Using Real-World Religions in RPGs

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This is an article I wrote some years ago for The Sharp End.

Since religions have played such a fundamental rôle in all human societies, any RPG universe that contains humans will almost certainly contain religions. While there are numerous types, they essentially boil down to two: fictional and factual, each with their advantages and disadvantages. Factual religions have the advantage that they come off-the-shelf  and, unlike the fictional variety, are not required to make sense (and usually don’t). However, they cannot easily be transplanted to fictional fantasy settings because the sociohistoric content does not exist; for example, one would not expect to find Methodists in Pavis. There is also the risk that, through ignorance or interpretation, one may offend a practitioner of that faith. The secret is proper research, and not turning one’s views into natural laws of one’s universe.

Fictional religions have the advantage that one isn’t going to offend anybody, unless one’s gaming group contains the kind of po-faced killjoy that considers it blasphemous for mere mortals to invent divinities, that speculations about religions other than the One True Faith are heresy, or that DIY religion traduces the Spiritual Quest. If it does, I suggest that you find another group before you get invited
to a book-burning.

The background to a world needs to be thoroughly prepared  – climate, history, politics, number of sentient races, etc. If it is, then some religions will begin to suggest themselves, giving one something to work on rather than having to create everything out of whole cloth. This also helps one avoid simplistic ideas such as, to choose a random example, self-defined “chaotic evil” gods and worshippers.
Nobody considers himself to be evil; people always have what they consider to be good reasons for believing and behaving in the ways that they do.

I found myself applying these rules when I designed my own RuneQuest world. I didn’t want to use Glorantha, because a friend already had a long-running Gloranthan campaign, and in any event most material was unavailable then. I also wanted to run a campaign in a period which interests me, Fifth Century Britain with Romano-Celts fighting the Saxon invaders.

The Celtic religion did not present any real problems, in that it was originally shamanistic in nature, so I grafted the RQ shamanism rules onto my universe. In the historical Fifth Century a number of Celtic deities received cult worship on Roman lines, so I was able to utilise the archetypal religions given in the RQ Deluxe Edition. This will doubtless cause neo-pagan purists to come over all faint, but what the hell, a GM has to be allowed some liberties!

Christianity gave me a real problem. It is not mentioned in any RQ supplement except for an oblique reference in Vikings. I presume that this was because Avalon Hill did not wish to offend American minority pressure-groups, but this omission of a crucial religion fatally weakened a potentially excellent supplement.

Providing my own interpretation of Christianity using the RQ rules was the obvious answer, but I still wasn’t happy. Fifth Century British Churchmen appear to have been, in the main, a bunch of joyless pontificating moralisers who seemed to exercise themselves more over the real or imagined moral lapses of their leaders than over the rising barbarian tide that threatened to swamp sacred and secular alike. While such types exist in my game world, PC Christians (and the majority of NPC Christians) are followers of an anachronistic Celtic Church I have dubbed “Pelegianism”.

The Celtic Church is possibly the most tolerant and pluralistic faith that has ever existed in Europe (though Arianism and some polytheistic religions run it close). In our own timeline, it evolved in Ireland and what is now Scotland during the centuries when those nations were effectively isolated from the rest of Christendom. Without Roman theological baggage, the Celtic Christians adapted to
local conditions and accepted that there was often purity of motive in the practises of the traditional Celtic religion. In the process of  replacing Druidism, they absorbed much that was good in that tradition. As a result, the bards and other druidic traditions survived until well into the Norman period of Ireland’s history.

I had to have a reason why an analogue of this faith should have appeared over a century earlier, and in Romanised Britannia. History provided me with a might-have-been which actually came about in my campaign world.

In our Fifth Century, a Roman churchman called Pelegius taught that formal conversion and adherence to the Church was not necessary for salvation, that living a good life and treating one’s fellow human beings honourably and well was enough. This is a view which would find favour with many of our own time, and would probably have been acceptable to the Gnostics of his own. It did not go down well with Fifth Century orthodox Christians. Rather than allow himself to be subjected to the somewhat physical debating techniques employed on political and religious dissidents in AD 418, he fled to Britain, then already independent of the Empire. In out timeline, his views did not take hold, and Roman Britain remained orthodox (at least among the ruling classes) until the Church was swept away by
the Germanic invaders.

