Growing up, there were three topics my mother, the Southern Lady, instructed me to avoid in polite company: money, politics, and religion. Like much of the rest of her advice, I spent a good chunk of my life ignoring her missive (often proving her right), but not in gaming. Except for the occasional lapse of passion, I have tended to studiously avoid those hot buttons with my fellow gamers.
However, today we are going talk about religion; how it plays in our campaign worlds and how its shape in those worlds often reflects our own attitudes and approaches to the subject.
Last night, over a glass of cheap Portuguese wine (or three) I hunkered down to read M.A.R. Barker's essay “Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit.” It's a thoughtful 28-page piece arguing against the usual hodgepodge, sloppy introduction of gods, mythos, and religion into fantasy rpg campaigns. Barker, fortunately, also spends a good chunk of the article getting at the range of questions a world builder can and should ask to have a deeper approach. (The essay is available here for the slightly too-high price of $4).
One observation he makes--which jives with my own recent thought train about how our gaming can often be a distant mirror of the world we experience—is that: “both science-fantasy fiction and fantasy role-playing games are created by and for people of THIS time and THIS generalized Western European heritage...It has to be underlined again and again that we are creatures of our own cultures, bound by them, limited by them, and unable to produce anything that really transcends them.”
While I bridled and got huffy a little at the cultural determinism of that statement, it did produce one of those little cartoon light bulb over the head moments.
Yes, I can imagine and enjoy even the seemingly alien religions of exotic settings (cough, cough, Tekumel), but my own worlds' religions mirror sometimes closely, sometimes distantly my own attitudes about things supernatural. When I think about it, the Hill Cantons are firmly in the former camp.
See I was raised a good American cafeteria Catholic. My family slogged its way to a mass every odd Xmas or Easter and tended to pick and choose what it followed and didn't. Settling into adult life, I have tended to bounce back and forth between a skeptical agnosticism and an appreciation (if somewhat heretical) of the solace of the Church. Add in a Special Lady Friend who is Jewish and a failed attempt to write a novel about the Hussites, then you get something of the vague ballpark that is my spiritual life.
Now back to the HC. Vaguely renaissance Counter-Reformation Catholic Church check. Heretical movements in said Church check. Looming cosmic chaos check. Hosts of cosmological add-on bits and pieces taken what I had been reading that year check, check, and check.
Now here's where the strange twists--also part and parcel of my spiritual ballpark--weave in. I have often described the cosmological fabric of the campaign to be something like: imagine if Jack Vance wrote a Lyonesse-style fantasy about Bohemia in the mid-renaissance. Remember in Vance's work, religious doctrine is often treated like he treats most human mores, he exaggerates their absurdities mostly for comic and satirical effect (mostly gently).
Vance also tends to stretch the fabric even when working with an-almost historical setting, alongside early medieval Christianity in Lyonesse you have a crazy quilt of historical pagan and utterly fantastic religions. It's hodgepodge, but hodgepodge that works alongside that reoccurring theme.
Thus while the Supernal Orthodox Temple of the Puissant Sun Lord has a (mostly off-stage) trace of menace with its monopoly on gunpowder (thanks to Piper's Lord Kalvan) and the intellectual life of the lands outside the Weird, it is mostly an institution characterized by an inward obsession with layers and layers of absurd-seeming theological differences.
The players have helped co-create and perpetuate this through most of the life of the game, most notably Desert Scribe whose fiddly scholar of a character, Mandamus, who feels confident enough to extemporize about this or that element. Confident because he knows that I will play along to that spontaneous creation with great relish (I think).
In one exchange, we follow the lively disputes of the many temple schools on the correct way to make the circular sign of Sol Invictus: whether it's three fingers moving in a clockwise fashion with a pinky flourish at the end, four moving in counter-clockwise sans flourish, or as the ultra-orthodox demand with the whole hand. In another whether the Sun Lord's chariot has two or four wheels. To which Brad's now-dead Cugel character retorted incredulously with “now you just are talking about a cart.” I can barely choke back the laughter at the table.
There is more to set out here to bolster the close mirror case as they stand-in for interlocking pieces of my own mental architecture: the bickering heretical sects of the Morning and Evening Star societies who follow the spurned female deity; the heavy themes of astronomical happenings and numerology; the world-weary pathos of the older, forgotten gods, etc. But I think you get the drift.
Maybe this rings all wrong for you out there. Maybe your own campaign's approach to religion doesn't reflect the idea sets you trundle around in your head in the slightest. Maybe this navel-gazing just bores you full stop.
Or does it? Do you get beyond the bounds of your own time and place or is it a mirror reflecting some piece or the other of your life?