— Unknown artist
Deities in D&D
The archetype of the holy warrior has existed within role-playing games since their inception. The implied setting of Dungeons & Dragons—and, by extension, the implied settings of many OSR and NSR games—harbors two assumptions regarding deities and the divine:
- Deities exist and exert influence over the mortal realm.
- Deities grant divine powers to mortals who advance those deities’ principles and designs.
In this post, I’ll explore a few premises that do not operate under these assumptions yet still allow for the existence of the cleric class and similar archetypes.
A highly organized religion does exist—one with many followers and a hierarchy of priests who interpret the designs of one or more deities. Adherents of this religion command wondrous powers commensurate with the degree to which they execute the divine will.
However, unbeknownst to even the most ascendant priests, the adherents of this religion do not serve any deity but rather a cabal of undying sorcerers. These sorcerers have fabricated a religion through meticulous inculcation—by infiltrating the dreams and imaginations of countless minds over centuries. Now, these sorcerers manipulate a legion of followers, manipulating priests and prophets through visions and signs. The sorcerers impart arcane knowledge to their most zealous devotees so that they may better serve to enact the sorcerers’ inscrutable designs.
In eons past, a civilization achieved a level of technological sophistication sufficient to produce a supercomputer capable of unlocking the secrets of the universe. That civilization promptly collapsed, but many of its technological marvels remain.
Now, people worship the supercomputer as either a conduit to some deity or as a deity itself. Those proficient enough at interfacing with the machine can attain miraculous capabilities, either through their superior understanding of the universe or by unlocking the functions of ancient technological relics.
The humans of one region have been domesticated by the keepers, a magically and/or technologically superior species. The keepers have partitioned this region off from the rest of the world, creating an enclosed, semi-controlled environment. The humans know nothing of the world beyond their enclosure. They worship the keepers, harvesting resources on their behalf and offering gifts.
In return, the keepers share snippets of their magical and/or technological knowledge with the most obedient and productive humans. The keepers also bless the unions of such humans. In fact, the keepers have attained a working knowledge of human genetics through magical and/or technological means. Through subtle manipulation, they conduct selective breeding to produce obedient and capable human offspring.
The keepers view the humans as livestock, and most humans fail to comprehend the true nature of their existence. Those that do are typically denounced as heretics or madmen. Though perhaps a covert group of enlightened people is working towards liberation…
Consider including multiple religions in your campaign world, both to facilitate faction play and to explore variations on themes.
Each of the examples above involves a twist or deception of some kind. Be aware that the player of a cleric may feel as though they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them should they discover the true nature of things. Be especially diligent in setting expectations when incorporating these sorts of elements in a campaign. Consider your players and how to handle this in a way they’ll enjoy.
- A colossal supercomputer, believed to be a tiny moon, orbits the world.
- A group of eccentric monks have begun tunneling obsessively beneath their monastery. None can identify an impetus for this behavior.
- Callous, extraterrestrial elves manipulate humans into reverent servitude.
- A group of priests makes offerings to “water spirits.” In reality, these water spirits are mortals who fill wells and cisterns using massive pumps—vestiges from an ancient civilization.
- An order of technomancers amass power and bolster their reputation as god’s chosen by scrounging technical manuals from ancient ruins.
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