Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wherefore Art Thou Religion?

A few days back I was sitting in a local Catholic church celebrating the Christmas Mass, something I hadn’t done in awhile. That is to say, we skipped Christmas Mass last year (and most of the Holy Days of Obligation in between). I don’t really consider myself a “lapsed Catholic” but I’m not a particularly good one (at least when it comes to following the strict tenets of the Church)…and a couple of my more religious friends (one of whom is/was a Dominican brother) consider my soul in mortal peril based on some of my beliefs, a few of which make Martin Luther’s pronouncements look pretty darn regressive.

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.


  1. Good Article. As a devout Christian, and also a gamer, I find your observations very interesting. Before I say anything about your observations on religion in gaming, let me first congratulate you for being introspective enough to try and describe your own personal religious path and where you are on it.

    Okay, here is what I think - rules are frameworks. In that regard, they should have within them the mechanical aspects of religion. In a fantasy game, this amounts to rules for religious player classes (monks, clerics, priests, paladins, etc), and also rules for miracles and/or religious "magic". That is enough.

    In the world setting, however, religion is much more than a mechanistic thing - it is a motivator, it is a quality (if you will) on certain actions and it helps define why characters in the game world will undertake those actions.

    For instance - a character in the game world (Player or NPC or Monster, or whatever) tries to kill another character. Okay, the rules mechanics give you the "how" of handling this. Roll to hit, roll damage, roll dodge - whatever. But the setting - the world definition and assumptions - give you the qualities affecting that mechanistic act. Why would character X want to kill character Y? Is it because of politics (they are from an enemy city-state); because of religion (they are heretics and worship the horned one); because of greed (those guys always carry gold bars in their saddle bags).

    There can be lots of reasons for actions (and all actions - healing, movement, barter, etc - not just killing), but they come from the world setting.

    Except in more modern games where the setting is a large part of the game rules framework, this is (to me) something outside the rules.

  2. Great post. I naturally include religious motivations and plot arcs in my campaign too, I just can't imagine society without it. It blows me away when some people just do-away with the whole cleric class. It just doesn't make sense to me.

    I think RPG without religion, much more quickly devolves into hack and slash type action.

  3. Speaking strictly for myself, the reason I don't emphasize religion in the fantasy game worlds I fiddle with is because, sooner or later, I run into this issue, which is that it simply feels disrespectful to me to start translating deeply-held religious concepts into dice rolls and plot devices.

    It's a line I have no interest in crossing, so I stay away from it.

    Now, I'm changing this - but only somewhat - by making my current game world's religious situation more akin to middle-ages Europe, only minus the competing Near-Eastern religions of Judaism and Islam. I don't want to mirror history; just get a scent of it.

    But even then, I've split the cleric class from the Church. The Church (which really doesn't mirror the Catholic church ancient or modern but merely borrows a few key proper nouns) is staffed by non-spell-casting pastors instead of clerics. Clerical orders have ancient ties to the Church, but they are not by definition branches of the Church. They've long-since morphed into their own thing, with some clerical orders now in a sort of tacit competition with the Church.

    Again, I shy away from doctrinal and sacramental details. From my perspective, matters of faith and doctrine simply are not well served by being translated into tables and "gamed," as it were.

    And that, my friends, is all I intend to say on the subject as threads like this have a distinct tendency to migrate swampward fairly quickly.

  4. "Even the “godless heathens” were quick to offer sacrifice before battle for fearing to anger the heavens back in ancient times."

    Um, those "heathens" had their own gods and world view, just like you do.

    Why is it any more "realistic" for you to assume that those cultures were any more "primitive" than the one you are familiar with?

    That aside, people who play D&D take on the role of adventurers, not stay in a village to raise crops and pay penance, taxes, tithes and pardons to the nobles or clergy, but to ADVENTURE!

    They are, by their very nature, rejecting the social norm in order to attain something that life does not offer them. This is the key concept behind their motivations...

