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Author Topic: Religion in Roleplaying  (Read 3881 times)
Jonathan Walton
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« on: December 03, 2002, 07:44:06 PM »

The Problem of Religion

So, I was re-reading the current thread on http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4419">"Christian gaming," when I slowly realized that there are very few, if any, roleplaying games that really treat religion in a way that is both mature and respectful.

Think about it.  How do you normally see religion depicted in roleplaying?

-- a priest of the Old Ones kidnaps a PC to sacrifice to his dark masters
-- the Priest of Light raises his staff and calls on the gods to drive back the undead
-- your Angel rolls d666 to try to get the attention of her Archangel
-- the Buddhist monk talks about compassion before whipping out the kung fu
-- the corrupt and hypocritical Cardinal tries to destroy the virtuous musketeers
-- etc.

Is there anyone who thinks this is an accurate depiction of religion?  I certainly hope not.  Sure, there are certainly some people who practice their faith in a superficial or even perverse manner, but I would imagine that most believers feel that they have a more personal and hard-to-describe relationship with their God/gods or beliefs.

So what is it that keeps roleplaying from dealing with religion realistically?

1. Quantifying or describing dieties/cosmologies in precise terms

When you know how many hit points Zeus has, it's hard to revere him in the same way.  Likewise, if the book describes all the various layers of Hell in detail, or maps out the transmigration of the soul, a great deal of the mystery is lost.  Some beliefs become clearly defined as "correct," which, in effect, destroys the whole idea of faith, the very foundation of religion itself.

2. Metagame surpasses even the gods

Sure, Zeus is great and all, but can he go toe-to-toe with the GM?  If even the greatest spirits and cosmic forces operate according to the will of one of the Players, they seem less significant.  If, in a game of In Nomine, the GM takes on the role of Michael the Archangel, honoring Michael would seem to require worshiping the GM.  What is that?  It's ridiculous.

In comparison with the metagame powers of players, the in-game powers of the gods seem very small and insignificant.  From the characters perspective, maybe their pantheon should be the Players, with the GM as "king of the gods."  Why worship anything less?

3. PC faith

Honestly, many in-game religions seem ridiculous, and so the players just ignore them for the most part, dealing with them just like they deal with the absurd cultures that exist in many roleplaying games.

"Okay, I'm an Ork who worships the twin Orkish gods of war, Gork and Mork."

Sure, it would be possible to deal with that in a mature fashion, but why would you want to?  It's so frickin' absurd anyway that it would be more rewarding to play it for laughs instead of trying to realistic depict what Orkish religious beliefs might actually be like.  Do Orks wonder why Gork and Mork occasionally abandon them to death and destruction?  Come on now, who cares?!  Just go out and kill things.

The Solution?

So how can we solve these problems and deal with religious issues in a mature and realistic fashion?

Please note that I'm not insisting that all games need to be serious about religion.  Obviously, you're not supposed to think to much about the theology behind Gork and Mork.  Still, for games that wanted to have religion be more than superficial, more than yet another way to motivate characters, there should be ways around these issues.
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wyrdlyng
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« Reply #1 on: December 03, 2002, 08:21:20 PM »

To a certain extent your points are correct but the real reason is simply lack of interest on the part of the players.

Few fantasy games add much detail to the nuances of religious customs (Glorantha being an exception) because most players don't care. In many games the priest/cleric/paladin is present only because they can heal and deal with undead.

Another reason is varying levels of spirituality amongst players. Some might not be into religion in real life and not want to bother with it in their games. Others might be very into religion in their life and feel uncomfortable portraying an elaborate "fake" religion.

I have found that religion, even moreso than sex or politics, is the one subject where it's best left to the individual. If Bob wants to elaborate more on the customs and beliefs of Argos the Wise their patron diety then no one will stop him and it will add nicely to the game (so long as it is within reason).

Oh, and some of the examples you've listed below are taken from historical or literary sources so they can't really be attributed to roleplaying games.
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Alex Hunter
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #2 on: December 03, 2002, 08:54:10 PM »

Quote from: Jonathan Walton
Think about it.  How do you normally see religion depicted in role-playing?
    [*]A priest of the Old Ones kidnaps a PC to sacrifice to his dark masters
    [*]The Priest of Light raises his staff and calls on the gods to drive back the undead
    [*]Your Angel rolls d666 to try to get the attention of her Archangel
    [*]The Buddhist monk talks about compassion before whipping out the kung fu
    [*]The corrupt and hypocritical Cardinal tries to destroy the virtuous musketeers
    [*]Etc.[/list:u]Is there anyone who thinks this is an accurate depiction of religion?

