Thursday, July 17, 2014

Polytheism And Religion In Games

The heat wave is continuing here, though things are getting better. I haven’t done any work on the blog at all, so there’s a good chance I won’t have the Middle Sea Witch class done by Monday. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll work on the Bullrider instead.

But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about polytheism in game worlds.

Most people think that polytheism is just like monotheistic religion. However, there are many characteristics of polytheistic religion that make it completely distinct from the latter. For one, there is no exclusivity. That should seem obvious, but people designing games tend to forget that and make their “polytheistic” cultures look like a whole lot of competing monotheisms, or at least henotheisms (henotheism is the practice of acknowledging that there may be other gods, but worshiping/venerating only one). This becomes particularly noticeable in those settings where gods generate power through the number of their followers, and so the competition for worshipers ends up being fierce.

Now, it has been rightly pointed out that in polytheistic cultures, there are priests or other religious specialists who focus strongly on just one god. This does not, however, change the fact that the general body of the people give honor to any number of gods, and even the religious specialists are known to look to other gods when the need or desire arises. Also, there is a marked tendency in most games for a priest specialist to pick the “strongest” god, as the powers that the priest will be able to wield will be determined by their god. This flies in the face of the historical fact that there have always been priests who focus on even the smallest gods – or even non-god beings like nymphs.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at how various games handle religion, whether well or poorly.

First up, the basic D&D approach (also used by most D&D-like games) is to have a Cleric class which represents the main way to approach the gods. In some versions, other characters are allowed a slight chance of appealing to the gods by invoking their name and hoping for a good die roll to get Divine Intervention. The second mechanic there goes a long way toward alleviating the problem, but limiting the majority of divine appeals to a specialist class is something that is particularly a characteristic of monotheistic religions. A good rule that would help even more than the Divine Intervention chance is to incorporate the ability to get one-time bonuses for a character of any class who makes an offering to the god at their shrines, temples, or whatever. For instance, by buying and sacrificing a sheep at the temple of Fortuna (with the aid of the priests of the temple, of course), the character might be given one reroll (must take the second roll) to use at any time in the future. Or whatever, maybe even one-use spells of an appropriate level to the character (and certainly the bonuses carried at one time should be limited by character level, perhaps one bonus per level). This should probably require tracking the piety of the character with regard to that god – those who blaspheme Fortuna shouldn’t get her bonuses without making some sort of appropriate penances. There was a good method of tracking such piety in the old FGU game Lands of Adventure. Of course, now that we’re tracking piety in relation to each god, we should work that into the system somehow, but I’m not here to write up an entire method.

Speaking of Lands of Adventure, religion in that game is handled much like it is in D&D, where characters choose one god from whom they get most of their divine powers, leading to a henotheistic system rather than a polytheistic one.

Next, we find RuneQuest (and, to an extent, HeroQuest). In that game, characters can become Initiates of various Cults, each dedicated to a deity. Even non-Initiates (called Lay Members, though Lay Members still have to undergo a minor initiation – they just don’t have to sacrifice POW to get their initiation) can often gain some bonus from the Cult. This is a very good approach, but leaves out the possibilities, common in historical polytheisms, of approaching gods one has not yet had a chance to become acquainted with, not to mention the fact that, normally, becoming a Lay Member should give one access to all of the gods of the culture. Still, RQ is a great way to approach polytheist religion, and I recommend it. Not surprising, really, as the designer of the original RQ setting, Glorantha, is an active and practicing polytheist himself.

In Chivalry & Sorcery, religion is dealt with cursorily, by specifying religious practitioners and giving them powers, pretty much ignoring the gods themselves. Eh, it works, but has all of the problems present in the D&D system. At least by avoiding naming particular gods and sticking to the social roles (“Priest”, “Druid”, “Shaman”, or whatever), the C&S system avoids the problems of seeming to be a henotheistic semi-polytheism.

GURPS Voodoo takes a slightly different tack, by ignoring the religion parts, but treating the gods for what they can do. Anyone can approach any god (or “Loa”, more properly spelled “Lwa”) and ask for assistance (which is generally granted by the dispatch of messengers – what Christianity and some other religions might call Angels – to provide assistance). In some cases, that process is treated generically, as a regular use of magic. In other cases, it involves the specific summoning of Manifestations (the aforementioned messengers). Some characters have an entourage of spirit helpers. Finally, certain characters, called “Spirit Warriors”, are given the ability to call on the powers of the god (or Lwa) and manifest them in their own body. This is a really good system.

