Monday, January 2, 2017

A Healthy Disregard for Religion Could Do All Our Games Some Good.

One of the things that I have always liked about the older version of the world of Greyhawk is that there was always a pronounced bit of disregard when it came to religion in the game world. You could openly worship H.P. Lovecraft's Elder Gods in Greyhawk City and so long as you kept your sacrifices to animals you purchased and to people who were down for getting offered up to the Elders no one gave two shits about what you were doing. Unfortunately that all changed in the game world as TSR moved away from that disregard of religion and instead made the decision that the choice of your religion could color your character in a more pronounced way. As a result you couldn't be an open worshiper of of an "evil" god, such as Nerull, or else some self-righteous paladin from one of the "good" religions was going to make it their life's goal to plant your character's ass into the ground and see if you could grow a better person from your bones.  

This decision to make religions matter in this fashion drove a lot of choices that players could have made into these underground and secretive places where a division within the players was built not on who got the most loot but on who was worshiping the wrong, imaginary deity. It infected every aspect of the game as cults always worshiped evil gods bent on doing harm to the whole world and a worshiper of Nerull or Vecna was always up to no good. In a lot of ways it simplified the world into this trite, little thing that mattered less. 

Don't get me wrong: there should absolutely be unifying forces in the world, and religion is a powerful unifier; but there is no reason to make the choice of a religion dictate whether a character is a good or evil actor in the game. We have lot of other reasons to kill the latest non-player character (NPC) we come across without dropping an imaginary religion into things as a moral panacea for our actions. 

More later. 


  1. Interesting article. A couple thoughts though. Doesn't acceptance of religions and their impact on local culture fall upon the DM? Sure, a rulebook can say Zirg the God of Slime is evil and his follower are evil, but I end up treating that as broad strokes and there are times I might want to show a group of murder hobos what their evil looks like to the eyes of a Slime worshipper.

    I also wonder can you worship Shub Niggurath and be a healthy member of society? I'm asking. Maybe you can. And it could certainly create an interesting backstory for someone.

    Finally, I think your applying a more modern acceptance of religion to the game, which is cool. I mean today a person can say the are a Satanist and find acceptance places (I'm guessing). But in the medieval world that inspires our games to some degree, I doubt there is that level of enlightenment. It's one thing to (rightfully) run a game where gender ignore historical precedent, it's a different beast to run a game where the Paladin in the party tells his cultist thief buddy he's "Okay" with worshiping the Black Goat of the Woods.

    Just my 2 cents. I'm looking forward to your exploration of this. Glad to see your back :)

    1. "Doesn't acceptance of religions and their impact on local culture fall upon the DM?"


      "I also wonder can you worship Shub Niggurath and be a healthy member of society?"

      I don't see why not. I've known Muslims, Satanists, Wiccans, Pagans, Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus, and even this one crazy guy who thought that Lovecraft was writing religious texts and worshiped the old ones; all of them were pretty decent people on the day to day scale and while I disagreed with many of them on religious grounds we had no problems.

      "I think your applying a more modern acceptance of religion to the game . . ."

      That wasn't my argument.

      What I am saying is that when we make religions matter to our players in such a way as to where it impacts their ability to freely choose whoever they want to worship in the game world we've given those religions too much importance. A player who chooses to worship the Old Ones in Greyhawk City should be allowed to do so without worrying that it immediately makes it impossible for him to play alongside someone who worships Photus.

  2. One of the things I like about 13th Age's setting is that the "lawful good" Priestess is the representative of all deities and her temple has space for all religions. I reflected this in my game by having the party aided by one of her agents, a cleric of Cthulhu. He was a jolly old Friar Tuck type fellow, who just happened to worship the Dreamer in the Sea.

  3. On the other hand, with 3e they also opened it up so you could be a generically LG or whatever cleric, without actually worshiping any deity. I personally never saw the religous conflicts as more than background fluff defining possible factions. But there's always a player that builds a character around an piece of background detail that I wasn't planning on paying any attention to; and in this case it could cause conflict between the party and the players.

    1. I thought that a cleric could draw their magical powers from their alignment in 1st Ed? Did I just imagine that?

  4. We have different view points on this matter.


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