Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Religion in Fantasy Role Playing Games

My default tendency when running fantasy games is to follow more or less a Tolkien style approach when it comes to religion. Tolkien took great pains to remove any sort of reference to religious beliefs and practices from The Lord of the Rings. One of his few slip ups would be the silent prayer of Faramir’s men as they looked to the west. Then there was the odd reference to the “heathen kings” that burned themselves on funeral pyres. Much more subtle would be Gandalf’s speculation that Bilbo was meant to find the ring (meant by who?) or even his rebuke at Bilbo for being surprised that the prophecies had turned out to be true.

Dungeons & Dragons does not allow for quite that level of subtlety, though. With that darned cleric class mucking up the AD&D Player’s Guide, it sure is hard not to notice the very obvious crosses on their armor. Even setting that aside, much of their spell list is pretty plainly derived from stories and tales of Elijah, Moses, and Jesus. People ask me the nature of the clerics’ religion at conventions and I flatly state that they serve a generic Nondenominational type monotheistic God. If you say only that much and get on with things, whatever wonkiness that could be derived from this fades into the background as the players strike across the wilderness and delve into dungeons to kill monsters and gain treasure. From a game mechanics standpoint, the cleric has as much to do with the logistics that underlie hexcrawling as he does with anything else. Nevertheless, I sense a palpable disappointment in the fact that my campaign embraces a vague Judeo-Christian sensibility.

There is of course a great fault line through this syncretic mush that is Dungeons & Dragons. It sort of spot welds the elves, orcs, and halflings of Middle Earth to a strange chunk of the Crusader era. A close reading of Tolkien reveals that while Middle Earth is in fact our world, it is certainly a depiction of times much further in the mythic past than our more recent dark ages. Hints and scraps of what elves and dwarves were survive in odd words in various pieces of old poems, but what those words actually reference would have been around in a  time well before the days of Christ– though perhaps there are still halflings about that quietly slip away as we noisily stomp our way through forests. That odd reference to the “heathen” was as much of an anachronism as Lobelia’s umbrella or the Gaffer’s potatoes.

Of course, the average gamer back in the day was neither a historian nor a Tolkien scholar. And whatever it was that we did with these games, it sometimes became obvious that it was the clerics that didn’t fit, not the elves and dwarves. We all came up with our own solutions to these contradictions. Probably the most common fix, though, was to add in paganism– or rather, what we thought paganism was. The chapels and crosses were relegated to the dust bin as unending lists of made-up gods were fleshed out with various quirks and flavor texts. (That first Forgotten Realms box set was a watershed moment in my gaming consciousness.) All of it had about as much to do with reality as Oriental Adventures had with historic China and Japan. (Which is odd given the general mania for realism in the eighties.) Ultimately, we had to develop separate classes for each of these gods… at which point, you kinda have to wonder why anyone should bother with classes anymore.

That was about the time that GURPS Fantasy hit the scene. This should have been a bombshell. Not only did it replace traditional D&D magic and with a skill and fatigue system, but for the fantasy setting, Steve Jackson decided to go with real world religions. In retrospect, that obvious question was… if you were going to play in a medieval type setting, then why not people it with real Christians and Muslims…? This never really took off like I thought it should, though. As we saw time and again, whatever D&D was, it worked far better in practice than it ever had a right to. Most of us were content to hold it together by stictching another patch to the crazy quilt.

In all these things, my mind always ends up wandering back towards Tolkien. Its no accident that the guy was author of the century. Most fantasy authors are in danger of losing me just with their hokey made-up names– this is something I’m reminded of in almost every session report that gets posted on Orbs and Balrogs. The made-up religions are worse… with the exception of Lovecraftian style menace. There is some meat there. Plus, it opens up the idea that all these chaotic priests are evil not because of their morals or lack of church attendance… but because they are going literally end up burning everything to the ground and unleashing horrors that really don’t care where anyone comes down on  the issues. Even chaotic characters in an “evil” campaign are liable to get on board with putting a stop to those guys.

But I tire of the fake stuff, really. I want more meat for my game. Wither shall we go…? Medievalism is not it. Not for me, anyway. The inherent dishonesty of “oh yeah, I’ve vowed not to spill blood so I’ll just bash your skull with this mace” just doesn’t do that much for me. An honest Pagan from the fourth century B.C. would be an improvement. Such people had the respect of guys like Tolkien and C. S. Lewis… which should give anyone pause, really. As far as I can tell, whatever it is that we tend to think paganism is tends to be light years away from the what the ancients held to. The Enlightenment was the child of the Reformation. The post-modernists were merely post-Christian. Neo-paganism is merely the patronizing elevation of the noble savage that doesn’t even exist. It’s like the degree to which the aliens in Avatar correspond to actual African and American Indian cultures. It’s a celebration of what we wish other people were… in order to buttress whatever ideological fads we’re patting ourselves on the back for at the moment.

Whatever discussion the previous paragraph leads to, it is not one that I’d want infecting my fantasy world at all. Tolkien’s instincts were the correct one– better to eliminate religion altogether than to wander into that cesspool. That’s why I’m heading to pre-Christian writings for inspiration. That’s why I’m reading Herodotus’s history. It is epic and mythic and awesome and I wonder why his works never came up in the course of my liberal education. No matter. I can read it now. Putting this sort of thing at my fingertips is what the internet is for.

Reading it, it becomes clear that Socrates was no outlier. And neither was Theoden’s desire to die in battle all that exceptional from the standpoint of history. Herodotus tells of how king Croesus asked an Athenien guest who was the happiest person he knew of. Instead of sucking up to him, the snarky philosopher type responded with this:

Tellus of Athens, sire…. First, because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer would not have been held high in esteem among such a people. Another thing that is evident is that “pagan” is not actually a synonym for irreligious. It is not indicative of a person having turned away from traditional morals. For instance, one king thought his wife was so good looking, that he just had to show her off to his buddy. He concocted this scheme where the guy could sneak into his room and see her getting undressed. The man replied, “our fathers, in time past, distinguished right and wrong plainly enough, and it is our wisdom to submit to be taught by them. There is an old saying, ‘Let each look on his own.’ I hold thy wife for the fairest of all womankind. Only, I beseech thee, ask me not to do wickedly.” Those are words I could imagine a Rider of Rohan speaking.

The guy was persuaded eventually… but he was caught. And he quickly found out that the pagan women of that day were not necessarily peaceful earth-loving types that sit around singing Kumbaya. (The Spartan mother that told her son to come back with his shield or on it was also no outlier.) The next day, the man was called before her. She spoke to him thus:

“Take thy choice, Gyges, of two courses which are open to thee. Slay Candaules, and thereby become my lord, and obtain the Lydian throne, or die this moment in his room. So wilt thou not again, obeying all behests of thy master, behold what is not lawful for thee. It must needs be that either he perish by whose counsel this thing was done, or thou, who sawest me naked, and so didst break our usages.” At these words Gyges stood awhile in mute astonishment; recovering after a time, he earnestly besought the queen that she would not compel him to so hard a choice. But finding he implored in vain, and that necessity was indeed laid on him to kill or to be killed, he made choice of life for himself, and replied by this inquiry: “If it must be so, and thou compellest me against my will to put my lord to death, come, let me hear how thou wilt have me set on him.” “Let him be attacked,” she answered, “on the spot where I was by him shown naked to you, and let the assault be made when he is asleep.”

This is a woman that makes Samuel L. Jackson look like a cream puff. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At any rate, the thing I take away from all of this is not that the cleric is in need of “paganizing.” No, if you want to incorporate real paganism into your game… the place to start is with the fighter class– guys like the one Sean Connery played in Time Bandits, for instance. That is not at all where I expected to end up…. But then… that’s why you read real literature in the first place.


11 responses to “Religion in Fantasy Role Playing Games

  1. Christian Blouin June 11, 2013 at 9:42 am

    But… who will cast *cure light wounds*? Without a God that cares, how can the world be filled with *balanced* dungeon that are optimized to give a cold sweat to PCs without killing them all the time?

    I like to dodge religion on my campaign worlds. More precisely, I like the idea of Gods that just don’t care if they exist at all. Religion, on the other hand, is a very useful cultural aspect. I often wonder how Middle-Earth dwellers deal with the lack of some kind of institutionalized spirituality. I ascribe it to thousands of years of decline. I assume that, since Iluvatar isn’t asking anything from the humans, the needs to have a relationship with the creator never existed. I’ve got much bigger issues with Politics and Economics in Middle-Earth as a campaign world.

