20 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 12: Losing my Religion

I see it time and again, it bugs me every single time I see it. It’s basically the equivalent of a RPG fantasy heartbreaker filled with familiar mechanisms but with some twist, or some weird combination of old mechanisms that must make sense to the designer, but just feels like it’s missing something.

I’m talking about the generic application of a “Tolkienesque” pantheon of gods to a fantasy setting. Maybe it’s just the western cultural paradigm, there are certainly hints of Judaeo-Christianity about it, by way of the Olympian (or Norse, or Celtic) Gods, and maybe a heresy like Gnosticism or Catharism thrown in for good measure.

One all-powerful god/celestial-being, spawns the world then creates lesser-entities/lesser-gods/angels who take care of specific aspects of reality, one of whom rebels. Sometimes the lesser-entities sing in choirs to maintain the form of the world, sometimes they manifest in the physical realm (or undertake quests), sometimes they squabble among themselves, but they are typically still in adoration of the original all-powerful creator.

…and what makes it worse, is that almost invariably, the noble humans of these settings worship the all-powerful creator, while the other races (and less noble humans) are deluded and worship one of the lesser-entities.

Curiously, thinking back into “The Lord of the Rings” (mostly the movies, because they are fresher in my mind than the books), there really isn’t a lot of overt religion in it. The great evil of the setting has physically manifest in the world (maybe not completely, but you can literally see the eye), I don’t recall seeing any kinds of priests trying to convert the faith of the people, just warriors and leaders trying to confront the savagery of quasi-supernatural beings. The religious dogma and myth structure are applied to the background, and inform the story in some ways, but they are hardly spoken about. From watching the Game of Thrones TV series, it’s fairly similar. Many families follow the new ways, but some still follow their favoured patrons among the old gods, in most cases the gods of the setting are only vaguely mentioned, and don’t seem to have an impact on the world. Many fantasy RPG settings make their religion and deities more overt (and most follow the paragraphs of previous description), probably due to the presence of priests and clerics among the character classes. Many recent novels have drawn their lore from RPG settings and thus the spiral goes down further.

You may think from that last paragraph that I’m only grudgingly adding religion to the world, but that’s not right. I’m adding story potential and conflict to the setting by adding various religious outlooks to the setting. I’m specifically not saying that one particular spiritual cosmology is right, and I’m not saying that other groups have it wrong, instead I’m providing choices for players to explore through their characters. That’s part of the storytelling for me.

A few RPG settings do it well in my opinion. The Warhammer Fantasy world has different cultures who follow different gods, hidden cults who worship other gods, and the hideous Lovecraftian chaos gods who seek to subvert, destroy, pervert and consume. The setting is such a baroque mash-up of ideas and agendas that no single cosmology is distinctly “the one over-riding truth”. The various conflicting myth systems in each game line from the classic World of Darkness, each showing a version of reality that matches with the cultural ideas of the race, and each possible to forge into a surreal whole when parts from different views are combined. The main point here is that religion needs to be another avenue for story to develop, for the characters to make decisions about…not just something where the players are told “This is right, and everyone else is just misguided”.

So far, there have been hints of four distinct religious systems: The Holy Order of the Prophet, The Old Elemental Gods, Native Shamanism, and “Assorted Superstitions”. Each of the cultures has a tendency to follow one of these in its pure form, or some kind of hybrid blend. The only religion described in any detail so far is the Holy Order, and that’s because we have an entire culture within the setting dedicated to it (we also have the cult, but they’ve been left deliberately vague up until now). We can probably assume that the “assorted superstitions” and more folk-lore than formal religion, much like those found scattered across our world. The Native Shamanism will require a bit of research into Maori lore so I can tie the religion into the culture in an appropriate manner, but I’ve got a few ideas to incorporate a voodoun loa vibe to it, so that certain characters can be ridden by spirits as enchanted warriors and visionaries (but this is probably getting more into ritual than cosmology). The Old Elemental Gods was just something I pulled out of the air, because I thought of pirates worshipping “the four winds”, then I thought about some kind of Lovecraftian horror arising from the waves, or some earth elemental spirit who is appeased to avoid crashing into rocky reefs.

Religion is a driving factor in the game for a few reasons.  Most notably because of the “Church” and “Cult” factions, next because of the presence of devout miracle workers from all walks of life, and then because there is an element of supernatural mystery inherent in the setting. But it is important to note that religion is not the primary driver, the exploration and mystery of the setting are more important; religion adds flavour to this, along with the conflict between the rigid order of the old world versus the flux of the new world, and the class struggles of those who have (and want to keep it) versus those who don’t have (but struggle to get it).

I’m thinking that a few general paragraphs on each religion should suffice. One paragraph on the general belief structure, one on the common daily and weekly rituals and prayers, one indicating a couple of special festivities or observances, one describing the places of worship, and one describing each religion’s views on the others. I’d only get into more detail if there were players specifically after this information, and for the purposes of an ongoing live action campaign, I’d probably let some of the more dedicated players develop the religions through their in-character interactions.

(P.S. and Retrospective editing note: Thankyou to Pedro-Juan Ferrer Matoses for pointing our my incorrect spelling on "La Santo Orden del Profeta" I have gone through the previous posts and corrected it to "La Santa Orden del Profeta" where I could find it.)
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