In my campaign timeline, Pelegius’ willingness to see the good in others resulted in his both finding converts among the Celts and absorbing many of their traditions. Despite accepting that there are many paths to salvation, they still seek converts, because, in the words of Magon, Bishop of Ratae Coritonarum:

“If you were to make a journey to a remote land, to Alba or Erin, you might set off without further ado, trusting to your wits to find sustenance and your sword to defeat such brigands, beasts and monsters which might assail you. And you might reach journey’s end alive.

“Alternatively, you might seek a guide who knows the way, perhaps having made the journey before, who can guide you to the smoothest road away from monsters and towards game, who knows which tribes on the way are friendly and which hostile, thus bringing you safe and hale to your destination.

“Similarly, in the spiritual journey we all make, you may rely on your own honour to avoid Satan’s snares or employ a guide who knows only the beginning of the Road and has no knowledge of the destination. But far better, surely, to accept Christ as your Lord and Saviour, gaining his eternal protection from Satan and the guidance of his earthly servants who, by correct teaching, can prevent Satan from enticing you off the safe path.”

Finally, I should like to touch briefly on the onward evolution of contemporary religions. In a science-fictional setting, they would have a similar nature to religions in our own world, but, depending on their strength and clout, would affect the nature of society in different ways; so it is interesting to speculate on how passage of time might change these religions.

This might be a good time to launch in to an analysis of religion in the Dune Epic, but I’ll spare you that – except to say that the fact that he was not assassinated by the IRA suggests that Fenians are not SF fans. How could any self-respecting Irish Nationalist stomach something like the Orange Catholic Bible?

I have not had the need to create such a religion myself, but, apart from Dune, I can think of three stories where this has been done. Possibly the best is Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle For Liebowitz, wherein cultural memory of nuclear holocaust has merged with older traditions of the “War in Heaven”, producing sacred writings wherein atomic bombardment is equated with the fall of Lucifer, and fallout poisons are
considered to be demons.

Another example is Robert A. Heinlein’s If This Goes On…;, which portrays an America under the sway of a religions dictatorship. This is also pretty good, if you can stomach Heinlein’s implicit assumption that if America gives up scientific research, the whole world enters a Dark Age. Given the infiltration of the Republican Party by fundamentalist Bible-Belters, it is also more likely to come true in many respects, more or less on Heinlein’s time-scale.

A third is Jerry Pournelle’s King David’s Spaceship. While I am not totally convinced by the social setup in the Second Empire, I found the situation on Makassar intriguing. On this world, which has collapsed to sub-mediæval barbarism, Old Empire relics have been incorporated into the religious beliefs of the locals, both Christians and Muslims,
believing the electronic library to be the Voice of God.

Finally (really) – take care how you advertise your gaming sessions. A GM of my acquaintance invented a god of Light called Osram; one day it fell to me to write an entry about the game in the club bulletin. Since in this campaign world the Domain of Osram occupies Anatolia and the Balkans in an alternative fourteenth century, I concluded the entry with “Osram Akbar”.

This was censored by the bulletin editor, who possibly believed that this might have caused the club’s premises to be visited by Iranian and Libyan “students” bearing cultural icons such as AK47s and Semtex-powered radio-cassettes…; 

Paul Mason wrote an article which included some comments about the above. It can be found here

I made the following response:

Paul Mason is right to say that my original article did not go into much detail as to what function religion had in my RuneQuest campaign.

The basic reason for this is that the players I let loose in  my campaign world were not only experienced role players but also had some knowledge of the era and so could be relied on to role play their religious affiliation without much input from me. In other words its function was to simulate what religion does in the real world: provide a
code of ethics (which may not match the ethical code of the 21st century West) and to provide an “explanation” as to why the world is the way it is.

I’m not sure whether his comment that I view religion as a source of social division to be an observation or a criticism but the fact is that religion has frequently been such, particularly in the fifth century CE. I invented the “Pelagian Heresy” in order to tone down the social divisions somewhat.

He is right to say that religion is more than simply a source of power. In fact, if I were starting the campaign now, I would keep closer to the legendary sources and have magic much rarer than it was in my RQ campaign; probably restricted to shamans, sorcerers and priests. The problem would be (as I discovered running a scenario in this manner
at a games convention some years ago) that the incidence of deaths and crippling injuries would go through the roof. This could be partly countered by increasing the PCs skill base in non-magical areas. The result would still be a very dangerous world, very much like the historical and legendary fifth centuries in fact. This would help to wean
inexperienced players from the tendency to pick fights with anyone who does not cooperate with them and might eliminate munchkins entirely, either by education or attrition.

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