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[D&D] Religious & Cultural Diversity in D&D's Middle East

Started by Willow, March 22, 2010, 12:48:27 AM

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So, I was talking to a couple of folks at Forge Midwest about something I'm going to be doing in my D&D game- the party is going to the world's middle-east analogue, and I want to put a spin on the local culture.  I want to have the in-game subcultures of the area divided amongst religious lines, and based loosely on real-world cultures of the area.  I have some ideas, but I am looking for help filling in the gaps.

If you aren't familiar with the current edition's cosmology, there's the real world, and the gods live in the Astral plane.  They are real, but distant beings, who imbue their followers with holy energy, and then typically take a hands off approach.  There's a whole bunch of them; everyone believes in the existence of all of them, but typically worships one particularly and says prayers to others as appropriate.  Individual temples usually are enshrined to a set of three primary gods- though which gods out of the pantheon (there's about a dozen) are primary varies from place to place.

So, my thought is in the south to turn this upside down- everyone worships and believes in the same gods, but you have strident followers of one god.  Temples to more than one god are nonexistent.  Stress and conflict between the faiths is common.

(Sidethought- I am deeply torn on whether the different Good faiths should wage outright war against each other.  On the one hand, it's good for conflict and fits with the idea of the setting, on the other hand, I have a lot of trouble reconciling generations old-war between the followers of say, Pelor and Bahamut.  If nothing else, eventually the gods will just stop imbuing new paladins.)

Right now I'm brainstorming ideas for different religious cultures and how to apply them.

Ioun, the goddess of knowledge is known as the Veiled Lady.  Her followers conceal their features out of modesty and secrecy.  Women wear burkhas, men wear white robes.  Popular amongst Tieflings for reasons of redemption for sins of their ancestors.  (Burkha wearing tiefling assassins- what's not to like?)

Moradin, the Great Father- as the craft god, creator of the world, I'm naturally drawn to compare his faith to Judaism.  Of course, as the patron of the Dwarves, the comparison is not necessarily a favorable one.  If I go that route, it's probably important to have a significant non-dwarven population worship Moradin- Dragonborn are a nice choice (Dragonborn merchants and artisans in yarmulkes?)

Raven Queen, the Goddess of Death- I'm picturing black robes and wide brim hats- kind of an Amish look, which is completely the wrong region, but I can't get it out of my head.

Bahamut, the Exalted Dragon- the God of War, Justice, etc.  So here's the god of the crusaders & jihaddists.  I'm picturing a lot of dervishes- turbans, scimitars, armor, horses, riding around, fighting evil.

Melora, the goddess of nature and oceans can stand in as the River Goddess.

Pelor, the sun god, strikes me as the most likely to stand in for a Christian analogue, but I don't know what to do with that.

Erathis, the goddess of civilization, seems like the closest to 'traditional' Muslim values- civilization, scholarship, code of laws.  Not sure what to do with that.

So, there's a couple of bare ideas needing a touch of help to be fleshed out.

Eero Tuovinen

Wouldn't black clothes and wide-brimmed hats go for orthodox Judaism as well? You could have two Judaism-like sects, one for Moradin and one for the Raven Queen. Perhaps the locals believe that the two used to be married, but got a divorse and now the two cults, while still close, disagree on who's fault it was. So it's sort of like the same religion, but not really.

You should fit Bahá'í in there somewhere. Maybe the cult of Erathis could be all about this idea of progressive revelation and divine chronology, with Erathis the youngest god and thus the most pertinent one for our times.
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Callan S.

Why do they fight? Just cause, like, it's setting?

Not out of lack of resources, common deseases, burning conditions and broken childhoods that make what would otherwise be more peaceful mean seek blood?
Philosopher Gamer


Are  you looking at today's religious melting pot or are you willing to go back a ways through the religious history of the area.

If you choose to look at the historical record, you can easily place many, if not all, of the D&D deities into their own places.

Also look at the religious hierarchies of the region: Judaism brought Christianity which in turn brought Islam (Muslim is not the religion, it's a follower of Islam...Muslim means "one who submits" [to Allah]). All three are monotheistic (see

Older still are the polytheistic pantheons such as Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Arabian Polytheism, Canaanite...etc. (see and

In any case, there are still people who worship the old gods from polytheistic pantheons today. They're considered cults, but still have a possible validity in your reimaging.


Eero, I am so using that for Moradin/Raven Queen.  Especially since my northerners will be like "they were married, wtf?"  Then they'll dig a little deeper, and will find out it's true.

That Bahai thing is interesting- as it happens, the youngest god is actually either the Raven Queen or Vecna; I shudder to think what that means if they are the most relevant for the times.

Callan, that's the question I really want to answer.  I want a good reason for these faiths, which should be cosmically allied, to be in extended conflict.  Limited resources is probably the best possible reason- when the bad guy gods are particularly aggressive, the various faiths band together, but otherwise they snipe and war for the same cities and strategic points.

Curt, I'm aiming at today's "religious melting pot".  (I'd personally use the term 'clusterfuck' instead.)

Callan S.

