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Fantasy Heartbreakers and Religion

Started by clehrich, January 18, 2003, 01:52:00 AM

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John Kim

Quote from: M. J. YoungI noticed yesterday that John Kim was the newest member of the forums, and wanted to welcome him; but I was otherwise occupied, so overlooked it. Welcome to the Forge, John. I look forward to your comments.

Thanks.  I finally joined after talking to my friend Chris Lehrich who had started in discussions here.  

Quote from: M. J. Young
Quote from: John KimIt seems to me that religion is given short shrift in modern fantasy literature in general.  Certainly it is largely overlooked in seminal works like Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, and others.

I'm not convinced that Tolkien really belongs on this list.


It seems that Sauron and the wizards (Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast are identified as part of a larger group) are minor deities themselves, supernatural beings some have likened to angels, involved in the affairs of mortals. The others, particularly Aragorn, would be mythic heroes, akin in some ways to the likes of Peracles and Heracles. Lord of the Rings also includes religious references, such as the mention periodically of the greater deity Elbereth ...

I think this is true of nearly all of the authors I cited, actually.  However, this "mythological" flavor is different than religion per se.  RPGs certainly do have deities as figures in them.  Indeed, the original Deities & Demigods was cited as mishandling of religion by making minor deities into characters which can be fought and killed.  Now, obviously the mythology in most RPGs is not as good or detailed as Tolkien's, but they are doing essentially the same thing.  

I think this is one of the keys of fantasy.  The fantasy genre tends to avoid what it considers "mundane" details such as economics, sociology, democratic politics, theology, and organized religion.  Instead, the characters and plots themselves are mythological.  Rather than a church with theology, holy texts, canon, etc. -- gods are personal figures which appear and can be talked to or fought.
- John

John Kim

Quote from: Christopher KubasikIn AD&D religions are treated with a certain contempt: the contempt of those who know they are better than faith.  Bureaucracies of faith are built to offer bennies to the PCs who behave a certain way.  There is a kind of dispassionate capitalism to the whole process, like Babbits showing up to nine-to-five jobs to their steady salary and perhaps a gold watch at the end.

Truly religious tales, like the Iliad, where the passion of the characters are reflected in the gods, and the gods reflect the joy and pain of mortals, all spun into situations beyond any characters true comprehension, are in direct contrast to such thinking.

Well, I don't really want to defend AD&D particularly, but I don't think that this is a fair comparison.  You are comparing game mechanics to among the best of stories from history.  While I detest AD&D mechanics, no game mechanics will simply generate the passion of the Iliad.  Passion comes from stories and characters, not from mechanics.  

As I understand it, the basic problem cited with the "fantasy heartbreaker" RPGs was that they reduced religion to a list of gods.  Characters choose a god to worship, and may get benefits from that god.   At least at this level, I think this is actually a fair reflection of modern fantasy as well as much of mythology.  

I think the problem is more in implementation: who the gods are, and what sort of benefits they give.  The countable, rechargable spell slots of AD&D clerics does feel rather capitalistic, for example.  On the other hand, the holiness of a paladin who is immune to fear due to the blessings of his goddess is at least better at retaining some mythical feeling.
- John

Christopher Kubasik

Hi John (and welcome!),

That's a fair cop: comparing D&D to Homer is, of course, ridiculous -- and you're right to point that out.  

However, what's at stake for me is how do we raise the quality of group storytelling?  That is, how do we end up comparing an evening's storytelling to Homer's storytelling, instead of game mechanics to storytelling?  Since I prefer Narrativist play, this is a priority for me.

In fact, I'd say that this thread, as so many running rampant across The Forge right now, might well tangle themselves up as different priorities of how to use gods get all confused with different desires on the parts of players.  For some folks, using gods to get favors and magic items, issues of faith be damned, are the whole point.  For folks like me, using gods as anything short of stirring emotion and narrative are a waste of time.

