Religious Beliefs When the Gods are Dead

Thanks to the folks that came out for our demo of Legend of Salbazan at PhilCon this year. One of the more interesting aspects of the setting is that the gods are dead. All of the gods were killed during the Divine Cataclysm over 5000 years ago. In this post, I want to share a little about how religion evolved in a setting where the gods were dead.

The Divine Cataclysm resulted in the death of not only millions of mortals, but the gods as well. This doesn’t mean, however, that the people of Lurrak are not religious. On the contrary, a variety of faiths flourish on Lurrak, with hundreds of small sects and cults active across the continent. Totemism and ancestor/hero worship are common. In fact, it is possible to follow multiple belief systems simultaneously, though you only gain the Boon from your primary belief system. It is completely possible to both believe in the reincarnation tenets of the Imperial Temple and follow a totem spirit or worship an ancestor. Few of the faiths of Lurrak are mutually exclusive.

However, the people of Lurraki that do follow various faiths take their beliefs seriously. Players that select a religion gain a Divine Boon. Boons are only granted to those who actively follow their faith. Some faiths, like the Imperial Temple or the Path of Ascendancy, have very specific beliefs associated with them. Other faiths require the player character to come up with their own dogma or explanation as part of their character history. A player that prefers not to follow a specific religion or add such information to their history would be considered an Agnostic or Atheist.

Agnostics and Atheists

There are those who follow no religious belief at all. Some believe the Divine Cataclysm should have been a lesson to mortals regarding the worship of otherworldly entities and refuse to follow any path on general principal. Others just can’t be bothered to waste time praying to things that may or may not actually be there. Others consider the worship of otherworldly beings an impractical waste of time and would rather just pay a healer than wait around for a miracle. Regardless of the reason, Lurrak has a fair share of agnostics and atheists, and outside of the Empire, nobody is all that concerned about it.

In Lautanda, agnostics and atheists who want to hold government positions learn to at least pay lip service to the Imperial Temple, as refusing to acknowledge the divinity of the royal family is akin to blasphemy to those in power. And while there is no official crime for such beliefs (the Lautandans consider themselves too cultured for such thought policing), non-believers are considered “less trustworthy” or “unpatriotic” to most.

Divine Spellcasters: Not applicable. Agnostics and atheists cannot cast any form of divine magic.

The Ascendancy

The Ascendancy has its roots in the pre-Cataclysmic Ascendant Heresy, which claimed that the gods were not otherworldly beings, but mortals who had transcendent the limitations of mortality and achieved a godhood through discipline and self-improvement. The fact that the gods “died” during the Cataclysm is considered proof of this theory. Follows of the Path of the Ascendant believe that each mortal has a divine spark within them, and that through dedication, discipline, and training anyone has the potential to become a god.

Almost everyone in Mortuka follows this system. Because this belief system is one of self-reliance, it has recently spread to Padura, though there are not enough adherents to the system yet to say that it has any influence there.

Most Mortukans practice one of the Three Fundamental Paths: The Path of Self-Reflection, The Path of Perfection, and the Path of Ascension.

The Path of Self-Reflection is followed by the majority of Mortukans. Followers of this path seek to become attuned to “the person I am meant to be in this life.” Each Mortukan believes they have a role to play in the civilization, even if that role is just being a baker or a tailor.

The Path of Perfection is followed by true artisans, scholars, and champions. Having found their true purpose, those walking the Path of Perfection seek to become the pinnacle of their purpose. It isn’t enough to simply be a competent town guard. Guards or soldiers walking the Path of Perfection seeks to be a beacon of hope for the people they protect. Craftspersons on the Path of Perfection strive to make every item a masterwork item. Even criminal elements may walk this path; striving to be the greatest cat burglar or greatest assassin.

The Path of Ascension is walked by those who are considered Majandavi, mortal gods. Majandavi are rare and afforded great respect, even by the king. They serve as advisers to the royal family, offering their wisdom and insight to help guide their people to prosperity.

Divine Spellcasters: You are not “granted” spells from some other force. You simply will yourself to cast them. You prepare your spells not by praying to some god or spirit, but by entering a deep meditative state in which you contemplate the greater mysteries of your own existence. You can also prepare your spells by debating the greater mysteries of the Path with fellow adherents to the path, as such cerebral stimulation refreshes the soul.

