Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Fixing Religion: Augury, Blasphemy, and Oaths

So I've read three things that have each been extremely instrumental in reforming how I think about religion.  None are short, all are excellent.

There's a lot of intriguing aromas wafting up from this stew.  There's also the stench of an idea: that I've been doing religions wrong this whole time.  And perhaps, so have you.

If you are like me, dear reader, then most of your knowledge of religion is firmly rooted in Christianity and Greek Myth (and probably a smattering of Norse).  These retelling are themselves repackaged by the hands of European Christianity, and by the time we crack open the DMG and hear Gary's infectious categorizing, we're all groomed to treat religion as if it were a cohesive system of gods and domains that all grew out of common mythological origin.

Which is almost entirely all backwards.

Relgions emerge from societal needs.  They reinforce a society and are in turn reinforced by it.  They  justify behaviors that can't be explained any other way.  And importantly, religions can emerge as behaviors before they become beliefs.  

Why do we grow crops for two years on a field and then let it rest on the third?  Because Obrieda the Earthmother had three children, but the third one died in infancy, so we let the field rest on the third year to honor her.

Farmers that follow this practice will have better yields than farmers who don't.  This is proof of Obrieda, and it is proof that she is pleased by our sacrifice (every third year) since it acknowledges her loss.  The crops grow and spread--so do stories of Obrieda.

Gods grow from the dirt between a farmer's toes, not the peaks of Mt. Olympus.

Gods become something that needs to be placated.  What behaviors please them?  What behaviors anger them?  More babies are born during the full moon because this pleases the goddess of motherhood.  Drinking stagnant water angers Ogoria, the god of mosquitos, who curses your intestines.  You can learn a lot about the spirits this way.

Square yurts fall down faster than round ones.  This is proof that the Envalys, who is the sun, favors things that are round like her.  Squares are bad luck.

These things don't work because they're magic or divine.  They just work.  How do chickens make eggs?  Same thing.

Later, much later, comes the cosmology and the stories told around the campfire.  Later on, religion is co-opted into supporting a societal structure, through the invention of religious morality.  Only then does Obrieda the Earthmother start caring whether or not wives commit adultery.  

Religions rise and fall with their practitioners, who must necessarily make compromises as they interact with other religions.  Gods are merged, inconsistencies smoothed over.  By the time Plutarch shows up to write about the local religion, the divine wilderness has been tamed, caged, and organized as a zoo.  (The mistake is to think that from the zoo, the wilderness was created.)

Priests are the people who know how to best keep the gods happy--when to hold the festivals that guarantee good harvests.  Priests are not pushing a divine agenda.  Athena is the goddess of wisdom become she is wise, not because she wants people to read more books.

by Andrew Kuzinsky
How I Will Use This

First off, I'm getting rid of clerics (at least in the traditional sense).  You can still be a wizard attached to a church (just as you can be a fighter attached to a church), but you aren't a cleric.  (Because why wouldn't a religion employ wizards?  It almost implies that wizards are the secular counterparts of the religious priests, when historically magic was very, very closely interwoven with religion.)

I'd really like to blend the boundaries between non-magical, the arcane, and the divine.  Why does it work?  How do chickens make eggs?  

Clerics are the guys that perform weddings and funerals.  They're no more of an adventuring class than "merchant", "scribe", or "pope".

Bottom line: There's very little difference between a typical D&D Cleric and a Wizard of the Red Temple.  I already gave my wizards weird observances, boons, and banes anyway.  You could also view this as a merging of the cleric and wizard class--common people probably see them the same, and any wizard is going to be religious (because everyone is religious).  

Instead, faith is something for the whole party to practice--not just one member.  Let's talk about how to do that.


Augury isn't a spell.  It's something that anyone can do.  Just go to a temple (or shrine) and make a sacrifice.

The important thing to know here is that you aren't asking a deity to tell you the future, you're asking the deity if they will be pleased or displeased by something.  You aren't asking if you will win the battle, you're asking if it will please Dendari if you go into battle tomorrow.

The trick is that you can still sort of tailor the question by choosing the god carefully.  Different gods want different things.  (See Three Gods that Every Adventurer Knows, below.)

Performing Augury

This requires either a shrine or a temple.

1. A divine intelligence will tell you whether they approve of the thing you name.  You can name a course of action ("Setting out to recapture the Traitor Horse.") or a noun ("The city of Mondaloa.")

