But, as I said, I still consider myself a Catholic and a Christian, definitely not an apostate, though perhaps a heretic (for instance, I caught myself in Mass wondering how hard it would be to start a Catholic Gnostic sect…how’s that for “old school?”). I mean I consider myself a member of the “Catholic” church in the sense of the meaning of the word: universal or all-inclusive. And I consider myself a Christian in the sense that I follow the teachings of the man called Jesus the Christ…though NOT the interpretations of Jesus through St. Paul or Thomas Aquinas. So there.
[oh, boy...Brother Rob would definitely be rolling his eyes at THAT!]
Anyway, the fact of the matter is I grew up in the Church, I was educated in the Church, I went to Catholic school all the way through graduation from Seattle University (all thanks to the Jesuits for teaching me to think for myself). I happen to LIKE a lot about the Church…including its traditions, its rituals, and many of its teachings. Despite all the bad shit that’s been done in the Church’s name over the centuries (and despite all the bad shit that CONTINUES to be done in the Church’s name), I still see the Church as a positive thing in the world. Not because it’s “saving souls” or “bringing people closer to God” but because it institutionalizes morality and ethics that are basically good. And that’s a powerful, powerful thing.
Most world religions do this, and I don’t fault anyone their personal beliefs (well, maybe one or two of the more recent ones…) so long as the teachings they follow are making them more responsible with respect to their basic humanity and role as higher, compassionate beings. There are many spiritual “paths to the mountain top” and I don’t find a problem with following any particular route. I certainly don’t expect people of non-Catholic (or non-Christian) faiths to end up in some lake of fire and suffering.
Of course, you have to do more than show up at Church on Sundays to walk the spiritual path…but let’s just say some people travel the path slower than others. And perhaps those who use their religion as an excuse to bomb airlines or abortion clinics are just taking…um…"rest stops" along the way.
Point is this: I think most people can admit that even in this day and age, religion and religious beliefs are a LARGE and IMPORTANT part of our lives. I’m not just talking about followers of different religions who happen to be shooting at you because you go to a synagogue instead of a mosque (or vice versa). I’m talking about YOUR RELIGIOUS UPBRINGING being important to YOU. Even if you have drifted away from your particular faith or Church or the belief system of your youth, it still has an effect on you and the actions you take in the world.
And even for those few who were raised without a foundation of organized religion (kids born in the last 20 to 30 years), your parents probably were and probably instilled some religious ideals in you.
SO having said all that: where the hell is religion in role-playing games?
Don’t just say, “”Look JB, clerics! Deities and demigods! Domain spells!” Don’t give me that bullshit. People have been killing themselves and each other for centuries over religion…passionate (or ecstatic), visceral, felt-in-the-soul religion. Saying, “oh I play a cleric let me heal you because I’m Lawful Good” is NOT what I’m talking about.
Organized belief systems have, historically and presently, been a major part of the shaping of our planet’s history. And yet in the IMAGINARY world of role-playing games, it is often left completely out of the picture. Or perhaps the unspoken command in most RPGs is “add only as desired.”
Now maybe folks are naturally wary about discussing religion and religious differences. You know, like “you don’t talk religion and you don’t talk politics” kind of attitude? I’m not unaware that my Goblin Wars setting with its pseudo-Roman Catholic Church (and pseudo-Jesus) drew some consternation and discomfort…both from blog readers and from players at my table! But maybe our discomfort and aversion to the subject is due in part to it not being a regular part of discourse?
Maybe…I’ll stop speculating in that particular direction (for now). But it would seem to me that confronting religion in role-playing games might A) be MORE “safe” (due to the imaginary nature of the game), and B) elevate role-playing sessions to a…well, to a more meaningful level (by which I mean more impactful or gripping or intense game play perspective).
[one of the things I found interesting about those early Shadow Run novels was the main character’s religious values and ethics and the way it butted heads with his mercenary lifestyle. At first, I thought it irritating…I preferred the mini-gun on dragon action!...but over time, this made the character the most interesting part of the books, especially as he reconciled his own “gifts” with the doctrine of his faith]
Maybe. It might also be more “realistic” for those who strive to include “more realism” in their games. After all, we’re (generally) talking about “primitive” cultures, right? Dungeons & Dragons is presumed to take place sometime in the “mystic past.” Doesn’t that presume it was sometime prior to Vatican II? You know, back when religion and the state of one’s soul really MEANT stuff to people…even the upper class and well educated folks?
