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.