Tuesday, December 26, 2017

It Starts With Religion

Hope everyone had a "merry, merry" and all that jazz. My holiday (which continues this week in Mexico) has been pretty good, what with the food, family, and fun. Heck, I even got to watch the Seahawks game Sunday, an exceptional gift, in and of itself (as well as a bit of a Christmas miracle, all things considered).

But has been tough to get any blogging done (duh) with the festivities. Not to say this was my intention (it wasn't), but I have had some things I wanted to write about. I've been trying to finish up a post on The Temple of Elemental Evil for about four days, and just haven't quite put the capper on it. Still, that's just one of several things floating around my brain.

When considering the creation of a fantasy campaign...or, more accurately, it's "milieu" (to use the Gygaxian term)...one has to consider how things tie together, setting and system, in order to ensure a type of consistency that will last long term. Not necessarily because "everything needs to make sense;" sensibility, is actually a little bit down on the list of necessaries for a good, fun game. But because it helps establish boundaries and paradigms within which one can create.

[does it sounds like I'm gearing up for some sort of painfully amorphous, "thought exercise" blog post? Yeah, I guess it does. But I'll try to keep it short]

Ancestor was raped by a dragon.
For example, what is the overall fecundity of fantasy species in your game world? Is it some sort of Xanthian cauldron of crazy that allows for half-dwarves and goblin-troll hybrids? Some fantasy allows for vampires to have biological progeny (the "daughter of Dracula" kind of thing); others take a far more staid approach to the subject. Decisions like this (and the relative sentience of species and levels of variance and ability) not only inform how the game world looks, but important system considerations like what are playable races, and whether or not non-human characters are allowed to choose between different classes.

Similarly, there are issues of tone to consider. Here, I'm not talking about dictating player behavior...over the years, I've come to the conclusion it's damn near impossible to influence something that will be (largely) determined by the particular group dynamic of the players you're saddled with. But one has to decide the "background noise" of the world. Is everyone living in fear of some unconquerable horde that periodically ravages the civilized lands? Do the rulers of the realm more resemble the High King of Gondor or the scheming nobles of Game of Thrones? Is magic an inherited birthright, a supernatural art, or some form of lost, "higher science?" All these things contribute to the flavor of the campaign setting, informing what type of scenarios and situations might be encountered by players...and also places limits on what becomes necessary for rules.

For me, however, I've come to the conclusion that my first cosmological priority is, and has to be, the form and shape of religion in the game world.

Not, necessarily, the God or gods of universe, or the "creation story" of my little fantasy setting. These things are generally "higher mysteries" that players may or may not discover...and that are possibly subject to change (with new "discoveries" or revelations that occur in play). And anyway, I already know how this particular universe was created: I made it. Probably the players will know that, too.

But religion...how people relate to their belief systems (and the effect those belief systems have on the people) is a major, serious, foundational bit of world building for a fantasy campaign, especially one based (however loosely) on the Dungeons & Dragons system. Not only with regard to the clerical class and its related subclasses, but also alignment, magic, the ordering of the natural and supernatural, the organization of societies, the conflicts inherent in the world, the value of treasure...just a crap-ton of different aspects of the game, its systems, and the fantasy environment in which the players will adventure.

Anyhoo. Maybe I'm wrong, but for my game, that's what I'm starting with. Apologies, but at the moment, I don't have time to elaborate.


  1. I certainly don't think you are wrong. I have long started with religion and it is one of the many reasons I prefer older editions of the game...the religious implications of the rule system itself are much more flexible (and therefore more friendly to my predilections for a pseudo-Christian Civilization vs. Demonic Wilderness) than the newer versions which tend to hardwire various religious assumptions (that I am not interested in) into the rules themselves.

  2. You spent your holiday in Mexico, so I'm not surprised that this is your takeaway, even if it reflects some posts you made earlier this season. We repeatedly underestimate the importance of religion in worldbuilding ... but a lot of that is because most don't have any real understanding of religion.

    Those without it eschew anything it might have to say, ignoring that human culture was built around its precepts for thousands of years; and those with religion are often the victims of a cherry-picked presentation of their belief, with encouragements not to look deeper.

    I encourage everyone to pick up a book in the religious studies category, whether or not there's any belief there, and learn something about culture. It will help in building one.

    1. @ Alexis:

      Oh, I agree entirely. Though I was never much interested in theology classes as a youth, the study of religion (and it's effect on cultural development) has been a personal hobby of mine for the last couple decades. Fascinating stuff.

      Being in Mexico this particular trip has been inspirational for my world-building project, though more from the standpoint of how a culture is built upon another (and how cities rise from villages). Spent a lot of time at local museums this last week, which I don't normally do. Great things to draw from even two-three centuries of history!
      : )