Awesome-O-Fy Polytheism in RPGs

Heya,

A lot of games have pantheons of multiple gods/spiritual beings. Fantasy RPGs are notorious for this. Yet, I don't think I've ever played a game where the gods actually did something! They're usually just described in a casual way and how they directly affect the common person's life (let alone directly affect the lives of the PCs) is left up to one's imagination. To me that seems weak. This is like a whole realm of goodness that seems underdone and underimagined, IMHO.

So here's what I'd like. How should a pantheon of multiple dieties be done? How can a game desiner use that trope to have an impact of actual play? Why and how should the gods be important to the common person and the player-characters?

Peace,

-Troy
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Comments

  • I'd say by actually making the gods really do things. Actually, make it so that the players acting either against or with these gods gets the gods in motion.

    I think I like how Burning Wheel does it - you have a trait like Faith that actually works! Need a miracle - test the Faith trait. Lots of followers helps. Bingo! That's like an instant motivation for the Evil High Priest PC to really go out and get a lot of chanting minions with the final goal being to get the Evil God to act on his behalf.

    So the point is to make it worthy while for the players to pay attention to.
  • edited February 2007
    Oh, lordy.

    Religion in RPGs has all sorts of problems. To just get at some of them, most fantasy worlds base their understanding of religion on the discourse about "world religions" that appears in the nineteenth century and assumes that cultured civilizations will have one or more "world religions" in place of Christianity, which fill pretty much the same functions as Christianity and, like Christianity, operate in a sphere separate from everyday society, as in the Anglo tradition of separating church and state and having a secular realm/society. Under this model, for example, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto are considered "world religions." China gets three world religions, all of Africa gets zero. You can see how this is problematic.

    The truth is, before modernism, industrialization, and globalization (along with religious policies based on Western assumptions) encouraged a kind of "Christianization" of many foreign religious traditions, the various "religions" of the world looked pretty different than they do now, and that's especially true of religions outside of the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition. Chinese Buddhism for example, didn't really become a "religion" in the modern sense until the 1910s-1920s, but that didn't mean people didn't believe in it or practice at Buddhist temples for centuries before then. It was more of a scattering of diverse semi-related practices strongly integrated into local societies and people's everyday lives, instead of a churchlike, clearly separate institution managed by the Buddhist clergy. Pre-modern "Buddhism" was more closely related to the popular religious traditions, including popular Buddhist religious movements but also including all the other religious and social activities that made up pre-modern Chinese society. Likewise, the Japanese state reinvented Shinto (a popular, traditional animism) as the state religion partially to fight unruly popular Buddhist sects and the massive economic and political power of Buddhist temples in Japan.

    In any case, I don't know that I have an easy answer to your question. My solution to these types of things is almost always "make it more like it actually is/was in the real world." Generally speaking, I think the real world handles things in ways that are infinitely more complicated and interesting than most fantasy worlds, because you just couldn't make this shit up. The real world is so crazy :) So find a polytheistic tradition that appeals to you and base your religion on the way people actually did things, not point for point, but just to make your fantasy religion as bizarre and awesome as real world religion.
  • Heya,

    Jonathan, your point is good, but you're looking at things from the perspective of humans towards gods. I'm talking about the opposite direction. How do the gods look at the mortals? I'm talking about having a group of diverse dieties in one location. They have power. They have the power to give power to mortals. How would they do that? Why would they do that? How would that donation of power and intervention look to the mortals? How would it look to the gods? Do the gods fear the mortals? What would cause them to personally intervene? What could stop them? Most importantly, how could this be represented in a game's mechanics or setting?

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • Give a God or two to each of the players, and let 'em loose.
  • We started a game months back where we were gods kicked out of Krynn trying to find a new home to lord over. We used Mortal Coil and worked out Domains and rules for gaining power through worshippers and such. It was a nice fit. Unfortunately there was some baggage involving D&D tropes and the number of NPCs in the game so it tanked.

    What was the name of that old WotC game? The Primal Order. It wasn't great but it was interesting from what I can remember. Can anyone recall more detail on that?
  • Posted By: JonathanWaltonThe truth is, before modernism, industrialization, and globalization (along with religious policies based on Western assumptions) encouraged a kind of "Christianization" of many foreign religious traditions, the various "religions" of the world looked pretty different than they do now, and that's especially true of religions outside of the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition.
    Any pointers for us poor, ignorant types on where we can learn more about this?

    Neil.
  • edited February 2007
    Posted By: eruditusWhat was the name of that old WotC game? The Primal Order. It wasn't great but it was interesting from what I can remember. Can anyone recall more detail on that?
    I have a copy; it's one of my favorite supplements to just read. Haven't actually played with it though.

    Essentially, gods have a new type of power, called primal. Primal base is the core of their being, and primal flux is sort of the divine fuel source generated by a god's primal base in a compound interest equation. (Primal is a quantum function -- no fractions, so you get to take advantage of rounding errors...) The Reader's Digest version: any primal-powered spell, attack, superpower, what have you, always hits, no roll, and it always penetrates defenses. The only thing that stops a primal-powered attack is a primal-powered defense. Gods can also do fun stuff like "lace" a mundane spell or power with one point of primal flux, which gives it all of those funky extras, or use primal to directly create the effect.
  • To expound on Jonathan's comment, consider Shinto or any of a brazillion animist theologies (even some angles on Judaism): every thing has a motivating soul in there. If the river god doesn't like you guys, he doesn't flow. If the tree doesn't like the cut of your jib, she doesn't grow. If the field goddess doesn't think you've been taking proper care, your kids are stillborn. If the sun thinks you're being arrogant, he doesn't shine.

    In this world view, there is no "gravity" or "tectonic plates". There are no natural forces except for the whims of the spirits behind phenomena. If the sun gets in a fight with the ocean, you have draughts and floods. If the underworld god needs a new den, you have a volcano.

