What’s My Motivation? – Faith, Belief, and Religion

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“What’s My Motivation?” is a regular column that uses a variety of methods found in the disciplines of acting, writing, and improvisation to help Dungeon Masters create compelling NPC’s and further flesh out their campaigns.  Last time we looked at how relationships between PC’s and NPC’s  assist with roleplaying by adding depth to the experience. This week we look at how religion, faith, and belief can flesh out a character and thus allow for more complex roleplaying.

People believe in so many things: political, economical, religious, moral/ethical, etc. In terms of characterization these can give a DM a framework with which to work within. I find that the stronger the belief, the stronger the characterization. Usually.

Many roleplaying games, especially Dungeons and Dragons in its variety of settings, have a plethora of religions available to choose from. While we typically play clerics as exemplars of their particular deity’s portfolio, such characterization need not be relegated to divine spellcasters only. In many polytheistic cultures people may worship any number of gods or goddesses as appropriate for the season or circumstance. That means that non-clerics may have a little more leeway to explore their options and express a variety of rituals and tenants. But even clerics of particular deities do not have to necessarily deny the other deities their due. A priestess of the goddess of life may still offer prayers to the god of death at the funeral of a loved one. But how would that sound? Speaking of a new beginning and entering the next stage of life, thanksgiving for the life the deceased had, remind the living of the precious gift of life, are three possibilities that come to mind.

I find that every character should have some religion to help fill them out a bit. If not religion, then at least some strong beliefs or worldviews. For NPC’s this might help you come up with some quick responses to PC questions and actions on the fly.

But it does not have to be all about religion. As Shepherd Book said, “When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?” Perhaps it is not so much a god that the character worships but a saint or hero that they idolize. An arcane acolyte who idolizes a famous archmage or a monk who looks up to a renowned master are two examples of how a character’s belief can be focused toward a particular person. This may include cultic trappings and rituals or it may be as simple as trying to emulate the wisdom and style of the hero.

Remember also that divine spellcasters do not necessarily have to be a formal member of a church but can instead pledge themselves to particular philosophies or ideals. In terms of the mechanics this may also allow you a combination of powers and domains that may not otherwise be available according to the published pantheon.

The religious portfolios typically follow a basic dualistic framework of pitting opposing forces against each other:

  1. Life vs. Death
  2. Freedom vs. Tyranny
  3. Love vs. Hate
  4. Creation vs. Destruction
  5. Light vs. Dark
  6. Fear vs. Courage
  7. Truth vs. Deceit
  8. Selflessness vs. Selfishness
  9. Luck vs. Fate
  10. Wilderness vs. Civilization

On a very basic level these dualistic relationships are easy ways to characterize a character’s moral framework. Take the gods out of the equation and you are still left with some simple beliefs and their antitheses. This can be simple enough to frame the actions and reactions of a one-time NPC but easily expanded upon for NPC’s that evolve throughout the life of the campaign. In this case it is more about worldview than it is about cultic or religious responsibilities.

However you choose to express a particular character’s faith or belief here are a few terms and their definitions to get you thinking:

Henotheism: the devotion to one god, but not with the denial of the existence of other gods. This is typically how many characters, especially clerics and divine spellcasters, are played in roleplaying games.

Deism: basically the belief in a god. This is typically expressed as an impersonal creator of the universe.

Pantheism: the belief that the universe is god, but not distinctly separate from creation and the cosmos. This may appeal to an earth-based or aboriginal character.

Panentheism: similar to pantheism, the belief that god contains the universe, but that divine being is transcendent.

Monism: this is the belief in one god, but everything in the cosmos is an aspect of that one divine force or being, this god also has personal aspects. This is typically expressed in Hinduism and may be appropriate for characters with an Eastern influence.

Monotheism: The belief in one god. Typically this expresses itself in the modern Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as the belief in one god and all other gods are either false or a misinterpretation of the one god.