2. Make a sacrifice and roll a d100.  Consult the chart.

3. Receive the answer: auspicious, ill, or terrible.

If you get it under a certain value, the augury will be accurate.  Otherwise it will be random (odds = inauspicious, even = auspicious).  If the augury fails and the dice show double odd numbers (e.g. 99) then this is a terrible omen and you must do something drastic (very possibly this is many sacrifices) in order to avert a horrible fate.  If you were asking about a possible plan of action--and I must stress this--you must not do it.

If you ask "Will it please Phosmora if I rob the tomb of Godo the Heretic?", receive a terrible omen in return, and persist in robbing the tomb of Godo the Heretic anyway, the DM is well within her rights to collapse the entrance, trapping you in the tomb.  Because fuck you, you were warned.

The Augury Chart

Bottle of Wine (1s): Base 40% success rate.
Three Chickens (10s): Base 50% success rate.
Cow (100s): Base 60% success rate.
But bear in mind that you can literally sacrifice anything.

Favored sacrifice: +20%
Rare, favored sacrifice: Automatic success.

Tip the Clerics: +X%, where X is the square root of the money donated.  X is also the X-in-20 chance that the high clerics will take an interest in you, and will want to talk to you personally.  Clerics are found at temples, but not shrines (and yes, some of them are wizards).

Remember that everything you sacrifice must be in pairs.  One for your deity of interest, one for Zulin.  There will be someone at every temple who will take your second cow.

If you don't have either a shrine or a temple, you can do it yourself at a -10% penalty.

If you don't have a sacrifice, you can still attempt it at a -10% penalty, based on what you promise to deliver.  ("Great Dendari!  Have mercy on those who are lost!  I swear to you on my hope of heaven, I will sacrifice 100 chickens to you when I return.")  Failure to immediately repay this debt incurs a curse.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but all of this must be accompanied by proclamations and praise.

Three Gods Every Adventurer Knows

Phosmora, Goddess of Gold, Darkness, Domestic Violence, and the Underworld
Favorite Offerings: black goats, black wine, black pearls
Rare Offering: A black goat, born under a new moon, ritualistically blinded and consecrated at birth.
Augury: A parent buries a gold coin in dirt on a new moon.  A child digs it up on the next new moon.  Afterwards it is kept in a bag filled with soil, and no light is allowed to touch it.  This is a consecrated coin.  The consecrated coin is flipped in a perfectly black room, then a torch is lit and coin is consulted.  (Coin balancing on edge = terrible omen).
Approves: When you find gold underground, but especially when you go deeper underground.
Curse: Curse of the Sun.  You are blind.  However, if you are underground and carry a lit torch and a wavy sword, you can temporarily see normally.  Gold burns your flesh.

Dendari, Goddess of Survivorship, Fear, Tea, Acrobats, and Friendship
Favorite Offerings: A tool that has helped you survive, specific types of tea, a white rooster.
Rare Offering: A tool that saved your life, against all odds.
Augury: A four-hour ceremony where three liquids are ritualistically presented, refused, implored, then accepted.  The four liquids can be anything, but are traditionally four types of tea.  Requires a teacup and tea leaves, which are examined at the ceremony's end.  (The teacup spills = terrible omen).
Approves: When you escape to safety, but especially when you meet interesting people.
Curse: The Curse of Bravery.  Whenever you see a monster, you must Save or yell a challenge.  At the start of every combat, you must Save or place yourself in the most dangerous position (e.g. jumping off a boat to stab the sharks, etc), with another Save on subsequent rounds to end this effect.  Immune to fear.

Cembric, The Second Holy Emperor, God of Crossroads, Pilgrims, Amputees, and Wolves
Favorite Offerings: Cattle
Rare Offering: A carnivore that has eaten your hand.
Augury: Haruspecy.  An animal is killed.  The heart is thrown to the West.  The stomach is thrown to the East.  The kidneys are thrown to the North.  And the genitals are thrown to the South (because fuck the South Wind).  Finally the liver is removed, examined, and burned.  (Malformed organs or unknown pregnancy = terrible omen).
Approves: When you reach your destination, but especially when you get lost.
Curse: The Blackheart Curse.  Your hands become bent and your thumb becomes warped--you can no longer use tools or weapons correctly.  The Authority rescinds the gift of Language.  You run on all fours.  Your teeth snaggle.  You gain a natural attack (clawing and biting) that deals 1d6 damage.  You are tormented by fleas.

And of course, all gods will encourage you to kill orcs.  (But not underground.  Orcs are invisible to gods underground, except Phosmora (who they hate) and the monstrous, ancient gods that only orcs know of (who they hate).