    These gods are needy. They operate nature the way humans would; they need sustenance of all sorts. Humans are small and fit a particular place in the cosmos. In the Sumerian tradition (at least according to the Enuma Elish, they were made to tend the world so the gods could sleep. In the Greek tradition, they're the illegitimate children of titans or made by gods to spite each other.

    By the time of the Trojan War (speaking mythologically), the gods are trying to one-up each other by fucking humans to beget heroes. Oracles are bagged regularly by various gods, and the products then fight the products of rival couplings. Those rivalries are obviously human; "Our river wants to fight your river" probably means, "We want to steal your gold, women, and cattle, and charge a toll on everyone coming down your river." But maybe, in this world, those are just the spoils of war, and to war without the intentions of your gods is probably to court disaster. "Hubris" is the Greek word for it.

    Gods are local. The gods of my tribe aren't assumed to be the gods of your tribe. Maybe my tribe's patron is the sun and yours is the fields. If we both worship the sun, which is obviously the same sun, but you call him Grottos and I call her Melzin, then we've discovered something about the sun: she's a cross-dresser! I mean, maybe I think you're wrong about the sun, but that's an excuse to go to war, not a legitimate reason. But if I think you're fucking up the sacrifices, and that's why we had a drought last year, I can bet you we'll be fighting (and it's likely in the form of social posturing) over who gets to do the sacrifices and how. As for the god/ess? Well, sie's probably telling oracles or priests what to do. Maybe she's just fucking with these two tribes. But I'll bet you that her real support determines who wins (you can look at this as "history is written by the victor" if you want, but let's ignore that pragmatic and modern perspective for now).

    Look at the phenomena around you and imagine that they're all that way intentionally. That's what the gods do. From wars to shade on a hot day to the fact that boats float: it's all at the whim of the relevant gods.

    Were I to write a system that does this, I'd have relationships to gods be my stats. I've got a good relationship with Zeus, but it's really important that my baby be born healthy? Let's hope he and Hera are in good graces. I've got to get to my friend's side and heal his wound? Let's hope I didn't honk off Hermes by murdering that messenger boy. I'm in a new place, and I need to ride on the road? I'd better find out who this road is and how to sacrifice to them; otherwise, their highwayman/priests will be given every right and power to take my goodies.

  • I wonder whether you could have a system of opposed gods, like Pendragon traits that measures your favour with the different deities? And then power your abilities off them based on how much in their favour you are.
  • Neil, I mostly know about the formalization of religion in China, since that's my area. There's stuff like:

    -- Vincent Goossaert, "1898: The Beginning of the End for Chinese Religion?" Journal of Asian Studies 65, no. 2 (2006).
    -- Prasenjit Duara, "Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns Against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century China,” Journal of Asian Studies 50, no. 1 (1991) [skip the theoretical stuff at the front of this one].
    -- Rebecca Nedostup, "Religion, Superstition, and Governing Society in Nationalist China" (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2001).

    A general analysis of the "world religions" discourse, but one that doesn't tell you much about pre-modern religion, is:

    -- Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (University of Chicago, 2005).

    Other than that, I'd just suggest researching specific traditions that interest you. Joshua provided a nice general overview, but the details are different depending on which geographic or cultural area you're talking about, and even then can vary from community to community (village to village), since pre-modern religion was generally more local and indebted to what was actually happening among a group of people in a given area.

    Also, it's important to note that popular forms of religion are alive and well in many parts of the world (including China), but that it's generally not talked about and often repressed by the state or society in general.

    Troy, I guess I'm not understanding how you can think of the gods separate from the humans that honor them. Whether you're a theist or not, the characteristics that a spiritual being takes on are directly related to the cultural tradition they are being honored in, like when Chinese sectarian Christians think about Jesus, he is described rather differently than in the West. How do the gods feel about the people? Um, how do the people think the gods feel about them? What do the priests, shamans, fortunetellers, and community leaders say? If they say the gods are angry, then they're probably angry (since it's the duty of these people to know how the gods are feeling). How do they know how the gods are feeling? By reading the signs, whether in the natural world, in dreams, in the voices of the gods that they hear in their heart, etc. Are you working on something where the gods are PCs or something? Because, otherwise, I think a human-centered drama is what you want, not a god-centered one.

    All of your other questions depend on the cultural context:

    Are there things humans can do to upset or harm the gods? Sure. They can stop performing the proper rituals. They can perform the rituals badly. They can start worshipping new gods or worshiping in a new way. They can desecrate sacred sites. They can kill those chosen by the gods. They can work against the gods' will in any number of ways.

    What would cause them to intervene? The gods intervene all the time. Every day, every moment, every hour, they are active in the world, at least in the way they communicate and give power to their priests, shamans, community leaders, etc.

    How would they give power to mortals? By guiding them in dreams or visions. By leading them to new lands. By making them victorious over their enemies. By protecting them from danger. By sending plagues or disasters to harm their enemies. By making sure they have food. By sending them a strong leader. By providing them with sacred objects and places to give them spiritual, political, and economic power. By allowing humans to heal or curse, to cast charms and magics of all kinds.

    Why would they do that? Because they have a special relationship with a group of people. Because they want their people to triumph and build great temples and make great signs of the god's work. Because they want to destroy those who worship other gods, false gods, demons, or worship the right gods in the wrong way.

    But all these depend on the culture you're talking about.
  • I tend to think a really good way to make polytheism awesome is to make the gods personalities before you make them a list of interests. Then correlate those personalities with elements of the world which 'express' those traits. Use those elements not just to indicate the presence of the gods but also to emphasize thematic connections. If your fire god is a mischievous sort, put fires in scenes relating to mischief-making.

    Give the deities interests--things they like, people they like, other deities they like, activities they like, and so on. Let those different levels interact--sure, Hermes likes messengers, but this boy just pisses him off. Hermes cast the boy into the ditch and woe betide the poor saps who help him hoping to get Hermes favor...

