Rambling thoughts on religion in RPG’s

So, this is in response (in some ways) to Gregory’s post Gods, Demigods, & Heroes – itself a response to a couple of recent things he’d read and seen. Myself, I was underwhelmed by Monte Cook’s presentation – it seemed like a rehash of very basic theology from an anthropological standpoint. Now, as a bit of a disclosure on my part – I was raised in a utterly non-religious household, have studied and practiced various forms of paganism and the occult since my early teens, joined the Unitarian-Universalist church (and was the youngest member of my congregation to, as a teenager, take the “Build Your Own Theology” adult religious education course offered) and quite seriously contemplated becoming a minister for a number of years. I’ve even contributed a forward to a book about pagan shamanistic practice (no, I’m not saying which one here). I do have and practice a deeply spiritual life, but not one that I generally talk about here because it isn’t the focus of the blog.

Playing RPG’s for me was a galvanizing process to study history, religion, anthropology, occultism and all sorts of related issues. One of my fondest memories I being told at the Catholic university I did my B.A. at that I was one of the only people they had seen who probably could have tested out of the mandatory “western civ” classes they had with a focus on Catholic history – including the emphasis on Church history and related theological matters.

I tend to look at all of my gaming in terms of “big questions” – my science fiction game is/was about “what does it mean to be human?” and for my fantasy game I always tended to think of it in terms of a morality play, “what is the nature of evil?” I always found a nominal AD&D universe an excellent model for this (in much the same way as I expect Tolkien and Lewis did – both theologically minded writers) – there is clear “good” and “evil” and things can have a inherently evil nature or alternately natural valence for evil that is ultimately different from what modern Christian theology tends to talk about (aside from some fundamentalist sects). That’s before you add in something like Lovecraftian Outer Gods or Great Old Ones, where are manifestly not “evil” by the author’s definition merely  the ultimate “Other”. This issue is inherent within the boundaries of whatever version of Gygaxian Naturalism your game world is run.

So religion in RPG’s, in D&D in specific, has to contend with both ontological as well as epistemological evil, and evil as praxis – all within a setting that echoes the mythopoetic origins of the players understanding of good and evil. It’s a rich setting that can force a player and  DM to confront the social biases inherent in cultural constructions of morality and ethics. I think that it is the job of the DM to do this justice if that is the sort of game they want to run and that their players are ok playing in – most players probably don’t care or won’t notice depending on how the DM chooses to go about doing this.




Categories: Campaign Development, Game Design, Game Play | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Rambling thoughts on religion in RPG’s

  1. The question of “What is evil?” is the question that I have to deal with most often in my games. In one game in particular, I became acutely aware that the “good” cleric in the party was actually evil. He was a fanatic. His way was the only way and everyone who believed different was “evil.” I am coming to believe that it does not matter what your religion teaches, if you can not examine and question its doctrines and find and show compassion for others, then your religion may be good, but you are not.

    • Kind of piggy-backing off of the comment on your blog – how do you reconcile the idea of “true evil” without any “true good” (since it doesn’t appear to be any, merely cultural relativism). Now, there is some interesting answers to this in the writings of Dion Fortune and W.E. Butler on Negative Evil and Positive Evil – but they also depend on a “True Good” of some sort.

      In a D&D universe, the idea of a corrupt church hierarchy also becomes a bit problematic if it is truly inspired and essentially under the direction of irrefutably good beings. One answer is that there isn’t actually Divine Magic and that “Clerics” are just a special form of Warlock and actually use Arcane Magic.

      Another is that “Divine Magic” exists, but it is more like Channeling in the old Rolemaster rule set – and arguing that Clerics are merely skilled at channeling Divine Energy without there being any direct interaction between deity and cleric.

      Thanks for the comment!


      • When I was replying to your comment, I was thinking about “evil” from a 1E paladin’s view. I do believe there is true good. Angels are true good. Some deities of dualistic religions are true good. They just get lost in the PCs’ desire to have someone to war against. I’ve never played with a a corrupt church hierarchy, because the gods are real and revoke powers of those that make a mockery of the faith. However, PC clerics almost always end up outside the church hierarchy. They are special servants of the gods and many high priests tend to avoid them or look askance at them, because they are just “weird.” (Adventurers are by nature misfits within society. How else do you explain a random bunch of people hanging out and looting dungeons?)

        As to you question are their sham faiths using other forms of magic, I think there must be. I just haven’t ran into them in my world, yet.

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