Thursday, 20 March 2014

Fantasy Religion?

I have never been convinced by advice that when building a D&D-esque game world, a Referee should model their fantasy religions on those in the real world. Sure, draw on them for inspiration and motifs, etc. But when a D&D-esque fantasy world have a multitude of very real gods (or Immortals), each granting countless miracles each day to their priests, I wonder what room there is for some of the *best* bits of real world religion.

Well, it is a *best* bit when it is a fantasy world and you are hundreds of years removed...

In particular, what room is there for the corrupt priest? Or the secret heretic?

Of course, in a fantasy game world in which the gods are distant and inactive there is room for secret heretical cults with a church and worldly priests who abuse their robes. And distant, inactive gods are one answer, but they're not the answer for the assumed D&D game world. If the gods are active, intervening in human life, if there are unmistakable signs of divine favour (spells, for instance), these sinners and unbelievers will struggle to masquerade as blessed members of the church of the god who they offend.

Note: In Hammerstein!, my own game world (even though we're currently exploring Titan again), I have tried to give the schisms and heresies that are so interesting in real life (at least when you are removed by several hundred years) a fantasy analogue by having humans reject the 'Gods' (a race a cosmic superhuman beings) and instead worship 'Saints'. These are something like the Immortals of Mentzer D&D - humans who, by great deeds, magic, or the veneration of a community, have achieved some kind of intercessionary afterlife. This means that there are a multitude of Saints, some worshipped across the known world, others, such as the heroic ancestors of a single tribe, unknown beyond a single valley or town. This allows me as the Referee to create an endless number of [not-]gods, each with overlapping portfolios and rival interests. It also allows me to plug in all manner of localised real world pantheons by recasting them as heroic ancestors. At the same time - as they reject the Gods - they are all nominally part of the (Lawful) Church of Man, a civilising, unifying project that has a number of rival anti-popes. This gives me room for 'internal' religious conflicts that can range from bloodless doctrinal disputes (hopefully something more 'adventuresome' than to which of the competing Saints should the cobblers of Byzantium offer their devotion) to priests wading in gore as nations clash in war, rallying under the ikons and relics of their heroic ancestors. 

Anyway, do you have corrupt priests and heresies in your game? And what does their (watchful) god do about the bastards?


  1. I found saints a good approach as well for most of the reason you mention. In other words, people can all be presumably worshiping the same "High God" and yet have conflicts over the different approaches to good. Each saint can focus on a different aspect: justice, compassion, redemption, humility.

    One thing I like best is to have saints that take something to an unhealthy extreme. So my St Cecily is about sacrificing the worldly body which brings temptation. Her adherents often cut off their hands and starve themselves to death. On the flip side, St Eudo is about celebrating the worldly things God has granted us: food, wine, music. And his adherents well, you can probably imagine. So these two "saints" which may actually have been good people have led to a lot of corrupted places to explore in my world.

    1. I'd have to check my pile of index cards for the details, but I had the PCs encounter a band of warrior women devoted to a Saint whose portfolio included beauty. Thing is, beauty was understood as being mathematical elegance, and symmetry was highly prized. They would send out adventuring bands to find ancient examples of geometric art (and battle monsters etc.). Thing is, they thought that, as the human body was inherently asymetrical, its pretensions to being so was blasphemous. So, as with the Amazons they cut off one of their breasts and they scarred their faces, which their concealed behind perfectly symmetrical masks.

      Strange allies...

  2. Depends on the setting. Eberron was D&D all the way and it handled such matters easily. The more I read about history though, the more I ponder how Pantheons can still make any sense give nthe scope of things and how deeply religion shaped/shapes history. It's like, "Yeah, we have some odd 600 gods here that are all active and all have their own churches and yeah, we get along great." Part of the problem with so much 'static' inherent in a game's setting.

    1. I don't know much about Eberron. No, actually, I know nothing about Eberron, apart from a brief glance through a couple of the books. Could you tell me more.

  3. In the real world Gods never lift a finger so religion became a mere tool of government/business model thousands of years ago, we don't really know any other way. If a God were to actually exist, that would throw quite the spanner in the works. I have always used apostasy and a defection to another God when Priests/Clerics go bad, rather than outright heretical behaviour, as when the Gods are real it makes more sense to me.

  4. I think it depends a lot on your demographics and, as you say, how distant your gods are.

    I like the ACKS model where higher level clerics are a bit thin on the ground, so not every priest is a cleric, and it's likely still politically expedient to have scions of powerful families in your cult even if they have no magic of their own. So there's plenty of room for a bit of infighting.

    I also got to thinking a bit after reading Beebo's recent post - the-problems-of-gods.html - about how distant gods should be. Yes they grant some of their followers magical powers, but actual manifestations I think should be rare (and very rarely / not at all to the players). So no one quite knows what is their "truth". Say you have a cult with a stricture that their priests can't wear red - and then you meet a cleric of that cult wearing red (and still able to cast, etc). Is it that the stricture is just an invention of the cult, or is it a real stricture that's not being punished as the cleric in question is just so fantastic (kind of like that highly valued employee who still turns up to client meetings in a T-shirt)?

    In a polytheistic world I'd guess that heresies are probably much more "internal" to the cult, but then you also have defections, witch hunts (in the WFRP sense) against other factions all up to full out wars. So plenty of room for plot points!

    1. I hadn't spotted Beedo's post as it cycled along my blog roll - cheers for pointing me towards that.

      And yes, the degree to which the god are 'distant' is all important here. I suppose this post is really a question about divine distance. At the one end is something like the Forgotten Realms, a setting with gods so active that I cannot see how a Cleric of, say, Torm could be anything other than faithful to Torm. He or she couldn't be corrupt (at least in ways that would offend the God, and Torm is possibly a bad choice if you are a corrupt priest!), much less a secret follower of Bane.

      But the further the gods get from day to day interaction with the world, the less they make themselves known/knowable, the more mystery there can be, and the more there is room for cults within cults within churches, etc.

      I now need to go away and think about what the magic system and setting of WFRP1e (and a bit of 2e) implies about the nature of the gods there, as if any setting needed heretical cults within established orders, that's it.

      (Also, the idea that a town might have its own petty god - Bogenhafen has its own god - has stuck with me for a long time. And I've realised that this kind of heterogeneity frees the Referee to add colour (and adventuresome colour at that), as well as plenty of grey areas, to locations without having to struggle to fit it into a rigid cosmology of a universal pantheon.

      I'm off to read the copy of Petty Gods that has been sitting on my hard drive for some time now.

    2. "I like the ACKS model where higher level clerics are a bit thin on the ground, so not every priest is a cleric."

      Oh, I have tons of time for a lot of ACKS, especially the 'demographics of heroism':

      I think that (A)D&D made a wrong turn when it started to seem as if *everyone* was classed and levelled - which isn't helped by NPC classes that (to my mind) should be treated as extraordinary Normal Men (oxymoron aside). That said, I have a bit of time for the NPC class in Irilian - 'townsperson', or something. Which basically was just a bit of a HP buffer and Saving Throw bonus for NPCs of note and influence.

  5. There is also the Exalted option: the gods themselves are corrupt, and heresy involves the worship and glory of particular gods to the detriment of the overall hierarchy and proper functioning of the gods.