Most fantasy RPGs feature a variety of gods, and those gods tend to play a prominent role in the world. There’s a spectrum, of course, ranging from settings where the gods are in the background to worlds like the Forgotten Realms — where, in the form of their avatars, the gods literally walk the earth.
Either way, though, assuming a pseudo-medieval baseline, the gods are generally pretty important — and by extension, they should be important to the PCs. The problem is that in my experience, this is rarely the case.
I don’t think this is a sticky wicket because of potential issues revolving around real-world religious beliefs — in twenty years of gaming, I’ve never seen that come up. (I’m not at all religious, though, so I could have missed something.)
So why don’t the gods tend to matter much to the PCs — even priest-type characters, who should be shining exemplars of their faith?
Because we, as GMs, don’t tend to make them matter.
This is a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Think about how important faith was in the Middle Ages, and what a huge role the Catholic church (to use just one example) played in medieval life. Why isn’t this the case in fantasy analogs of the Middle Ages?
There are two ways to tackle this missed opportunity in RPGs: through the campaign world, and through the rules. In both cases, I’m not talking about ramming religion down the PCs’ throats — if your players are having fun without worrying about this aspect of the game world, that’s A-OK.
Faith in the Game World
It’s a lot easier to incorporate faith into fantasy RPGs from a roleplaying standpoint than it is to work it into the rules. For one thing, players who are intrigued by the roleplaying possibilities will embrace them on their own, whether you do anything to encourage it or not.
For another, while you can’t (and shouldn’t) force the PCs to care about the gods, you can (and should) make them important to NPCs.
Include plotlines related to gods, temples and faithful NPCs; involve the gods in the origin tales of your worlds; have them manifest themselves in present-day prophecies, portents and other signs of their power; include religious holidays in your game world’s calendar — the possibilities on this one are pretty much endless.
Faith in the Rules
Developing the importance of faith through the rules is tricky. Apart from divination spells and the like, most RPGs don’t go very far down the this road, so you have to do some tinkering on your own.
When RPGs do include faith-related rules, they tend to be pretty lame. In the Forgotten Realms, for example, characters who don’t believe in the gods cannot be resurrected — their souls are instantly sucked away to be used as building material in Kelemvor’s Wall. That’s kind of neat from a flavor standpoint, but as a rule it’s a pretty blunt instrument.
I hate to cite The World of Synnibarr for anything other than mockery, but it’s got a good example of another bad faith-related rule: one of the forty-seven things that have to happen before a PC can actually die is a roll to see if the gods intervene, and outright prevent their death. Bleh.
I’m guilty of not tackling this issue in my own games, but I do have an idea for incorporating faith into RPG rules: create a couple of basic guidelines for PCs to be considered observant/non-observant, and offer minor benefits for observant PCs.
For example, a PC who stops at roadside shrines to say a quick prayer, and makes donations to larger temples whenever she is in town, would qualify as observant. That earns her a discount on temple services (and grants access to services that wouldn’t otherwise be offered). She also gets a bonus on social rolls when interacting with others of her faith.
What do you think? Am I off-based about religion being a largely untapped goldmine of plot and roleplaying opportunities in fantasy RPGs? Are there games out there that feature clever, flavorful rules related to faith?