Up until recently, religion was an extremely important part of the lives of many people. There is something played into that in many fantasy games, but to often, it is left as an afterthought to a game. I think its a very important piece of putting together a realistic game.
There is a portion of many peoples modern lives that is dedicated to religion, either defined by having it or by their lack thereof in our world, in our time, the existence of a divine being can be questioned, considered, thought about and debated, but there was no such freedom in the middle ages. In the time we focus on, questioning the church was heresy, heresy was a crime, and the punishment for that crime was death, generally by burning at the stake, but other punishments were also possible.
This strict and often brutal enforcement of a single set of beliefs is one of the main drivers of how the middle ages structure was created and codified,a right from its very infancy. These very beliefs kept Monarchs and Popes in positions of power, kept the low on the edge of existence, and forced the power structure to remain stagnant for hundreds of years. In this world, in addition to the supernatural, the divine is also a known truth, like the four humors, the miasma and other knowledge’s of the time.
What concerns us here in building a realistic fantasy world is that it is very difficult to come up with a good justification for why the Middle ages exists as it does without factoring in the influence of religion on both the state and on the individual. Each of these institutions are nearly unrecognizable, once skinned down and laid bare, if you remove religion. Lets start with the state.
From the very top of the food chain, the state is often a functioning monarchy brought about by the power and fervor of a single family, bloodline or constituent events. Since the days of Constantine the Great, each of these families has claimed that God had given them the right and permission to wield the power granted to them. This claim to power, the Divine Right of Kings, as it was later referred to, allowed them to brand dissenters as heretics and reap the rewards of a system designed to keep them in power.
Additionally, it also allowed them to have the delusion that the power that they had taken was rightfully theirs and that any use of it they chose was wise because God would not grant power to an unwise and unjust ruler. This further lead to despotic monarchs who abused their power but couldn’t see the abuse through their own, divinely gilded, blindfolds. The belief that the power they had came from God directly made the possibility of questioning their own judgement fairly moot.
From the individual perspective, each of the serfs, every merchant, and all of the gentry were told that what they had was granted by divine providence, and that what they maintained or gained was by divine will. This kept each position in their own lane and in situations where they would likely not seek to be greater than their divine lot, and to attempt it was to fall victim of hubris, greed, and pride, all sins. To be content with ones station, to seek the good within and to understand why God had given you this station was the greatest of all devotions. Gentry, slave, stable boy, and merchants all had to learn their place in the world and, more importantly, be happy with it.
Now that I’ve set the groundwork, I wanted to look into what makes a good fantasy religion, and what I try to do when I think about the way the world works in a complete sense.
The first thing that needs to be pieced together the religious structure. In many worlds, in most of them I’ve seen and played in, their is a pantheon of gods. This is one of the hardest reconciliations because many of the direct results of religion in our world that resulted in the middle ages were specifically due to a monotheistic point of view. Trying to reconcile those two concepts is paramount.
I broke it down further. I looked at the pantheons of different religions and paid attention to how they were built, what they had or lacked, and what made them all function.
First, I noted that they had the same traits as people do, with emotions, character and flaws. This created conflict, but also precludes the standard all knowing, all powerful beings that we have come to associate with gods. Instead, they are powerful relative to their realm, and they have a deep connection, but not an omnipotent one, to their realm. This gives each being a reason to feel the same emotions as the rest of us, while also playing to their strengths. I also noticed that many of the pantheons were family, and more importantly, they often fought for the same cause. Grecco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, all had a force that would, if the times were hard and the chips were down, band the family together. Titans, Giants, Death. There were specific creatures in the realms that were to be feared and fought.
This lead me to the creation of two pantheons. One, the Paltonarchs, were the good gods. They were not necessarily the gods of goodly things, but they were on the same side of life as the people of the planes were. While they had purview over life, death, disease, and other spheres both benevolent and malign, they were brothers and sisters (and Lobos) who were aligned in their goals: Defeat the Demon Queen and her adherents, including the traitor pantheon, the Accursed.
Once I had this set up, I was ready to play out the threads into the middle ages world that had been created. Evil creatures and beings would be aligned with the Accursed, and the general population would be aligned with the Paltonarchs. Instead of having good and evil gods always at odds, some evil gods were on the side of good, and some good accursed were on the side of evil. It created strife without completely negating the levels of gray that should exist in a world.
lastly, one of the largest parts of the real world that is often bled away in a fantasy world is the ability to debate, learn and figure out the natural and scientific order of things. With the gods around to provide explanation at every turn, much of the mystery of a world would be lost.
In my world, I wanted to best represent the same type of culture that predominated in the middle ages without strangling the rest of the thought processes out. To that end, I decided I wanted to make my gods believed, disinterested, and distant. Everyone and everything knew the gods exist and provide for many people. Priests and druids would be unable to conjure the divine power they do without it. The gods, though, needed to be left alone. They had things to do, and they were important. Often, in the back pages of the worlds history, is a war among the gods that left only a few, valorus and reunited gods alive. In my world, the gods are still fighting that war. They are busy, and prefer not to be distracted from their possibly fatal endeavor. However, they do want powerful soliders and representatives in the war of the heavens when the times come, so they are interested in lending their power where and when it needs to be in order to prepare the best warriors for the War in the iron marches.
Its a little different, in my world, but I think it demonstrates that there are many ways of making a world reflect the past and the situations it created, while also making it a completely fantastic world that never could have existed in our times.