Religions, Theologies and setting design

Bill Edge
22 April 2002

Table of Contents


Religion has a significant role in many RPG settings. A fantasy setting will almost invariably include a section on the gods and religions of the playing area; even SF games now tend to give religion a role in the setting. In this brief introduction, I would like to suggest a small number of alternate approaches to religion in setting design, which may provide some interesting options to the designer.

A preliminary note on RPG players, rather than the setting for their characters, might be in order. Religious cultures differ in their approach to RPGs. The opposition of some Christianities to fantasy RPGs, because of their explicit use of non-Christian deities, is well known to most gamers. On the other hand, Neopaganisms, for instance, often seem more comfortable with RPGs. There are, however, both Christian and Pagan roleplayers. Religious difference within a gaming group can lead to some interesting situations - as will differences in ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality and playing style. Individual players may be happy with the compatibility of their religious identity and their hobby, and seek to make their religion as much a part of their gaming as of their work, home life, socialising, charitable activities and the like. For instance, I have gamed with a Quaker, who as a consequence of their religious beliefs was a pacifist, who chose only to play characters able to contribute to the flow of a session without needing to use violence. I have not myself encountered gamers who make use of a gaming session involving mixed religious cultures in order to carry out explicit missionary work; or who game only with coreligionists in order to explore common issues of spirituality, but neither seems inherently unlikely.

More relevant to the topic of this paper, setting design, are issues raised by the "worldview" of the designer. We might expect a strongly monotheist designer who was uncomfortable with explicit engagement with polytheism to design a monotheist or atheist setting. A designer with the same religious belief, but who saw their setting as being essentially harmless fiction which need not accurately portray reality, may choose to design a polytheist setting. But, I would suggest, this sort of designer would approach issues very differently from a designer who was themselves a polytheist. Similarly, consider two designers. One is an atheist who believes in the non-existence of any metaphysical reality, and does not accept the existence of either divine intervention or magic. The second, on the other hand, is a polytheist who believes in a complex metaphysical reality, accepts the existence of divine intervention, and is a practising ritual magician. Both of them design a fantasy setting with wizards, gods, gods and the like. In working out the impact of their religious and magical choices on their setting, the first will need to approach this by analogy with a real world where neither magic nor prayer have any special function; the second will need to draw an analogy with a real world where magic and prayer already have a special place. This may seem a rather laboured point, but becomes relevant in my discussion of theological perspectives below.

In this paper, I want to consider how some thinking about Religious Studies and Theology can enrich setting design. The, undoubtedly contested and oversimplistic, distinction I would draw between the two depends upon a professional (as opposed to personal) acceptance of a metaphysical statement as being accurate. A scholar of Religious Studies is, fundamentally, professionally indifferent as to whether the religious system under consideration is true - they are more likely to be interested in the impact it has on the lives of its adherents, the consequences for the development of regional literature, and the like. A theologian, on the other hand, is likely to be working within a particular religious tradition, seeking to determine the details and parameters of that tradition on the basis of its essential validity. To take an example from a real world religion. A religious studies scholar of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints may be interested in young persons' observance of restrictions on alcohol and caffeine use; a LDS theologian may be interested in whether such a restriction exists, or whether it applies to newly discovered, artificial, drugs.

Thoughts from a Religious Studies perspective

Much setting design involving religion is carried out from a Religious Studies perspective. The designer is less concerned with whether a particular religious tenet is true for the setting, than with the impact upon those who believe it. So, we will often see discussion of particular religious practices; the interaction of any religious structures with the state; or animosities and friendships between followers of different faiths. One point strikes me here.

An important idea in the real world is that of acculturation - the extent to which a particular religious community's ideas and practices have changed in response to the broader culture around them. Settings can sometimes overlook the importance of acculturation in the emphasis particular parts of the setting will give to a common religion. Let me give an example from the standard setting for the Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing Game. Shallya is the Goddess of Healing and Mercy, whose followers observe a distinction between laity and clergy. Those who wish to become clergy must never have taken a human life, even accidentally; and when accepted are bound by three restrictions, one of which is "Never refuse healing to one who is genuinely in need, and who comes as a supplicant".

Applied as is, this would indicate that every cleric of Shallya, throughout the entire setting, should act in exactly the same way when faced with a request for healing - on one reading, reacting in an egalitarian way. But the national cultures of the setting vary greatly. For instance, the WFRPG description of Brettonnia makes it clear that an uncaring, hereditary, elite ("Painted fops parade their finery amongst the mud and dung of the streets") rule over a dispossessed populace ("Small wonder that the maltreated urban poor of Brettonia have a reputation as troublesome, politically ambitious agitators and rogues"). How can we square an egalitarian edict binding on all priests of Shallya with an intensely hierarchical social structure?

