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Archive => RPG Theory => Topic started by: John Kim on January 20, 2003, 01:55:40 AM



Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: John Kim on January 20, 2003, 01:55:40 AM
OK,

It seems to me that there has been a lot of effort at discussing what is wrong with religion in RPGs.  It seems to me that a more productive avenue would be to ask what works -- i.e. what are has come closer to being successful at representing religion in RPGs.  I don't have any master theory about this, so I will instead recount generally good experiences I have had with religion in RPGs.  

There have been four campaigns where I have made some use of shamanic magic which added in a non-trivial spiritual element to the game.  It is somewhat borderline between magic and religion in a technical sense, but I think it counts.  A meta-adventure I have used is the vision quest, where the PCs all journey to the spirit world where they face tests.  These are not mechanical tests, but rather genuine tests of character: moral or ethical dilemmas, for example.  Overall, I think that these adventures worked pretty well.  They certainly were pretty memorable, and added a mythic sense to the game as well.  

(Really, I could spend a while talking about these and probably will at some point, but I wanted to get on to other examples.)  

In two of these games (including my current campaign), I had a character who was at least parallel to a shaman (although maybe not in some technical sense) -- i.e. had made the journey to the land of the dead, been reborn, and could now talk to spirits and the dead at will, and guide the dead on their journey.  The success of this is somewhat debatable.  I definitely like how it works in my current campaign, but I think there is some sense in which it has lessened the mystery.  At the same time, though, it makes life after death and other issues an explicit part of the game and thus brought those issues in both as scenes and as integral to the plot.  

There are three other instances I can think of where religion worked to some degree:

1) A HarnMaster game that I am currently playing in.  I am playing a priest of Agrik, who is traditionally the evil God in Harn.  There is little which is spiritual per se in the campaign.  However, religion is a frequent issue in the lives of our characters and we have debates over moral and ethical issues.  We have also seen into the workings of organized religion recently as we negotiated with a foreign bishop over the ransoming of a prisoner.  While my PC has some priestly rituals with magic power, there is nothing really mythic about this.  Rather, it is a look at the more down-to-earth workings of an "evil" religion.  

2) There was an old Rolemaster game which I played in, which somehow got focussed around my PC.  It was set in Renaissance Italy, and I decided to play a Rolemaster Healer -- which is an empathic healer who takes the wounds of others on himself and then uses his innate regenerative capabilities to recover.  From a peculiar set of stat rolls and a bit of system tweaking, he was astoundingly tough which also made him a remarkable healer.  I made him a devout Christian who was also an outright masochist.  After the first session, I also decided that he was basically dumb, in that he simply didn't realize that his companions were all nasty people.  Anyhow, the campaign eventually revealed that his powers came from being of the bloodline of Christ (long story).  Anyhow, much of the campaign went by with the smarter less ethical characters leading around the clueless Luca -- but actually he ended up impressing them and when they found out his birthright they ended up deferring to his leadership.  The clash of unethics intelligence vs simple piety made for an interesting game.  

3) Interestingly enough, I ran a Star Trek game which had a decent religious bit in it.  The Science Officer in the first series was Lt. Cmdr. Ghasim, who was a devout Muslim.  I think just having that character there made for interesting perspective on much of the Star Trek adventures -- which, true to Star Trek, involved a lot of moral and ethical dilemmas of a sci-fi nature.  The one moment I particularly remember was when Ghasim slipped a copy of the Koran to a primitive alien leader who particularly impressed him as being ready for it, and indeed in need of its guidance.  


I don't have any immediate conclusions to draw from this.  Instead, I wanted to reflect on this and see what other people thought and what their experiences have been.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Andrew Martin on January 20, 2003, 10:28:52 AM
I think that the RPGs RuneQuest III and Hero Wars/Hero Quest have a good approach to religion and magic.

Another I liked as TORG from WEG, where Faith was a skill essential to make miracles work.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: clehrich on January 20, 2003, 10:49:54 AM
Okay, this is VERY long.  Sorry about that.

I think doing religion "right" in a classic fantasy RPG means designing the setting with this in mind.  It's possible to add realistic religions to a setting, but it's tricky.  Stuff like mechanics I would again do late.  I would want to design a setting in which religion was a significant cultural issue, then work out mechanics and storylines which interacted with the setting in all its complexity.  For the record, I don't think this necessitates a particular GNS stance, but we can argue about that.

So suppose I'm designing a fantasy world with religion as a major issue.

I'd start with what is least touched in such RPGs: ritual and personal life.  I'd try to imagine ordinary people who, if asked, identify themselves with a particular religion.  What do these people do that makes them so identify themselves?  How are their communities structured?  What are the big issues and concerns for their daily lives?

Next, I'd make the flat assumption that ordinary people do not have regular personal encounters with the sacred.  Most of the rituals they perform, whether personal or communal, don't "do" anything that could be measured by a scientistic observer, even one with magical powers.  People do them because they think they ought to, or everyone else is doing them, or it makes them feel good in some way.

Now I'd look at the rhythms of daily life.  What sorts of food do they eat, and what are the planting and harvesting cycles, the daily requirements, the practicalities of hunting, etc.?  How about sex, marriage, childbirth, and child-rearing --- how big a problem are these things, and what are the concerns?  What do people do for fun?  Are there fixed social groups within the community, and how do you become a member?

Now I'd take a few of these that seem interesting to me at the moment, or seem particularly complex, or involve a significant element of danger (e.g. hunting dangerous game).  I'd imagine some generic ritual behavior which interprets the quotidian concern.  Then I'd formulate a basic mythical interpretation of the ritual, imagining a knowledgeable local describing it.  Then I'd tinker with the ritual, then tinker with the myths, and keep doing this until we have a ritual which (1) seems unnecessarily complex if you don't know the socio-cultural details, and (2) isn't absolutely coherent.

