For such an important element of a game world, religion gets short shrift in many games. Most RPGs either go overboard with explanations and statistics (as if it really matters exactly how strong Thor is), or hand-wave a lot of the ramifications of religion. When your god can grant you the equivalent of a Wish, why the heck can’t he do more to help you fight off the latest in a succession of attempts to take over the world? If “what happens when you die” is common knowledge (say, an eternal heaven or hell), why would anyone even think about being evil?
Without getting into a flamewar over religion, let’s make the assumption that historical religion depends on the unknown. When the rules are printed in black and white, where exactly is the mystery? (This is one of the things the Eberron campaign setting gets right: Religion is a bit of a mystery, although the spells and such still work.)
Now let’s take another tack: Historically speaking, most early religions were polytheistic, and when one culture conquered another, the victor’s gods usually replaced the loser’s. And there wasn’t much peace between competing pantheons. But most RPG settings seem to have multiple pantheons peaceably coexisting. “Thor’s the god of weather here, but in the next village over, it’s Zeus.” It’s a remarkable bit of coexistence, especially when viewed from a world in which religion and war are often linked.
Another aspect of historic polytheism is that a worshiper would ask one deity for a bountiful harvest, and another for continuing good weather, and another for luck at the gaming table, and another for strength and courage in battle, etc… But most RPGs seem to make the assumption that polytheism is a collection of small monotheistic religions. “O peaceful and benevolent Ilmater, please grant me the Harm spell…”
Most real-world religions also tend to fragment, but most RPG religions tend to remain a homogeneous group. Perhaps this is what happens when a deity really does take an active role in guiding his or her worshipers? Or perhaps it’s so much easier to homogenize and categorize a group which doesn’t fragment?
And in trying to come up with answers, I’ve run into exactly the same issues that most game designers have. How can you have any mystery when you need rules? How can you have multiple cultures with multiple deities when the gods not only exist, but take an active role in daily affairs? How can one be a “priest of many gods” and still have some semblance of game balance?
My theory? You gotta believe…
And my only answer is that belief drives divinity. Note that I did not say that worship drives divinity, nor even the will of the deity itself. It may be expressed through hope and love, or through fear and hatred, but belief is the fuel on which divinity runs. Whether the deity in question began life as a real hero whose exploits were told and retold, or were nothing but a story made up to scare children from wandering off, or something entirely different, the divine spark is driven by belief. The paradox here is that the same belief that drives the deity also prevents the deity from being truly free; once a divine being has drawn on the power of belief, they only have a limited amount of control over who they really are. The believers have the reins, and as their perceptions of the deity change, so does the deity. (Aside: This may also explain objective evil; “My believers made me do it.”) (Another aside: Yes, I borrowed from Terry Pratchett a bit.)
If my theory of RPG religion is that perception defines reality, then the necessary corollary is that religion does not have to make sense. In other words, there are few hard-and-fast rules regarding divine beings. Paradoxes are everywhere, such as multiple sun gods, all of whom use different means of transporting the sun across the sky. And all of whom are equally “real.” What happens when Our Heroes actually make it up to the sun to witness this daily event? Well, it all depends on what they believe will happen… (Or maybe they’ll simultaneously freeze and boil in the vacuum of outer space.)
If the sun is simultaneously driven across the sky by a giant dung beetle, by a golden chariot drawn by twelve brilliant horses, and on the back of the Father of All Dragons, then so what? How exactly will this impact your game? Why does it need to be explained?
This theory of divinity is (obviously) a work in progress, and I haven’t run a divinely centered game with it yet, so sound off. Does religion have to make sense? Can perception truly define reality (and not in the subjective “blind men and the elephant” sense)? Remember, we’re not talking real-world religions here, so let’s please be polite.
