Thursday, October 20, 2011

That Old School Religion

Recent days have seen quite a few posts on various blogs that I read discussing the potentially contentious issue of the relationship between Christianity and Dungeons & Dragons. I don't have a lot to add to those discussions, in part because I actually already wrote about this topic a long time ago and also because I think Stuart Robertson has already spoken what I think is the real truth of the matter: D&D is "a cultural Borg ... that rolled around borrowing from just about every source it encountered." Understood this way, D&D's Christian elements aren't much more deep (or shallow, depending on one's point of view) than those of any other religion or belief system from which the game borrowed.

The main thing about this topic that I'd say remains of interest to me is that, in the late '80s, when TSR whitewashed D&D in an effort to avoid criticism from some quarters, it was, in some ways, simply extending Gygax's own belief that there were topics he considered inappropriate for inclusion in a mere roleplaying game. Consider that, despite the inclusion of lots of devils and demons in the game, there were never any official stats for Lucifer/Satan. Likewise, when Gary felt the need to balance out the minions of cosmic evil with minions of cosmic good, he didn't call them "angels" but rather "devas," "planetars," and "solars." And, while there are crosses aplenty, there are never any crucifixes. Granted, the motivations behind what Gygax did and what TSR later were quite different but the effect was largely the same: to keep the game's Christian element largely superficial.

None of this is intended to deny that there are undeniably Christian elements in D&D, but I don't think those elements bring with them many doctrinal/theological assumptions -- or at least not many more than, say, the horn of Valhalla or rakshasas do for Norse paganism or Hinduism. And I've never had any problem with that.

33 comments:

  1. Barely related to the second paragraph, but from Gygax's foreword in the Extraordinary Book of Names (2004)

    "...many of the common names for English, Gaelic, Irish, Scottish, and other European national groups are based on Biblical names. If your world does not have a religion like the Judeo-Christian one, then such names are actually inappropriate. These can be set aside or altered slightly to seem familiar yet not those from the Bible. For example Adom, Duved, Jemmas, Joln, Leke, Mard, Marthew might serve as substitutes for Adam, David, James, John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew.

    In the same vein, if your world setting does not have the Christian faith, then there are a number of words you will need to avoid in naming places. These include archbishop, bishop, cardinal (as a religious figure), cathedral, church, pope, and saint."

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  2. I agree. The first time we started playing D&D (Mentzer basic set) we simply went with the assumption that the belief system was largely in the background, and need not be specified; a cleric simply got his spells due to his faith in "something."

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  3. Old school roleplaying can seem a religion in itself, and may well be so on the basis of general definitions of the word.

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  4. I'm OK with the whole 'D&D as pop culture / history / etc. salad' where everything is just tossed in together and you don't think about it too seriously. When I went to Catholic school, we were taught by members of the 'Our Lady of LaSalette' and 'Our Lady of Perpetual Help' and other religious orders. These entered our games when one of my fellow players coined the order of 'Our Lady of Lost Cadets' (who helped young soldiers find their way) and 'Our Lady of Perpetual Kelp' (who was dressed in seaweed). Blasphemous? Probably not. Disrespectful? Yeah. But we were kids and having fun and using our minds. Figures from our real life invaded our games too (our geometry teacher made an appearance as an evil wizard; a notorious bully at our school took the form of a general who ran a sadistic 'training school' for fighters where people were given beatings to toughen them up). And then some stuff was just weird. My friend Alan had came up with an army of knights that rode giant sheep instead of horses. Why? I don't know.

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  5. I just blogged about how D&D's assumed setting's Christianity was implicit rather than explicit, although my point may have gotten lost somewhat when I talked about how they removed even the implied Christianity (Crosses became Holy Symbols, etc.)and essentially forced Paganism on the game with Deities & Demigods. Even then, though, they were doing it to protect Christian sensibilities, not to strip Christianity out of the game for nefarious anti-Christian motives.