Here's an example.  We've got this bunch of people, the Krolgu (you have to have fantasy names, of course), who start as agriculturalists growing a crop that gets harvested three times a year.  The crop needs water, but the second harvest is often blighted by drought.  The crop needs to be free of pests, so the children spend a lot of time picking little bugs off the plants (they don't have to stoop so far); the bugs are actually tasty if cooked, but nasty if eaten raw.  Harvesting is pretty easy, because the fruit (I'm thinking something sort of like corn here) comes off readily when ripe, but planting is a hell of a lot of work, because the crop is finicky about soil and so you have to plow in a bunch of additives that come from other plants, the local riverbed, dead insects, and so forth.  If you screw this up, the plants don't fruit much, and sometimes the crop tastes like crap.

Okay, so letís say there's a big feast in the middle of each harvest season, at which they roast and eat lots of the little bugs.  The wings and whatnot are carefully saved, and plowed into the next crop.

Now here are some fairly obvious mythic elements to go with this:
1. The divine (i.e. the spirits, the dead, the gods, God, whatever --- we're not there yet) transforms the destructive bugs into fertility at the feast; you can tell because the things taste good roasted, and besides the hulls make the crop grow well.
2. Since it's mostly children who pick the things, let's say that only children are allowed to do the gathering for this feast.  So there's a sacred virginity thing going on here.
3. If we've got sacred virginity, then the transition to adulthood is a big deal.  Puberty makes you impure for sacred bug-picking, but on the other hand it makes you a potential source of new virgins.
4. If the bugs become tasty when roasted, then maybe the divine force manifests in the sacred fire.  Maybe the fire should be built of the harvested stalks of the crop plants.
5. Since water is a big concern, particularly in the second season, maybe we have to sprinkle our bugs with sacred water, perhaps specially-collected rainwater.  Let's make an analogy between this water and sperm, and make collecting it a special job for adult men (we could make it a female thing instead, of course: water = milk).
6. If the water is a male thing, let's say that the sacred fire is female.

How about some myths?  Let's say there is a goddess who lives in the fire, and all the crop-fruits are her children.  She has periodic sex with a god who lives in the river.  Heat rises, right?  And rain falls from the sky?  Well that's because the goddess and the god fly up in the air to have sex; they do it in the clouds, which are soft and fluffy for their pleasure.  When there are thunderstorms, you know they're getting it on --- and lightning is when she has an orgasm (that's why sometimes trees catch fire when hit by lightning: sky-fire, see?).

Now the Fire-Goddess has a brother, the Sun.  He's mostly a good guy, but when he gets hot he starts lusting after his sister, and starts peeping in on the Divine Couple having sex; they don't like this, because the Goddess is modest, so in the hot season they don't have sex much --- thus the droughts.  So what we do is to burn lots of old crop-stalks; this creates a smokescreen the sun can't see through, and then the Divine Couple can go back to screwing.

As to the bugs, the River God has a sister, Bug-Girl.  She's a virgin, and thinks sex is gross.  So when there's a lot of sex going on, she gets cranky and sends out her hordes of bugs.  If she can afflict the crops enough, she figures, the Fire-Goddess will be sad (it's her children being eaten), and thus not horny, and so won't want sex.  This is why you have to have virgins pick the bugs for the feast: the Bug-Girl really wants to be helpful, actually, and if she sees lots of virgins enjoying eating her bugs, she will be happy and stop worrying about other peopleís fun.

Now Iíve got lots of elements, and a nice festival.  Iíve got the beginnings of some mythology.  Iíve also got a few interesting social things:
1. Some people choose to remain virgins their whole lives.  They are specially dedicated to Bug-Girl, and have special powers.  They know why the Divine Couple arenít having sex, why new problematic animals are around (from rarer bugs right up to domestic animals and cattle), and theyíre experts on the diseases of children.
2. Some men become priests of the Sun God.  They canít have sex, since the Sun God never does (he wants his sister, but understands the dangers of incest); on the other hand their sexuality is central, so they have a lot of ritual sex with each other.  They are understood to see everything, like the Sun mostly does, and theyíre experts on general problems in the weather.  They also serve as diviners of the future.
3. Some women are priestesses of the fire.  They have to have at least one child.  They are called on for the big stuff, since they understand the mysteries of generation and destruction.  Post-menopausal priestesses have had their blood burned away in the fire; they have tremendous powers, because they live halfway between the world and the fire.
4. People who want children bathe nude in the river.  Actually, thereís a lot of nude bathing, with explicit foreplay, because it gets the River God randy, and thatís good for the crops.  Plus people enjoy it, of course.

Next stage?  Start again, with another aspect of daily life.  Keep building rituals and myths.  In the end, Iíll have lots of detail, and it wonít really hang together quite coherently, which is as it should be.

Now I start asking about the complicated things:
1. What happens when these people move well past the subsistence stage, so that most people arenít farmers any more?  
2. What happens to the priesthoods when they have to serve as the agriculturalist memory of the Krolgu?  What happens if two different groups of the same priests disagree very strongly about something or other, and you get a schism?
3. What happens when a big proportion of the Krolgu live in cities?  How do they maintain these rituals, and what do they come to mean?
4. What happens when the Krolgu hear nifty stories from other people?  Do they absorb some of them, so that now Bug-Girl has a servant, the Fruit Bird (who actually came from a completely different peopleís mythology)?
5. What happens when, after a bunch of schisms among the Fire Priestesses, you get a really charismatic Priestess who tells everyone the right way to do things, getting back to how it originally was, denouncing the Sun Priests (whoíve started actually having sex with non-Krolgu women, since this doesnít count as incest) and preaching ďback to the landĒ?

I could go on and on.  I already have, I know, but look how much richness is getting built up out of absolutely nothing except me thinking about corn and sex!  And if my co-designers and I sit around and crank these things out, switching groups every time we have an idea, skimming over bits of mythology for stuff to steal, weíre going to end up with a vast amount of detail.  Furthermore itís going to give a strong basis for the classic fantasy RPG setting questions:

Glakkt is a Krolgu city, which means it has temples to Bug-Girl, the Sun God, the River God, the Fire-Goddess, the Fruit-Bird, and the Divine Couple.  Priests of these temples do X mystico-magical things.  The following things are sacred to Bug-Girl.  The Krolgu are generally accepting of other peopleís religions.  And so on.

