I have a tendency to play PCs with religious backgrounds. Playing “the cleric” is a challenge, you are playing against expectations. Other players may expect you to be a healing machine. Your GM may impose expectations from a church – or even a god. If you want to develop a multidimensional character with its own identity, you need to develop a strong concept. It also helps to have some pre-packaged ways of meeting the expectations of others.
Game mechanics can help with the “healing machine” expectations. Newer editions of D&D have spontaneous/at-will healing mechanics. These allow you to develop your character in your own direction while still being capable of meeting the needs of the other PCs.
In terms of meeting the GM’s expectations, it is often a good idea to have a talk beforehand about church structure and your PC’s role within it. The other thing that can help is to prepare prayers beforehand. Using snippets of prayer can help tie your character into a religious tradition. Just as importantly, the prayer bits you choose can help define your character (and guide the GM in terms of further development of the church).
So, where do you come up with bits of prayer? You can pull things from real religious traditions. If you want to do this, I’d recommend World Prayers. Personally, though, this makes me vaguely uncomfortable. First, I don’t want to risk appropriating someone’s real-world prayer for a fantasy game. Second, real religious traditions are generally based on faith. In a fantasy world in which priests have direct access to their gods, religions are not faith-based. The sorts of prayers used should reflect that.
So… where would I go to get prayers?
They generally need some adaptation, but they can be a great resource. I recommend looking to musical genres including folk, traditional, goth, and power ballads. Keyword searches can also be useful.
Need an example?
Angela is thinking about running a follow-up to her long-running D&D game in which I played a dwarven chef. One of the NPC-types in that game was Mitra. Thousands of years ago, Mitra had been an archmage who set out to save the world from a deluge. He succeeded in his task, but – in the process – accidentally killed a sun god and was cursed with pseudo-vampirism. He became a demigod in the process, but didn’t really want to admit that to himself. Unfortunately, the flood that Mitra stopped was necessary to cleanse the world, and without it poison was slowly killing everything. The sun god had also functioned as a tether to the Elemental Plane of Water – without which the world was messed up in a planar sense. We mostly dealt with Mitra followers, but the climax of the game involved us convincing him to undo what he had done by rebuilding a tether to the water plane and raising a power to take the place of the sun god he’d killed.
In the new game that Angela will run (which will take place a couple of hundred years later), I’m thinking of playing a cultist of Mitra. I was brainstorming about what a cult of Mitra would be like. I came up with some phrases in praise of Mitra, like “He brings light from the darkness,” and such. Brainstorming, I thought that he’d be associated with darkness, light, and floods. Maybe one of his titles could be The Torchbearer.
This led to me thinking of the Sisters of Mercy song, The Torch (from the album Floodland). Lyrics like
Would he walk upon the water
If he couldn’t walk away?
And would you
Would you carry the torch for me?
…could be easily adapted. Prayer snippets could include things like, “When you walk across the water, O Mitra, would you bear the torch so that I may see?” Looking at other songs on the album, I see lyrics that can be tweaked to things like “A million voices called out your name, Mitra, as the waters came rushing in. And you answered them, saying ‘No harm will come your way,'” and “In the light of the night, in the dark of the day, I close my eyes and I look your way. I meet the fear that lies inside, and I hear you say, ‘It is mine.'”
That’s off of a single album by a single artist.
The added bonus is when other players around the table recognize (or don’t quite recognize) the source of your PC’s prayers.