Beware, since gods tend to enjoy more than one thing.  For example, if the Third Emperor approves when you ask about travelling down the subterranean river, does that mean that the river will bring you closer to your objective?  Or that the river will get you lost?


Whenever you blaspheme, or make light of a god, you have a X-in-20 chance of being cursed, where X is your level + your Charisma.  Gods are more likely to notice important people.  And honestly, if you've made it past level 1, it's probably because some god thought you were worth keeping alive.  Show some gratitude.

This rule is negated if both the player and the character whisper their blasphemies, very quietly.

The rule is also negated if you are very clearly doing something in service of one god, against an enemy god (such as destroying their temple and massacring their priesthood).

This also applies to players who blaspheme against your gods.  If they want to make fun of Dendari, they can do it away from the table.


An Oath is entered into by one or multiple parties.  

They must loudly state:
1. Which god they are binding themselves to.
2. What they promise to do.
3. What their penalty is if they renege.

Then, if they break their promise, they suffer the god's curse (see above).  If they die with a divine curse on them, they go directly to hell.  For example, if you swear on the Second Emperor that you are telling the truth, and then you lie and your teeth go all fucky, everyone will know that you were lying.

To determine the odds of this happening, use the Augury Chart above, with the following addition.

No Sacrifice (0s): Base 10% success rate.
Touching the Vulgate (Bible): +10%
Touching a relic: +20%.

Once you make this check (in secret), you'll never make it a second time.  For example, if you swear on the Second Emperor that you are telling the truth, and then you speak and you don't suffer a horrible curse, then it isn't clear if you were telling the truth or if the Oath check failed.

Bear in mind that questgivers will sometimes make you swear an Oath that you will perform the quest as described.  The upside is that the patron will usually be forced to bind themselves according to the same Oath (so they won't backstab you either).

If a group makes an Oath together, then they will suffer the effects together (if any).  One roll per Oath.

This replaces geas, which was always an ungraceful spell.

Desperate Prayers

A party can attempt a desperate prayer once per session.

The character must loudly state:
1. What they want from the god.
2. What they promise to do if they get it.

The default chance of success is 0%.  The god will only intercede once, and in the smallest way possible.  These rolls are made in secret, and at the last possible moment.

If the player requests something small, that could possibly be explained away by coincidence, they get up to coincidence, they get up to +5%.

If the player promises something generous that they have the capacity to give, they get up to 5%.

Example 1 - Goren Kriegod wants to know which path leads to the surface, and so he cries "Phosmora, who was once as slave as I am a slave, guide me out of your embrace!  I must find again the sky, or be swallowed up by these black walls!  Rescue me and I will sacrifice a fine bull for your!".  +5% for a tiny, deniable action.  +3% for a decent offer.  There is an 8% chance that a black rat crawls out from a crack and then flees, showing Goren the correct way out.

Example 2 - Goren Kriegod asks Dendari to help him survive this battle.  If he survives, he promises to build her a temple.  +3% for an action that difficult to hide as coincidence.  +1% for an unlikely promise (Goren is too poor to build a temple to Dendari).  If Goren would take lethal damage in this fight, there is a 4% chance that some coincident prevents it, leaving Goren at 0 HP but otherwise unhurt.

Up Next

Religion is not something that one party member (the cleric) has.  Religion is something that the whole party enters into together.  Religion something for the party to put on their party sheet.

I haven't got the prototype off the ground yet, but it will work a bit like the guardian angel concept that I wrote about before.

Essentially, the party declares that they want to worship Esuna, the goddess of serpents and healing.  The party works together to raise their Devotion to Esuna.  The party gains magic dice (that they all share) that they can use to cast heal on each other through exhortation.  The party has no cleric, and  yet they all still have access to healing magic.  (Bonus: no one has to be the healbot.)


  1. Appreciate the pointers and thoughts!---I've been working on some posts about Greyhawk gods and their clerics, will definitely link back here when I complete them :D


  2. The Curse of the Sun seems to be missing a sentence.

  3. If you make an Oath and the consequence is e.g. "let my right hand shrivel and fall off if I fail" or "let me be fall down dead if I lie", is the god's curse applied in addition to or replaced by that consequence?

  4. This seems neat... I need to go dig through those lined articles.
    But maybe I'm confused. This seems to be seeking to have RPG 'religions' move closer to real historical reads on how such things develop... but aren't the initial assumptions of fantasy games, that gods/the supernatural/magic is a real and observable thing that is not left to 'faith', different enough to move the portrayal of such things to be wildly different than it was in our 'real' world?
    Not sure I'm making any sense there...

