Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Using Religion in Your Roleplaying

An individual's faith is a deeply personal choice, as is the way he or she decides to practice it. Some people are very quiet about their beliefs, not bringing them up in conversation or even making them a part of their common vernaculars. Other people display their faith subtly, perhaps by wearing a symbol to identify themselves or by saying a small, quiet prayer before they eat. Still other people make their religion very plain, following strict rules on dress, behavior, diet, and even about the kinds of people they can associate with according to their faith.

If you want to add an extra dimension to your roleplaying, consider your character's views on the divine.

The Gods Are Real

And they will give you things, if you ask properly.
Let's take the example of a fantasy roleplaying game like Pathfinder. In these games gods, spirits, and other forces are undeniably real. Clerics, paladins, druids, oracles, and others all draw power from the well of the divine. Not only that but those who have been resurrected have given testimony of the worlds beyond, and learned practitioners of the arcane can commune with any number of beings beyond the mortal, material realm.

So, the gods are real.

Take a moment and contemplate that for a moment. Think of a world where there was no question on the existence of gods. A world in which the gods and their servants could be seen, heard, felt, and where there was a better than even chance their mortal mouth-pieces were in fact giving the masses the straight dope on the divine. A world where the pious could perform miracles, where infernal and angelic bloodlines manifested in the populace, and where there was no possibility of it all being smoke and mirrors as a salve on troubled souls.

That's the kind of world your character exists in.

What Sort of Faith Did Your Character Grow Up In?

We do not smile in the graveyard. Pharasma will make our faces stick that way if we do.
Religion, whether by its presence or the lack thereof, shapes people. Just look at people in America. Catholics have saints as well as Jesus and Mary, and there are a hundred rituals and holy days to remember. Lutherans forego many of these things, though they practice ostensibly the same faith. Other religions, like Santeria, Voodoo, Asatru, Wicca, Hinduism and others all come with their own rules and regulations. Not being raised with a faith at all, or being raised in a way that doesn't expose you to a faith, also leaves a mark on a person. These are things that can cling for a lifetime in the form of warding gestures, turns of phrase, or little rituals from lighting candles for the departed to running fingers over a rosary when one is nervous.

So ask yourself what faith or faiths your character grew up with. Was he raised in an orphanage run by clerics of Asmodeus who taught about the contracts of society, and who instilled values of cleverness and power? Perhaps she was brought up in the country, and her father taught her all about nature, and how Erastil had given them a responsibility to support each other and to never take more than they need to live? Maybe your character was raised by wizards, who considered the divine a problem to be solved rather than an idea to be worshiped and followed?

Whatever your unique upbringing was, ask what bits of faith held tight and which fell by the wayside. Maybe it's the curses your character uses, the taboos she avoids, or something even deeper.

How Do You Pray?

Put on your knee pads girls, we're going to be here a while.
Every day clerics have to pray for their spells. This is the same kind of hour-long ritual that wizards and magi have to go through to access their magic for the day. Most players just tell their DM "I pray for spells," the DM nods, and the game continues on.

If you do this you're passing up a huge roleplaying opportunity.

Yes, the mechanical effects of praying for spells don't change from one cleric to another. Every cleric spends an hour at prayer, and as a result said cleric gets a certain number of spells for the day. But what does it look like?

Does a cleric of Gorum passively kneel and pray, or does he clean his armor and weapons to a mirror shine as he recites the tenets of the god of battle? Or does he stand without armor, in just a loincloth with naked steel in hand as he goes through combat forms that represent different spells? Does a cleric of Shelyn create art while praying, or does the cleric play music or dance as a way to create something beautiful as an offering? Does a cleric of Zon Kuthon cut herself, or run needles through her skin in certain patterns to get closer to the god of agony? Do the prayers change over time? Are more elaborate rituals required for those who are higher in power, which explains why they're granted more powerful magic?

This isn't just for clerics either. Any character who worships a god should have little rituals that make them more unique. Barbarians might offer a prayer at the beginning or end of a hunt to commemorate the activity. Rangers who track and kill undead might carve Pharasma's spiral on their arrowheads out of a totemic belief that they'll draw the restless dead home. Fighters who worship Cayden Cailean might offer the first toast to him after a successful adventure in thanks, or before embarking as a prayer for good luck.

When the gods could quite literally be on your side, it's important to make sure they know you're listening.

Monsters and Faith

Sixth level of the Abyss, how can we help you?
Even the most diverse games tend to be very human-heavy; let's face it a bonus feat and skill point are hard to say no to. However, it's important to remember that monstrous races all have their own gods as well. Elves, dwarves, giants, ogres, gnolls, and others all have gods they revere. The question players have to ask in these cases is did these monstrous characters leave their old faiths behind, or cling tight and go on adventures with their primordial patrons looking over their shoulders?

For some races the connection to the gods is even stronger. Tieflings and aasimar are the first that come to mind, but geniekin and others with the blood of powerful outsiders running through their veins are also important candidates for deeper questions. For instance, does a tiefling believe that he's damned simply because of his heritage? Could a lifetime of prejudice and scorn lead him to snap, deciding that he'll commit such atrocities that when he does go to hell they'll make him a duke for his troubles? Does an aasimar regard divine parentage as something more like an extended family than a god, leading them to treat those they're descended from with greater familiarity and less awe than they might otherwise command?

These are good questions to start with. How you answer them will depend on the kind of character you want to make.

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