Inkwell Ideas Role playing game tools and articles Home General Tips Cartography Player Advice GM Advice Worldbuilding Misc. Meta/Contact Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide by Joe Wetzel (joewetzel at gmail dot com) [If you like this article, check out the other Worldbuilding articles on this website, particularly the  Local  Area Desi gn and the Hex Map GIMP Brushes  (about drawing hex maps) articles.] Depending on your campaign setting idea, in the early stages you may only need a bare minim um of details about your religion. In cases like these make sure you flesh out any particular deit ies you need (for exampl e

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Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide

by Joe Wetzel (joewetzel at gmail dot com)

[If you like this article, check out the other Worldbuilding articles on this website, particularly the  Local Area Design and the Hex Map GIMP Brushes (about drawing hex maps) articles.]

Depending on your campaign setting idea, in the early stages you may only need a bare minimum of detailsabout your religion. In cases like these make sure you flesh out any particular deities you need (for example

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if a character is a Cleric or Paladin describe that god in at least bullet points and note any needed gamestatistics or mechanics such as the god’s domains) and build up the religion later when it is needed or whenyou have an intriguing idea. This also gives you an opportunity to see how the players react to yourreligion’s skeleton and build on what they like and what is important to your evolving setting and story.

But if religion, gods, or a pantheon is a key aspect of yourcampaign setting idea, you’ll want to work it up in detailearly during your fantasy world’s development.

Creating a fantasy religion can be as long and detailed taskas you want. After all, tens or hundreds of millions of people participate in the real world’s most popular religionsand many of those people are teaching, writing and addingto the religion in different ways.

Religion can provide another venue for conflict and dramain your game world. Detailing your world’s religions to anydegree adds that same degree of depth to your world for amore rewarding experience.

Multiple Religions?

Many fantasy worlds have one pantheon of gods thatinteract with each other. While people may follow one godthey believe all the others exist as well. Followers of areligion with a pantheon of gods would hold one god whosedomain most directly impacted their lives in higher esteem, but they would also pay respect to the other godespecially as circumstances merited the respect. A trader might hold a god of travel or trade above the othergods of the pantheon, but he would certainly pay the god of fertility respect when a child was born or evenask a favor from a god of trickery if he was dishonest. Due to a god’s domains (fertility, travel, trickery, etc.some “evil” gods may gain some influence and power from non-evil followers. The personality and goals othe god may be independent of the god’s domains from the perspective of the people.

In the real world multiple pantheons of god(s) exist (evenat the same time) and monotheistic and atheistic (heremeaning a belief in a religious philosophy) religions existas well. Depending on the specific culture and religion,followers of various religions may or may not believe godsfrom other pantheons are real or in the case of monotheistic and atheistic religions people do not believe

any other gods are real. The Christian God is quoted assaying “put no other gods before me” which may implythat his followers may still believe in other gods as long asthey put him first. The Romans were well-known to adoptmany gods from the places they conquered. Despite thesefacts, there are also many cases where active wars werefought over one group disbelieving another group’sreligion.

The notion of multiple pantheons often gets overlooked in fantasy games or relegated to simply the elveshave a few different gods as do the dwarves, etc. But throughout history many pantheons have existed at the

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game world) into your own game world. However, unless you want to run an alternate history campaign orhave an explanation using the same gods with the same names as a real world religion might be jarring forplayers interested in a fantasy experience. Further you may want to search for resources (a good book on thereligion/mythology you are borrowing or a detailed on-line resource) to help you better understand themotivations and personalities of the gods or people who are part of the chosen religion.

If you already have a religious concept in mind that is key to your game world keep that in mind as youconsider these next decisions. Also, you should have some basic ideas about the culture behind this religion

as the culture should influence some of your religion design decisions. (A seafaring culture will hold a watergod in high esteem or it may have multiple gods with influence over water for example. A culture with aharsh climate may have harsh gods. Etc.)

The first thing to consider is the size of the religion with respect to the number of gods. As mentioned abovethere are reasons a religion might have just one or even no gods. However if you are going to have apantheon of gods and if it is going to be the “Universal” religion for the world consider keeping thepantheon on the large side. Or at least make sure the rest of your religion’s concept is expandable. A largepantheon would be few (2-6) major gods, (3-8) several intermediate gods, and many lesser and demi-gods(3-10 of each). But even if your religion is monotheistic, there may be a number of prominent heralds andleaders under the god such as Angels, Prophets, and Saints. Consider putting some time into designing these

if it will add depth and prove useful to your game.

