Religion in table top RPGs

I find religion in RPGs can often leave me a little disappointed . I suppose that a lot of that has to do with my opinions of religion in real life, and I know that what we’re dealing with is a fantasy world, but it still contains people, just like our own world. Just throwing this out there as I’m not writing this to offend, but I am an atheist and will be writing from that position. If you would like to turn your head away now, please feel free. If you want to post comments based on your own beliefs, I draw your attention to my thoughts about what goes into the comments section of this blog. Now, onward to the good stuff.

It’s easy to assume that most fantasy pantheons have a lot in common with Greek/Roman gods; a whole host of them, each with a domain they watch over whilst competing with other gods for whatever the divine equivalent of prestige is. I do see the appeal of this as both ancient mythologies are still very popular and have plenty of gold left to mine. The only real problem I have is when they are over used, when every other system has a thunder god, a god of love and a god that just loves to get down and party.

Yes, there are variations, but most of them follow a very similar path; a god of magic, of necromancy, a god that exists just  to help out healing  injured adventurers. This is all well and good, but it can lead to a dead-end roleplaying wise. A god will want you to behave in certain ways to get the benefits of following it, and this means a follower of god A, will act that way. Not saying that all of them will, but enough to make them look like an homogeneous lump of personality clones.

When comparing this to real world religion, with more gods and beliefs than you could shake a stick at, we see this does not happen. Almost every religion in the real world has fractured at some point in its history and these schisms have become separate entities with grudges against people who believe in the same god, but choose to show that deference in a different way.

A big reason for this is that when  a lot of real world religions were founded, most of the cultures were isolated or were empires who could push down hard to enforce a ‘one true god’ religious structure. When this happens everyone in the society has to find their place, and people with wildly differing personalities have to interpret the tenets of their faith in a way that allows them to fit in. This has happened in a fantasy game I’ve played in. A D&D 3rd game in a world built for the most part by the GM. The player group were all Dwarven, and all believed in one god, whose name I currently forget. Because this was the way it had been for centuries, at assumed that being born a dwarf meant you would follow this god, no matter what your career or class. this meant no matter what alignment you played, or class, you were one of the faithful. I was the group cleric and played it lawful/evil, but was still accepted because I was such a faithful devotee and acted within the law. This very true of real world religions where the extremists are propped up by the massive amount of more moderate followers.

Early modern English history however teaches that schism can happen within one country for matters as simple of dynastic continuity/wanting to shag someone else and not have the kid be declared a bastard. With this kind of thing happening so little in fantasy games, I was again left scratching my heads as to the why fore. Then a simple thought hit me; gods in a fantasy setting actually exist. They can be seen, communed with, and preform miracles that go beyond the natural.

But do they have to? I have played some great games where magic is explainable within the physics of the setting, changing it from supernatural, to the natural. By this I mean the kind of thing that could be measured under laboratory conditions. Could the same be said of gods and godlike entities within the same settings? If they were real and acted within the confines of the natural world, they would have no reason to be worshiped en masse, instead being seen in the same light as giant ‘magical beast with sentience’, dragons spring immediately to mind. There are those who would still look upon them as otherworldly and choose to venerate them as gods, as there are in the real world. This could lead to just as much re-interpretation and fracturing of the faiths as in our own world, and I just think that this would make playing a believer a hell of a lot more interesting from a roleplaying point of view.


25 thoughts on “Religion in table top RPGs

  1. One of my all time favourite Palladium Books sourcebooks was “Rifts: Dimension Book 2 – Pantheons of the Megaverse”. It gave stats for a number of ancient mythological deities (Celtic and Egyptian having already been covered by this point.

    I think I enjoyed it mainly because I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing, over and above gaming. (Many people seem concerned that an interest in roleplaying leads to an interest in the Occult and other esoteric matters – for me it worked the other way).

    In many of the games I’ve taken part in, the deities have been actual beings of power. In some cases they have gained this power through being worshipped, in others it’s just because they are.

    I’ve recently taken up religion with my Lorien Trust LRP character, having started as a basic magic user. I play in a religious faction and so religion was always a consideration but starting out was along the lines of “I’ve lived with all these Elves in an Elvish forest surrounded by Elves, Fey and Human monks who worhsip this Elvish nature deity, I may as well do the same” – after all, the majority of us don’t choose a religion in real life, we seem to stick with what our families taught us. (Lucky for me, my family taught me to be open minded – I’m more a Gnostic – not Agnostic – than Atheist).

