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Natural 20's Random Thought Table - Getting Religion pt. 1 Print
Written by Brian Nisbet   
Apr 23, 2010 at 11:55 AM
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Natural 20's Random Thought Table - Getting Religion pt. 1
Page 2

Brian tells us all about how he thinks religion should work in your games and campaigns...

Natural20's Random Thought Table - Getting Religion Part 1

While it would be extremely simple to boil everything about religion down into one simple maxim ("When someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!"), I feel that the subject at hand might require a little more exploration than that. I have opted to split this into two articles, one from the point of view of the GM, the other from the point of view of the players. Faith, spirituality and organised religions can all add a lot to any roleplaying game, be it a character quirk, a major plot arc, a driving force or the appearance of an active, 'real' world. It's up to the GM and the players to decide just how much they want deities and their ways to enter into the game, but considering the prevalence of religion in the real world, it's unlikely that faith, or just the trappings of same, won't at least show up in small ways. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure and before anyone leaps to any conclusions, the I am a Christian, but I also believe that any religions whose central tenet isn't "Be excellent to each other" just isn't worth paying any attention to and that I don't care what people believe in, as long as they don't harm anyone and they keep an open mind.

In case it doesn't become very obvious, very quickly, we're going to start with the GM.

Back when I started to play RPGs you never said that the GM was a god, or like god or anything like that where any adults (and for adults, read parents) might hear you. Ireland in the 80s was far too twitchy about that kind of thing and it only took the wrong word in the wrong place and a badly timed magazine article to make those who allowed you to play these games suddenly to decide that there was something very fishy going on. However as I grew up that phrase tended to crop up far more regularly. Of course, a good GM doesn't play god, that's far too easy and likely to lose you players. Playing a god is, however, an entirely different thing. However you still have to be very careful to pitch your deity right, or to represent the awesome forces of a pantheon with out coming across as a joke. Equally if you are going to introduce faith with power into your campaign, you have to make sure that it's an attractive option for your players. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, there's a bigger question to answer first.

You might suppose that this article assumes religion will form part of your campaign, but that's not the case at all. Religion, like politics, is one of those things that people get very sensitive about. The first time you plan to introduce the subject it is, as it always is with anything complex, worth checking with your players that it's ok. This has been less of a factor over the years and I would expect it to continue to be so, but human life is a varied and splendid thing and you never know what people might object to. The better you know your players the less concern you should have and I'm not suggesting you go into great detail about every facet of your campaign and where it touches on religion, but leaving aside cultural background info the players will require to create their characters and interact with the world it's potentially worth checking the basic ideas you have in mind won't cause any issues. I'd expect this part to take in or around a minute, possibly including the time it takes some of the players to stop eating before they answer.

It is very easy to just say, "Er, so, yeah, monotheistic religion, creation myths, humanity in his own image, ya know, like we have, stuff." This, to be honest, doesn't even worth if you're playing your game in an every so slightly different version of the real (or historical) world. Sentient life, as we've observed it, seems to spend vast amounts of its time coming up with stories about how it got to where it is and very few of those stories agree on the details. I'm not suggesting that if you're playing on Earth that you can't say, "Religious beliefs are as they are," or to twist things around, change them up, but never believe that people will only believe one thing. If there's a globe spanning religion then there will be heretics, there will be unbelievers and there will be those who'll agree with whatever the most dangerous person in the room wants them to believe. Bear this in mind if you're inventing your own pantheon of course. And don't fall into the trap of thinking that gods manifesting will make entire races believe. Again, sentients, or at least the ones we've encountered so far, seem to be really, really good at ignoring certain things and the mere fact of a deity standing in front of them may not be enough to make them believe. It may, of course, be enough to make them believe and wet themselves, but they're the chances you take. So spend some time on your creation stories/myths, steal them from somewhere else if you want, but make sure at least one of them can make a good campfire story or be the basis for an inspirational speech or a major plot arc. If they're complex then people will want to talk about them, in game, maybe even to have arguments, to generate plot of their own and to give you ideas for splinter groups, opposing sides and weird little heresies that might really get the creative juices flowing.