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  6. @JimLotFP

    I always thought that was one of the dumber things Gygax wrote. So unless you have a religion "like the Judeo-Christian one" you should use a name like "Adom" instead of "Adam" (As if that makes it less biblical in origin) and avoid "bishop" etc. altogether.

    By that rationale unless you have a culture "like Great Britain/US" you should avoid English altogether in your game.

    Never really understood the point to that idea, unless it's basically Gary trying to remove possibly contentious religious elements from the game, which by 2004 seems utterly unnecessary.

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  7. Like many things about D&D or any RPG, there are things I accept simply because I can't see any way around it. Like many things about D&D or any RPG, there are things I accept simply because I can't see any way around it. But there is something weird about "vancian miracles," the idea that any particular divine power is completely indifferent between healing tomb raiders for money and cleaning the well that the poor people drink from. And all for the pleasure of hearing their name repeated after a good night’s sleep.

    I'm glad that there’s no stated theology, but it’s hard for the lack of stated theology to not become a theology of its own.

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  8. FYI, Malcolm Bowers wrote the book of names, not Gary, but I suspect EGG himself might have written that paragraph.

    What were turned into Angels for D&D were actually the Devas of Theosophy, which actually used the terms Solar and Planetary Deva in their descriptions. People looking for the roots of those creatures should try finding the works of Theosophy, which explains also why some devas were tied to specific planes.

    As far as why Gary was more comfortable with Demons and Devils and not Angels, well, I think in part it has to do with his particular brand of Christianity. While he was disfellowshiped, he followed the Watchtower Society for many years, he mentioned being raised in a Seventh-Day Adventist religion, and he still believed in their brand of religion, which includes a disbelief in Hell. (It's called Annihilationism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annihilationism ).

    This probably meant he was a little more comfortable with writing Hell and the Abyss because he saw Dante as having the same mythological roots as the pagan religions.

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  9. I was really hoping to encounter some hidden heresies in D & D but instead all I got was a magic item randomly generated from a chart.
    But seriously, there is plenty in the hobby for anyone with Judaic-Christian roots to find questionable or potentially offensive. It comes down to what one focuses on and to some extent how easily offended one chooses to be. I wish I had more time to comment and share some thoughts on this, since it impacts my own life & ministry.

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  10. Jim,

    That's an interesting quote from Gygax, though a very odd one, too, given that he continued to resist ever including anything more explicitly Christian in his various fantasy worlds.

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  11. I completely agree with you, Padre, but I'd expand it out even further. There is plenty in the hobby for anyone of any religion to find questionable or potentially offensive, in my opinion. What's that saying, something about if you're looking to be offended, you will be?

    I am a pagan, and while I could be offended by many things in Deities & Demigods, I instead remember that what's written in a game book does not have to represent my own personal spirituality. In particular, the alignments of various deities make me roll my eyes, but at the end of the day, they're meant to be fictional representations in a fictional game world, not realistic portrayals of real life beliefs (ancient or modern). They are spurs to the imagination, tools for creating a fun and entertaining game.

    Word Verification: Gensha -- a D&D Ganesha with the serial numbers filed off?

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  12. This probably meant he was a little more comfortable with writing Hell and the Abyss because he saw Dante as having the same mythological roots as the pagan religions.

    That's an interesting perspective. I wasn't aware that Gary had been raised in Adventism, though I did know about his association with the Jehovah's Witnesses. This certainly puts a different spin on some of these issues.

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  13. If there's a dominant religious ideology in AD&D it's got to be The Church of the Polearm. ;)

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  14. @Stuart - Someone should do a cult write-up on The Church of the Polearm. :)

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  15. At the time, I always tought that not including elements of christianity was not the result of wanting to be non offensive (because wathever mythology elements you use, christian or hindou or wathever, you are going to offend someone), but because a working monotheist god alongside working polytheist pantheons don't make sense.
    If there are several gods granting visible powers to their followers, then the mono god is evidently deluding himself about his uniqueness. And if the mono god is the real one, then the pantheons are probably demons parading as gods. Either way, it destroys the setting for the players choosing clercs or paladins.

