Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Implicit Christianity of Early Gaming

One of the many interesting ways that Dungeons & Dragons differs from its literary forebears is in the matter of religion. Pulp fantasy, by and large, is unconcerned with the subject. Priests are generally portrayed as hypocrites at best and outright villains at worst. Likewise, the actions of the gods, if they occur at all, are mysterious and easily written off by the skeptical as mere chance. This clearly isn't the case in D&D, where, thanks to the inclusion of the cleric, religion has always played a role in the game.

Granted, the cleric owes the better part of its existence to Hammer horror films, but, if you read OD&D, you can see that the class quickly evolved beyond its origins as a mere vampire hunter-cum-medic. The influence of historical medieval wargaming on the game shouldn't be overlooked. Everyone remembers Chainmail because of its Fantasy Supplement, but Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax didn't write these rules in order to facilitate miniatures battles between dragons and elves but instead to recreate the warfare and technology of the European Middle Ages. Gygax, by his own account, was very keen on medieval history, at least on the military side of things (no doubt the source of his pole arm-philia). Given this, is it any wonder that the armored, mace-wielding cleric bears a strong resemblance to the religious knights of the Crusades?

If you read OD&D carefully, you soon notice that a lot of the paraphernalia associated with clerics has Christian origins. The equipment list, for example, includes wooden and silver crosses, not the "holy symbols" of AD&D and later editions (Interestingly, there are no crucifixes, which I think is significant). The cleric's level titles include a number of specifically Christian terms (vicar, curate, and bishop). The illustrations of clerics in OD&D -- and even early AD&D -- always show them dressed in obviously Christian priestly garb. And of course many of the cleric's spells draw on Christian (and Jewish) religious writings and folklore. Indeed, the cleric's focus on defense and protection spells is, I think, more evidence of the Christian origins of the class. What's even more telling is the fact, even as late as Eldritch Wizardry, there are few (if any) explicit references to gods in OD&D. There's much talk of demons, devils,and, tellingly, saints, but gods aren't much talked about until Supplement IV's release in 1976.

I once asked Gary Gygax directly about the question of why this was so and he explained that he felt it unseemly to include anything too explicitly Christian in a mere game, even if he assumed a kind of quasi-Christian or crypto-Christian underpinning for the whole thing. This is also why his demons and devils used somewhat obscure names rather than very familiar ones. All the old school love for statting up Satan/Lucifer was something Gary didn't feel was proper. It's the same reason why, even in late AD&D, we get planetars, solars, and devas but never "angels." Interestingly, the original Blackmoor campaign, as I understand it, had a Church, complete with a hierarchy, but no named gods. Again -- and someone can correct me if I'm mistaken on this -- there's an assumption of a quasi-Christianity lurking in the background.

Reading Chivalry & Sorcery as I have been, there's a bit more explicit assumption of Christianity there, but it's still stated in a somewhat circuitous fashion -- an oddity given the great detail given to things like ecclesiastical structures, beliefs, relics, and so on, not to mention the lengthy bestiaries of demons (including Lucifer himself). In the case of C&S, the impression I get is that its authors simply assumed that their readers wanted their games to include lots of quasi-Christianity, since it was more "realistic" than the henotheism of most fantasy RPGs. I know that, in my early days of gaming, my friends and I all tacitly assumed that clerics were Christian priests -- heck, I thought monks were as well -- and that, somewhere, behind all the monsters and magic, the Lord of Hosts was lurking.

We never really talked about this assumption or dealt with it in any direct way, but we neither did we question it. It was an odd kind of Christ-less Christianity, more concerned with laying the smackdown on evil than with turning the other cheek or taking up one's cross, except in the most vague of senses. The paladin was an unambiguously Christian knight for us and indeed Lawful Goodness we associated with this unspoken religion that had bishops and cathedrals and holy water and everything else a young boy saw as being "essential" to medieval Christendom.