One possibility is that the religious organisation explicitly rejects the cultural values of its host society - an extreme example of non-acculturation. So we might expect to see its priests explicitly refusing to acknowledge the difference between aristocrats and commoners; a prohibition on taking any account of social status when allocating healing resources; and a strong indoctrination package, coupled with disciplinary sanctions for those who do not internalise it, to turn hierarchical applicants for the priesthood into egalitarian priests. The implications of this for the setting could be interesting

Another possibility is that the part of the Shallya community that is drawn from the Brettonian population, and functions within that society, has been influenced by those values - has been to some extent acculturated. So, given that healing resources are not unlimited, there must be some decisions made as to who is to be given priority. This will probably be done in accord with a reading of the tenet "Never refuse healing to one who is genuinely in need, and who comes as a supplicant". Perhaps the ability of the lower classes to endure day to day hardship is greater than that of the elite, so that minor ailments are best dealt with for the elite first, as their need is greater? Perhaps the church recognises different sorts of supplicant - every supplicant will receive healing if sufficient is available, but a clearly mercenary looking bandit may have to wait for treatment behind a long-term adherent, well known as committed to the Temple, in the same clinical position. If this principle is accepted, perhaps a supplicant able to provide resources to the Temple to allow the healing of the less fortunate is to be preferred over the supplicant who is simply a drain on the Temple's resources. Maybe a supplicant in the latter position is actually less worthy than the former, depending upon the Temple's teaching on the relationship between spiritual worth, birth, and material success? Once again, the design implications for the setting could be useful. A body of priests within the Brettonian Temples might reject the acculturation in favour of a "truer" interpretation of the shared texts, becoming healers of the poor and/or rabblerousers.

Needless to say, there is no "right" answer as to how this tension between the values of the religious organisation and the host State should be resolved - as a setting designer I can see lots of potential in either (in the example given, I have opted for the acculturated Shallya community, partly for dramatic effect). Nonetheless, whether the Temple is acculturated or not, its characteristics may well differ from State to State. If the Temple is acculturated, a priest from a more egalitarian territory, where healing is allocated by different criteria, might see it as corrupt. If the Temple is not acculturated, it may well be less influential and respectable than in a State where its egalitarian ethos matches the cultural values of the State.

Thoughts from a Theological perspective

The section above assumes that religious acculturation is a possibility. A preliminary objection may be that if a religion begins to take on too much from its broader setting, the deity at its centre will intervene. So if Shallya is committed to egalitarian access to the services of her cult, any moves towards the acculturation mentioned above will be nipped in the bud. This raises the significant question of how those within the setting come to theological conclusions - how do they "know" what their religion says, what their gods are like, what right conduct is?

At this point, it is worth returning to the idea with which I began this piece, that the view of reality that the designer holds is significant to the way in which they choose to design their fantasy. It is also relevant to this section, which is primarily concerned with how theology works in a setting where divine interventions and/or magical effects occur on a significant basis. To some gamers, this is an apt description of reality, and so real world theology needs little modification. To many others, it is less accurate, and so real world theology is a useful guide, but needs alteration. In what follows, I take the latter approach.

A preliminary objection to theological dispute is that, in a world where gods and demons manifest, and their servants routinely perform miracles in their names, there is no room for theological disputes or differences between followers of the same God. If there is an argument as to whether Ulric wants werewolves to be revered or exterminated, he can resolve this himself, can't he? If we consider the routes by which the opinion of a God may be determined, however, it becomes clear that this is not inevitable, even in a fantasy setting with active gods and priests capable of performing miracles.

Firstly, the God may materialise or in some other way directly communicate with any being who formulates a query concerning them. This does not appear in many settings - with the possible exception of explicitly quirky ones such as Mythic Greece by ICE, where the heavy intervention of the Gods in the affairs of mortals is stressed as something unusual that GMs will need to adjust to. There may be a number of explanations for the lack of this sort of intervention. Perhaps the Gods and powers of the setting are not omnipotent, and may spread themselves too thin if they attend personally to every trivial matter. Perhaps whatever they value about the mortal creatures of the setting would be damaged by this sort of interaction - at the very least mortals might find it unnerving, or positively destructive of freewill and independent thinking. Even if such a manifestation was routine, given a pantheistic setting, how do you know that the figure at the foot of your bed is really Verena, Goddess of Learning and Justice, rather than Ranald the Trickster pulling a fast one? This is a rather specific form of the argument against using sensory data to determine any attribute of reality, but I think a particularly cogent one.

Secondly, priests may be divinely inspired on theological matters, perhaps with a theologian who deceives himself as to the source of their ideas being unable to perform miracles. Theological disputes could then be resolved by standing two priests in a raging furnace after each has had the opportunity to cast a protection spell. The first to die loses the argument ? This assumes that the Gods are sufficiently excited by theology to modulate the power of their priests, are able to do so on a routine basis, and regard this use of their bounty as a suitable means for resolving issues such as the correct treatment of werewolves. None of these are necessarily true, particularly for Gods and powers who stress self-reliance or independent thought.

Thirdly, a particular official may be divinely empowered to determine these issues, perhaps through use of a particular spell to receive a definitive answer to a particular question. A statement following on from such a spell will, assuming that spells never misfire and that the official will always act faithfully, be an infallible statement of the deity's stance on the question asked. This assumes that the deity in question likes hierarchical structures, given the authority that such access gives the official. If it is the case, however, the position of the official in a hierarchy puts automatic limits on access to this official in a setting. Less significant theological issues may be left to be resolved by other means.