    Don't ask players to choose a god to worship. They believe in them all and make offering to one or the other in relation to their needs. That way you get a picture of the whole group. Make those offerings a negotiation (which brings in the whole deities as personalities with interests and dislikes), which the deity may accept, reject, or clarify. Make the negotiation itself a feature of a session or several session--talking to the oracles, getting the proper things to appease, etc.. Sure, they can do great things, but they need to be offered great things in turn.
  • Posted By: Jack AidleyI wonder whether you could have a system of opposed gods, like Pendragon traits that measures your favour with the different deities? And then power your abilities off them based on how much in their favour you are.
    Some of the Elric products (particularly Dragonlords of Melnibone) had something similar where it created a LAw, Chaos and Balance scale. You recieved and lost points based on your accomplishments. Casting magic at all steered you toward Chaos :)
  • Heya,

    Jonathan, now your answers are definately helping.

    Someone mentioned earleir that the gods needed sustinance. What form might that sustance take? What is the consiquence of not getting it? One might be inclined to say death or non-existance, but I don't see how "non-existance" is worse than having to tend mortals who likely under appreciate you and misrepresent your will more often than not. So what else would motivate a diety to interact with mortals?

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • edited February 2007
    For my money, religion and its institutions is always more interesting than the gods that the institutions are supposed to worship. In game, I can be a functioning and dynamic part of a religious institution; I cannot be a functioning and dynamic part of a pantheon of gods. I don't understand games with big emphases on gods -- I'm interested and entertained by stories of people, and I want the emphasis to be on the people, what they do, and why. Maybe the 'what they do' are religious rites, maybe the 'why' is some fervent faith -- but the rites and faith of a believer is always more interesting than the arbitrary preferences of a deity.

    As an example, Troy, gods don't need sustenance; temples do. Priests need to be fed. If the temple doesn't get enough tithes, sacrifices (common practice in the classical world was for the priests to read entrails and cook up the rest of the animal), patronage, and so on, the temple will cease to be a prime motivator of the community and the worship of its god will fade out of view. My character supporting the local temple so that the city continues to subscribe to beliefs that I care about is way more compelling to "feed the hungry god."
  • Troy, you're still thinking from the perspective of the gods, which I think is a less interesting approach. I totally agree with JBR on this one. The people are MUCH more interesting.

    Gods, in my experience, rarely die or cease to exist. The real risk for gods is becoming less powerful or significant in the face of new gods or new styles of worship. If the people start worshiping god X more than god Y (perhaps because god X seems more helpful or dangerous), the cult of god Y is in trouble.

    Why would a deity interact with mortals? Um, generally because the god has some purpose for them, something that the god wants them to accomplish and is leading them towards that destiny. Or, if it's a hostile god, because he or she hates your guts and wants your people to be wiped from the face of the earth. Or if it's a trickster or changeable god, because the god gets a kick out of messing with humans. Or because the god is just a part of the natural world, like the rain, like the seasons. How can the god NOT interact with humans when humans will encounter the god's workings in the world on a daily basis, as with the rain and the seasons? And there's things humans can do for gods. They can dedicate parts of the landscape or buildings or shrines or people or babies or whatever to the god, giving it to the god. They offer sacrifices or ritual ceremonies to the god. Sometimes humans copulate with the gods, which presumably the gods enjoy. Sometimes humans provide the gods with children.
  • edited February 2007
    I'll be really helpful and note that Heroquest, or Glorantha specifically, already does a lot of this stuff. The emphasis is on the humans towards the gods, certainly, but there are times where things flow the opposite way (God learners, Orlanth is Dead, etc.)

    Pretty much Heroquest is one answer to this exact question, and is probably worth looking over with this in mind.

    Other than that, I generally find myself in agreement with Jonathan and both Joshuas. I could probably debate specifics, but they'd be things no one without a degree in this shit could possibly be interested in.

    One bit I will throw in about pantheons is that they're both malleable and only local. As Joshua said its a difference between "our gods" and "your gods" -- but with the added layer that "my god" might not be from either of those groups.

    Its also worth remembering that sometimes one persons god is anothers demon. In old Persian mythology the gods were called Asuras, and their "demons" were Devas. In Hinduism this is exactly reversed. So if you want to take that to the level of gods down, perhaps it is a good polytheistic god's duty to harm and punish the enemies of his people? Or at least make life less pleasant for them so that their own people can feel good about being the chosen ones.
  • Douglas Rushkoff's comic series Testament is worth a look on this matter. Various Pagan gods as well as various manifestations of Old and New Testament godliness fight with each other outside the panels, but only by means of what's happening inside the panels. It's cool.
  • One of the most creative things I've seen in this line is the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt.

    There are five gods, the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard (who is the son of the Mother and a demon). They each have areas of responsibility as per standard pantheism (respectively: justice, healing, warriors and hunting, maidens and civil order, and oddities/freaks/accidents/things out of place). But they are entirely in a spiritual dimension which is immediately adjacent to, but totally separated from, this one. They can only work in the physical dimension through the free assent of people (and animals) who are willing to be conduits for miracles. These people are known as "saints".

    She works it out really well. Most creative bit of fantasy theology I've seen. And the third book also introduces a parallel system of shamanism, with totem animals.
  • So I ended up doing a Blog post about this because you guys give me cool ideas.
  • Brand's post is good stuff. Yes! Forget the meta, big picture stuff. It is D&D feeding you lies.
  • Well, the conception of polytheism presented in D&D (and its sundry clones, including much post-D&D fantasy fiction) is based on pretty modern conceits of how pagan peoples viewed their gods. (This is one of the things, in particular, that always gets my goat about Forgotten Realms.) If your conception of polytheistic religions is informed primary by gaming materials, well, yeah, something will certainly seem sucky.