Quote from: Willow on March 22, 2010, 12:25:27 PMCallan, that's the question I really want to answer.  I want a good reason for these faiths, which should be cosmically allied, to be in extended conflict.
Well, three missed meals to revolution! Why would you be cosmically aligned when your starving and got a sword in your hand?

Or more to the point, how much are these 'good' gods funneling resources through?

Also in terms of 'good reason'...well, you know, characters do stuff and sometimes it doesn't seem to be for any good reason. I guess its harder, because were talking playing out the role of thousands/mobs, but just play out how you feel the mob would react to a hard desert life.

Of course when you play out a character you can't guarantee a result like that they will conflict. But I think the key is to not play baby fresh characters who are just facing stuff now with a fresh emotional slate and yet at the same time the intellect of an adult. Instead it's about years of slights and resentments building up, of a hurt building up over years, well before the characters intellect can even start to grasp that hurt. That's the sort of character to draw upon, I'd say.

Also the idea that 'I am good' has been a blank cheque for all sorts of deeds in real life.

There's alot of confirmation bias bullshit in 'good', where people just keep doing something, only looking for evidence that they are right (because they are 'good'), and never looking for evidence that they are wrong.

And clearly, any action without self correction eventually, even through just sheer atrophy, becomes fucked up creates evil.

Or so are some philosophical ideas, written here with some enthusiasm :)
Philosopher Gamer


Why not treat the different religions and their respective pantheons as countries that are expanding, contracting, etc. with their followers and the reason they and their followers fight is due to invasion? I mean, if the gods of Olympus sent their followers into Egypt to convert them, you could simulate this through the normal means (missionaries, crusades, etc.) and through the gods fighting it out.


The interesting thing is that cosmic, objective good actually exists in the setting- some wicked people will certainly call themselves "good"- but, objectively, they aren't.  Whereas the gods, who actually imbue people with magic powers are truely, absolutely, really good. 

So what I think I'm going to go with is a large city, where the various faiths all reside, but are in constant tension (limited resources, space, prestige).

Some more thoughts-

Kord, the god of strength, is known as the Heavenly Fist.  His followers, the Consecrated Fists, are not an ethnic group, but rather converts from other groups that adhere to strict vows- most obviously allowing their hair to grow long and ungroomed, and well displayed (both in men and women.)  This is popular amongst half-orcs and shifters, who have both innate strength and lots of body hair.

Melora, the River of Life, is particularly worshiped amongst halflings, who are a nomadic people, frequently tending boats that go up and down the Great River, or seeking out oasises in the desert wastes.

Callan S.

Quote from: Willow on March 23, 2010, 02:19:12 PMThe interesting thing is that cosmic, objective good actually exists in the setting- some wicked people will certainly call themselves "good"- but, objectively, they aren't.  Whereas the gods, who actually imbue people with magic powers are truely, absolutely, really good.
There's a guy called Scott Bakker who's writing a series of books called the prince of nothing series, and part of his goals are to try and depict a world of objectivist good and objectivist evil. He also happens to have been a big D&D roleplayer in his youth, said he was big into world building IIRC.

At one point in him describing it, I'll carefully note it 'had me going' for a minute in that one of the characters in the books, one I liked, actually was objectively evil (actually, objectively damned, but I'll keep it simple).

But then I snapped out of it. No, I'll decide who's good and evil - I wont be told by anyone who is good and who is evil. I decide that for myself. How he is depicted is damned, but no, I'll judge him and I see him afflicted by some malase, poor bastard.

That's the problem here - no, cosmic, objectivist good doesn't exist in the setting - all there is is you trying to convince me who's good and who's bad, by forthright assertion.

For myself, it's because of that philosophical gulf I'd say they war - because the characters allow something else to tell them what is good and evil, rather than damn well decide for themselves.

And that thing that tells them...well, as a group at the table, your not all going to have the same idea of good. Therefore your all going to be playing out characters who are being told somewhat different things on what is good and evil. The war will stem from the differences in what characters of different faiths, or hell, even what different individuals are told.

Or perhaps someone at the game table will be socially controlling and loud and will make sure 'no ones a jerk' and everyone has the same idea of good and evil 'because it's objective!', and everyone will pretend they agree. And there will be no war (it all happened in real life at the table already). But usually that only happens with all male groups (lord of the flies style).

It's on that last note that the problem may come up - people at the gaming table with different ideas of good and evil. Now if a god and faith is objectively good, but someone at the table thinks one of their acts is evil, is the very act of thinking that's evil considered cheating or breaking the social contract? Or perhaps even just being a deliberate jerk since it's objective good and he must know that real good is X and not the Y he was talking about (and he must have invented Y just to be a jerk!).

That supposed idea of objectivist good around the table - it schisming and fracturing. That could be the fodder for fantastic gameplay (looking at Ron's accounts, for example, I'm inclined to think he'd treat it as fodder, as one example). Or it could be grounds for a RL falling out amongst real people over cheating or being 'deliberately disruptive'.