In my current game, the gods interact with their worshippers on a daily or even hourly basis. The trade-off is that they’re limited in scope. “I can’t get a unicorn for you; that’s Melora’s domain. But I know a god who knows a god who can ask her for one. And you’ll owe me a favor.” It seems to have worked out pretty well for us. The big questions of religion haven’t really come up, since everyone’s faith is more or less personal. The one twist we have is that, since it’s a post-apocalyptic setting, the ‘generic local priest’ in town is a priest of the monotheistic god, who believes the other gods are merely high-ranking angels in the service of his god. As far as I know, no one has asked the other gods whether this is true, so it very well could be.
As for the afterlife, I know our cleric of the Raven Queen is expecting special treatment when he arrives there, and I’m sure our paladin of Torog is as well. No god is going to tell their follower, “You will burn in my fiery hell.” They tell their follower, “You will rule my fiery hell by my side.”
I can see the ‘multiple pantheons coexisting’ thing pretty easily. It’s not so much “Zeus is the weather god here, but in the next village, it’s Thor” as it’s, “Zeus is the god of weather; everyone knows that. Even the barbarians in the next village know that. They call him Thor, and worship him a little differently, but it’s Zeus all right.”
But no, religions don’t have to make sense. Especially given that the magic system in RPGs seldom makes any sense, why should gods? They’re notoriously confusing.
Kierkegaard basically said that faith is certainty of the uncertain. I like the idea of divinity being powered by faith or belief as opposed to certainty. That’s the paradox of typical D&D, as you said. People know that there are gods because various people are able to channel their will or make use of their faith to gain divine power. Not to mention that many of them actually appear in various settings. Belief isn’t really a factor. Devotion, however, is.
Just like D&D spellcasting, I find it really boring and predictable, which is why I’ve taken a serious liking to settings/systems like Black Company and Iron Heroes. Priests are either madmen or people of belief, but no one can prove them wrong or right. I like that idea; the idea that faith in those worlds is as unknowable as the faiths in our own. You either believe, or you don’t.
There is a bad Richard Gere movie called “The Mothman Prophecies”. Gere plays a reporter who is investigating (and is being taunted by?) a strange and apparently psychic creature/entity that is described as being a mothman.
At one point the reporter runs into the near crazy guy who has been studying the mothman (very original…). Near crazy guy in trying to explain to the reporter that we have no idea as to how much power this creature might have is asked “Why doesn’t the Mothman try to make contact with us?” or somehing like that. Near crazy guy’s answer –
“Do you bother to explain yourself to a cockroach before crushing it?”
That line is about the only thing that I liked from the film. It also happens to sum up my view of deities and religions in games like D&D perfectly. They are on a scale that the PCs cannot fathom.
I know there is a lot of grey area there, but it works for me and allows me to move on. No faith jokes about that last statement please. 🙂
In my world I created a single Religion that incorporates multiple Gods. In fact there are a few differing religions around the world that have groupings of Gods. These religions act a lot like the Catholic Church by proscribing a single dogma that must be followed by petitioners of the Church.
What makes this interesting is that my paladins and priests are of a Religion and not a specific god, so they will often call upon the power of different gods for different reasons.
They way this all makes sense is that all the gods are related, there is only 1 pantheon of deities, its the religion that is a construction of the mortals. So the sun god dose make an appearance in a few different religions, even by the same name, but the followers of one religion call on him differently than the followers of another religion.
I have even built a schism in the largest religion, half of the followers wanted the religion to do something a different way, they split off and are a very powerful political institution and they still pay homage to the same gods, but the gods do not participate in this split. So the followers of the split do not have priests. Its their political will and control that has given them power.
Borrowing again from Terry Pratchet, in Small Gods there is a powerful religion dedicated to Om, but the religion has become such a powerful political institute that it no longer needed the power of Om to guide the people. They still thought or said they worshiped Om, but as Om finds out, he has lost all his power because he has lost all his believers.
The gods in my world are disturbed by the growing power of this secular religion that has broken off, they don’t want to “endorse it” but they are loosing followers/power because of it.
The result is an unclear line as to good and evil, but it has created a wealth of adventure ideas. The PCs of course are not part of the Secular Religion, the divine characters can not be, and the rest don’t have enough loyalty to either to care or they are rebellious against the Secular Branch because the Secular Branch is not as good at human rights as they could be.
