Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Design Decisions Tuesday: Fantasy Religion

Today's "Design Decision Tuesday" covers the topic of religion in my fantasy campaign world, the World of Samoth.

As most of you know, this is a campaign world that I've been tinkering with for the past 24+ years, and actively gaming in for the past 11+ years.

Early State of Religion in the World of Samoth
When I started working in the world, it was really sort of a knock-off of the World of Greyhawk, mixed with some ideas from Dragonlance, and with the internal politics based on my relationships with favorite school mates at the time - letters in names were re-arranged to create countries, and alliances between countries were based on whether I liked someone or not, as well as how they got along without me.

However, one thing that differed a bit was the way that I originally approached religion in the game. Initially, I followed a somewhat faux-Dragonlance style by having three "groups" of religions (Good, Neutral, and Evil) all warring for supremacy. Their wars took the form of various battles that took place on the World of Samoth between religious armies of humans and allied races.

Old Notes on World of Samoth Religions.
Circa 1989-1990.
In this early proto-Samoth campaign design, the "neutral" god(s) won (it was left vague as to whether each neutral god was actually a separate being, or rather just one being with different forms for each different culture in the world), who then laid-waste to the main continent of the world (and the only continent that I actually was developing at the time). In the aftermath of this religious cataclysm, the sun burned a deep reddish-black, thereby providing heat but no light, and the moon burned bright red, providing light but no heat. I thought this was super clever at the time, associating darkness with heat and light with cold, although of course it makes no scientific sense. But, it's magic!

I eventually scrapped pretty much all of this, except for the ideas of religious warfare, which I thought was a very under-developed notion in fantasy RPGs at the time, especially given our own Earth history and how many times it's happened throughout the centuries.

The Religions of Samoth Become More Developed
As I began to shift the focus of the World of Samoth and tighten up the concepts, I eventually decided on the idea of creating monotheistic religions as the basis for my campaign world, rather than sticking with polytheism as has been done since the foundations of the hobby in almost every campaign world (Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, the Known World...).

One thing I knew I wanted to do was to have multiple monotheistic religions, each operating under the idea that they were the only true religion. In fact, I planned to have splinter groups of each main religion, that not only fought against the other main religions, but also among each other to attain supremacy as the "proper form of worship."

I turned back by my old notes and grabbed some names and  ideas that I really liked, including "The Hol" (the name of one of my monotheistic religions), ancestor worship and superstition (I figured there still had to be some more "primitive" people who either hadn't been exposed to the main religion, or chose to mingle their cultural superstitious beliefs with the main religions to create an odd form of hybrid worship), and the idea of cultural differences influencing how each society viewed what was essentially the same being, but caused them to turn that into completely separate religions.

At the end, I had the main religions of Ætonism (both Universal and Eastern), Holism (aka, worship of "The Hol"), and Bhuwanism (in two main "sects", including one that was essentially the worship of thousands of 'spirits').
I discarded all of the various humanoid and demi-human gods, saying that at this point, most of them had been in contact with humans for so long that they'd been assimilated and followed one of the main human religions. Those who didn't and chose to cling to the "old ways" were usually labeled pagans, and often hunted and persecuted. They didn't have strict, formal religious practices, but rather followed ancient themes like ancestor worship, spirit worship, etc. I did this mainly as a way for creative players who wanted a challenge to help shape the world by designing their own religious customs.

The Three Main Faiths Take Shape
Using a variety of religious texts from my university library as inspiration, I began designing the tenets and precepts of each faith. I'm going to eventually post all of these on my World of Samoth website so you can get a sense of how they all tie together. One of the things I heavily relied on was the 2nd Edition AD&D Complete Priests' Handbook, as it had a section of "Faith Design" at the back that was really helpful for answering questions like "what is the creation myth of the faith?" and things like that. I followed that format when creating each religion, and then of course designed holy symbols, priest uniforms, etc. 