As time went on and our sense of D&D changed, this implicit Christianity became less important, but it never fully faded away, because it just seemed to us that there was just no other way to look at the cleric and the paladin except in the context of quasi-Christianity. Nowadays, I'm probably too immersed in swords-and-sorcery to fall into this perspective again, but I am now more firmly convinced than ever that early gaming, far from being "pagan," was in fact shot through with Christian belief, practice, and lore. It was always a kind of "fairytale Christianity" broadly consonant with American generic Protestantism rather than anything more muscular, but it was there and it's never really died, even if all the post-1e editions of D&D have tried to varying degrees to remove all evidence of it. I find it fascinating to remember this, if only because, as I spin off in flights of pulp fantasy fancy, it's good to be reminded that D&D owes its origins to more than just that style of fantasy and is in fact a goulash of unspoken and contradictory inspirations.

34 comments:

  1. Ever check out "Fantasy Wargaming," by Bruce Galloway, a small hardcover RPG-like thing which seemed to be mostly a knockoff/reimagining of C&S? It had an explicit Christianity, but not a Christian metaphysics... religion was subsumed into its magical system, so that saints and God were critters who accumulated magical energy from prayers. Plainly, it's what Gary wanted D&D *not* to be.

    I always found the whole thing simulateously fascinating and appalling. The rules are crap, and I never quite figured out how to play it, for better or for worse.

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  2. I still own a copy of the book and remain as inexplicably fascinated by it now as I was a teenager. It's just so ... odd. I keep wanting to dismiss it forever and laugh at it for the nonsense it mostly is, but something prevents me from doing so, as if I intuit there are hidden depths to it.

    Crazy, I know.

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  3. Interesting post. In the campaign I'm setting up, I've decided that clerics are going to explicitly be Christian priests, perhaps some sort of specific Templar-type group that are looked upon with great suspicion by the main (spell-less) church hierarchy.

    I have the feeling that just called them Christian will mean fewer players will choose to be a cleric (I game with an eclectic bunch!), but we shall see.

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  4. There is not a huge degree of difference between the implicit pseudo Judeo-Christianity of Dungeons & Dragons and historical monotheistic paganism/animism [typically Zeus as the source of all divinity or ultimate godhead and other divinities reflections of his being], which is itself only a short distance from Tolkien's cosmology for Middle Earth.

    Initially, I was inclined to run D&D in a dualistic manner with equally powerful good and evil deities sponsoring paladins and anti-paladins. Later I became dissatisfied with that, and gravitated more towards Tolkien's approach, which I saw reflected in Ao in the Forgotten Realms. I found Saint Augustine's City of God very helpful in this regard.

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  5. As an aside to this discussion, I remember seeing Paizo's Kyra for the first time last summer in one of their Pathfinder modules. She's a cleric with definite Middle-eastern flavor. I was dumbstruck with the notion that cleric could be vaguely Islamic/Egyptian in appearance.

    Kyra artwork and profile

    Of course, I shouldn't have been. I've seen lizard folk clerics for Pete's sake--so this shouldn't have come as a surprise. And yet, the imagery made me think exactly what James has mentioned here. That clerics in my understanding, by-in-large, have always held crosses.

    I rather like the Kyra model BTW. It sort of reinvigorated me to reconsider playing one in the future. (I'd long given up on them for the reasons James stated above).

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  6. Isn't the cross explicitly described as a 'symbol of Lawful Good' in the Vampire entry of the Monster Manual too?

    The Christian underpinnings of AD&D were always fairly obvious, I think - its hard to imagine anyone thinking otherwise. DCS' clerics as Knights Templar in particular made this very clear to me even as a twelve year old.

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  7. I found Saint Augustine's City of God very helpful in this regard.

    Care to elaborate? I think I understand where you're going with this one, but I'm curious to see if I'm right.

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  8. Isn't the cross explicitly described as a 'symbol of Lawful Good' in the Vampire entry of the Monster Manual too?

    It is indeed. I'd forgotten that one.

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  9. Care to elaborate? I think I understand where you're going with this one, but I'm curious to see if I'm right.

    It has been a long while since I first read it (getting on for a decade I now realise!), but I believe I mainly derived use from Augustine's outlining of Varro's theological arguments (particularly attempts to portray Jove and God as equivalents) and his own rebuttals; his various discourses concerning the nature and role of angels and demons, as well as discussion of fate and free will, also come to mind (though in the case of the latter I probably found more of use in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy).