    I have to agree that Glorantha already awesome-o-fied polytheism in RPGs. (All hail Brand, bearer of the cluestick.) The way the people interact with the gods there more closely resembles how real-world ancient peoples fancied their relationships with the gods than anything else I'm familiar with. The magic systems in HeroQuest actually put these relationships into play. And if you want the gods to become personally involved? Well, you go on a heroquest and walk in the footsteps of the gods yourself.

    I also wanted to opine as an owner of The Primal Order that that book actually kind of sucks donkey balls. Perhaps it seemed innovative in the days of AD&D Deities & Demigods. It's on a shortlist of stuff I'm going to give away as white elephant prizes at some point.
  • I am in agreement with Brand and Jonathan here, regarding what makes actual human religion interesting.

    Troy, you are starting with a premise, right, "The gods that the polytheists in this hypothetical game worship are real, discrete beings with motivations and characteristics"?

    I think this is, at its core, not a very good assumption. Let's awesomeofy it.

    Maybe gods are real but they are not discrete. That is, when god-substance takes on the appearance of Jwuutai-of-white-darkess, it is a complex of motivations and characteristics and iconography that are associated with something humans call Jwuutai-of-white-darkness, but it is highly unlikely to be the same complex as any other manifestation of that same name. Also, these items are also part of the sets that make up other god-images, so that perhaps Jwuutai and Ishgii-waiting-beyond-the-gate both sometimes care about the maintenance of some temple where their idols are housed.

    You could probably systematise this, although off the top of my head I'm not sure how I'd go about it. It would probably involve, for each divine manifestation, a quick generation procedure that tells you what that particular manifestation is about.

    Then, you have a situation where the inconsistency and complexity of human religion evolves naturally out of the inconsistency and complexity of divinity.

  • Heya,

    Wow, Shreyas, that sounds like an awesome way to roleplay the creation of a world! If I ever wanted a game about that, your post is where I'd start. In addition, I think you are correct in ascertaining my origonal premise, and it does need awesom-o-fying. I'm taking in everyone's points here and that has helped me formulate what I want to do very well.

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • Larry, the only thing about HQ (correct me if I'm wrong) is that it tends to assume a less fluid and pluralistic religious society than is often the case. Frex, characters often devote themselves to a particular god and derive power from them instead of worshiping a whole slew of spirits depending on their needs at the moment. So, yeah, HQ rocks, but that part of it seems less awesome-rific.
  • Jonathan's post got me thinking.

    So, in the typical fantasy RPG with polytheistic elements, you pick a deity and worship it, and get some cool features as a result.
    But what if you instead aligned yourself with a particular religion?

    So you could align yourself with Judaism, and have a promised destiny and could invoke the fire and brimstone miracles of the old testament.
    Or you could go with Hinduism (and maybe broken down into different major divisions or distinctions, like Vedic, etc), and its gods and devas can favour you and grant you weapons and aid you in combat.
    Or you could go with Classical Greek, and different gods will favour you depending on your actions, and if you go to war Ares will be by your side, and if you pick up a bow Apollo will guide your shot.

    And on the metaphysical, less human focused level.... Maybe all of the greek deities exist, and so do the Hindu ones, and so does the Christian God, and so do...
    Or maybe, like Shreyas was sort of suggesting, the same spiritual energies manifest themselves differently for followers of different religions.

    The general idea is: Instead of choosing deities (directly), you choose the system of belief in which you approach deities.
  • edited February 2007
    Posted By: JonathanWaltonLarry, the only thing about HQ (correct me if I'm wrong) is that it tends to assume a less fluid and pluralistic religious society than is often the case. Frex, characters often devote themselves to a particular god and derive power from them instead of worshiping a whole slew of spirits depending on their needs at the moment. So, yeah, HQ rocks, but that part of it seems less awesome-rific.
    Yes and no. The (awesome) thing about Heroquest is that there are a bazillion different ways people worship, depending on the kind of belief, the specific religion, local customs, ...

    So yeah, there are people who devote themselves to only one god to the exclusion to the other gods of their Pantheon (Devotees), but they are pretty much the exceptions and how people think about them varies, like, A Lot. In some regions, this kind of Worship mightbe frowned upon, while in others it's more common. Generally, though, a huge majority of people in a give religion are some sort of lay member, worshipping the pantheon as a whole, most likely with a few minor folk rites (Common Religion/Magic) and worship of/offerings to the minor guardian deities of the village, individual households or Hero Bands.

    And that's just for a single of the 3 1/2 types of religion in HQ: Theism. Spiritists or followers of Wizardry will be different again. (For example, Spiritism has no equivalent of "Devotion"-like I-follow-only-a-single-god, IIRC. At least not in general.)

    EDIT: Also, I find Devotees pretty neat. I mean, what else do you call it when a character, after growing up in a polytheistic religion, having worshiped and given offerings to the whole pantheon his whole life, decides to turn his back on those gods that nurtured him, to cut his connections to the other deities and rites and say "NO, these are not my gods anymore! From now on, I belong to this one god only and I will walk in his path instead!".

    Personally, I call that awesome.
  • Posted By: joepubThe general idea is: Instead of choosing deities (directly), you choose the system of belief in which you approach deities.
    Now this! I like. This would be a much, much better way to go than the flat, lifeless DnD Pantheon route or the years-and-years of builing up method like Glorantha. I could see sitting dowin over the course of just a few months and developing five to seven religions (or denominations) for the players to choose from. Each religion would grant you specific abilities and advantages. You could even layer another set of abilities based on the place of your birth and the local/religious customs specific to that geographical area. Nice.

