Most D&D style settings have a polytheistic religion that is simply either:
- An overly simplified Catholicism with the various deities being similar to saints.
- A modern mix of individual churches similar to Protestantism in the US.
I think we’re missing a real opportunity. While the first model is probably close enough to the state polytheistic faiths in the ancient and Classical worlds for the general faith of the people I think it misses the boat with clerics.
In the Classical world there were a series of religions variously known as mystery cults, mystery religions, or just mysteries. Enough is known on two to even result in cult specific articles on Wikipedia: the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Mithraic Mysteries. In fact, I wrote up a “race as class” version of Mithras a couple of years ago.
These cults were highly secretive and consisted of levels of initiation. The closest analog today is probably Masonic and similar orders as well as groups like The Golden Dawn. Based on that you might consider mystery cults to be more appropriate to magic-users. While both groups are occult organizations the modern groups rely on intellectual understanding of the universe being increased instead of a divine revelation. Both fit well in a campaign.
“But Herb,” I hear you say, “how does this differ for being a follower of the god Foo in traditional D&D terms.” The biggest changes are social although some powers issues come up. In the traditional D&D world your know that Foo’s worshiper are healers so that’s the temple you go to for healing. With mystery cults you don’t know much if anything about the faith including what powers they bestow or where to find a high priest of Foo or even the site of Foo worship. In fact, even a PC cleric who is a member of Foo’s mystery cult won’t necessarily know the powers of those above him especially those significantly above him. Thus, the indulgence system of gaining clerical favors (go to the temple and make a donation) is replaced with a series of investigations, favors traded, and possibly initiation for PCs. Remember, much of the cult knowledge is secret and cannot be taught or shared. This has ramifications for PCs (see below).
In terms of powers the customization would be similar in some ways to AD&D2 but different in others. Instead of assigning schools to a given cult I would recommend drawing up several circles of initiation. Each circle could consist of a mix of myths, symbols, titles, and spells becoming available as well as qualifications. While certainly a level component should be part of a circle change other activities, such as quests or ritual combat similar to the Druid, the Monk, or the Paladin regaining status could be included at the higher levels.
One important idea is don’t have the spells map to 2nd edition and later domains. Mystery cults don’t map well to normal deities of the “sun god”, “rain god”, “war god” style. They are much closer to early conceptions of cults in Runequest.
The other important idea is secrecy. Sure, your third circle cleric of the Foo mysteries recognizes that symbol as the sign of Bar from the myths of the Snafu over the wedding feast but you can’t communicate those details to the party with risking a religious violation.
To give an example of circles, tomorrow I present my Initiate of Mithras as rules for a cleric.