    1. It's harking back to times when gods/magic/supernatural WERE assumed to be real and observable.
      To doubt the accepted explanation would be like being a 9/11 truther.
      One OSR or more exactly swords-and-sorcery assumption is that magic is *real*, but not tamed and predictable, more a probabilistic cauldron of estimates and guesses and luck than a refined, defined, well-explained well-ordered process. Magic is rolling dice, not playing billiards.

    2. I think it depends on your view of the Gods in your setting. If you have a more modern view, you probably think of pagan Gods as basically people who possess great power and do things, sort of like superheroes. The physical laws run everything else, so life is basically normal, until Superman flies by and catches you when you fall out of an open window, or Dr. Doom comes along to break your dam because it displeases him for some esoteric reason.

      On the other hand, the ancients thought of everything in the universe functioning because of the interference of some kind of spirit or God. There was no "natural law" as we understand it. Chickens do not lay eggs because they evolved to do that or were designed to do it, but because the Queen-Mother of Hens allows them too. And as Mr. K said, the proof is that our chickens keep laying eggs, proving that the Queen-Mother is pleased by our worship.

    3. "It's harking back to times when gods/magic/supernatural WERE assumed to be real and observable."
      Except that there is no need to assume if, as in most fantasy RPGs, the gods do show up an magic is objectively real.
      A world where a god is as provably real as a cow... vs. being an unseen force of nature... seems like it would produce a different approach.

    4. @knob: I think you have the gist of it. It's moving away from "Cthulhu has 600 HP" and moving towards "if you put a live squid under your bed, you'll have prophetic dreams, but risk going mad."

    5. A low-level understanding of the rituals and observances needed to survive in the world without offending any god. Not a high-level cosmology where you start your religion chapter with "Section 1: THE CREATION OF THE WORLD".

    6. @knob: a lot of settings bill themselves as "places where the gods are real" and yet Pelor never shows up to help topple the evil empire when, honestly, he probably should. So "gods are real and imminent" but they don't feel that way. Clerics just feel like a different flavor of wizard, and you might see some angels in high-level play, but that's it.

      Compare that to a setting where Alice asks for divorce after finding a squid under Bob's pillow, but then Bob gets angry and shocks the entire village by describing their deepest secrets and fantasies to them.

      To me, the second setting feels more like "the gods are real and they are here" than the first setting. Even though the divine influences are smaller and more ambiguous, they exist at all levels of the world.

    7. @knob: rereading your comment; I'll try to address it better.

      You seem to be saying: in fantasy settings the gods are real and present, and they would probably manifest more clearly (clerics, obvious miracles). They probably wouldn't manifest as peasants making up superstitions for why they need to let their fields lay fallow every third year.

      To which I respond:

      1) Real-world religions grow from small, folk-level superstitions, theories, and taboos. Small roots have been enough to inspire truly tremendous organizations and acts of faith in the real world.

      2) I guess it's also part of my approach. I'm trying to write games for heroes, not superheroes. Or maybe not even heroes, but just clever people in dangerous situations. I don't want to compare Pelor's heaven to Bahamut's heaven. I would rather spend my time writing about how peasants will burn hair to keep snakes out of granaries, because (a) it's more interesting, and (b) it's more relevant to the PCs. (Perhaps they can drive off a wyrm by burning enough hair. . .)

    8. Very late to this conversation, but I think a thing worth pointing out is that this stuff being "objective and real" doesn't mean people are all going to agree on it and what it means in a unified way.

      Without too directly injecting real-world situations, there are people with some of the biggest platforms in human history right now (whether alive or dead) whose followers and enemies strongly, vehemently, irreconcilably degree on the meaning of their explicit words, or even things that are baseline traits about them.

  5. I think some of the articles you link are missing some points*. Mary Douglas went out of her way to do research and one thing specifically and she did it well. But that doesn't mean it's all there is to it. In religious studies you have anthropology of religion, sociology of religion, structuralism, metaphysics, comparative studies, and so on. Each of those can have their own methods and paradigm: and in all those cases, they don't say "everything" about religion.