    Of course not.  Every example given is exactly how role-playing games treat any organization.  To turn an individual character into a protagonist, a game must turn any available organization into 'the enemy' or at least a faceless non-presence.  I'm not the least bit surprised by how organized religions are treated by role-playing games, not any more than how they treat government agencies, police offices, mega-corps, military groups, countries, foreign races, or any other group you care to mention.

    Let's turn this around; how many games depict an organization (any organization) fairly or in a detailed fashion?  Wouldn't that lessen the degree of importance of the protagonist, the player character?

    I'd suggest one of the most simple ways to depict religion better would be to make it the choice of the individual that empowers them to 'go forth' and do whatever 'is done' in the game.  Unless or until the game makes religion a personal choice of protagonism, I don't see any different treatment coming or being successful.

    But then I believe in all religions, I just don't follow any you could list.

    Fang Langford
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    thoth
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    « Reply #3 on: December 03, 2002, 09:00:14 PM »

    Is #3 even there? Isn't it a result of how religion is handled?

    Also, when you say handle religions realistically do you mean; as if the religion were real and 'correct' or as they truly are in the real world?

    The reason I ask is because from one view the best way to handle religion might be to completely ignore the gods. Dealing only with the human level of religion since we really have no perception of the divine level, only human vision and ideas about it.
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    Amos Barrows
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    Jonathan Walton
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    « Reply #4 on: December 03, 2002, 09:24:11 PM »

    Quote from: thoth
    Also, when you say handle religions realistically do you mean; as if the religion were real and 'correct' or as they truly are in the real world?


    Something of both.  What I meant was: as if the religion were something that could be sincerely believed and practiced in the real world.  

    Obviously, if I consider myself a Christian or a Buddhist, I don't objectively *know* that mine is the One True Faith.  Defining the "One True Faith" in a gameworld is something I was arguing against in #1 when I talked about defining the cosmology.

    Also, I have no problem with fictional religions.  But I would want them, in this case, to be things that I could imagine myself believing in and thinking about on a daily basis.  This doesn't necessarily require more detailed descriptions (a traditionally-minded solution), because I can think about Buddhist ideas without having a whole ton of background knowledge.  The ideas just have to be deep and interesting enough that I could imagine an entire faith based around them.

    I'll tackle the other comments tomorrow, after I get some sleep and have more time to think about them.
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    C. Edwards
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    « Reply #5 on: December 03, 2002, 11:15:36 PM »

    Jonathan Walton wrote:
    Quote
    Is there anyone who thinks this is an accurate depiction of religi[on? I certainly hope not. Sure, there are certainly some people who practice their faith in a superficial or even perverse manner, but I would imagine that most believers feel that they have a more personal and hard-to-describe relationship with their God/gods or beliefs.


    The examples you chose are all of beings highly entrenched in a particular faith; priests, Cardinals, angels.  As such I think that takes them out of the category of "most believers".  Their behaviors will be much closer to the core ideals of the faith, or when they are not that fact will be much more noteable.  

    The examples also seem to be split between samples of how religion might be handled in an rpg and how an individual NPC behaves.  They are two different topics I think.  The corrupt Cardinal, for example, seems perfectly reasonable.  There were, and are, corrupt religious officials in real life.  If every Cardinal in the game were corrupt then there might be a problem.  As for the priest of the Old Ones, his behaviour is entirely appropriate for his religion.  There are certainly real life parallels, the Thugee for example.  Then the Angel example references game mechanics.  Any game mechanic is going to treat an action with fairly broad strokes.  We could design a Quaker rpg that might catch the essence of being a Quaker, but I doubt that without a large amount of boring and useless rules that we would come very close to a fully honest representation of Quakerdom.  I also think that the more detailed and precise we were the less interesting Quakers would become, from a "this is a game" perspective anyway.

    Basically, I think RPGs do just fine with religion.  If I want to deal with the intricacies and details I'll join a seminary.

