Faith and Fantasy 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.

What are the exact problems? By popular intreptation of the rules the gods in these games don’t allow followers to have actual faith. They are also written to have such strict laws for their religions that there isn’t any room for interpretation and debate. Even the good aligned gods are written up to rule like tyrants, taking powers and spells away for the slightest indiscretion. In effect, there is no doubt about these divine beings and who they are.

Most of this is caused by divine magic mechanics. Spells are granted to certain spell casting classes by the gods with the assumption that these characters are obedient minions with unshakeable faith. If divine spells come from a god for being loyal and obedient there isn’t much room to doubt the god’s authenticity and power, and it becomes difficult to act in faith.

Faith has many definitions but one thing is for certain. In order to act with faith there has to be the possibility that you are wrong, or that your belief system is flawed. Faith is acting on your beliefs in spite of these doubts, and taking action until your are proved right or wrong. Once there is that evidence, you are no longer acting in faith but acting upon knowledge. Of course faith is a bit more complicated than that, but we should already see the problem.

With the mechanics and the way gods are written up there isn’t the needed doubt to say your characters are acting on faith. They have direct proof that they are right, and that their God not only exists but also approves of what they are doing. This eliminates so many possibilities for storytelling and role playing. It is difficult to play out a tale about someone having a crisis of faith, or a narrative about two demoninations within the same religion squabbling over some minor detail. The current status quo for fantasy relgions in table top RPGs is limiting, not enabling, religious exploration of a character’s faith.

This can be fixed. Current RPG gods can even be given the treatment needed to allow players to explore their faith more deeply. The basic fix is changing the source of divine magic from a god to the divine nature of the character. In a way this is already allowed with godless clerics, but that is often ignored or dismissed. The other change is to stop writing about gods like they are major NPCs. Instead, the focus of the writing needs to be from the perspective of the church and how it works within the world.

These two changes can make a big difference and open up plenty of possibilities for role playing and story telling. In the next blog I will talk about changing the mechanics and how that can improve games. In future blogs I hope to cover how to implement other changes, and even talk about how GMs can facilitate religious exploration as a theme in the games.


About TCHubler

Growing up, I have always had an active imagination and a desire to create fantasy worlds. When I was 12, I found my opportunity in a local game store when I bought one of the last AD&D box sets to ever be released. My brother and I took it home and soon I was sharing my new found hobby with friends. From there it has been journey of imagination and creation as I either ran a game or played one. Most of my games have completely self written, and by the time I became hooked on the Pathfinder RPG I was writing rules material for my games.

3 responses to “Faith and Fantasy Gaming”

  1. sabbacc108 says :

    I am reminded a bit of when, during the Legacy of Fire campaign, the party turned on Cosimo. After it was all resolved, there were stern suggestions to me that I should have made it obvious when certain player characters were doing the wrong thing. One repeated mantra was that the Paladin’s god should have straight-up told him he was in the wrong. While I realize now that that would have both fit the written mechanics of the game world, and provided a clear indication to the player that character behavior was out of line, there a few reasons I didn’t.

    Reason one: I honestly didn’t think of it at the time. It may seem like a no-brainer in hindsight, but it simply wasn’t a solution that occurred to me as it was happening.
    Reason two: The paladin (and, by extension, the other party members) believed that what they were doing was completely justified and right. I think that’s pretty significant. Throughout the history of our world, people have done terrible things in the name of faith, and have always believed that their faith made it right.
    True, I could have used a (game-provided) shortcut to defuse an out-of-control situation. But it would have been just a shortcut. It would not have solved the core problem in a really satisfactory way. None of the characters would have learned anything really interesting about themselves from that scenario.

    I don’t have time to write any further, but I’ll leave off with a quote from a drama teacher I had a few years back:
    “Nobody pays to see a man come on stage and cry; they want to see a man come on stage and try for an hour NOT to cry, and inevitably fail. That’s drama.”

    • calebtgordan says :

      Not to try and make the paladin look bad as a player, but that situation could have been avoided if he had paid attention to the details of the game. While I am at fault for aggravating the situation by keeping information hidden, one piece of information that was made clear a few times was that the spirit possessing Cosimo was a saint of the god the paladin worshiped. If any attempt had been made to remember that information or to do anything with it I am sure the situation would have turned out differently.

      What I don’t want to suggest with these blogs is that the GM needs to be responsible for keeping player characters on the right path. While I may do a blog in the future on revelations, types of divine communications and how to use both in game, I would be wrong by suggesting that such communication should be used to keep paladin’s in line with their code of conduct. I would agree that using a “You have a bad feeling about this,” could be used as a gentle and helpful nudge, but flat out telling them that they are about to cross a line would not make for a great game.

      What I do plan on doing is trying to make explorations of faith actually possible. Like you said above there are times when people decide to do terrible things and feel justified by their faith. The game, unfortunately, doesn’t have the right tools to deal with that type of story. Nephi would certainly lose his paladinhood in Pathfinder for killing an unconscious drunkard and then stealing his property. There also isn’t much to have a crisis of faith, and I doubt anyone would find much reason to have the ups and downs David and Solomon did with their faith. Heck, I don’t even know if Jonah could be played out very well as the game is written.

      I’ll talk more about why in the future posts.

      • sabbacc108 says :

        I’m sure that there was a friendly cleric waiting for Jonah in the fish’s belly, with Atonement ready and prepared for the day.

        But yeah, the rules for Pathfinder, as written, don’t give much leeway for this sort of thing. There are some potential exceptions, such as the mystery as to where shamans of Shimye-Magalla actually get spells from (since they don’t appear to get them from either Desna or Gosreh), but potentially-interesting scenarios, like some followers of Aroden being able to actually cast divine spells (in spite of his apparent death) have been basically word-of-godded out by the developers (no pun intended).

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