There are 2 other layers of complexity the natural Spirits of the world and the Offspring of the gods. But I’ll not get into all that here.
The final result is that everybody knows where they stand in the grand scheme of things while they are alive, but they really don’t know what happens to their soul when you die, so they believe that the choice they have made is right. And they fight for that choice.
While there are some elements of D&D magic that I’m ok with, I’ve never really liked Clerics (at least as presented in editions 1 through 3.5, don’t know about 4th) and have seriously considered just removing the class altogether.
In my mind they should fulfill some of the following roles:
– Keepers of the mysteries who seek to grasp subtle truths and explain the inexplicable.
– Community leaders who tend their to their flock’s mental, physical, spiritual needs.
– Tradition keepers who officiate periodic times of devotion or celebration.
– Priests who know the rites or sacrifices necessary to appease the powers that be.
– Guardians who exorcise and protect others from malign spirits.
On pretty much every one of these points D&D clerics fail to some degree. They end up being well armored physical warrior types who whose services are often blatantly for hire.
Clerics I’ve seen in play seemed to have little interest in either community involvement, encouraging devotion to their deity or appeasing the gods. Their spells simply come in a big, well known list prepared each morning, which conveys neither the inspiring, dynamic nature of miracles, nor the focused, symbolic quality of rituals.
Religious devotion in the game seems less a focus for finding meaning in one’s life and in the universe, but simply another avenue to accumulate temporal power. Even the pragmatic element of asking for and receiving assistance from the gods in time of need is streamlined to the point of being a norm and a right instead of a hope and a gift.
None of the games I’m involved in at the moment are D&D related, but if I end up running it again at some point I’m seriously tempted to just ditch the class entirely, replacing it with a set of Incantations (a la Unearthed Arcana) which members of any class could purchase to represent various sorts of religious initiation and devotion. Or alternately, for characters whose spiritual might comes from being something along the line of “angels incarnate”, maybe allowing a class identical to the Sorcerer, but using clerical spells instead.
In my game I let the players create their own Dieties if they wished. In a polytheistic tolerant society, it didn’t really matter to me if they created a church/religion to play with. It offered a level of involvement to those who wished to take it and collaborative setting creation.
Outside of that, I have to admit I agree to a degree with pretty much everything said here. Religion frequently gets brushed to the side, unless you make it a central point in a story. I created a religion who worships intelligent magical items as gods, in conflict with another religion who believes those “magical items” are unfairly imprisoning a soul which should be returned to the afterlife. Of course the only way to release the soul is to destroy the item, which puts a strain on the relations between two groups. Ahhhh Good times.
Religion can really make a setting, with rites and festivals, and things like that. Unfortunately it’s not something I’m too great at doing. I was a cleric in Ravenloft and our GM had a neat way of involving us in a religious situation. “The darkest night” is a night where all lights are doused so as not to bring the attentions of the other side, a night where the veil between here and the afterlife is particularly thin. We had crossed the borders of Ravenloft regions and lost our sense of time, thinking it had already past we gleefully broke into a boarded up inn and light all the lights to stay the night…. the resulting fight left the party scattered and running for the safety of the dark. LOL
I do run clerics as spontaneous casters anyway. It never made sense to me that a list of prayers has to be memorized at the appropriate time. You’re a representative of a religion/diety and are basically asking for a favor. I told our full cleric he could ask for anything and burn a spell slot of a particular level and see if it worked. 🙂
@Swordgleam – I’ve used the “one god, many names” idea before, and it works as long as the deities don’t have drastically different aspects. But you can sometimes justify or bend things to get a better fit.
@Rafe – I chose belief over devotion because I don’t think many folks would devote themselves to an evil deity, at least when compared to the good side of things. But if you merely believe in the evil deity (and who doesn’t?), then he too has a source of power. Of course, if devotion and faith are just ‘belief dialed up to eleven’, then both can work, too.
