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Religion Re-Envisioned in D&D 4E (Part I)

Recently, I have been DVR-ing the first season of “The Tudors” on BBC America, hosted by the winsomely adorable Lenora Critchlow from the British version of “Being Human”.  Anglophile that I am, I have to state that I can only accept one true version of “Being Human” by the way – I refuse to acknowledge the Americanized drivel that the SyFy channel is currently producing – but I digress.
god sistine chapel
And juxtaposed to my viewing of “Henrician” English-styled melodrama, I have been reading one of the Deryni novels by Katherine Kurtz called King Kelson’s Bride, which has been really quite good, and I am hoping finally ends well for the tragedy-plagued young King of Gwenydd.  Based upon the title, I am keeping my fingers crossed that the author will finally let the heroic Kelson find his queen and marital bliss.

Of course, being a Dungeon Master, one cannot watch a show like “The Tudors” or read a book like King Kelson’s Bride, and not be assessing the drama and action from a D&D perspective.  And one aspect, common to both book and TV show, jarred my thinking with respect to how I run my D&D campaigns:

Religions and churches seem to lack real temporal power as portrayed in Dungeons & Dragons.

Inseparable Church & State

Anyone familiar with European history knows that religion, and more specifically the Roman Catholic Church, played a vital political role in the lives of kings and commoners throughout the ages.  Wars and crusades, royal marriages and successions, and even the economy were all influenced by the proclamations of the Pontiff in Rome.  In “The Tudors”, the power-struggle between Henry and the Church is evident from the very first episode, culminating in the formation of the Anglican Church, all over his right to re-marry.  And in Kurtz’s Deryni series, the author pulls many aspects of the medieval power of religion to dictate law and policy with regard to almost all facets of life in Gwenydd – particularly with regard to persecuting Deryni for their “heretical powers”!

But in most D&D campaigns I have played in over the years, and even those that I have run myself, I do not recall ever experiencing religious political power on that magnitude, unless heroes were dealing with some evil demonic cult or church of an evil deity.  Most churches and temples in D&D cities tend to be portrayed as divine depots, filled with vials of holy water and potions of healing, ready to restock an adventurer as he sets out to fight the good fight.  Or perhaps they are envisioned as quiet monasteries, where one might carry back a diseased, poisoned, or deceased comrade-in-arms in the hopes of making them healthy and whole again before the next quest begins.

However, in many a D&D campaign, only rarely does a temple or church wield real political clout.  And in the few cases where it does, that religion is almost always an evil one, and the heroes are seeking to eradicate its influence from their city-state or kingdom.  But I am beginning to think that is a fairly narrow view of role-playing a church, temple or religious institution, casting it in dark role the minute it lays its hands on any major political power.

Ecclesiastically Queasy

I think that for many D&D Players and Dungeon Masters, adding to much religion and religious clout to a D&D campaign can feel somewhat uncomfortable.  While we might portray wizards, barbarians, and clerics in our spare time, we nevertheless live in a modern society, founded upon the precept a major precept of separation of church and state, so it can be hard to portray religions and temples having “undue” influence over a village, city, or kingdom.  But most D&D campaigns portray deities as capable of physical manifestation on many levels, from miracles to boons to outright incarnations of their divine presence, so it is hard to imagine that a church or temple will not wield at least some influence over the governing of a community, if not a whole kingdom.  Now some campaign settings have rules about deities who flex their near-limitless powers too often within the mortal sphere, but one has to wonder if those rules are put their more for the comfort of the DM and the Players than for any logical reason?

And for the most part, many of us D&D gamers live in societies that stress religious tolerance, which allows beliefs of all kinds to exist cheek-by-jowl with one another – and even alongside those who have no religious beliefs at all.  And in many D&D fantasy cities, temples and religions tend to get along with the same bonhomie that one might find amongst churches in almost any real-life town where we live.  But really how can this be, when even good-aligned gods represent differing and even near-polar opposite spheres of influence?

A Crusade… of sorts

And so having pondered these contradictions, I have been penning some ideas about how one might re-envision religion in D&D campaigns, to make them more potent “movers and shakers” in a medieval fantasy setting.  Not only do I think that having a more potent “Church Militant” will add a more pole-playing opportunities for both Player-Characters, but will also add new quests and plot “hooks” for Dungeon Masters to invigorate their campaigns.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Image from part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

About The Author

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.


5 Responses to “Religion Re-Envisioned in D&D 4E (Part I)”

  1. Jason Dawson says:

    Oh, I really like where you’re going with this. Please keep going. I’m percolating very similar things for my next game and my campaign world of Brittanis, so I’ll be following this eagerly.

  2. Dave says:

    One must be careful in transposing real history into gaming. Namely to be sure that you arew using the historical epoch correct for the feel of your game.

    Yes, for many centuries the Roman Catholic Church affected the politics of much of europe while the newer muslim sect took hold in parts of africa and arabia.

    However, in the time before Christ and Muhamad, organized religion held little control of politics. Individual temples sometimes held a vital role. Greek city-states sent officials to ask for divine guidance from the Oracle at Delphi and the king of Sparta withheld sending his whole army to face the invasion and instead took a delayed force to Thermopoli because of a divine holy week and a divine proclimation that a king would die.

    My point being that before the world became polarized with single, powerful religious organizations church and state were usually seperated. You can see this effect in Japan where local shinto beliefs have lived side by side with buddist beliefs for many centuries. Christianity moved there very late, and islam even later.

    The focal point is when a sect claims theirs is the only true god. They either triumph and recruit everyone or go under quickly.

    That being said, I have always had alliances of temples backing the various governments of my game worlds. Sometimes behind the scenes, and sometimes openly like in Port City where the Mitra priests and holy warriors have police powers within the city limits.

    In fact, I am an old sc hool guy that believes in different gods for different races. Thus I have ejected the official 4E gods for the pantheons from my original campaign I ported over from a different game system. Each gnome clan has two primary dieties they worship and changing one out is a big deal. Who they worship affects their relations with the outside world. The elevs have a pantheon of gods but one main “church” (the Twilight Order). Elven clergy are dedicated to all their gods until they reach paragon status and decide they want to dedicate the rest of their life to only one specific elf god. Dwarves and humans tend to pick from a list, each region having favorites and there is some overlap. Werne (my halflings) have a monothestic church and “one true werne god” the Mother Light but have four powerful lesser gods called Celestial Saints so in truth they kinda have a pantheon.

    My current group of players has no religious types at all. Maybe they wanted to avoid the temple politics I often slip into the campaigns. I wonder if that should be a hint to me in some fashion….

  3. You bring up some very good points, and I’ll agree one should not necessarily try to interpret too much historical religious context into a D&D game. But I do think that GMs have a tendency (myself included) to treat religion and religious influences toward politics in much the same way in their campaign as we do in our modern society. I hope in this series of blogs to address ways to offer a different fantasy gaming take on religion, temples, the priesthood and so forth, which might make for a more interesting campaign environment.

  4. [...] pitched at a D&D 4e audience, Neuroglyph Games’ intriguing look at religion (beginning here and here) can easily apply to any fantasy [...]

  5. Dave says:

    I agree that there is a tendency to set our modern morals and sensibilities into our game worlds without even realizing it many times..


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