Edit 17 May 2020 @ 1555 – Adjusted a line break or two and removed one duplicate clause. Also added that classic image up there just to spruce things up a bit. All in all, surprised by the coherence of this article given its origins.
Monolithic religions in Dungeons & Dragons are not exactly my cup of tea. They have their place; there are times it is fun to play a world where one major religion is present in all aspects of life like how Catholicism ruled over much of Europe for many centuries – this can be an enjoyable evil foil or an easy justification for the player characters to work together and to be compelled to venture forth. But, by and large, I prefer to play D&D in a world where societies are numerous and localized, where empires have been and fallen and the world is dotted by tiny enclaves of civilization in a vast and uncaring wilderness.
Pursuant to this, I prefer my religions fragmented and small in scale rather than universal, and I like for them to raise more questions than they answer. I prefer a village that quarries stone to place its faith in the Earthmother and strive to appease her to avoid cave-ins (and I want it questionable how the clerics of that faith actually make magic happen, if they do at all!), and I want the neighboring port city to be faithful to a pantheon of petty water deities leftover from a seafaring empire that collapsed decades ago. And I really want there to be a sincere lack of consensus on all of this. If one town believes there is a Snake Goddess who demands blood sacrifice, it’d be swell if there were a nearby city that believes there is a Snake Goddess who wants absolute veneration of eggs and warm summer sunshine, and I’d like them to think each other to be quaint heathens who have it, at best, half-right. What I want are local cults and sects, and I love when there are minor differences.
I love schisms and I love sects. That is a sentence that is hard to say aloud in public. But, nonetheless, I like the idea of one church believing ABC, and another church considered nominally faithful to the same deities to believe XYZ, at odds with the teachings of ABC – and even better if they still see each other as the same religion when compared to Those Crazy Snakeworshippers.
In real life, religion and faith are touchy subjects. In Dungeons & Dragons, though, as long as everyone is on the same page with regard to fictive beliefs, it’s usually a ton of fun for everyone. Some of the funniest moments I’ve had as a DM and as a player have come from unexpected turns. I remember playing AD&D2E as a teenager and being a paladin (WHICH WAS DEFINITELY ROLLED LEGITIMATELY, STOP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT) and I asked a church dedicated to my deity, St. Cuthbert, for a favor. Being that they were of my faith despite being in an unfamiliar city, I assumed they’d help me further the cause of capital-G Good; instead, my DM – a notorious dick, to be fair – rejected my pleas on the ground that they were from a different branch of the church of St. Cuthbert. Rather, they were the church of St. Cuthbert, and I had come from a splinter sect; they didn’t recognize my deeds and considered me to be one step above a nonbeliever and required proof of my adherence to their version of the word of St. Cuthbert. It seemed they were in the midst of a grand inquisition of blasphemers! The hilarious Monty Python-style NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION hijinx aside, it was a massive shift to realize the world outside our “starting area” of a few hexes was a big place with room for a million differences and details beyond our assumption. It made the world deeper, and more interesting, and more real. Nobody agrees all the time, least of all on important things!
On that note, I’ve prepared a number of sects here that hopefully will slide right into your own home games; they’re generalized enough that they should require only a little bit of tweaking to fit alongside the “mainstream” faiths of your game. Hopefully, they slip in unnoticed and send your players for a loop, upending their assumptions of a monolithic religion!
1 – The Forge God
All who revere the Forge God believe him to be benevolent and helpful, for his help elevating humans (or dwarves) from mere animal to tool-wielding dominant force! The Forge God stole fire for man, or taught dwarves the value of gold, or revealed the riddle of steel to the Cimmerians. Whatever the role, the Forge God has a positive effect on the account of history.
Unless, of course, you belong to this sect, which believes the Forge God brought the secrets of ore and alloy – bronze, steel, mithril, gold – to mankind for one reason and one reason only: to foment war. The adherents of this sect still venerate the Forge God, sure, but they do it for totally different reasons. To them, he is the sower of chaos and bloodshed. His hand moves man to murder. His gifts bring whole civilizations to clash against each other in hideous, empire-forging combat.
2 – The Royal Lineage
There exists a Holy Book. It has spawned two differing sides to the same faith. The same gods are worshipped, the same values given precedence. The difference comes in the interpretation of the words of the book, which, depending on opinion, imply that those of royal blood are either figuratively or literally descended from the gods themselves.