Since religion is even more slippery an issue than RPG mechanics (imagine such a thing!), the assumptions of what makes a good use of religion in an RPG is probably more difficult to nail down than how crunchy a comabat system should be.  Like GNS, a lot of it comes down to priorities -- which are different for different people.

As for ancient mythology being about worshipping from a list of gods and getting benefits from that god...  Yes, but... And that "but" includes: the raw coldness of the gods and their own agendas; the torment they rain down unwitting mortals who, despite their best efforts, can't get pez candies out of them by pushing the right buttons; and the terror, mystery and true cosmological implicatations the Greek, say, pantheon can inspire as compared to the "I've signed on for you buddy, we're in this together" recruiting energy of D&D games.

On another thread on religion someone pointed out its the "Why" of the behavoir of mortals and gods that are really going to distinguish the "feel" of something really mythological.  And that being said, some of us at the Forge feel that certain rules will engender "passion" from "stories and characters" better than other rules -- and certain rules will hobble such endevors.  In this view, the rules are at the stake of a lot of this.  But, as stated above, this only matters if that kind of storytelling is something you're after.

Take care,
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

M. J. Young

I apologize if I'm out of phase with the topic at all. I've not yet read the article (I fully intend to do so, but it's been a crazy week started with a son breaking an ankle and ending with a wife sick home from work complaining about every second I spend trying to get to things online--and I figure that the article will still be there when I have time, but the forum threads will move away from me so fast I'll never catch up).

If the problem is that games do not engender an appropriate attitude toward the gods they incorporate, I have in fact recognized that problem. My monthly series at the Christian Gamers Guild site talked about why that problem existed and what could be done about it in">Faith and Gaming: Awe, posted at the beginning of this month. I suggest that a lot of it has to do with the rather casual way we toss around gods in our games, and that the answer lies really in trying to portray a sort of awe for the supernatural that is to some degree lacking in modern life.

But as I say I'm working from what's been said in the thread. (I really do want to read the article, but already people are trying to drag me away to be part of everything they're doing.)

--M. J. Young

John Kim

Quote from: Christopher KubasikThat's a fair cop: comparing D&D to Homer is, of course, ridiculous -- and you're right to point that out.  

However, what's at stake for me is how do we raise the quality of group storytelling?  That is, how do we end up comparing an evening's storytelling to Homer's storytelling, instead of game mechanics to storytelling?

Well, I am definitely interested in this and am willing to discuss it -- but first I want to do a quick topic check.  The original topic proposed by Chris was:  why is religion seemingly neglected by traditional RPG designs -- along with other aspects of culture like art, literature, and music?  

The most direct answer is that it is following the tradition of fantasy authors like Tolkien, Moorcock, and others.  D&D is an extremely pale imitation of Tolkien, but it at least shares the features like (1) only shallow signs of organized religion; and (2) having divine beings as characters and opponents in the story rather than the theological depth that occurs in real world religions.  I think this is what makes it fantasy -- that it skims over things which are mundane and murky in real world history, and substitutes grand conflicts and personalities.  

It is a logical next step to then say -- OK, why is D&D a pale imitation of Tolkien?  However, I want to check whether we agree about the earlier steps first.
- John

Henry Fitch

I was looking at an old D&D book the other day -- the D&D Adventure Game from the early 90s, I believe -- and was struck by how completely absent religion seemed to be. The cleric class was there, of course, but was described as someone who "gains special powers because of the strength of their belief in some cause or principle", or something like that. Gods didn't really come up at all.

Just thought I should mention.
formerly known as Winged Coyote

Jack Spencer Jr

Hi John,

I think that first of all we need to drop discussing the source literature because A) it seems that some people dispute whether or not, say, Tolkien has any religion in it and B) It's really a side-issue we do need to address, really. We're talking about the games, not the inspirational literature, right? Bringing it up is bringing up a useless (to this topic IMO) side debate. That's all I'm saying.

