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.