A recent re-reading of the Dark Horse Conan graphic novels got me thinking about the importance of religion in Dungeons & Dragons. Quite often, it seems, the gods are only important to the occasional cleric or paladin, and even then mostly as someone to swear oaths to. In Conan's world, arguably one of the prime inspirations for D&D alongside Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, features it's gods prominently.. or at least their priests and easily robbed temples. Conan distrusted religion, though, and with good reason: even the servants of Mitra, a benevolent deity, are often corrupt and embroiled in secular schemes. Retaliation for stealing religious artifacts and getting embroiled in the plots of scheming priests is one of the great motivators behind Conan's later adventures. How, then, to work this sort of thing into a D&D campaign?
The first step, and the one I'll cover in this article, is to make the local religions and temples a bigger part of the personality of the city. Churches tend to be a focal point for communities and a large influence on them, so having two or more gods with different goals and precepts should have a significant effect on the character of the community. To do this, decide on two or more of your campaign's deities that have particularly significant temples in your city and then consider how those deities and their priesthoods would interact with each other and the community. Remember that even gods that share the same alignment can come into conflict when their specific goals are opposed. That conflict can take the form of rumor campaigns, open political maneuvering, or even armed conflict if the differences grow extreme enough. Here's a quick example of different interactions for one random group of religions: Avandra, goddess of change, trade, travel and adventure; Erathis, goddess of civilization, invention, cities and law; and Kord, god of storms, battle, strength and glory.
The Frontier Bastion: This fortified town lies on the edge of civilization, along the frontier that Avandra is so fond of. The three temples exist here in an uneasy truce. Avandra's priesthood is here to explore and expand the frontier, and to support the traders looking for new routes and adventurers seeking fresh plunder. Erathis is here to bring the light of civilization to the frontier, support the town's merchants and craftsmen, and ensure the law of the land is upheld. Kord's militant priesthood is here because the frontier is a dangerous place, and battle-hardened men are required to hold the monsters and any rival civilizations at bay. Though Avandra and Erathis are nearly polar opposites, they recognize that each has a place here in creating a stable bastion for humanity, and both look to Kord's followers for strong swords to protect it. The community is a mix of entrepreneurial merchants and traders, their guards and mercenaries, and adventurers. It's a rough and ready sort of place, undeniably a frontier town, but also solidly constructed and well policed, with none of the slapdash temporary feel of other places at the edge of civilization. Adventure opportunities will often be presented by the priesthood of Avandra or Erathis offering bounties on local monsters or rewards for helping secure new trade routes, with the temple of Kord offering support for these endeavors.
Bartertown: Nestled safely within the borders of the kingdom and situated at a major crossroads, this town long ago outgrew it's walls to become a sprawling nexus of trade. The priesthood of Avandra is powerful here, with the backing of rich and powerful merchants fat on steady trade. Their wealth buys not only great political power, but martial power in the form of mercenaries, many of whom follow Kord. The local ruler, despite the backing of the priesthood of Erathis, feels threatened by the merchant's growing power and angered at the political maneuvering that has allowed them to dodge taxes and his efforts to limit smuggling. The conflict is mostly political, but outbreaks of violence in the back alleys of the city and even the occasional assassination aren't unheard of. The wealthy merchants of the town and their allies strut about as if they own the place, accompanied by highly trained and well armed bodyguards. The town watch, on the other hand, are ill equipped and poorly trained, and easily bribed into indifference. The populace in general are eager to get in on the action, populating the streets with small time merchants, con-men and petty thieves. Adventure opportunities will focus around the power struggle between the priesthoods of Avandra and Erathis, either securing opportunities and treasures before the other can, guarding against the machinations of the other, or even outright attacks. Any action against the merchants is likely to run into opposition from the followers of Kord.
The Seat of Power: Not far from Bartertown, off the main trade routes, the priesthood of Avandra is in a much more difficult situation: they've been driven underground. The town's ruler is a tyrant and has the full support of both Erathis (happy to see the law enforced to the utmost) and Kord (eager for the possibility of a nice war in the near future, and skirmishes with rebels in the meantime). Avandra's priesthood has been officially banned from the town for their scofflaw ways, but her worship continues within the walls amongst those fighting the baron's heavy taxes and power hungry ways. The heavily taxed merchant class, though few, form ready allies for Avandra's rebels. The town watch, backed by Kord's militants, is a powerful force that keeps the peace with an iron fist. Laws grow stricter by the day, and punishment is swift and severe. The streets are shockingly quiet as both outlaws and everyday citizens attempt to stay out of the way of the guards lest they run afoul of some new statute. Adventure opportunities would mostly come from the rebels attempting destabilize the tyrant's regime, ranging from retrieving lost magic items to help their quest to direct assaults on the guards or rescuing freedom fighters from the dungeons. The tyrant's forces, and thus the temples of Erathis and Kord, are unlikely to seek aid from adventurers, but a small elite military unit might find work with them attacking rebel cells.
All that variety from the interactions of just three deities and their varying precepts. Of course even more variety can be had by varying the mix of deities, but there is something to be said for showcasing the same set frequently. It establishes the deities and their priesthoods as real entities in the campaign with a real influence on events, and makes them more then generic wise men PCs can go to for restoration and resurrections. A good way to combine these two strategies is to establish one or two deities as the primary gods of a particular kingdom or region, and vary the additional gods worshiped in each settlement. This adds the extra advantage of making foreign cities seem even more exotic their regular temples to Bahamut and Pelor replaced by Sehanine and the Raven Queen, with all the resultant changes to the local culture. Start sprinkling your campaign with lost religious relics and chatter about rival priesthoods, and you're halfway there.
Next week (probably): Corruption makes for great stories. A god-by-god look at how priests of the 4th ed core deities can go wrong.