When I was a kid, one of my favorite reads was Bullfinch’s Age of Fable. And when I got into D&D, I found the pantheons very familiar. There’s a god of this and a god of that, and sometimes the gods meddle for you and sometimes the gods meddle against you.
But the flavor … well, the flavor felt very very vanilla.
Same thing with my first attempts at world-building. Why? What was I missing? Why were my made-up religions not interesting?
I’m now thinking I got it wrong. I started, as I guess many other world-builders have done, by creating the mythology first. Which isn’t bad for a story, but not quite as useful for a game. It’s better to forget about the gods, and instead focus on what religion does to your world’s people.
Insight #1: Mythology is of limited use to your players. Stories of the gods and of the world’s origins are there to back up and serve as the skeleton of your world design, but unless they really matter in play your players won’t have much to do with them.
A good example here is the system for magic items in Earthdawn. To unlock an item’s powers, you must discover aspects of its legend and do certain things as dictated by that legend.
Another example is the Glorantha setting in its various incarnations, where ‘heroquesting,’ a rite/ordeal that strives to emulate/re-enact the deeds of the gods, is a major way of gaining magical gifts.
Insight #2: Religions must shape way of life. I looked back at the F&SF stories where the religion mattered, and found that the common thread in all of them was that the religions dictated certain aspects of life – beliefs, behaviors and attitudes – that affected the main characters.
I’m sure, if you’re a D&D old-timer, that you also remember when the gods never mattered to an adventuring party save when your cleric needed something or when a god opposed them. If you’ve ever been to Asia, though, you’ll know there’s far more to belief than that. And that there can be a whole lot of diversity in what people will believe, and what they’ll do for it.
Here’s a good place to insert oddities and story hooks into your world. What’s forbidden for religious reasons? What’s considered bad manners or bad luck for same? Think of something that your players would normally take for granted, such as cats being beloved pets, and twist that.
In China and Japan, you shouldn’t give gifts in sets of four because the number four is bad luck; the word for it sounds too much like the word for death.
In a Victorian-era game I ran set in Afghanistan, an Englishwoman PC in disguise was found out because she’d asked for lunch during Ramadan, a time when every Afghan was fasting during daytime.
Insight #3: Religion provides motivation. This extends far beyond kooky cults trying to awaken sleeping alien gods! Indeed, we need to get away from the trap of religion mattering only when it’s taken to extremes. Nope, if your character is part of a world, then that world’s religion should have a good reason to be part of your character’s motivations.
In my own Hari Ragat, for example, I underpinned the quest for glory with the concept of the afterlife and its accompanying practice of ancestor worship. Only by dying with great renown will you be assured of ascending to full Anito status, which assures a stream of offerings by your descendants that will sustain you in the afterlife.
Insight #4: Religion exists because people have needs and fears. Religious beliefs and practices are there to comfort, calm the people’s fears, and to reinforce a society’s values. Therefore a religion that developed within a particular setting should answer the concerns of the people there*.
Case in point: in the very volcanic islands of Hawaii, the volcano goddess Pele was of major importance. Same with the volcano goddess Lalahon, who was particularly associated with Mount Kanlaon on the island of Negros in my own country.
What creatures do the people fear? What natural forces? For example, there’s no lion god, nor any god with the aspect of a lion, in Hari Ragat: ain’t no lions in these islands! Crocodiles however have mythic significance, because they’re the big bad threat of nature present.
Again, the concept of the afterlife plays a very large part in this. What is the afterlife? What’s the desired state in the afterlife and how do you reach it? If I do something wrong, how do I make it right? Quite a few of the world’s grandest religious edifices were sponsored by penitents. For example, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka took it upon himself to spread Buddhism in penance for the carnage he caused in a war with the Kalinga kingdom.
Or, preparations for the afterlife can be seen as a means to perpetuate and project glory, as seen in the pyramids of the Pharaohs in Egypt. On the other end of the scale there are religions that treat the dead very simply because their belief in the afterlife is very different. Some Tibetan Buddhists expose corpses and even let them be consumed by scavengers, firm in the belief that with rebirth, the old body is best returned to the elements and the circle of life.
Insight #5: Design the rites of passage. Since I’ve been spouting about funerary practices already, let’s dive into another way to spice up your setting’s religion and make it feel more real: its rites of passage.
Most of the world’s religions celebrate at least four great life transitions: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. What are the symbolisms associated with these? How are they observed? What are the associated superstitions? Why should they matter in a game? Because I want my games to immerse players in a living, breathing world – and that means a society, and unless it’s a society of immortal sterile asexual elves, there will be births, deaths and weddings. And because characters in the games I like are not nameless, rootless hobos, but heroes of their people who have a definite place in the world.
All these insights will be reflected in Hari Ragat, which I want to be as immersive and engaging a world as Tekumel or the Britain of King Arthur Pendragon.
*What if the people follow a religion that didn’t originate with themselves? This can be an interesting thread to follow too. The religion should still offer something that the people want, but it can also be disjointed in some ways from local needs. For example, what if a people were converted to a religion that does away with the ancient gods of the land, resulting in a far more exploitative attitude toward the wilderness? What happens to the environment?