This sounds fairly minor, but it’s spurred ages of warfare and division. Those who subscribe to the Literalist dogma are of the opinion that the royal family are not quite of this plane of being; not truly mortal. They believe the royals to be vaguely fae or Olympian or similar, simultaneously alien and greater than humans. The Figuralists believe the royals to only be ordained by gods, and therefore flawed humans no better than themselves. You’d think this would be a minor difference, but it absolutely turned out not to be, and centuries of rhetoric by gifted orators in the priesthoods only worsened the divide.
3 – The Moon Denialists
The moon is not real. It’s a trick, played on the denizens of the world by the goddess of illusions to woo the prince of thieves. At least, that’s the belief of this sect of moon worshippers, who pay lip service to the deity of moons in a bid to curry favor with the goddess of illusions by proving their appreciation for the greatest trick ever played.
Adherents of this sect are, at face value, fans of the moon god or goddess. They go to moon deity temples. They celebrate moon holidays. They offer moon prayers. They just do so with the belief that the moon deity isn’t real, and is merely an aspect of the illusion deity, and that the illusion deity will deal with all the faithful according to their ability to see the reality of things when the time of reckoning comes to fruition at last.
4 – The Repentists
These cultists believe the words of all gods were given to the mortal races in error, and strive to repent for the sin of knowing. They believe all religions to be unforgivable encroachments on the privacy of the great gods, who are and should remain beyond mortal ken. They believe that to ponder or question the gods is tantamount to sin and value ignorance as a virtue.
As a result, naturally, they venerate illiterate babes and those who escaped the cruel yoke of letters and symbols. They burn schools, they destroy placards and tomes, and they secretly slaughter teachers and sages. They seek to plunge humanity into an unaware paradise state devoid of awareness of the traffic of gods.
5 – The Holy Necromancers
Death being a natural part of the life cycle is a given for most. It is a relief for adherents of the teachings of the death deities. But it is a mere suggestion for members of the death cult sect dedicated to the art of the necromancy. Though they claim allegiance to the beliefs of the mainline death cult, they split when it comes to explicit adherence to the scriptures that proclaim that death and the transition to the beyond are the natural and correct path. They believe death is not merely part of an equation, but rather a field of study and work, and they delve deeply into the necromanctic dark arts. Differing from most religions, though, they believe necromancy is the most holy order of magic possible, the highest good and the most generous kindness possible in the mortal experience.
They resent the characterization of outsiders as monsters and liches and graverobbers and madmen. They raise up the lost and the mourned; they give the grieving a new lease on their loved ones. They ply the secrets of this life and the next; they spare some souls from their eternal torment and deny others their reward. They seek balance and venerate the universality of death as the great unifying equality between all mortal beings.
6 – The Sea Worshippers
Surely all those who live near the seaside offer prostrate fealty to the fickle gods of the ocean and its many storms – but some take it a little further than most! Whereas mainline sea pantheon worshippers seek to placate the dangerous masters of the waves, the members of this sect believe that those lucky enough to be water-breathing deep dwellers are closer to godliness than the filthy landborne creatures of the surface world. Whether it is a simple salmon, or the cruel sahuagin and kuo toa, or the more otherworldly and alien denizens of the dark sea floor, all of the ocean’s children are nearer to the glory of godhood than anything breathing the fresh air of the world above the blue.
Believers of this sect are considered radicals by the mainstream worshippers of seaborne deities – though some consider them merely well-meaning zealots – and their extremist actions in protection of water habitats and aquatic creatures are broadly condemned by everyone else. Not to be confused with environmentalists, they are known for their cruelty and condescension towards all land-based people, places, beliefs, and concerns. They seek to join their aquatic “brethren” and the highest proof of devotion is to drown oneself in an attempt to prove fealty to the gods of the sea and be made whole by rejoining the ocean-dwellers. Some believe enough faith is rewarded with gills and a stead in the Deep City. All funerals are burials at sea.
There you have it: six (it’s also a 1d6 table, naturally!) sects and cults for your world, to upend assumptions about the stability and uniformity of religions they interact with or to serve as small, localized faiths for towns and settlements in any world like those I like to ply!
If you find these useful, tell me! If you find these bothersome, tell me! You can post below or you can hit me at @DungeonsPossums on Twitter, where I post way too much for anyone to tolerate!