    If you were to inject a religion like yours into a campaign, it would have to be very well developed and established before play even begins to be realistic enough to direct the way the players, and their characters, would behave in that setting. That means serious rail-roading by the god / DM!

    Personally, I think that is a more antagonistic and limiting mode-of-play than most players may want in a game. Too top-down!

    You might be able to introduce the concepts behind the main tenets of a faith through play, but if they are to be considered as 'right' or 'true', that necessitates that something has to be 'wrong' for it to make sense. You could do this through a game with a heavy narrative, perhaps over the course of a crusade or something, but really, the reward has to be tangible for the players to go for it.

    The possibility of doing good works and attempting to attain an afterlife in the face of adversity first needs to be on the same footing as not doing so. They have to care about the how and why they would do that. They have to have something to be penitent for or because of, that motivates them to play a certain way. That requires some serious role-playing to to attain their character's endgame at the hands of their DM/god. Somebody might enjoy those challenges, but very few would likely find that style of play anything but 'fun'.

    Having fun is the main reason why we are all sitting down to play these kinds of games.

    Once they stop being fun, they don't get played, and that is probably why you don't find too much emphasis of religion in role playing games.

    As to your quite frankly, nonsensical, Vatican II presumption; I'll ask why should real-world events even have any bearing in someone's fantasy game?

    "After all, what inspires folks to be “good” or “heroic” in RPGs?"

    The same things that do in real life: an awareness and empathy.

    And I can assure you, I don't need any gods to do either.

  5. I could say a lot of things about your post, but I'll only say one:

    This is your best post ever.

  6. JB,

    Thank you for this. I am always glad when someone else out there is wrestling with the issue of religion and RPGs. Personally, I think people struggle with this not because religion is inherently antithetical to role-playing (if it were, then why has my Lost Colonies campaign with its deeply religious themes been going strong after 30 sessions over the course of 18 months? — longer and more successful than any campaign I have ever played in) but because it is an issue people are afraid to deal with themselves and in their own life. Thinking about religion demands changes in behavior. It challenges us about who we are.

    Whether we like it or not, D&D has religion and religious belief hardwired into its rules. It is actually quite easy to inject the subject into the game. In my own opinion, Christianity (or a fantasy substitute) is the implied religion of the game (look at the Cleric spell list in 0ed).

    I would be really interested to get your take on my attempt to re-cast the seven-alignment model of D&D to Christian theology. Again, thanks.

  7. Greg Stafford's Gloranthan games deserve a mention here. RuneQuest and HeroQuest place a lot of emphasis on the relationship between peoples (and societies) and their gods, to an extent not often found in other RPGs

  8. You mentioned Dark Heresy, but not Warhammer FRP. The church of Sigmar is very like the RCC and that religion permeates a lot of the culture of the setting, especially if you set your game in the Empire. There are holidays, a whole mythos, NTM templars and witch hunters, which can make life for a wizard PC nervous indeed.

    There are other gods which are seen as "righteous" (Like Morr and Taal) too. Plus the "Ruinous Powers." Other nations, like Bretonnia, have their faiths as well (Lady of the Grail). How much it permeates the game is up to the GM & players, but the resources are definitely there.

  9. @ Biopunk:

    I put "godless heathens" in quotes (" ") because I don't believe there is such a thing. There is a tendency to refer to ancient religions as such, even though their ritual and tradition may be just as valid.

    The only thing I don't find "realistic" is that religion in game world settings isn't inherent or intrinsic. And when I say "primitive" cultures I'm referring to how some folk in the 21st century view ALL religions practiced prior to recent times (including 20th century Judeo-Christian traditions) as primitive superstition. Don't get your panties in a bunch, pal.

    As to your other comments: personally I don't think it needs to be incredibly well developed. Religion permeates peoples' lives without them being aware of more than the various basics of their own tradition. I was 12 years old before I realized that Catholics were supposed to believe the Transubstantiation was anything but symbolic. A few sketches here and there might just inject it like it was in the "olden days"...i.e. something more akin to gravity.

    There are plenty of reasons to "adventure" besides greed and adrenaline addiction.