Patrick and Argokirby – No comment necessary…
@Peter K. – I’ve always justified D&D Clerics as the religion’s ‘sword arm’. Non-adventuring clerics are more focused on the things you mention, just as non-adventuring wizards are more involved in research and experimentation. But as you note, it can be a bit of a stretch… I believe the “Cleric as Sorcerer” class is the Favored Soul in D&D, but I’m not sure which 3.5 sourcebook it was in.
@NeonElf – I too, always thought Clerics would be more appropriate as ‘spontaneous casters’.
This entry has been simmering on my mental back-burners for a while, and I finally decided just to post it even if it’s not fully cooked. Thanks for the comments (and any future ones!); they’re great feedback.
The original response, and the responses so far, seem to make an important but unstated assumption: that gods are “real” to the game world.
In our own real world, the most “logical” explanation for why these different families of gods generate such paradoxes (e.g. conflicting sun gods, et. al.) is a very simple one: none of these gods really exist, and are dreamed up by _people_, some of whom have used these fictions to control and manipulate others.
Why isn’t there a fantasy world where this is the case, too?
The standard answer for a D&D type game is that, well, “divine magic” has real effects, so it must have some legitimacy, but this explanation doesn’t really hold water. Sorcerers can generate “arcane magic” without a man behind the curtain. Suppose those who cast “divine magic” are really doing the same thing, they just have to dress it up with religious hokum to _convince themselves_ that it will work.
Favored Souls are presented in 3.5 in the book Complete Divine. They are more like Sorcerers, but they have a very limited spell selection, more so than Sorcerers, if I understand correctly.
Something about polytheistic religions of Earth’s past that must be understood and perhaps applied to RPG settings is that gods within a single pantheon served different functions depending on the pantheon. In the Hellenic pantheon and society, all the gods were at least placated throughout one’s life, depending on what you were doing or how you made your living, as Telas mentions in his example. However, you had few (if any) priests of the Pantheon. Priests focused on a single god, as that focus and devotion supposedly gave them some of the power of the god in question (such as the Oracle of Delphi, a priestess of Apollo). In Norse faith, Odin was worshipped as a god of kings, and thus only by kings. The average viking was a commoner and thus a follower of Thor, as Thor was a commoner’s god. We understand that the average viking hoped for Odin’s valkyries to take him to Vahalla for his afterlife, even though he followed Thor. He also likely prayed for Hela to ignore him, or not visiti disease on him, again placating a god that wasn’t one he followed.
So, taking these ideas to the 4E pantheon, anyone fascinated with magic as an art might worship Corellon, and those who favor magic as science would follow Ioun. Those folks would be interested in the power those particular gods impart on their followers, and thus be devoted to them. The man on the street (say, an architect) might give some offering to a priest of either god in hopes of being protected from some fell magic, but be a follower of the teachings of Erathis, god of civilization.
I think the best use of deities in an RPG setting is Glorantha for RuneQuest. The gods are vastly important and well woven into the fabric of the societies described. There are no atheists in Glorantha.
@Wordman – You make a couple of assumptions that may or may not be true. You assume there is no such thing as a god. Even in our modern world, we cannot prove either way the truth of that statement. Atheism is simply another form of religion. I regularly watch Bill Maher say that “religion makes people crazy” with a vehemency that you see from the loon who rants endlessly in the Free Speech Area about the coming of the End Times. I personally take issue with both of these people, as neither can see the possibility of the gray area in between.
The “religious hokum” of most games is not just hokum in most games, because they do assume that the gods are real. That’s a long standing staple of the fiction our games are based on. In Mage the Ascension, even though magic always has the same source, how you access it, what foci you use to get to your will engaged is never considered “hokum”.
Boiled down, what I’m saying is that the derogatory words you are in regards to religion are displaying a certain shortsightedness we’ve been trying to avoid in these discussions to this point. I personally feel it would be best if you were to consider different phrasing from here on out.
