In previous blog posts I said that I was unsatisfied with faith in fantasy, that gods and religions were not being given the treatments they needed to allow for rich and proper roleplay. I don’t believe I was totally correct in this, and my mind has changed somewhat since then. The missing information is not really due to the fault of the writers, and in many cases space has been given to cover a bottom up view of the religion. However, I have come across a few subtle issues that could be the reason for my unsatisfied feeling in fantasy religions.
Gods are often thought of as all powerful and able to do anything they wish, but there are a few rules even they have to follow. Some may argue that in fantasy you can break any law you wish, but it is much better to try and break as few laws as possible. Not only is limitation a great creative engine that forces you to work around problems, but it also helps you establish a world realistic enough that people can relate to it.
Gods need to follow certain universal laws. They may have access to higher laws that supersede lower ones, but they still have rules to follow.
The first is the law of justice. Justice demands that any action be met with the appropriate consequence, be it good or bad. You cannot avoid the consequences of your actions, you will be punished or rewarded for your own deeds. Gods often have the ability to know what the consequences of action are going to be, and therefore may appear to ignore justice at times, but in reality they just have a much higher knowledge of how it works.
The second is the simple physics law that no amount of matter or energy can be created or destroyed. Not even gods should be able to create something from literal nothing. Fantasy writers may be tempted to ignore this, but it is much more interesting to stick to it. You don’t need to explain where the energy or matter comes from though, so it may still appear that gods are creating something from nothing. The reality is that they are simply relying on higher laws to rearrange something that already exists into something else.
Lastly, a god must never break an oath or covenant. Even if a god is extremely evil and is known as a liar, any divinely binding oath must be kept on the god’s end. The reasons have to do with honor and needing it to be perfect in order to maintain a godly status. This is going to be important in the next section when we talk about how gods need to both promise reward and demand action. For now, consider that a defining feature of a god is their divine host and allies. In polytheistic religions this host can be key in maintaining a type of political or military power. If the god breaks their end of a covenant to even one being, the validity of all other oaths and covenants can and will be called into question. If that happens, the god will find that they suddenly lack previously held power with their allies and followers.
If they are gaining any power because of an oath or covenant, then they may very well find they are no longer gods and little better than powerful mortals.
Write ups for gods frequently do not answer one or both of the following questions clearly. Some may even put in material that suggests that the answer is the gods ignores the answer on purpose. Those that are clear sometimes don’t think through the answer to an appropriate conclusion.
What does the god demand of their followers?
What does a god promise for obedience and loyalty?
Both of these must be answered for a god to actually be a god. Why?
In order to attract and maintain allies, and possibly to maintain godly status, promises must be made and kept in regards to a reward for obedience. Nothing, not even loyalty, can be given away for free in the divine realm. Gods must promise something and follow through with that promise. If they only demand obedience, and not reward it, they will find they will not have sufficiently powerful allies in large enough quantities to help them carry out their divine work.
What a god’s work and purpose is is left up to the individual writer, but it should always be extremely important and require only the most loyal and powerful servants to assist them with it. In the mortal realm the demands for obedience are tests of loyalty, lessons on the god’s values, and a forge that prepares followers for divine power of their own.
For mortal followers, this may be the most important part of worship. When divinely bound contracts are made between a mortal and a divine being, important promises are being made on both ends. Mortals may find that they will receive greater power in the next life, or that they are fast tracked up a chain of command. Their obedience in life could also have smaller graces and benefits, but those types of blessings and rewards are going to be more subtle.
Why? Because faith requires doubt, and firm confirmation given too soon to a believer can ruin them.
More on that next time.
It has taken me this long to find the time to write about it, but I made it into the top 32 of RPG Superstar!
I had planned on looking over, editing, and posting the next part of my faith and fantasy series last week but when I had the time to do so I found out that I had made it into round 2 of the contest. This meant that I needed to draw a map, read up on the rules, and study monster design. Clearly I can’t talk about my map, or what I plan for the monster round, as doing either will disqualify me.
I can say that I was very surprised and elated to make it this far. After I submitted my item I found all of the problems with it that people ended up pointing out, and I did not have the confidence that it would make it. But it did and I think I know why. What it lacked in clean and imaginative mechanics it more than made up for in good descriptive text. Which tells me that I need to work on my mechanics and keep my creative descriptions sharp.
Thank you to everyone who voted for me. Having been entering RPG Superstar for the last four years I know just how fortunate I am to have made it this far. It was a tough year for voting, mostly because of the change in what items could be submitted, but also because we had a stronger pool of talent enter. To be told that I deserve this honor really lifted my spirits and confidence.
