RPG Religion Ramblings: Mumbling & Rants

"Even the toast is burnt here"
Almost half a lifetime ago, I was working in pastoral ministry and studying for a doctorate in theology. I have come a long way since then (or fallen a long way, depending on your perspective). I learned just enough theology to eff up my personal faith. On the other hand, this background probably makes me highly qualified to create religion-type stuff for gaming.That I haven't done so is due, in part, to my own procrastination (I cling to procrastination as my one remaining spiritual gift). There is also this nagging irrational fear in my spiritual limbic system that I will end up eternally in a very warm place--"Try to stat me for your silly little pagan games, will you?" "Is this warm enough for you, gamer boy?" There is still that residual desire within me to not be eternal toast in Hell's kitchen.

Like many gamers before me, I have a dissatisfaction with the approach to religion that infected D&D at its earliest stages (and here I am thinking of Supplement IV; Deities, Demi-Gods, and Heroes). Now in saying that I don't like the typical RPG approach to religion doesn't mean that I have used them. I have. In fact, I recently played a cleric in an AD&D 1e campaign, run by +Tim Shorts (Gothridge Manor).

My dislike of the traditional RPG approach to religion, at least as it is manifest in D&D, comes from three things:
  • The D&D approach to religion is a combination of a grade school understanding of a polytheistic religion coupled with an American suburban understanding of how religion is practiced by individuals and how it is institutionalized. In short, you have a set of gods who each have their own denomination. On Sunday morning, each player character goes off to the church of their patron god. Non-clerical players are likely to be agnostic. Greek mythology provides the template for this, but our grade school understanding of Greek mythology is very different from the complex set of religions that was actually practiced by the Greeks.
  • My second problem is the cleric class. Again, I have played a cleric. And I have never disallowed the class when I was the GM. My problem with the class is two-fold: (1) It doesn't really fit with the swords & sorcery genre of a fantasy game, unlike fighting men and magic-users, the other two classes in the very first versions of D&D; and (2) Beyond a vague resemblance to the Templars and similar orders, there is no historical or literary precedent for the cleric class. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be there. It just means that the cleric class was created as part of a ruleset and they have little resemblance to any religious leaders that exist in the real world.
  • My third issue is related to alignment. The Gygaxian  landscape of alignment, planes, and gods (plus demons, devils, etc) is nothing short of bizarre. Fortunately, it can be easily ignored or selectively borrowed from.
In piling on a bit of criticism, I am ignoring the two favorable aspects of the traditional gaming approach to religion: (1) It works mechanically; and (2) It is simple for a 21st century gamer to understand and implement as a player or GM.

Those two favorable aspects are critically important. If you have ideas about religion for your game but cannot come up with the gaming mechanics to support it, it is a fail. It is also a fail if the players cannot easily grasp it and use it in game. Perhaps we are also coming up against one of the weaknesses of the D&D systems, with its reliance on classes and Vancian spell systems. The religion has to fit the system. There is not much flexibility...maybe another system would work much better.

Beyond the reasons stated above as to why I haven't done much with religion in my game settings (see the first paragraph above), I am a gaming pragmatist. If it works and it is fun, that is usually good enough for me. I am not a hardcore simulationist or an ardent role-player immersion kind of guy. I just like to play and forget about the real world for a while. If anything, I am merely a casual escapist.

More than most of my posts, this post is really written for myself, as a processing exercise. In true 21st century fashion, I am sharing it all with you (rather than writing it in a private journal). Sort of like vomiting my breakfast on a busy city sidewalk. It feels like a necessary step for me, though, as my next steps are to: (1) Start writing up some posts that relate to religion in my Montporte campaign and my embryonic Onyx campaign; and (2) Write some exploratory posts about different ways to represent religion in tabletop RPGs.


  1. I appreciate the share, since it's insightful and I've been thinking along the same lines as well.

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it - but what if there's something better out there to replace it with?

    1. I am thinking of trying to answer that question.

      Thanks for the comment, Anders.

  2. It always fascinates me when someone says that learning theology effed up their faith, because in my case at least the opposite was true. Granted, learning more advanced theology often means learning that a lot of what you learned in Sunday school as a kid is overly simplistic or even ill-informed--but hey, a lot of what I learned in elementary school was overly simplistic and ill-informed.

    I both agree and disagree with your post. On the one hand, I too prefer to explore the role of religion in my constructed worlds and find D&D's "take" on the matter to be as trite as illustrations of Noah's ark with kangaroos along for the ride. On the other hand, this was an entirely deliberate decision by both of the original Dungeon Masters. They didn't want real-world religious debates to clutter up a fun game, nor did they want the fun game to blaspheme their real world beliefs. (Which is the same reason Gary never statted out Lucifer.) In other words, it's a feature, not a flaw.

    I think the bigger problem is that the cleric is undeniably a pseudo-Christian figure, but that most game worlds assume polytheism and try to squeeze the cleric into a general priestly role. I mean, seriously, when we have "clerics" of the gods of magic, there's a problem. Not every god is going to have a militant clerical order.

    My own campaigns tend to avert that by having clerics be the champions of some variant of the Church of the Law, and have druids/shamans representing the neutral "nature" powers. The Lords of Chaos provide their own individualized "gifts" to those foolish enough to entreat them. This general schema works well for the five-fold and nine-fold alignment systems (or no alignment system) just as well with only small modifications.

    1. Thanks the response, Michael. I would say that I am responsible for my personal path. Looking back, I was studying theology as a way to fill a void that was already there. The study of theology didn't create it. In hindsight, however, if my goal was to have a stronger faith, it would appear that the academic study of theology was not the right path for me personally. At any rate, I can't undo the past but I am also not necessarily done with my faith either.

      In game terms, I like your approach a lot and seems like a very sensible and workable approach context of an RPG system. I laughed when I read your comment about the "gods of magic." I had the same problem.

    2. Yeah, I can see where you're coming from there. If you'll pardon the analogy, theology won't fill a pre-existing void in faith any more than more stats will fill a pre-existing void in a DM's and his/her players' skill in bringing a world to life (as 4e demonstrated). In both cases there's an intangible "something" that needs to be there for the intellectual exercise to build on.

      Glad my suggestion clicked with you. I'm looking forward to reading some more of your thoughts as you work your way through the worldbuilding exercise. In particular, I'd love to see a non-Vancian system for clerics/druids/priests that gives their magic a different flavor without putting them out of balance.


  3. like vomiting my breakfast on a busy city sidewalk

    Aw, man, I was eating my lunch when I read this post. Gross! :)

    Seriously though, I really like the post.

    The D&D approach to religion is a combination of a grade school understanding of a polytheistic religion coupled with an American suburban understanding of how religion is practiced by individuals and how it is institutionalized.

    I've often wondered about this, but have never done adequate reading on it.

    The cleric doesn't really fit with the swords & sorcery genre of a fantasy game

    Have you ever thought about removing the cleric class the way Delta (at Delta's D&D Hotspot) does in his house rules (downloadable from his blog)?

    Not saying at all that clerics need to be removed, but I found the idea interesting. Crypts and Things (I believe) also has no cleric class, specifically mimicking the cleric's virtual absence from the swords and sorcery genre.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Chris. I didn't realize that Delta had removed the cleric in his house rules. I will definitely have to download that. I really like Crypts & Things and the way it adds many of the clerical spells to the magic-user class. I like it a lot.

  4. Ken I need to get with you on a sidebar and discuss this because I am struggling with clerics a bit in the thing I am working on.

    1. I am really interested in seeing what we can figure out. Do have you have anything written down, even in rudimentary form?