    That being said, it doesn't mean "nothing" can be said about religion. but I feel the most important factor is: what does it bring to the table, what does it bring into your world setting (and that also brings something to your setting). That's why although I don't necessarily agree with your view of religion, I do agree with what you do with it, because that's the important part. (I'm saying this as someone doing PhD in religion history and having a master in religious studies)

    * For example, with no disrespect due to the author, the first link says this: "Granddad Tolkien never wrote much about religion in Middle-Earth, which is odd considering that he was a devout Catholic. Faramir and his boys do some praying to the "Lords of the West" before dinner and one time Sauron got an entire civilization to worship Satan but that is about it." That's a big misunderstanding of what religion is at its core and what Tolkien was doing. Tolkien created a thoroughly 'Christian World', it was a 'religious world'. But there was just no 'religion' WITHIN that world. The distinction is important. Religion can be understood as a set of metaphysical rpinciples unto which all reality is both understood and given meaning. It is a language of symbols that enable 'reality' to exist within the cognitive framework of humans, and all that goes with it to be remembered, reactivated and shared (symbols, rituals and myths).

    You don't even 'need' religion to have a setting, especially if you want to ditch clerics. And I'm not saying this as a atheist or anything. I'm just saying if you ditch cleric you could ditch religion also, it all depends on what you want to bring to your gaming table. ALternatively, you could ditch religion and have clerics (Elves in LOTR are doing pretty much that role, and if you check what they do in the books/movies and the Cleric spells in D&D, you'll see that although it wasn't the goal, it's strikingly similar).

    1. I'm not trying to teach a course on religious studies. I'm just trying to highlight the assumptions that a lot of game designers make about religion (usually without realizing that they are assumptions) and propose a fun, viable alternative.

      How do you run religion in your games?

    2. I might have miscommunicated my intent here seeing how you reply: as I've said, I like your take. Why ? Because you bother more with "how does this affect my table" than "how does this makes sense with regards to real-life religion (i.e. worldbuilding)". I was just pointing out that your understanding of religion (i.e. centered on the anthropological functionalist viewpoint) was one amongst many; and although not wrong, looking at others can give other ideas for the table also. And sometimes we can find it where we don't know: such as the example of Tolkien that, at first glance, has "no religion", but that when you take a step back, you can see the 'religion' "pouring out" of the whole setting itself.

      I'm sorry if that seemed as a critic to your work, it was not intended to.

      In my setting I have taken a soft approach and kept a polytheistic framework (in the form of a Christian metaphor). Why? Because it was more easily understood by my players and their "gaming sensibilities". For clerics, I folded them in the Paladin (as a form of protector of temple, a Templar). Priests are specific devotees that maintain temple presence and have special powers (high level cleric spells, such as remove curse), but human-gods relationships and blessings can be made by anyone, including Lords and Kings (my world is influenced by proto-Indo-Europeans), through various sacred places and rituals.

      As I've said, that's, to me, the first concern: what does it bring to the table for my players. My goal was not to emulate my studies inside my game.

    3. Hi David, I'm the author of the first link.

      I disagree with your conceptualization of religion as a "system of symbols". That's a classic Geertz notion but that has been thoroughly deconstructed by Talal Asad in Genealogies of Religion. What is problematic about it is that if you see religion as a "system of symbols" then you take again the mental as primary and bodily action as secondary. The "symbols" come first and then the rituals, actions, art, at cetera. This echoes the Christian preoccupation with "faith".

      Now, not to say that this approach is wrong or useless, but a big part of the field of material religion, which heavily influenced my post, is that it perhaps overemphasizes materiality in an attempt to correct this singular obsession with the mental, with belief and ideation.

      Yes, LOTR is an intensely Catholic work, but it is remarkable that the work that began fantasy as we know it and all the pseudo-polytheist religions that inhabit it had no religion *in it*, except for the misled cults to Melkor. In the fiction of Middle-Earth, there is not really something we call "religion". This is not a misunderstanding of what religion is. I think it is a misunderstanding on your part of what the "religion of LOTR" is and what "the religion of the people in LOTR" is. I was discussing the latter.

      "You don't even 'need' religion to have a setting, especially if you want to ditch clerics. And I'm not saying this as a atheist or anything. I'm just saying if you ditch cleric you could ditch religion also, it all depends on what you want to bring to your gaming table."

      I kind of disagree, but it depends on what you think "religion" is. If we take religion as the commonsensical thing - there's gods, you believe in them, and you can't believe in the things of another "religion" - both I and Arnold are already ditching that.

      But ditching spirits and/or gods and/or magical connections in general seems like a waste, and also do not really reflect the real experience of being human throughout the vast majority of history. These things would not even be considered part of a unique sphere of life called "religion" - your social obligations to the ancestors are the same as those to your parents. So if they aren't "religion", you can't ditch them as "religion".

      In fact, "atheism" kind of only becomes possible because of this preoccupation with "belief". If you are mainly concerned with doing rituals the right way - the way you might be with doing your taxes the right way - "belief" is such a non-issue that "non-belief" would not be such a dealbreaker as to become its own school of thought.