Once you have some idea of what kind of spirituality exists in your world, then you have to figure out how it manifests itself. Again, the easiest default is the one we're used to. A world with many beliefs and claims, but one where none of them can be proved by science (or whatever you wish to call repeatable testing). Of course things get far more interesting when the miracles and sightings, or at least some of them, are real. It is in worlds like these where some of the most amazing stories can be found. As with all things the range is huge. In the same way as magic the power of numina goes from low to high. Maybe any ability to heal, even simple things, will make you king or create a cult? Or perhaps there is a cleric in every village, but the truly pious can call down the wisdom and might of heaven? It is very easy to simply equate arcane and divine power, but I truly believe that is missing the point. A wizard, on average, uses the power of the universe for their own ends, a cleric channels the power of their deity for the ends of that deity. I will talk about this more in the section about players, but it is enough to note now that a world where wielders of power are identical apart from the fact one has a holy symbol and one wears a pointy hat is a two dimensional world at best. Let the miracles be subtle or blatant, but make them acts of a higher power, a sign that says this person is touched by god, with all of the sacrifice and privilege that brings with it.

In general players, even those who aren't horribly munchkin about things, will be interested in some sort of edge, either over each other or the world. Subtle but strong can often be a winner here and offering that to players can be an easy way of getting the type of character you might like for your campaign. Spiritual power can be very attractive if it is rare, even if it isn't that powerful. An interesting example of this is True Faith from the original Vampire: The Masquerade. This, and similar powers in the World of Darkness, was a very delicate, not one you wanted to rely on, but one that could be utterly game changing. To walk, as the psalm says, in the valley of darkness, but to fear no ill, can be a truly wonderful thing and it tends to work even better if the rest of the world thinks your deity is made up or weak compared to the other powers of the universe. Of course sometimes players just want to get their hands on someone who can call down the power of the gods at a moment's notice and lay waste to cities, in which case I direct you to Exalted and all of the goodness within.

The final thing I want to touch on is perhaps the hardest part about introducing religion into a game as anything more than mere 2D background; playing a deity. Players, being players, have an awful habit of taking the piss, of not being impressed when they should be and generally thinking that every NPC that's more powerful than them is only more powerful right now, in a very temporary way. This can even happen with wonderfully experienced groups of mature players. This means that visitations from on high can sometimes lead to snarky remarks, arguments and a lack of proper respect. Sadly simply killing players who do this is too easy, but, depending on the game, it may well be the only appropriate option. If comments or arguments are made in character, as they should be, then the responses should be in kind. Your game world dictates just how much plot immunity your players have, but walking up to the god of Painful and Sudden Death and calling him a plonker should have natural consequences. A large amount of this can be avoided by not having the players deal directly with deities. Intersession from clerics, messages in dreams or missives on the wind all allow for communication from the deity, either answering the intercedent or simply praying can handle the other direction. Deities can be remote and still clearly powerful and this is often a good way of avoiding... silliness. That said of course many campaigns, especially high fantasy, feature a godslayer arc at some point, but this should not be a simple thing. Yes, in certain games there are many tiers of power in heaven and hell, but proper epic storytelling should concern itself with adversaries of real worth, not the gods of a glade or small town. The chance to die while storming the ethereal realm should be one bought at a high price by the players and it requires real work by the GM to not let the party feel like they've got away easy. It's also important to note that killing a god is rarely the end of the story. The universe notices these things, as to do other members of a pantheon, even those who might otherwise have opposed the ex-deity. The consequences of such an action are legion, from bloodthirsty followers to paranoid fellow gods, will likely stay with the characters until the end of their days.

So give your religions depth and your creations many myths. Play your deities with power and style and let not the world be unchanged by their comings or their goings, or especially their deaths. But always remember, a little omnipotence goes a long way and your gods are just stories, its the players you want to have coming back for more.

User Comments

Comment by GUEST on 2010-05-04 08:48:13
An article about using actual real religion in roleplay might also be interesting, B 
- Colm L

Comment by GUEST on 2010-05-04 08:49:03
Then again - that may be part 2!! (CL)

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