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.