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • That still sounds very much like the "world religions" thing. I mean, religious traditions are not cleanly divided one from another. Having different, identifiable religions is really a modern, Western invention. Take the traditions known as Hinduism and Buddhism, or Chinese Buddhism and Daoism and Confucianism (called the "three teachings" because they are clearly interrelated in traditional China), or Japanese Buddhism and Shinto, or Protestantism and Catholicism and Mormonism, or pre-modern Persian/Middle Eastern religion and Islam. People are uncertain about these divisions today. Are Mormons a Christian denomination or different enough to be counted as a separate faith? Is Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, really the same as the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? What about Hanuman and the Monkey King? What about the satanic verses in which the Prophet praised pre-Islamic goddesses (later declared to be demons)? What about the interrelatedness of the three recognized 'Abrahamic traditions' and the debt they owe Zoroastrianism? What about the Abrahamic demonology originally referring to other Middle Eastern deities (Baal, etc.)? What about 'syncretic' religions like Santeria, Chinese sectarian Christianity, or Handsome Lake's longhouse religion?

    I mean, sure, some simplification might be required to communicate things to players, but, right now, that doesn't sound all that different from what most games already do. You're just multiclassing religion or doing the 5x5 splat things that White Wolf does. Knowing that I'm playing a Christian from Fort Worth doesn't necessarily tell you anything about my character's personal faith or my relationship with God.
  • Posted By: JonathanWaltonI mean, sure, some simplification might be required to communicate things to players, but, right now, that doesn't sound all that different from what most games already do. You're just multiclassing religion or doing the 5x5 splat things that White Wolf does. Knowing that I'm playing a Christian from Fort Worth doesn't necessarily tell you anything about my character's personal faith or my relationship with God.
    Should a system dictate such things? Is that taking too much decision making out of the players' hands? If not, why not?

    Peace,

    -Troy

    PS: I'm not necessarily disagreeing, I'm just asking for more information on how you'd want RPG religion treated in this way.
  • This is all very cool and new-direction-y, but I'd put in a good word for another way to do things that mines a different Real World Religion phenomena. Gods are just like people. They're just a different kind of people. There's spirits everywhere and anywhere, and they're sentient, individual creatures. Some are like us, some are very alien and hard to understand, but everything and anything might have a sentient spirit with whom one might have a relationship. Religion, as we tend to think of it - with dogma and ritual and institutions and such - is a phenomenon of a certain kind of social order (settled, "civilized" in the sense of "city-dwelling"). In other kinds of social orders, the "priest" is just some guy who's got a talent for managing relationships with these "invisible people," and there's very little in the way of a formal dogma - what works is what gets passed on.

    I tend to think that in a world where this actually works, the impetus for this kind of thing to give way to "religion" is counterbalanced by a centrifugal force of a zillion independent, heterodox practitioners who can provide the same service as the would-be Church with fewer strings attached.
  • Troy, what if there were a lot of different mechanical subsystems on how to invoke divine assistance (ie, living according to a set of beliefs, performing blood sacrifice, ritual dance) and these were always available to anybody who wanted to try them -- they just all use different sets of abilities that the characters may or may not have on their character sheets (willpower, ritual, dance, blah-de-blah-blah)? Additionally, there were "gods" -- in that there are things that people say about the supernatural world, none of which is given any sort of actual authority in the text. Then characters would be free to pick up any rite or ritual and direct it at any presumed god. Roll the dice and interpret the results.
  • Troy, I'm not sure what you mean. I was objecting to having to call my character a "Buddhist" from "the Zen branch" or whatever, because I feel like those concepts are not good markers of the complexity of everyday religious practice. So that kind of systemization of religion I have issues with.

    However, consider the way traits work in Dogs. I pick the trait "God doesn't allow the innocent to be harmed 3d4." That says something about my character's approach to religion. But Fallout allows me to change traits, so if I get into a conflict or situation in which my feelings about X change, then they do. So there's a way for describing complex, changing feelings about religion, while still giving them weight in the system.

    Also, following up on Mark's point, it may be valuable to view the gods as equal participants in a religious tradition, as opposed to beings outside of it or the subject of the religion. Gods have culture and religion themselves. The angel Gabriel, for example, can be Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, but still nevertheless has a ritual role to fill in religious practices, just as priests, lay leaders, and ordinary people do. Perhaps the angel shows a different face to different people, or perhaps the angel practices an Abrahamic faith unique to the angels, something that humans only understand bits and pieces of. In any case, the gods are a part of the cultures they are related to, participants in the culture, but also limited by its social rules and traditions. Gabriel cannot just strike down heretics or take other major actions unless the angel does it in the proper ritual fashion expected by religious believers, the other angels, and the Almighty. Likewise, if the angel chooses to break with traditions, there are serious consequences for everyone.
  • So how would we work this in practise?

    Perhaps, something like: "The prophets of Battlehym teach these 10 beliefs as most important; Now, pick 3 to put on your character sheet, oh, and make up an extra one, just for your own."
  • edited February 2007
    Jonathan,

    In HQ most religions are culturally based. If you're born a Heortling you probably identify with the Storm gods in some way or another. However, you may actually be an initiate of some spirit cult, with a smattering of folk charms, and an interest in joining the sex-goddess cult some dude just brought from the east. The only people that really have the "identifiably one god or one pantheon" thing are the highest level initiates and devotees of those gods. Everyone else is much less singular and world religionish.

    You could make some assumptions about Heroquest characters based on their religion ("He's a Heorting, when we go to tax him he'll scream "live free or die" and then try to hit us with a lightning bolt") but the degree to which that actually happens in game is determined much more by culture than religion, and is one of the big ways in which players define their own Glorantha. Many folks do play religions in HeroQuest pretty deterministically, but not all of them, and it really is a group choice rather than all that inherent in the material. (At least much of the newer material. Glorantha, like religious doctrine, changes over time.)

    The other thing is that much as I do violently disagree with the world religion take on how things work, not all religions have been equally blended at all periods and in all places. Certainly now the religion of China is difficult to apprehend in western "what sect are you" terms -- but there have been plenty of non-Western influenced periods of Chinese history in which one sect or another was persecuted for being enemies of the state, not Chinese, or otherwise difficult in some way. So even the historical Chinese, much as they many times syncratized religions, still could occasionally make value judgments and focus specifically on one group as different than the other.