Second your comment about D&D being a "pale imitation of Tolkien" is wrong to me. D&D is not Tolkien or Moorcock or Vance or Anderson or high fantasy or heroic fantasy. It's "D&D Fantasy" a version of fantasy that has been identified and discussed here. (Feel free to read, but please start a new thread if you have something to add since that thread is pretty old)

Shreyas Sampat

Let me throw out an idea here.

Religion is hard to create.

These games - Fantasy Heartbreakers - were made as a reaction to d&d.  D&d, originally, may have had its reasons for presenting religion as it did.  That's not an issue.
I present the idea that Heartbreakers put their energy into "correcting problems" that they saw as correctable.  I argue that The Religion Problem lies far in uncorrectability territory.


Real religion has many aspects, including but not limited to: rituals, belief systems, mythologies, specific customs, attitudes, architecture, and maybe even manifestations (this depends on how you feel about your religion).  Religions create ripples in the cultures around them, influencing art, cuisine, manners of speech and dress.  Religion is everywhere.  Just the mythologies of real religions fill large, heavy books.  Who has time to write that kind of thing for a game?

So, the pervasiveness of religion makes it difficult to present, compactly and respectfully, in an RPG.  I can imagine three reactions to this - stereotyping and game-statting out religion, making the cultural elements implicit or absent (what most games did), or make a religious game (which was apparently not among the goals of Heartbreaker designers), or simply crib real-world religions, leaving it to the players to fill in the details that makes that work.  It's part of the larger Culture Problem.  Deep, convincing, complex game cultures are rare because it takes uncommon knowledge and time to even concieve of one, let alone several, and still rarer skill to communicate those cultures to the game, making them into equally complex entities in the minds of the players as they are in the writer's.

John Kim

In reply to Jack Spencer Jr --

Well, the topic was why do D&D and the "heartbreaking" fantasy RPGs neglect religion?  If you want to probe why they are the way they are, I think you need to look at their influences.  I certainly agree that D&D is quite distinct from Tolkien, but I don't think you can deny that it had a major influence on D&D.  

Ultimately, I think it might be more productive to start a different topic: asking "How should religion be done right in RPGs?"  In fact, I'm going to do that myself.
- John

Jack Spencer Jr

Quote from: Henry FitchI was looking at an old D&D book the other day -- the D&D Adventure Game from the early 90s, I believe -- and was struck by how completely absent religion seemed to be. The cleric class was there, of course, but was described as someone who "gains special powers because of the strength of their belief in some cause or principle", or something like that. Gods didn't really come up at all.
That's pretty funny. I dug out my copy of the original set of D&D (3 books white box suppliments and Chainmail) And I found no refernce to gods at all for Clerics. They were a human-only class that was meant to be between Fighting Men and Magic-Users and it then goes intoweapon restrictions and how much it cost to build a castle when a Cleric reaches the proper level. The cloest thing to religion is aptly in the Gods, Demigods and Heroes suppliment. The bulk of the book presents various mythologies in Monster Manual form, but in the Foreward is this:
QuoteThis is the mertest of outlines [of various Mythologies], presented in D&D terms
He goes on:
QuoteThis volume is something else, also: our last attempt to reach the "Monty Hall" DM's
The editor, Timothy J. Kask, seems to disapprove of good old dungeon bashing calling it "foolish." The purpose of God Demigods and Heroes was not to add mythologies and religion in the sense we all seem to be thinking but to put riduculously large monsters into the game so that a 44th level Fighting Man will still pale compared to Odin's 300 hit points.

This is actually in FUDGE with the Legendary level for people so there can always be someone better out there. Problem is I don't think this tactic worked very well.

Maybe most of this belongs in another thread?

Rob MacDougall

Hi folks:

My first thought on reading this thread was: by definition, the Fantasy Heartbreakers are apples that do not fall far from the tree. That is, they reproduce most of D&D's core systems and assumptions, each one making only a handful of changes—and those changes they do make are pretty obvious outcomes of drift (like new skill systems) or just the creative process that a long-running campaign inevitably produces (like elaborate settings).