Agnosticism: usually lumped in with atheism, literally meaning “no knowledge” this is the belief that one cannot come to know the divine, in other words this is typically expressed as “skeptical deism”. In other words, one believes in god but either asks many questions to seek more knowledge to find out more about the deity or believes such knowledge is unattainable.

Atheism: the belief that there cannot be transcendent divine being. This would be an interesting choice in a typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign as there are palpable and measurable effects of the gods through divine magic in most settings. But two things come to mind: the first is the Christian priest in the movie Eric the Viking who, because he disbelieves in Nordic mythology, is not affected by the Nordic monsters, gods, or environment in any real way. The second is the Ur-priest found in 3.X Forgotten Realms. While an interesting concept I believe it ultimately falls apart logically speaking as it pretty much ends up playing as a priest but with a different source of their spells and powers. Perhaps a divine version of the spellthief would be a better way to go about trying to explain, through game mechanics, that someone “steals” the prayers of the gods and uses them to their advantage.

Apophatic theology: usually referred to as “negative theology” this begins with the understanding that the divine cannot be fully comprehended by the human intellect. But to gain a better understanding this usually expresses itself in trying to define what the divine is not. In other words it finishes the following statement: “The god is NOT .

Kataphatic theology: “positive theology” is just the opposite of apophatic theology. Another way to view it is to finish the statement: “The god IS .

Last but not least, a lot of these faiths, religions, and philosophies will undoubtedly enter into conflict with each other throughout a campaign. This can also lead to all sorts of wonderful campaign opportunities: heresy, schism, and excommunication can all be exciting ways to introduce conflict within a set of personal ideals and moral systems. On a more personal character-level this can lead to unexpected friendships or bitter enemies. I have found around the table that characters with opposing views can still work together because they have to find common ground. If one is a staunch law-abiding citizen and the other is an anarchist they both might be proponents of the sanctity of life and work together to defend the innocent life of tortured prisoners.

So what worldview motivates your characters? Care to add any wisdom to our discussion?

12 thoughts on “What’s My Motivation? – Faith, Belief, and Religion”

  1. Pingback: Light Seekers » God gave each of us the right to believe as we wish
  2. Thanks, Caddoko.

    Character interviews are a great way to encourage roleplaying and character depth. But it may be challenging for some roleplayers to answer such questions on the fly. If the immediacy of “right-at-the-table” is intimidating I suggest allowing for in-character journal keeping. Websites such as Obsidian Portal allow for a lot of posting both in and out of character. Perhaps you can start a thread where you pose the particular questions you wish the characters to reflect upon and everyone either writes a response or perhaps shares at the table next session.

  3. I’ve recently been implementing a character-development device I came up with (though I’m sure I’m not the first) where I periodically interview my players in character asking them what they think of recent events in game or how other members of the party acted. This article’s given me some great material to expand on that, I’ve never really thought to ask my players about their views on political factors or views on rights and freedoms. Awesome article, thanks for the read!

  4. An interesting exercise is to go through the list of gods and (especially when they list traits of the clergy), and imagine that you ran across a devoted priest of that god. How would your character react to them? After all, you’ll run into the followers of each god more often than the gods themselves. And for a character who isn’t a religious scholar, you’ll get most of your information on a god from their priests. Do you listen to a sermon, tithe, give them a coin to go away, invite them out for a drink or run them through with a sword?

    I also find a lot of character definitions come from the gods that you wouldn’t follow, but that you aren’t opposed to. Are there any gods or ideals that you revere even though you might not live up to their standards? Maybe a rogue looks up to the god of mercy and redemption even though they don’t think that they are worthy of redemption. Or a warrior who honors the deity of peace, even though he doesn’t believe he’ll see it in his lifetime.

    Another point I don’t see often is looking at the “evil gods”. While you may not support them, do you respect them or defy them. A seafarer might offer a sacrifice to the god of storms in hopes that they’ll pass by his ship. Many gods go by the philosophy “It’s better to be feared than loved.”

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