      Of course this is kind of academic. I think that for a "real" fictional world, spirits/gods/ancestors/powers etc need to be present; but for a world interesting enough to put a good game in, not at all.

    4. Greetings Circas,

      1) Geertz definition is incomplete, I'll give you that. My goal here was not necessarily to enter into a long definition war with the author since, in the end, coutnless shcolars and years of academic research is still waging on the subject. Rather I wanted to steer back the ship towards something I finded more heuristic. Is Geertz my personal professional definition of religion? No. But it's a little bit more in line with it. (I say professional because I'm also doing higher studies in History of Religion) Also as you know, we always give definition with regards to our objects since it's easier to defend it like that.

      2) I'm unsure about the part on LOTR since I wrote literally "That's a big misunderstanding of what religion is at its core and what Tolkien was doing. Tolkien created a thoroughly 'Christian World', it was a 'religious world'. But there was just no 'religion' WITHIN that world." I'm sorry if I was unclear, I'll try to reframe my thoughts if needed.

      3) My point was never to say that "it's not a waste to ditch them", but rather "it's not game breaking". Some people necessarily include religion(s) as part of their basic worldbuilding as if it was necessary to have a Forgotten Realms like pantheon to even be a fantasy world. My comment more specifically was directed towards this idea: you can clearly have a world with no discernable "religions" (with a more socially oriented definition). If you want to take a wider definition of "religious", then yes you can't ditch them. But sometimes I think telling people to ditch religion (which in their mind is either Abrahamic Faith or big pantheons) will probably lead to more interesting world building and game mechanics than the classic "clerics + gods = good". That's more of an opinion than a fact in any cases. I agree with your final thought, my point here being more than you don't NEED it, but it can bring something... if done right! There are plenty of other exemple of "religious" thoughts that are expressed differently than how it is expressed in popular fantasy, such as ancient Chinese, shamanistic thoughts, or even hinduism, etc. Not saying they are "better", but different and could offer different kind of ideas for people to game on.

      Anyway, thanks for engaging.

    5. I don't really have anything to add, but wanted to express gratitude for an interesting main article and for the polite and enlightening discussion in this thread.

  6. I had already internalized much of what the articles talked about through my studies of eastern beliefs and some of the "newer" cosmologies like Planescape and Elder Scroll, which borrows heavily from Runequest's Glorantha setting. In my setting, everything has a spirit and spirits and ideas are intertwined. A god is spirit that has been worshipped enough that it has become really powerful and developed a personality. So a small village could offer some food from their harvest to the spirit of the local fields and the next year the harvest is better, but not because the spirit was pleased with the offering but because the spirit received worship and become empowered to influence the world. However, the ritual shaped the spirit and started to form its personality, so now it expects offerings from harvests or it will become upset. The souls of the deceased can become gods, if the ancestor worship is strong enough, and great leaders can become living gods if there are enough people worshipping them. Though, the toll on their psyche from having a personality which might conflict with what people believe/expect them to be and thus shaping them with their belief can drive them insane.

    I also got rid of clerics. Reading OSR blogs revealed to me that clerics weren't created originally as priests; they're Van Helsing - undead hunters. With that in mind, I realized that clerics and paladins are essentially the same thing and merged them. So in my setting paladins champion a force. Forces in my setting are the immutable powers of the universe. They don't have a personality; they just are. So a Paladin of Life champions nature, growth, the natural cycle, the strong culling the weak as a predator thins the herd, etc. A Paladin of Light champions the sun, enlightenment/knowledge, honesty, unyielding lack of sympathy for a criminal sweating as they confess under the burning glare of the sun before being swiftly executed. There is no force of Good or Evil in my setting, so all paladins are a bit gray as far as morality goes.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Also, on the topic of magic. I really like Duskshire's Brekaing out of Scientific Magic essay, particularly the bit where magic is treated as something different from nature. Magic is nature and you cannot separate the two. Again I feel like Runequest and Ars Magica handle this idea much better than D&D ever has.

  7. At the start of one sandbox campaign, I gave my players a one-page pantheon and told them to pick one deity that they all worshiped (which was how they knew each other, from attending services at that temple) and then to pick another god that they also worshiped. It worked well.

  8. This feels a lot like what Knave does for spells, or what your "everyone can read spell scrolls" rule does, extended to religion. It's good.

    I wonder at this point if popular inertia will soon grind us all down into playing classless games (or light background games like Bastionland). It feels like all the best design is moving in the direction of all the toys in the setting being available to every player.

