Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons revolves around the mechanics of ability scores (physical and mental character traits) and how those scores apply to proficiencies (what you’re good at). Both are represented numerically, as modifiers to any number you roll on a d20 whenever you make a skill check. Ability checks are written like this: Ability (proficiency). For example, your Dungeon Master might call for an Intelligence (Religion) check. The reason for this is Intelligence is the applicable ability score, while your Religion proficiency allows you to further modify the skill check. Quick disclaimer: any 5E D&D DM can require or allow any ability check or skill proficiency check for any reason, even outside this purview. This article is meant as a guide for new players and DMs to explain how skill checks work and what they look like, narratively.
What is Religion?
Religions in 5E D&D are vast and complex, as diverse as the worlds they inhabit. Through religion people find purpose in worlds quaked by perpetual threat, both internal and external. Before we dive into what could very well be one of our most controversial and longest articles in this series, let’s look at the text and see how the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook defines Religion as a skill proficiency:
“Your Intelligence (Religion) check measures your ability to recall lore about deities, rites and prayers, religious hierarchies, holy symbols, and the practices of secret cults.”
Politics and religion
You hear it said all the time: never discuss politics and religion, but guess what we’re about to do, anyway? Buckle up everybody, because whenever you talk about one of these you’ll eventually end up talking about the other.
Oftentimes our fantasy worlds hearken to bygone days, but with a twist. Sometimes that’s magic, sometimes it’s technology and sometimes it’s any number of other things or combinations. But on some fundamental level fantasy allows us to explore aspects of our own reality and history in a safe space, outside the ramifications of that history. It opens us up to asking questions we might otherwise shy away from and it grants us a more objective lens to shape our worldviews through.
Historically, politics and religion have played intimate roles with one another, and inevitably they mirror one another in different contexts. A hierarchical government is likely to have a religion with a hierarchy of its own. A tribal structure will likely have a religion with accessible leaders due to its smaller nature. Many times those with religious authority or power also hold political authority or power and religions almost always have commentary on the societies surrounding them, especially in the context of their moral codes. This is demonstrated well in the Dragon Age series.
My grandfather used to say, “You can’t legislate morality,” and that’s a true statement. Governments that try to force a specific code of religious morality into their laws inevitably fail at their main objective of converting the masses. This is apparent in the history of the United States, whose entire founding was by the religiously disenfranchised.
Usually, the more emphasis a religion places on order the more rituals it possesses and the more influence it exerts over the government. Conversely, some religions present themselves as existential truths, regardless of acknowledgment. Regardless of where your own fantasy religions fall within the spectrum, religions inevitably possess tenets — core beliefs they hold sacred. These beliefs are usually commentary on the worlds and societies these religions come from, and when it comes to fantasy worldbuilding, we as DMs must keep this in mind.
Too often, I see copy and pasted religions from our own world put into the context of fantasy with thinly veiled references to real religions, even though said elements would never exist in the fantasy world’s context.
Context is everything
Cultural context is probably the biggest factor to consider when it comes to fantasy religions. I can’t tell you how many fantasy world RPGs (both tabletop and video game) I’ve seen with a version of Christmas from our world. However, without the advent of Christ and the pagan holiday traditions there isn’t context for these holidays to exist. Some fantasy worlds (like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Tyria from Guild Wars 2, and Matt Mercer’s own Wildemount) take the time to build historical and religious reasons in world for their holidays and this is one of the easiest ways to judge a fantasy world’s depth of development.
I keep referencing Dragon Age’s Thedas in this article (probably because I’m currently GMing the official RPG for my group on Wednesdays), but that world just does such an excellent job, both in the video games and in the TTRPG, with worldbuilding what the various religions believe and why. The Chantry and the Imperial Chantry clearly reference different branches of Christianity at times, but everything they believe: every scripture you uncover on your quest, every building, every tenet has its own reason for existing within the context of the greater world of Thedas. What’s more, the religions all address similar topics that would surely come up in the world: magic, demons and other dimensions like the Fade, and when these views are presented the games are very careful to articulate that no single party is “right.” Each has elements of truth, and discovering those truths as well as the various falsehoods or mistakes is all part of the wonder of experiencing them.
The reason I articulate all of these things is because Religion in the 5E D&D is so often neglected. Too often I see DMs skim the introduction to each religion and call it good, as it were, without really giving thought to the ramifications said religion would have on the world at large or how it would interact with other religions in the world.