    Which really isn't all that different than the West. Once you get out form under the shadow of the Catholic church in Western Europe, the mixing and merging of belief the world over becomes a complicated thing. And everywhere and everytime religion is far more based in culture than we're allows for here. If you were an ancient Greek when you were in Athens you worshiped Athena because if you didn't do so, at least publically, you weren't Athenian. That in your spare time you studied Zoroastrian mysticism was your own business. Religion was public, rather than the modern ideals of religion as something that matters only to you. (And should be kept to yourself in polite company.)

    Shreyas and Mark,

    Now this I find fascinating. When given the option of dealing with gods its like we've gone off in exactly opposite directions. Lets make gods less human and knowable, and lets make them more human and knowable. I think the direction you chose there is going to say a lot about the types of directions decisions and themes you want to address with your game, and both have real potential for the awesome.

    Also, in this discussion, I think one of the things we could consider is that very often in many, many religions ancient and modern, the role of gods isn't to be lovingly worshiped. Superstition rather than devotion plays a huge part in many religions, and polythestic ones are no exception. The ancient Brahmins chanting the Vedas before the time of Asoka didn't do so because they loved the gods, they did so because they had to appease the gods and because if men didn't do the proper rituals to keep the gods in line the gods would fuck everything up because they were naughty.

    On that note, I offer up the following form my vast file of religious wank bookmarks: http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i39/39b00701.htm
  • edited February 2007
    Stefan,

    Or "make up three things your character believes deeply, make up three things he badly wants, now here is a list of religions in the world, chose which ones he belongs to/studies/identifies with and/or against in accordance with those beliefs and wants."
  • Heya Josh,
    Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyTroy, what if there were a lot of different mechanical subsystems on how to invoke divine assistance (ie, living according to a set of beliefs, performing blood sacrifice, ritual dance) and these were always available to anybody who wanted to try them -- they just all use different sets of abilities that the characters may or may not have on their character sheets (willpower, ritual, dance, blah-de-blah-blah)? Additionally, there were "gods" -- in that there are things that people say about the supernatural world, none of which is given any sort of actual authority in the text. Then characters would be free to pick up any rite or ritual and direct it at any presumed god. Roll the dice and interpret the results.
    For the type of game I'm thinking about, yes that's exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for! It's got the mechanical nature of things I want (will, dance, ritual, prayer, etc) but the individuality I feel is important to RPG design. It has structure, yet a lot of personal choice- which is something I want to start emphasizing in my designs. If I were going to write my style of RPG that included religion, that's the very thing I would do. You've just solved a very big piece of the puzzle for me. Thanks, bro! :)

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • Brand, I wasn't trying to imply that people couldn't identify with a single religious tradition or have other people identify you with one. I was arguing against meta-level categories, not local level ones, necessarily. Also, clearly I have to read Hero Quest. Can I get away with reading Mythic Russia instead, because Glorantha really doesn't do much for me?

    Also, your response to Stefan is boss, though I worry a bit about having a predetermined list of religions. I'd rather have a list of religious threads or themes that permeate the various cults and rituals of the land, and have players determine what the local traditions and practices are like. But maybe that has to do with my approach to setting.
  • Jonathan,

    I could see either way working. If I were doing a historical game I may go with some predetermined religions, because... well, because they were. If I were making up my own Sorcerer and Sword style world for game, however, I'd totally do themes and threads and then have the players make up their own religions. Hell, that kind of makes me want to play a Sorcerer game in which the PCs are all the charismatic prophets of new religions sweeping the Hyborean world.

    As for Mythic Russia, I don't have mine yet, so can't answer as to how much it gets the different religions thing.
  • I come into this discussion late, but I ran a seven-session The Shadows of Yesterday campaign for which mythology was intensely important, even though the actual "gods" never showed up at all. Instead, the major NPCs -- and, by the end of the game, at least one of the player-characters -- acted mythologically, taking on aspects of the deities to which they were devoted.

    When I started seriously reading Indo-Euporean mythology -- besides the familiar Greek myths, I'd strongly recommend Buck's free translation of the Mahabharata and Ramayana -- I found it was much less about "just-so" stories of why X does Y or about power struggles between ideological principles, and much more about the deep, dark, dreamlike power of the unconscious. It's much less about natural forces and much more about psychological forces, much less about why the rains come and much more about loving and fearing your own father.

    So I made my setting's deities personality archetypes that only made sense in interaction with each other, and on which the player-characters could model their own behavior. These are the ones that people had the most fun with:



    Key of the Unconquerable Sun
    "Light of all the world, enlighten me!"
    All who walk in the light of day adore golden Asorion, the Sun, husband of Mother Earth, High King of Heaven, he who dies each winter at the solstice and returns triumphantly to life. But you have gone beyond this common worship and devoted yourself to his principles of learning, rationality, hierarchy, and law. You are an upstanding member of your community: men heed your words and women listen patiently. You are probably literate and almost certainly male.
    Typical backgrounds include nobleman, military officer, bureaucrat, merchant, guild member, independent farmer (not serf), or magus.
    You gain 1 XP whenever you explain to others your well-reasoned plan for solving a particular problem.
    You gain 2 XP if they actually follow your plan (succeed or fail).
    You gain 5 XP whenever you insist on taking the time to think things through to find the logical solution you're convinced must exist while everyone else is running or fighting for their lives.
    You may buy off this Key by acting in blind panic or passion.

