Saturday, June 4, 2016

Religious Cosmology and the Dungeon World

This post was inspired by the very first comment on this blog. Yay and thank you for your interest.

When I write, 'Dungeon World' I do not mean in this context just Dungeon World. I am referring to all roleplaying game settings and the way people roleplay the religions in their worlds.

In some settings and games it is pure mechanics. This amount of prayer provides this amount of spells, blessings etc. Although rules and special proficiencies and skills exist for many systems unless they directly affect play in some way they are often ignored. This is a mistake if you enjoy non-combat roleplaying as the marriage or funeral of a character is a wealth of opportunity for roleplaying.

Many settings assume a pseudo-medieval setting glossed over with modern sensibilities. For most groups that is fine but it is vanilla. Vanilla with an even 'blander' vanilla sauce. Those systems generally have a generic set of gods and godlets. Again, these godlings of various stripes have an area (or two or three) of  specialization or interest but their primary function in the game is either as a mechanic for granting players their spells or as a McGuffin, "Fetch me the Undying Eye of the Stormy Skies unworthy mortals!"

No religion is paramount in power or strength over another. No religion is based off a real religious system (a notable exception to this was GURPS Fantasy that included Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in their Yrth setting, I have the first edition and it is an excellent source book).

This is preferred for many reasons not the least because modern sensibilities prefer that belief. No one wants to offend anyone (and rightly so) and many are afraid of bringing modern issues into what should be a fun and inclusive time. However, when you are only serving diet sodas no matter how many flavors you have there is nothing there but fizz and a little flavor.

Real religions are to fiction and the narrative of games heady stuff. There is a reason that the god of poetry was born of mead brewed by gods and giants. Real religions used in a game setting can lead to roleplaying and inspiration that is unmatched.

As I mentioned in my comment, if I may quote myself,
That is the standard for many. In my own games I tend towards the Poul Anderson, 'The Broken Sword'. Where all myths and creatures are real. I also follow the religious system for NPCs (PCs are free to follow whatever they like).
In 'The Broken Sword' Christianity is a real and vital force opposing the older pagan world. It is pushing elves, dwarves, trolls, and other mythical creatures further and further from the world of men. It hasn't yet triumphed but it will. The wisest of the elves, trolls etc. see that and acknowledge it. They know their time is ending. For my players this does not create a dilemma. Player characters are important to me and have all the agency that the game can allow them. I also differ from the great Poul Anderson in that I allow whole races of mythical beings to choose to ally themselves with God. It preserves their place in the game and makes for in game conflict. So there are Christian elves and elves that in pride will choose to dwindle or go into nothingness. And that's okay, because it is a real conflict. Also, some are simply too steeped in evil to ever change. Which is good because who wants to try to convert every tribe of malignant dwerrow they meet?

It does pose players a choice. There is one God that can and will triumph in Europe (whether Allah does in Africa and West Asia is left open to speculation). Non-player character believers do not use spells to Apollo or Ra to stop a vampire, they use a cross or holy water. They use prayer for real benefit (if not always answered in the manner they would like or can see) and their society is bounded by these precepts.

While pagan areas exist and will for long centuries, for now Christianity is expanding. The old gods are still around and will answer player's requests (if it is within their powers) but even they know their time is coming.

This of course, is not the only way or even the best way to play roleplaying games. It is rare in that there is one True religion (in the areas where play takes place). There is a real God (amid the godlets, godlings and demigods) and by extension real evil. Yes, Satan will really answer you if it interests him (which is part of the plot of 'The Broken Sword').

So folks, how do you treat religion in your game? Are the gods just mechanical rules or does your cleric perform weddings, funerals and baptisms? Will Odin, Apollo, or Saint Michael answer your players' call for aide?

Let me know what you think in the comments. That way I can prove I am not crazy and just talking to myself.

33 comments:

  1. This is my current setup:

    I use an approach based on Fritz Leiber's Lankmar novels.

    The gods are petty beings (more like superheroes) that players tend to rightly ignore except when a useful patron comes along. All the gods were formerly humans or demihumans and their power is based on the belief of their followers.
    If there cult dies they vanish and the fate of "dead gods" is "unknown" I have left it mysterious for now. The gods seem to be an unintended byproduct of Elysium which is Gygax's (my current Dungeon World) "life pole" like the Underworld is a "death pole" All this is really stolen from Leiber.

    The real evil powers are Lovecraft's aliens pretending to be "gods" who want to destroy the universe. The weak gods oppose these beings. Lovecraft monsters are in general referred to as "demons".

    There are higher powers(Lord of Necessity, Fate and the Lady of Luck) that are sometimes mentioned and a vague creator. Death is the least of these, but the only one the characters interact with. He is lord of the Underworld and the Devils are the jailors. All souls go to him at death, but are simply stored there peacefully until the end of the world. He opposes the Lovecraft demons.

    I've been very open that I based on this on Lieber and have had no problems from my players (who often enjoy making up somewhat silly gods if playing clerics). My earlier world of Ares had a very close version to this and worked as well. I tended to use Conan style minor pagan gods (Mithras, Triton, Bast, Robigas)who usually mean well but need help from the heroes.

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    1. This is a great example of why you do not want to attract the attention of the gods. Especially petty ones.

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    2. Yes, that is a Leiberan theme; as a man who had studied in the seminary he enjoyed spoofing pagan gods and medieval saint cults. Fahfrd's god is a great parody of Conan's Crom for instance.

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    3. He was an interesting guy with with a huge impact on the hobby. By the way please feel free to spell Fahfrd any way you please on this blog. He can neither read nor write and doesn't even agree with his best friend as to the spelling of his name.

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    4. A real Leiberan scholar! I just wish I could spell...



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  2. Sorry for the spelling errors, etc. Once posted I discovered I couldn't edit.

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  3. Also, if you forgive a little religious talk. Allah is simply the Arab word for "God". Muslims see Allah as "God" in a very real sense and the idea that the Allah is actually some sort of pagan moon god is very insulting to Muslims and a relatively recent Christian fundamentalist idea not supported by historians.

    The older Catholic and Orthodox idea of Islam as a Christian heresy has a much better pedigree and at least shows the common ground between the two faiths. I assume you have no Islamic players who would otherwise really like your system; they would simply insist that Islam is fated to win.

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    1. No forgiveness is necessary. This is a blog post devoted to religious subjects in the roleplaying game world.

      Christ is the defining difference in the Christian world of the Dark Ages and Medieval times to Islam. So Christian = the True religion in this context.

      The reason that Christianity is the one True religion in this example is because that is the way it is in the book 'The Broken Sword'. No comparisons to the real world are intended.

      An interesting game could be made with either all Abrahamic religions being true (which would certainly surprise and upset most adherents) or that any one of them is true while the rest false. In game terms it is simply a different dynamic than most rpgs.

      In my game it also gives the elves etc another option.

      As for modern views of any of these religions in the real world they do not touch at any point.

      At no time did I ever say that Islam was moon-goddess worship or that it was not one of the three major Abrahamic religions.

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    2. No, your mention of Allah as a different God provoked my mention of it. I just find this fundamentalist attack on Islam to be without much merit; the ISIS Islamics would behead me for other reasons.

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    3. Yes beheading is a final way to win an argument of any type although it might not have the same persuasion for those not immediately subject to the thrust of the argument.

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  4. By the by if you really want to upset Muslims you can go with the minor historical theory that Islam started as Christian sect that eventually redefined itself as a new religion later.

    I don't buy it but at least it has some historical backing.

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    1. No I would not try to upset Muslims or anyone else. Especially not over a game where we should all be having fun. If I were to use Islam as a major force in my game world it would certainly be more informed by what its own scholars and adherents believe. I can ask my relatives or neighbors if I need clarification on those points. ;>)

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    2. Very wise. I tend to keep real world religions out of the game for this reason; I like to think the values of the game are broadly humanistic. Unless you like Cthulhu...

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    3. Yes if you like Cthulhu the thrust of the religion is usually 'To Serve Man' than 'The Rights of Man'. Seriously, though that is part of the reason I wrote this post. As I said religions are heady stuff and can add to your games. You must be willing and sensitive enough to navigate those waters. You will not always be successful but I think it is worth the work. Also avoiding it is a good idea if you don't want to get bogged down in it. I am very much 'anything that is fun and rolling dice' kind of guy when it comes to rpgs.

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    4. We can all oppose Cthulhu together!

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  5. As a Christian it's always disturbed me to see RPGs play divine powers as a thing that is taken for *granted,* that the gods (mind the small g) are divine candy dispensers, and in this instance, the candy is power (portfolio/ sphere specific), granted to the priest, cleric, druid, ranger, or paladin representing the god. The problem with that is that the gods may have "off" days. They may have just been defeated by another god elsewhere in the world, lost believers, or the like and so need to hold back a portion of their power that they normally would be able to give out, thus the spells they cast aren't as powerful, aren't the ones they ask for, and so on. On the other hand, they may have had an astounding victory over another deity, and thus are more free with the favors that they grant. But what happens if the person in question isn't doing the will of their god? How would they know without direct communication? Even if they DO get communication, how do they know the source is reliable and not some extra planar entity or the avatar of another god tricking them, which is a very real possibility in a world of magic, multiple dimensions, and multiple gods.

    RE: Christianity. The typical type of a thing that Christians say is that God works in mysterious ways and that we can't know the mind of God in any situation. It's a thing of basically God will act or He will not, but we do not know the method, the timing, nor the outcome of His act, and we won't know until after the fact (and sometimes not even then, because we will assume the outcome was due to our own skills or ineptitude). Another point about the Christian paradigm is that God will only do what He wills. While we can search God's word, the Holy Bible, we can't be guaranteed to know that our interpretation of the word(s) are in fact correct, which is why we have so many denominations, and even some of those, others count as being outright spiritual fraud such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.

    Now magic is another story altogether. In both the webcomic Tales of the Questor, and L.E. Modesitt Jr.'s Recluse (and to a lesser extent the Soprano Sorceress) series what the origin of what most people call magic are actually known, but difficult to describe forces due to the very nature of language that are "behind the scenes" in the natural world, but the special effects are identical to that which we assume is magic.

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    1. My Leiberan/Lovecraft system is an attempt to avoid that. "God Stalk" by Hodgell did a decent job in her world with the same issues. I also liked the SF Coldfire trilogy. The gods are humorous to remind people it is a game and I'm not trying to promote paganism.

      Another way would be to simply not have clerics or gods,like Middle Earth or Conan. I mean J.R.R.T. is devout but trying hard not to preach and Conan's gods may not be real. The Conan demons certainly are!

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    2. I've always found the way that religion is portrayed in rpgs to be charitable weak and uninformed. They are religious simply for a mechanical and stylistic difference between the cleric and the wizard.

      I picked a setting that emphasizes the difference between the way rpgs see religion and historical people did partially for that reason, partially because I love the book.

      Player characters get all the advantages that they would normally get mechanically in the game. NPCs are different in that they get advantages that you would see in a novel or in folklore or Biblical accounts. A healer doesn't run out of 'healing' any more than Christ runs out of healing. A crofter who holds up his worn wooden cross before a vampire gets the same benefit (if God wills it) that any paladin with a bejeweled cross of gold would. So this campaign world is much safer for a believer who follows the beliefs of Christianity if they are an NPC or not.

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    3. I agree that D&D never did religion very well and fell into a host of silly problems with believers that have haunted RPGs ever since.

      D&D really started with the idea of Cleric as a parody of the barbarian "Catholic" Dark Ages prelate who really was a bandit chief and Van Helsing. The timing of the hobby coincided with the "moral panic" of Satanism in the early Reagan years. Between that and Tom Hanks Mazes and Monsters made D&D "cool" in a way nothing else could but really frightened believers needlessly.

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    4. I have the same complaint with vending machine deities. It's worse in certain systems (not necessarily even pen and paper RPGs, but fantasy strategy games and the like.) For example, accumulating "faith points" to take certain actions (with defined prices, of course) without any regard to the deity's preferences. Or for that matter, the concept of having a measurable relationship with a supernatural intelligent being. (OK, sure, you have relationships displayed as a number in all sorts of computer games, but still.) Bonus minus points if the deity somehow gets power from the paid faith points, and is ergo less an divine being worthy of any kind of worship but rather a cosmic arbitrageur.

      I'd actually just like to see pop culture deities with at least some potential of being worth worship, or at least veneration. Most fantasy religions fall flat because it would be a stretch for even its own devotees to believe.

      My own The API of the Gods is an attempt to get numinous, independent deities into an urban fantasy setting.

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  6. By the by have you seen concepts in Shadow of the Demon Lord. The real system is hidden; everybody is falling for a con game invented by the fey to keep human soul weak. Angels are really evil.

    Interesting. A bit like White Wolf's God Machine.

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    1. No I have not. I'll have to look at it.

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  7. To UnknownJune 6, 2016 at 8:38 AM

    I would be interested in seeing your religion system. Your comment covers most of the things I have issue with in rpg religions. I like your analogy of the vending machine god. In fact, that could be used as part of a fantasy setting. There was a television series that showed the mechanical 'miracles' of ancient Greek temples a mixture of that and monetized actual power/miracles might make for a good villainous cult or religious system.

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    1. This is Unknown. Google dropped my name for some unknown reason. (groan.)

      My goal in the API of the Gods was to have deities that programmers/general nerds could feel genuine awe towards. It's never explained what the Gods actually are. It's only apparent that they are far more intelligent than the humans, and transcend the world. The main character believes that they are some kind of superintelligent AIs in the computer than runs the universe.

      Nonetheless, there's problems with his theory, because of the nature of the magic system (a deconstruction of the vending machine God). Magic is done by ordinary computer programs linked to the titular API of the Gods, but they only work by using Ichor, divine blood. (The question being, if they are AIs, how do they bleed?) Further, drinking Ichor makes one slightly divine. (Eucharistic metaphor!)

      On a side subject, I think vending machine religion can work under certain circumstances. I've thought of a system where some particularly high gods (read: world-crossing) have a kind of automatic prayer granting system, since they can't pay personal attention. (Talk about Celestial Bureaucracy) It's just not the standard religion of myth, which I think most fantasy works attempt.

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    2. The story sounds fascinating. I'd like to read it when it's finished. What causes the Ichor? What is it really? Mysteries to be explored.

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    3. It's actually out!

      https://www.amazon.com/API-Gods-Matthew-Schmidt-ebook/dp/B017UUVX62?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B017UUVX62&linkCode=as2&linkId=KTBOG72YNJ3G2BK3&redirect=true&ref_=as_li_tl&tag=marksheacom-20

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    4. Another interesting set of ideas is Bicameralism (the philosophy of "two-chamberedness").It is a hypothesis in psychology that argues that the human mind once assumed a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking", and a second part which listens and obeys—a bicameral mind.

      The term was coined by Julian Jaynes, who presented the idea in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, wherein he made the case that a bicameral mentality came to be the normal and ubiquitous state of the human mind until as recently as 3000 years ago.

      Jaynes uses governmental bicameralism as a metaphor to describe a mental state in which the experiences and memories of the right hemisphere of the brain are transmitted to the left hemisphere via auditory hallucinations. The metaphor is based on the idea of lateralization of brain function although each half of a normal human brain is constantly communicating with the other through the corpus callosum. The metaphor is not meant to imply that the two halves of the bicameral brain were "cut off" from each other but that the bicameral mind was experienced as a different, non-conscious mental schema wherein volition in the face of novel stimuli was mediated through a linguistic control mechanism and experienced as auditory verbal hallucination.

      The bicameral mentality would be non-conscious in its inability to reason and articulate about mental contents through meta-reflection, reacting without explicitly realizing and without the meta-reflective ability to give an account of why one did so. The bicameral mind would thus lack metaconsciousness, autobiographical memory and the capacity for executive "ego functions" such as deliberate mind-wandering and conscious introspection of mental content. When bicamerality as a method of social control was no longer adaptive in complex civilizations, this mental model was replaced by the conscious mode of thought which, Jaynes argued, is grounded in the acquisition of metaphorical language learned by exposure to narrative practice.

      According to Jaynes, ancient people in the bicameral state of mind would have experienced the world in a manner that has some similarities to that of a schizophrenic. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or "god" giving admonitory advice or commands and obey without question: one would not be at all conscious of one's own thought processes per se. Research into "command hallucinations" that often direct the behavior of those labeled schizophrenic, as well as other voice hearers, supports Jaynes's predictions.

      Jaynes's hypothesis remains controversial.Since his theory as-present does not provide testable predictions for individuals or societies to develop bicamerality, it is scientifically unprovable.

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    5. Matthew Schmidt I will check that out!

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    6. Mark Tygart,
      That is an interesting theory. Interesting that most of the true schizophrenic individuals I know are Native American who until just a couple generations ago lived in a very different world.

      I read a science fiction story many years ago with exactly that premise but I cannot remember much beyond a couple of scenes.

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    7. Just bought API of the Gods. As soon as I finish I will review the book and if I can find the author I'll see if he's willing to give an interview.

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    8. The book you remember is almost certainly "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson. See https://www.amazon.com/Snow-Crash-Neal-Stephenson/dp/0553380958/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1465614014&sr=8-1&

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  8. I haven't spoken to him in years but my dad keeps in touch. I'll ask him. I've never discussed his books with him because I didn't want to sound like a fan boy.

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