That’s a topic for a later time, but just think for a moment about how few religions get along in our own world. Now imagine the wealth of religions in your fantasy world, complete with all their clerics that have their “miracle magic,” as I call it, to lend credence to their beliefs and actions. That gets really messy really quickly yet how often do we see those themes explored? And that says nothing about how the different religions look in the lives of their observers!
Jester and Caduceus
Much as with our post on Performance, we can’t talk about Religion unless we talk about the class that most corresponds to the skill: the cleric. Thinking of how different religions manifest in the lives of adherents, I always come back to thinking of Jester and Caduceus from Critical Role.
Each serves a different god: Jester with the Traveler and Caduceus with the Wild Mother. For Jester, her god is personal, intimate and a simple fact of her everyday life. Her religion is deeply personal, and while she readily shares it with others there’s not a religious hierarchy as such to lead her in her faith. The Traveler speaks to her directly. Conversely, Caduceus serves the Wild Mother, and while She doesn’t have a government leading church or hierarchy, Her tenets seem more structured and defined than those of the Traveler.
What’s more, Caduceus presents a lovely example of how proselytization can be done positively. Too often when we think of someone sharing their faith or converting to a religion we think of religious warmongering, like the ancient Crusades of our world’s history. Yet Taliesin’s portrayal of Caduceus sharing his faith with Fjord was nothing if not subtle, earnest, and honestly beautiful. It offered a glimpse into not only Caduceus’ personality but also his deity’s.
As a note with the other sources of power, miracle magic is used by clerics and paladins as well as subclasses such as the Divine Soul sorcerer and the Path of the Zealot barbarian among others. When it comes to magic of a divine nature, I often rule Religion is the skill check used to determine the success or failure of a given bit of knowledge or lore. For more on my personal reasons for this, feel free to check out my articles on Arcana and Nature.
While the vast majority of followers in most D&D religions will never possess miracle magic, the picture of diversity of personality and faith that Jester and Caduceus offer is not only inspiring for the audience to observe in the story, but it also serves as an excellent example of how two different characters with wildly different faiths and personalities can work together and be sincere friends. Not all religions are opposed in D&D, and I think that’s another concept all too often forgotten.
Leliana and Mother Giselle
Okay, I can’t help myself. We’re going back to Dragon Age again, but only briefly. In the context of Dragon Age most of the religious characters possess no miracle magic at all. This is largely due to the dominant religion, the Chantry’s, stance on magic being a corrupting influence on the world due to mages attracting the attention of demons from the Fade.
Leliana and Mother Giselle are both characters you encounter in the Dragon Age video games who are faithful adherents of the Chantry, and Mother Giselle is even a leader among the hierarchy. However, neither of these women possess magic, miraculous or otherwise. Yet each is a shining example of how faith can impact the lives of the religious. Magic doesn’t make a good religion; deep worldbuilding does. It’s only after working with this worldbuilding and presenting these religions through NPCs and players that your fantasy world’s religions begin to shine richly.
Know thy enemy
Wow! We’ve covered a lot, here, but I do think it’s important to touch on one aspect of the Religion skill we haven’t addressed yet;: the notion that it relates to secret cult practices. Even if your character isn’t a member of a cult, secret or otherwise, that doesn’t mean they’ve never encountered or heard of one.
Many cults exist in our world. Cults are more obscure religious groups. Traditionally in D&D the word cultist immediately evokes a cue to players to “kill it, kill it now.” However, remember Jester, from earlier? Matt specifically called the Traveler a cult god, a god with cult followings. However, Jester isn’t evil. She’s plucky and maybe looks a mite devilish due to her tiefling heritage, and true: she probably started some people down the path of diabetes with her offers of sweets but no more than your common baker.
Now, if cults are universally evil in your games, that’s fine, but I will say I think you lose a degree of nuance by not even asking what makes them evil or why a cult would be evil but a religion wouldn’t. The main distinction between a cult and a proper religion is just size of following, really.
Either way, even if cults are all evil in your world, it would still make sense for the religious to know about cults, to some degree, if for no other reason than to be able to debunk them with confidence in their own faith.
Also, bear in mind just because a character is trained in Religion doesn’t mean they have to be religious. In my own life, I know many atheists who know more about religions than said religion’s own adherents. Training in the Religion skill is Intelligence based because it represents knowledge and understanding. And we never even touched on the notion that not all religions have to have gods at their epicenter at all!
However, even if your only character trained in Religion isn’t religious in their own right, all of the things we discussed today are important to consider when building your world, because it contributes to a richer, more immersive experience.
What do you think?
How do you treat Religion in your games? Have you had any noteworthy religious characters? If you made it this far, let us know in the comments!