Volume 3 Archives - Page 2 of 8 - The Art of World Building

Decide on Clerical Relationships

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Dec 102020
Important Members

A religion may have saints, prophets, and other religious leaders who impacted the faith, sometimes negatively with a betrayal of an oath or the god and teachings. Perhaps they went too far in pushing an agenda and either gods or species turned on them. They could also have inspired brutal administration of policies that result in harsh treatments. On the more positive side are those who inspire people. Create a few names, decide when they lived and died, and what they did to earn their esteem; just have them embody what the religion stands for, or part of it, with a significant deed or years of adherence to the ideals. They are a symbol. Focus on ones our characters reference or who will appear in our work.


A religion can have sects that disagree about interpretations of texts. Go easy on this if creating a pantheon due to the volume of work that could result. If we have two or more thoughts on how something could be done, use both, assigning ideas to sects. Each will oppose the other(s) and likely want them eradicated or drawn “into the fold,” making this a good source of tension. This is especially helpful if our world has only one god, because one religion causes little tension, whereas multiple interpretations and doctrines cause conflict. Create a few incidents in the past, ones that solidify dislike of the other(s) and exemplify and justify the animosity.


This religion, its followers, and its clergy have relationships with settlements, sovereign powers, species, and other groups, whether that’s another religion or the military. This can be a lot to work out, and most of that can be decided on a case-by-case basis when we need it, not in advance. Species are different and should be fleshed out in our overview of this religion. One, like humans, might be drawn to this faith while another tends to be repulsed by it. To decide this, we’ll need to have a solid understanding of the species and its outlook, which includes areas of turmoil that a religion can calm. This might be one of the last things we decide for this faith because a comprehensive sense is needed to form this association.

Does the religion feel that members of a species are in particular need of their teachings? Are they known for targeting elves, for example? Elves would likely know this and possibly feel irritation or outright hostility if this is considered condescending. Exasperation with a religion is a common feeling, while bonding with those of a different one is another. Decide what’s typical of a species, using their outlook, the religion’s, and the story needs as a guide.

Defining Clergy in Religions

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Dec 072020

Some religions accept anyone as potential priests while others might have strict requirements. Prerequisites could include being beautiful, a virgin, or having taken a life. Some professions might be desired, like warriors, while others are forbidden. The ability to read and write is likely mandatory if the religion uses holy texts, but not if they don’t exist. Some religions might require an experience like an out-of-body one, or a demonstration of the ability to communicate with the divine. Perhaps a priest must reach out to a god and receive reciprocal contact, implying that the deity has chosen them to serve. Someone might need to heal with their touch. Consider what role you’d like priests to play in the story and don’t give them more demanding requirements than is necessary; if they don’t need to heal, for example, then don’t make that required.

A religion must typically accept a priest into it. Imagine a Catholic person declaring themselves a priest without the blessing of the church. Such a person won’t be allowed to do sermons or other behaviors in a holy location and might be shunned or even imprisoned, but very informal religions can exist, with someone declaring themselves a priest. In remote areas, this can happen, and if a sovereign power’s people arrive, their formal religion might declare that person a fraud. We don’t need to work out how a priest gets accepted unless the detail matters, but a governing body will interview and investigate the person. A candidate may be accepted on probation.

Once accepted, most will undergo training that we don’t need to develop unless featuring this in our tale. Much of it will involve administrative functions or theological interpretations that this religion teaches about a holy text, to ensure a consistent message from priests. Most religions are a bureaucracy and people start at the bottom and work their way up, meeting new requirements and gaining approval to advance. Keep it simple:

  • Someone died or was transferred, and a position opened up, and they’re promoted
  • They reached a service requirement, such as two years in a previous role
  • They performed a deed (on purpose or not) that warrants recognition/promotion

Are all genders and species treated equally as either clergy or practitioners? Are some not accepted at all, or with a reduced role? A female goddess might turn the tables and insist that males cannot attain higher positions in the priesthood. Adding this detail can cause a reputation among that religion, its followers, and those who dislike it. If a religion condemns us as bad for gender, sexuality, race, or anything else that we feel is not a choice, we’re likely to disrespect the faith. Decide if your characters can benefit from the tension this adds.