Another factor to consider is how is the religion organized. World Builder’s Guidebook gives several ideas:

Family: The gods are an extended family with roles and friction based on their status in the family.Racial: Each major race’s key feature is embodied by a god. (The Dwarven god might representStrength, the Elven god might represent beauty, etc.)Elemental: Each god represents an element (air, fire, etc.) or quasi-element (lighting, tornadoes, etc.)Celestial: Each god is a constellation in the sky.Heroes: The pantheon is made of mortals who were somehow elevated to god-status.Natural: The gods represent natural things such as the sky and mountains or a number of plants or a

number of animals etc.Stewards: The gods are themselves creations of a higher power given stewardship over the world.Bureaucracy: Each deity is a department in a large bureaucracy responsible for managing the world.Mixed: A combination of the other ways the religion is organized.

A few others ways religions could be organized:

Object: The religions is organized based on an object. The religion in the Rose of the Prophet booksby Weis and Hickman was organized like a d20. Each god had his own side of the d20 and eachedge or point was a domain such as Love, War, etc. A chess board is used as an example in acompanion article here.

Idea or intangible object: Perhaps each god’s name starts with a different letter of the culture’salphabet or the religion is based on a single idea with different sub-religions based on differentinterpretations of the religion.

The next factor to decide is how involved is the religion. While any religion should have some daily impacton its followers, this factor concerns how active are the deities in the lives of mortals. They may becompletely oblivious to the lives of mortals because they have other concerns or they have a mutualagreement between each other to keep out of mortal affairs entirely. Or maybe the deities may severelyrestrict their involvement with mortals for some reason. Moving up the scale, perhaps the deities have someinvolvement with mortals when they aren’t too busy and some mortals may gain their favor but the gods

only take an active role when necessary. On the other hand, the deities may be very active with mortals.

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They may use mortals and wars between mortals as proxies for their own battles. They may frequentlyanswer their followers’ prayers by granting favors and expecting sacrifices.

Nature of the Gods

Another factor to consider is what are the gods? Are theyelemental forces, animals, spirits, or human (or humanoidsince this is for a fantasy setting) beings with great powers

(and maybe or maybe not humanoid failings.) While the vastmajority of fantasy religions are personifications (based onhuman beings) the other possibilities may be a good fit foryour campaign and may make your setting a little moredifferent from others.

The nature of the gods is also impacted by their power level.Are they omnipotent or are there things they can not do?Where does this power come from?

While omnipotence may make sense for some religions and

fantasy settings, drama comes from conflict and conflict isdifficult if one side is all-powerful. Therefore the vastmajority of gods in fantasy settings have a power level that is between omnipotence and the highestcharacter levels.

Often the strength of a religion is proportional to the number and devoutness of the religion’s followers(including the religion’s leaders.) In other cases a deity’s strength might be related to his relationship withthe other gods (whether that is predetermined as the first son of a father-god or changes as a god buildsinfluence among his peers) or be based on the desires of a very small number of ancestor gods. Otherexplanations are also certainly possible.

In any case deities are often restricted in how they may interact with mortals. Therefore they may workthrough avatars which embody themselves in the world of mortals or through priests and other religiousorders. The deities often try to spread their religion through these mortals when they can not take directactions. Depending on the god, the religion may be spread through: conquest, proselytizing, increasing thepopulation, answering prayers, calamities, or beneficial works.


Finally we can get to the point of assigning domains to the religion. As we begin to assign domains, keep inmind that while a god may have a focus certain domains, he or she is still a god and has some amount of 

power over everything. A ship passenger’s prayer for a safe voyage may just as likely be answered bywhichever god he normally worships as it may be answered by a “sea god.” But depending on the religionand the person, a ship passenger may be more likely to think of praying to the sea god in this circumstanceas he is to think of another god. Also depending on your religion while all gods may have some power togrant a safe voyage the sea god’s power may be a little or a lot more.

If the religion has one god or no gods, it may be best to choose several domains that the religionemphasizes. As mentioned above perhaps the one religion has several sub-religions with different domains(points of emphasis) and priests may be part of any sub-religion. Example domains are:

Elemental: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Lightning/Thunder.

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Natural: Animal, Plant, Sun, Moon, Oceans, Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter),Sky/Winds, Dawn/DuskAlignment: Chaos, Evil, Good, Law, NeutralityConceptual: Death, Destruction, Healing, Knowledge, Love, Luck, Magic, Music, Protection,Strength, Time, Trade, Travel, Trickery, War, Wisdom

When assigning these domains to your gods or religious aspects, try to have a reason why each god haseach domain. Sometimes this may be obvious (a god of Death and Winter) but sometimes having no

obvious reason can lead to a good story now or later. Ray Winninger has two key laws in his“Dungeoncraft” articles: #1 Never force yourself to create more than you need. #2 Whenever you fill in amajor piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece. #3 and #4 don’tdirectly relate to worldbuilding. A good addition as #2.5 might be “Some of the best background storiescome from explaining something that isn’t obvious in your campaign world.”

