Although I've posted in the past about gods and religion in DARK•HERITAGE--including in my older Dungeoncraft series--I'm revisiting it slightly, and want to discuss the idea in light of a fantasy game that's not D&D. In D&D (and D&D clone fantasy heartbreakers) religion is important because of the made-up archetype of the cleric. See, the cleric isn't really a fantasy or mythological archetype (although it does bear some superficial relationships to some.) It's a gamist construct; the cleric can heal other characters, and therefore keeps the game moving in the Dungeoneering environment without having to go up and recuperate. It's been handy enough that a lot of computer games have "health packs" that offer instant healing too--it's the cleric archetype all over again. If you think about books, movies, TV shows, or anything else, though, the notion of instant healing is really kind of absurd.
So, how to you overcome this dichotmy? I think that there's two solutions, and they are not mutually exclusive; in fact, elements of both of them in play is a good thing, in my opinion. The first is the notion that "oh, maybe it's not as bad as it looked." This should be pretty familiar to anyone who's ever watched an action movie. Main characters (or villains too) can appear to be seriously injured, can appear to be taking a major drubbing in a fight, and suddenly stand up again acting as good as new, just with a bit of Hollywood style blood or bruised make-up effects to show that they were injured earlier.
After the action is over, the character may wince or limp, or otherwise remind the audience that yes, he was injured, but clearly it's not an issue when stuff needs to happen! How can this be represented in game? There is a perfectly valid mechanical option for d20 games already: the Wound Points slash Vitality Points system that debuted in the d20 Star Wars game, and which is designed to accomodate exactly this paradigm. But, it requires quite a few changes to things like critical hits, sneak attack, and some other stuff, so it may be more trouble than it's worth. In d20 Modern where magical healing is not assumed to be readily available, the Heal Skill is revised to be the Treat Injury skill, which is substantially more effective at actually patching characters up. Add to that the Surgery feat and a few other bonuses, and a doctor character can get somebody up and running nearly as easily and effectively as a cleric. Well, kinda.
And 4e D&D had the concept of healing surges, which I adapted as an Action Point option. This also perfectly represents what you see in action movies where characters inexplicably get "second winds" after being heavily battered earlier. It also significantly reduces the need for "magical" healing.
The second solution is to change the paradigm of play. Don't do dungeons. Do other kinds of action movie paradigms. Chases. Spies. Intrigue. Standalone fights. Etc. If a character gets too injured for healing surges and Treat Injury to get up and at 'em immediately, then they have to stop and recuperate for a while. Hole up in a safe house or something. I've heard lots of D&D players express to me their skepticism that this will work, but trust me: most RPGs that aren't D&D (or D&D clones) already operate under this paradigm. It works quite well.
There's an interesting correllary to that, though. Most of those games don't have dedicated faith-based classes. If a character wants to be faithful to a particular creed or religion, that's just a matter of flavor that the player adds; there's no mechanical follow-through (unless, of course, that's part of the setting.) There's no need for a cleric, in other words, which means that technically, there's no need for religion in your campaign setting at all.
That said, I like the idea of religion in fantasy settings. The notion of a pantheon of mythology-like gods--like the Greek or Norse gods, or what have you--just feels right for fantasy to me. Plus, it's a good way to establish a bit of the nature of your world.
For DARK•HERITAGE, for example, since I see it as a dark fantasy with fairly strong Lovecraftian overtones, I'm eschewing the popular "good" goods; the friendly gods of the sun, of the harvest, of civilization and commerce, etc. Rather, I've got a number of rather unfriendly gods that aren't so much worshipped as they are propitiated by a benighted and superstitious populace. And, as a bit of an esoteric reference, many of the gods are characters who are familiar to D&D players or Biblical scholarship as demons or pagan gods that notoriously tempted the Israelites. I don't have Baal (mores the pity) transparently referred to, but many of the others will be familiar.
