Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Religion in Play

1e Clerics

   Over at Role Play Craft there is a discussion of religion, ideology and philosophy in role playing games.  I don't disagree with the results of the discussion (a home rule system of religions and philosophy), BUT I strongly object to many of the premises and assumptions made during the discussion.  They all support the result, however they are stated in such a way that they leave the reader with a false impression that this is in some sense the only 'true' result.

  In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state that I've never made up a religion for an RPG.  I've toyed with the idea, but it's made me too uncomfortable to follow up on.  Perhaps it's my upbringing, perhaps it's the line from Niven & Pournelle's Inferno about "games played with the concept of religion." Perhaps it's a lack of imagination.  No matter what my personal hang ups, I have no problems with other people doing it.  My path has always been to use source material.

  First I want to dispense with the notion that "the relationship between fantasy role playing and religion has been tenuous in the past."  In Volume 1 Men & Magic, the original write up of the cleric states "they have the use of magic armor and all non-edged weapons (no arrows!). " A clear reference to the Christian tradition of fighting priests.  It's explicit in the 1e Players Manual, that "This class of character bears a certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood in medieval times."  The illustration (also taken from the 1e Players Handbook) shows recognizable clerics from cultures across history.  And the Deities and Demigods books have always provided stats for the various historical pantheons.    In other words, in D&D the cleric class and religion have always been firmly tied to historical traditions.

(I admit stats have never been provided for Jehovah in any flavor.  But really, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipowerful; there can only be one  and it's the DM in my campaigns.)

   Now the summary of  the planar nature of D&D's default cosmology is quite accurate and concise enough to deserve some applause, but I'd also point out that the 3e version of Deities & Demigods gives examples of mono- and duo- theistic religious systems and the 3e Manual of the Planes provides alternate cosmologies.

  My last carp with the article is the conflation of the dark ages with religious fanaticism. <Sigh> I will allow that they don't teach history in school anymore, but it's all out of copyright and you can find books on Gutenberg.  The so called Dark Ages, which roughly correspond to the time between the abdication of Romulus Augustalus (476 AD), the last Western Roman Emperor and the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor (800AD) was the time of the movement of the peoples.  Romulus Augustalus being himself the son of a barbarian mercenary.  This was the time of the great migrations, religion was certainly a force, albeit a conservative one.  Mainly it was a time of searching for philosophical answers which manifested itself in the rise of Christianity; Catholic, Orthodox, Arian, Gnostic and many other sects lost to all but the dustiest scholars;  as well as the rise of Mohammedanism.  Even the Norse religion enjoyed a brief renaissance with the introduction or elevation of Baldur.

  Now the main reason for the preceding paragraph is the suggestion in the post that it's somehow 'grittier' (what does that word mean in a pen and pencil game?) to have religion look like how it does in the real world.  I am NOT saying it's somehow a bad thing to have competing religions as the post suggests, in fact I favor it, but the post never examines the reason for competing religions.  And that reason is culture.  Catholic Christianity grew out of Latin Rome, Orthodox from Greek Byzantium, Arianism was the choice of the Germanic migrants, Gnosticism grew from schools in Alexandria. Mohammedanism from Arabia.

  It's not enough to come up with a list of religions, you need to provide the cultural background too.  I believe that layering competing cultures will provide a campaign with more depth and texture than just a list of competing deities and philosophies.

While I disagreed with aspects of the post, I certainly enjoyed reading it and it definitely made me think.  I encourage you to go and read it for yourselves and I'm adding Role Play Craft to my Blog Roll.

1 comment:

  1. I think I agree with you here, despite you disagreeing with my premise.

    Culture is definitely an important part of world-building, and I believe you are right that I was remiss in not mentioning in in regards to religious practices and beliefs.

    As far as me stating the relationship between religion and role playing (dungeons and dragons in particular), I was definitely more talking about the side of the religious rather than the game. DnD has always been derived partly from mythology. My point being that some, due to the religious scares in the 70s and 80s involving DnD, might feel uncomfortable digging into and playing around with religion in their game world because of that. I definitely didn't mean to give the notion that DnD was somehow irreligious or lacked any noticeable derivatives. As a player of Cavaliers and Paladins since 1st edition, I would be blind to not see it.

    Grittiness, to me, in a pen and paper context, means that the stories told around the table are generally more serious, more gray than black and white, and generally tackle more serious issues like religious persecution, rights of groups of people, the effect of war on a common populace, etc. My point was that introducing a more realistic religious system into place can help with this. Being a saxon in the time of Charlemagne would have been quite gritty (and not more than a little frightening if you were a commoner and especially a woman.) So I use the dark ages to compare this too because, compared to the normal tone of say Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms, the dark ages (though I know revisionists tend to dislike the name) were much more 'gritty'. Perhaps not as such a 'dark age' as people believe in popular culture, as modern historians have shown that many positive educational, philosophical, and other advancements came out of the era. But undoubtedly it was a trying and violent time for christians, pagans, and everything in between, especially if you were a common person stuck in the middle of an age rife with religious conflict.

    So, in all, I do agree, that religions and philosophies go hand in hand with culture and cultural development, either as prime movers or side effects. I was definitely remiss in not discussing that in my post. Thanks for the well thought out critique! I enjoyed reading it.