Some initial thoughts on a more flexible D&D religion
This came out of an ongoing project to write my own, D&D-style RPG. I don't expect to ever finish this project, but in doing so, I can think about what I do and don't like in RPG designs and probably eventually funnel the ideas into homebrew, etc.
My first thought is that religion in D&D feels kind of gamey, and not really reflective of real life religions. And when you have domains like Tempest, or War, you're dictating a lot of what the pantheon looks like. It also means that players usually pick one and exactly one god to follow, which usually isn't necessarily how religions work.
What I did, then, is came up with 10 aspects of religion. These tend to exist, to some degree or another, in most major religions, at least those big enough to have various interpretations. I chose 10, so you can roll a d10 and pick them, and some are probably more common than others. Some fit quite nicely with existing domains, and some less so. I also have no real knowledge of world religions aside from high school social studies and poking around on Wikipedia, so I hope to refine these as, maybe, people tell me I'm wrong.
1. Justice: The gods punish evildoers, and expect you to put the good of all above the self. Tyrants will be brought low, and those who prey on others will be found out - or, perhaps, a harsh and unyielding law will apply to all. Classic paladins would be a good example, but I'm sure you can also think of non good aligned interpretations of this from fiction and popular culture. When I start creating abilities or powers here, powers to smite or find evil would fit well.
2. Mercy: Preserve life, heal the sick, give to the poor, forgive your enemies. Refuse to harm the helpless and innocent, or, maybe, all people or all living things. Classic healing clerics would be a good example.
3. Asceticism: Forego material pleasures and uphold the spiritual over the physical. Associated with monks, hermits, and others who have separated themselves from ordinary life, but could in subtler ways manifest as avoiding drink, or ostentatious displays of wealth. Powers associated with this might protect against physical, or maybe even mental conditions.
4. Community: Religion is a thing that we do together. Through celebration, ritual, tradition, etc, we bring each other together and bring joy, hope and meaning. This is often an important part of real-world religions, but often overlooked in D&D. Abilities that go here would strengthen the whole party. A religion-themed bard would fit well.
5. Mysticism: Religion is a window into things we cannot otherwise understand and percieve. There is, unfortunately, no class that I can think of that fits this super well, but I feel like it would go well with a divine sorcerer or warlock. Powers of divination would also be a good fit.
6. Harmony: Religion tells us how to have a peaceful, orderly society. It tells everyone their responsibilities to everyone else, and perhaps also to the natural world or the world of the divine. It tells you about how to maintain cleanliness and hygiene, how to honourably do business, and other things which we, in the modern world, do not associate as much with religion.
7. Heroism: The gods reward bravery and great deeds. Paladins would go well with this, or maybe bards. This doesn't necessarily have to be martial deeds, though: historically, the arts have been an important way of honouring God or the gods.
8. Knowledge An important part of the religion is studying the texts or traditions of the religion and becoming knowledgeable in them; more generally, the preservation of knowledge. Knowledge comes from the god(s), and preserving it honours them. This is another aspect of religion which is less prominent in the modern world, but was historically much more important.
9. Honouring the dead Whether it's funerals, or a greater focus on one's ancestors or on exemplary individuals who came before, this is an important part of most religions. In D&D, it gives a way to have access to necromancy-like spells without any unwholesome associations. You might also be guided by a spirit of your ancestor, or carry an ancenstral weapon.
10. I'm stuck, so roll twice and combine
As a worldbuilding tool
A fun way to use this is to randomly pick two and use that as a seed of inspiration to invent some religious beliefs for your world.
Rolled Asceticism, Community: These halfling monks believe that the gods do not want to ammass wealth, and that you should own only what you and your companions can grow and make together. When you come together and make things together, with joy, you honour the gods with the gifts they grew from the ground and with the gift of companionship. When you wear gold and jewels, or eat food prepared by servants, you squander the gifts of the gods. And, indeed, when you eat with them, you feel strangely refreshed, as though you have not been traveling and fighting for days.
Harmony, Heroism: For years, the Bird of the Gods with the jewel eyes looked over the valley, but a prince came riding through, shot the bird, and stole the eyes. Now the crops wilt in the fields. You must retrieve the eyes and undertake the harrowing journey to the Hall of The Gods to bring the bird back.
Justice, Knowledge: You are mechanically a paladin, but your title is Judge. You have studied not just the law and all of its history, and the theories of law from other lands, but all the knowledge about the world you have been able to find. You are then tasked to journey from community to community, where you are an impartial stranger, and resolve disputes and investigate crimes.
Written June 21 2020