    @ Prince Herb: Yes, I wanted to mention Glorantha, but I'm not as familiar with it (I own Hero Wars, but I've never played it). Dogs in the Vineyard is the other major one I neglected to mention (and I don't own DitV, so I can't speak to it much anyway).

    @ Bighara: I put WHFRP in the same pot as D&D. Clerics have battle magic and a pantheon of gods from which they draw powers, but it doesn't have any more effect on the game world than what the GM chooses to inject/emphasize (as you point out), which is kind of my's weird (to me) that it's so lacksadasical. The cult of the Emperor (in 40K) is much more a part of the Imperial fabric, compared to Sigmar (not to mention, the Emperor is ascribed divinity...Sigmar is more of a hero cult, no?).

    @ Bigby, your fears of crossing lines is not unusual. But then do we worry about describing the otherwise terrible and distasteful action that goes on in RPGs? Can't we just agree that we're playing a game, not mocking each other's real world faiths?

    @ Fr.Dave: I need to read up on your Lost Colony posts...they pertain to things I may want to bring up in future posts on the subject. I'll have to revisit your take on alignment as well, as I don't remember it off hand (sorry!).

  10. Very intriguing post. I'm working on an OSR project where there are only two character classes (a fighter and magic user). I'm not including a cleric class but it has nothing to do with excluding religious faith in RPGs. In fact, I intend on making religious faith possibly more integral by doing away with classes and introducing disciplines. This would allow every player to potentially be a messenger of their faith if they so chose. It's still a work in progress though so we'll see how it develops.

  11. "Is role-playing really a godless activity?!"

    I suppose it is, for me. But no moreso than all my other activities.

    I do see your point, but this is a status quo I actually enjoy. A world without religion (or where religion is an afterthought at best), is a "fantasy world" that I'd love to live in. :)

  12. Interesting post and I appreciate your insights and personal history.


    D&D is a pantheistic world. The Gods and Goddesses and Demons and Realms are real and are people you can meet and places you can go.

    Each humanoid species even has a specific deity. And there are many instances of Snake God cults and Orcus worshiping cults trying to bring some evil into the world that the PCs are trying to prevent in the published modules. Not to mention the paladins, druids, shamans and yes, clerics, for PCs who want to roleplay a character with a specific religious affiliation. Which is not to say your simple fighter wielding a sword couldn't mutter the occasional prayer to Krom:

    Therefore, religion already seems to be hard-wired into d&d. The "+3" in a Holy Avenger represents divine power, not just a number in atheistic rpg.

    Finally, perhaps you just want a more the-Church-is-everywhere approach to rpgs? Have you heard of Fantasy Wargaming? This was an 80's ruleset that included stats for Jesus and the Devil along with the Viking pantheon.

  13. JB: I'm glad you actually got some responses. My recent post Neither to the Left nor Right simply garnered a 'No-good' anonymous check-box.

    Best to you in this new year, :)

  14. Personally, I'm not sure I get what you mean. I'm going to play my rogue as closely according to the tenets of Sehahnine as possible, simply because he's got a strong personal faith. He's not going to preach at you, but he will pray if the situation calls for it. For example, if one of the party is hurt, he won't be able to do much except hand bandages over to people and stay out of the way, but he'll be praying for them, whether or not it actually helps "in-game".

  15. In our world, it can seem reasonable to reject magic and refuse to believe in gods. However, in the D&D universe, magic and gods indubitably exist. Moreover, characters NEED the gods. If you want to be a priest or a paladin--or if you want these classes in your party--you'd better render unto their gods. Since no party can survive without clerics or druids, theism and some level of reverence are mandatory for the party, if not for every character.

    I really dislike the alignment system, because it is abstract, unwieldy and implausible. Ethics derived from religion are much more interesting and believable, as long as we're talking about deities from the rich cultures of historical mythologies, and not the generally sterile inventions of game designers. (Notable exceptions: Hextor & Heironeous, some demihuman and humanoid deities, and several greater demons and devils.)