Thatís how Iíd do fantasy religion.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Jack Spencer Jr on January 20, 2003, 10:57:04 AM
I really can't contribute much to this thread being an atheist but I have a feeling that this is very much an eye of the beholder issue. I would imagine that there are plenty of people out there who thing "D&D" religion (note the quotes) is just right. Or imagine someone saying a particular game "gets Christianity right." We'd first have to know what the speaker's criteria is. Does he mean historically, as per this or that history book? Or is it based on his own personal views of the religion, which will vary wildy if the speaker is Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, or Islamic, etc.

That's my point. I don't seek to invalidate the whole topic, but this is an important point to keep in the back of one's mind while discussing this, I think.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: John Kim on January 20, 2003, 12:17:12 PM
Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
I have a feeling that this is very much an eye of the beholder issue.  I would imagine that there are plenty of people out there who thing "D&D" religion (note the quotes) is just right. Or imagine someone saying a particular game "gets Christianity right."


Well, but everything is in the eye of the beholder.  My impression, however, is that a lot of people are dissatisfied with religion in RPGs -- so rather than complaining about what is wrong with religion in earlier RPGs, we should share ideas about can make religion work, in any sense.  

If there is anyone who feels that D&D religions is just right -- then I would be interested to hear their feelings and what within the D&D framework has worked better or worse.  I am rather skeptical that such people actually exist, but in any case I think it would be enlightening to hear their point of view.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: ThreeGee on January 20, 2003, 03:01:25 PM
Hey John,

I would have to say that the vast majority of people will not respond to a call for support because they have no reason to care. A small but vocal minority does not a majority constitute. Like most of the D&D gamers that I know, I am content with how it presents religion--content in the sense that I have never really thought about it. To tell you the truth, I have spent many more hours pondering the absurdity of D&D economics than its religiosity. The same is true of a hard-core sim anthropologist that I know well.

In truth, I love to play clerics. Not only because they are clearly the best class, but because there is a great deal of room for development. In D&D, religion is a matter between the player and the GM. If the GM has considered religion within his world, it is something special about the world to be appreciated. If not, there is that much more room for me to create my own mythos, etc. I feel that religion is very personal within the D&D framework.

Staying with approaches that I have liked, but branching out into fiction, I love both J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth mythos and Katherine Kurtz' Deryni mythos.

On the other hand, I strongly resented the intrusion of real-world medieval religion into GURPS Fantasy. I felt that the religiosity of the text was both oppresive and banal. Reading Fantasy only made me glad I was not born into such times.

Anyway, such is my rebuttal. I have no problem with people wishing for a different feel in their games, but please do not mistake a strong personal desire with a universal criticism.

Later,
Grant


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: greyorm on January 20, 2003, 03:30:41 PM
Honestly, I think alot of people who aren't dissatisfied with religion in D&D are the same people who aren't really exceptionally spiritual or religious in their actual, real lives.

They have no reason to care whether religion is presented as comparably real to modern or ancient faiths -- in terms of influence, personal devotion and meaning -- because it is not that big an influence on their own lives.

Let's face it, a non-religious person will have a difficult time playing a character who cares about and sees a greater, personal meaning in an idea. (I am not saying it is impossible, just unusual and abnormal)

You will note in a given D&D group that -- except for clerics -- the vast majority of D&D characters have no religious or spiritual notions or inklings whatsoever, and nothing personal at stake in regards to such things.

(In a way, one would have to convert one's friend's character to the cleric class before religious matters mean anything to the character's player!)

Again, see above...the player themself doesn't know how to begin to approach the issue from a mental standpoint, because they have no basis on which to model the behavior internally.

This is what is "done wrong" about religion in most RPGs. It ends up being a shallow farce, or a meaningless source of "juice" (ie: spells, magic, miracles...ie: game tools), because even if there is a detailed cosmology and such, there's no reason for the characters or their players to relate personal meaning to and interaction with it.

And at this point, I go back to pushing mythic realism, something which started many of the recent discussions of religion and myth: dumping the whole modern, rationalist outlook of the world and embracing ancient ideals of mythic truth, where the supernatural is unexplainable and just-outside-your-door. A world where peasants craft demon-bowls to keep evil spirits at bay and bring their sick children to the temple for protection from the invisible devils that are plaguing them.

And what's most important here: not only are these things are real BUT THEY WORK. The demon bowls really DO keep evil spirits at bay, who ARE lurking around outside...not giving the gods their due really DOES result in bad things happening to the character.

EDIT: I read the first page of the Religion in Fantasy Heartbreakers thread. Had I realized the subject of personal views interfering with dealing logically with religion in a game had already been so thoroughly discussed, I would have merely referenced it!


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Nick the Nevermet on January 20, 2003, 04:10:34 PM
I think that for religion to be a positive force in a game, there needs to be a reason for it.  I don't think a lot of RPGs need to give a role for religion because religion isn't too relevant to what the game is about.  Problems pop up when its jammed in because somebody, be it a player, GM, or designer thought it 'just should be there' without giving it a lot of thought.

I think this is what happened in D&D to an extent.  Most of the stereotypical dungeon crawls have absolutely nothing to do with issues important to religion.  When you ask a player who likes this game style why there is a cleric in the party, the answer is inevitably 'they have healing magic.'  Out of all the published D&D settings, I think the one that had the best use for clerics was Birthright, because it allowed PC Clerics to run a temple or church as a political entity.

Now, obviously just because the game on the shelf has a certain view of religion doesn't mean that needs to be used in every instance of play.  I think the above example of the Islamic Start Trek officer is a good one.  In the negative, I could easily envision a Fading Suns campaign, for example, that decides to ignore religion as important plot points.