So why should we expect the Heartbreakers to change the religious system when they change so few of the other basic aspects and concerns of D&D? In other words, is there a answer to the question: "why so little innovation in Heartbreaker religions?" that is any different than the answer to the question "why so little innovation in Heartbreaker race and class systems, in combat, in levels and skills?" My guess is no, and searching, say, the religious content of Tolkien or other fantasy literature is probably a red herring. (Especially considering the points made elsewhere about how little the Heartbreakers seem to be influenced by anything outside of a) D&D as written and b) the experiences people have playing D&D.)

I'm struck by Ron's observation in the first Heartbreakers essay that one area where the Heartbreakers show a lot of effort and originality is their magic systems. They don't resemble D&D's traditional magic system at all. The conclusion we can draw from this is that D&D's magic system is very, very bad. Bad not only from the point of view of a Forge-reading Sorceror player who gave up on D&D ten years ago and is all about heavy Premise Narrativism, but also from the point of view of a Heartbreaker author, a guy who has kept playing D&D for years and years and years, who clearly loves D&D, and obviously finds something in it that scratches (almost) all his GNS itches.

But since the Heartbreakers almost never alter the presentation of gods and religions in D&D, doesn't it stand to reason that the people who are writing Heartbreakers, the people who pretty much like D&D as written and aren't driven to seek out other games, simply like the way gods and religions work in D&D?

(This happens to coincide with my memories of playing D&D as a twelve-year old. It never occurred to me to design my own version of D&D, but I know I could never get the magic system right -- memorizing spells, praying for spells, spells in spell books but not memorized, spells on scrolls... But I never had any problem with Deities & Demigods.)

My understanding of the GNS system is that no way of playing is intrinsically better than any other. The only great failing is GNS incoherence – to express one goal and have rules push another, or to have parts of the system at odds with other parts  (and D&D seems a great offender in this regard).

Now, they may not be to your taste or to mine, but from the point of view of the Heartbreaker authors, religion must have been one of the things that D&D really did very well! From the laboratory of years of devoted D&D play that coughed up these Fantasy Heartbreakers, the evidence seems to be that the D&D religious system works; it is ideal for the style of play that D&D promotes (whatever that is). Unlike the magic system which everybody feels the need to tinker with, D&D's deities – dumb names, colorless lists, un-fun strictures and all – appear to be a strikingly successful part of the game's design.



Several important points have been made recently, and I'd like to highlight and respond to them.

four willows weeping wrote:
QuoteD&d...had its reasons for presenting religion as it did. That's not an issue....Heartbreakers put their energy into "correcting problems" that they saw as correctable. I argue that The Religion Problem lies far in uncorrectability territory.
I think this is correct as far as the early history of the hobby is concerned.  I do, however, think it is interesting to ask why D&D presented religion as it did, and it looks like John Kim and Jack Spencer are debating the relevance of source literature for this.  For myself, I suspect that such examination will be helpful, but not sufficient, as an explanation.

four willows weeping continued:
QuoteReal religion has many aspects, including but not limited to: rituals, belief systems, mythologies, specific customs, attitudes, architecture, and maybe even manifestations (this depends on how you feel about your religion). Religions create ripples in the cultures around them, influencing art, cuisine, manners of speech and dress. Religion is everywhere. Just the mythologies of real religions fill large, heavy books. Who has time to write that kind of thing for a game?
I've quoted this paragraph in full because, first of all, it presents a serious attempt at recognizing the complex contours of actual religions, and I think these bits and pieces really need to be on the table, not only for this discussion, but also for any future threads about how religion ought to be done.

But the logic here is problematic.  Real political and military histories are also long and detailed, yet Heartbreakers go on and on about these.  Why do they consider that reasonable, but not the construction of plausible religions?  Four willows weeping in fact makes an excellent case for doing so: religions affect every other aspect of the culture, so if you create a plausible religion, your cultures will seem more "realistic."

