Fantastic Locations: On Holy Ground

Temples are one of the more common places of power in my campaign.  In a world where gods exist, places of interest to them often take on characteristics appropriate or pleasing to the gods.

The gods were interrupted while building the prime plane, which has had some consequences.

  • There are still places where the Fundament is showing, places of primal power that didn’t get tidied up as planned.  These form the ‘wellsprings of power’ I mentioned in posts a few days ago.
  • Gods cannot enter the prime plane in a real sense because they may tear it — gods are so fundamentally real that the prime plane cannot withstand their power.
  • Gods may still extend their interest and influence, gently, into the prime plane.  They tend to find the prime plane overly transparent and hard to read, though, and need some kind of markers to guide them.
  • Mortals may follow a path of ascension that leads them to be gods themselves.  There are many such paths, but most of them will at some point involve forming a covenant with a greater power and ultimately with a god.  Such characters are the greater agents of the gods, and help spread the application of their power.

Holy ground is just that — a place that some god has an interest in and has granted power to.  Most often this will be shaped by their mortal followers to better suit a purpose.

Holy Sites

In Tome of Adventure Design Matt Finch did a better job itemizing the grades of holy sites than I did — I was never happy with my labels, and his definitions are more coherent than mine have been.  The Tome of Adventure Design can also be useful for generating details about the places.

Grades of Holy Sites

Holy Ground is just that — a place that has divine power.  There is probably no full-time priest (there might be a hermit, hermitting is an honorable profession!), the place is probably marked in some fashion, either with a natural feature or man-made.  Any manifestations present are likely to be constrained in some manner and subtle… but this is not always the case.

A Shrine is place of worship with a man-made marker and is often the site of minor rituals.  They are most often used and maintained by lay worshipers, though actual priests may visit or help maintain them from time to time.  Rituals are most often commonly known and performed by those who have reason to.

A Chapel is a building (or part of a larger building) dedicated to the power being worshiped.  There is not a full-time priest in attendance, but most formal ceremonies and rituals are performed by a priest.

A Temple is a building or complex dedicated to the worship of a power, with full-time ordained staff, and often support.  A small temple may be like a parish church, where there is a priest assigned there full time, but probably not much by way of support staff — possibly an acolyte or apprentice priest, but not necessarily.  A medium temple has several priests and supporting staff, most often including a small number of acolytes or apprentices.  A large temple has enough priests to warrant an actual hierarchy beyond “that one is the boss of the others”; typically small and medium temples are roughly peers (though not actually equal in size) and are associated with a larger temple.  A major temple is likely to be a major focus of the religion and more or less unique for the faith, likely with dozens of priests, a full (and possibly highly political) hierarchy, service staff, and so on.

A simple hierarchy between temples might look like:

  • A major temple as the centre of the faith, quite probably unique on the world.
  • A large temple in each nation that has followers, though some might be ‘nominally large’ if they don’t have the followers to warrant more.
  • Small and medium temples in the towns and cities of each nation.  Most ‘unrecognized’ temples (those without sanction) are probably of this size… though that could be ‘nominal’ as well if they do have the followers to warrant more and haven’t been caught.
  • Manor houses and villages and the like might have chapels, if there is a formal place of worship.  Larger villages might have a small church, most might have a chapel and a ‘circuit priest’ stops by to perform ceremonies and rituals, or they are performed by a knowledgeable lay worshiper.
  • Shrines are constructed wherever appropriate.  Many people might have personal shrines for their own worship, but are not used for public rituals.  Shrines are often built near roads for use by travelers, or in workplaces (including farmers’ fields) for use by those working in those places.

Establishing Holy Sites

Holy Ground is most often the location of an event important to the power associated with it.  Achievement of a major goal, death of a martyr, birth of a saint, or possibly even just a place the god liked to visit when it was still possible to enter the prime plane.  They basically ‘happen’ without being directly caused by mortals.  The sites with man-made structures may or may not have been holy ground before the structures were built, but regular and frequent use as a place of worship may cause it to become so.  There may be specific rituals and ceremonies that can cause this to happen (ordination of a holy site for a church, for example).