    But maybe I was reading too much into this.

    BTW, the only good explanation I have seen of monotheism and polytheism alongside in a logical and consistent way was in Fantasy Wargaming.

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  16. I think one way of looking at it is like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Here we have a cult worshipping through human sacrifice etc. The main human dude has powers - such as reaching into someone's chest to rip out their heart and keep it beating. It's never really questioned in the movie. Likewise we have a positive magical force in the three stones that keep the village healthy and prosperous, without which it reverts to its normal level of dumpiness. Again, the movie supports them as being actually magical - after all, they even glow. While it's possible the guy was doing the typical "psychic surgery" thing where they pretend to pull scraps of bloody pork fat out of your belly and call it tumor removal, I don't see how they could pull off defoliation / refoliation and the glow based on the stones. So let us assume that within the scope of the movie, magic is real.

    Second point, what part of Christianity allows for both of those kind of effects? Perhaps the cult was really just demon-worshippers and "bad witches" instead of worshipping a nonexistent from Christianity perspective Kali. But from whence do the stones' powers come from? Those people aren't Christian and the stones aren't biblical, so ...

    The result must be that in the movie, that magic exists regardless of what Christians in the movie believe.

    Now we also have the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail in the other two movies. Clearly either the movies are saying the biblical stories are true or else they're stories about older artifacts but describe them accurately.

    What we end up with is an environment where Christian magic exists, but also non-Christian magic exists. In Indiana Jones, the Christians are just plain wrong about some things. Among those are the existence of magical and alien entities that don't fit within the Christian dogma.

    That's how I handle religion in D&D. It's in reality a mess of gods, of pantheons and individuals and smatterings of demigods worshipped by isolated cults. If your dogma says there aren't any other gods, there is going to be some explanation for other clerics receiving spells and Commune responses. Maybe your dogma is that the other gods are just demigods, and yours is the real main one. Maybe you believe those other clerics are charlatans or deluded, and just receive spells from lesser entities from beyond the stars or the veil of the Astral or Ethereal. Maybe they're secretly some kind of magic-user instead. Point is, your character can believe whatever he likes, but that doesn't make it a reality.

    Take a real-world example. Two religions both believe they are the only true religion. Anyone worshipping any other religion is deluded and won't achieve [insert religious benefits here] and will instead get [insert penalties for nonbelievers here]. They can't both be right. They could both be wrong, or one wrong and the other right. It's like a 50% chance. But what happens when you have 100 religions that are all mutually exclusive? Number of members isn't necessarily a clue as to truth.

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  17. That way, you give explanations for the characters, who can have conflicting views and each one thinking he is right. But as a gamemaster, you have to know the truth, because it has game consequences.

    I tend to use the Fantasy Wargaming explanation: gods are the result of peoples believing in them (they are powered by the faith of the faithfuls and they are the way peoples see them).
    It explains monotheism and polytheism being true at the same time.
    It explains local gods (kind of a nature god with power only in a sacred wood).
    It explains that new religions appear and have stronger powers than dwindling ones.
    It even explains why mass conversion by force, torure or mass murder (like Charlemagne with the saxons) can be a viable way for a church to extinct a concurrent religion whilst boosting its god power (and by consequence the church power).

    And all that without the characters having to know anything about it. They can believe in their own mythologies, see proofs that they are right and still have other mythologies working as well.

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  18. @1d30 "If your dogma says there aren't any other gods, there is going to be some explanation for other clerics receiving spells and Commune responses."

    But is there really going to be any interest in dogma or theological debate, when getting the goods is not actually a matter of knowing the right god, but of knowing (any) cleric?

    Consider that although there seems to be very strong proof for the existence of God/gods in D&D, there's generally less rather than more respect for religion in most D&D worlds than in real life. "C'mon padre, give me a cure here!"

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  19. That's again explanation enough for the characters, maybe even for the players. But not for the gamemaster if you want to understand what happens.

