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Religion Re-Envisioned in D&D (Part II): Temples in Conflict

This here town’s not big enough for the both of us…

The term Church Militant is an old classification by the Roman Catholic Church to describe all those living souls here on earth, striving to attain heaven by struggling against the temptations of evil and sin.  But at its fundamental meaning, it also could be said to be the more combative nature to churches and religions, as they compete with each other for influence and power.  It is a good starting place for this next installment of re-envisioning the role of religion in D&D, by taking a look at why religions in a fantasy campaign setting might be at odds, and how they might oppose each other.
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In this series on Re-Envisioning Religion in D&D, I want to explore possible ways that Dungeon Masters can make religions and religious organizations such as temples and shrines wield more temporal influence in their fantasy worlds.  Just as our own world history shows, religions can often have power over political and economic forces in a town, city-state, or whole kingdom.

Plundering for Souls & Gold

Throughout the various editions of D&D, when one looks at the various cosmologies, a common thread emerges regarding how the immortal powers view the mortal soul – as a form of currency and a source of power.  Gods, demons, devils, and other immortal entities are often portrayed in an eternal power struggle out on the Astral Planes and in the Planes Below.  And what provides the power for those near-omnipotent beings to continue their struggle for dominance comes down to the devotional energy of the mortal souls who worship them.

Given that many D&D campaigns are based upon this premise, it would seem likely there might be a certain amount of competitiveness between temples and churches in almost any urban center, whether in a tiny village or a bustling city-state metropolis.  After all, if more locals are visiting the Shrine of X rather than visiting the Fane of Y, clearly this is not going to make Y very pleased at all.

And beyond that, temples require a certain amount of gold for upkeep of the grounds and for the priesthood who maintains it.  So not only is there a spiritual competition going on between temples for what might be called “soul cred”, but there is also a very real economic struggle between religions for hard currency.

In fact, from “Old Testament” times to the Middle Ages, every family was expected to tithe to the church or temple, which literally means giving up “one-tenth” of their crops or their crafts to the local religious organization.  Assuming that a similar practice occurs in a fantasy campaign setting, this would represent a staggering amount of material wealth being fought over by the various religions hosting temples in the local “point of light”.

Tyrannical Temples

Meister_von_San_Vitale_in_Ravenna_003In some rare cases, campaigns settings have been known to have a whole theocratic state as one of the lands where adventurers might visit.  In the Greyhawk Campaign setting, there was the Theocracy of the Pale ruled by the priesthood of Pholtus, and Forgotten Realms hosted the kingdom of Mulhorand dominated by the church of Horus-Re… at least until 4E, when it was wiped out by the Spellplague!  In theocratic nations, one religion (or possible a single pantheon) wields near complete political control over the peoples living there, and other religions would likely be shunned, if not openly persecuted, for daring to build a shrine or temple there.

But for Dungeon Masters uncomfortable with introducing a massive theocracy to their campaign world, it is still possible for this sort of political power to affect adventurers – but on a smaller scale.  It was not unheard of for a king to sponsor the building of a monastery or cathedral in a village or small town – usually to expiate some sin or minor crime – and then set the religious leaders, such as Abbots and Bishops, to be in charge of the community.

So even in a secular fantasy kingdom, it might be possible to find villages and small towns being run not by some mayor or baron, but by the priesthood of the local temple.  And even while the local religion-in-charge might be good or lawful good in alignment, it is unlikely that it would be too happy to have another god’s temple or shrine building in the area.

Possible Adventure “Hooks”:  Adventurers might find themselves running into trouble with the local church-government for enacting miracles in the presence of the public, if they happen to worship a different deity.  Or perhaps an adventuring paladin or priest (or even shaman or druid) might be called upon by their deity to assist in building a temple in a town where the established religious order is fighting to keep the new religion out.  Or conversely, more mercenary (neural aligned) characters might be hired by a local church-government to sabotage the consecration of an invading temple – although this sort of mission is more likely to be offered by a neutral or evil religion.