Even the “godless heathens” were quick to offer sacrifice before battle for fearing to anger the heavens back in ancient times.
And my thoughts don’t just apply to “medieval” or “pseudo-medieval” games. Boot Hill may be a game that delights in lead-slinging carnage, but the Old West was a LOT more particular about their religion than one might think from watching spaghetti westerns. Hell, even those old Eastwood films often had preachers or (fake) nuns or moments where religion or religious event have direct impact on the plot of the film. And yet, we often gloss over this in our games…both in play, and design.
In fact, taking Boot Hill as an example, I don’t recall much about preachers AT ALL in the game. Certainly nothing in the basic rules. Module BH1 has a town “undertaker.” BH2 has a shotgun wedding event…but performed by a “justice of the peace” (no preached in sight). Snake-oil salesmen, corrupt city officials, and immigrant discrimination (against the Irish) feature in other modules, but no religion of any sort that I recall.
I just think it’s strange…religion has such a low impact role (if any role at all!) in so many RPGs. It’s just weird, considering the nature of our human condition. Is role-playing really a godless activity?!
The RPGs I can think of that has real, impactful religion as a part of their basic design are few and far between…and I’m not talking about Deadlands or D&D where some “holy caster” type can use healing magic. I’m talking about character and scenario (i.e. “adventure”) motivation:
- The Riddle of Steel: the spiritual attribute Faith can be hugely motivating for those who choose to put points into it (you have a handful of spiritual attributes, like Conscience, Destiny, Luck, Drive, etc. so it’s not inevitable that Faith will be used at all). However, a player who chooses to make religion a central part of their character by pumping Faith will have a huge impact on the tenor of the game.
- Pendragon: Arthur is, of course, one of the great Christian heroes of myth/history, and Pendragon has knightly virtues associated with Christianity (and those dastardly Saxons have virtues of their own associated with their Teutonic beliefs). Because these virtues can actually impact PC behavior (personality rolls) religion has the potential to impact the game, if players play up these particular virtues instead of more courageous/chivalrous ones.
- Orkworld: Although the pseudo-Nordic religion of the orks doesn’t have much impact on game play, it is a vital part of understanding the orks tribal belief systems through their myth/folklore and thus understanding how to play the game. But how many people actually play Orkworld?
- Vampire the Masquerade (at least in its first edition or two) COULD be played with an eye towards religion and its impact…or not. How religion effected play (if at all) was definitely left up to the individual “Storytellers.” Once you start incorporating the later WoD books, religion definitely goes out the window.
Aaaand…that’s about it. Games like Dark Heresy and The Mutant Chronicles could be played with an eye towards the characters’ religious beliefs I suppose, but generally PCs are going to be more mercenary/freelancer types and totally agnostic except when it comes time to break out an exorcism spell…at least, that’s been my experience.
Which is a shame. Even in (or ESPECIALLY in) futuristic, post-apocalyptic, and SciFi games there is a place for religion. A Canticle for Leibowitz has to be my favorite post-apoc book of all time…and yet none of the Cryptic Alliances of Gamma World are really “religious” (at least, not “real world” religious…and this for a game that takes place in the not-so-far-future of Earth). I can understand if you want your Cyberpunk world to be bleak and God-less…but not every RPG is cyberpunk.
Anyway, this is all just something that hit me when I was in Church the other day…it felt so bizarre when I thought about it, I figured I should mention it on Ye Old Blog.
[ha! I just remembered that old Christian RPG DragonRaid…I DID have the opportunity to play it back in 1984 with my born-again Christian buddy, before his mom decided to outlaw ALL role-playing games. I remember it actually being a pretty cool game...I wonder where I could get a copy of it...]
Funnily enough, I think there might actually be some “religious” impact on players at the gaming table, even when religion isn’t overt in the game design. After all, what inspires folks to be “good” or “heroic” in RPGs? Generally, there’s no inherent reward in it…might as well beat, torture, and rob with impunity, right? And yet, even when given the option to do so, sticking a moral quandary in front of folks often leads to pause…and sometimes to folks choosing a more “godly” choice of action.
More to be said later, probably.