    Key of Our Mother Below
    "From your dark womb we come, O Mother, and to it all return."
    All tremble before our Dark Lady of the Earth, Svulkë, bride and mother of Asorion, she who gives the harvest and receives the bodies of the dead. But you have gone beyond and learned the secret teachings that ensure the fertility of fields and marriage beds, whispered from grandmother to newlywed for generations since before the High Kings came. Young men and maidens seek your advice, women in childbirth put their lives in your hands, farmers guiltily try your potions, and even the magi of Asorion give you grudging respect. You are probably not a virgin and you are almost certainly female.
    Typical backgrounds include noblewoman, farmwife, midwife, revered matriarch, feared witch, prostitute, or priestess.
    You gain 1 XP whenever you console the sorrowful that new life will come, or warn the joyful that they too will die.
    You gain 2 XP whenever someone does your bidding without anyone publicly acknowledging your power.
    You gain 5 XP whenever you deliberately sacrifice the life of one member of your community to save another.
    You may buff off this Key by refusing to accept the death or possible death of someone you care about.

    Key of the Wounded Moon
    "My life is not my own."
    All people know the tragic story of Kthonné, the moon, favorite daughter of Asorion and Svulkë, she who was seduced and violated by the First Wolf, gave birth to the Stag King of the fay, and went mad, hiding her bright face in shame and sorrow. But you were dedicated to her service by your father: perhaps because he was too poor to feed you as a girl; perhaps because he had no dowry to marry you as a maiden; perhaps because you, like the moon, were raped, and your father could not bring himself to cleanse his honor with your blood in the ancient manner. ("Raped" in this culture means sex without your father's consent; yours is legally immaterial). Now you stand apart from men and women both, empowered to heal the righteous and slay the wicked, yet never truly free.
    Typical backgrounds include Sword Virgin (woman warrior-healer) or Dagger Bride (spy and traitor-hunter; always a raped woman with no honor left to lose).
    Gain 1 XP every time you deny yourself something in deference to a male authority figure, such as a Magus, nobleman, or other devotee of Asorion.
    Gain 2 XP every time you endure danger or suffering on behalf of another, with no benefit to yourself.
    Gain 5 XP every time you do something to benefit others that would horrify them if they knew.
    You may buy off this Key if you do something you really want to do, just for yourself.

    Key of the Worldshaker
    "I die triumphant if my fear dies first!"
    In these troubled times, everyone offers sacrifices to appease Gauros Worldshaker, the brooding god who brings storms, eclipses, earthquakes, and war, the cosmic rebel who alone dared defy his father Asorion when the Sun-King's tyranny would have burned up the world. But you have embraced turmoil as a way of life and made the road your home. Respectable folk step out of your way, maidens and young men watch in wary fascination, small boys follow you hoping to see a fight. You have probably taken a life and are most likely male.
    Typical backgrounds include soldier or sailor (but not officer), brigand, mercenary, gambler, and wanderer.
    Gain 1 XP whenever you ignore good advice, credible threats, or legitimate orders.
    Gain 2 XP whenever you help someone out in such a way that you receive only resentment or suspicion in return.
    Gain 5 XP when you switch sides in a conflict out of pride or principle, without any material gain to yourself.
    You may buy off this Key by pleading for help,

    Key of the First Wolf
    "[howling]"
    Everyone knows the First Wolf raped the Moon and sired the Stag King of the Fay. No one worships his totem except the outland barbarians and inbred hillfolk -- and you. You know the truth: that all kingdoms fall, all knowledge fades, and even gods come and go, but the ancient powers endure. If other people knew what you worshipped, they would probably kill you for being a werewolf and a traitor: Are you?
    Typical backgrounds include backwoods primitive, bandit, deserter from the army, and secret agent for the Horde.
    Gain 1 XP every time you fail to conceal your contempt for "civilized" folk.
    Gain 2 XP every time you prevail when civilized folk cannot because of your strength, savagery, or cunning.
    Gain 5 XP every time you lead others to reject civilized values and embrace the way of the Wolf.
    You may buy off this Key by saving someone from the consequences of their own weakness.

    Key of Old Man Chaos
    "Omnipotent is he, and blind, and mad."
    Everyone knows Old Man Chaos created everything that is. Everyone knows he did it by accident and will one day destroy the universe just as blindly. Nobody actually worships him: That would be…crazy.
    Typical backgrounds include deviant, cultist, or sorcerer.
    Gain 1 XP when you embrace what others find repugnant.
    Gain 2 XP when you achieve personal advantage amidst chaos and ruin.
    Gain 5 XP when you risk your life or sanity, or that of another, for unnatural power.
    You may buy off this Key by recoiling in horror from what you have done.
  • And here's an excerpt from the ten page mythology I wrote up for my players halfway through the game:

    ....
    In the first years of the sun, innumerable gods swarmed upon the earth like flies. They were born of Svulkë in the dark, before she could see that she was beautiful, or whether those that lay with her were foul or fair. In that first long day of Asorion, they had shunned the strange new light and hidden in their mother's skirts; but at his death they had ventured forth again, and though he was reborn, they learned to hide by day and hunt at night.
    Therefore Asorion summoned all the gods before him. With his right hand he held the golden ring of Svulkë, his mother, wife, and queen, and with his left hand he laid his mace across his lap. By his right foot sat his son Gauros, brooding and thunderous, and by his left foot sat his daughter Kthonné, bright and whole, for in those days the Moon was always full, and shone ever in the daytime sky beside her father.
    "Upon my people you have preyed," Asorion told the gods, "and my laws broken. Cattle and children do you steal, and you usurp my share of the sacrifices. When a man ventures from his village, you set upon him in the woods; and when a woman wanders from the path, you take her honor by force. For love of your mother, my bride, I have stayed my hand, but no longer. Willingly must you obey my laws, or else all unwilling you must face my justice."
    Then the Dragon, who was the most subtle of all the gods of old, spoke thus: "O Asorion, equally might thou submit to us, young brother, for we were born of thy mother Svulkë long before thee, and are thy elders. Therefore neither we nor thou should speak of precedence, but refrain from hindering one another."
    "Presumptuous serpent," Asorion replied, holding aloft the ring, "thy half-brother may I be, but thy mother is my bride. To me has she given herself entirely, and all that is hers, is mine. Thy lawful father am I, and therefore thy king."
    .....
  • When given the option of dealing with gods its like we've gone off in exactly opposite directions. Lets make gods less human and knowable, and lets make them more human and knowable. I think the direction you chose there is going to say a lot about the types of directions decisions and themes you want to address with your game, and both have real potential for the awesome.