The best instances of religion in RPGS, IMO, are the ones that present religion in the setting and do so without being one-dimensional.  This allows players & the GM to decide what aspects they like (if any), and emphasize those over the others.  I think D&D fantasy has a tendency to codify how divinity works in such a way that it becomes mechanical and one-dimensional.  

As for the players & GM, as others have said more or less, everyone has their  hang-ups... And some have more than others.  I suspect that a lot of the people who prefer D&D Fantasy religion really don't want to deal with religious issues in play.  Not all games are for all people, and not all groups play the same game the same way.  There are many different ways to present religion well, and just because a game doesn't, doesn't make the game 'bad' necessarily.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: M. J. Young on January 20, 2003, 04:44:09 PM
Quote from: greyorm
Honestly, I think alot of people who aren't dissatisfied with religion in D&D are the same people who aren't really exceptionally spiritual or religious in their actual, real lives.

I resemble that remark.

Seriously, although such things are difficult to assess (being very much internal), I would be one for whom it would be said that I was "exceptionally spiritual or religious". I've two degrees in theology, five years in religious broadcasting, time as a professor of undergraduate Biblical Studies, and currently serve as Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild. There are things I like about the way D&D handles religion. Let me enumerate them.
[list=1]
  • There is adequate source material to provide for a wide range of different approaches and styles. Deities & Demigods provides background information for a rudimentary understanding of supernatural realities as diverse as American Indian, Greek, Norse, Celtic, Indian, Chinese, and Melnibonean. Granted, this has to be fleshed out--but what aspect of D&D doesn't have to be fleshed out?
  • It leaves the actual choice of gods and myths in the hands of the referee. Manual of the Planes, as good as it was, may have missed this, in that it attempted to explain where all the deities lived in the various planes; but apart from that, there was always the notion that those gods exist whom the referee decides exist, and have the powers and influence that the referee decides are appropriate to his game world. If you want everyone from Odin to Cthulu to be part of the mythology, you can do that; if you want everyone to be limited to the deities available in Greece, you can do that. If you want to invent your own pantheon, either replacing or supplementing what is provided, that's also encouraged.
  • The heart of religious conviction is simplified in the alignment system. That is, characters believe on two levels, one a matter of color and background that informs their understanding and perception of reality (what sort of person does Odin want), the other a moral/ethical framework which informs decisions (is this the right thing for my character to do). As such, it is inherently integrated into the game while not becoming too complex. We can ask whether a particular action is "good" (in that it puts others first) or "chaotic" (in that it defends individual freedoms) and not bog down in whether this is a particular ideal of Odin and not Zeus. I've long said that alignment is the real religion of D&D; the deities are the color.
  • Since alignment is the real core faith of the game, it's quite easy to have characters devoted to different deities recognize that they are on the same side, working for many of the same goals. Thus you can have the rich diversity of many faiths providing color to the game world without the problems that followers of Odin and those of Zeus might necessarily think themselves enemies. After all, Odin and Zeus might disagree about many things, but they agree on the things that are important.
  • Having identified what it calls "good", the game is rigged to favor it. Seriously. Even apart from the deities and demigods, there is more power on the side of good than evil. Bahamut is more powerful and more resilient than Tiamat. This was a conscious decision of the designers, according to my information. It creates a world in which heroes have the power on their side; they do because they are identifying with "good", which is the greater force in the world, in an inherently religious way: they believe in it.
  • As written, the game includes bonuses for adhering to those beliefs and penalties for violating them. These range from very modest but real effects on the costs involved in character improvement to direct confrontation with the deities. Thus it is beneficial from a gamist perspective to play the beliefs appropriately.
  • Character generation states that characters all have a deity. That can matter, if the referee uses it. There are no irreligious D&D characters, only players who ignore that aspect.[/list:o]
    I don't think that the D&D system is the only way to do it; I don't think it's the best way. It is a functional approach to religion that has a lot to commend it, particularly in the context of a gamist game that wants to raise issues beyond mere dungeon crawling.

    I suspect most people who dislike the handling of religion in the game discarded key elements of it without recognizing their value--alignment, adventure grading, spell runners for example. Usually when I say, "but it works this way", I get a response on the order of "yes, but we never used that part". So if we're going to strip the game of certain integrated components and then complain it doesn't work, where are we? I can pull the air filter out of my car and then complain that it doesn't work right, but it's not the designer's fault.

    I had thought I would be posting some discussion of the options in terms of what can be done to create religion in a game, but I'm a bit stunned by Clehrich's Freudian faith and think I'll wait and see where the thread turns next.

    --M. J. Young


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Mike Holmes on January 20, 2003, 08:33:23 PM
The problem in my mind with Religion in RPGs in general, is the same that I have with Culture in general. That is, such things are intensely complicated. Simulating them is necessarily problematic. You just can't do a religion up precisely enough. Even a flakey cult has more nuances and data associated with it than can be learned by a GM or player.

My point is that, just as any attempt to simulate anything in a perfectly detailed manner is doomed to failure. So what do you do?

Well, you do what one always does in a simulation. You decide on what the salient parts of the simulationa are, what is to be delivered in terms of the abbreviated content, and you find an effective way to deliver it. Now, D&D does just this. After all, D&D is all about the monster killing, and, as such, the system tells you just how capable each sort of priest is at participating in the monster killing. Raven, those who like D&D religion are those who are interested in playing monster killing. Please don't evangelize.

Now, what would you do if you wanted to give some sort of feeling for the more ritual or spiritual aspects of a religion? That's an interesting question. Again, unless one wants to get heretically into play as a real religious effort, play is going to be a simulation of these things. But that's not so hard. For rituals, give the player rewards for inventing these parts of the religion. For the spiritual end, use someting like Spiritual Attributes from TROS. Whatever. Seems pretty simple to me. Incentiveize the player to explore whatever it is that you want to be explored. Basically, create the religion virally, or fractally, or in some other standard simulated manner. Hero Wars does an adequate if not stellar job of this. In the end you will get as good a response as you can get from an RPG.