    In short, potential (and workable) answers to the vexing questions that occur when one considers the possibility of an omnipotent creator deity, and a number of alternatives for integrating one or multiple polytheistic pantheons into a monotheistic universe.

    Trying to be succinct about that was no easy task, so apologies if I lost the thread of what I was saying!

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  10. IIRC in the Blackmoor game the established church was The Church of the Facts of Life (which preached the Doctrines of Wishy-Washiness and met sin "with a great Tsk-Tsking all around." In effect it functioned in entirely the same manner as the medieval Christian church, but without the implicit impiety of making religion into a game.

    [IIRC there was no Adversary or such-like, although there were a number of evil cults and such (hence the idea of the Evil High Priest rather than Anti-Patriarch).
    There was little in the way of metaphysical arguments or conflict. Any acts of conflict where entirely earthly in nature.]

    Chivalry & Sorcery is set in historical medieval Europe, making ignoring Christianity an impossible task. However other religions are detailed in the various supplements. However the portrayal of actual deities and such, and the metaphysics involved in having deities take an active role in the game, was well outside the scope of the game (one of the supplement's contains Ed's essay on suchlike in role-playing generally - he was against it).

    Early Ars Magica handled this idea well and captured the medieval spirit much better than most of the old school games, with the idea of Faerie and Dominion Auras (and Devils wanting to seduce and win souls rather than be ravaging engines of destruction). [Although the White Wolf team really messed things up when they then attempted to quantify this in Pax Dei - which probably was the most detested and ridiculed supplement ever produced.] There was always a distinction between magic and miracles (extremely rare).

    Most early games of my aquaintance were very much Sword & Sorcery, where religion (especially the metaphysical parts) was effectively ignored. If it had a role it was as an isolated temple or cult, rather than having some metaphysical import.

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  11. It is also worth taking note of the fact that in Gygax's Greyhawk there were no "racial" deities per say:

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/2046340-post20.html

    I was interested to discover this, as before I was aware that it was the case I had already abandoned the idea of racial deities as unsuitable.

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  12. Bear in mind, too, that many if not most of the cleric spells (and some magic items) have their basis in either Biblical miracles or in the tales of the Saints' lives. Create food and water, all the various healings, sticks to snakes...

    On the other hand, in the original Greyhawk campaign, we are told that there were two chief Lawful churches, rivals of one another. They eventually morphed into the faiths of Pholtus and St. Cuthbert, but there was apparently much good-natured fun in such things as "O Blinding Light" being the theme song of one of them.

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  13. Excellent post, and I could not agree more strongly. Similar to my blog post from last year here:

    http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2007/03/class-trouble-ii-clerics.html

    I think I experienced this more as a contradiction, and therefore more psychic pain, the you apparently did. Having started when AD&D was already out, I already had things like Supplement IV and Deities & Demigods, with EGG claiming in the preface that it was integral to the work of AD&D.

    So having a Cleric class with Catholic-style level titles and Biblical spells, but no Church and only lists of pagan gods, confused the heck out of me for 2 decades.

    It took finally accessing OD&D in early 2007 to see this origin that you're talking about, and finally see the originally Crusader priest that later evolved into paganism.

    But it still never fit well, and I feel all the way through AD&D there was a fissure between the trappings/powers and the presumed society/context that I could never resolve in either direction. It was at odds with every pulp/fantasy piece of literature I could think of. It even always brought my world-building attempts to a grinding halt (see linked blog).

    The one thing I can see in OD&D is the assumption of a medieval European Crusading priest (Vol. 1), who happens to delve into areas with a lot of surviving lost Classical Greek monsters (Vol. 2). But that's not like any of the published D&D campaign settings, nor any fantasy world I can think of, so for me the D&D cleric really has to go.

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  14. I've somewhat resolved the contradiction in my current campaign setting by making LG Clerics priests of the Unconquered Sun - Sol Invictus - in a setting loosely based on dark ages western Europe, with obvious heavy Christian as well as Zoroastrian influences. This way they can be both 'Christian' and 'pagan' at the same time.