In that spirit, go ahead and pencil in a god’s domains as Death, War, and Love. Then within a few bulletpoints try to come up with a reason for those domains. If you can, it will very likely be interesting. If youcan’t try it again with a different mix of domains.

You may wish to experiment with this exercise a few times to get a set of domain groupings that is

appropriate for the religion and culture you are developing.

Based on the assignment of domains, the religion/gods can now start coming to life. Again, if you had acomprehensive concept for your religion in mind refer back to it to make sure the religion that you createwill work with ideas you had.

Myths & Mannerisms

As noted above the primary purposes of religion is toexplain the unexplainable and to provide meaning andpurpose. In a world with little science the people will usereligion to explain their world. The most important of thesestories is why or how was the world created? Someexamples are:

There was only chaos until the gods tricked the forcesof chaos to create the world.A mother-god existed and wished to have pets to lookafter, therefore she created the world and all creatureson the world.The world is a large flat canvas drawn by the gods.

But other divine myths exist describing the gods’accomplishments and emotions and interactions amongthemselves. The mannerisms of your deities may be basedon the domains and each deity’s position in the pantheon.But their mannerisms may also be influenced by simplywhatever will make a good story. Some examples of thesestories are:

Hades’ entrapment of Persephone causing fall and winter.The constant trickery of Loki in the Norse Pantheon.

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The creation of Medusa and Minotaur and other creatures.

Then there are sagas where the gods play a periphery or behind the scenes role, and mortals are the maincharacters:

Noah rescuing two of each animal during the 40 days flood.The trials of Heracles by Hera.Prometheus stealing the secret of fire from the gods.

Let your imagination run wild with these stories. Each religion can have its own, and a religion may evenhave more than one. On the other hand, don’t spend a lot of time on these stories unless they will have adirect impact on the game or you simply enjoy the mental exercise. However, having a couple of thesestories for each deity you need to develop at the beginning of your campaign will help you to know who thedeity is when making decisions about how the deities relate to each other and how their followers worshipthem.

When borrowing from real world religions or just pieces of them it is important to consider how being afantasy game impacts the religion. For example, the Christian bible has two creation stories. You wouldhave to develop a good reason why people might believe both in a fantasy world where high priests

communicate with the god in question. Furthermore, a key feature of fantasy settings, magic, may impactthe game world’s religions. What is the source of magical energy? Is there some contention between priestsand mages? These may be important questions in a fantasy world.

Religion and Game Rules

Now that you have some notes for a given god in your religion you can turn your attention to possiblytweaking your fantasy game’s rules for the followers of that god or religion. Some game systems haveclasses while others do not have classes, but they still allow characters to pick individual skills and abilities.To add color and depth to you game, you should consider customizing your religion related classes(paladins, clerics, priests, druids, monks etc.) or character abilities based on the character’s chosen abilities.

These customizations can be minor ones that have no impact on the game such as the character’s holysymbol, the color of any energy released during a prayer, etc. Or you can change the character’s abilities tobetter fit the religion. For example, if the deity is known to wield a particular weapon, such as a sea-godwith a trident, the deities followers should be allowed to use that weapon despite other restrictions. Perhapsa fire-god would allow a priest to swap a given prepared prayer for a similar strength (level) fire basedprayer.

Note that the game is generally balanced and depending on the strength of the ability you are grantingfollowers of the god you need to remove or reduce some other ability. For example a healing god may grantmore effective healing spells, but this change should be matched by a similar in scope change to the priest’sfighting skills. A nature god may grant extra spells related to nature, but eliminate some spells that are notrelated to nature.

Sometimes a new ability can be abused in unforeseen ways. In these circumstances work it out with theplayer to reduce the ability or develop an in game reason to lower the effect. Perhaps the ability should havea limited number of uses per day or per encounter. Perhaps the god feels the ability is being abused and haslowered its effectiveness and will increase it as the character becomes more powerful.

In the past a great deal of attention was payed to a deity’s and his followers alignments matching. As statedabove these should instead be treated as largely independent because people may pick a deity based mostly

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on the deity’s domains or some other factor. Instead of limiting a person’s choice of a favored god based onalignment, each follower’s alignment can impact how he interprets that god’s actions to a large degree. Thefollower can disbelieve some of the god’s actions or interpret them in ways that most closely match thefollower’s alignment. This is a relative concept however because it would be very hard (and thereforerequire a great story) to explain how a god who is very evil may be worshiped by people who are basicallygood.

