Fantasy Religions
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Basic Information

Pretty much any fantasy religion to be found in an RPG will be polytheistic - that is, it will be a religion with many deities of approximately equal status1.

Quite often the religion will also be pantheistic - that is, their many deities will belong to some kind of organization: either the extended family of the Norse, Celtic or Greco-Roman religions or something like the Celestial Bureaucracy of China.

The assorted deities will then have the various portfolios divvied out between them - war for one, agriculture for another, that sort of thing - and they will usually be spread out amongst the different alignments2. There will usually be some 'evil' deities who serve no useful function and leave the GM scrabbling for an explanation for why anyone would worship them3 - in real world pantheons evil tended to be shared out amongst the other deities4 although some pantheons included an "enemy of the gods" like Tiamat5 or Apep6 or include a trickster deity like Loki, who is a bit of an arse, but still serves a useful purpose.7.

Most of the deities will be worshiped by humans, with the RPG rulebok only sparing enough space for one god each for the non-human races/species. If the system does well, a separate pantheon may be added for one or more non-human race/species in a later splatbook, usually headed by the one original deity, but it will be poorly integrated with the original pantheon - if at all.

However at this point the Judeo-Christian heritage of most FRPG writers normally starts to show at this point - in most game settings the population pick one deity from the pantheon to worship and stick to them (this is pretty much what we call henetheism) rather than worshiping the appropriate deity for whatever they happened to be engaged in at the time. Every deity will have its own, dedicated, full time clergy and religious buildings inside which services will be held at a given time.

It's also not unusual for a fantasy pantheon to consist only of deities that might be popular with adventurers and omit those responsible for the sort of portfolios that have traditionally concerned people going about their ordinary lives - crafts, childbirth, the home … that sort of thing.

When the fantasy religion revolves mainly around the worship of trees, or other things that can be loosely interpreted as "nature" then see fantasy druid, noting of course that fantasy druidism may or may not have lay people.

Sources

Bibliography
1. <pick an RPG> They all do it.

Game and Story Use

So how does the aspiring mould-breaking GM make the religions of his setting less 'standard'?
Some of these ideas might be worth trying:

  • Create a pantheism in which worshipers don't have a personal relationship with their deity: they (and the clergy) serve the whole pantheon. There may be one or two full time clerics on the staff of a major temple, but most people venerate the deities as they need them. This would fit very well with the practice of most real world polytheisms.
  • Make your campaign animist - there are spirits for every rock and tree, and the more significant the terrain feature, the more significant the spirit. (See Genius Loci.) There may be governing powers for concepts, tribes, cities and things that resemble traditional deities but there will be a lot more localism in religion as well.8.
  • Add aspects to some of your deities: the head of the elven pantheon is the same deity as the head of the human pantheon, with a different front end for a different species. Likewise the deity who has law as his portfolio is the patron both of the 'Lawful Good' paladin and the 'Lawful Evil' tyrant, and may even be invoked by thieves when they make a solemn agreement amongst themselves.9 Again, the Greeks and Romans were both quite fond of identifying foreign deities as a different aspect of one of their own.
  • Introduce temples like those of real life paganism - the worship is conducted outdoors, where the deities can look down from the sky and see it, and the building is used only to store idols, treasure and ritual paraphenalia … although initiations and other secret rites might be conducted in an inner sanctum away from prying eyes. Likewise, the temple may not hold regular services: a petitioner makes sacrifices by appointment, when he has a boon to ask of his deity, and there will be a festival on any day sacred to the resident deity, but in general an ancient pagan would no more come and pester his deity on a regular basis than he would wear out the ears of his overlord or patriarch with trivialities.
  • Mix the portfolios up … as previous mentioned, the Roman Mars was the bloody-handed Lord of Slaughter and also a fertility deity (being, after all, the husband of Venus) and one of agriculture (many of the ancients didn't separate human, animal and plant fertility). In many worlds the sun deity tends to be one of the "good' deities - make yours "evil" … he may be the all-powerful ruler of the heavens, but he is also the tyrant who demands a heavy tax in water for his rule (in a desert land) or strikes men blind if they do not show him due deference (where snow blindness is a problem). Likewise, the bloody handed "chaotic evil" deity may also serve as the breaker of chains, who represents all of those who struggle under oppressive rule, and those who seek to better their place in society by whatever means: the hard working peasant who seeks to buy his way into the caste of free landowners and the nobleman who seeks to usurp the king by coup and murder.
    • For the uber example of this, try the Aztec pantheon. Seriously. Even the largely benevolent ones are partial to human sacrifice and their internecine squabbles have already destroyed the world on three or four occasions…
  • Note that there is nothing actually wrong with having a henetheistic pantheon in your world … all this is just suggestions for how to make things look a bit different.
  • You can also have a mixed bag of deities … the Romans were famous magpies of other people's deities, as were the Assyrians, often adopting the deities of nations they subjugated into their pantheon and either calling them an aspect of one of their pre-existing deities or simply adding them without further comment.
    • And then there were the mystery cults … these often co-existed with pantheons, but had single deities or small groups of deities completely unrelated to the pantheon and often conducted their mysteries in private. The Romans loved this sort of thing - Mithraism and the Cult of Cybele were prime examples and there is some suggestion that Romans occasionally dabbled in Christianity in the same way.
  • For a real challenge, introduce a monotheistic world … although you could just base your setting on medieval Europe. A dualistic world, with two mutually hostile deities, such as is found in Zurvanist Zoroastrianism is probably a more playable intermediate, although a fantasy religion based on medieval Christianity could be made dualistic without two much effort; in either case you are left with one 'approved' deity who is the patron of all things good and noble and another 'anti-deity' to serve the classic fantasy role of Lord of Wrong as the inspiration to evil wizards, usurpers and species that are 'Always Chaotic Evil'.
    • The Cathars were a Christian sect that saw the world through a dualistic lens.
  • Your setting's God of Evil (if you use one) might need a few twists as well:
    • "The enemy of the Gods is the enemy of society": The Gods define Evil as what is against the common values of society (or more cynically, against the existing power structure). Similarly to some interpretations of Satan, the Lord of Wrong might have a following among revolutionaries or the downtrodden as a symbol of rebellion or equality.
    • "The God of Evil is shackled by prayer": If the Lord of Wrong has a cult, that cult prays against him. Their prayers keep him as a Sealed Evil in a Can, and any theurgy they work siphons off his strength.
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