    At least to me. I like to know how my gameworld works, if only to be consistent when I have to rule on the fly about things that are not prepared or explained in the rules.

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  20. Whatever the reasons, I see this and the linked-to article, and it reminds me of just how much society has changed from the world that existed when D&D was born.

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  21. I always rejoiced in the polytheistic world-view imposed by Deities and Demigods and Manual of the Planes back in the '80s. As a fan of the these, I could never credit monotheistic deities like Yahweh or Allah as being compatible with D&D. Honestly, how do you expect Yahweh to share the Seven Heavens with beings like Bahamut and Moradin?

    Never knew Gygax flirted with Watchtower. Interesting.

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  22. "Honestly, how do you expect Yahweh to share the Seven Heavens with beings like Bahamut and Moradin?"

    Even among Gods there are different levels of power. Moradin could be the spiritual focus of the dwarves. Sort of like a Dwarven Jesus, the same could go for Bahamut. Or those gods could be the way each respective race (Dwarves and Dragons) view Yahweh. Moradin and Yahweh could be the same entity, it's just that humans would see Yahweh and Dwarves would see Moradin.

    An omnipotent deity doesn't have to be a jealous and wrathful God. He could have created lesser gods and demigods to run things while he takes a long nap. Even the dark gods and devils could have their place in the universe. That rebellious angel could have the over-god's permission to make mischief... he may just be a little too good at his job. Remember that the Omnipotent God of the Bible allows Satan to exist and do his evil. That would probably make him True Neutral though. Or maybe Lawful Neutral since he's got so many rules for his followers.

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  23. Christianism: Monoteist.
    D&D: Politeist.

    End of discussion :)

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  24. Even if the "canonical" D&D setting is polytheistic, I thing there could be several reasons why religion in D&D games often adopts the trappings of some kind of "christianity-lite":
    First there is Ye Olde D&D Worlde setting, and by that I mean the pseudo-medieval D&D default setting: christianity was an essential feature of the Middle Ages, and it needs some work to re-imagine a polytheistic medieval world.
    Second, everything in the "Cleric, classic" just screams "medieval christian priest" : in all my games every cleric PC/NPC - be he odinist, pelorian, olympian or else - eventually morphed into a "brother Cadfael-like" minister, being adressed by the players as "father", and adopting the mannerisms of a medieval vicar.
    Third, medieval christianity, in its own time, also was some kind of cultural mash-up; just like in a D&D world: it was originally a semitic religion, wearing the old clothes of the former roman state-religion, and adopting/assimilating heathen holidays, customs and saints...

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  25. An omnipotent deity doesn't have to be a jealous and wrathful God. He could have created lesser gods and demigods to run things while he takes a long nap. Even the dark gods and devils could have their place in the universe. That rebellious angel could have the over-god's permission to make mischief... he may just be a little too good at his job. Remember that the Omnipotent God of the Bible allows Satan to exist and do his evil. That would probably make him True Neutral though. Or maybe Lawful Neutral since he's got so many rules for his followers.

    I suppose something like this possible. Tolkien had Eru (the true God in his Catholic view) but also the Valar underneath in the context of pre-Christian pagan Middle-Earth. Still, in the '80s Greyhawk/Mystara worlds, it just never seemed plausible to me.

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  26. The nice thing about historic Christianity is that there were so many different varieties of it, each with it's own beliefs as to the nature of existenece, that there is plenty of variety to choose from. It's something a lot of people forget when they use Christianity (or any other monothesism in a game).

    Most of my fantasy campaigns have been monothesisms and worked very well. I make no attempt to specify a dogma or belief system and just consider it something everyone partakes in (unless they specifically don't) and that it's not worthy of mentioning. In fact the first game didn't really define anything about the religion save that the Order of Mitra, named after a saint-hero, was the source of clerics - the fighting arm of the Church. Everything flowed from that, including at least two heresys and various heterodoxies that came out in play. Even now, I don't really know the actual strictures and belifs of the church because it waasn't important. Save that Law and Civilization were important.