All the hub-bub about this subject mystifies me.

Mike


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Ron Edwards on January 20, 2003, 09:11:41 PM
Hello there,

Raven, I think this phrase,

"Let's face it, a non-religious person will have a difficult time playing a character who cares about and sees a greater, personal meaning in an idea. (I am not saying it is impossible, just unusual and abnormal)"

... is sufficiently problematic for me to step in. It borders on bigotry, if not actually there, and so ...

"Your Honor! Objection!"

"Sustained."

Everyone please consider the remark stricken from the record.

Best,
Ron


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Christopher Kubasik on January 20, 2003, 10:33:25 PM
Hi Mike,

Well here's some of the bub that the hub's been about: leaving aside the reward system for a moment, what exactly do you want to reward?

For example, until I'd gone through these threads, I know I would have tripped myself up on simulating an actual culture where religion was vital while building the stories of that culture.  (In other words, are we RPGing ancient Greece or the stories of ancient Greece? They're two very different things.)

You might have all this already sorted out... But I've gained a great deal from these discussions so far.  This big cord called Religion is made up of many different threads -- and I've seen how many people assume their thread to be the whole.  That's been very valuable.

Different people will care about these matters to a different degree.  Those who care more (for whatever reason), will dig deeper into them for that.  That seems fair, right?

Take care,
Christopher


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Christopher Kubasik on January 20, 2003, 10:37:13 PM
M.J.,

I never got around to thanking you for the link to your article on awe and RPG religion.  I know that's a quality I'd definitely want in my RPG religious stew.

But then, this is where I think doing religion "right" in RPG might founder: everyone is going to have a different priority for the list of religious qualities (and even a different list).  But I'm going to follow the thread with interest.

Christopher


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: John Kim on January 21, 2003, 12:31:20 AM
I have pondered my initial list of examples of where I thought religion was done well in games, and I think the key features in common are simply (1) having a believable religious PC and (2) having significant moral and ethical issues which are faced by the PCs -- i.e. questions which don't have obvious answers, and especially debate or conflict among the PCs.

ThreeGee and M.J. Young brought up some interesting points about what they like about D&D.  While I dislike the D&D mechanics in general, religion in D&D isn't directly antithetical to my two key features noted above.  One of my examples of successful religion was using RoleMaster which isn't very different from D&D mechanically.  

I though M.J.'s point about real-world religion in GURPS Fantasy was interesting.  In general, I like using real-world religions.  Most of my successful examples used it, and I feel it provides a lot of depth that is difficult to get with fantasy religions.  However, I also dislike GURPS Fantasy (that is, the setting of "Yrth"), which I feel makes a hash of real-world cultures especially by taking them out of context and then extrapolating them in questionable ways -- or leaving them unaltered in cases where they really would change (i.e. when adapting to elves, dwarves, magic, etc.).  

To fulfill my key feature #1, religions needs to make sense to a thoughtful character -- and not just be a set of arbitrary rules.  For all its flaws, I think the simple personal loyalty to a god of D&D at least makes basic sense that can be role-played.  In contrast, a devout Muslim character informed only by a short list of historical facts (a la GURPS Fantasy) is far less believable, in my opinion.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: greyorm on January 21, 2003, 10:43:27 AM
The esteemed Mr. Young has yet again provided excellent food for thought on the subject; and yet, I don't agree. The analysis of D&D and religion in certain particulars, especially religion as it relates to alignment (and vice versa) in the framework of a D&D game and cosmology, are fascinating and I have to thank you for thinking of it and posting it...my mind is a-brewing.

One very serious problem rears its head, however, when considering the stated groups who fail to utilize those aspects of the game; MJ asks if that is the fault of the game?

I had considered this, and realized that the problem reveals itself in the scenario. I think it is important to ask why the groups are failing to use this material consistently?

I say consistently, because the issue of alignment is one of the most controversial, thoroughly debated and usage-varied issues in the history of D&D. As I believe (or hope) we are all sufficiently familiar with this subject, I'll only point out that one need only read the preponderance of articles dealing with how to deal with alignment, how to portray it, how to (or whether to) use it in Dragon magazine to see that there are no clear answers. (To say nothing of threads on Usenet or home-rules created to fix the current version).

Alignment, despite its intentions and the uses MJ details which it could or should be used for, is a poor substitute for actual religious beliefs. Its failing, in the role that MJ casts for it, is that it is unclear.

Without this necessary clarity -- and again, it is obviously unclear, or the sheer volume of debate evidenced above would not exist -- the possibility of gamers being able to use it as a foundation on which to build meaningful, realistic cultures of religion is unavailable.

Simply, if it did what it intended to do there would be far less argument; obviously, however, what it intends to do and how it intends to do it is not clear enough for the average gamer to pick out.

Quote
Deities & Demigods provides background information for a rudimentary understanding of supernatural realities...but what aspect of D&D doesn't have to be fleshed out?
...If you want everyone from Odin to Cthulu to be part of the mythology, you can do that...Since alignment is the real core faith of the game

My second problem: while D&D does indeed provide more-than-ample information and material to utilize for development, it completely lacks instruction on how to actually utilize those materials to develop them into a cohesive whole with the rest of the system.

So, while one can indeed have everyone from Odin to Cthulu in one's games, their actual use (apart or together) is not detailed. Had the alignment rules been more than they were, and more than penalties (ie: thou shalt not's), this might have been expanded upon by more gaming groups.

As it stands, such did not occur, and mish-mashing cosmologies tells one nothing of how to utilize those cosmologies in conjunction or (far more importantly) utilize those cosmologies as important to the characters and peoples of the world.

As you point out, there is a player reason to adhere to alignment. It is plagued by the following: no concrete, clear definition of what each alignment really is or means in practice -- refer to the above -- and the worse sin, no obvious character reason to put invested meaning into alignment.

So what you have is metagame, and while of concern to the player due to experience penalties (which they may, in fact, ignore or write off as a cost), it is not of direct concern to the character, who knows nothing about experience points or levels or development costs.