    Oh yeah! I am sure that we were deliberately counterpointing one another, or something. I think we were just trying to say, as Jonathan also did, the way to make gods awesome is to look at them as specific and motivated and complex beings, rather than, um, worship-miracle conversion machines.

  • Brand,

    Their demons could be their gods or their worshippers or their blood-starved altars, etc.

    Sounds like fun.
  • Oh, and Sydney...awesome stuff.
  • edited February 2007
    Posted By: shreyas I think we were just trying to say, as Jonathan also did, the way to make gods awesome is to look at them as specific and motivated and complex beings, rather than, um, worship-miracle conversion machines.

    Yes! They're not mechanical, they're psychological -- as alien and as familiar as your own repressed dread and desire.
  • The original post asked:
    Posted By: Troy_CostisickSo here's what I'd like. How should a pantheon of multiple dieties be done? How can a game desiner use that trope to have an impact of actual play? Why and how should the gods be important to the common person and the player-characters?
    Well, lets assume you want to put powerful gods in your game that are
    Posted By: shreyasspecific and motivated and complex beings, rather than, um, worship-miracle conversion machines.
    In that case I think you have no choice but to make the game about the gods and the characters relationships with the gods. I think they'll break your system if they are just colour.

    I can think of two ways that already exist in the literature.

    1) Gods as Superheroes. What would it be like to live as a normal in a world with uber-powerful superheroes i.e. gods ? Games such as With Great Power and Capes could provide a rich seam of godly motivations and behaviours. Nobilis is a game in the same vein which casts the characters as gods of a sort. Two prominent ideas in Nobilis are that the gods are too busy politicking among themselves and working to prevent the Bad Guys (excrucians) from destroying creation to interfere too much with the world and that the godlike pc's can only bind mortals with whom they have a strong personal relationship, love or hate.

    2) My Life With Master. How to serve your gods and preserve your free-will ? I think the mechanics of MLWM are perfect for representing the struggle inherent in serving a divine being. Instead of ending with the death of the god (but then again, why not !) the divine attention could be diverted elsewhere and the PCs can get on with their lives. You could run a campaign stretching over generations. Even better if you serve a loving god rather than a hideous monster.

    As a final point, for the situation described in the original post I don't think it's worth getting too hung up on modelling how religion works/has worked in the real world. In our imaginary world the gods are real and do stuff, in the real world the gods are imaginary and do nothing. This would change the whole basis of religion. It wouldn't be about taking things on faith. Thor wouldn't care if you believe in him he's still going to smite you if you piss him off.

    Colin
  • edited February 2007
    Colin raises an interesting point, inadvertantly (not that his other point was uninteresting, but anyway).

    Why do the gods/spirits in roleplaying act so differently than the gods/spirits in the real world? I would say something like "Why is there always actual proof of the gods' existence and efficacy in roleplaying?" but that assumes that we all share the same sensibilites about what does or does not prove the existence of the supernatural. I think this is related to magic and other supernatural entities in roleplaying as well.

    For example, say I encounter what I believe to be the workings of a god, spirit, ghost, demon, shaman, etc. in real life. It's really freaky! Or maybe awe-inspiring! In any case, it tends to be a very subjective experience unless you're talking about a communal ritual or something where everyone can feel the presence of the supernatural. But it's not like the gods are likely to come hand me a magical sword or something. I might believe that the gods have led me to find or create a sword that is magical, but that's different.

    Even in a lot of mythology about demigods and heroes, those who have special relationships with the gods, divinities aren't always directly there, talking face to face with people. Take Odysseus and Athena in the Odyssey. As far as I remember, Athena appears once to Odysseus, at the end of his voyages, and even then she's disguised as an old woman. Odysseus basically encounters an old woman who he believes to be a goddess! That's not the kind of direct proof most roleplaying games suggest is common. So what's up with that?
  • Jonathan, I think some (but by no means all) folks play with an explicit supernatural world because the real world doesn't supply that. Just like magic and swordfights, walking and talking gods are an element that fantasy provides an opportunity to experience.
  • Hey, guys, you're coming back around to what I said up above.

    Give the gods motivations. They're people. They're the spirits that live inside things and make them be what they are, make them do what they do. Put those things on your relatioship maps and give them voices, if indirect ones.

    Anyone here ever heard of a game called Sorcerer? Maybe? It's about a very plausible relationship between people and the sentient things that make them powerful. Sometimes the gods need the people, sometimes the people need the gods, and they're willing to really fuck each other over to get what they need out of each other.

    A god needs love from a follower. He's willing to hurt that follower really badly to get that love. That's a story waiting to be told.

    I don't love Sorcerer's system on the whole, but I love the way relationships with your own power get personified. The actual sorcery stuff is great.

  • And see, that's probably the part of Sorcerer that engages me the least. It takes something powerful because it is numinous and otherworldly and turns it into something immediate and knowable. The power of the supernatural -- TO ME -- is that it is able to unify people in modes of thought and behavior. Making it this totally personal thing, couched in very immediate and personal questions, loses the focus that I care the most about. It works great for other folks, certainly! But my interest in the supernatural as a game/story element is in how it affects the world at large, not how it screws with one character's life.
  • For game stuff, I was going to mention HeroQuest too. Also my own Questers of the Middle Realms, for the potential to build up precarious Favour networks. And maybe John Wick's Enemy Gods, though I don't really know anything about it.

    BTW, I think there are several different discussions going on in this thread - eg the stuff about real world religions, while fascinating, doesn't seem to relate to the original post.
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