I don't think this is an uncommon sentiment--at least in my own RPG echo chamber.
A lot of them are sort of the exact same. Well MY god of death is named the RAVEN QUEEN and boy howdy is SHE different. She has a SKULL as her symbol. I mean. A RAVEN. And YOURS has a skull. Boy oh boy are we different.
To digress ever so slightly, fantasy is interesting because of its similarities to the real world. I don't really care about the weirdness*, I care about how the weirdness highlights and contrasts the meaningful overlap in the real world. I don't care that the orcs are fungi with psychic power, I care that they create families torn by war. The families torn by war I can identify with--its an experience that I can empathize or sympathize with. It's why I care about fantasy. It's not worldbuilding just for its own sake.
RPG religions should be both a) interesting in their own merit (i.e., different from the ubiquitous recoloring of some Roman pantheon) and b) highlight contrasting similarities in my own personal experiences with faith.
"But Josh," you whine in a hateful nasal tone, "RPGs are FANTASY and religion is the REAL WORLD and the two shouldn't overlap because people's religious beliefs are sacred and important and blah blah blah"shut up I've stopped listening to you. I just explained that fantasy isn't interesting in its own merit--and really you don't think it is, you just haven't realized it yet. Fantastic beliefs are only meaningful in the story of your game because you can put them into a cultural context that you understand. Religion is important to a lot of people, and even if you are irreligious it's still important to you. It impacts your daily life no matter where you live in the world; it pressures your history and charges your interactions with other human beings.
The problem I have with religions in RPG experiences I have had, by and large, is that they don't impact my INC life. My buddy Cleric George is a cleric of the Life God for one level (since it gives him sweet access to a class feature and a spell that he wants for his build) and he casts Cure Light Wounds pretty good and I like him. Sometimes he role-plays about how good his god is, and my dwarf vaguely disagrees because surely the DWARF GOD (recolor as you wish) is the best one. But are we different? Does religion feel important? Are we going to have a war about it? Are we going to have a war about the fact that he portrays DWARF GOD as female and I portray him as male? Or that I think he had no wives, and he thinks he had twelve wives? Or because I think that DWARF GOD is an emanation of the ONE GOD and he thinks that there are no fewer than 15-18 gods, depending on who wins the celestial wars?
So often, clerical features are just background fluff in an ultimately unimportant and uninteresting number crunching game. Fffffuck that. I hate that.
I don't really have a great solution to this non-problem, but here is a drunken musing on the subject:
|YOUR religious symbol has SIX spokes. HERETIC!|
Religion is Important Because NPCs Say So
In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Spider asks this riddle:
“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”
In Varys's world, it's pretty unclear to Tyrion who would win in a popularity contest between god, country, and wealth. Of these forces, the common murder hobo would probably pull the trigger for the rich man--but why? Because gold is a commodity they understand, and they understand has a place in the scope of the world. ((Obviously, this question is meaningless in some sort of communist utopia in the clouds where nobody has anything tradable, or wealth is punishable by death, or something)) Assumably, though, the king would also confer some meaningful good to the sellsword--lands, titles, women, fame. Things that not even money could buy.
How much more for the priest?
Maybe religion is important because it is important in the in-game world. If you are a heretic, you will be burned--no ifs, ands, or buts. If you are faithful, the crowds call you a saint. They give you food, shelter, succor. The priests adore you, and are eager for your next apologetic treatise. They are eager for you to settle matters of philosophical dispute. They build you statues, churches, hymns. They send armies of paladins where you point your ring'd finger.
Maybe religion should feel important in the game world because, despite the fact that Pastor James C. Kelly down at First Presbyterian can't Cure Wounds or Raise Dead, he's still an important guy and people care what he thinks.
The Cult of Mythrys
This is the general tack I am taking with my current homebrew game. The church is called the Cult of Mythrys, and it's not important because it does miracles or has any number-crunching benefit. The Cult is important because the Cult is important. If you are a member of the Cult, you have rules and restrictions and a culture that you have to fit into; and correspondingly, it's beneficial to you because the Cult is an engine as important (or more?) than the State. The Cult is providing tangible and real goods (and evils) for the people within the world.
The Cult provides food for the poor. They provide lunatic asylums. They provide leper colonies. They provide money-changing stations at a reasonable rate. They provide food and gear for people making religious pilgrimages.
Moreover, the Cult of Mythrys, analogous to the Catholic Church of yesteryear, are probably the only really literate people around. The Testament is written in Vetic (Latin), and there's a religious proscription that all the faithful should learn to speak this language (like Arabic for the Koran) so that they may understand the religious texts without the fouling of translation. That means all the clerics are literate, and are the engines of literacy: they write the books, transcribe the books, illuminate the books. They write letters to your sister (and probably carry them to her, if she lives on their itinerant path). They write the contract you have with the blacksmith, and witness it.
Since they buy and sell money, the Cult is also the first bank. They're also literate with money. They understand exchange rates, economic theories, impacts of tariffs and taxes, and a dozen other things that serfs have no idea about.
How much more important could a fantasy religion be if, in addition to all the cultural goods they wield, a church could literally bring your father back from the dead? Can you even imagine that shit?
I think that I have a more meaningful role-playing experience when I take the miracles out of the religion. I think I have a more meaningful role-playing experience when the religious communities are important or powerful in the world. I think I have more meaningful role-playing experience when the deity or deities aren't a paint-by-numbers recoloring of the Greyhawk deities.
What about you? What is your table's religion(s) like? Why are they fun? What do you like about them?
* I mean, I do.