    There are some incredibly religious characters within my Lorien Trust faction, some more zealous than others. Over the years, I’ve developed a play style for this character that is far different to the original intention (granted, it was a comedy throw away character). That led me to at first revile the worship of a certain deity and then gradually accept the benefits of her worship into my character’s life.

    This has led to some interesting roleplay as the majority of the mages in my faction see “the ancestors” as selfish powerful entities that aren’t worth bothering with. So I’ve gone from nodding my head and agreeing with them whilst paying lip service to a light and fluffy nature ancestor to actively participating in religious rites giving worship to a dark and chaotic ancestor. All through natural character progression.

    The guys that effectively “converted” me, put a lot of time into the development of religious rites and beliefs surrounding an already established religion within the system but in doing so have really made it their own.

    Also interesting is that whilst I consider myself as someone seeking a relevant personal religion, these guys are as diverse as any gaming group. Out of character, some are religious, others atheist and all the different shades between.

  2. “Then a simple thought hit me; gods in a fantasy setting actually exist. They can be seen, communed with, and preform miracles that go beyond the natural.”

    I think that’s really the crux of it. In the real world people can argue and bicker and go to war over what their god did and did not say, and there’s no real authority to appeal to. In the assumed fantasy setting, if two groups disagree on what such-and-such god said, you can just call him over to set the record straight.

    Personally, I’ve always considered this somewhat problematic both from a role-playing stance (as you’ve pointed out) and a story stance. If the gods exist, why doesn’t Pelor simply wipe out all of the undead? Fine, he uses The Faithful to do that for him, but I’m pretty sure he’s got enough power to pull The Faithful’s fat from the frier if they get in a bind, right? The point being, you can’t have it both ways: gods can’t be both accessible and personable AND inaccessible and neglectful (OK, I guess they can, but that’s a seriously dysfunctional deity).

    I ran a Wizard recently who was firmly of the belief that god’s didn’t exist — or, rather, Clerics were little more than Witches or Sorcerers who venerated (as you said) a powerful magical being, but it’s not a “god” any more than a dragon or elemental is a “god.” In games I run, the gods are essentially incommunicado, interpreted and reinterpreted (and misinterpreted) by various communities, with no monumental church saying “THIS is the will of Pelor.” In my games, the characters (NPCs and PCs) and *their* beliefs are what’s important, not the reality of what the gods are and why they choose to do what they do. In fact, that’s kind of left as an open question: are Clerics fueled by divine will, or are they just deluded sorcerers? No one can say and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter (mechanically).

    (This is also why I dislike the “lose your powers” catch on Paladins, because it requires an active judge.)

  3. I think the reason rpg religion is typically disappointing can just be chalked up to the fact that the people who write rpgs aren’t religious scholars or sociologists, they’re game designers. I have a tendency to scrap any game religion and make up my own, which usually differs from culture to culture, though a lot of the archetypes remain the same. One of the ways to think about that is that what matters to the gods (assuming it’s a pantheistic system) is that people act in ways that matter to them, and different cultures are going to have different ideas about the sacred and how to manipulate it. Everyone has a god of magic, but what’s interesting about it is what it means to venerate magic in that culture, and what the role of magic is.

    Having real, accessible deities does bring about a lot of philosophical problems like the Problem of Evil, otherwise known as “Why do the good gods let evil happen”, most of which have to be handwaved, but I think there are reasonable solutions, like having limits on the power of the gods. If intervening directly in mortal affairs would mean destroying the world with in the process, and they need the world, then they don’t do it. They work through agents, make servants like angels, and are only accessible through certain means. Why are things like that? Because they are. Any kind of fantasy metaphysics is going to involve a certain amount of “Because I said so” that, while it wouldn’t be acceptable in the real world, is part and parcel of the suspension of disbelief there.

    • Along a similar line as Jim, if intervening directly makes them vulnerable — either because it saps their power for a time or it forces them to take a form that can be assaulted, they’re unlikely to give their enemies that opening. Why do good gods allow evil? Because there are evil gods looking to gain an upper hand, and allowing a small evil (or at least, not directly intervening) will stop a greater evil (or prevent the opportunity for greater evil).

  4. I do agree with you that in many RPGs, religions are quite 1 dimensional however the Religions do serve a purpose, just in most cases they don’t do it very well.