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  15. Among the aspects of C&S that initially appealed to me were its treatments of clerics and the Church. Lee Gold turned that model to good effect in her Samurai spin-off Land of the Rising Sun.

    As a player, I recall taking Friar Tuck as my first model for PCs.

    There's a definite Gygaxian emphasis on the medieval (and especially late medieval) in D&D and AD&D. The game can be awkward to fit to the Hyborian Age -- but it well suits the World of Greyhawk!

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  16. Theology was a gaping hole in the "folio" edition of Greyhawk, and I'm pretty wedded to my initial impression of a medieval kind of thing.

    It makes it easier to lay down the (canon) law for Clerics! "Hey, the Reformed Latter-Day Young of Shub-Niggurath let you use some cool weapons. Plus, they offer Pilates training and hymns with drum solos ..."

    If you're grooving that way, then let's play RuneQuest!

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  17. I was in a D&D adventure once in which the only god was . . . well, God. Our cleric had to pray to God for spells. It was a bit weird.

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  18. Gary's early world of Greyhawk was a fantasy version of the medieval Earth (complete with a China on the other side of the planet and the planet Mars in the sky). It would make sense that in the OD&D rules the clerics are quasi-Christians.

    M. A. R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT) was published by TSR only 18 months after D&D was published. The world of EPT is explicitly an alien planet tens of thousands of years in the future. It therefore makes sense that EPT has an explicit polytheistic system of 20 gods.

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  19. Reading Mazes and Minotaurs has been invigorating here. No "what's wrong with this picture" moments of D&D Clerics. No need to explain Humakt or Ksarul.

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  20. Trying to be succinct about that was no easy task, so apologies if I lost the thread of what I was saying!

    Not to worry. It's been a while since I cracked open De Civitate Dei myself, so my own memory is just as hazy. My own assumption was that you were talking about the notion of an all-powerful Creator and many lesser (but themselves created) beings, some of whom pass themselves off as gods in their own right. I could easily see a fantasy setting where that situation obtained and it'd allow for the appearance of polytheism with the underlying metaphysics of montheism.

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  21. It is also worth taking note of the fact that in Gygax's Greyhawk there were no "racial" deities per say:

    This is something I did know and approve of highly. I dislike racial pantheons in fantasy settings and much prefer to see the same gods worshiped across many races/cultures, albeit with slight tweaks to reflect differing perspectives.

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  22. On the other hand, in the original Greyhawk campaign, we are told that there were two chief Lawful churches, rivals of one another. They eventually morphed into the faiths of Pholtus and St. Cuthbert, but there was apparently much good-natured fun in such things as "O Blinding Light" being the theme song of one of them.

    I've caught inklings of this from published materials and comments here and there from the old guys, but I never knew the specifics. Is there any more to this you can share?

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  23. There's a definite Gygaxian emphasis on the medieval (and especially late medieval) in D&D and AD&D. The game can be awkward to fit to the Hyborian Age -- but it well suits the World of Greyhawk!

    Absolutely. I find it hard to leave the Gygaxian medieval emphasis behind, because it's deeply ingrained in how I viewd D&D, but I'm slowly coming round to different approaches and I'm finding that they agree with me -- even if Greyhawk will always been an unconscious influence on how I view a "proper" D&D setting.

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  24. Reading Mazes and Minotaurs has been invigorating here.

    Understandably. It's an absolutely terrific piece of work.

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  25. James M. groks Mazes & Minotaurs!

    Yeah, baby!

    We're mixin' it up now.

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  26. What's even more telling is the fact, even as late as Eldritch Wizardry, there are few (if any) explicit references to gods in OD&D. There's much talk of demons, devils,and, tellingly, saints, but gods aren't much talked about until Supplement IV's release in 1976.

    Actually, not entirely true. While *Demons* are mentioned, *Devils* are not at all, in any of the supplements or in the "Monsters & Treasure" assortments. Plenty of Demons in the latter, but no Devils. Creatures of a diabolic nature appear to be a strictly AD&D invention.

