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Author Topic: Successful approaches to religion in RPGs  (Read 10847 times)
M. J. Young
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« Reply #15 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 http://www.geocities.com/christian_gamers_guild/chaplain/faga022.html">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, http://www.geocities.com/christian_gamers_guild/chaplain/faga008.html">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
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    Eric J.
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    « Reply #16 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>
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    contracycle
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    « Reply #17 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, 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.
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    John Kim
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    « Reply #18 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?
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    - John
    M. J. Young
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    « Reply #19 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
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    greyorm
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    « Reply #20 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).
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    Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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    Johannes
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    « Reply #21 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.:-)
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    Johannes Kellomaki
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