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Natural 20's Random Thought Table - Getting Religion pt. 2 Print
Written by Brian Nisbet   
Jun 05, 2010 at 06:08 PM

What was originally expected to be a two-part series on religion has now become more than that, all thanks to everyone's favourite serpent in the apple-tree, Colm Lundberg. In this part - a discussion of various ways to play a religious character in your campaign...

Welcome to Part 2 of what was originally supposed to be a two part series on religion in gaming. It would appear I've lied as Colm Lundberg has prompted me to add a third part, an analysis of real life religion in gaming, something I've touched on in Part 1 & 2, but I'll go into in substantially more detail in Part 3. To repeat what I said at the beginning of Part 1, in the spirit of full disclosure and before anyone leaps to any conclusions, 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.

Playing in a game that involves a decent amount of religion or playing a character that is religious can provide some wonderful roleplaying opportunities. The use of divine power and the possibility to interact with beings of great power, gods to your mortal, offer a wealth of considerations, choices, encounters and pitfalls. And that very thing of just how wonderful it can be leads straight into the first major point I want to make in this article. It is laughably easy to cheapen gods and religion in a game. A lot of early fantasy games did this, careful not to poke conservative Christianity too hard, so divine magic became just magic, albeit with different focus and strengths in different areas. That was it. A cleric became a cure light wounds spell on legs and had to pay a little more attention to their behaviour, when the players and the GMs remembered about such things. In my early experiences of D&D you played a cleric for more hp, better weapons and those all important healing spells. If you wanted real power and to use "real" magic, you rolled a mage. Sadly there are many adult players who keep on doing the same thing, missing the whole point.

That's not to say that religious roleplaying is restricted purely to the generic cleric class. Any character can be religious, even if that doesn't grant any divine power and despite the fact that very few of us forget our religious views in real life, it tends to be one of those things that gets very little time in most games. Humanity, the only sentient race we have experience of, gravitates towards religion. Many of us seem to require faith, or feel more comfortable if we have it. I have no intention of going into an essay on my opinions of why people believe what they believe (or indeed why I believe what I believe), that's definitely best discussed over a pint, but humanity does. So it's natural to assume that if you're playing a human in 95% of game worlds (or a race pretty close to human in lots of things, even with pointy ears or tusks) there's a good chance your character was brought up with some manner or class of faith, even if it was just lip service. It's also been observed that people are far more likely to pray in dangerous situations, the kind of situations your character is likely to find himself in, so I tend to believe, these days at least, that it's far more likely a PC would have some kind of faith, rather than not having it. By this I mean that any player should consider it a fair question if the GM asks if they have faith and, if not, why not? There are many possible answers here and I am not suggesting that all PCs should believe in something, far from it, but they should have a reason why. There is no way these reasons aren't going to add to your characters history and personality and anything that does that is worth the time.

But let us assume for now that your character does have faith, more than just lip service. They believe there is a god, or many gods, or powerful spirits, that, in short, the divine is real and it interacts with the mortal races. There are a few branches off from that point, worth considering in turn.

1) The character has faith, but it's all made up:

So, there may well be rituals, praying, holy books, taboos of one kind or another, but they're all hokum. It's entirely possible a PC can go through their entire life being religious in this way without it being more than background colour, or the occasional inconvenience. The typical end result or plot hook for this trait will, however, be one where the character either loses their faith in dramatic (and potentially soul-destroying) fashion or they lose their life trusting their faith to save them. Walking into a deadly situation knowing, out of character, that you're doomed, but trusting, in character, that your god will save you is one of the greatest sacrifices possible on the altar of roleplaying and can provide amazing moments of play. Hopefully of course they'll live out their lives and go on to pass their faith to the next generation, but god failing to appear from out of the machine at the crucial moment is, from a roleplaying point of view, substantially more rewarding.

2) The character has faith, gods/powers exist, but not the ones they believe in:

I realise this seems like a corner case, but it's a vital bridging point between point 1 and 3. If you live in a world where divine power is made manifest and miracles can occur, what kind of mental stubbornness or deep faith does it require to keep your faith, one which has never produced anything tangible? Could you be converted after the Priestesses of the Eternal Moon turn even more water into wine and bring the dead back to life, while your lot can, at best, organise a church cleaning rota? Or will you hold on, knowing it's only a matter of time before your god speaks to you and proves you right after all this time.

