Shorty Monster has a post over on his blog about religion in role playing games. His complaints are essentially three points: all fantasy games have the “same” gods, where “same” means that they follow similar “sphere of influence” styles; devotees of fantasy religions don’t behave the way devotees of real-world religions do, in that they are all “a homogenous lump” of identical personalities; and that fantasy religions are more-monolithic and less-fractured than real-world religions.
I think the the first point may be a valid observation, but I think it’s because each fantasy setting is trying to work off the same trope, ie, the Greek or Norse pantheons. I don’t think that’s really a problem, the same way I don’t think ripping inspiration from other sources is a problem. If it unnecessarily limits your choices then it’s a bad thing, but that’s true for any source of inspiration and can easily be fixed (by adding a new god, a new religion, or changing the way current gods and religions behave).
The other two points are really more about how devotees and religious organizations are played, rather than a problem with their foundation. Shorty notes that not a lot of details are given about dogma or observances (though, looking up Greyhawk gods on Wikipedia gives you quite a bit of information) and complains that there isn’t enough to go on to portray a devout character. That may be a fair point, but 1) I think a lot of it is left for the GM to fill out, because GMs tend to want to customize and build the setting to their own tastes (your mileage may vary as to whether that’s a sufficient excuse for leaving out material), and 2) I don’t think most fantasy gods or religions are based on strictly-ordered religions like modern real-world religions. A character prays to Pelor because he wants a strong crop yield, not because Pelor imposes a certain moral paradigm. A cleric devotes himself to Kord in order to embody strength and victory, not because Kord is the one true god. And a cult leaves offerings for Nerull because they fear him, or wish to direct him towards their enemies, not because of… well, OK, I’m at a loss for what else might motivate them.
For my part there are two things that I’m concerned about in my fantasy religions: the problem of divine accessibility, and the problem of definitive orthodoxy. They’re really both related to each other, but it’s the difference in how you approach the issue.
Why do Good Gods let Bad Things happen?
Putting other things aside, a common theme in fantasy setting (whether it’s RPGs or books or movies) is that the heroes have to go out and fight evil because they’re the only ones who can. But if the gods actually exist, especially if they have great powers to act upon the world, then why don’t they just fix the problem? If Pelor hates the undead so much, why doesn’t he just wipe them out with a miracle, instead of sending frail mortals to hunt them down and destroy them one-by-one? If Moradin protects the dwarves, why doesn’t he smite the hobgoblin army that’s laying siege?
This can be handled in a number of ways. Perhaps the god’s attention is elsewhere, addressing a greater threat like an Evil god working at cross purposes, and an unseen enemy who would overtake our heroes if not for the god’s interference. Or maybe the god is hesitant to interact with the world directly because doing so would make him vulnerable to his enemies (sapping his energy, or forcing him into an assailable state), and so directing mortal agents is the safer (if less sure) method of influencing the world. Perhaps Pelor can’t root out the undead because he has no power in dark places (though, if that’s the case, questions about the nature of clerics and divine magic come up), or perhaps in directing his power against the undead there would be innocents caught up in the destruction. Superman doesn’t have to be the only one who lives in a world of cardboard.
How can we argue about the will of Zeus if we can just ask him directly?
Here’s the problem: if we can speak to the gods directly, and they can answer us directly, it is essentially impossible to have a difference of opinion on what that god wants us to do. Two reasonable people can’t argue over whether killing cows offends Zeus or not if they can just ask him directly and get a clear yes or no. And because of this, you can’t have different sects that worship the same god coming into conflict or working at cross purposes. Any question or conflict internal to the church can be resolved by asking The Big Guy what takes priority. The Abrahamic/Judeo-Christians among us might point to the earliest days of their faith and note that just being able to talk to your god doesn’t prevent misunderstandings, but given time and opportunity those things can be cleared up: someone’s right and someone’s wrong, and it’s just a matter of asking the question.
This one is harder to fix, I think. On the one hand, you could allow your gods to make inconsistent or conflicting statements, and you could even hand wave it by saying that he knows more than mortals and just has a hard time expressing all the nuance that occupies a god’s mind. It strikes me that that would be a pretty difficult god to follow or put much faith in, because it essentially boils down to “we do not and can not know what he wants,” which is a sure path to agnosticism if nothing else. Followers of such a god will probably find other gods to cling to.
Alternatively, you could restrict talking to the gods to just their clergy, and so lay people could have arguments among themselves just fine. The trouble is that then “just ask Zeus” simple becomes “just ask Zeus’s priest,” and the best you can hope for is a wicked priest intentionally acting against his professed god. And when 9 out of 10 clerics agree, the 10th one must be a filthy liar. I really think that for fantasy religions to “work” in the sense of reasonable and committed devotees disagreeing with each other (especially to the point of conflict) the gods must be remote enough or vague enough that getting clear and simple answers is not clear or simple.
Good, Bad, I’m the one with the Holy Symbol
My preference is to have remote and disinterested (or preoccupied) gods. Maybe they live on Mount Olympus and even getting an audience with them is an epic quest. Maybe they exist outside creation and can not directly interact with it for fear of annihilating it (or themselves). Maybe they don’t even actually exist, and at best the gods are magical creatures like Elementals or Dragons and clerics are essentially sorcerers and witches. It doesn’t really matter (unless I’m directly addressing the question with my campaign) because the gods don’t really matter to me. They aren’t what I’m interested in.
The things that interest me in role-playing games are the characters (PCs and NPCs) and the societies and organizations they interact with. In most cases what a character or group believes is is far more important (and interesting) than what is true. So I tend to have the nature of the gods be an open question, because it’s not high on my list of priorities, and leaving it unanswered allows for a lot more variation in the religions and interactions available in my world.