship singular deities while taking for granted that other such deities exist. The cosmology of the core Dungeons and Dragons experience is one of a groups of ‘planes’, many elemental in nature, while also extending to celestial and infernal, as well as various others covering a wide variety of tropes. The deities exist on these planes, and can directly interact on the ‘main’ physical plane, where the campaign takes place. The worshippers generally match the alignment of their chosen deity (Lawful Good, Chaotic Evil, etc.), and the deities themselves often act as super powerful physical beings, though with the power to influence in a magical way. To read more about the cosmology of default Dungeons and Dragons (as well as what they plan to do with it for the Next edition) , I suggest this article.

I’m not the biggest fan of this approach. I think it takes away a lot of the ambiguity and mystery that religion and spirituality can bring to a fantasy world because there isn’t any room for interpretation. These deities exist, everyone knows what they are like and what power they have, and they have a very physical presence in the universe. This approach might lend itself to what I consider very High Fantasy, but to me it’s far too black and white.

My approach to religion in Dungeons and Dragons, and other fantasy and even science fiction role playing games, is to instead have religion look a bit more like how it does in the real world. There are various religions with followers, and though divine magic exists and works, it is ambiguous enough for rival religions to dismiss as something else. That is, followers of other religions and gods don’t in general take for granted that other Gods or ways of worship can exist, or are right. At worst, they can even name these rivals as demonic enemies of their one true way.

I think this preloads a lot of drama into the campaign without much work. Rather than choosing a deity, a character will choose a religious path or even a philosophy, which fulfills the same role as the deity system in Dungeons and Dragons. And even within these religions there can be sects, schisms, and heretical factions. And (almost) no one really knows the exact spiritual truth.

I think this also allows a great way to introduce grittiness into a campaign world. You just have to look at the dark ages and the crusades to see what religious fanaticism and conflict can cause. This also allows for religious alignments to be a bit more in the gray area. For example, the Paladin of the (made up just now) monotheistic Zontiastic religion might see himself as lawful good, and his peers might find him to be a noble soul, but the so called heretics that he hunts and slays of the animistic Hallenia mysticism wouldn’t see him as such. Not so black and white, when you don’t know for sure that Hallen is a demon god. You either have faith in your Zontiast teachings, or not.

I feel like expanding this section of the game to also include philosophies and ideologies introduces a lot more variety in character backgrounds as well, especially if you allow normally divine classes to become followers of these non-religious paths. A cleric of a logical mathematic based philosophy brings to mind the cult of Pythagoras in the classical world. Perhaps a Lawful Neutral Paladin that follows the path of the Gray Knight, enforcing balance as the basic truth of the universe. Where does philosophy sit in your world? Does it exist at all?

This system allows for more traditional pantheons of deities as already exists in Dungeons and Dragons as well, if your players are more comfortable with that. Polytheistic religions that exist side by side more traditional monotheistic religions can get really fun (in a violent way). Perhaps you can flip it from real world assumptions, and the Polytheistic religions are usurping the ancient mystical one-God approaches. One god? What are you, a pagan?

Essentially, when world building, this really is one of the first things I think about and write down. Once you have a good handful of religions, philosophies, and other ideologies, you can start instilling motivations in your civilizations and kingdoms, and start connecting the dots of relationships between people, their religions, their neighbors and their beliefs, and so on and so forth. And then, as your characters play in your world, and begin uncovering mysteries of the world, things might come to light that change or shatter their beliefs. The narrative potential, to me, is huge.

I can see perhaps some negative with this approach. After all, some people just want to have some with some treasure looting and monster slaying, without really having to approach things like ideology and philosophy. And these is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But, I prefer my role playing worlds with a good helping of needless complexity.