    -Chris
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    Uncle Dark
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    « Reply #6 on: December 04, 2002, 01:08:20 AM »

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for starting this thread.  I was going to do it, but I think you set it up better than I would have.

    As a GM, I almost always spend some time thinking about the complexities of a game-world's religion.  About it's history, the evolution of its various sects and/or subcults, how it knows what it knows about the world of the spirit.

    It's been my experience that most players are only passingly interested in this sort of thing.  Sure, if I'm playing with anthropologists or spiritual people, they're curious about it in an intellectual way.  On rare occasions, someone will base some aspect of a character on some minor point or another.

    Really, though, in the time that Actual Play happens, they're mostly concerned with what spheres of spells thier god(s) can give them.

    The reason for this is, I think, tied to the reason why we see so many "corrupt cardinals" and the like in games.  Games revovle around conflict and drama, and having people going about just living their lives in accord with their beliefs is rarely dramatic (at least on a spiritual level).  Play (and players) focus on what is dramatic, and on what is mechanical (since that is what allows them to do dramatic things).

    So what we see are characters like the corrupt priest, the bigoted inquisitor, and the zealot, because their actions are dramatic.  We see focus on spheres of spells and special abilities, because such mechanical things are what allow action in the world.

    So, if we want players to care about a game's religions (in the same way they care about their characters), then we need to build mechanics that treat religion the way we want it treated.

    One example is Stormbringer, which had an attribute called elan.  Players could spend elan to elicit divine intervention.  Characters earned elan by doing things of which their god(s) would approve.

    Another is Hero Wars (you knew someone was going to bring it up), where a character's religious affiliations are useful attributes, and often represent ways in which a character interacts with his or her community, and ways in which the player can gain mechanical advantage.

    The other side of it lies not in what characters do or how they do it, but in why.  I'm talking about motivation.  In one (2nd ed) AD&D game I ran, one of the players was a priest caught up in church politics as his father was working on becoming High Priest of the kingdom.  Niether of them was a "corrupt cardinal" type.  Dad's desire was to be a good High Priest, he simply thought he could do a better job than the guy who had it.  Still, he had to prove that he was a better priest, and his son's actions reflected on him, so he had to encourage his son to be a better priest.

    Another example was a priest I played, who was on the outs with his church because he found out that the High Priestess was altering the Holy Texts to her own political advantage, and spoke out.

    Lon
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    contracycle
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    « Reply #7 on: December 04, 2002, 04:07:03 AM »

    Quote from: Jonathan Walton

    When you know how many hit points Zeus has, it's hard to revere him in the same way.  Likewise, if the book describes all the various layers of Hell in detail, or maps out the transmigration of the soul, a great deal of the mystery is lost.  Some beliefs become clearly defined as "correct," which, in effect, destroys the whole idea of faith, the very foundation of religion itself.


    I'm concerned that this projects a modern conception of religion back in time innaprorpriately.  Firstly becuase I don't think the practitioners of ancient religion were at all interested in faith, but in explaining the weirdness around them.  Secondly, I feel a lot of these made, or were intended to make, hard factual statements about the world, i.e. that mountain IS god X, we know that firmly.  Of course all this comes back to how you conceptualise religion in the real world, both today and historically.
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    Clinton R. Nixon
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    « Reply #8 on: December 04, 2002, 08:27:32 AM »

    Quote from: contracycle
    I'm concerned that this projects a modern conception of religion back in time innaprorpriately.  Firstly becuase I don't think the practitioners of ancient religion were at all interested in faith, but in explaining the weirdness around them.  Secondly, I feel a lot of these made, or were intended to make, hard factual statements about the world, i.e. that mountain IS god X, we know that firmly.  Of course all this comes back to how you conceptualise religion in the real world, both today and historically.


    Why do you have this opinion? Unless the people of a thousand or two thousand years ago were handicapped in some way compared to modern man, they should have had the powers of metaphor that we do today. (Metaphor is often stripped from old religions, because if we can look at them and see that "oh, these guys believed gods lived on top of that mountain over there," then it's a lot easier to discredit them.) And last I checked, modern religion - and faith - has everything to do with explaining the weirdness around you, even - especially - if it's to say, "I don't understand, but I trust in a divine order."
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    Clinton R. Nixon
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    Jonathan Walton
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    « Reply #9 on: December 04, 2002, 09:47:19 AM »

    Tackling all the comments that have been made...