    The standard Gygaxian D&D religion always struck me as much more polytheistic than pantheistic, despite each god having specific seperate aspects of life that they govern. In other worlds their religions tend to be run under monotheistic lines, with little interaction between the worshippers. Partly this is the function of the strongly-typed alignment system, and partly because few people have experience of pantheistic worship these days.

    For example, in pantheistic worship, if I were to go on a sea voyage I might make a small sacrifice to the God of the Sea before I set out in the hopes for a good voyage. Even if I wasn't a dedicated worshipper of the Sea God. Similarly, if my wife was giving birth for the first time I might raise a shrine to the Goddess of Childbirth in the garden of my estates. And that's something which rarely happens in D&D games. I think many gamemasters would consider it a heresy (and that is something that derives very strongly from the proscriptions of the judeo-christian god).

    Instead Gygaxian D&D seems much more like the old Sumerian gods, where each city had their patron god or goddess, effectively a state religion. Lots of fairly independent monotheisims. A few friends use this system and it works very well, and provides a very sword & sorcery feel to a game.

    Arnesian D&D from what I can gather had a much more monotheistic approach, but the Church was definitely a human thing. And something of a joke on the nature of the medieval Church itself.

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  27. Another uqestion this raises is wether the God(s) actually exist or not in a paricular campaign setting.

    I've always thought that if particular deities did exist and this existance was evidenced by their priest's powers (e.g. spells) and by miracles, servants of the deity appearing etc. then the general people would go out of their way to avoid annoying the gods in any way. Something I don't think you tend to see happening in mahy fantasy campaigns.

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  28. Forgive the nitpicking, but I scratched my head at this line:

    "Consider that, despite the inclusion of lots of devils and demons in the game, there were never any official stats for Lucifer/Satan."

    I thought for sure there was an early issue of Dragon with stats for Lucifer/Satan. I doubt Gary wrote it, but it was there and thus can be considered "official."

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  29. Another uqestion this raises is wether the God(s) actually exist or not in a paricular campaign setting.

    The unquestioned reality of the gods is an aspect of a lot of fantasy settings I don't much like, which is why, in my Dwimmermount campaign, there's no such thing. It's well-established, for example, that the gods don't have anything to do with granting clerical spells and there are plenty of people who doubt the existence of any deities and with good reason -- no god has ever taken a direct role in history so far as anyone can prove.

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  30. I doubt Gary wrote it, but it was there and thus can be considered "official."

    Dragon articles were never considered official, unless Gary wrote them and he specifically stated that the article was official.

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  31. I ran an atheist dwarf in a campaign that was chock full of gods. In fact the characters became sort of god collectors, housing about a dozen different gods in their headquarters and starting at least one major religion. It was quite interesting.

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  32. Ed wrote, "I ran an atheist dwarf in a campaign..."
    As a figure from folklore, wouldn't a dwarf who became an atheist just rip open a hole into the fabric of reality and disappear? It's like sticking a black hole into a bag of holding; you just shouldn't do it, man!

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  33. "As a figure from folklore, wouldn't a dwarf who became an atheist just rip open a hole into the fabric of reality and disappear?"

    I don't see the connection. Believing in deities is not a requirement for believing in the supernatural.

    The issue of the missing angels in MM seems pretty simple to me: the idea of an evil campaign had not been seriously considered (or had been and was rejected). Thus there was no need to provide high-level opponents for a party of evil characters.

    Monotheism and polythesism do not sit well together. In the real world the former has cut through the latter like a knife through Caesar and the vast majority of poly-theistic religions are dead and gone for the simple reason that it's easier to believe that one mysterious figure isn't fixing your woes than that a whole committee have overlooked you and, anyway, people really only care about the afterlife and the admin staff are by-the-way.

    But in the fantasy world, where the gods (or, in the case of Tekumel, SOMETHING) does indeed exist the monotheistic option only works in the limited Old Testament sense of there only being one deity who your/your people/your nation/your clan is allowed to worship. Which, given the length of the OT, seems to be a workable setting.

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