Saturday, November 22, 2014

History and Religion in RPG Settings

I think we have all encountered this somewhere in our experience with Roleplaying games. You thumb through the pages of what promises to be an interesting setting, but among the first things to greet you is an extremely lengthy and detailed "history of the world." In addition to being something of a dry read (timelines are never, never fun to read) it's interesting that these generally present theological elements as well. Together, these form two things that tend to annoy me in prewritten settings.

The first issue I tend to take is that history is always so complete, and written from such an absolute standpoint. We have exact dates for everything of importance for everything that has ever happened in the setting, which itself strikes me as weird, as our own history is one in which knowledge is repeatedly discovered, recorded, lost, and rediscovered. As someone who gets really into history in real life, I find it a bit jarring how exact and specific - how good - the record keeping is for all of time for essentially the entire planet is since the dawn of time. Adding to that, it's rarely written in character, from the perspective of any given group of people. 

In real life, history has a massive bias depending on who you talk to and when, who won and who lost. What we remember as a crusade for the holy land, the east remembers as "the Frankish invasion" and paints in much the way we painted the norse raids on churches and monasteries. Rome and the celts are another wonderful example, with history remembering the celts and Gauls as a barbarian rabble and a threat to "civilization," whereas archeology is forced to paint them as having a fully developed and complex society of their own - albeit one with the misfortune to stand between Rome and a substantial amount of silver. 

Clever role players can try to analyze the timeline and try to come up with alternate views based on their characters individual culture, but such attempts always seem forced. Having an official time line both presented and confirmed out of character can take a lot of the perspective out of the game. Which brings me to my next issue: religion. 

Religion in role-playing games is often handled so poorly. This isn't such a problem when the main religion in the game is NotCatholicism as most writers in the western world are at least familiar enough to fake it. However, the further one gets from this basic model the worse it becomes. I can't count how many settings I've come across that present the culture as some kind of paganesq polytheism, but the writers don't seem to understand the basics of how polytheism works as a world view.

In real world polytheisms, there are a whole mess of gods and goddesses, each with their own domains. Individuals within that culture may have an affinity to one god or another in particular, usually based on their vocation (warriors like war gods, farmers like whomever will bless the harvest) but as a whole it is a service-based religion. You go to whomever offers the thing you need at the time. I don't care how much you love Ares, when you're having lady troubles you go to Aphrodite or Hera. The trouble in many RPGs is that rather than treating the gods like a pantheon belonging to the same culture, you wind up with a setup where the various gods have competing churches. This is particularly bad in Forgotten Realms, where in third edition at least, failure to "dedicate" oneself to a specific god meant that you would spend eternity in a kind of purgatory, your soul becoming part of kelemvor's wall. Apparently, if I am a farmer in the realms, it isn't just my vocation - it must also be my religion. 

This setup gets even weirder when the authors begin attributing other monotheistic traits to polytheisms. Very often, you will find a hard push for a given deity to espouse a certain dogma, with different gods within the same pantheon often having contradictory or directly oppositional codes of ethics and dogmas, demands from their followers. Real polytheisms in history don't do this. The overwhelming majority of polytheisms are votive religions. This is the simplest relationship one can have with divinity. I leave you this nice offering in exchange for you either blessing me, or in some cases simply not wrecking my shit. The codes of ethics and values in these societies come from the society as a whole. There may be a mythological basis for it, but that comes from the mythology as a whole. If you're writing a polytheism, you're writing a single coherent religion. Catholicism would have never worked if the idea was that each part of the trinity and every angel and saint had different and contradictory expectations and demands. 

This isn't to say there can't be specific cults with different or contradictory teachings, there are always mystery cults and fringe sects. You simply need to be aware or this when writing and indicate that group B is different than the population at large. 

Much like with the above absolute nature of history, I personally dislike when games mechanically or out of character confirm things about the settings religion. When our out of character official history tells us that the god Zeno created the world, you have directly told the players that the Zenites are right, and that anyone who doesn't acknowledge Zeno is mechanically, objectively wrong. 

Weirder still, when you have a setting that features direct divine intervention and literally god powered divine spells (as opposed to powered by the faith of the caster) you miss a lot of opportunities for interesting role playing. You can't have discussions of faith when deity is a proven and objective fact. You can't disbelieve, or remain a skeptic of a priests claims when they can summon deity at will. You can't have questions about dogma or theological debates, heresies and reformations. The mystery and wonder of religion and the nature and power of faith fundamentally change when you can pick up a phone and get god on the line when need be. 

I honestly understand why many settings are written in exactly the above way. I think a lot of people find the real world so murky and ambiguous that a setting where everything is laid out, clear-cut and definitive is somewhat comforting. There are no grey areas. This is the good guy country because they are backed by the god of good guys and their enemies are the bad guys who were created by the bad god. There are no questions that need to be asked, no ethical quandaries. Just pure heroics. 

And that's absolutely fine. I can understand the appeal. I just find it .. Boring. For me, leaving things ambiguous, up for debate, means giving my character free reign to decide how he relates to the world, what these things mean to him and ultimately what his values are when put to the test. Whenever something is confirmed out of character by the setting, that opportunity feels diminished. 

Just my thoughts on the matter. 

Until next time,


  1. As an example of the way that gods influence real-world polytheist religions and societies, let me talk briefly about an Irish goddess named Brig Ambue. Her name means "Brighid of the Cowless Ones" (a reference to a lack of wealth), and she was associated with the oppressed.