Creating Religious Symbols

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Dec 032020

Color can be used to indicate mood and state of mind, both of which religions hope to influence. Some Earth religions believe that achieving an enlightened state is expressed using a color for wardrobe, buildings, and decorations. This could mean that someone is expected to wear those colors at ceremonies or significant events like marriage or a life milestone. Priests of a lower rank might be denied a color like white, which is the most enlightened state because it represents all colors; a rainbow can carry the same significance.

We can put any plausible spin on a color, making it seem good or bad. For example, red is often associated with passion, sensuality, and blood. Another association would be purity (Hinduism). Most of these are good, but while blood keeps us alive, we tend to ignore this unless it’s spilled, which is bad. Yellow can be associated with fire, which is good unless it’s out of control, but others associate it with happiness. Blue is considered cool and soothing, but some religions find it brave and manly instead. Make it believable and our decision is taken as truth for our inhabitants.


All religions have at least one revered symbol. To create this, use an attribute of the god, a prophet, or a story involving them, their behavior, or the actions of the most prominent followers from the religion’s earliest days. The average person, not a skilled artist, should be capable of drawing this symbol, which needs to be simple.

Obvious examples of attributes include a depiction of the sun for the sun goddess, a lightning bolt for a storm god, or a skull for the deity of death. We can be more creative, but expected icons are powerful and easy to remember. Practitioners want strength, clarity, and confidence, not confusion, wondering, and trying to decipher meaning. As world builders, we have other opportunities to be creative. If the god uses an item, like Thor’s hammer or Poseidon’s trident, these are easy choices, but a god might lead multiple religions, so if one is already using a symbol like Thor’s hammer, another is less likely to do so, or at least with a twist on it.

Religion Locations

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Nov 302020

Not much is needed to determine the location preferences of religions, as most want to be a central point of life and therefore be present if not dominant in settlements everywhere. We can assume they prefer having a church in each. What we’ll need to work out is where they are accepted, adored, despised, banned, and just tolerated. This is not a single decision for our religion template, found in the appendix, but in each settlement and sovereign power file for our world. The reason is that this will change from location to location.

What we can decide here is whether they have special sites. These are places where a significant act occurred. Many will have the equivalent of a small shrine or at least statue to note the location, which might be remote and unguarded; they might have supernatural or technological elements to protect these sites from vandalism. Churches can acquire mythic status due to age, rarity, uniqueness, or treasured artifacts or remains there (such as bodies of saints). Such places are easy to invent because we can state, with little justification or explanation, that it’s the oldest place, or the only one with something, or lots of saints are buried there.

Decide a Religion’s Worship Practices

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Nov 232020

We can decide the details on how and when people worship (whether characters follow this or not). If our story doesn’t need much, keep this simple. It helps to know when a priest or religious character is unavailable because they must worship somewhere at a given time, with other characters aware of this.

For location, they could use a church/mosque or shrine to worship. The former will have priests who can lead prayers. A small shrine is likely to have fewer priests, if any, and the level of formality may be lower, but shrines can be churches by another name, and their size will reflect this. A god of war might want a large, formidable structure, as a god of greed could want something ornate. We can spin this in different ways so just choose something that seems sensible for the deity.

Followers might also use their home or something in the wilderness, like a sacred grove. The latter is more likely for a nature goddess, for example, while it’s a practical matter to worship from home. This can also suggest a time of day, such as morning or night. A more domineering god may be strict while a more benevolent one might not care, but this is also about the religion, and species create these, which means they might be the strict ones. We can decide that people must attend a formal worship at a given interval, such as once a week, with less formal worship expected other times.

When people pray, do they kneel or stand? If on the floor or ground, do they use a mat and what is it made of? Maybe there’s a sacred kind of reed or cloth it’s spun from, or it must be decorated with a symbol or color. Do people use a talisman in their prayers, like the cross or rosary beads? Things used during worship allow an easy way for enemies to defame the god, by defacing what the worshipers use, which can be as simple as stepping on it, if the bottom of the foot is considered unclean?