Benevolent Ancestor

When the gates of the divine planes were broken open, many of the souls of those residing there returned to Lurrak to watch over their descendants. At least, that is what many across the continent believe. Instead of following an organized cult, you worship or venerate an ancestor that you believe watches over you. This might be a grandparent that died before you were born, or the founder of your bloodline, or a distant relative that performed heroic deeds that you hope to emulate.

Divine Spellcasters: Benevolent Ancestors can grant spells, but only to one person in the family. If the player character is a “cleric” to the ancestor, then the PC is the only cleric in the family. This generally will mean the PC has a position of influence in the family. It would also mean that the ancestor could revoke their favor (strip them of their spellcasting ability) if they do something that brings dishonor to the family or if they shirk their familial duties.

Demon/Devil Worship

With the death of the gods, the denizens of the lower planes thought they would make short work of taking control of what was left of Lurra. Thankfully for the mortal races, the devils and demons of hell and the abyss are incapable of any sort of long-term cooperation to complete such a task. In addition, the death of the gods on Lurra had the peculiar side effect of making it almost impossible for outsiders to reach the planet. All those divine deaths created an invisible magic shield around what was left of the world, blocking access to the forces of evil.

Evil outsiders are still capable of accessing mortals, but those mortals must actively seek out the demon or devil. Such desperate individuals usually come across their future patron when they discover some lost tome, or come across some cursed artifact, or otherwise learn about the existence of a specific entity.

In the Empire, demon and devil worship is explicitly prohibited and is one of the High Heresies punishable by death. Outside the empire, most governments actively discourage such worship even if it is not openly illegal. Because of this, warlocks try to disguise their worship as something else (often Ancestor worship or Hero worship).

Unlike other entities that grant boons, demons and devils rarely care about their followers in a meaningful way. The mortal is merely a means to an end…a disposable one at that. For some, that is a risk they are willing to take in the name of power.

Divine Spellcasters: Some powerful demons and devils can grant spells. However, the spellcaster cannot gain access to Divine spells above 3rd level without making the appropriate sacrifices. Each time the spellcaster would gain a new level of spell beyond 3rd, they must sacrifice a mortal to their patron. The sacrifice must have a number of hit dice equal to at least half the spellcaster’s level.

Druidism

Druidic practitioners dedicate themselves to the land itself, revering the natural order above all else. They see themselves as the guardians of nature, protecting the natural world so that it can continue to sustain civilization. Their commitment to protecting the natural world forms a strong affinity with the spirits that reside in the trees, rivers, and earth itself. These powers reward the Druid’s commitment with unique insights.

Druids wield no political power, and, in fact, often find themselves at odds with city dwellers who only wish to exploit the natural world. It was the Druids who reached out the Red Citadel to warn them about the coming crisis of resources. The land of Lurrak cries in pain, and the druids are fighting a losing battle trying to save it.

Divine Spellcasters: Druids and Druidic style clerics gain spells through their affinity with the natural world. They generally prepare spells either in the morning or evening.

Elementalists

Elementalists, like devotees of the Ascendancy, believe that the gods did not create the universe. Rather, they were powerful mortals who learned how to master it. Unlike the path followers of the Ascendancy, however, they believe the source of that mastery was not their own innate being, but their ability to tap into the elemental forces of life: water, air, earth, and fire. Elementalists seek out powerful elemental entities to teach them how to tap into the elemental forces. Elementalists dedicate themselves to the exaltation of specific elemental entities, who serve as their patrons on their path to power.

Elementalists are found in all parts of Lurrak, but as a group they lack cohesion because the number of elementals worshipped can be counted in the hundreds. Each sect of Elementalists has its own goals and pacts, and this fragmentation prevents Elementalists from wielding much influence as a movement.

Divine Spellcasters: Elemental Forces can grant spells. Divine spellcasters prepare their spells at the time of day associated with their elemental power. Air (Morning), Fire (mid-day), Earth (Evening), Water (Night).

Hero Worship

Hero worship is the belief that certain individuals are so committed to their cause that they remain behind after death to assist others. Hero worship encompasses a variety of cults and beliefs. In Lautanda, these individuals are usually referred to as Saints (though usually considered “lesser” saints to the Imperial Temple). In Mortuko, they are referred to as Ascendants. In Ohanea, they are called Feytari (those That Linger).