    A long time ago, I built a whole campaign around the PC discovering a *real* religion in a world dominating by a christian-like monotheistic institution. The twist was that the real religions granted all sorts of necromantic powers. The PCs, thinking they were doing good by making things right, eventually realized that from the outside, they were scary folks raising skeletons to win battles. Much of their efforts was then spent on convincing the world that they were NOT dark lords… It was fun.

    • jeffro June 11, 2013 at 10:13 am

      Religion is there in Middle Earth. It is just carefully excluded from the narrative. The blue wizards that lost their way are probably responsible for the genesis of the pagan religions in that setting….

      The Fourth Age, with the passing of the elves, severs the last connection to the mythic past– the times of Numenor (ie, Atlantis), the Valar (ie, the “real” antecedents for the Greek gods), and when an actual Satan standin built earthly kingdoms of his own (ie, Melchor.)

      There is no need for institutional religion when gods, angels in mortal flesh, and elves walk the earth. Why have a mediator when the real thing is all around you?

      • PeterD June 11, 2013 at 11:25 am

        I think if this stuff is all around you, you might still want or need an intermediary. Plenty of real-world religions have spirits everywhere, and specialists who help you deal with those spirits. It’s like lawyers – law is all around, but sometimes you still want someone to argue your case for you or tell you what you can do without getting in trouble.

        Active spirits and active angels would imply even more priests and more importance to priests, not the opposite.

      • jeffro June 11, 2013 at 11:48 am

        That’s a good point…!

  2. Brendan June 11, 2013 at 10:32 am

    The pseudo-christian cleric has not bothered me during my return to D&D in these past few years. I think it works just as well as all the other syncretic parts of D&D. I mean, you don’t have to reveal the true cosmic reality or metaphysics of the setting. Clerics believe they worship the one, true god, or the king of gods… and who is anyone else to tell them otherwise? Something is granting them power, after all. They believe all other gods are demons, much like Baal was so considered in the old testament.

    Also, Herodotus is wonderful. Nice discussion overall.

    • jeffro June 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

      I have always had a unbelievably stupid affection towards the Cleric class. Who can resist spells and fighting together?! I never understood the Paladin obsession, though. That is obviously evidence for my having not spent enough time with Appendix N….

      The thief, however, is (consistent with his theme no less) the true interloper. His nutty skill system is so completely out of place, I have no problem keeping him at d4 hit dice. But they level up so fast, that punishment is not near as stern as I’d have imagined…!

      Hmm…. Maybe the thief should have had d2 for hit dice…? :)

      • PeterD June 11, 2013 at 11:26 am

        I still boggle at this – “the skill system isn’t well implemented, so anyone who plays the thief must suffer.”

        Why not just fix the skill system?

      • jeffro June 11, 2013 at 11:51 am

        Heh. It’s not about the skill system. It’s about no one being able to agree on the correct way to “fix” the thief. There’s a serious engineering problem there…. Fixing the skill system (a la GURPS and The Fantasy Trip) leads to a two-class system… and once again, my precious and incoherent cleric class takes it in the teeth.

      • PeterD June 11, 2013 at 12:36 pm

        It seems the way to address it is to figure out how you want to resolve non-combat tasks in D&D. That would include opening doors, detecting traps, bending bars, not falling on slippery surfaces, etc. It wouldn’t hurt to have a coherent system for all of that instead of multiple incoherent systems.

        Fixing HP on the thief to address the skill system issues seems like you’re hoping the thief will die before the broken aspects of the system are a problem. I think you’d agree this isn’t particular player-friendly, as solutions go.

      • jeffro June 11, 2013 at 12:39 pm

        I do like how the d4 hit-die thief is strongly encouraged to behave in a thiefly manner. Low level thieves are cautious and hang back if they want to live. And they get more of those hit dice quick enough that it’s worth the risk….

        I wouldn’t really slap ’em with d2’s though. That was just teasing.

  3. Pingback: An Appendix N Conversation with Jeffro Johnson –

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