Some religions require fasting, which can be an interval of our choosing, such as one day a week or a period of sunrise-to-sunset for several weeks, once a year. The timing will coincide with the most holy of periods in the religion. There are advantages to the body, such as increased metabolism and improved concentration, but the reasons for religions to desire fasting is for purification of the body and, by extension, the mind and soul. The goal is often akin to seeking a god’s forgiveness or a similar, humble virtue. Gods that might desire this could be those where purity or devotion seem desirable, and this can extend from food and drink to sex. Specific foods can be forbidden due to a negative association, such as that animal playing a role in a story; if the prophet was searching for his lost flock of some animal when he became a prophet (or when he died), then this can result in not only food from that animal, but fur and other products, being desired or shunned. It’s possible that a god or religion could also insist on certain foods and drinks being consumed in great quantities, such as a week-long feast once a year, and smaller feasts being once a week. Sacrifice can include animal life – and that means the humanoid species, too.

Many religions have a holy text, regardless of form (book, scroll, stone tablets, iPad), but some may be oral. Illiteracy can lead many to depend on priests, which gives them even more power. Religious songs like hymns will exist and if we’d like a character to sing a few lines, we’ll need to compose a portion of it. Some songs might be in a language some characters don’t understand.


Religions can declare days or entire weeks as holy periods. Whether these are recognized by a settlement or sovereign power is another matter to be indicated in our world building files. These times will correspond to significant historical events, such as the day the prophet became one, died, or was born (or reborn). This is one reason we need history. If sacred texts or artifacts were revealed, created, developed, destroyed, or used memorably, each can be associated with a holiday. We may be developing multiple religions and can end up with a holiday every week if we’re not careful. Two opposing religions can clash over a shared holiday.

Religious events can involve specific prayers on a given day(s) and at a holy site that is mobbed by crowds, which can cause problems, from lack of adequate food and shelter to stampedes and accidental death, from lack of adequate food and shelter to stampedes and accidental death. A largescale pilgrimage is likely only once a year. A commemorative event like this is based on a historical one. Leverage the history we’ve invented.

A Religion’s Followers

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Nov 192020
Becoming a Follower

Many religions have no requirement for becoming a follower. This is the easiest route for world builders as our work is essentially done. People can believe in a god or religion without ever attending church, praying, or giving outward sign of their faith. Others will do some or all of these things and become part of a community that bolsters itself through shared belief, regularly seeing each other at places of worship. None of this requires much development. But we might want a religion that requires specific acts that are witnessed before someone is allowed to officially join the church. This could include:

  • Donations of money, food, or possessions
  • Visible adherence to requirements for dress, prayer, food/alcohol, and more
  • Missionary work to spread the word
  • Sacrifice (of lifestyle or killing of something, or someone)

That list is in rough order of severity, and the farther down it we go, the more this religion impacts the life of the follower, since killing people can lead to the killer’s imprisonment or death. Going so far can cause the individual to feel more heavily invested in their beliefs, and this degree of devotion is one reason a religion might ask such things; not only does the believer demonstrate the strength of their faith, but the extreme act, once committed, makes the belief that much stronger. The god we’re creating a religion for can suggest sensible alternatives that make these decisions easier. Consider their attributes, what you’d like to achieve with this religion, and how you will use it.


In religions without formal admission, departure is a choice and nothing more. But in others, one might need permission to leave the church. Members might be questioned (even tortured?) to find out why they want to go. They might be banned from entry into that religion’s holy sites thereafter. If a tattoo or other permanent mark was affixed upon joining, this might be altered to make them a pariah. A more benevolent religion is more lenient, naturally, and may allow for return one day, whereas a nefarious one might condemn someone to death for merely being suspected of wanting to leave.


Only religions that formally accept members are likely to expel them. The obvious reasons are failure to adhere to the teachings and behaviors mandated in that religion. Being seen with those of opposing religions, or conversing with them, or having friends, lovers, or children with them, could even be considered a sin. We can invent whatever heresy makes sense for our deity, based on their attributes. The stricter the religion, the easier for this to befall someone. In the more extreme cases, the person could be put to death simply to sow fear in others, or to hide that this has occurred from outsiders (who might perceive the religion as losing its hold on people – dead men tell no tales), or simply because the deity, like a god of death, demands it.