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  27. It's true there are no stats for devils in OD&D, but there are references in Eldritch Wizardry at least to "high devils," which I presume is an early name for the archdevils of AD&D.

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  28. Nice! I never noticed that before - thanks for the correction! Also interesting to note that some demons had 10-, 12- and even 20 sided hit dice, though there were some typos in the table that made it hard to tell which demons had which hit die types (not to mention "% in Laie" - gads, didn't anybody ever proofread this stuff?)

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  29. again, really interesting to see how many people have given thought to something that's given me trouble over the years . . .

    sometimes good game-mechanics make bad theology and although I usually played games that felt like Christian Europe in the Middle Ages (rather than: "what if the worship of the Norse pantheon had continued and nevertheless led to the construction of cities and librairies") it never felt right to say, "Sorry, you're X level so God only grants your prayers X times a day."

    In dealing with this, I've relied partly on Tolkien-- elven gods are worshipped by humans via intercessionary human saints.

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  30. I don't have much to add to this discussion but general approval and disquiet: England is a much less Christian place than the US, so D&D's Christian roots caused less fuss and less head-scratching there, I think, while deracinating the cleric was correspondingly easier. Also...

    D&D ...is in fact a goulash of unspoken and contradictory inspirations.
    No kidding! I think of it as a relentless gumbo: something you can't possibly expect to deal with in its entirety at a single sitting - like half a dozen half-worlds not even glued together. It always amazes me that people try to swallow the whole thing and play it as a single game.

    I was dumbstruck with the notion that cleric could be vaguely Islamic/Egyptian in appearance.
    This is where the peculiar blindness of Crusader ideology bites back at the gonzo gumbo side of D&D, though: Nestorians? Copts? It's a remarkably narrow-minded free-for-all, in some ways. I'm intrigued by the idea of strict (Christian or Islamic) iconoclasm meeting D&D: no Holy Symbols, no talking statues.

    finally see the originally Crusader priest that later evolved into paganism.
    ...and what the hell is one to make of druids, after all that? Yes, they kind of existed in medieval England and France, perhaps, although certainly not in the Gothic-Revival form in which they're generally imagined today. Tolkien's drawings are very revealing for reading his books: they're William Morris through and through. There's something reassuring about knowing you're dealing with a specifically Victorian version of the authentically historico-mythic. I'm not sure we can rely on Sutherland to provide the same service, or if we did, just what kind of game we'd actually be playing.

    richard

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  31. Not to worry. It's been a while since I cracked open De Civitate Dei myself, so my own memory is just as hazy. My own assumption was that you were talking about the notion of an all-powerful Creator and many lesser (but themselves created) beings, some of whom pass themselves off as gods in their own right. I could easily see a fantasy setting where that situation obtained and it'd allow for the appearance of polytheism with the underlying metaphysics of montheism.

    Indeed, and that is more or less the Tolkien model, but I have found that it is more fun to leave things ambiguous (at least as far as the players are concerned), presenting several theological models that may overlap and disagree in their specifics in various ways. Discrete and absolute answers take all the mystery out of an adventurous mythology!

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  32. Delta:
    "The one thing I can see in OD&D is the assumption of a medieval European Crusading priest (Vol. 1), who happens to delve into areas with a lot of surviving lost Classical Greek monsters (Vol. 2). "

    I think this is a great basis for a campaign, BTW.

    I notice that earlier D&D sources have frequent references to 'pagans', 'pagan deities' and such, eg Greyhawk's "Plains of the Paynims (pagans)". Yet never any specific reference to a monotheist PC religion. For Greyhawk I'm thinking that making most of the good deities, at least the Oeridian ones, servants (saints & godlings) of a higher Creator 'God' Power might resolve this somewhat.

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  33. BTW started reading Jirel of Joiry recently, it has a very medieval swords & sorcery feel, with Christian priests.

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  34. James, you inspired me to reach for more in my magic items, and I appreciate it. http://homeschooldnd.blogspot.com/2010/09/refining-cloak-of-elvenkind.html

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