Sunday, December 23, 2007

Religions in Gaming: A Fallacy

All Art by William O'Connor. Copyright AEG.
Used without any kind of permission. See for more.

One of the inherent flaws of religion (especially in fantasy gaming) is this notion that only Clerics worship gods. This mindless interpretation of human analysis is futher codified by a lack of understanding of nations as well, as though England, France, Germany, and Spain didn't all pay homage to the Catholic Church for 1,000 years. Even the Eastern Empire paid homage, even if to their own Pope or own view on Orthodoxy.

So it would seem, this lack of understanding about faith, would permeate gaming on so many levels that only Clerics worship and the only true role of a Cleric in a game is to heal wounded PCs too stupid to run away from the things that stick in this.

To give you an idea of how important religion (still) is in the world, imagine that 95% of the world has access to the Old and New Testament, in their native tongue. Consider that the word Koran means recitation and that the goal of EVERY Muslim is to learn the entire recitation. The Bagavad-Gita, one of the longest books in the world, details some 100,000 Hindu gods.

In a global census, conducted in 2001, people were asked what was most important to them from a list of five things. Freedom to practice religion ranked #1 in every nation of the world except the United States, Canada, and England. In some countries, 96% of the population considered religious freedom more important that personal freedom.

And this numbers are not unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. This data can be applied to nearly every time period of human existence, perhaps alarmingly more extremely the further from the Age of Reason you get.

So. If these number even have a +/-10% of error, that means as little as 85% and as much as 100% of a (fantasy) population worships one kind of god or another. That means 8.5 out of 10 adventurers worship a god. And if you extend that logic to other fantasy (and not alien) races, you can see an alarming trend that is vacuous in gaming circles -- devotion and worship.

Now, some people might say that worship has no place in a game about killing orcs, trolls, and dragons and others might argue that a fantasy game doesn't need to mimic the real world. Fair enough. Without derailing from the topic, too much, let me propose this. If a gaming campaign's primary goal is escapism, combat, and fun, what purpose does a cleric have, other than to heal. Why not just give wizards access to healing spells and move on? If a gaming campaign's primary goal (as some people have told me) is to be just and defeat evil, then where does this moral center extend from? How can a society have good and evil, without a clear metaphysical explanation of where these morays stem from?

Remember, societies define themselves by Law and Chaos, order and disorder. People define themselves by their actions - Good and Evil, moral and amoral. These concepts stem (usually) from a religious center that condemns some actions and approves others (it is just to kill in the name of your god? those who oppose us are our enemies.)

Fantasy games are not alien excursions into impossible worlds that defy physics, gravity, logic, and every tenet of reality we expect. Fantasy worlds are rooted in what we know, added elements of what we don't. They have humans who speak "English," use two hands, breathe air, sleep, and engage in normal human activity with the added bonus of +1 swords and maximized fireballs. If they lacked these core components, what could we expect from the game by misless random chance perpetrated by events that spin out of our control at every turn.

Why play?

Religion, while not a component of everyday life in America for every American, is still something we see and recognize in the world around us. Look around you. I suspect there's at least 10 churches within a 5 mile radius of your home, right now.

Religious Enlightenment
It is the aim of all peoples (except atheists, I guess), no matter how devote, to seek the approval of their god, and church. It has been like this for centuries. In fact, most people before 1500 AD gave an excessive level of wealth to the church in order to get a better seat in heaven. Enlightened or not, these precepts need to be recognized in fantasy game worlds.

Now. I've been vocal about my opinion against Hack and Slash munchkin gaming. Frankly, I don't see the point. But I'm not going to judge that, today. But I am going to say, that it does really apply to anything I'm saying from here on out.

Because roleplaying games are self-centered (not in a bad way, we sit down and play our character, not the world), our exposure to the morality of the game world comes through the actions and behavior of the characters. If the PCs resort in murdering NPCs at every turn, that means (whether the GM intended it or not) the world is a dangerous place to life, where life is cheap.

Should the PCs in that game world be murdered while helpless, they cannot act surprised.