Hero worship is surprisingly widespread, though each hero has a small region of influence. Some examples include:

The Gray Witch: Outside the town of Armadale is a small shrine to an enigmatic figure known as the Gray Witch. The Gray Witch was a druid with a grove near Armadale at the beginning of the fourth millennia. When the kingdom of Mortuko attempted to push into Padura, their scouts attempted to move through the druid’s grove. According to legend, the witch turned the very swamp itself against them, causes the roots and vines to wrap around the soldiers and pull them underwater to drown. She then placed nature spirits into the bodies and sent them back across the border to attack the waiting troops. Mortuko never again attempted to attack Padura. She is the patron of Armadale.

Saint Tamerus: This third millennium Lautandan general, according to legend, slew the red dragon Thromaxial and was for over a thousand years the patron of dragon slayers. With the death of the last dragons centuries ago, Tamerus became the patron of honorable soldiers. Outside of the royal family, Saint Tamerus is the most widely followed saint in the Empire.

Shadara the Scorpion: Many outside the kingdom of Mortuko doubt this second millenium figure ever existed, as the number of incredible feats she has been credited with seems impossible. Among other things, she is credited with single-handedly holding off a Lautandan battalion, slaying the cyclops Bloodrender, rescuing Prince Walnadoru the Fox from assassins, and destroying three different liches (whose names nobody can ever agree on). She is the patron of the city that bears her name, and most residents of the city make the effort to visit her shrine in the city square a few times a year to seek guidance.

Divine Spellcasters: While rare, those committed to a specific hero’s worship have developed the ability to cast divine spells. Whether these spells are being granted by the hero or are the result of the spellcaster’s own internal power are not clear. As this is a recent phenomenon on Lurrak, the truth is not yet clear.

The Imperial Temple

Almost every home in the Empire has a small replica of the Obsidian Throne on a household altar. Legend claims that the Throne was crafted from pieces of molten rock forced to the surface during the Cataclysm, and that the throne itself stores the remnants of the divine power of the dead gods. Because of this, only mortals possessing “divine blood” can sit upon the throne. Over time, the Imperial family has been viewed as being semi-divine beings themselves, with their ability to sit upon the throne “proof” of their lineage. There are ancient fables of impostors and usurpers attempting to sit on the throne, only to fall over dead. Imperials simply can’t fathom anyone even attempting such a sacrilege.

Many members of the royal family have been elevated to sainthood. Imperials pray for the current emperor but pray to previous emperors in a form of hero worship. The most popular of the Imperial Saints is Radru II. Imperials pray to Saint Radru the Peacemaker to ensure peaceful negotiations, a speedy recovery from sickness, and success in new ventures. When Imperials swear a vow, they often say “On the blood of the Emperor and the Grace of the Throne.”

The Imperial Temple teaches that, in the aftermath of the Cataclysm, the souls of the dead that had been sealed in the various divine planes of existence were freed. Most remain on their divine planes, but they can choose to return in a new form. As such, Imperials all believe in reincarnation and believe that they have lived at least one previous life, though they have no memory of that life.

Divine Spellcasters: As the official religion of the Empire, the Temple has a formal clergy. Traveling clerics  are known as Emissaries. Those associated with a specific church are called Deacons. Both groups answer to the Circle of Archons, who are responsible for advising the Imperial family and confirming the validity of miracles. These are the most “traditional” of the Divine spellcasters, as they pray for their spells by praying either to one of the various saints of the Temple or to the Obsidian Throne itself.

Totemism

In the aftermath of the Divine Cataclysm, many mortals turned to the natural world for solace and hope. This devotion evolved into totem worship, with various groups revering specific spirits of the land as their protectors. Totem worship is common among shamanic circles and ranger lodges. It is also the most common form of religion found in Ohanea and Padura, with each tribe and city-state venerating a specific totem spirit that they believe protects their group.

Any creature can serve as a totem. Some totems are revered for some physical quality they represent (a bear’s strength or a cheetah’s speed). Others are revered because of a value they provide to the community (such as antelope or deer). And others are revered for some intangible quality they represent.

Divine Spellcasters: Totem spirits can grant spells. Divine spellcasters generally prepare their spells at a time of day when the animal represented by the totem would be active. So if the totem is nocturnal, the spellcaster would prepare spells at night.

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