Religion in vanilla D&D is boring as fuck. There’s this big, boring list of Gods (I’m Pelor the Sun-God, I like ‘the Sun’ and grant some fire-related powers and I’m lawful boring) with no interactions. All religions have this generic ‘temple plus one priest in every city’ structure, and all the drama that religion should bring to your game: schisms, crusades, heresy, intolerance, unfailing belief, philosophy , reformation– is just absent. Even when WOTC writers work to flesh out these religons, they offer meaningless detail in place of drama: the high priests are called such-and-such and they wear robes of blue and all shave their heads and an…
One reason is, I think, that the polytheism of vanilla D&D lacks interactions between the gods. What makes Loki a powerful architype isn’t that he’s Chaotic Evil and that he grants the Trickery domain – it’s the fabric of relationships and stories that define his mythos. Zeus sitting on Olympus being King of the Gods has no story, no conflict – Zeus leafing through an ornithological journal in order to get laid in animal form is interesting, and pushes the story. If you have a Polytheistic ‘tight’ pantheon, make them have interrelationships of conflict, cuckoldry and conspiracy. Who fucks who? Who tricked who? Who bred a monstrosity that still lurks out there somewhere? Who ventured into the underworld? For every god, a story linking them to another. These can differ geographically or culturally, but they help give a character to these unknowable beings.
To improve this, ensure your religions are in flux. They must change and alter through geography, culture, time and class. The Christianity of a Roman legionary is not the Christianity of a Baptist minister; the Catholicism of rural Spain in the Renaissance is not the Catholicism of Tolkein; the Buddhism of a Sri Lankan farmer differs from that of an American Philosophy professor. Nuances and culture predominate; beliefs fracture; reforms crack up and are carried forward or suppressed. Two fantasy worlds do this extremely well: Dragon Age; Inquisition has huge detail on this, as do the Princes of the Apocalypse books by R Scott Bakker. Contrast to say, the otherwise intricate world of A Song of Ice and Fire where religious belief is a fairly tedious aspect of the world which doesn’t mesh with much else in the world. This ensures the religion is not wall-hangings; it is a sword over the fire: an instrumental part of the world and its evolving plot.
The major homebrew religion of the Company of the Noose/ North Corner campaign has always been the worship of the Iron Tyrant; a Brahma-like super-soulthat encompasses all other gods in the setting. In their doctrine, all gods, archfey and devils are simply aspects or guises of a schitzophrenic godhead. This bring a nice monotheistic flavour which is lacking in vanilla D&D (and most major world religions are monotheistic for a reason). As a god, The Iron Tyrant is boring. He’s formless, inert, unimaginable. So the religion itself has to be interesting to compensate.
The flavour is drawn from early Christianity and the millennial feelings around the crusade: to worshipers of the Iron Tyrant, the end of the world is imminent. The cause? Mortal sin, which manifests as monsters and disaster. This puts all their actions on a permanent clock, and makes vigilance, readiness and paranoia the order to the day. To ensure the religion is in flux and altering, it has a structure. In Damesht, the home continent of the campaign, the organised arm of the faithful, the Order of the Resplendent Star, is organising to tie itself to power. The Dameshti Emperor, long politically castrated by the aristocracy of his realm, is a sympathiser: like Constantine the Great, a single Empire under a single God with a single ruler seems a logical way of ordering the universe, so he is a patron of the faith. But across Damesht (and this was a major plot-point In the first story arc set in the eponymous town of North Corner) the common people are conservative and hostile to this monopolising force and its eschatological fervour.
There are schisms in the Order: a faction believe the Order should proactively police mortal actions (there are men worse than any werewolf or hag) and achieve absolute, totalitarian dominion over the lives of its subjects. Some believe worshipping other gods as aspect is an abomination worthy of execution. Some believe the Order should be paragons of honour and be living examples of a life well lived – others believe their position in opposing the looming eschaton makes morality meaningless and the only recourse should be the sword. These factions vie for power, and the actions of players could easily raise one up over the others, and have had different interactions throughout their careers (they have murdered members of the Order, and they have assisted them in conquering Loquista, as circumstances dictated – they currently seek a working alliance.)
A religion must be instrumental to the story to matter. As myself and Gaz’s campaign have seen a number of characters opt to be worshippers of the Iron Tyrant, I feel that this shows a success in making a faith with some bite.