The most notable and noticeable of the pantheon are the Four Horsemen, who are frequently associated together on iconography and elsewhere. They are:
- Ciernavo (from Balshatoi Czernavog), also known as the Black Pharaoh, and The Conqueror. Riding a White Horse, and firing a bow into his enemies, Ciernavo is a god associated with the spread of civilization; the wresting of new nations out of wilderness, or out of the ashes of the old, either one. He is pictured as obsidian black, with long hair and a crown-like growth of eight four to six inch horns on his head. The hamazin see him as their patron and father, pointing to their resemblance to the traditional depiction of him as evidence. (Name is slightly revised from the name of the big demon lord in Disney's "Night on Bald Mountain" segment of Fantasia, which in turn comes from Slavic mythology. He's also pictured as looking very similar to Graz'zt, the famous demon lord of D&D lore, and is also meant to subtly invoke Nyarlathotep from Lovecraftiana.)
- Peronte (from Balshatoi Perun), the Thunderer. Riding a red horse and swinging a sword that flashes like lightning, Peronte represents war. He is a wild-eyed and wild-haired man, charging into battle on his horse naked except for his warpaint, and his face is obscured by constant crackling of lightning. (Name is a Italianized version of a Slavic thunder god not unlike Thor.)
- Culsans (from ancient Terrasan), the Taker, The Hoarder. Riding a black horse, he's a cold god, associated with weights, measures, scales, money and civilization. Infamous for his miserly attitude, he's also associated with famine, and when famine strikes the land, it is often believed that it is Culsans withholding his bounty because he hasn't been sufficiently propitiated. (Name is an Etruscan god; aspect is pretty much exactly like that of the third Horseman, without being combined or blended with any other source.)
- Caronte (from ancient Terrasan Charun); Death, The King in Yellow. Riding a pale, sickly (or even dead and mummified) horse, Caronte is depicted as an emaciated, hunched, sinister figure wrapped in yellow rags that completely obscure his features (except sometimes a skeletal face), often with a scythe or sickle in his hand, harvesting the lives of those who's time has come. Behind him is another figure walking slowly behind him, a leery, crawling demonic figure of uncertain and inconsistant depiction, known as Orcus or Hell. (Combing the fourth horseman with Charon of Greek mythology (or Charun of Etruscan who had many similarities) with further aspects of the Grim Reaper and Chamber's King in Yellow seemed fun. Caronte is all of them rolled into a single package. Reading the Biblical verse, Death was followed by Hell--not a horseman, but apparently a flunky or assistant to Death.)
- Istaria (uncertain origin of the name, but older versions Ishtar and Ashtarte are noted from old books), a goddess of books, libraries, and knowledge. Also pictured as lascivious and decadent, her worship is famous for it's heirodules, or temple prostitutes.
- Cathulo (uncertain origin of the name, but also known by the alternate name of Dagon), a god who lives under the sea, supposedly dreaming in his underwater palaces, waiting for the day he will rise and flood the land again. His propitiation often includes the pouring of alcohol into the water, to keep him sleepy.
- Susnacco (from ancient Terrasan Susinac), a god of travel with statues in most towns. When in embarking on a long journey, it is often customary to kiss the statue first.
- Selvans, a wild god of the wilderness and the hunt. Tall and lean, with claws and fangs and a skull-like visage, adorned with great antlers, Selvans is a figure that represents the terror the civilized man feels at the wildness of untamed places.
- Surtr (name of balshatoi origin), a god of fire and the sun. While seen as friendly in some locations, most see him as untrustworthy and dangerous, and see his hand in devastating wildfires and sere crops alike.
- Demogorgon, a primal god of the earth, said to predate the other gods, and belonging to a much more wild and chthonic order of beings.
- Huudrazai, the blind, idiot Stargod, who sleeps in the blackness of the void, lulled into restfullness by the incessant piping of strange and hidious entities. One day, his cultists say, the piping will stop, jolting Huudrazai to wakefulness, which will initiate the End Times. Sometimes called the Daemon-sultan.
- Yog-Sothoth (also Yaji Ash-Shuthath, Yaji'u Ash-Shudhdhādh or Iog-Sotôt,) an ancient entity, knowledge of which came in suppressed and forbidden texts from the jann, is The Gate, the Lurker; the way to communicate directly with the gods, in a certainly suicidal and mind-blasting ritual. However, lesser rites remain which skate the edges of sanity, but which canny sorcerers occasionally risk to increase their own power.