If a character’s alignment doesn’t match his god’s alignment he may be asked to do things outside of his

comfort area. This is another excellent source for good drama. This drama can largely be satisfied bycompromises or explanations, but in some cases where one side or the other is steadfast there may be someconsequences that impact the character in particular.

Color and Depth

In addition to class or ability changes, a fully formed fantasy religion needs to provide several other things toprovide the campaign setting with color and depth. This is another place where your imagination could runwild, but you should temper that instinct due to time restrictions and because it may be good to add moredetails later.

Below are several factors to consider that will add color and depth:

Holidays: These should be celebrations of the religion’s important events. They may have manyvarying rituals and reasons.Organization: This point addresses how are the religion or deity’s followers organized. In some cases(particularly for lawful deities) it may be important to have a strict hierarchy. In other cases ahierarchy except in the loosest sense would be inappropriate as in the case of some nature gods.Another possibility is that the religion is fractured where there are many different groups that allworship the same religion or deity, but they have different approaches or conflicts over portions of scripture.Worship places: The religion needs to have a place to worship, places for the religious leaders andsome followers to live and work and other buildings and structures to make their presence known.These may take the form of simple churches, ornate basilicas or mosques or temples, hiddenmonasteries, roadside shrines or prominent statues. Depending on the religion’s popularity in a givenarea these structures may be frequent reminders or perhaps there is nothing in the area.Worship services: How and when and where do the followers worship a god or gods in the religion?Do they meet at a church once a week? Do they have to perform a private prayer several times a day?Are the services centered around a sacrifice or singing or dutiful recitation of some sacred scriptures?Obligations: What must the religion’s followers and especially its leaders do? There may be someregular, daily requirements such as reading a scripture each day or never eating a forbidden food.There may be less frequent requirements such as performing service to others one day each week or

month or one week each year. There may be annual obligations such as fasting for a period of time inrecognition or sacrifice of some religious event or undergoing some missionary service. Missionaryservice may also be required for an extended period of time at one point during a person’s lifetime.Visiting a sacred place is another possible once in a lifetime obligation.Rituals: Birth, Marriage, and Death are often marked by religious ceremonies. What are theseceremonies like in the religion you are creating?Worshipers: Based on the domains the religion influences and the religion’s nature so far, who wouldbe part of this religion or worship each god in the pantheon? For example, if the god’s domains arewater and travel, obviously sailors will likely worship the god. How will this impact the religion?Many of the god’s priests will have skills related to sailing. Many of the god’s temples will be nearthe docks of port cities. The religion may be spread throughout a large area. Etc.

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This extensive article should give you a comprehensive start to creating religions in your game world. Whileconsidering each point will lead to a religion with a great deal of depth, remember Dungeoncraft rule #1:Never force yourself to create more than you need.

That said, a custom religion provides an excellent way to add a great deal of color and depth to your gameworld which will help make your campaign memorable. The religion design choices to make are endless,

but the text above describes the major options available for the major design choices. Based on the choicesyou make, you can dive in to as much additional detail as you need or want to create.

See also: Creating an example religion based on these guidelines and considerations.

Text Copyright 2008, Inkwell Ideas Inc.

References/Further Reading:

“Down to Earth Divinity” by Ed Greenwood, Dragon magazine #56, TSR.“So Many Gods So Little Time” by Andrew C. Gronoshy, Dragon magazine #140, TSR.

“Dungeoncraft” by Ray Winninger, Dragon magazine #258, Wizards of the Coast.“Do-It-Yourself Deities” by Stephen Kenson, Dragon magazine #283, Wizards of the Coast.“Dungeoncraft” by Ray Winninger, Dragon magazine #283, Wizards of the Coast.“Dungeoncraft” by Ray Winninger, Dragon magazine #284, Wizards of the Coast.World Builder’s Guidebook by Richard Baker, TSR 1996.Wikipedia’s History of Religion has a comprehensive list of real world religions through time anddetailed articles about each religion.

11 Responses

1. Worldbuilding: Religion Design » Inkwell Ideas - February 18, 2008

[...] Worldbuilding: Religion Design [...]

2. Ben - February 20, 2008

Wow Joe this is not a blog post its a paper!

Actually I like the way you broke it down from macro to micro and by categories. I rarely make suchin depth considerations when creating a world but I am rethinking that now. Organic definition iswhat I generally rely on.

3. Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Example » Inkwell Ideas - February 23, 2008

[...] through the Fantasy Religion Design Guide, our first step is to decide on the scope of religions onthe world we are creating. For the [...]

4. Worldbuilding: Local Area Design » Inkwell Ideas - March 5, 2008

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[...] other concept first or in depth and in tandem with the local area. An article is available here ondesigning fantasy religions and an example is also [...]

5. James - June 16, 2008

Actually a very brilliant article, and quite useful.

I have to disagree with one point you made: it is fairly easy to explain a Good person worshiping,even being a CLERIC of an evil god: Reversed Spells and Appeasements.

For example, you might have an order of “Physicians” who serve the God of Disease, “Khelios.”Khelios hates humans with a rank passion and is always trying to torture and destroy them. ThePhysicians work tirelessly to appease him with their surgeries and purgatives. Occasionally he relentsand allows them to destroy an entire class of Disease (such as Polio). (Same with “the lord of theflies”, a volcano god, a God of storms, etc.)

For the other extreme, we have a Spider Goddess who was originally worshiped by hunters and

trappers. (IMC- in my campaign.) When a group of her worshippers were driven underground, theybecame bitter and began praying to her for vengeance, for the power to trap their enemies and, finallyeach other. IMC There are still hunter-gatherers who worship her good side…and generally have noidea why humans run screaming from them. Most scholars looking at this consider her somewhatinsane.

6. Istahn - August 22, 2008

Personally, I skirt around the issue of “good worshipping evil” and things of that nature by making all

the gods in my campaign’s pantheon above alignment. I tend to think that a divine being would existin a state of consciousness far beyond simple mortal moral concepts. In this fashion I’m making thevarious worshipper cultures the good or evil of a god. Like in the above example, good-willedhunters or evil drow might worship a spider goddess (or in my campaign, a god of beasts) and evencall the same god different names. Their cleric powers are essentially the same, but theimplementation of those powers will be radically different. One person uses a rope to help someoneout of a well, another one uses it to strangle someone. In either case the rope itself has no moral code.I use gods in much the same fashion.

I also tend to cross “spheres”. My elder gods each have several spheres. The fire god is also the sungod and the god of summer. The earth god is also spring and the mortal realm. The ice god is also the

god of darkness (whom flees from and chases the sun god’s fiery chariot, his star-riddled black cloaktrailing behind him) and winter. The wind goddess is also goddess of the moon and autumn. In thisway the spheres of the individual gods have things that I feel make sense for them but their spheresare broad enough to not be pinned to a moral force.

Leave the morals to the mortals, just like in the real world.

7. Flavoring a Game World with Religion » Inkwell Ideas - November 7, 2008

[...] which is something I’ve thought about before. I won’t rehash those articles. One describesdesigning religions for game worlds and another walks through a couple of examples. Instead, the

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focus here is how to make a game [...]

8. 10 Ways to Vary Your Game World’s Cultures » Inkwell Ideas - July 31, 2009

[...] Religion: One key attribute of a culture is the religion of the people. If a religion has a pantheonof gods, people in that same culture may worship different gods. But generally a culture will not haveactive followers of multiple separate religions. (More on designing a fantasy game religion.) [...]

9. religion in fantasy novels « helluo librorum - September 24, 2009

[...] Wetzel at Inkwell Ideas has a great article with Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide,and a subsequent post, Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Example. These are really handy if [...]

10. Geoffrey Sears - June 7, 2010

I am becoming a regular to your site because of articles like this, and your hexographer tool. Ihonestly have been inventing pretenses to design worlds just so I can use the articles and tools youprovide.

You also, because of two references I think I read from you, caused me to dig out my copy of “worldBuilder’s Guidebook” which has survived two Ebay book purges. I just couldn’t let it go.

If only I could find enough time and gamers to fill the void populated with worlds left static….

Thank you for your continued contributions to the community. They are appreciated.

11. AD&D Grognard - November 18, 2010

Excellent article. I noticed a few things in the References/Further Reading section:

The “Down to Earth Divinity” is in Dragon #54 (I thought I knew those issues fairly well and itcaught my eye)

There are 2 earlier pieces in Dragon:

“Choir Practice at the First Church of Lawful Evil (Orthodox) the Ramifications of Alignment” #24

“Of the Gods” #29

And #142 has “Made-To-Order-Clerical Orders”

I know there are a few more and I’ve been amazed that something that plays such a big role in thegame has such little coverage (trust me, I have been hunting high and low) so this article was

GREATLY appreciated.

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