Posts Tagged ‘tropes’

Shorty Monster has a post over on his blog about religion in role playing games.   His complaints are essentially three points: all fantasy games have the “same” gods, where “same” means that they follow similar “sphere of influence” styles; devotees of fantasy religions don’t behave the way devotees of real-world religions do, in that they are all “a homogenous lump” of identical personalities; and that fantasy religions are more-monolithic and less-fractured than real-world religions.

I think the the first point may be a valid observation, but I think it’s because each fantasy setting is trying to work off the same trope, ie, the Greek or Norse pantheons.  I don’t think that’s really a problem, the same way I don’t think ripping inspiration from other sources is a problem.  If it unnecessarily limits your choices then it’s a bad thing, but that’s true for any source of inspiration and can easily be fixed (by adding a new god, a new religion, or changing the way current gods and religions behave).

The other two points are really more about how devotees and religious organizations are played, rather than a problem with their foundation.  Shorty notes that not a lot of details are given about dogma or observances (though, looking up Greyhawk gods on Wikipedia gives you quite a bit of information) and complains that there isn’t enough to go on to portray a devout character.  That may be a fair point, but 1) I think a lot of it is left for the GM to fill out, because GMs tend to want to customize and build the setting to their own tastes (your mileage may vary as to whether that’s a sufficient excuse for leaving out material), and 2) I don’t think most fantasy gods or religions are based on strictly-ordered religions like modern real-world religions.  A character prays to Pelor because he wants a strong crop yield, not because Pelor imposes a certain moral paradigm.  A cleric devotes himself to Kord in order to embody strength and victory, not because Kord is the one true god.  And a cult leaves offerings for Nerull because they fear him, or wish to direct him towards their enemies, not because of… well, OK, I’m at a loss for what else might motivate them.

For my part there are two things that I’m concerned about in my fantasy religions: the problem of divine accessibility, and the problem of definitive orthodoxy.  They’re really both related to each other, but it’s the difference in how you approach the issue.

Why do Good Gods let Bad Things happen?

Putting other things aside, a common theme in fantasy setting (whether it’s RPGs or books or movies) is that the heroes have to go out and fight evil because they’re the only ones who can.  But if the gods actually exist, especially if they have great powers to act upon the world, then why don’t they just fix the problem?  If Pelor hates the undead so much, why doesn’t he just wipe them out with a miracle, instead of sending frail mortals to hunt them down and destroy them one-by-one?  If Moradin protects the dwarves, why doesn’t he smite the hobgoblin army that’s laying siege?

This can be handled in a number of ways.  Perhaps the god’s attention is elsewhere, addressing a greater threat like an Evil god working at cross purposes, and an unseen enemy who would overtake our heroes if not for the god’s interference.  Or maybe the god is hesitant to interact with the world directly because doing so would make him vulnerable to his enemies (sapping his energy, or forcing him into an assailable state), and so directing mortal agents is the safer (if less sure) method of influencing the world.  Perhaps Pelor can’t root out the undead because he has no power in dark places (though, if that’s the case, questions about the nature of clerics and divine magic come up), or perhaps in directing his power against the undead there would be innocents caught up in the destruction.  Superman doesn’t have to be the only one who lives in a world of cardboard.

How can we argue about the will of Zeus if we can just ask him directly?

Here’s the problem: if we can speak to the gods directly, and they can answer us directly, it is essentially impossible to have a difference of opinion on what that god wants us to do.  Two reasonable people can’t argue over whether killing cows offends Zeus or not if they can just ask him directly and get a clear yes or no.  And because of this, you can’t have different sects that worship the same god coming into conflict or working at cross purposes.  Any question or conflict internal to the church can be resolved by asking The Big Guy what takes priority. The Abrahamic/Judeo-Christians among us might point to the earliest days of their faith and note that just being able to talk to your god doesn’t prevent misunderstandings, but given time and opportunity those things can be cleared up: someone’s right and someone’s wrong, and it’s just a matter of asking the question.

This one is harder to fix, I think.  On the one hand, you could allow your gods to make inconsistent or conflicting statements, and you could even hand wave it by saying that he knows more than mortals and just has a hard time expressing all the nuance that occupies a god’s mind.  It strikes me that that would be a pretty difficult god to follow or put much faith in, because it essentially boils down to “we do not and can not know what he wants,” which is a sure path to agnosticism if nothing else.  Followers of such a god will probably find other gods to cling to.

Alternatively, you could restrict talking to the gods to just their clergy, and so lay people could have arguments among themselves just fine.  The trouble is that then “just ask Zeus” simple becomes “just ask Zeus’s priest,” and the best you can hope for is a wicked priest intentionally acting against his professed god.  And when 9 out of 10 clerics agree, the 10th one must be a filthy liar.  I really think that for fantasy religions to “work” in the sense of reasonable and committed devotees disagreeing with each other (especially to the point of conflict) the gods must be remote enough or vague enough that getting clear and simple answers is not clear or simple.