Invent Religious Beliefs

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Nov 122020

Without beliefs, religions don’t exist. There’s a difference between facts and beliefs. A fact is provable and generally accepted by those who lack a bias for ignoring it. But a belief exists in the absence of proof. If we had proof, it would be a fact, not a belief. Some might debate this, but it’s relevant with religions and gods because, on Earth, most of us accept that no gods are real, with the possible exception of the one God. No one believes in Zeus, right? But people once did, and when they stopped, Zeus vanished. We had invented him.

This is relevant because we should answer the question as to whether the religion we’re inventing is centered around a real god or an imagined one. If real, that god likely has directions he has given to the species. Or the religion is acting on its own and may have concerns about doing its deity justice, given the lack of direction. Or it may be a combination of the two. If the god is not real, none of this arises.

Using the history we’ve created, and the traits of the god (real or imagined), we can invent beliefs within the religion. They are typically centered on spiritual, mythological, and supernatural elements of either the deity or the religion. Here are some fundamental subjects about which to create beliefs (some may be facts if the god is real):

  • Where the god originated
  • What the god represents
  • What the god wants of the world, his followers, and possibly his/their enemies
  • How the god wants to be worshipped
  • What followers must do to be accepted and remain in his good graces
  • How the god rewards or punishes, and for what
  • How and under what circumstances the god’s power manifests in the world, including interaction with mortals and other beings

These basic ideas can result in several behaviors that come to define this religion. Religions are known for their beliefs and how its followers behave (in service of those beliefs), so this cannot be skipped while inventing one. Invent an answer for each, and much of the principal work to create a religion is done.

Start Inventing a Religion

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Nov 092020

To create organized religions, we’ll need our god(s) worked out in some detail (refer to Chapter 1 of Creating Life, The Art of World Building, #1)). Many religions focus on a single god, even if others exist, but some will worship several gods together. The techniques and considerations in this chapter apply to both. It also helps to have our species created so we can decide which ones tend to be part of which religions and even if those religions exclude one or more species, for example.


Major religions on Earth are thousands of years old, but minor ones are sometimes new. In either case, we don’t need a detailed history, but some significant events are worth inventing. Many aspects of a religion originate from its inception. It’s therefore recommended that we begin creating one at its source.


The story of a religion’s founding is crucial to how it is viewed and often what is expected of converts. A prophetic figure is an expected source. This person speaks in (or receives) the words of a god and brings those messages to people. To create this, some basic ideas are helpful:

  1. Their name (previous and potentially new)
  2. Their occupation before becoming a prophet – they are typically transformed by the experience
  3. When it happened – a calendar may use this as a starting point
  4. Where it happened – this can result in a holy site
  5. How it happened – this can generate relics, symbols, and rituals

We can keep this brief, like this example: “In the year 12 A. K., the horseman Vicen rode into the Dark Peaks in what is the modern day Empire of Amarysh, emerging as the prophet Kier, Chosen Voice of the God of War, Arian, whose golden sword he pulled from a petrified Lluvien tree, whereupon he heard Arian’s voice commanding him to return and form the Blades of Arian, an elite force of mounted, religious warriors.” In a sentence, we have two potential symbols (the sword and a specific tree type), plus a generally holy area (the mountains) and possibly a specific location, assuming anyone can find the petrified tree.

This can result in pilgrimages at an interval of our choosing. While that can be a literal returning to a site, it can also be figurative when being literal is too challenging for many (due to distance, cost, etc.) or even impossible (the site is lost or destroyed). Religions make use of symbolic gestures. Instead of traveling 5,000 miles to Kier’s petrified tree, perhaps someone would travel to and pray at a replica that is only 100 miles away, and which is said to have grown from seeds of the same tree or grove as the original. We’ve all heard of “guilt by association.” Religions practice a kind of holiness by association.

That tree type is probably planted at other holy sites like churches or even the front yards of converts; sighting it while on missions might be seen as a sign from the deity. Maybe furniture is made from it, or a wooden practice sword. Priests might wear a wooden talisman of a sword around their neck. While on his journey into the Dark Peaks, perhaps our prophet survived on a kind of fruit found there. Eating this then becomes part of rituals. The juice from it can be a drink consumed only at holy times. The spilling of that juice can be seen as an offense.

What these ideas have in common is the finding of ordinary details and assigning them significance because they’re part of our prophet’s experience and story, either at the moment he became a prophet or in a subsequent moment from his life. Or death.