When it isn't, AFAICT, people always judge for themselves what is good and evil, indipendently - we are always alone in judgement. And so by and large except for chance parralels (or heavily trained parralels) we judge in different ways to each other. Which can work out when they know that, but it really fucks up if you think objectivist good and evil can be done as much as people can determine 10+5 beats a target number of 12. Because when they say something is evil when everyone else says it's good, it'll be like them saying 5+5 beats a target number of 12 and just look like cheating, since it's supposedly as objective as the numbers are objective.

Jeez, long post. Sorry.

Anyway - 'objectivist' good? Asking for trouble, unless you and everyone at the table know it wont happen perfectly, in which case it's asking for good gameplay :)
Philosopher Gamer


Short answer, Callan: That's not what my D&D games are about.

Also, the 'Unaligned' alignment exists for people who are morally ambiguous.  Erathis, the goddess of civilization is Unaligned.  Bahamut, God of Justice?  Lawful Good.  It's right there in the rules.

Callan S.

That's not something anyone can do with rules! It's like trying to have rules that say 'Chicken Vindaloo - TASTY' then saying "it's right there in the rules" when other people at the table say chicken vindaloos taste horrible. 'Bahamut - GOOD'? Same thing. Granted though, everyone can force it that all their characters like chicken vindaloo.

Enough of that from me - only saying this because trying to say something is 'good' because of the rules, to me, is like folding an elbow backwards. It's entirely possible to do - but I don't think the human mind naturally folds that way, so to speak.
Philosopher Gamer


Let's get some bad guy gods up on the board!

Since Ioun's Burkha clad ladies = ninja assassins for great justice, and Ioun hates Vecna...

Vecna is known as the Old Man of the Mountain.  His secret cabals infiltrate other organizations to steal their secrets, pass them onto their dark lord, and destroy the originals.  Many of his followers, like Ioun, follow the Avenger class, and wear clothing to hide their features, but it is not out of sexual modesty.  Rather, many of them are intentionally disfigured to gain mystic power from their god.

Ron Edwards

Hi Willow,

I would like to participate in the thead, but I'm having trouble seeing how. You seem to be well embarked on fitting various D&D cosmological entities into place, or assigning them colorful tropes based on that region, and that's great.

If you want the fictional material to reflect real-world history and characterizations of the various religions, then I can help with that, pretty extensively. But if it's a matter of making sure the D&D material is intact when translated into these terms, then I'm not sure what I can directly do, and in that case I'd rather provide answers or views on specific questions that you have.

If I'm reading correctly, you're doing the latter. Therefore, can you formulate more specific questions about what you'd like to know or use? Here are some possibilities that you may or may not find interesting, too (and assuming you're more-or-less focusing on ~1000 CE, just before the Crusades; let me know if that's not right).

Sunni / Shia in Islam
Rome-based Christianity vs. Nova Roma-based Christianity (the latter is known in the west as Byzantium), whose final split was in 1054
Earlier but very prevalent Christianity answering to neither center of power
Jewish life in (or "under") Christian rule vs. Muslim rule

Best, Ron

P.S. A very cool and useful link: Maps of War: Imperial History of the Middle East.


Hey Ron-

My extent of knowledge of Middle Eastern culture is essentially limited to having watched Disney's Aladdin as a child.  (And reading the Baroque Cycle as an adult.)  What I'm really looking for is knowledge of regional subcultures, modern or historic, that can be layered over with D&D trappings, with varying degrees of fidelity to actual culture.

(My standards for fidelity are pretty low- the Europeanish folks in my game ride drakes around, and everyone speaks the same language.)

Like check out the Melora worshipers- river tenders and wanderers in a harsh and dry land.  What might those people dress like?  What might differentiate them from the other folks in this land?  That's the sort of question I need answers, or at least suggestions for.


As already noted, I looks like you're trying to fit the D&D cosmology to a "real world"

I got some tips about this, I tried roughly the same in 2001. My advise is to either to create a
fairly realistic world or scenario or go for the D&D stuff. If you want to build a middle east influenced scenario,
first of all which time and how mythological or supernatural should it be. Then read books or Wikipedia, browse on the history of old religions, empires and culture. Personally I think the pre islamic era is more interesting, the Sassanide empire, Zoroastrianism and old religions where Baahl was a town god and not a devil.

The other way to go is just to take what influences you already got and mix it up with the D&D core stuff. Don't think to much about if the monsters match the scenario and so on, It's just a "color" of the game. Then focus on the "look and feel". I guess that two factors are important: Who are your players, and what do they expect and want, and the other factor is what makes you happy ;)

A personal opinion on the D&D cosmology is that it's very crude and very American. It has many built in assumptions like "alignments" that there are absolute points of good and evil. It has as noted above a default setup of gods that are very western christian and roman. Specially the "new" D&D from Wizards of the coast got this as default, the elder AD&D I think was a bit more diverse.

The strength in using the stuff that comes with the core rules is that it's easier and and easy to point at if a player asks why =) The weakness is that it's limited.

The strength in researching and building your own cosmos is that it will probably be much more customized and might give your players something new and hopefully deeper. The weakness is that this is harder work and some one can always correct you with "that wasn't the case in the real middle east" :)

Best Regards
(I'm from Sweden, Europe, not the Middle East =)