    Quote from: wyrdlyng
    ...the real reason is simply lack of interest on the part of the players.


    You see, I don't really buy this at all.  The occasional discussion of "Christian gaming" that always pops up shows that there is a sizable number of people who are interested in games that involve a deeper and more mature handling of religion.  If Buddhism or Paganism were more widely popular, I'm sure you'd hear calls for games that more honestly represent those religions.

    Likewise, this has connections with Ron's Mainstream thread.  Sure, roleplaying has traditionally avoided serious discussions about religion, but religion is a big part of modern literature and public discourse.  Maybe a game that handled religion differently would find an audience outside of traditional players.

    Quote from: Le Joueur
    Of course not. Every example given is exactly how role-playing games treat any organization.


    Very true, and a nice point.  But that's not really what I'm talking about.  It's not how roleplaying depicts the Church or organized religion that bugs me.  After all, organized religion has historically been corrupt and ruthless just as often as it has been supportive and nurturing.

    What I'm getting at is how roleplaying depicts personal religious beliefs.  We tend to always get zealots and non-believers, with no real middle ground.  Surely it's not because personal faiths are uninteresting.  You don't think the internal conflict of a gay conservative Muslim would be an interesting basis for story?

    Quote from: C. Edwards
    Basically, I think RPGs do just fine with religion. If I want to deal with the intricacies and details I'll join a seminary.


    Sure, take your ball and go home, if that's what you want.  I'm not really criticizing how RPGs handle religion and saying that "all games have it wrong and this is how it should be."  That's not my point.  I'm saying that I don't think they realistically depict religion (which may or may not fit what the game designers want).  I DO want to write a game that realistically depicts religion, and I'm trying to discuss how that might be done.

    Quote from: Uncle Dark
    So, if we want players to care about a game's religions (in the same way they care about their characters), then we need to build mechanics that treat religion the way we want it treated.


    Exactly.  I'm glad we're on the same page here.

    You brought up a couple of interesting points here, with your Hero Wars example.  There's a specific instance where religion is used to provide players with non-supernatural advantages, that is to say, no spells or divine interventions, but social status.  Honestly, that might be a way to get around the problems with "determining how things actually are" which seems to invalidate the whole concept of faith.

    For example, if you have a game where Christians are being persecuted by the Romans, there are dramatic advantages for being a Christian (just like the dramatic advantages that come from being a Vampire), but there might not be supernatural advantages or special powers ("Holy Body of Christ Kung Fu Attack!  Yah!").

    Quote from: contracycle
    I'm concerned that this projects a modern conception of religion back in time inappropriately.


    Well, yeah.  Probably.  But I think a certain degree of that is unavoidable in roleplaying.  We project modern Western ideas all over the place, into the past, into the future, onto "exotic" cultures (don't get me started on Kindred of the East, okay...), and religious ideas are really no exception.  Honestly, very little research goes into the actual playing of characters.  As much as the rulebook may discuss the mindset of the boar-eating tribesmen of Nag'athal, the PC is probably going to think, feel, and act surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) like a modern, Western, 20-something geek.  That's just the way it is.

    Personally, I think a game that deals with modern religious issues would be more interesting and valuble to me than one that deals with historical religous issues.  As interesting as the Reformation was, it's old news to me and many of the theological issues involved would be hard to discuss with the same passion and honest personal interest that took place back then.  We know that the Church can mean more than Catholicism, but that was still doubted by many back in the day.  This works similarly with fictional religions, which often seem based either on a medieval Judeo-Christian-Islamic religiosity (to match the technology depicted) or on ancient polytheistic religions like that of the Greeks, Egyptians, or Celts.

    I also agree somewhat with Clinton that modern people tend to assume that ancient people were either A) exactly like us in every way, or B) completely alien and, worse, "primitive" in mindset.  I would tend to believe that neither is true.  A is obviously anachronistic.  B would seem to be true, but, as Clinton pointed out, is mostly just our perception of things.  Why couldn't earlier humans have dealt with complex religious issues?  I think it's somewhat condescending to assume that they didn't.  Sure, they might take for granted that the mountain is a god, but that doesn't mean they can't speculate about what manner of god it might be.  After all, even Yahweh was once considered a "mountain god" in many ways.  Just ask Moses.
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    Le Joueur
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    « Reply #10 on: December 04, 2002, 09:59:40 AM »

    Quote from: Jonathan Walton
    Quote from: Le Joueur
    Of course not. Every example given is exactly how role-playing games treat any organization.