Thus, alignment is utilized as a vague bit of color, or discarded entirely by many groups, and fails to live up to the potential you ascribe it above.
So to answer the question, is it the game's fault? Yes. In my opinion it is.

The game text fails to saturate alignment with the personal meaning -- to player and character -- it should have.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: M. J. Young on January 21, 2003, 11:19:40 PM
Quote from: Christopher Kubasik
M.J.,

I never got around to thanking you for the link to your article on awe and RPG religion. I know that's a quality I'd definitely want in my RPG religious stew.


I'm pleased it was helpful, Christopher (and I've taken the liberty of inserting the link in your quote for anyone else who wants to pursue that). It reminds me that some of the things I wanted to say on this thread are at least related to another article I wrote for that series, Faith and Gaming: In Vain, about the options regarding how deities can be approached, and the problems, from a Christian perspective, with each.

It seems to me that there are only so many ways you can incorporate religion in your games.
  • You can use real living religions in their current form. This is going to engender bad feelings somewhere, particularly in a situation in which the referee is not familiar with the religion and one of the players is. I know that there are people who like the movie From Dusk 'Til Dawn; I'm afraid that the moment the Baptist pastor started creating holy water (something meaningless in Baptist theology) it snapped my disbelief suspenders so hard I nearly fell out of my chair. Using living religions means inviting trouble. That said, Multiverser uses living religions for player characters--in essence by having them play themselves, and so allowing them to explain what it is that they believe. If the player is the authority on his character's faith, and the referee is limited to adjudicating what happens in response to his prayers and rituals (following generalized rules applicable to all supernatural involvement), this is limited. However, in response to those narrow-minded Christians who suggest that role playing games should all represent the "real" beliefs of Christianity, I usually respond by asking whether they really want some high school kid who has never read the Bible and might be of any belief or no belief representing the decisions and character of The God--something skilled pastors and theologians debate.
  • You can use an historic form of a living religion. This works well, from what I understand, in Pendragon, where the version of Christianity which was practiced in the period represented (a bit nebulous there, since it's not the period of the real events but of the tales about them) is adequately presented. It's not the way anyone practices today, but most people are comfortable with it.
  • You can use a dead religion. This is not as easy as it sounds, in large part because there are a lot of dead religions that people think are alive, and a lot of living religions people think are dead. That, I think, was the idea behind using the pantheons in D&D--find religions that aren't at all controversial because no one really believes them anymore. (The hitch there is that no one believes and practices paganism as it existed, but neopaganism has adopted many of the names and forms in a modernized version. Thus you can offend people who think you're talking about their faith when you're really looking at something else.)
  • You can use obvious copies of real religions. This seems to be what Seven Seas does, although I haven't seen the details myself. There is a danger here, because if the veil is too thin people start to confuse the clone with the reality, but if it's too thick the game faiths start to become parodies.
  • You can invent religions similar to real religions. Lord of the Rings does this. I think that the Conan stories do this to a lesser degree. I get the same feeling from Dune, that Herbert is using real religions (mostly Islam, but also Catholicism) to create a religious backdrop. Again, if the veil is thin, people see through it (not many adults fail to see the parallels between Aslan and Christ--but then, the Narnia books were written for children).
  • You can invent religions that are entirely different from anything real. The problem here, really, is that it is difficult for people to relate to such religions. It's all well and good to create something completely alien to that which humans have revered and believed for millennia, but when the rubber hits the road the players have to be able to feel like they understand what the character believes, why he believes it, and how it motivates him. If the religion of the game is too alien, it ultimately has to be ignored, because players can't connect with it.[/list:u]
    I had intended to try to be exhaustive on this list, but it's late and I'm not sure what I've missed.

    Meanwhile, credit where credit is due: It was ThreeGee, not I, who commented on GURPS Fantasy. My opinion on real-world (living) religions in games is that the people playing them have to know a lot more about them than can easily be included in a game book. That's probably the biggest drawback right there: it's fine to say that you're going to include such religions in a game, but how do you satisfactorily define them in game texts such that those unfamiliar with them are satisfactorily informed and those familiar with them aren't insulted?

    The Reverend Daegmorgan has responded to my D&D thoughts. I accept that insofar that the game did not make clear to the players how things were supposed to work, it is the fault of the game that the players didn't understand it. It's difficult to lay blame for that, though. OAD&D was a massive work. I'd been running it for probably one and a half decades and still sometimes had people calling my attention to things I had overlooked in the rules (I remember someone bringing up the whole poisoner's college section, which for disuse I'd completely forgotten). Many things were not clear because there was so much to cover. In that sense, it was the fault of the game that people didn't understand it. Our groups used all of that, and it worked quite well. I understand that many (perhaps most) did not, and that they had problems with it.

    Quote from: Reverend Daegmorgan
    Alignment, despite its intentions and the uses MJ details which it could or should be used for, is a poor substitute for actual religious beliefs. Its failing, in the role that MJ casts for it, is that it is unclear.

    Without this necessary clarity -- and again, it is obviously unclear, or the sheer volume of debate evidenced above would not exist -- the possibility of gamers being able to use it as a foundation on which to build meaningful, realistic cultures of religion is unavailable.


    I'm inclined to think that Reverend Daegmorgan wants too much from the source books; it is either that, or he does not know what is available. I'll pick on one of my favorite pantheons, the Norse, and glance at some of what is provided.

    The few paragraphs in my Deities & Demigods that introduce the pantheon give surprisingly valuable information. It tells that the Norse gods are nearly all warriors, and that battle is the core of their faith. Worshippers are trying to prepare themselves for an ultimate battle, called Ragnorak, in which both sides are going to be nearly obliterated, including the greatest of the gods. We are told that curative spells are rare, and clerics of most deities here cannot cast them at all. The standard sacrifices, including method, are given in brief. We are also told that the gods will forgive almost anything of a warrior who fights well and achieves victory. Regarding Odin, we are told that he is Neutral Good, but that he rules on Gladsheim, the most chaotic of the good planes. His worshippers must be non-evil. He cannot resurrect, and he rarely heals (worshippers should not expect ever to be healed in their lifetimes). There is a great deal of color about his animals, his practices, and more.