    The object of an RPG is to provide a narrative simulation of life where the players can be someone else, generally more heroic than they are normally, and to generate a story in which they are the key players. The setting for such stories are varied but in the case of fantasy, one of the key elements of traditional fantasy is the way it relates very easily to real life. In order for a fantasy world to be believable, there must be things in it that bear resemblance to real life and religion is actually a very important aspect of fantasy games; even gamers, of whom many are atheists, cannot or would struggle to accept a fantasy world without any religion. Because of our real life knowledge of and interaction with religion, it helps us create a sense of history, it helps to remove ourselves from the modern and immerse ourselves in the quasi-medieval fantasy worlds we’ve created. We know that people in the olden days needed religion to help them make sense of the world that they lived in and fantasy religions can be seen to perform a similar function. We also know that religions, especially dark age and medieval Christianity was obsessed with miracles and divine intervention and because we’re creating a fantasy world we can easily take that one step further and say that the fantasy Gods do grant miracles to their most faithful (i.e. Clerics). Even that is not too much of a stretch. And if we’re having religions and gods, then players will want to be followers of them, which is fine. After all, role playing a Christian-esque priest is just as valid a role play choice as a half orc berserker. You get as much out of playing a character as you’re prepared to put in and a Priest could actually be very interesting to play. Far from creating homogeny, religions can (and should) add character and depth to a world, especially if they are properly detailed.

    The problem with many systems, and D&D is especially guilty of this, is that there is not enough information to really play a cleric well. None of the Dogma that makes religions quite restrictive is ever detailed. The most you get is a brief description of what sort of virtues/concepts that deity champions and an alignment. Occasionally you might get a list of other Gods that a particular God doesn’t like so you can justify kicking off with priests from that religion should you meet them. But these are a far cry from the strictures and schisms of real world religions; it’s not quite the same as the Crusades and Jihads of the real world or the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox schism.

    When you look at how much information there is about any given God in a fantasy setting, it’s easy to see why. Even the most detailed setting would dedicate no more than a few pages about a single God; the “big three” abrahamic religions have entire books dedicated to a single God and from these books all of the rules and rituals are sourced. It would simply be impossible to replicate that in a fantasy setting, especially in a polytheistic setting, where you may have hundreds of Gods, each a separate religion unto itself. It also doesn’t help that although most fantasy worlds are polytheistic, they force a monotheistic view on characters, especially priests, forcing each character to choose one patron God.

    A better way of doing this would be to either create a monotheistic world, with a much smaller number of Gods. Gods could be worshipped regionally or nationally and nations may possibly war with other nations over whose God is best. Each country or region’s god could be wildly different from that of its neighbours (unlike the real world where God and Allah are essentially the same) or they could be different interpretations of the same being (just like life). By having less Gods, more detail can be added to those that exist.

    Alternatively, create polytheistic worlds with many Gods where each God is worshipped only in specific circumstances or at certain times of year. There only needs to be a small amount of information about each God but more information can be offered about how the pantheon works and interacts with each other.

    And one final point on religions in fantasy. Gods should appear infrequently to never at all, with a bias on never at all. When the God appears, faith is diminished with proof, faith is almost the opposite of proof and is the basis of pretty much all religion. Gods appearing in RPGs actually devalues the religion.

    • I would rather go for the monotheistic solution, as it seems the more likely, but I do also have a soft spot for the Norse outlook on gods. They appear to be little more than larger than life and way more awesome people. This being a time when supernatural claims were easily believed. The big difference to modern religions though was that the gods were very rarely prayed to, more just admired.

    • That’s a very thorough analysis, but I think it’s a bit more simple than all that: role-playing as we know it grew from D&D, and D&D grew from Chainmail. Chainmail had healing-class characters called Clerics, and D&D followed suit. I don’t think gods were introduced until the Greyhawk setting, and *those* gods strike me very much as the same as Greek or Norse gods. This makes sense, because Greek and Norse mythology are full of heroes and adventures, and modelling a game of adventure around that same idea is a small leap. But it means you end up with a god of the hearth and a god of rain and a god of wine; rarely did Greek or Norse gods have the kind of dogma or strictures you find in more-modern religions, because they were meant to explain and to comfort; certainly no one was expected to follow Zeus’s example.

      The trick is, the Greek pantheon was a single religion, as was the Norse, and as I expect was the Greyhawk pantheon. What we’re talking about is various religions, and that requires a different kind of structure: modern real world religions typically don’t recognize the gods of other religions (which causes a lot of the friction) or in the case of a fractured religion like Christianity they argue about nuanced details of their god. The D&D gods and religions can be treated this way, but that’s not the default assumption.

      Finally, even in a polytheistic setting I don’t think it’s a problem or “forcing monotheism” for priests or other divine classes to choose a patron deity; the Greeks had priests to Zeus and priests to Apollo, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t recognize the other gods, they simply dedicated their lives to serving one god (and his interests) above others.

