Faith and Fantasy: How Gods Are Written
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.
The current method is not far off from writing about powerful and important non-player characters, with descriptions of what they look like, expliantations of their spheres of influence, and details about their interests and motivations. This is a very top-down view of the gods, most notable in the current Pathfinder RPG gods, though they certainly changed and expanded what is written into a gods lore. Dungeons and Dragons did this as well in many of the fantasy setting written for the game. Most notable is the focus on the god as a real being, and very little on the religious organizations that follow them. An assumption that most people follow just one god is also common, but that isn’t too far off from some of the ancient polytheistic religions.
There is one other form of literature that feels similar in that it has a top-down view and big focus on the gods with little focus on the religous organization worshiping them. Ancient mythology, at least how it is now written about, uses much of the same language, style, and patterns. This makes a great deal of sense because the first games were highly influenced by world mythology and legends. Even the fictional stories and legends, like Lord of the Rings, has similar patterns in how the divine is written about.
But fantasy role playing games have deviated from mythology styles in writing. Like I mentioned above, in recent products the gods are written up to be very powerful non-player characters. In mythology the focus was on what the gods did, and not so much a description of what they were or how they appeared. Physical descriptions can be found, but they are only given just enough focus to establish the character of the gods a bit more firmly within a larger narrative.
And that is something lacking in most fantasy religions. A narrative is important to have in religion because it helps build the doctrine, nature, and expectations of the gods involved. In Christianity, the narrative is largely about Christ. For Christ, having a detailed narrative of his life helped establish more firmly who he was and what he expected of others, namely that he claimed to be the Son of God and that he expected everyone to act as he did.
In Norse Mythology the narratives about the misadventures of Thor and Loki establish their relationship to each other, the ideals either one represented, and who they were. Loki was cunning and believed in using his mind to solve problems, even if that meant crossing a line and going a bit too far. Thor, on the other hand, had great hubris and believed that by the power of his arm all problems he faced could be solved. Both were flawed, both made mistakes, but they also represented ideals to try and acheive. For Loki it was about looking at the larger picture and finding the cleaver solution. For Thor, it was standing for what you believed in and having unshakeable faith in your own strength.
We lose these narratives in fantasy gaming, which is a product of word count restrictions and only having space for so much. But the current pattern leaves out something far more important than some of the details currently left into the write ups. There is very little consideration of the religious organizations and the followers. While Pathfinder has done the most to remedy this, it isn’t enough. They cover the organization in only a few paragraphs at most, sometimes not at all.
This is really where the change needs to happen. We currently get a great deal of who to worship but almost nothing about how to worship them. Is the church organized? What does that organization look like? As a cleric PC increases in level, are they also climbing the religion’s political ladder? How does a common follower worship? Are they expected to go to a church or temple to worship?
All of these details are being hand waved away and left to be in the background, and it really doesn’t help anyone to do it this way. While it may mean less to figure out and pay attention to, these details can also become excellent elements of storytelling and character development.
Old school D&D actually did take some of this into consideration. For some of the more religious classes there were requirements to gain certain levels. For druids, it meant waiting until a slot above you in the organization opened up. This did create some frustration with players who wanted to play strictly by the rules, or who had GMs that held them back because of the restrictions. But while it had these built into the class, it didn’t do enough to explain the reasons why.
The lack of the hows of the religion also come from mythology. Nearly all the myths assume the audience already knows how to worship the gods, that the organization is firmly established in some form to facilitate worship. We don’t have, for example, greatly detailed explinations of how the god Odin was worshiped, or the rituals related to him. We do have some of his myths. The Bible is another great example of this. Nearly nothing is given in the book about how the church is to be organized and ran, but it is filled with the Christian mythology that drives the religion.
Writing about gods as if they are major and powerful NPCs does work in one type of campaign, and that is when they are active and powerful NPCs. These are games where the gods are just as likely to be encountered as the big and important mortal non-player characters. The gods walk amoung the mortals, directly influence the course of history, and are highly visible to their followers. They may hand out quests to the player characters, mortals can see and hear them, and they might even be combat encounters for high level campaigns.
When gods are not visible, avoid direct action in the lives of mortals, and stay within their own plane of exisitence the current way of writing about them does not work well at all. Instead, the focus needs to be on the organizations, religions, and cults that worship and believe in these gods. This will give players more tools to play like a real believer, and a broader ability to roleplay out faith and piety.
With an understanding of the current state of affairs we can start to make changes. In the next blog I will look deeply at the possible activities and changes in fantasy religions on every level of the game.