    When my friends and I started playing D&D, we were pretty much godless little kids. In our mid-teens, we all got born again, and we kept right on playing D&D. As DM, I ruled that this was a world where the Christian God did not exist, because I thought it would have been blasphemous for me to presume to role-play God (AD&D requires clerics to ask their deity directly for 5th-7th level spells).

    We agreed that the centrality of religion in the lives of our characters mirrored the desired centrality of religion in our own lives, in a sort of Narnia parallel universe sort of way.

    Speaking of CS Lewis, I am now, like him, an Episcopalian. (Though I am politically and theologically much more liberal than the late medievalist.)

  16. I wouldn't blame the rules, blame the DM's; there are plenty enough mechanics and implied mechanics to support religion in D&D as is.

    In general, DM's that think about it enough to use a monotheistic or christian-like church in their game seem to do a better job of making religion matter (for something); in pantheistic games, the deities are portrayed like choosing sports teams or political candidates, and with about as much depth of characterization. (These gross generalizations just come from reading campaign journals, no science applied...) Using real-world religion as the model gives a wealth of culture, belief, and practice to draw on, whereas the other approach typically comes off shallow by comparison.

  17. Regarding DragonRaid, try the website, where the game is still available (you can get the box set for $24).

    To me, RuneQuest (and Hero Wars/HeroQuest) and Pendragon handle religion the best.

    There is a split in emphasis, I think. Some games (D&D, C&S, and the like) concentrate on what religion does, while other games (RQ, Pendragon) concentrate on the characters' relationships with religion. Naturally, I think that the latter is a better way to approach the matter.

    Another fascinating approach is that taken by the likes of Flashing Blades, where religion is treated, in a rules sense, as a social institution which the characters can use as a means of advancement and power struggle. Anything else is left to the subtleties of player/GM interaction and the relationship of the players and the dice. This is something that I need to think more on before I'd be ready to discuss it in detail, but it may also be a fruitful approach.

    Fantasy Wargaming was mentioned above, but there are other fringe games that could be mentioned: Witch Hunt, Lands of Adventure, and Kult come to mind. There was a Dragon magazine article which presented religious specialists in Traveller terms, along with some sample religions. In addition to Dogs in the Vineyard and Vampire, as well, there are some new school games that could be discussed, such as Unknown Armies or Wyrd is Bond.

  18. At some point I was toying around with some houserules to make the cleric profession in a HARP campaign I was going to be running more bard-like, since I was going for a Viking/Celt setting. The priest classes in those societies were very different than the usual Christian-analog that the cleric profession usually implies. I ended up running a different setting, so I haven't used them yet, but at some point I'll probably go back to it. I've never liked the similarities of the cleric to a Christian priest in fantasy settings with polytheistic cultures, so I figured I'd model one that fit better based on historical accounts of actual polytheistic societies and whatever type of religious figures they had.

  19. I think religion doesn't factor in as strongly for 2 reasons.

    1. A much larger percentage of gamers are atheists than the general population. This is true of any demographic of nerds; scientists, chess club, debate team, etc. This results in a lot of resistance to religious themes unless they are obviously contrived; I.e. Priest of Torm.

    2. Because they are "true" and grant direct magical power to mortals, they are treated as fictional even by religious gamers and not taken seriously. It takes the mystery out of the equation. Gods become technology to be fiddled with.

    As an atheist myself, I include a lot of religion in my adventures. However, I usually show both negatives and positives, even for "good" religions. They try to control thought and behavior and I show the downsides to that.

  20. I realize I'm a bit late to the party, but WFRP 2e had a whole book on religion that included information on heresies, religious orders, and theological councils. My longest running campaign completely hinged on a Ulricite "Reformation" causing a civil war in the Empire. Religion has always been a big part of my WFRP, and I think it is intended to be.

    Of course I also use a pseudo-Catholic Church in my Nightwick setting, along with Saints, theological doctrines and other goodness. Since it's kinda sorta almost based on the Northern Crusades, that is to be expected.