I will try and return to the series I started here. I have had some time to do a bit more research and I have to admit that I am wrong in a few areas. For example, Paizo may still have a top down view on religions but their articles are a great deal more helpful than I had remembered them being. I will come back to elaborate another time, hopefully in the next week, but for now I need to brush up on what makes a great monster.
Once more, thank you.
I said that religions in gaming is broken already, and I mentioned that how gods are written up is a leading problem to this. In order to understand why we should look at the pattern that has been followed closely for nearly the entirty of fantasy table top games, and why that pattern is restricting opportunities for role playing. Before we do that, I want to say that I do not think creating a restrictive pattern was the intention of any game designer, and I do not make any assumptions about their own religious affiliation. I do think that fear of angering an audience motivated some of the choices, as some non-religious players might feel less threatened by the current methods of writing about fantasy religion than they would with other methods. I would agree that most of the decissions were a result of influence mythology and the fantasy genre had on early gaming.
Faith and religion in fantasy role playing games is broken. On the surface it works to give characters a higher being to follow, an opportunity to justify personal beliefs, and to provide religious organizations within the game world. Deep down, many of the religions created for fantasy RPGs just do not hold up and allow for actual faith, and instead look like something more closely resembling a government or fraternity.
The problem comes from how the religions are written up and the mechanics behind divine spell casting in games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons. Certainly who is creating the gods for the games makes a difference, but nearly every writer for table top games has been following the same patterns for the last few decades. This legacy has been followed closely for all these years, enhancing the problem with each new god. Read More…
Raging Swan had an open call recently, and I entered it. Unfortunately I missed a line in the guidelines that disqualified me, but I was told it was a very good encounter other than the one detail I overlooked. Here it is for your gaming pleasure.
The Ooze Collector (EL 8; XP 4,800)
The side trail in the mountains is rarely travelled and leads to an abandoned quarry tucked away far out of sight of the main mountain roads. Much of it has been eroded away and reclaimed, but a square pit remains. On the far side is a small hut, smoke curling from a small hole in the ceiling.
The quarry was abandoned before a great deal of stone was pulled out. There is still a single pit, but it is very well maintained and kept drained. The pit is twenty feet deep, roughly a hundred feet long and eighty wide. There are several large stone blocks still in the pit, each a different size and shape, arranged in a purposeful manner. Read More…
So it has been a while since updating, but it has been a tough year. That said, there have been a few cool things. I have been doing some blog posts for Kobold Press, have an article in Open Gaming Monthly about drawbacks, and have been working at getting a degree in Englinsh and Editing so I can find a job writing.
If you have been reading stuff here, I will try to post something for you. I have been playing more board games, so possibly adding in reviews for different games would be a good idea.
Sometimes, there is a concept for an NPC that just goes outside of the boundary of the rules. They do something that is impossible for the Player Characters to do, and sometimes this concept is a bit too powerful and can easily be abused if not carefully played. For example, maybe the concept is the NPC can control the flow of time at will nearly instantly. If a PC could have those powers there would be little I that could stop them. There are benefits to having impossible NPCs though, if you do it right.
First, the main villain cannot be this impossible NPC. They can be close to impossible, slightly toeing that edge and nearly breaking rules to make them into challenges to fight. But they cannot be the impossible ones because those are either impossible to fight or frustrating to run in combat. In fact, these are not NPCs that should be in a combat at all unless you have carefully thought through every round of what they are going to do.
These impossible concept NPCs are useful though. They represent something unique in the game world, a singular anomaly that does something that the players can’t. This can be used a tool to guide the players, or even reward them. For example, an NPC that is all knowing can give them information that would be otherwise impossible to gain. An NPC that shape reality can reward the PCs with new abilities or treasures. The problem comes when you are using the impossible NPCs for due ex machina, which is a poor practice and something to be avoided. These NPCs can’t swoop in and solve the conflict of the game with no warning or explanation.
You need to use them sparingly, but in powerful ways. If you downplay their abilities too much the concept is lost on the players. Sometimes, you don’t even need to have the NPCs be present in any of the sessions. These can be historical figures that left behind such great legacies that their influence is felt for hundreds if not thousands of years. A great wizard that rules over an empire they created through forgotten magic. A warrior that could never be killed and destroyed whole armies. A thief that stole the source of a nation’s power. The tales the players hear about them will only make things more poignant when they finally meet them or find a McGuffin connected to them.
Never be afraid to let your characters do impossible things. Be cautious, and use sparingly, but go ahead and use them. In literature, they are the legends and driving forces. Use them in the same way.