Building a Fantasy Religion in Fantasy Worldbuilding Knowledge Base | World Anvil

Building a Fantasy Religion

What moral compass guides the people in your world? Where do they look for answers to big questions in life? What beliefs shape their society? These are the questions we'll explore in this article. Why incorporate a fantasy religion into your worldbuilding? Because it can provide a source of motivation, magic, conflict for the characters in your game or novel setting.

 

But inventing a nuanced, complex belief system (much less more than one!) can be a daunting task. It's also an area of fantasy worldbuilding that can be a sensitive topic for some folks. Your setting may not even need a great deal of detail around religion.

 

Here are some reasons you might need to build a fantasy religion:

  • You're creating a homebrew setting for DnD or another fantasy tabletop RPG where divine power is a source of magic for player characters. You can have clerics without gods - but it's pretty unusual!
  • You're creating an epic fantasy setting where religious organizations or monastic orders are an important or powerful political faction.
  • You're embarking on a campaign with a cult leader as the villain. A cult is a type of religion - and even if it's a sham, you'll still need to know what the members believe.

Examples of fantasy religions

It can be helpful to see what other writers and worldbuilders have done before you. So here's a short reading list of fantasy novels where religion is a main focal point in the world.

  • The 13 Gods, Gentlemen Bastards Sequence, Scott Lynch - Locke Lamora isn't just a thief. He's a priest of the god of thieves (and maybe something more).
  • Drowned God, Old Gods, Faith of the Seven, Lord of Light, Many-Faced God, A Song of Ice & Fire, George R.R. Martin - Westeros is a world of many faiths, most of which are analogs to real-world religions.
  • N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy - The gods are real (and real messy) characters in this fantasy trilogy.
  • Divine Cities Trilogy, Robert Jackson Bennett - Somebody killed the gods (and broke the world built on their divine magic).
  • World of the Five Gods by Lois McMaster Bujold - The gods are real, but they can only act through humans.
  • Kushiel's Dart, Jacqueline Carey - Angels procreated with humans, and now a fantasy version of France is full of demi-gods.
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman - Norse and other old gods are being replaced with new, modern deities, but some of them are unwilling to quietly fade away.
 

Creating a fantasy religion

 

Okay, so you've decided your fantasy people need to get religion. You've done your homework, and know what you want to emulate - and what you want to avoid. It's time to start building that fantasy faith!

 

Answer these questions in bullet points, to create basic outline of your fantasy faith. You can flesh it out later, if necessary:

  1. Make Basic Decisions: Will your religion adhere to monotheism (one god) or polytheism (a pantheon)? Is it a local, regional or global faith? Does the religion aspire to a particular moral alignment, or is it morally ambiguous? Is it an empirical or mysterious religion (meaning, do the gods actually act visibly in the world, or do followers have to take their existence on faith)? What is the religion's relationship to magic?
  2. Define Core Beliefs: Establish the fundamental tenets and myths that form the basis of the religion. Consider the creation story, moral code, and afterlife beliefs. What do they value? What are their taboos?
  3. Develop Deities: Design gods, goddesses, or cosmic forces worshipped by followers. Determine their domains, personalities, and relationships with mortals. If there are no gods, what do they hold sacred? It might be abstract concepts, places, people, or principles.
  4. Construct Rituals and Ceremonies: Invent religious practices, ceremonies, and holidays that reflect the faith's values and traditions. This is where creating a fantasy religion can be a really fun part of developing culture.
  5. Establish Organizational Structure: Outline the hierarchy of clergy, temples, and religious institutions within the faith. Explore the roles of priests, prophets, and acolytes. Are there monastic orders - if so, what are their vows? How present in the world are the holy men and women of this religion?
  6. Incorporate Symbols and Icons: Create symbols, artifacts, and sacred relics associated with the religion. These visual elements can evoke powerful imagery and inspire devotion. This can be a great time to incorporate your artistic skills - or maybe just your talent for description.
  7. Consider Cultural Influence: Reflect on how the religion interacts with the broader culture, influencing art, architecture, and social norms. This can be especially relevant for how they view gender, sexuality, and other identities.

Resources & Links

  • Religion Description Generator
  • Fantasy Religion Generator - Imagine Forest
  • Fantasy Religion Generator - Iron Arachne
  • Worldbuilding Religion Design - Inkwell Ideas
  • Religion Creation Guide - Roll for Fantasy
  • Books that Explore Religion in Sci Fi & Fantasy - Reactor Magazine