Manifestations of Holy Sites

This is a place where D&D 3.x let me down.  You can really only get so much mileage out of hallow (though it’s not a bad first step), and consecrate is even more limited (fair enough, it’s only a second-level spell).  However, hallow (in whatever alignment form) result in the same base effects for everyone who uses them (magic circle vs opposing alignment, bonus/penalty to turn/rebuke undead checks (that doesn’t apply to druids), and you can add one spell with persistent effect, chosen from a specific list).

This has always struck me as a little bland.  Useful, perhaps, but not terribly exciting.

If I were a god empowering holy ground — and in a sense, I am — I would expect it to create ‘favorable’ territory for my followers and be conducive to my goals being met, and ‘unfavorable’ to my enemies’ followers and nonconducive to their goals.  The spell hallow gets partway there with the magic circle and modifiers to turn/rebuke (if that comes up at all), but it doesn’t go far enough.

Thankfully, I’ve got a rather larger list to draw from.  Manifestations of holy sites may use spells, but more often draw from the expanded material I’ve talked about over the last few days.

Hallowed ground for a druid?  Some of the possibilities that could be a direct consequence of being a holy site:

  • Guardians (plants, animals, possibly elementals or fey), drawn by the power of the area to protect it; animals and plants might be awakened.
  • Wild empathy checks get a bonus, a speak with animals effect, animals get bonuses to natural AC, hit points, attack and damage rolls, saving throws.
  • Unusually dense vegetation for the area, or plants that would not normally be found in the area.
  • Unusual weather.
  • Druidic magic is enhanced.
  • Arcane magic is limited.
  • Undead (and aberrations?) suffer penalties, being unnatural creatures; creatures interred here cannot be animated through normal means.
  • Living creatures gain minor fast healing.

All of the above are mentioned as manifestations of ‘planar effects’, but I think they can all be used (at least to select from) to describe how a druidic holy site might manifest.

Do note that this considers only the ‘nature’ component of the holy site.  As you get more complex powers to build holy sites for you can draw on even more manifestations.  For instance, I once had a god of swords (that never came up in play, so I’d have to look up his name) that included Knowledge and War among his domains.  Most gods of knowledge have some kind of library, but one of his holy sites was a mystic training hall.  Anyone using a sword had a +5 bonus to BAB and Armor Class when fighting there as his mind became awash with technique and tactics and strategy that he could use to his benefit.

As a general rule I would pick a primary focus for each holy site and assign 40-60 percent of the ‘manifestation’ to that focus, then choose the rest from a secondary focus.  If I were to devise a group of related holy sites (such as the temples of a particular god) I might have part of the manifestations drawn from a shared list that might vary by scope of manifestation but all are present, and fill in the rest from the list of manifestations appropriate to the power.

For instance, “all holy sites of the god of fire have an ever-burning fire”.  At a shrine it might be a candle that never goes out (until removed from the shrine, an act of desecration that could bring a curse), at a large temple it might be a huge fire pit in the center of the worship room, while the major temple of the faith might have several such fire pits and the sanctum, closed to all but the most faithful, is fully awash in fire.  Each location might have two other manifestations, one of which must be a fire manifestation and the other may be taken from any effect appropriate to the power (and might be another fire manifestation).

This provides a continuity between related locations, while still allowing variability to make them partly unique.  If every temple to a particular god is the same they become indistinguishable.  This is appropriate to some degree (chapels probably don’t differ all that much), but medium and large temples should vary somewhat more.

Closing Comments

The limitations I have seen in describing holy sites — or at least, the mechanical effects of holy sites and the manifestations of them — have generally had to be fixed by ignoring or augmenting the material presented in the core rules with additional material.  While I would hate to say that I lack imagination, my muse is a fickle thing that may or may not have an answer for me when I need it.  By using these large lists of effects appropriate to various interests I find I can usually come up with something useful in short order.

The list of manifestations for druidic hallowed ground I described above was the result of about five minutes effort.  Had I had more time I would have considered more options and synergies, and in a ‘real situation’ I would probably have even more traits to draw manifestations from.

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