—-I chose belief over devotion because I donâ€™t think many folks would devote themselves to an evil deity, at least when compared to the good side of things. But if you merely believe in the evil deity (and who doesnâ€™t?), then he too has a source of power.—–
I see what you mean, but why wouldn’t evil people worship a god that mirrors their greed, ambition, bloodlust, etc.? A good god would see through their superficial, lip-service ‘faith’ and not grant them squat. Also, if powers spring from belief, then couldn’t the ordinary peasant who believes in Evil Deity (in the way many Christians believe there is a Satan) get access to spells via said deity? To me, devotion seems more important, in D&D terms. A farmer would be devoted to a god related to agriculture and the sun while a merchant would be more devoted to a god a fortune and economics. However, if belief is the issue, then both could get access to spells from Evil Deity.
Ultimately, though, does the issue of belief even factor into normal D&D since it’s pretty well established as truth that various gods exist? People simply know; is belief necessary?
Does that make sense? :-/ Thoughts?
(Sorry, I can’t avoid discussing stuff like this. I have a Philosophy degree – this is about all I can do with it.)
Polytheism is a complex topic, and not well understood by most people raised in a society which is dominated by exclusivist (that is, monotheist or atheist) religions. It is not, for instance, precisely true that a conquering culture replaces the gods of a conquered culture with its own. There is a process of syncretism that occurs (as happened, apparently, in India, and more definitely in Celtic Gaul), whereby the gods of the conquering culture become influenced and altered by the gods of the conquered one, and sometimes there is an adoption of cultus.
One important aspect which game designers and gameworld authors would do well to observe is that “belief”, in the sense used by monotheist and atheist thinkers, is not a definitive or even necessary aspect of polytheist religions. It is unimportant to those religions to have a unity of thought on the nature of a god or gods. What these religions do require is a unity of action. This is called “orthopraxy”, and is distinguished from “orthodoxy”.
The degree of orthopraxy in a particular culture’s expression of polytheist religion varies. For instance, in the Roman Empire, the only orthopractic requirement was acknowledgment of the Emperor’s Genius (which was what got the early Christians into so much trouble). Any other cult was up to the individual, and the Empire didn’t really care much (the Druids were an exception, but that seems to have been due to the organization serving as a hotbed of rebellious activities). Similarly, in modern Japan, different Shinto shrines (Jinja), and different “Sects” (Kyouha) have differing ideas on the nature of the kami, cosmological speculations, etc., but community and personal rituals follow largely similar patterns. Individuals will participate in various personal rites (for instance, observing the “critical year” ceremonies, or various types of purification), and communities will enact larger rituals (such as parading portable shrines through the area, making the first Mochi cakes of the year, and so on). In addition, “Folk Shinto” (Tsuuzoku) represents the many local cults which are not part of the Jinja Shinto system, nor part of the various Kyouha, such as Tengu-worship. (This overview doesn’t even begin to touch on the influence of Buddhism and Christianity in modern Japan, as that would complicate the discussion needlessly.)
So, what worldbuilders might profitably do is to designate various communal rituals, which serve as a social glue for the various communities. Then, various apotropaic rites can be designed for individuals to protect them from evil spirits or other calamities. Finally, rites of devotion to local spirits (think of dryads, the Scottish gruagach, or Japanese tengu), who can act just as any other spirit in the campaign. On top of those three fundamentals, add in specific cults, such as a warrior society who transform their members into werewolves (a common European institution, actually, occurring from Livonia to Ireland, Scandinavia to Greece – though what is meant by “werewolf” is a complex topic). Evil cannibal cults can be designed, who might use cannibalism as the basis of their special magics (such cults have existed in various areas, including Iron-Age Europe and the Pacific Northwest of North America), not to mention local cults whose spirits of devotion are diseases or other demonic forces. Given these, there can be various social organizations which interpret these various practices in terms of ancient myths of creation and exercise political and social power. These organizations can also serve as educational centers, providing the sorts of knowledge which make a person into something more than a mere survival machine, such as philosophical knowledge or even some type of science (or “natural philosophy”).