    Now, in Irish law, everything was supposed to be based on an ideal initial state of perfect Justice. This did not always happen to match up with people's lived experience (as happens in any society). Every so often, something would come up and people would realize that an injustice was being committed. As a result, the lawgivers (a branch of the priesthood) would "remember" a story in which Brig Ambue's father would give a judgement that conformed to the way things had been done, but then Brig Ambue would step in and say that was not the right judgement and give the (new) correct one. Of course, all of these stories of Brig Ambue were set in the distant past, so (mythically speaking) the new correct judgement became the way things had always been, but away from which ideal Justice the world had fallen away until her judgement was "remembered".

    To a great extent (though this is not the entirety of their function - I am only dealing with some of the social aspects here, not the spiritual ones)2, the gods of polytheist societies serve the same purposes as a modern Constitution, the writings of "Founding Fathers", rules of debate, bureaucracy, and so on: they provide the authority and structures that allow a society to function. That they also provide spiritual functions is either an argument for gods or against them, depending on your predilections.

    Another thing to keep in mind: polytheists, by nature, don't deny other people's gods. They may not worship them, but they accept that they are something which is influential on those others. Some polytheists may assume that other people's gods are different names for their own, but this is actually not very frequent (the famed Interpretatio Romana, by which other gods were given names of similar Roman gods, actually differentiated between different "Jupiters" and such; the system was mainly to allow other people's gods to fit into the Roman social system that was necessarily imposed under the system of empire).

    Which is my way of saying that I deeply agree with you that polytheism is very poorly presented in most games and game settings.

    1. I don't know why it took me forever to notice this comment, but I sincerely apologize.

      I'm more familiar with the Scandinavian cultures and religion myself, but it's extremely interesting to watch how the religion interplays with the society. One thing that modern readers will often fail to grasp is that in true polytheism, society and religion are both separate and symbiotic. Morality, ethics, and law come from the society itself and the traditions laid down by ancestors and so forth. The concept of sin is almost entirely missing, and is instead replaced with the notion of taboos against your tribe or society. Shame and disapproval, not a guilty soul. In this way, Gods seem to influence social norms not as divine creatures laying down laws of conduct, but as kind of great, great ancestors whose examples we should either live up to or learn from.

      This is remarkably different to the sort of monotheistic religious society you see later in which laws are as they are specifically because God wills it, or what have you.

      The idea of "dogma" is entirely absent from polytheism because the gods ask almost nothing from you in terms of belief. At least in the polytheisms I am familiar with, the religions are orthopraxic, not orthodoxic. It's about correct action, not correct belief. The root of piety is pios - literally "Duty." The actions you owe your ancestors, the gods, and so forth. This almost always amounts to performing the proper rituals and giving offers and sacrifices at the appropriate times.

    2. Exactly. You can see the same general patterns in traditional religions and cultures around the world, from Japan and China to India, Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas. The society defines virtues which the people try to live up to. The gods (or ancestral figures - Cormac Mac Art may give advice on how best to exemplify those virtues, but they don't lay down laws of behavior as you see in most of the extant monotheistic religions.

    3. This does make for an interesting discussion point though. When the rules boil down to "this is the list of god commandments" it is fairly easy and brief to describe the forms and functions of a group.

      When social customs are the result of layers of social expectations, reciprocity, duties and taboos, it can create a real learning curve. This is doubly so when you look at one of the many cultures out there that didn't really see duality in the way we do: good vs. evil as cosmic forces, mind vs body, man as being something other than animal, etc. There is an entire world-view that goes along with the culture, and the big problem with so many fantasy books and settings is that you wind up cutting and pasting the assumptions from one into the other. Churches with lightning bolts where crosses should be and priests of Zeus passing around a collection bowl before mass. You can actually see this in nearly every greek mythology movie or tv show as well, as Hades almost always becomes the stand-in for Satan.. simply because the writers either don't understand the role Hades played in the mythology, or they decided their audience wouldn't and stuck to the familiar.

      So the question becomes: how do you present essentially a new body of traditions and social norms to a group of players without having to write up a twenty page handout on social norms within the campaign?

    4. Welp. Blogger ate my response. The short version includes an apology for the incomplete nature of my previous response, then a mention of Empire of the Petal Throne (where players were dumped into the setting as outsiders and learned by doing) and Pagan Shore (where basics were given by character statistics related to personality, then other aspects were learned in play, such as interactions with the Irish legal system).

    5. I always make it a point to select all / copy my response in these kinds of things before I hit submit for just that reason. Much easier to paste it back if things go awry.

      Pagan Shore and Empires of the Petal Throne are now on my reading list, however. I'll have to acquire them soon.

      I think the "stranger in a strange land" approach is how a lot of games (and even books) handle complex society ideas, as it gives you a means by which to let the player (or reader) learn things as their character learns them. I think this is also why so much of classical fantasy fiction starred a character who was from Earth. The authors were perhaps afraid that a reader wouldn't be able to relate to the setting if they weren't given a familiar face to journey with. I'll be very interested in seeing how Pagan Shore does it, doubly so because while Band of Bastards is somewhat setting agnostic, I know the projects I have in mind down the line are going to be very specifically tailored to certain settings.

    6. It's probably necessary to add, then, that Pagan Shore is the Ireland supplement for Pendragon. If you're familiar with Pendragon's Traits and Passions, then you know generally how basic cultural details are built into the character statistics (different places of origin, down to the "County" - or rather "Tuath" - level, have different modifiers to various Traits and Passions, and so does the setting as a whole).

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