As to the difficulty, during the 1970s college professors all over America were teaching Mircea Eliade.  You don't need to be an expert; if you've read The Sacred and the Profane, for example, which my freshmen generally not only find comprehensible but also enjoy very much, you've got ample fodder for constructing fantasy religions.  Myth will play an important role, but will be formulated in terms of how religious people re-live myths, through ritual, to sacralize their lives.  This doesn't take "uncommon knowledge and time"; after all, Joseph Campbell (commonly cited in RPG bibliographies) is a rather watered-down Eliade with a more explicit theological agenda.  My point is that I think it's a myth, if you will, that religion is too hard to create.

This raises an additional issue, one that I've been somewhat hesitant to bring up here.  I'll just lay it out briefly, and cover my head in asbestos.

Classic fantasy RPGs present a certain kind of nostalgia.  They construct worlds where men are men, and their actions are "epic": they slay foul monsters, discover lost treasures, and so forth.  In that kind of fantasy, contact with gods is not mediated by some sort of church organization, with theology and ritual and whatnot; rather, the heroes talk to their gods directly.  They have a set of basic principles, and they interpret them personally, not allowing weedy cloistered types to tell them what the gods want.  In short, such fantasies want direct contact with divinity, instead of a church hierarchy.  They want personal interpretation, instead of dogma or handed-down theology.  They want myths instead of rituals, and when rituals happen, they're called magic.

All this is in line with traditional Protestant critiques of Catholicism; these are some of the same charges leveled during the Reformation.  Like the American mainstream, fantasy RPGs take for granted a basically Protestant perspective on the nature of religion, but then extend it into an essentially secular-humanist perspective, such that the basic question of faith, which makes these critiques coherent in Protestant thought, is simply eliminated.  The end result is that you have incoherent, impossible religions, in which every aspect of actual human religious behavior has been removed or so altered as to be unrecognizable.

For me, the remaining questions are:
1. When and where did New Age and especially NeoPagan perspectives on religion enter RPGs?  Why has that been so successful?
2. Has this kind of facile presentation of religions run its course, in the sense that those gamers interested in detailed fantasy settings might be seriously interested in new approaches?
3. To what extent is there a continuing antagonism to religion in the RPG community, perhaps fueled by some right-wing religious groups' denunciations of gaming?  
4. Are there other, more interesting  reasons for such antagonism?  To put it differently, why is it the case that, as Rob put it,
Quotethe people who pretty much like D&D as written and aren't driven to seek out other games, simply like the way gods and religions work in D&D
5. Is it worth trying to "solve" the problem, and what would that entail?
Chris Lehrich

Christopher Kubasik

Hi John,

Good point on the topic's focus.  I look forward to your new thread.  (It seems to be where the many threads have been heading.)

However, I think the last few posts have come up with what I consider to be the valid answer: religious is neglected in these games because the people who wrote and played them just don't care about religion.

I think that's just it.  For if we were to assume that the source material was the cause, we'd have to assume they'd look deeper into the source material.  But instead, we find Tolkien reproduced with the depth of Colorform set.  So that's not it.  What it is, hauling out Ockman's razor, must plainly be a lack of interest on the parts of the players.

As others have pointed out, that's fine. It's their game, and they're clearly happy with it.  

But some of us haven't been.  We've got the questions brewing.  Now, for those who want to give it a whirl, let's see what happens.

Take care,
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


Quote from: clehrich.

Since my professional career is devoted to studying the ins-and-outs of the history of religions, I have a few suggestions here, but I don't think they do more than scratch the surface.