    Now, that's a lot of information, to my mind. Because he's good, I perceive that he tries to provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number (game definition of good). Because he's neutral on the ethical (law/chaos) axis, he's not particularly committed to the means of doing this. However, he doesn't demand that his worshippers all be good, as long as they aren't completely selfish (the game definition of evil). He's not terribly demanding, and he is very forgiving, but wants to see his followers prepare themselves to fight against the evil giant--a battle he expects will cost his life, but he's quite ready to fight (and maybe this is why he's so accepting of differences among his worshippers).

    The combination of the alignment information with the background and color information provides me with the foundation for a very rich imaginary faith. I don't pretend for a moment that it's sufficient for anyone to convert to Odinism; that's not what it's about. It is enough for an intelligent player or referee who cares about how religion impacts actions to pursue, and to create a Norse-like religion within the game world.

    This strikes me as no different from any other secondary aspect of D&D. I've got the building blocks for religion here, not fully built religions. I've got the same tools for dungeons, castles, cities, armies, monster culture--enough that I can build the rest, but nothing in finished form.

    If what is meant is that people who don't care about religion won't become engaged by it in their games, that's probably true; but then, that's probably true in games in which it plays a more defined role (such as Pendragon, as I understand it). I think there is enough information provided to create interesting religions based on historic and fictional beliefs.

    Remember, neither the alignment system nor the deities stand alone. It is the way they relate that provides both form and function to the faith. As to arguments about alignment, they're bound to happen--but it seems to me that these are a good thing, if 1) everyone is allowed to discuss how they understand these real moral and ethical ideals and 2) everyone understand that in the end the referee gets to decide how it works in the game. That's always worked for us.

    Quote from: Reverend Daegmorgan further
    As you point out, there is a player reason to adhere to alignment. It is plagued by the following: no concrete, clear definition of what each alignment really is or means in practice -- refer to the above -- and the worse sin, no obvious character reason to put invested meaning into alignment.

    So what you have is metagame, and while of concern to the player due to experience penalties (which they may, in fact, ignore or write off as a cost), it is not of direct concern to the character, who knows nothing about experience points or levels or development costs.


    We've never had trouble with what alignment means in practice. We frequently discussed the alignment implications of very practical situations, and had in-character disagreements based on alignment differences. But granted that there is misunderstanding and disagreement, the problem I have is with the concern for a character reason to put invested meaning into alignment. I suppose I don't understand what this means. Do I, myself, have a character reason to believe in Salvation by Grace through Faith? I would say that I believe it because the evidence convinces me it's true; and that I act on it because I believe it. I'm sure that Reverend Daegmorgan would agree that he has reasons for what he believes, but ultimately he acts on those beliefs because they are what he believes; he thinks reality is a certain way, and this requires certain conduct from him. In the same way, my character Javan Montru, a cavalier dedicated to Odin, gives his fortune to help the poor because he believes that this is a good thing to do, pleasing to Odin. He hones his skill because he believes Odin will need him at Ragnorak. He fights evil monsters because he has been called to fight, and they are a danger to the lives of good people. His in-character reason for following his alignment is that this is what he believes. I don't see how you could have a better in-character reason, particularly given that this is a part of the religion system in the game. The metagame reasons for the players to so act are there to reinforce those character reasons, so that players won't ignore their characters' beliefs in favor of some pragmatic answer to a situation that would be totally contrary to what they claim their characters believe. I find the character and metagame forces to be working together here--unless I'm grossly misunderstanding the concept of a "character reason".

    It may seem that I think D&D is a great system for handling religion. I don't; I think it's adequate. I also think people take pot-shots at it for undeserved reasons, such as it didn't go where they wanted it to take them, and they've met too many people who think it's the only system in the world. Believe me, I wish a lot more D&D players would try a lot more games, and I think there are a lot of better ways to handle religion than D&D. I just don't think it did that bad, particularly as it was the first stab at doing anything along those lines (as far as I know).

    I hope some of this is enlightening.

    --M. J. Young


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Eric J. on January 22, 2003, 12:25:47 AM
I'm a little late, mostly because I'm lazy and didn't read some of the earlier threads, and because my computers hard drive became corrupt.  Anyway-

<Rant>

I think that I would be the first to say that I HATE the D&D use of religion mechanically and as a simulation.  This is partially due to the fact that it confuses the heck out of me.  It seems to me that people have emperical information on gods' existance.  This would seem to throw the system to chaos and out the window.  On top of that, the gods are mortal, which seems an oxymoron to me.  Then you have to take how the nature of the universe is set up, with the dead going to the planes, the elves going to the planes, and proxys lying around.  I find it all VERY confusing.  It would seem that since the nature of the universe is so well known (I would assume by everyone), that religion can't exist.  When you combine it with the immortality of the rich... Did I mention that it confuses me?

While I know that it could be argued that they only have gods to grant spells, I would say that detailing it as such they really go against that ideal as well.  Besides, why would they write novels about it in that case?

</Rant>


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: contracycle on January 22, 2003, 02:57:18 AM
Quote from: M. J. Young

I'm pleased it was helpful, Christopher (and I've taken the liberty of inserting the link in your quote for anyone else who wants to pursue that). It reminds me that some of the things I wanted to say on this thread are at least related to another article I wrote for that series, Faith and Gaming: In Vain (http://www.geocities.com/christian_gamers_guild/chaplain/faga008.html), about the options regarding how deities can be approached, and the problems, from a Christian perspective, with each.


Hmm.  I just wanted to remark that I was somewhat surprised to see these problems expressed as they are.  That in itself is not too surprising; but I have known several believers for whom the whole issue did not arise because the games are fictional.  Just an observation.