3) The character has faith and it's all true:

This is, I suppose, the default situation in games that feature religion. Whether you're a cleric or just a lay follower your god or gods exist, they've manifested, answered prayers and proven themselves to be the real deal. Wow. It is the tendency for players to just accept this, to take what they're given and use it to their own ends. Now, this doesn't just happen with religion, it happens with most different things, like magic, superpowers etc. We nod, smile, min-max and get on with it. But really, read again what we're saying here. Gods exist and they can channel their power through mortal vessels to change the world, heal the sick, bring the dead back to life, aid communication, keep people safe and smite those who would harm the faithful. Gods. Not arcane symbols or complicated mathematics, not things that man was not meant to wot of, but real divine beings that may well have played a part in the creation of the universe. Even in a world where this is commonplace I don't believe that it is something people would just get used to. If you're "just" a follower (I won't say believer here as the question of belief doesn't arise, these beings exist) then you know that breaking taboos or not following the dogma or canon law could result in a real punishment. It could also, to be different, be a major plot arc for you to show that the law of the church is not what your god wants. It's possible that, despite your lack of a direct channel to divine power, your god could act to save you when you go where angels fear to tread, but I wouldn't start to rely on it. That kind of situation is a perfect one to transition a character into a being with divine power, to one of the true chosen ones. The character creation system of Hunter and Exalted (functionally the same game in many ways) both use this intervention and infusion of power, although in their cases the PC doesn't have to be a follower/believer, they just have to be chosen. If you are already a vessel, then again you have a direct reason for following a list of rules. If you're naughty all your power may be taken away. This isn't something you've discovered for yourself or you have a talent for, you are the chosen of a god and everything you do is with their agreement. If your character gets too cocky then another obvious plot arc appears, that of loss of power and the quest for redemption.

4) It's all true, but the character has no faith:

So, fine, gods exist, you've seen them, you may well even know people who can channel their power, but you really don't care. It has been argued, back and forth, that seeing is not believing, rather that seeing is the end of believing and, possibly, the beginning of familiarity breeding contempt. I'm not going to try and settle that argument, but there are certainly characters who are perfectly willing to believe that gods exist, but not to have any truck with them. Archchancellor Ridcully from the Unseen University is one such character, he's more than willing to leave that to his brother. Indeed, the whole of Glantri (the finest place in the D&D Known World) is an example of this. The people knew well that the Immortals existed, but damned if they were going to worship them. Clerics were executed and the entire population, metaphorically, wore copper armour in any thunder storm they could find. This can get interesting when divine power saves a character's uncaring ass and the power of plot would suggest that any such PC is more likely to end up dealing with gods than one who is quite happy to have faith, but its things like that which keep people interested!

This all brings me to the final point I want to make on this subject, that of PCs dealing with the presence of the divine and the manifestation of deities. One of the things that really annoys me about the roleplaying of others, and myself, is the way in which players have their characters react when they meet a deity. There is no set way to react, but the near universal dismissal really irritates me (I try hard not to do so these days). I'm not suggesting that every divine being should cause mortals to bow down and worship, but they are still beings of divine power and, at the very least, there should be some acknowledgement of that. Exalted gives an excellent example of graduated response. It is suggested that the Celestial Exalted should react with appropriate reverence to the big guns, the Unconquered Sun, Luna, Gaia and the five Elemental Dragons, at least. However it's made very clear that their position in the hierarchy is above many, many gods, from the petty spirits, right up to more powerful beings who get too big for their boots. However it is always made clear that gods should be treated with respect, unless they've been naughty. Most PCs will be a damn sight less powerful than a god and while I am far from suggesting submission, of any kind, respect should be given where earned, or where appropriate, and certainly there should be an awareness of just how powerful the deity might be. The first godslaying I can remember seeing in pop culture was in Ghostbusters (see Part 1 for why that film is crucial to my understanding of religion in games/fantasy/sci-fi). The guys did what they needed to do, they killed a god and were willing to sacrifice themselves to do so, but Venkman's bravado aside, they were very, very scared. They acted with power and with anger and they saved the world, but at no point did they dismiss Gozer or Zuul. Gods should not be merely be treated as the man behind the curtain, but free will is still the most important thing your PCs will have and the wrong thing is the wrong thing, be it a mortal actor or divine. Show reverence when you should, don't piss off beings who can squash you like a fly, but remember, when it's appropriate, that toasting (with a particle accelerator) the being in question is entirely appropriate.

User Comments

Comment by GUEST on 2010-06-08 05:35:59
interesting stuff and thanks for considering my suggestion - the Serpent

Comment by GUEST on 2015-11-22 04:48:38
Would like to recommend a very good book on the topic:"Is there a God" by Richard Swinburne, OUP.This is a liltte book (only around 100 pages) but very inspiring. It is a liltte difficult, but already the most approachable work of Swinburne. This is truly worth reading.

Comment by GUEST on 2015-11-22 06:37:37
Would like to recommend a very good book on the topic:"Is there a God" by Richard Swinburne, OUP.This is a liltte book (only around 100 pages) but very inspiring. It is a liltte difficult, but already the most approachable work of Swinburne. This is truly worth reading.

Comment by GUEST on 2015-11-23 05:58:11
, your third and final picture of Brett Favre, grcinmiag in pain does not quite do me justice.As I'm driving down the road, and my more intelligent brother is typing this, I will have him research online to see if we can find the picture of Favre leaving the field on a stretcher now that would make me happy. In closing I want a picture of him hurt, on the field.*Disclaimer* The above thoughts expressed by my brother do not necessarily reflect those of me, the older, wiser, better-looking of the two Davis brothers.

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