In my previous "Starting from scratch" post I talked about some basics of setting design. The second installment concerns an element that probably has the highest ratio of importance for a setting to settings in which it's done badly: religion.
If you have religion, make it matter. If the PCs aren't devout followers of the god Upuaut, his priests will have nothing to do with them, and their healing magics will not work on them. If locals of the farming district all attend temple, and the outlanders conspicuously don't participate, they'll be viewed with suspicion at best. Shut the whole town down for the saint's parade, and man, don't they have a lot of those in the spring months?
A generic "Oh, Naseer is the God of Goatscrewing, and his priests all wear green and silver and have a goat brand on the right wrist, and their symbol is a green X, and they're Chaotic Evil, and their temples are always made of basalt" is about as far as many settings go, and is the sort of thing anyone can roll up on a Random Deity Generator. (I recommend Chaotic Shiny's, if you like random generators.)
We’re working from two basic principles that color the creation of your setting: that you should keep things simple, and that you’re starting with a region away from it all. Want some tips? Funny you asked:
* Honoring the first principle, just have a handful of faiths: the white light good-guy religion, the pastoral/agricultural deity, the fire/forging/war deity, the death/magic/power deity. It’s less work, and more for your players to remember.
* Please, please do me and yourselves a favor and don’t do what 90% of gamers do: mimic the medieval Roman Catholic church, in all its intricate, baroque hierarchy. (I've been alerted to a delicious TV Tropes term for the syndrome -- Crystal Dragon Jesus. Too funny.) I’ve always found this slightly bizarre – if fantasy faiths have so many interventionist deities as all of that, why do they require massive, convoluted hierarchies and rigid, top-imposed doctrines? Wouldn’t the deity him or herself instruct the priesthood? Might there be a heavily decentralized situation (e.g. Presbyterianism)?
* Consider some questions that direct how a faith works: why are we here? Why do we suffer? How are we supposed to conduct ourselves in our daily lives? Where do we go when we die? What happens to apostates or unbelievers? How do we believers interact with the authorities? With those of other faiths? Is divine revelation complete, or are there more prophets (or a messiah) to come?
* Consider having splinter sects, deep divisions in the faith’s ranks, or outright heresies. A recent historical event in my own gameworld was the (seemingly permanent) appearance of two new moons in the sky. This has caused a detonation in the faith of the Moon God, and the factionalism and infighting are strong and ongoing.
* Pen some simple prayers. Alright, I might be a writer and a poet, but I don’t expect you to be. One of my faiths has “Lead us on the path” as a quick prayer by the devout; it’s the shortened version of the chorus of a multi-verse chant. “Holy Fire, hold my oath” is another one, referring to the sacred flame devout worshipers of my fire god keep in their homes, and over which they cook all their evening meals.
* Put together a few holidays. Don’t worry so much about the genuine religious significance of them – holidays seem overwhelmingly to be about the folk customs. Think about the Catholic example: for every twenty of you -- even those who aren't Catholic -- who recognize that waving palm fronds and painting hardboiled eggs are well-known elements of that time of year, there might be one of you who knows off the top what religious meaning those elements have.
There are all manner of folklore books that include examples of holiday folk customs: certain foods that are ceremonially prepared, fairs held around the key dates, rents and hiring done on traditional dates, ritual observances. There’s nothing like a party coming through a small village just as a fair is in session, or seeing the youngsters out dancing on the cliffside in feathered costumes to celebrate a special day.
Now here’s your secret weapon in all of this: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is, in my entirely biased opinion, heaven’s gift to GMs seeking exotic setting detail. Want to have a regional cuisine (say) that isn’t bastardized Ren Faire fodder? Terrific. Type in “Indonesian cuisine” – for example – and you’ll get all manner of exotic stuff. (The custom of a “rice table” – a banquet featuring many dishes, all with rice as a base – being one.)
And you can do the same thing here. Go to the Shinto article -- for example -- and you’ll see all manner of fodder. Ritual purifications? The offerings to make? How you properly enter a shrine? Sacred dances? Protective amulets? Just file off the serial numbers and put them right in.
It’s a bit of work, yes. But it’s also one of the foundations of your setting, and a gold mine of rich roleplaying opportunities. Why not get it right from Day One?
The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions