Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Distant Mirror of Fantasy Religion

Growing up, there were three topics my mother, the Southern Lady, instructed me to avoid in polite company: money, politics, and religion. Like much of the rest of her advice, I spent a good chunk of my life ignoring her missive (often proving her right), but not in gaming. Except for the occasional lapse of passion, I have tended to studiously avoid those hot buttons with my fellow gamers.

However, today we are going talk about religion; how it plays in our campaign worlds and how its shape in those worlds often reflects our own attitudes and approaches to the subject.

Last night, over a glass of cheap Portuguese wine (or three) I hunkered down to read M.A.R. Barker's essay “Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit.” It's a thoughtful 28-page piece arguing against the usual hodgepodge, sloppy introduction of gods, mythos, and religion into fantasy rpg campaigns. Barker, fortunately, also spends a good chunk of the article getting at the range of questions a world builder can and should ask to have a deeper approach. (The essay is available here for the slightly too-high price of $4).

One observation he makes--which jives with my own recent thought train about how our gaming can often be a distant mirror of the world we experience—is that: “both science-fantasy fiction and fantasy role-playing games are created by and for people of THIS time and THIS generalized Western European heritage...It has to be underlined again and again that we are creatures of our own cultures, bound by them, limited by them, and unable to produce anything that really transcends them.”

While I bridled and got huffy a little at the cultural determinism of that statement, it did produce one of those little cartoon light bulb over the head moments.


Yes, I can imagine and enjoy even the seemingly alien religions of exotic settings (cough, cough, Tekumel), but my own worlds' religions mirror sometimes closely, sometimes distantly my own attitudes about things supernatural. When I think about it, the Hill Cantons are firmly in the former camp.

See I was raised a good American cafeteria Catholic. My family slogged its way to a mass every odd Xmas or Easter and tended to pick and choose what it followed and didn't. Settling into adult life, I have tended to bounce back and forth between a skeptical agnosticism and an appreciation (if somewhat heretical) of the solace of the Church. Add in a Special Lady Friend who is Jewish and a failed attempt to write a novel about the Hussites, then you get something of the vague ballpark that is my spiritual life.

Now back to the HC. Vaguely renaissance Counter-Reformation Catholic Church check. Heretical movements in said Church check. Looming cosmic chaos check. Hosts of cosmological add-on bits and pieces taken what I had been reading that year check, check, and check.

Now here's where the strange twists--also part and parcel of my spiritual ballpark--weave in. I have often described the cosmological fabric of the campaign to be something like: imagine if Jack Vance wrote a Lyonesse-style fantasy about Bohemia in the mid-renaissance. Remember in Vance's work, religious doctrine is often treated like he treats most human mores, he exaggerates their absurdities mostly for comic and satirical effect (mostly gently).

Vance also tends to stretch the fabric even when working with an-almost historical setting, alongside early medieval Christianity in Lyonesse you have a crazy quilt of historical pagan and utterly fantastic religions. It's hodgepodge, but hodgepodge that works alongside that reoccurring theme.

Thus while the Supernal Orthodox Temple of the Puissant Sun Lord has a (mostly off-stage) trace of menace with its monopoly on gunpowder (thanks to Piper's Lord Kalvan) and the intellectual life of the lands outside the Weird, it is mostly an institution characterized by an inward obsession with layers and layers of absurd-seeming theological differences.

The players have helped co-create and perpetuate this through most of the life of the game, most notably Desert Scribe whose fiddly scholar of a character, Mandamus, who feels confident enough to extemporize about this or that element. Confident because he knows that I will play along to that spontaneous creation with great relish (I think).

In one exchange, we follow the lively disputes of the many temple schools on the correct way to make the circular sign of Sol Invictus: whether it's three fingers moving in a clockwise fashion with a pinky flourish at the end, four moving in counter-clockwise sans flourish, or as the ultra-orthodox demand with the whole hand. In another whether the Sun Lord's chariot has two or four wheels. To which Brad's now-dead Cugel character retorted incredulously with “now you just are talking about a cart.” I can barely choke back the laughter at the table.

There is more to set out here to bolster the close mirror case as they stand-in for interlocking pieces of my own mental architecture: the bickering heretical sects of the Morning and Evening Star societies who follow the spurned female deity; the heavy themes of astronomical happenings and numerology; the world-weary pathos of the older, forgotten gods, etc. But I think you get the drift.

Maybe this rings all wrong for you out there. Maybe your own campaign's approach to religion doesn't reflect the idea sets you trundle around in your head in the slightest. Maybe this navel-gazing just bores you full stop.

Or does it? Do you get beyond the bounds of your own time and place or is it a mirror reflecting some piece or the other of your life?


  1. My campaign's church is a slightly tweaked version of Christianity - no Messiah, but a revelation, a mother and child, a holy protector and prophet, a traitor who founded the competing Eastern Church. It is set in an interregnum between prophesied empires, when the nature of the coming Fifth and Last Ruling Race of Man, the Iron Kindred, is hotly debated and dogmatized.

    There's more history/philosophy of religion than personal experience though; my parents were an agnostic and a fairly conventional Episopalian. If that answers your question :)

  2. I like interesting religions in games, especially if they challenge modern assumptions of faith.

    Though in my current campaign, the gods, most of them anyway, are dead. Religion still flourishes however.

  3. I do have fun extemporizing (i.e., bullshitting) about the background, and I enjoy the give-and-take about the Fourth Dynasty of the Hyperborians, reform vs. orthodox sun-god worship, the Lady Tyche, or what have you. I'm glad you let me have a little input into the campaign background, whether it's religion or something else (such as the Black Lotus Society) -- although when we start doing this, our wives (at least mine) look at us with bemusement, irritation, or some combination thereof.

    I think such intricate detail about an in-game institution (religious or otherwise), right down to the hair-splitting, is not just reflective of the here & now, but indicative of human nature.

  4. I think I have learned more about your life, Chris, on your blog this week then I did in my years of gaming with you. Lol.

    It has been years since I last was a DM so I can't speak directly to this but I did play for a while in a campaign with a serious Celtic influence. The DM was pretty into Celtic neo-paganism so it definitely had a heavy personal vibe. I liked the heart he put into that game it added something.

  5. My campaign world and I are 180 degrees out of synch. In my game world the gods are real and while baffling, remote and mind-blowingly alien at times, they do indeed actively move the levers of the Universe.

    As for me, religion has generally meant very little to me. I see it as a construct of people and therefore reflective of how people act, think and feel more than some divinely inspired thing. I accept that the Universe may have an architect or architects, but I'm damned if I know what He, She or They were really on about.

  6. I just hand-wave that shit and go with ubergeneric pantheonism...the one time I actually implemented a legitimate religion in-game, based on the Catholic Church, one of the players complained endlessly about it. So, you get Zeus and Odin and whatever.

    I remember reading some religious paper that kept talking about "pantheism" when they clearly meant "patheonism". I mentioned this, pointing out that pantheism is more akin to monism or animism, not whatever it was the writer was talking about. The writer in question grew angry and said I was "splitting hairs" and was also mistaken about my use of terminology. Chris, your mama was right: don't talk about religion with people because they're frequently uneducated-stupid about it.

  7. Mine's about as far from my personal religious experience as you can probably get; I've got a pantheon of Elder "gods" based around an All-mother and Her eldest offspring, who tend to represent dangerous and chthonian aspects of nature (both human and the sort that produces spring rains and summer hurricanes) while the god-gods are (mostly) very much terrestrial beings trying to craft a new and better society.

    Actually, put that way, I think my gods reflect my political attitudes much, much more than my religious ones. ;p

  8. I'm usually not a huge fan of either campaign settings or fiction that exaggerates negative aspects of religion for comic effect. This may well stem from my personal respect for spirituality, even if the people in my life follow a different religion from my own.

  9. In Urutsk, I am saying something I feel is important on the subject, but folks have never liked what I had to say other than it made for an interesting mythos. > weak smile <

  10. the thing to keep in mind though, is while you might have an incredibly indepth idea for some deep theme using religion... well if your players aren't into it, then it's going to go nowhere. Sometimes you have to swim in the shallow waters whether you want to or not.

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

  11. @Roger
    "It is set in an interregnum between prophesied empires, when the nature of the coming Fifth and Last Ruling Race of Man, the Iron Kindred, is hotly debated and dogmatized."

    That actually sounds pretty intriguing, have you written about this?

    "Though in my current campaign, the gods, most of them anyway, are dead. Religion still flourishes however."

    Do you have divine magic? How does that work? In the HC divine magic is something of a mystery and its a toss up if the gods exist and if they do what their true nature is.

    I could write a whole post about the truly inspired bullshiting at our table. Hey...

    @James C
    Interesting, well there's a point against my point.

    Again as above the ambivalence of my setting though mirrors my own. There were funny moments in the first phase of the campaign in Austin where one of the cleric PC followers of the Morning Star Society was arguing with a devoutly atheist NPC thief, the Black Ratter, about the self-evidence of the gods through divine magic. A funny exchange that I can't do justice to here (especially after more of that wine).

  12. @Brad
    My mother is frequently right, and she has the social grace not to rub it in. Too much.

    "Actually, put that way, I think my gods reflect my political attitudes much, much more than my religious ones."

    That is what I am getting on about. It's not just about your religious views per se, but our worldviews in general that get wrapped into our creations--even if its subtle enough that we don't recognize them all the time. I have giant dollops of my politics and cultural prejudices mixed into the setting at every turn.

    I can get that and respect it too. I was just trying to pry a little under my own lid and get at what was pushing my own ideas.

    I think that that drive is important, it infuses your work with a deeper sense of personal importance. And that's a good thing, as you get the impression that it is the same with MARB and Greg Stafford.

    Side note: I think it was way rotten how people reacted on your own blog about your expression of your spiritual beliefs a few months back. Shameful.

  13. ckutalik: Thank you for both of those. :)

    The Glorantha 2e was a wonderful early example to me of what a dedicated setting could produce. If I'd been more into BC(E) history at the time, it may have sucked me in completely.

    As for the other: Not surprising, just disappointing.
    --Thanks again.

  14. Really interesting question. My in-game religions tend to be effectively cardboard cutouts of a massive polyglot of religions. Except occasionally something comes out that's a bit eerie. The eerie stuff always seems to involve masks, which definitely comes, in my case, from Ancient Greek religion (the real stuff, not the nice little myths everyone learns in middle school). I don't know whether that touches on my psyche or on my views of organized religion or on my views of actual religion, but I can, at least, isolate where the imagery comes from: the Cthonic blood religions of pre-Classical Greece and the tragedy plays of Classical Greece.

    So, I guess, it goes beyond the bounds of my own time, but still based firmly in Western culture, to answer the question you posed.

  15. The religions in my games tend to resemble something like Shinto mixed with the European grimoire tradition. Or Greco-Roman religion crossed with Voudon. Or this processed through the Scots-Irish-Manx-Welsh-Cornish-Breton fairy-faith. Or all of that. At least, that's what I try to get them to look like. It's been that way ever since I understood what Gloranthan religion was like, and I wanted to do that.

  16. This is an old, old thread. Just in case anyone's still watching:

    I am not religious or spiritual at all, and that lack gets in the way both of my world building and my work as a historian - I have a hard time thinking about religious reasons for people doing things, I tend to look for "underlying" economic or self-interest or whatever reasons, as if those were somehow less learned and more fundamental. I know, I'm an idiot.

    So I tend to understand the religions I do include in games as purely social constructs. And I am not wedded to pseudo-Christianity at all: if I think it's worth adding a religion it'll be a royal/imperial cult like the Church of Ming or something based off Balinese ancestor worship or spirit mediumship or Kami or something, perhaps because I want the players to have to work at it as much as I will have to - the worst thing for a game, I think, is when a player believes they have more familiarity with the world than the DM.

    @timeshadows: I would love to know what you said that got such a reaction. I promise not to jump down your throat regardless of what you say - I'm actually having a hard time imagining doing that to anybody who is sharing their beliefs.

    1. One thing I have noticed is that my views about religion (in the campaign, real life is roughly the same other than the fact we are members of a Reform Synagogue) have shifted a little.

      The more we play, the more detail accumulates about the HC in general. The recent importation of the Catholic cargo cult reminded my how much my descriptions of the dominant local religion have shifted away from pseudo-Christianity and more into an entity in its own right.

      There is still, however, a very large whiff of social construction and a great yawning question about the actual nature of the gods in the campaign.

  17. @Richard: I merely cited text in Genesis and other books, and thanked G-d for the blessing of having been able to go to Minneapolis to visit Jeff Berry and the Tekumel folks there. At the time, I had a feedback option, and I actually received something like 23 negative reactions from readers. There were a few comments, too, which I was thankful for, as the individuals at least had the courage to attach their IDs to their displeasure. It seems I removed the post. Here is a subsequent mention:

    Thanks for your interest.

  18. It was an ugly little incident. I really dislike this attitude you hear from readers a little too often about ONLY posting gaming related matters. We are--or should be--rounded individuals and politics, religion, and other weighty matters will come to bear even if we pretend to never address them.

  19. @timeshadows @chris: wow, people complained about that? I have to say, that has a pretty chilling effect on discussion.

    I've been enjoying reading a bit about Chris as an author/person, not just about the games. Which are, I suppose, social games? I guess I prefer my socialising to be with people I know, to some extent..

    Thanks for responding here. I'm sorry you got grief for saying something personal.

  20. @Chris: Thanks. :)

    @Richard: Thanks for caring. :)

  21. I'm trolling the net drumming up interest for my novel in progress, The Acts of Simon Magus, and you looked like someone who may find it of interest. It's an epic historical fantasy from the point of view of Christianity's greatest enemy, examining the events and characters responsible for the rise of Christianity and its consequences for the world. It has been an exhilarating trip trying to get inside the mind of people from that time, so different from and so alike ourselves, with an eye to providing a unique perspective on modern issues such as abortion ( ) and same-sex passion and repression ( ). Here is a draft for my upcoming Indiegogo campaign, including video and link to some readings. All comments and suggestions welcome!