All three faiths were based on actual Earth religions, but what I did was mix them around a bunch, combining concepts from all various faiths into each one so that they were not direct translations. Of course, the World of Samoth bears a very strong resemblance to Earth in terms of the culture of each country and where they are located on the map in relation to each other, so it's been pretty easy for players to figure out the main "source" religion for each fantasy faith in my campaign. In my mind, this is actually a feature rather than a bug, as it allows my players to instantly get a handle on the faith in question.

Problems Arise
When I originally designed all of these faiths for the World of Samoth, I wasn't actually playing D&D at the time, and hadn't done so for quite awhile. This was during the 2E era, which represented a very long 12 year drought in the actual playing of RPGs for me. 

So, when I started up my 3E campaign in May of 2001, I had all of this stuff written up, which I proceeded to send to my players, including pages and pages of notes on the various religions. As the designer of these faiths and as the DM of the world, I placed a huge importance on religion in my game and I wanted it to play a very important part in the actual campaign setting.

However, this taught me a very important lesson when it comes to running a RPG, because, as it turns out, my players weren't all that interested in the religious aspects of my world. They, of course, didn't know all of the stuff going on "behind the scenes" and why I, as the DM, felt that it was important, but I eventually just let go of the idea and moved on to focus on what the players wanted to deal with. I still feel that it's a huge missed opportunity, and I continue to bring in some religious stuff from time-to-time, because other things do happen in the world besides just what the players' characters are dealing with.

Another problem that arose came when I tried to figure out things like "can a cleric of any alignment ask for spells from the monotheistic god?" That was a huge problem to deal with, as I wanted to have corruption and evil priests infiltrating my priesthoods. In some cases, they weren't necessarily "evil" but rather just "misguided" - selfish or power-hungry - and I had a very difficult time figuring out how to deal with that in terms of how they would receive their spells. It's something that had never occurred to me when designing the faiths, because I designed them as part of a fantasy world, not really as part of a gaming milieu.

This problem got exacerbated with my focus on religious warfare. All three "main" religions could have paladins, and yet that would mean that I would have to, at some point, reconcile the idea of a paladin of Ætonism attacking a paladin of Holism, and potentially being able to use his "smite evil" ability, since to each paladin, the other one was "evil," as he followed the "wrong" religion. This is still an on-going issue that impacts my campaign, as one of my current players, who plays a "tribal" paladin from a desert-like country, told me that he feels that most Ætonist priests are "evil" due to the way that they treat non-believers (as an example - his reasoning goes far beyond this, and makes a lot of sense given his character background). So, he will lobby to use his "smite" ability on most Ætonist leaders. It's hard to deny his logic when I've set things up so that the organization of Ætonism has done some not-so-nice things in the name of religion, even though individual followers might not be aware of this and are probably good, or at least neutral, in their moral outlook. It's a tough thing to figure out when you're dealing with monotheistic faiths like this. 

 The last little issue that I've needed to deal with is, since I've designed three "main" monotheistic faiths, each of which thinks it is the "true" religion, is it possible that they are all, actually, just different forms of the same faith, all following essentially the same "god"? And, if so, that ties back to the idea of two paladins from different "religions" attacking each other and using their smite ability (or clerics casting spells at each other, etc.) - would the same "god" grant these powers to two different followers just so they could attack each other? If not, how does he choose which one to grant them to? And if he grants them to neither one... why not?

Final Thoughts on Monotheism in Fantasy RPGs
I'm curious how many of you have monotheistic faiths in your RPGs, and if so, how you've dealt with some of the questions I have, above. I can't be alone with struggling with these kinds of issues. I actually don't always have answers in my game world. I tend to take a very liberal approach with what I allow my players to do, just to see how things work out. I'm often surprised by the choices they make, and it's helped me to further define how these different faiths interact in my world.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Boatswain Chocolate Stout
Listening: "Exploration" by Karminsky Experience

1 comment:

  1. I have used monotheistic faiths (sort of). See my right up on two of them here. Of course, I don't tend to use alignment very rigorously.


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