    Very true, and a nice point.  But that's not really what I'm talking about.  It's not how role-playing depicts the Church or organized religion that bugs me....

    What I'm getting at is how role-playing depicts personal religious beliefs.  We tend to always get zealots and non-believers, with no real middle ground.  Surely it's not because personal faiths are uninteresting.

    No, but it is because they're often organized.  You make use of an organized belief structure and you get an organization.  More importantly, when the belief structure becomes affective over the player character behavior, it limits the amount of 'freedom' the player has in being a protagonist.  Zealots make the outrageous beliefs the center of their play, what makes them the protagonist; non-believers are completely liberated.  Outrageous beliefs are simply more interesting than a basic code of honor.

    You could make quite an interesting game if you made the focus the contention between the personal beliefs of the character and it's actions.  It just hasn't been done yet.  I don't think anyone has noticed its absence in the 'make a buck' gaming industry.  (Some permutations of Sorcerer seem to have gone this way and maybe Clinton's Paladin, I haven't seen it to be sure.)

    So, according to my own philosophy, the best answer to the problem is for you to create the solution.

    Fang Langford
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    Jason Lee
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    « Reply #11 on: December 04, 2002, 10:16:28 AM »

    Maybe this is too simplistic an answer to your question, but: Personality Mechanics (humanity, sanity, alignment, etc).

    I have kind of a love/hate relationship with them, but they can go a long way towards presenting a focused direction for character exploration and reinforcing it with mechanics.

    For example:
    For a Christian religion you can easily use the traditional western virtues and vices.  They even map nicely to opposing scales (if your Zeal is 7, your Sloth must be 3 - if the scale is 1-10).  You can roll these for resistances: being tortured, roll your Fortitude; don't want to run screaming from the monster, roll Wrath.  Or you could spend them for roll bonus that matched in purpose with the virtue/vice.  If it suited your purposes you could balance the advantage between being all virtuey and all vicey, so the players simply picked their place on the scale and dealt with the pros/cons of their positions (which could easily change sans-xp during play).

    If you wanted to keep it religious, keep the virtues and vices religious: Sloth is religious apathy, not laziness.

    If you wanted more religions in the game you could even provide different personality mechanics for each.
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    « Reply #12 on: December 04, 2002, 11:11:56 AM »

    How about some player vs character talk?

    A game for Christian players is a different bug from a game featuring Christian characters.  As is a game that assumes that Christianity is actually true from a game in whose setting Christianity is true.

    Like, in kill puppies for satan's game world, Christianity is true, and the PCs are Christian, in a very loose sense of the word -- they serve Satan, a Christian diety.  But my goodness gracious on a stick, puppies isn't a Christian RPG.

    So I think what you're looking for, Jonathan, are games that confront their players with religion, not their characters.  You're interested in the players using their characters to address interesting, meaty moral questions, particularly questions having to do with God, Faith, Redemption, stuff like that.  Right?

    Cuz that's just Narrativism, focused where you want it.  There's no reason at all not to write that kind of game; your probs 1-3 apply pretty much only to Sim religious games.

    Does Christ's atonement free me from guilt?  We could write a game with that premise, set in a game world with no Christ and no atonement, if we wanted to.  Same with What is Free Will when God is almighty?  Same with you name it, I'd say.

    Riddle of Steel, Sorcerer, Paladin -- there are a bunch already.  But I'd love to see some that were bold and upfront about it: Slave Kings of Iltor! an RPG about Free Will when God is almighty!

    -Vincent
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    Clay
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    « Reply #13 on: December 04, 2002, 11:33:26 AM »

    Cruciel,

    Take a look at Pendragon.  I don't have the main rulebook, but a subgame just for playing knights.  There is a distinct system for dealing with religion and a knight's standing with that religion though.
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    Mike Holmes
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    « Reply #14 on: December 04, 2002, 12:05:42 PM »

    RPGs are a narrative form, and therfore about conflict. Religions tend to not be, themselves about conflict (most preach peace, etc). As such, you don't see too many movies, for instance about people peacefully practicing their religion. I'm not saying that religion is boring, on the contrary it can be a powerful experience. But that's personal. Soories exist externally and therefore religion makes bad stories.