    1. First, the masters of dungeons said, "It's stupid that only thieves can thieve. All characters should should be able to thieve." And thus skill systems were done.

      Second, the masters said, "Spells are fun. Everyone should be able to use these." And thus is was so.

      Finally, it was said, "Anyone should be able to worship the gods and get divine favors and stuff." And thus it was so.

      And at last, there was only the Fighter. And it was always so that every character was able to fight.

  9. I love this discussion! The faith system in "canonic" D&D bothers me. As the magic system [1], the mechanics is too "mechanical", it's too deterministic, or even too reasonable. If it is too deterministic, magic becomes physics, and so does deities and faith. On the other hand, if it is too mysterious, it becomes very complicated to gamify magic and faith. Game mechanics matter. The players must agree on how these mechanics function, because they will make decision on taking one action or another based on the expectation of the outcomes of those actions. The expectations will come from the understanding of the game mechanics.

    action -> [game mechanics] -> possible consequences

    When you play poker, or chess, you make choices based on what is on your hand, or on the board. If the system is too mysterious, it is either unknown to the players, or it is too random. In both cases, the mysterious system takes away the player power in steering the events in the game. In the former case, the players could at least learn with their mistakes. In the latter, all things could look too arbitrary, almost as if the GM was playing a solo game to a group of spectators. I suppose in both cases, the players would end up frustrated. It is really hard to simulate fantasy, if you are expecting magic and faith to be really magical and divine!

    Furthermore, if the metaphysics becomes too different than a modern ordinary person is able to understand, the group of people able to experience your games becomes very narrow. It would become a game which only academics (of specific background) could enjoy.

    Nevertheless, I loved your point on temples and shrines, and the mechanics for doing augury there. It reminded me that Dwarf Fortress is doing a similar thing [at 1min30s, 2]. Sites of worship should be important.

    Mechanically speaking, PCs should be willing to go there for their personal gain. Perhaps for changing their luck. For blessings or for removing curses. For making the gods remember about them, and thus the gods would look after them. What would luck be? A modifier? HP (likelihood of dying)? Better saving throws?

    About clerics, I've found this article [3] very revealing (inspirational). I think cleric spells should not be magical. They should not even be called spells. They are miracles. The game mechanics for them should be different. You've written about that before [4,5]. I think the ideas in [3,4,5] can be merged together in something mechanically fun, weird, and mysterious. I've been thinking about that, but I still haven't got into any idea that satisfied me. Miracles could be classified into (1d10):
    1) Healing
    2) Smite
    3) Protection
    4) Command
    5) Bless
    6) Curse
    7) Summon
    8) Banish
    9) Commune
    10) Aid
    11?) Shape change
    12?) Consacrate
    13?) Aid (Deus ex machina)

    Some clerics could be able to channel (convince) the gods to intervene in one of those aspects better than the other. The cleric would have to roll to succeed in his diplomacy check with the deity. The cleric would be a kind of lawyer, and intermediate. But the client, the other PCs and NPCs would have to pay for the the gods favours in faith anyway. Finally, the final effect of the spell should be totally personalised to that specific god, as in [3].


  10. Another curiosity, in the DMG of AD&D 1e, page 38, Gary Gygax wrote something interesting. The spells of levels 1 and 2 were supposed to be obtained from the cleric's mystical/theological learning. They were similar to the wizard's arcane training. The spells of levels 3 to 5 were supposed to be granted by the god's supernatural servants, such as angels and saints. The cleric should be able to communicate with them. Finally, the spells of levels 6 and 7 were supposed to be granted by the direct channeling with the deity. The cleric was getting access to communicate with higher powers, because he/she was getting promoted in the cosmological corporation of that god or pantheon. According to Gygax, the cleric would have to trade favours with many supranatural beings. If the cleric would upset one of his patron angels or saints, the cleric would lose those spells, but not others. I suppose, in this case, the cleric could negotiate with another saint, and change the spell menu. Or even, the cleric wouldn't have to upset one patron to get another. If there are many players in the cosmological powers, and they work as contacts, many of these guys would not mind that the cleric is dealing with the neighbour saint or god.

    Cleric as a trader, cleric as a diplomat, cleric as a cosmological politician, cleric as a lawyer. The laws being theology. In this context, there is a game mechanics, and there is an economy of favours and obligations.

    1. "Cleric as Trader in Favors" is how I've always run my clerics. They have to actively help their patron(s) in order to get more spells (in the form of favors), and they could also use their favors in mundane society to influence people.
      Of course, my cleric was also much more of a "wizard" type thing, being the only magic type that could be done without magical blood.