Some useful sources of interest in regard to polytheist religious forms:
The Deities Are Many – Jordan Paper
A World Full Of Gods – John Michael Greer
Religion And Magic In The Life Of Traditional Peoples – Alice and Irvin Child
The Fairy-Faith In Celtic Countries – W.Y. Evans Wentz
Essentials Of Shinto: An Analytical Guide To Principal Teachings – Stuart D.B. Picken
Shamans, Sorcerers, And Saints: A Prehistory Of Religion – Brian Hayden
Death, War, And Sacrifice: Studies In Ideology And Practice – Bruce Lincoln
years ago, in a game i played, my sorceress sought divinity. now she was a raving lunatic, but gathered plenty of followers and achieved enough wonders to be granted into the circle.
of course, we played it fast and loose but it involved a few real-world concepts:
1) acceptance of existance. you had to be and do. the bigger the better.
2) worshipers. aside from people just accepting existance, there had to be people devoted to you as a cause.
of course, you also had to be sponsored by another deity, so in a way it was played out like an exclusive club, a throwback to Roman times.
Thanks again for all the responses. Some of them go much farther than I had even considered… (ahem, Whateley23).
I guess I’ve got some research of my own to do. 🙂
Ha! I do tend to go on about the subject on occasion. In part, that is because of my dismay at the phenomenon you noted: the treatment of polytheist cults as if they were just a collection of small, monotheist religions (which is one of my few complaints about both HÃ¢rn and TÃ©kumel).
I should have noted, also, that polytheist cults are even more unusual than I initially painted them. It is true, for instance, and as you said, that one would petition one god for rain, another for protection from disease, and so on. However, if one god failed in a particular instance, then another god would be sought out! This is possible because polytheist gods are rarely, as they are often painted in games, limited to a small area of action*. For instance, Apollo was originally a god of healing (and seems to have developed from Nergal, the plague god, who was also called Aplu Enlil “Son of Enlil”). His connection with disease, which was understood as a consequence of contact with “bad air”, or miasma, caused him to be associated with wind. The connection with wind caused him to be associated with wolves (you see, wolves lair in caves that are the mouths of underground streams during the dry season, from which air flows out. This breeze was seen as the breath coming into the world from the Underworld, and so Apollo also became the psuche “breath” of the World, and represented by wolves, who could be interpreted, due to the abovementioned lairs, as messengers from the Underworld. Thus, we find Apollo Lykeios “Lycian Apollo”, whose name is also connected with Lykos “wolf”). His later syncretization with Helios as god of the sun derives from these other characteristics (and possibly a connection with healing herbs that had psychoactive properties, causing him to be associated with “shining”), by connecting wind with sun. Which doesn’t even begin to cover all that there is to know about Apollo, such as his connection with poetry, his thematic and iconographic connections with northern European gods like Wotanaz (or Odin), the werewolf cults I mentioned, and so on. (Much of this material is derived from Daniel Gershenson’s Apollo the Wolf-God.) The point of this long digression being to show how a simple initial conceptualization (plague, healing) can turn into a very wide range of affinity (the Sun, spears, wolves, wind, mice, poetry, serpents, prophecy, etc, etc – much of which I’ve edited out for purposes of relative brevity).
As I said, it’s a subject which is very important to me. 🙂
I’d also have to agree with the above commentator who mentioned HeroQuest and other Glorantha-related materials (such as RuneQuest) as getting it mostly right. A GM could also easily use the HERO System to develop something along the lines of what I mentioned in my first comment, since it focuses on the aspects which affect the game directly, and not on the underlying cosmological assumptions, leaving those for description rather than mechanics (similarly, GURPS should do well here). I’m still learning The Burning Wheel, so I don’t know how well it would approach these concepts, but I suspect (based on reading Burning Sands: Jihad) that it could handle them well.
*one polytheist mystic of my acquaintance has expressed this by noting that, while no two gods are the “same”, any particular god can encompass all of existence. In this way, to take Japanese examples, Sarutahiko-no-Okami is the greatest of all kami. This does not preclude Amaterasu-no-Okami from being the greatest of all kami, nor prevent one from experiencing pure enlightenment through the exercises of the Shugendo mountain ascetics (who are connected with tengu cults).