For a quick example as well as idea-generator, I’ll make a quick list of religions, philosophies, and ideologies that you may find in a game world, and their relationships (using the two from the earlier example):

  • Zontiastism: The Zontiast church is the largest major religious entity in the known game world, and almost all human kingdoms consider it their official religion. It’s ancient and originates from a region well recounted in tales, but that doesn’t seem to exist any more. Theologians and scholars are constantly trying to find the ‘path to Zontia’, with some sects considering the path to be literal, while others view it from a more allegorical or even mystical perspective. The main tenet of Zontiastism is the superiority of humanity over all other creatures (something that makes the religion not very popular with non human races). The original prophet of the religion, Zon the Unbound, is said to have delivered the earliest humans from the bondage of an ancient elven empire that has since fallen.
  • Hallenia: This is an animistic mystical religion that, while having claimed ties with very ancient ways of spirituality, is fairly new. It’s worshippers are generally woodsfolk; elves, gnomes, and small communes of humans seeking a nontraditional spirituality. Zontiasm has taken a hard stance against, claiming it to be a demonic religion seeking the resurrection of the ancient Elven empire that had enslaved humanity before.
  • Pikktell: Pikktell is a folk religion exclusively followed by river halflings. It’s said to be very ancient, but is orally taught and incorporated into every facet of halfling life. On it’s face, it’s more a way to look at the world and react in a mildly humorous way. When something ill befalls a Pikktell halfling, they shrug it off as spirits or faeries having fun with them. The elders of the halfling river villages are the leaders of the faith, and teach that everything, every single blade of grass, animal, tree, even inanimate objects, contain a spirit worthy of recognition. In this way, whenever a craftsmen creates something, he gives it a name, and can refer to it as  his children. This doesn’t, however, stop him from selling it. The general atmosphere of this way of life is to not take much seriously, and many adversities are met with a shrug of the shoulders and a half smile. It is also the only known religion with more ‘gods’ than followers.
  • Yallido: Yallido is a philosophy named after an ancient philosopher who wrote many long works about life, the universe, and many other subjects. He wrote everything as if he were an outside observer, and popularized a philosophy of never looking at a thing unless you can look at it completely detached and without bias. In this way, he is said to have written, you can find the singular truth beneath the layers of assumption from many sides. The philosophy is irreligious by nature, but followers can follow other religions. Followers of Yallido are usually scholars, judges, or investigators.

This is generally the way in which I develop my world ideologies. I do a list as above, and then I just keep adding onto it and layering it, developing relationships and thinking up history. I also like to delve into what I consider the ‘occult’, that is hidden religious and spiritual ways, followed in secret. Mystery schools, cults, and underground (figuratively and literally) religions that few know much about. In a world of wizards and alchemists, there’s bound to be some robed shenanigans in the dark.

Do you prefer the traditional approach of Dungeons and Dragons? Do you feel that getting too close to real world religious ideology is a controversy best left alone? How do you introduce ideology into your game world?

As a side note, feel free to look at my last post and come up with something for the Greenwheel Carnival. I really enjoy co-development, and you might find it fun!

3 thoughts on “Religion, Ideology, and Philosophy in a Role Playing Campaign

  1. Great post RPC. In classic D&D the mechanisms of divine magic are very tightly calibrated to a patron system within the pantheon. So one thing to be aware of is that if you make major changes the metaphysical structure of religions then this will also impact the way that divine magic functions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Personally I welcome such creative tinkering. I for one am not really satisfied with a divine magic system that is so formulaic. I am attracted to a system in which miraculous interventions are the prerogative of God (or the gods), and there is not mechanic that guarantees that they will intercede with divine aid (in the form of a specific spell) each time the are asked to do so by a cleric of such and such a level with such and such spell slots.

    Another thing worth distinguishing is the difference between the actual metaphysical structure of the setting and the epistemic access to it that mere mortals posses. It could be that you as the world-builder and GM know what’s actually going on at the fundamental levels of your game’s reality but your players do not.

    In my own (now defunct) 3.5e campaign setting I decided I wanted to have a religious metaphysical structure that resembled the Judeo/Christian mythic motifs of creation, fall and redemption. There is a monotheistic religion which is fundamentally at odds with a competing polytheistic religion. Only one of the narratives told about the world was true. However I did not want it to be transparent to my players which narrative that was. I introduced them to committed and sincere devotees of each side and let them try to piece things together (whether right or wrong) by themselves.


    1. Thanks!

      I hadn’t thought about mechanical implications of restructuring the cosmology of the game, but that does sound like a great way to give your world a unique flavor. Alternative divine magic systems might make for a good future post…
      I agree with the idea of not laying out the ‘truth’ to your players, but rather making them make decisions and assumptions based on their interactions with the world. That sort of mystery makes it, to me, feel more like religion, because you have to take certain things on faith.


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