Good, Bad, I’m the one with the Holy Symbol

My preference is to have remote and disinterested (or preoccupied) gods. Maybe they live on Mount Olympus and even getting an audience with them is an epic quest.  Maybe they exist outside creation and can not directly interact with it for fear of annihilating it (or themselves).  Maybe they don’t even actually exist, and at best the gods are magical creatures like Elementals or Dragons and clerics are essentially sorcerers and witches.  It doesn’t really matter (unless I’m directly addressing the question with my campaign) because the gods don’t really matter to me.  They aren’t what I’m interested in.

The things that interest me in role-playing games are the characters (PCs and NPCs) and the societies and organizations they interact with.  In most cases what a character or group believes is is far more important (and interesting) than what is true.  So I tend to have the nature of the gods be an open question, because it’s not high on my list of priorities, and leaving it unanswered allows for a lot more variation in the religions and interactions available in my world.

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I feel like I’ve been talking about alignment a lot lately. Maybe it’s just me.

There’s a post today at Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Website about how every group needs a moral compass “to remind his or her adventuring companions that they’re heroes.”  I would tend to disagree — there are some play styles and some campaigns where having a moral compass might be useful or encouraged, but I think it’s a stretch to say that every group needs a moral compass.  After all, who ever said that the PCs have to be “heroes”?

There was a time when I would have agreed with the WotC article, when I would have shaken my fist and said “yes, that’s what my group needs.”  In those days, I developed campaigns not unlike movie screenplays or novel outlines, and a lot of the time my players messed it up.  They wouldn’t go where I wanted them to go, they wouldn’t act the way I wanted them to act.  I found myself building barriers to discourage the “wrong” choices and trying to suss out what kind of sticks or carrots I could use to get my players to go the “right” direction.  Did they want money, or glory, or fame?  Could I kidnap a family member, or threaten them with the King’s Justice if they didn’t obey?  Those were very stressful times for me, and I’ve been moving slowly but steadily away from them.

The point is, an adventuring group only needs a moral compass if there are wrong choices for them to make.  And more and more, I feel that framing things so that any choice can be wrong kind of misses the point of Role Playing.  Sure, if you have a certain style of game you want to play — say a heroic quest where the PCs fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy — then there are guidelines you need to set down so that everyone (including the DM) has fun with the game.  But the heart of Role Playing is making choices based on who your character is, and for me the best role playing is when your character has to make a tough choice — and that usually requires the character to choose between Good and Evil in some way.  If the going-in assumption is that Evil is always the “wrong” choice, then there’s no choice at all.

In my games, all choices have consequences.  All choices change the world in some way, and that change will come back to affect the characters in some way.  Good acts will sometimes have negative consequences, sometimes doing bad things makes achieving your goals easier.  Players are free to choose to be the Heroes, and that can be awesome and fulfilling, but if my players want to fracture the party and raise armies against each other, I think that should be just as valid.  If players choose to be villains we should let them, and they should reap the benefits and consequences of their actions regardless of what those actions are.

I had a conversation about alignments yesterday, and in particular the problem of “monster” races, and how such-and-such race is “always chaotic evil.”  I agreed that this was a problem, that things would be different in my games, that it shouldn’t be reasonable that a Lawful Good Paladin slaughters an entire village of sentient (if ugly) creatures without a twinge of guilt.

Now, in my system of alignment, “evil” isn’t evil, per se.  It could be argued that none of the traditional labels are particularly good fitsBut then we actually started talking about specific races, what the differences are between goblins, hobgoblins, and orc; what their cultures were like.  I started saying things like, “goblins are scavengers; they’re frenetic and lazy and they take things rather than build them.”  “Hobgoblins are militaristic and expansionist, more like an army than a society; they constantly seek to expand and subjugate other nations.” “Orcs are a brutal, tribal people who function on a ‘might makes right’ basis.”  So even if “evil” just means “willing to actively hurt others to achieve your goals,” aren’t all of these — goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs — simply evil creatures?  What would a good goblin look like?

As with my concept of alignment generally, I think the answer is a complicated one full of nuance.  I think that these societies that I’ve outlined are evil, and I think that being in that environment will tend individual members towards a matching alignment — after all, my notion of alignment is essentially short hand for characters’ values, and people derive at least some of their values from their society.  But just like I can envision a Lawful Good villain doing terrible things because “it’s for the best,” I can see a Good goblin who’s no less inclined to go raid a neighboring settlement.  In a way, both come down to rationalization, and if either one thinks too hard on it they might find themselves conflicted, wracked with guilt, or even choosing to change their alignment.  An Evil goblin raids a neighbor because he can, because he wants what they have, and he doesn’t care if (or possibly looks forward to) others get hurt in the process.  A Good goblin raids a neighbor because he has too, because they have things that his community needs, and he would rather (or possibly acts to ensure) nobody gets hurt in the process.  Both of them are raiding their neighbors and potentially having violent confrontations, but they have different reasons and different attitudes.

In the end, the point is that societies have an identity and alignment that is composed of but also more than the identity and alignment of their individual members.  Could there be a whole tribe of Lawful Good goblins who respect tradition and honor and don’t like hurting others?  Sure, but they’ll probably still raid their neighbors, because they’re frenetic and lazy.