When I used to run a 3.5 game I had it set in the Kingdom of Kalamar setting. One thing I really loved about it was that there was a single pantheon that everyone recognized, although various races and cultures had different interpretations of things, and even different names. Certainly the various gods had different importance to different cultures, but they had the same portfolios. I really liked this as it added a continuity to the setting and helped knit it all together for me. Also, it allowed for some interesting interactions of PCs who were of the same faith but different “sects” and had different views as to what was appropriate…
Sorry you found my post “derogatory”, DocRyder. It honestly wasn’t intended as such, but re-reading it, I can see why it bugged you. I’ll read a bit more carefully before I post going forward.
Even worse, however, is that my writing wasn’t good enough to actually convey my real point. Let’s see if I can do better. DocRyder said “The â€œreligious hokumâ€ of most games is not just hokum in most games, because they do assume that the gods are real. Thatâ€™s a long standing staple of the fiction our games are based on.” I totally agree. The intent of my first response was to ask the question: why should this be the case? Why do games assume this? And, the follow up: what if they didn’t?
I think a game that was entirely based around various fictional polytheistic religions and their politics and motivations, where PCs played various stripes of religious leaders, warriors and so on and wielded typical RPG divine powers — but where an intrinsic properly of the game world was that _none_ of the squabbling religions in the game were real — would be extremely fascinating.
Such a game would follow the “perception defines reality” concept mentioned in the article, but would not necessarily follow the “religion does not have to make sense” principle. This would help avoid the main trap of the “perception defines reality” idea: PCs that will inevitably build “religions” where the perception is “I am the absolute master of time and space” or something similar, and the “perception defines reality” idea makes it so.
If, however, the game states outright that its religions are actually all false, you can use different principles. For example, you might follow an “in order for the divine power to work, it must be internally consistent”. This would still allow the various religions to go their own way (and be inconsistent with _each other_), but still have a somewhat “rational” approach to divine magic. I don’t really know how this would work, but it would be pretty interesting.
I ran a campaign for 15 years in a homebrew world, and started building my world with a few base assumptions.
1. The gods are real, but their ability to interact on this plane could be limited or enhanced by belief. And if you kill a god, something or someone will take its place. Thus, it behooves the gods to be active participants in the world. The citizens of my world may not agree on what the gods are like and what they want from us, and (especially for the shadier ones) may worship different aspects of a god — but there’s no doubt but that the gods exist and may intervene.
2. Much like fiends and devils and such, the gods are otherworldly, and on this plane we can only see an image of the gods. They chiefly interact with the world by infusing it with divine energy. They soak up the belief and redirect it into activities that make sense for them. And when they appear in physical form — which is pretty rare — they use avatars that do have limited abilities. But the gods do not have any limitations, just habits and customs and agreements with each other. If you piss off a god, and don’t have another god watching your back, you are unlikely to survive the week.
3. Clerics and paladins and other holy folk are those who have both a particular aptitude for channeling divine magic, and a particular affinity for a particular deity. If you really dig the natural world, you’re going to drift toward Gaea, or Herne if you prefer ethical hunting. Sailors tend to worship the sea god because they spend a lot of time on his turf. However, a sailor returning to dry land would make some offering to the Earth Mother. Armies tend to worship a god of honorable and orderly combat, but also make a sacrifice to the god of berserkers so that battle frenzy doesn’t overtake their plans.
4. In the end of the campaign, my players had to ultimately decide whether to seal off the world so that the fiends and devils and demons couldn’t enter it directly anymore; the cost was that the gods would be unable to intervene directly in mortal affairs. Ultimately they went the Babylon 5 route and said “get the hell out of our galaxy”.
I have to say this has been most inspiring reading everyone’s comments. So much so that I have copied what some have written here and tweaked it so that it is an actual text my PC’s will come across in game, if they inquire I will, of course, give credit where credit is due. =)