The inverse example is also true. PCs that help the sick and infirm, defend small villages, and turn over bad-guys to the authorities probably live in a world where law and order are just as important as charity and goodwill. While less realistic, these kinds of game are probably more commonplace than the previous example.

So in order to maintain a semblance of religious reality in a gaming world, the characters cannot go about their days ignoring Thor and Zeus and Kali. In fact, in many instances, they can't even go a few hours without another prayer session or moment of silence and reverence.

Obviously stopping every two hours to pray to the gods of the four winds is no way to keep a campaign moving. But only cutting mistletoe from a tree on winter solstice with a silver sickle is no way to play a stoic druid who reveres nature above all things. There should be a happy medium.

Having each character select a god to worship (regardless of class) is a good start. And before someone tries to say, "even my savage fighter and barbarian characters?"


Even soldiers in William Wallaces Scottish renegade police force worshipped god.

Hell, even the Nazis thought they were doing god's work.

And let's not forget, before the corruption of the Templars and the Catholic Church in the second crusade, religion wasn't something normal people were jaded about. Even while they were getting their thumbscrews tightened until they said, "Uncle," most people considered holiness and eternal life in the hereafter more important living itself. In fact, so afraid were people of dying and wandering purgatory forever, the number one fear of the black plague wasn't dying, but dying without a priest administering the last rites.

How then can we believe

Now. You'll notice. Since 99% of all fantasy games are either an Arthur (usually Morte d'Arthur) or Tolkien derivative (and the Lord of the Rings was surprisingly low on bishops and priests), these game worlds lack "god" as a primal focus of how the world was created. It's no wonder why they have no place in gaming.

And the Forgotten Realms is even worse.

With over 100 gods to choose from, it's impossible to keep track of. It gets so ridiculous, that a city like Waterdeep has 50+ chapels with no chance whatsoever of eliciting legitimate response to their respective causes.

So, obviously the world needs to reflect the attitudes of the GM and the player's equally. Which probably starts with people talking about exactly what it is they want from a game...
Playing the Part
Which brings me to roles.

Now. I'm not going to tell anyone how to play. That's just silly. What good would that do. If you want to play godless dirt-worshiping heathens, go right ahead. But for those of you with paladins and clerics in your games, it's sort of important to figure out what they stand for...

... and why they are here in the first place.

For starters, if a cleric's only role is to heal the other PCs, then give those spells to the wizard and/or give them more healing potions. Problem-solved. Stop reading now.

And if a Paladin's only game plan is to be annoyingly judgmental prick about every action the part takes, let any of the PCs take PRICK as a feat and give the mount ability to him or her. And since Smith Evil can be found on every third bad prestige class, there's really no cause to play this class for it's abilities.

So. With that in mind, let us design these classes the intelligent way. What is their role?

Cleric [Ignoring for a moment that every god should have its own specialized Cleric class.]
Well. Certainly priests and ministers need to heal the sick, perform marriages, christen babies, negotiate disputes between neighbors, proselytize, perform miracles, and when they have time convert "sinners" to their cause, especially in proactive religions. That can mean a wide range of things, but the majority of those non-adventuring abilities can fall under the same umbrella -- perhaps a Rituals skill that a Cleric can increase at will, regardless of level.
You've got to get father Zybron to perform your wedding ceremony. Not only was my mother in tears at how beautiful it was, but my dad claimed to hear angels speak to him. I kid you not.
Obviously, this will create a greater range of abilities for Clerics and make them a sought after character to play for people who want to "roleplay" in addition to killing things.