  11. I really like this idea of making religion more accesible, beyond the class. Especially because I also really dislike how often, any distinction between 'arcane' magic and 'divine' magic is nothing but flavor.

    I tried fixing this by making magic (arcane) differ more substantually from miracles (divine).

    Magic is chaos, exception. You say 'Fuck you, natural order. This rock flies now!' This does mean magic is incredibly unstable and dangerous. Mechanically players cast 'words' that can be applied in very broad ways. 'Open' can be used as creatively as the player can come up with, though a more liberal use of the word might require a harder roll. They can cast these words as often as they want. When they misscast they roll on a misscast table and make a con save to see if they get a random mutation.

    Miracles are acts of Gods (natural orders, like the order of the seasons). Miracle workers merely perform rituals to ask a God to do a thing/to get a God to vibe with them (theologians are in disagreement if gods have personalities and want stuff, or if they simply resonate with the ritual). Miracles can only restore order, protect order or banish chaos. Mechanically a you can invoke a level of miracles equal to your miracle worker templates per day (e.g. 2 templates is 1 level 2 or 2 level 1 miracles every day).

    Alignment plays a role in this. All magic-users are chaotic, all miracle workers are orderly, other people can be either chaotic, neutral or orderly (this has nothing to do with good and evil, chaos is also freedom, order is also police states).
    Chaotic people cannot benefit from miracles, but get access to good mutations.
    Orderly people cannot willingly undergo magic or use magic items but get access to blessings and blessed weapons.
    Neutral people can use magic items and blessed weapons, but cannot be blessed or get good mutations and miracles have only half effect (gods are picky).

    Though this system does not allow me to make religion and miracles accesible to everyone (gods hate chaos because they are order), I could definitely add that all neutral and orderly characters can partake in rituals during festivals and all neutral and chaotic characters can cast spells from scrolls.

    Anyway, really love your stuff Arnold. Your blog is by far my favorite RPG-blogs of the ones that I know off.

  12. Interesting, but doesn't this clash with your previous claim (in the moral dilemma post) about how players dislike RPing a character with highly different moral values from theirs? I think most modern people, religious or not, would have a lot of trouble putting themselves into this kind of pre-scientific mindset. Sounds like a good challenge, but it's an impediment for those who want to focus on the dungeon or the interpersonal drama.

    1. There's not necessarily any motality attached to it. Burying a cow skull at the four corners of your farm to improve your harvest isn't a moral/immoral act. Neither is using fertilizer.

    2. Exactly. The idea that religion is about "morality" at all is, again, a Christian preoccupation that is not universal in things we might call religious/magical.

      There's this one author, Jorg Rüpke, who wrote a book about Roman religion, who conceptualizes religion more or less as "a social body of knowledge to expand human agency". So offering to Mars to make sure the battle will go well is not an act of morality or an act of faith, but trying to exert agency. You want to win the battle; swinging your sword and killing your enemy is a type of agency to achieve that aim, and offering to Mars is as well.

      Or more simply put, like you wrote in this post, it just works.

  13. Just a couple disparate thoughts:

    Wizards aren't a secular counterpart to religious practitioners. They're the left handed path of magic, where priests and clerics lay prostrate and beg for a powerful spirit or mystical force to act on their behalf (often for the good of others and not the self), the wizard seeks to become a powerful being, they seek to unravel the craft of magic directly.

    More succinctly: The cleric is just a lawfully aligned wizard, and wizards are almost necessarily neutral or chaotically aligned.

  14. I was really happy to see my blog post here, the one on Sword of Mass Destruction. I do think your gamification is a lot less hassle-free than mine. Good read!

  15. Love this post. I wrote a short response inside of a longer post on my blog and I'm curious if you have any thoughts:

    The explicit promise of augury is that when the god replies with a terrible omen and you decide to continue with that plan, it will go terribly wrong. As you say, “the DM is well within her rights to collapse the entrance, trapping you in the tomb.” The divine response is mysterious, unknowable, so PCs can’t really predict what will happen. If the augury returns an auspicious omen, then what happens? Does the referee step in and cause an important failed roll to succeed? Once, twice, five times? Does the referee make a bad plan succeed?

    Also at the risk of seeming like a simp, you can check out my blog at

  16. Curiousity. Can you adopt things? Have this little idea I'd like to share with whole world & I don't know any other place to do that.

  17. you have not posted in mounths are you dead?

  18. Not related to the topic at hand, but I thought it was important to stop in and tell you that you ended up inspiring me to start my own blog in the same style, and I thank you for that