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: John Kim on January 22, 2003, 11:18:49 AM
Quote from: M. J. Young
My opinion on real-world (living) religions in games is that the people playing them have to know a lot more about them than can easily be included in a game book. That's probably the biggest drawback right there: it's fine to say that you're going to include such religions in a game, but how do you satisfactorily define them in game texts such that those unfamiliar with them are satisfactorily informed and those familiar with them aren't insulted?


In terms of game design, I would say that if you use real-world religions, then you should make focus on religion an optional part of the game.  That is -- don't make religious powers or conflict a central premise to the game, and don't require religious PCs as part of the standard template.  People who are interested in religion can make religious PCs part of the group, and include religiously-motivated adventures.  People who don't know and don't care about religion can simply not have it feature in their adventures.  


Quote from: M. J. Young
The few paragraphs in my Deities & Demigods that introduce the pantheon give surprisingly valuable information. It tells that the Norse gods are nearly all warriors, and that battle is the core of their faith. Worshippers are trying to prepare themselves for an ultimate battle, called Ragnorak, in which both sides are going to be nearly obliterated, including the greatest of the gods. We are told that curative spells are rare, and clerics of most deities here cannot cast them at all. The standard sacrifices, including method, are given in brief. We are also told that the gods will forgive almost anything of a warrior who fights well and achieves victory. Regarding Odin, we are told that he is Neutral Good, but that he rules on Gladsheim, the most chaotic of the good planes. His worshippers must be non-evil. He cannot resurrect, and he rarely heals (worshippers should not expect ever to be healed in their lifetimes). There is a great deal of color about his animals, his practices, and more.

Now, that's a lot of information, to my mind. Because he's good, I perceive that he tries to provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number (game definition of good). Because he's neutral on the ethical (law/chaos) axis, he's not particularly committed to the means of doing this.

...
It is enough for an intelligent player or referee who cares about how religion impacts actions to pursue, and to create a Norse-like religion within the game world.


OK, I suppose it depends on how loosely you consider the term "Norse-like".  This may have some cosmetic similarities to historical Norse religion, but mostly it seems like an extremely thin premise from someone who read a children's book of myths about Norse gods but knows nothing else about the subject.  

On the other hand, perhaps this is a bias of mine.  While it bears little resemblance to historical Norse beliefs, this may be a reasonable religion for a fantasy game.  I'm not really sure.  I think my personal litmus test would be this:  what impact does the religion have?  i.e. Can you think of a case where a Neutral Good follower of Odin would behave differently than another Neutral Good character on the basis of religion?


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: M. J. Young on January 22, 2003, 08:23:13 PM
Quote from: John Kim
Can you think of a case where a Neutral Good follower of Odin would behave differently than another Neutral Good character on the basis of religion?

My immediate reaction is that this was too easy an example. I can think of a lot of neutral good gods who blend into each other; Odin sticks out. Then again, one of my favorite characters was an Odinite, so I'd already given it some thought. I see four points that distinguish my character from others, based on this sketch of religion:
[list=1]
  • If I'm injured, Odin is not going to heal me.
  • If I'm killed, Odin is not going to resurrect me.
  • Odin expects me to exhibit bravery in combat, and will forgive many things of those who are not cowardly.
  • Odin fights for the right cause even when the odds are against him.[/list:o]
    Taking those four points that distinguish Odinism from other neutral good gods, I realize that my character is going to be someone who picks his fights carefully, because the damage is serious--Odin expects that I'm not going to get some kind of divine healing or resurrection. Potions, I think, would be O.K; but the point may very well be that it takes more courage to face an enemy knowing that you might be maimed or killed than it does to face the same enemy knowing that your god will patch you back together even if you die. It also means that I'm expected to face the enemy unflinching, even if I know I'm going to lose. Those are not standard aspects of neutral good religions; they are peculiar to this one. (For a few contrary examples, the Finnish Ahto appears more interested in adventuring and seafaring than in fighting; the Egyptian Ra is known to prevent battles or keep them from escalating, and so is more associated with preserving peace).

    Yes, players can ignore these nuances of difference. That's not surprising--real people often ignore the things that make their own religions distinct from others, or just as often exaggerate them. Part of the point overall was that D&D allowed the players and referee to build religions that worked in their game worlds. That means, among other things, that they can make them as important or insignificant, similar or distinct, as they like. These differences are more a matter of good role playing--but then, it is about role playing.

    --M. J. Young


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: greyorm on January 23, 2003, 09:33:44 AM
MJ, I believe you have shot yourself in the foot with your examples, in that you have gone from talking about alignment as religion to religion as the demands of a specific deity. This supports, I think, my contention that the family of D&D games does not provide the coherency you believe it does.

Ask yourself, is it possible that you interpreted rules and filled them in without realizing it, much as you state others discard and ignore rules?

Keep in mind I own and have read from cover-to-cover every AD&D and D&D rulebook ever produced by TSR, so I am well aware of the depth and expanse of the material we are talking about. Yet my problem with it all in the area of religion and alignment is still coherency.

Your group may not have argued about alignment, my groups always did, as have the majority of groups out there (see previous evidence): hence alignment is not as easily defined and interpreted or utilized as you believe it to be, despite your group's singular experience.

You have nicely constructed a religion and some beliefs based on it for a character in your post, but this still does not answer the question of importance; it still does not make one's alignment into deity as you've indicated D&D means to with its underlying structure, nor create importance for non-clerical (and non-paladin) characters in regards to religion.

There is no reason, beyond "accurate role-playing" (which I say is a red-herring), for a given player to pay attention to or care about the religious aspects of their D&D character if they are not a cleric or paladin (or similar divinely-powered class).


Title: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs
Post by: Johannes on January 23, 2003, 10:33:20 AM
Quote from: M. J. Young
(For a few contrary examples, the Finnish Ahto appears more interested in adventuring and seafaring than in fighting;

- Your points are good but actuallly he is Ahti (not Ahto).
(Sorry. I just can't help myself with these.:-)