Clerics need to heal stuff, but I don't think they need all the BUFF spells that come with the class. Wearing armor and fighting with an improved attack bonus is benefit enough in my opinion.
Want a real challenge, have a fifth level fighter take on a fith level cleric who already has bull strength, magic vestment's cast on himself before the combat starts and then uses his spiritual weapon and inflict spells in place of a weapon. Make the situation worse by having the cleric be an orc with Strength 20, virtually guaranteeing his touch attacks. When its time for the orc to heal himself (if it goes that long), he can hold person the fighter, while using his 1st-level cure spells until he's ready to pull out his warhammer and finish the combat. What does any of that have to do with being a cleric, again?
Now, the rest of their abilities can be pulled right out of AEG's Secrets, which details acts of faith and miracles that clerics can perform as part of their "job." Obviously these need to be personalized, but I think this is an excellent place to start designing a new, more appropriate cleric class for your realistically designed metaphysical cosmology.

Paladin [Ignoring for a moment that every god should have its own specialized Paladin class, that it should be a prestige class, and there shouldn't be an alignment restriction.]
Paladins are soldiers of god. They are the most virtuous and most dedicated of the "Pope's" retinue, doing (without question) whatever must be done in the name of Poseidon, Loki, or Shiva.

So. What are they doing adventuring with money-hungry dwarf mercenaries, halfling pick-pockets, murderous assassins, and one-trick pony clerics?

Those of you who followed the design of Raavnia some months back, may recall that Paladins were entrusted with the role of hunting down heretics. And while that might not be the right job for every campaign, its a place to start for determining what paladins in your campaign do.


Let's examine the class.

Smite evil. Detect evil (for free). Mount. Lay on hands. Excellent saving throws. Aura of courage (book-keeping for Munchkins). Turn Undead (a useless ability on adventures without undead; and an abusive ability in an adventure with a few undead). Special Mount. Remove Disease. And after 6th level... nothing.

Let's not forget a code of conduct (yawn) and an alignment restriction (stupid).


Not only is that a random assortment of abilities, but that's just boring.

Okay. So let's try to make this class more useful, shall we.

Delete the alignment restriction. Check with everyone at the table... can bob play a Paladin this campaign? Is that going to conflict with any character designs? No? Okay, there's your code of conduct.

Paladins hunting heretics need to be able to detect ALL alignments, cast zone of truth, and sense motive at a level no one else can. Their "smite" needs to be a damage bonus to all attacks against all heretics equal to their Wisdom bonus. The special mount is easily tied to their "bounty hunting" style. Turn undead makes little to no sense. Aura of courage is gone. And lay on hands doesn't seem to fit this design.

This version of the Paladin needs more Skill Points, access to more skills, good saving throws, lots of money and resources, and the ability to exorcise demons/devils. Once all of that is pulled together, you can slap around some bonus feats here and there and make this class comparable with a fighter, ranger, or rogue in terms of power and utility.

Your experience may vary.

Tying it All Up With a Pretty Bow
The key ingredient, before mechanics and world design, is getting the players on board. If the players resent the notion of religion sneaking into their kill-fests, then ignore everything you've read today. But if the players want to try something new, with more realistic overtones, giving the players "gods" to worship and a reason to worship them is paramount.

Religious people attend church, which builds community, which gives people access to contacts and even information/discounts from people they trust. Followers of Odin can probably get access to really nice weapons and worshippers of Dionysus know the best places to carouse, no matter what city they are in. Followers of Vishnu can crash for free in one his temples, anywhere in the world. Even followers of Brahma and Krishna might let you stay for free as well.

While game benefits are excellent boon to give players for choosing a god, the environment needs to reflect that sort of thinking. Games like Dogs in the Vineyard encourage intellectual discussions and impassioned debate about the "Laws" and what is truly just, creating a unique game experience that cannot be paralleled with a roll of a d20. Characters that worship similar gods (from the same pantheon) give themselves room to debate what sort of course of action they should take against a lich, giving them a moral dilemna, rather than just... kill the lich, which requires no decision-making whatsoever.

This article went a lot longer than I originally planned. What started as me talking to myself in the shower about the metaphysics of the modern world, grew into a 3-hour long write-up (complete with phone interruptions, data research, and art manipulation) that spanned modern and ancient religions, bad character class design, munchkins, and new abilities for PCs that may or may not be exploited just as much as any other bonus.

Thanks for stopping by and we'll see you next time on Great Cleave.