Some character types are easier to play than others. A fighter in old DnD is much easier than a wizard, especially for new players. Street Samurais over deckers. Minor talents over white court vampires. A big part of this difficulty curve has to do with mechanics, but another part has to do with familiarity.
Religious characters, for example, are often challenging to play. They are often played for mechanical benefits (healing, advantages versus evil, balance of magic and equipment, etc.) without consideration for their beliefs, which is much more limited when compared to the ever-popular hero that makes his own way and plays by his own rules.
Rather than rant about clerics that mechanically serve the goddess of generosity and yet steal from crippled beggars, I’d like to take a more constructive approach. Religious characters can be a lot of fun to play, and it is not hard to play them well if you have a good grasp about what their religion means to them. So with that in mind, let me share with you some tips to help play a devoted holy character.
What Is a Religious Character
I probably should have stated this sooner in the blog, but a religiously sponsored character is a character that is devoted to a specific higher power has chosen that character as an implement of their will in order to make the world a better place. Assuming that your character is not a divine being themselves, they will probably care more about some parts of this statement than others.
While we will talk about extremes on each point, you will probably want a character that is somewhere in the middle on each scale. Giving your character’s extreme points are not necessarily make that character better. What is IMPORTANT is that you know what order these are important to your character so that when conflict comes you know how to better role play your religious character realistically.
Also just a little disclaimer here: religious characters do not have to be divine spellcasters or chosen emissaries. We focus a lot on those types of characters because mechanically they are directly using their faith to boost skill checks and use combat powers. But even a barbarian that cannot read can be religious. So while some of what we discuss here may apply to mechanical benefits, what we are really giving advice for is improved roleplaying.
First of all, there’s the level of devotion. Any character can pay a deity lip service when the undead mummy is cornering him, and that is not inherently a bad thing. But when a higher power is an important part of a character, then their level of devotion needs to be measured.
High devotion characters tend to give their deity credit for everything good that happens to them. Every good and perfect gift comes from above, and the object of their devotion can do no wrong. Extremely devoted characters are the fanatics that, even when ‘proven’ wrong by logic, still find a way to explain that their deity was in control all along.
Low devotion characters are the ones chosen by gods against their will, driven to a fate that they accomplish despite their attempts to ignore and/or fight against it. They may not like the deities that they serve, but their actions still promote those deities’ goals. Typically this reflects a character that grew up in the religion or someone that made a pact with a higher power (typically evil) that regrets their decision but has no way of getting out of it.
2 The Power
Second, there is the specific higher power its self. The deity’s domains, what they stand for, and what limits them should be important to the character in some way. If you are playing a game with a pregenerated world, there are probably deities with descriptions of what they stand for. And if nothing else, the character abilities and bonuses they offer player character often say a lot about who they are.
If the deity its self is important, then the character will often personify them. Most of the time when we think of religion, we imagine what god or goddess or demon or dragon the character serves. Interacting with a person, even if they are so much more than a person, is very different than interacting with a force of nature we have not personified. We talk to them, ask requests of them, describe them as we would people with personality traits or even appearances.
If the higher power is more an ideal, group, or source of power then the character is more likely to reference actions and ideals when they speak of their religion. Believing in a silver flame of justice means that you are part of an order dedicated to that ideal of justice. This will give you an instant connection with anyone that shares your beliefs, as these religions are more focused on the community of worshipers, possibly with an unofficial hierarchy of followers that earn their position.
3 Being Chosen
Third is the level at which the character was chosen. Did their great deeds catch their patron deity’s eye? Did they beg for redemption in their darkest hour? Or is the religion more of a philosophy that anyone can join into?
The more directly a deity chose the character, the more important they are likely going to feel. People like to feel important, and this can often lead to the self-righteous characters that are very difficult to play in a way that other players enjoy. But it can be a very positive thing that a divine being of incomprehensible power and wisdom can do wonders for your self-esteem, and that does not have to be a bad thing when you try to share the benefits with others.
The less directly a character was chosen, the more humble a character will be. They were allowed to be a part of something greater, rather than being chosen to be a major piece in it. The more extreme you go in this direction, the more of the character’s life has been spent trying to get in and/or keep their place as a part of the religion. That should tell you a great deal about the character in and of its self.
Fourth is the part about being an implement to their will. This is all about how specific of a plan your deity has for you. This one is the least arbitrary of all the points, because if it does not fit in with the other points then this is most likely the place that needs to change.
A higher rating means a more specific path with goals for advancement and a destiny. These are very commonly heroic deeds, campaign destinies, or inescapable paths. In general players shy away from this extreme because the only thing we have freedom of control over is our character, and it often goes against our nature to want to give up that freedom no matter how realistic it would be to do so.
A lower rating would indicate more freedom, where the higher power simply wants you to do the best that you can. While this extreme is initially more ideal, it is harder to make work in a campaign from a story point of view. Why would a being of immeasurable power share some of their power with you and then not care how you use it? Why would they give you advice or comfort and then ignore how you used or shared such things?
Well most likely because what they gave you is relatively insignificant or the divine power is not so much a person (see point 2) and thus is shaped differently by the people that hold to the ideals in their own way. It could also be that the being is flawed in its divine nature. Maybe it is mad and just loves to sow chaos, or perhaps they lost its ability to take away their gifts.
Make the World a Better Place
And finally, making the world a better place. You’ll note that this is a qualitative term defined by the higher power itself. A deity dedicated Ragnarok thinks the world will be a better place once it is destroyed, while a deity of nature may just want the world to be a better place by destroying races that tend to shy away from the natural order, and a deity dedicated to love may want the world to be better by putting an end to war and violence.
I suppose I could have phrased this last step as accepting the higher power’s goals, but I think it is important to point out the difference here between following a higher power and following a queen or general. You may have the same goals as the queen or the general, and you may be capable of achieving those goals on your own if the person you are following dies or changes sides.
But a being you worship is trying to reshape the world, and really all of reality, so that it better aligns with what they stand for. And even if you are playing the prophet that will bring about the final change, you are still only a small part of that world shaping because so many others have and are worshiping and following that power as well.
So here, finally getting to the point of the final point, I suggest that you decide how much the character wants the world to change. A character that is more about personal change and growth is likely to be more introverted when it comes to their faith. A good example of the extreme is the monk that seeks enlightenment while removed from the rest of the world..
Whereas someone that desperately wants to change the world, for the sake of a higher power, is more likely to do something extreme to bring about that change. These are your assassins that kill to bring about the world of peace, knowing that they are monsters that will never actually get to be a part of that perfect world.
Knowing where on these scales your character falls will make it so much easier to play the type of religious character you want to play. Too often with religiously sponsored characters we can fall into the trap of playing stereotypes or ignoring character consistency because we do not take the time to think how a character devoted to a higher power will act in a situation. We much more easily play characters that decide their own destiny because that is what we are hoping for when we play the games ourselves.
Remember that your character’s religion is more important to that character than anyone else in the party. A character that is constantly at odds with the will of the party, even if it is for religious beliefs, likely does not belong in that party. Your character should be able to get along with everyone else at least on a Shepherd Book or Dexter level.
And if you are not playing a character that is religions, try to be respectful of someone that is. They may be playing this character because your character is going to die without a healer, or they may be playing such a character because they like the story hooks that go with it. Either way, extend common courtesy as you would to any other player’s character choice.
Hopefully this guide helps you a little bit as you plan out your next prophet or priestess character, even if it is by disagreeing with our suggestions. J