1. It may be an unfair stereotype, but I associate this sort of fantasy world with science-engineering types.  I know that when I first started playing AD&D (just after it appeared, actually), I considered myself part of this group.  (Funny old thing, life.)  And my experience as a teacher is that many people who align themselves very strongly to a scientific mindset are uncomfortable with religion in the real world, sometimes going so far as to see it all as idiotic superstition and whatnot.  (Lately, Penn and Teller would be excellent examples of this perspective.)  So I wonder whether part of the failure of such games to deal with any of the more interesting possibilities of fantasy religions have to do with this fundamental discomfort..

4. Finally, I think Ron picks up something interesting when he uses the word "culture."  As a rule, these games describe culture in a few terms: economics, military and political history, and some material culture (at least implicitly).  But just about all of what I would focus on as primary for "culture" --- art, literature, music, stories (not big-ass myths, but just plain old stories), family life, social structures, and of course religion --- gets hand-waved away.  So I sort of wonder whether the total failure with respect to religion isn't really part and parcel of an unwillingness or inability to deal with culture more broadly.

 Sci-tech types are usually brigth and well trained but are often quite narrowly educated.  Their world design tends to reflect that narrow education, which is often lacking in formal training in the cultura; things listed above.  They don't know about the importance of these things in human history so they don't write about them in their game worlds.  Many of the hard-sci types are actually quite contemptuous of soft-sci areas like sociology,history,or psychology and even more so of non scientific areas like literary criticism, or actual scholarly study of mythology as opposed to the Ray Harryhausen type. The barreness of their game worlds in these areas reflects their own intellectuall limitations.

 This tendency doesnt just crop up in heroic fantasy.  One of the things I always disliked about most Traveler fans was the really lousy job they did at presenting the feel of different human cultures.  World after world just felt like 1980's earth style cardboard backdrops to fire their fusion guns in front of.  Part and parcel of this feeling of sameness is lack of creativity in presenting and even visualising a different material culture.

 Typically the traveler crowd has done a much better idea of figuring out the weight of a laser gun than even presenting what the dominant culture of the Imprerium is really like.  This reflects the intellectual set of the sci-tech mentality that dominates role playing,partially due to the nature of the dominant rpg paradigms...(right brain types are mostly chased away by all those numbers).....
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I have come up with some possible explanations of the poor representation of religion in D&D and its wannabes. First is realted directly the games themselves and the other is related to the backrground of the designers.

1. The game focus is on teamwork and monster bashing. Religion is treated only as far as it helps these goals. Ethics (alignement etc.) tell who you can bash. Ethics is a list of do nots, not a philosophical system for assessing right or wrong. If PCs started questioning things it would be threat to the game. Players don't want to think if its right to go into a dungeon and kill and rob its inhabitants. Moral reasoning would kill most dungeon crawls at the beginning. Deeper consideration of moral issues could also lead to undesirable quarrels between team memebers which is another threat to the goals.

Cleric spells are an important part of D&D-style religion because they add firepower and a medic to the team. The matter of cleric's faith is dangerous because its too introvert and personal. Introversion is not good for teamwork. Hell if a cleric was too religious he could even give up adventuring and start prosetylizing! The game focus is on extrovert action and not introvert contemplation.

2. Why is political history presented so much better than religion or the arts for example? Heartbreaker history is mainly a story about things that have happened. There are usually no structural historical approaches. My theory is that all people have some skill as story tellers – it comes to us naturally. Treatment of religion and other culture is about writing the mythology (stories) but it is also about interpreting the mythology in the terms of the believers and describing their religious setting systematically.

Interpretation and systematic description are somtheing that is – unlike the telling of stories – not easy and natural to us. They are learned over time. As a high school teacher I know how poorly most of the students interpret literary texts or understand culuture even after I have tried to teach them something for three years so I'm not surprised by engineers' generally poor text skills. High school is likely to be their only training for the interpretation of texts. They just don't know how to do religion. People are also often hostile to things they don't understand – like academic treatement of matter they consider simple and every day. This is of course an unfair generalization: I know engineers who are brilliant interpreters of texts, but it gives some insight to the problem.
Johannes Kellomaki