An obscure game (which I plan to review eventually) is Legendary Lives. This game handles religion well enough, but no better, by giving characters a choice (or roll) of religion based on their culture. This system is only added in the supplement, Societies Sourcebook, though. Every character is given a Devotion score, which acts as a skill in relation to religious powers. The details of what Devotion does vary by religion. Unfortunately, the game falls into the D&D trap of treating individual gods as religions in themselves.

Pendragon is one of the better treatments of religion in gaming, though it avoids immersing players in the role of religion. Characters have five Personality Traits, known as Religious Traits, that are related to their religion, and if those Traits are kept at a high enough level the character gains special bonuses, varying by religion. Beyond that, religion is mainly assumed to be a strong background factor. Unlike Fantasy Wargaming, to choose one example (see below), the characters are given no reason to pursue religious ceremonies (except for the relatively minor effect of being a requisite for the Pious Personality Trait – which is actually a hindrance to Saxon Heathens, for whom the opposing Trait, Worldly, is one of their Religious Traits).

Hârnmaster allows characters to gain piety points that they can spend in exchange for miraculous interventions. The religion system of Hârn resembles the normal henotheism of most games, though. It could perhaps be fixed if characters were allowed to accumulate piety in regard to all of the gods involved, but that might end up being too complex to handle easily in the game.

Unknown Armies only tangentially deals with religion, and mostly from the point of view espoused by Chaos Magick. Characters may pursue becoming an Avatar of a particular Archetype. Archetypes are the game’s equivalent to gods, and the more that a character manifests that Archetype by emulating it, the more of that Archetype’s powers can be expressed by the character. A good system for the setting and ones that use similar assumptions, but not one that fits most historical religions.

Speaking of modern-day/near-future games, Shadowrun has gods of a sort, but they are relegated to a secondary role. The totems in that system factor in as “gods” after a fashion. I wonder if it would be possible to make actual gods using that template? I suspect that it would end up looking very much like D&D-style henotheism, though.

Whatever other merits or flaws it might have, Dogs in the Vineyard treats its religion very well. However, it is focused on one specific sort of religion, in which there is a religion of the Community, and forces outside of that religion that attempt to destroy the Community. Like real-world Mormonism, the religion of DitV tries to account for the polytheistic peoples living around them, and does so only moderately well. Certainly, the religion system in DitV could be adapted to other monotheistic religions, or even the henotheistic ones of most D&D games.

There are other games with religious systems, such as The Riddle of Steel, The Burning Wheel, Wyrd is Bond, and so on, but they are minor and don’t really fit into historical religious beliefs, in my opinion, no matter how good they may be as games. They generally end up appearing much like D&D-style henotheism.

My favorite approach, though, is that in Fantasy Wargaming. In that game, both monotheistic and polytheistic religions are covered (the former primarily by Christianity and Satanism, the latter by Norse religion), and the system manages both well. Characters in that game are given a “religious rank”, which is not directly tied to the Religion level (FW uses a system where every character has three levels: Combat/Adventuring, Magic, and Religion, corresponding to the original three classes in published D&D, with characters generally starting at level zero in each). For Christians, this is either as Lay Clergy at the lower ends of the scale, Ordained Clergy, Monks, or Friars (or Religious Knights), with most characters having no religious rank at all. Satanists are all given a minimum rank, and there is no particular process of Ordination, so that characters may rise in the Devil’s hierarchy on their merits. Norse pagans have two main tracks – either as Priests or as Laity. Priests have a higher minimum/starting religious rank, but Lay members are actually capable of gaining a higher religious rank than Priests (although only if they can manage to become King or Queen)! For the most part, religious powers mainly consist of Ceremonies, which dedicate Mana (magical power) to the god or gods being worshiped and provide a bonus to morale for a while and a chance of Inspiration to the participants, which gives various bonuses, along with other benefits depending on the Ceremony. Anyone may appeal to higher (or lower) powers for a Miracle, which is resolved by the invoked power using the methods of the magic system to cause changes in the world (or, in a few cases such as Resurrection of the dead, the magic system is used in a modified form). Characters can have “patrons”, which gives the character a bonus in appealing to that power (the Norse ones usually are given at birth, and their patron’s name is typically incorporated into their personal name). There is no method given in FW for changing patrons during the game, which is something I will add in my rewrite of the system. Another aspect that helps the system work well is the concept of “Intervention”, whereby an appeal is made to one power who is asked to Intervene with another power. This has benefits in the matter of patronage mentioned, but also because some powers are more difficult to appeal to than others. In the Norse religion, the personal feelings and relationships of various powers affects this chance of Intervention, as well, so that, for instance, the wife of a god will have a better chance of Intervention with that god, while two gods who hate each other (Loki and Heimdall, for instance) reduce the chance of successful Intervention. Finally, each power has areas of Favor and Disfavor, which affects the likelihood of the power responding to the appeal. Altogether, this system became the first to incorporate the personalities of the powers into the game system in a meaningful way. So, this system included both the religious (characters can attend or perform Mass, for example) and the miraculous (through the process of appeals) into one system. Sometimes both are incorporated, such as the rites of Benediction and Malediction. The primary weakness of the FW system in regard to religion is the handling of “negative” piety, which is always assumed to place one in communication with the Devil, even if a Norse pagan. I hope to address this problem in my revision of the game.