      All that being said, I agree with keeping gods out of sight, but not because it decreases faith but because gods didn’t interest me, people do. And I think the interactions of people in terms of religion are more interesting when rational people can have meaningful disagreements on what is true. That’s difficult or impossible if you can just walk into the temple and ask Zeus himself. (There are ways of being able to talk to Zeus but making him an uncooperative or unreliable narrator.)

  5. I have found that gamers are a pretty resilient bunch and will respond well to an interesting change. I’ve run games where there were no known gods in a fantasy setting, where there was one monotheist nation surrounded by polytheist “typical” fantasy places, games where the gods were extremely limited in their ability to interact with the material world – but still real, and games where the gods had been lost and were all trapped in the human dream realm. Players are adaptable, for the most part, and like a challenge.

    That said, the one-dimensional nature of a lot of religions in gaming has as much to do with “how they are played” as “god of wine, god of storm, god of whatever…” It’s easy to say that you are a disciple of Sword — the god of swift justice — but if you don’t actually act like that, or if it doesn’t mean anything to the people in your society — then of course it gets one dimensional.

    One of the best parts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the portrayal of the Bejoran religion of the Prophets and the way even fairly tertiary characters were shaped by the cultural force of that religion. It was also interesting to see the characters react to the “finding” of their gods in the wormhole, and to see the way their religious beliefs interacted with other characters on the show. No, it wasn’t always perfect or consistent (TV show…) but it is a solid template for adding depth to fantasy game religions to make them feel more alive.

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  7. I think that the decision of whether gods should exist in an individual game is very much dependent on two things: The GM and the players.

    Looking at the former, if the GM is able to integrate it into the setting in an interesting and new way which can impact on the game, possibly due to how the players respond to the perceived existence/non-existence of that god, then I would say it can work.
    I think that a god being put in a game just because shouldn’t be the way; I wouldn’t put a llama in one unless said llama was going to be a plot-specific llama. Or unless it would be a useful antagonist. Probably not.

    Then we have the latter. No matter how much effort a GM puts into ensuring that the included deity is well developed and will have far-reaching consequences across the campaign, there is always going to be the possibility that the players are going to entirely ignore it’s placing or, even worse, accept it as part of the scenery and leave a potentially dynamite plot thread untouched.

    I think what I’m trying to say (if, indeed, I’m trying to say anything) is that I don’t believe that there is a necessity for religion in games, though if well developed there can be a place for it.

    • “accept it as part of the scenery”

      Actually, I think both gods and llama can make for good scenery. It doesn’t have to be capital-i Important if it adds a bit of color to the setting. Belloc, god of lakes, may never have an impact on the plot, but the existence of his shrine in town shows that lakes are somehow important to these people (and it doesn’t have to go further than that).

  8. Interesting post!

    I tend to take the view that the setting becomes fluid once the game is in motion and any structures such as religions or governments need to evolve along with the events of the campaign. Using the experiences of real world churches can inform us here, and schisms, splinters, struggles for control between charismatic leaders, interpretations and reinterpretations of dogma, social shifts, and the rise of both liberalism and conservatism in a society will all force the organizations presented in the game to redefine themselves, gods or no gods.

    In addition, what I particularly enjoy considering as a foundation point is that no really understands their gods, and their gods rarely understand them. Keeping the questions of our own world’s theists and atheists intact in the game world is essential, I believe. Just because a god or its avatar may manifest does not mean you get to ask it a question, rate an answer, or even have the capacity to comprehend the ineffable point of view of a deity were you to get one.

    Even jovial and human-seeming deities like Thor can be represented in this layered way in play if the religion becomes important to the story and the characters. It is not different than the layers of a mystery, or the bureaucratic perils of government. As the story deepens, so are more things made to seem different.

    Thanks for sharing. This was refreshing~

    • I agree with the first point, as far as the setting and organizations being fluid; I actually think that’s a must at some point, just to keep up with the consequences of character actions.

      I think I touched on your second part in my response to Shorty, the long and short of it being: if you can actually see and interact with your god, but he either ignores you, provides inconsistent responses, or never makes sense, how long can a religion around the guy reasonably last?

      • It can reasonably last thousands and thousands of years, for thousands of individual reasons. Ultimately, it will persist as long as the regular adherent buys the line that the guy who runs the local temple is selling. There is a lot of weight behind the concept so wonderfully portrayed by Wayne and Garth when they fell before their deity proclaiming, “We’re not worthy!” The disconnect which follows in that scene, where the two understand every word that is said, but cannot grasp what is going on fits this all nicely as well.