    Conflict and religion, however, go fabulously together. So, what do you get? Stories about War and Religion, Heretics, supernatural manifestations as harbingers, good vs. evil, and internal politics.

    All of which can be handled in a mature and decent fashion, actually. I fail to see how any of your examples is, a priori, an immature handling of the subjects of faith. I've played In Nomine, and had it be about deeply philosophical themes. Without drifting it much. I'm not sure why you'd point to the d666 as somehow disrespectful. IN/MV, the French version, is intended only as satire, and is, therefore intentionally disrespectful. The most common criticism of SJG's In Nomine is that it did too good a job of sanitizing the text against that. It allows all sorts of play, and encourages them in the text. Including deep reflection on religious issues.

    Point 1.
    Are depictions too surface? Well, I'd add to Fang's comments by poinbting out that every depiction of anything complex is neccessarily less complex in an RPG. No game has developed an entire complete religion because it takes potenitally millions of people, over possibly thousands of years to develop such detail in real life.

    So, just as you will never see extremely detailed rules for computer programming in an RPG, you aren't likely to see complete religions, either. People who want that level of detail actually participate in some faith, or program computers themselves. RPGs are neccessarily abbreviated in their presentation.

    Now, are there RPGs that are disrespectful of religions, or do an exceptionally poor job of portraying them? Certainly. There is lot's of room for improvement. Always is, in any part of design. So, as Fang says, if you percieve a problem then fix it. I can totally see RPGs being designed around the respectful, and more detailed examination of religious subjects.

    Why, lookey there, there's one being developed in this very forum! ;-)

    Point 2.
    I also don't understand your point about neccessarily worshiping the dieties of the religion in question to make portrayal acccurate or respectful (seems like quite the non sequitur). I personally grew up with a belief in the Archangel Michael, but the Catholic faith does not condone the worship of angels. One can admire even venerate such an entity, but worship is for God alone.

    The point is that, even if I do believe in such an entity, I don't have to worship it to portray it effectively, and repectfully. I don't believe in any of he religions in my games, but that doesn't mean that I don't try to give them a heavyweight impact.

    Worship the DM? An entity that the character presumably does not know exists? Really not getting this line of reasoning. Your points about PC knowledge are more compelling, but I think all you are simply saying is that it's important to realize the division between player knowledge and character knowledge. Even in In Nomine, one of the most interesting ideas is that god is conspiculously absent. And, as such, even the angels question their faith. They don't know for certain where their power comes from, they can only assume, and believe. So, while the GM can say to himself, yes, objectively God exists in this game, as long as he doesn't say that to the players, even they do not know for sure. Much less the characters.

    (Gads I love playing In Nomine; system blows, but the subject matter is great)

    Point 3.
    The extent that a player might want to look closely at a religion is the exent to which he's interested. Yes, few RPGs are actually about religion. As such, it's no surprise that they are not focused upon in play. Do players respond with comedy? Well, I've seen the same happen with their response to governments. "Hey, that guy's the Prince, but I can't see how he derives any power. Think I'll go kill him."

    This seems to me to be a matter of player preference. Make a system that is about religion, and the players will respond. Simple. Or, if you want a less in-depth review, but want religion to be treated with respect, anyhow, then enforce it mechanically. As Hero Wars does, for example. I recently started using those rules for a D&D Fantasy style world, and lo, how the players did suddenly respect their religions, and those of others.

    I agree with you that "modern" religious thought provides more interesting themes, and considering our modernity that's not surprising. Still, it's fun to also look at themes of medieval thought, and ancient belief at times.

    One thing that I like to play with is the idea of Superstition in games that have magic. This is hard to deal with. I mean, if Bob assumes that black cats are bad luck, isn't it likely that this is true in a game where magic seems to work objectively? Essentially superstition becomes magical disinformation. The old wives tale about cats isn't true, but the one about breaking a mirror is true, in fact. Or whatever. In this way you can still look one pertinent theme, that of ignorance. And even belief in things that aren't real.

    Careful design and play can overcome all these potential problems, IMO.

    Mike
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