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.