Law & Order: Special Holy Unit

In larger town and cities of a secular fantasy kingdom, it is less likely that the entire government would be controlled from a single temple or monastery.  The cosmopolitan nature of the great D&D fantasy cities like Greyhawk, Waterdeep, Baldur’s Gate, and Stormreach, have created a precedent which precludes a single god’s temple or priesthood from taking complete control and calling the shots.  However, for Dungeon Masters wanting to add a more overt religious element to their campaign metropolises without tipping over into theocracy, there are some ways a religion can insinuate itself into the power structure of the city.

crusadersAs one of my Readers suggested in response to Religion Re-Envisioned in D&D 4E (Part I), a city government might allow some god’s paladins to “have police powers” to act accordingly against lawbreakers in certain districts.  This runs parallel to my idea for temples to gain a not-insubstantial amount of political clout by sponsoring their paladins to act as sheriffs or officers within the city guard, or even as high-ranking officials, such as Marshalls or Generals, for a city-state’s militia.  This would place powerful religious leaders in high ranking secular positions throughout the city, and would allow that god’s temple to bring a certain amount of influence to bear on political, social, and military aspects of that “point of light”.

In some cases, temples might sponsor an order of knighthood, which would not involve martial clerics and paladins, but adventurers, and even the local nobility.  An order of knighthood, sanctioned by a god, would put a temple in a position to influence a wide variety of powerful heroes and nobles, as well as a city’s military arm.

As most priesthoods would have access to the Discern Lies ritual (PHB), it would not be surprising for city leaders to hire clerics and paladins to act as investigators, inquisitors, or even judges, granting some religions a powerful grasp on the legal system and the criminal justice system.  Even for those fantasy cities wise enough to strive to keep a separate church and state, it would still be likely that there would be an ecclesiastical court system set up to handle certain crimes committed by clerics, cultists, and other religious offenders.

And even if a god’s clerics and paladins are not granted access to law and order in a city, there are still other in-roads to gain secular influence.  Throughout history, priests were known for their scribal and record-keeping capabilities.  In fact, the modern word clerical, referring to office work, has its roots in the fact that clergy were the office workers of the medieval ages – mainly because they were the only folks capable of reading and writing!

But a Dungeon Master might decide that bureaucratic functions of a city, such as tax-rolls, census, and other book-keeping might be handled by scribal priests of one temple or another.  This would still place representatives of a deity in positions of secular influence, and give them control of the flow of information in a medieval fantasy metropolis.

Possible Adventure “Hooks”:  In cities where paladins and clerics act as “law & order”, characters might easily find themselves on the wrong side of a dispute and find themselves opposed by a powerful temple’s followers.  Or a paladin or cleric character might be called upon by their temple to serve a stint as a city guard officer, an investigator, or judge, depending on his comrades to assist him in fighting the criminals at large.  Or for the more intrigue driven adventures, priestly bureaucrats might uncover a conspiracy in the course of their “parchment pushing” daily routine, and call upon adventurers to unravel the plot before dire consequences befall their town.

So whether a Dungeon Master chooses to have a full-fledged theocratic state, or a religious fiefdom, or to simply have temples exerting influence through a cities legal and bureaucratic channels, there are many ways to increase the political clout of a religion upon a fantasy campaign setting.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

As a DM, what sort of influences do you have your religions exert in the campaign world?  If a player, does you DM handle religious power with a velvet glove or an iron gauntlet in your adventures?  As always, your feedback and comments are most welcome!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

Comments

One Response to “Religion Re-Envisioned in D&D (Part II): Temples in Conflict

  1. Swordgleam says:

    After running a 4e game with gods that speak directly to their followers on a regular basis, I don’t think I can ever go back.

    The party’s divine characters had “divine favor points” that they would get by going above and beyond in the service of their god – converting another party member, building a temple, etc. These could be redeemed for miracles on demand. They could go into negatives with the points, but that meant that they were compelled to do anything their god asked until they were back into the positive – a situation neither of the divine characters wanted to contemplate.

    There ended up being a lot of sideplots that revolved around religion, and a few great pivotal moments as well. The party’s paladin was the same religion as the paladin leading a tribe of hostile goblins, so he challenged her to single combat on the grounds that he was the rightful avatar of their god’s power. Definitely a memorable scene.

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