  1. I've been mulling religion over for campaign settings based on the Byzantine (using B/X*) and early Muslim (using 2E**) empires and conflicts between them. I have Christian and Muslim god be the same god (I know other treatments in fantasy novels that would have their analogues represent different gods).

    Of course in a game with two competing religions that have the same god at the core, I've been thinking about how I would make that possible: AD&D has paladins - so I'd have my "Christian" paladins, but Al-Qadim has paladins as well. How would two paladins of different religions, but essentially the same gods come in to conflict?

    So far, I've decided upon the god to be a very primal force that encompasses all alignments. At this period of my world's history contact was made with a very powerful entity that may or may not be the creator of all things. In attempts to try to encompass and interpret this being teachers and prophets have arisen with somewhat different teachings based on what they could understand after coming in to contacts with the thoughts of a being that is *everything.* These communions dovetailed into social movements that were arising: first a social movement to tame the powers of an imperial system and another dedicated to containing the excesses of the mercantile class (to simplify matters to almost ridiculously reductionist matter***).

    Another take is that these religions are ideas and concepts about divinity that have given birth to some...solitary source that powers clerical spells, and because this concept arose in areas and times of strong central authority, these religions are also empires of the spirit and mind. The religions and holy tomes have teachings for every alignment axis so that in the same army as lawful/lawful good paladins, you also find the most merciless chaotic evil killers and yet both can be complete devout to the same god.

    1. Which of these concepts are correct: the god as a singular divine spirit that contacted the campaign world, or the god as a singular divine being that coalesced from ideas and social urges into a living force? One, the other, or both at the same is the answer. The people of the world don't know and neither do I.

      At the same time, there are other religions, pantheistic ones that represent the Greco-Roman and pre-Islamic Middle East religions along with primal/Cthonic religions and (being that I still insist on these campaigns being D&Fuckin'D) WEIRD, ELDER (or not) THINGS**** (or really nice elder gods, actually). Cults of Ares still exist in the adventuring lands that form bloodthirsty berserker cults, and Pluto/Dispater/Orcus, one divine force that represents three different alignments that exists as three separate being across different planes, Satan (who has the best music), and weird freaky-deaky Lovecraftian/Howardian beings that may have divine power or may be manifested in forms that can be slain by a hero.

      All this for campaigns that are really straightforward - a sandbox go into dungeons, kill monsters, take their stuff in regions with different power centers and NPCs with their own plots and designs on the region. I think the context will exist around this milieu, and would be there to interact with and in more relevance as characters level and as a group's style of play would warrant it.

    2. *this can be a logistical challenge should PCs of one setting battle NPCs that may hail from the other other empire.

      **I think it would ultimately be simplified and probably end being some kind of hybrid B/X/2E. In the case of Al-Qadim, it would be easier for PCs to contest against the Byzantine NPCs as they could be represented by the regular classes. Vice versa, Al-Qadim characters in the B/X game would have additional powers granted from their kits in a more straightforward B/X fashion (figure out how to simplify Sha'irs, for example).

      ***but how much do you really need for a game where you're basically killing monsters/taking their stuff/exploring an alien environment? More action, less theology.

      ****I think in a setting where there are actual divine powers that will protect or grant favors to their worshipers diminishes the impact of Lovecraftian mythos beings - that mood of a cold, uncaring universe populated by malicious/alien entities loses its bite.

    3. Love it! Yeah, historical monotheism is another one that is actually difficult to handle in D&D-as-written, since there are at least three major religions (and many minor ones) that approach a god who is nominally the same for all of them. This is mainly because Gary didn't really consider the nature of Clerics when he wrote them into the game. This has resulted in no end of problems in trying to portray anything other than the default "multiple henotheisms" cosmology. If he'd just spent a little more time and consideration on the matter, then GMs wouldn't need to really worry much about theology, but as it stands, they do unless they want to just let it go at that default, completely ahistorical cosmology.

      At the very least, a GM needs to know enough about the setting cosmology and theology to know how Clerical and Paladin powers interact with Clerics and Paladins from other lands and religions. This is especially the case with a setting that has a genuine monotheism, but is also important in other settings.