Decide how long this prophet lived and when he died. To create these, invent these details:

  1. Did he die naturally?
  2. If killed, who did it, why, how, and when?
  3. How did the religion react to this?
  4. What did the god do?

New religions are seldom met with affection by rulers, who want the hearts and minds of the population to be theirs rather than with a religion, which is often seen as competition. It is easy, natural, and believable that a prophet meets an untimely demise. Martyrdom also raises the prophets’ importance, as dying for your beliefs is considered by many to be the ultimate sacrifice and proof that those beliefs are valid. A wise world builder kills their prophets. This can also result in holy sites (where they died), artifacts (based on what killed them), and rituals to commemorate the occasion. It can also create enemies, at the time or in the future, where the people who killed the prophet are long considered enemies of the religion and its followers, leading to tensions.


A religion can cease to exist without the end of the world happening, too. In a world without real gods that interact, all we really need is people to stop believing. This is arguably one of the reasons that religions insist people believe in the god and the religion’s practices. Why would they stop believing? A foretold event not happening is one reason; smart religions avoid specific dates for future events for a reason. According to Church Times (UK), individuals can lose faith at any time for a number of reasons, such as when several of the following traits are found in the person:

  • If other practitioners are hard to live with
  • If the religion is too hard to practice
  • If the teachings are too hard to understand
  • If they resist submitting to authority
  • If they’re above average intelligence
  • If they crave experience

These can happen to someone even if the gods are real, though it begs the question of whether one gets smitten for leaving the religion.

For a religion to die, we may need nothing more than a sufficient number of people abandoning it. This can happen en masse if major life events cause inner turmoil in enough people, and the religion cannot offer comfort. Rather than having an epiphany of belief, a revelation of perceived false promises occurs instead. If the religion was a state religion, meaning a sovereign power made it official, and the state collapses, the religion can vanish, too. This might be easy for world builders to implement because destroying a sovereign power is simple; see Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2). One religion can also supplant another.

In “Creating Gods” from Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1), we discussed creating end-of-world myths. Every religion will have one. That demise may not be inevitable, which could mean that worshippers can prevent this with their conduct. Or the righteous can be saved while everyone else is damned. If we’ve already created that myth, what we want to decide now is how this end of world scenario makes practitioners act because this can motivate devotion to religious practices, some of which might exist to bring about a positive end for adherents. If the myth comes true, that’s the end of the religion, but if a specific date was given and nothing happens, that can also end the religion due to lost credibility.

Are people expected to pray at given intervals specifically for this myth? Do they avoid certain foods or behaviors thought to bring an untimely end to themselves or the world? Religions focus on daily life and its morality much more than the end of the world, so this tends to be a background idea or connotation that is only occasionally mentioned. Or the avoidance or destruction can be part of prayers and, when recited every day or week, become familiar enough that people don’t worry about it much as a practical matter.

Since destruction hasn’t happened yet, we don’t have the advantages that creating a religion offers. There are no artifacts, for example, or holy sites. It is therefore wise to keep the behaviors inspired by the potential end of the world simple. Incorporate them into prayers and expressions. “May Armageddon never be,” characters could say, to use a name from Earth.

Get Started Creating Armed Forces

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Nov 052020

Our first choice with creating armed forces is to decide whether it’s a smaller, specialized group like the U.S. Marines or a larger force, and what kind it is: army, navy, or air/space force. This will determine where they typically operate, which will impact every subsequent decision. We should then envision what role we see them playing, particularly in a large conflict such as the world wars that are so common in speculative fiction. If our story only needs a high-level depiction of them in action, we can skimp on many details of invention, but if our characters (even minor ones) are current/former/future members of this force and are impacted by this, we’ll need more. Decide on the scope you need. Most other aspects of their invention can be done in any order.

At a minimum, we must invent their symbols, colors, and any slogans. If they wear or utilize specific armor or weapons, we’ll be showing this and must decide on it. Envision their place in society as this will inform what and how they do things and how those actions are viewed by other characters; this includes working out relationships with others, at least at a high-level. We can skip a complete history if we don’t need it, but an historical figure or two is recommended. Another area we can skip is how such individuals become one or creating ranks that differ in any meaningful way from the standard ones listed in this chapter.