        Not everyone realizes that they do not grasp certain concepts. Not everyone realizes that their organization is not actually following the real party line. Not every deity is really who its worshippers think it is. Not every deity cares that much how a church is run, just so long as it is mutually beneficial…. or beneficial to them and the priests can keep that going.

        In dark times people rediscover faith. In good times, people grow fearful of losing what they have gained. Some never give thought to these concepts at all. All of this can be reflected in an in-game religion, and those religions can grow from pantheons in a manual into deeply nuanced elements of your developing setting~

      • And that’s all true. But it also relies on assumptions about how remote the local temple is from other adherents of the faith, and how much one god cares that another may be masquerading as him.

        There are basically two points to make. First, a scheister can string along a community only in as far as that community is isolated, so that no one can notice the discrepancy. This is different from real-world situations because we’re assuming someone has a red-phone connection to Zeus, so the scheister can’t deny rightful authority once he’s been called out. That’s not to say you can’t have an evil priest taking advantage of his flock, but the tenets of the faith will eventually have to align with what Zeus actually says (since he’s actually saying it).

        Second, it’s true the the god a people worships isn’t necessarily who they believe it to be, the false god’s ability to continue the con relies on Zeus’s inability to notice him (again, a matter of isolation) or Zeus’s apathy toward setting the record straight (apathy I think unlikely; even if he doesn’t care about a few dozen more worshipers, he might have a problem with people doing some other god’s bidding in his name).

  9. Well, what I meant was more along the lines of different regions tend to develop different ways of doing things and even in churches with very aggressive quality control those little differences matter and make a difference on a personal level, but are insignificant beyond that. Regional variations in the same faith can even manifest in the same city, and the deity’s opinions on the differences may never reach most ears.

    I also wasn’t suggesting impersonation by one deity of another so much as saying that a group of people might see their deity as a protector and father figure, when actually it sees itself as a being of justice. Equally, a group may be following in the footsteps of a priesthood whose ancestors were hoodwinked by a being that is willing to be whatever is necessary to attract followers.

    The key point for all of this is how to support an interesting set of religions in a game in which they are a desired element.

    • OK, yeah; I think we may just be talking about different levels of variation. I like a setting where two churches devoted to Zeus could go to war against each other, for example, and that seems implausible if Zeus is around to say who’s right.

      • Very true!

        …although a campaign where a glimmer of understanding could be gleaned about what makes that kind of internal conflict possible and then acted upon could be fantastic~

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  11. This has been a very enlightening read, both the original post and the ensuing commentary. I’m running an AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign in which Corellon has risen from the dead. My players have been interacting with the returning priesthood, mostly Feywild elves etc, and helping them to clean out an old Corellon temple. What they don’t know is that Corellon is risen as a mindless god-corpse, by Leira, the goddess of illusion and lies. The entire priesthood is hoodwinked, some of their spells are acting strangely (for example, a Light spell has a 50/50 chance of being a Darkness spell), and they have this weird curse where every truth they speak is taken as a lie, and every lie they speak is taken as a truth.

    They’ve chosen to believe that this is some divine tribulation enacted upon them as a test of faith, and that Corellon will see them right in the end. The truth/lie thing has also caused them to develop an internal language called doublespeak (shades of 1984), which has further served to isolate them from the rest of the world. It’s also turning them all into adept liars, which plays nicely into Leira’s hands, and the downward spiral is accelerating to the point where my players are starting to suspect some things. Theories rage across the gaming table. Some of my players believe that I’ve cloned Corellon, and the clone is an opposite/evil version, while others believe the whole thing is a money/power scam by the priesthood. It’s a challenge GMing this weirdness, and this article has given me some food for thought about how to further develop the priesthood’s behaviour.

  12. I think the trouble started when they gave the gods hit point way back in Deities and Demigods. 🙂

    A fantasy game based on western medieval culture needs religion and needs a dominant Church. The farther you stray from that, of course, the more you can change that.

    I recommend ignoring the gods themselves and concentrating on their faiths.

    re: coexisting of religions. Look to the east for alternatives. Hinduism in a major world religion with no governing body and at the same time it governs so much of daily life thanks to its caste system. It has its holy books, inspired writings, holy men and charlatans. It’s an excellent template. Much of the history of India is a clash between a polytheistic culture and the monotheistic Muslims who conquered the northern half of the country then lost it to a foreign power. There’s a campaign right there.

    China also makes for an interesting example.

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