16 January 2007

Religion in RPGs

Cross-posted from here.

It struck me last week, whilst reading Dogs in the Vineyard, that actually I find the strong (central) presence and projection of religion an active turn off in games. Likewise the objective worth of religion (i.e. if no religion is objectively a bad thing for a character I'll likely be put off).

I have always shied away from playing divine or religiously motivated characters, but previously put it down to just not knowing how to play them right, what with me being decidedly non-religious myself. I've just never had a handle on the motivations or, if I'm honest, found organised faith an interesting enough a concept to play around with.

I qualify that because I think on an individual level faith and the questions it poses are interesting and character defining, but take it to the level of organised religion and I balk. However, again if I'm honest, my only interest comes from stripping faith away, actively questioning it; I personally see no value or interest in objectively proving it true ("divine magic" in DnD, prayers for miracles being answered etc.). This is much more applicable on an individual level than at that of a whole organised religion, and my inclination is to do it with characters whose belief structures are very individual, or at least not knowingly following a unified code.

Reading Dogs, where faith is objectively powerful in the default setting and the PCs are explicitly guardians of the faith, went further: it actually made me feel uncomfortable. I could never play, or run, it straight as the objective power - and salience - given to religion made my atheistic skin crawl. I am aware that functionally the premise is no different than saying "all PCs are cops" or "all PCs are [insert prerequisite here]" yet the fact that it was religion actively made me squirm. Thankfully (from my point of view) the game has much else of interest and can be ported to other settings or genres to lose the religious angle.

Note I do not have a problem with games featuring religion, deities or otherwise, just with making religion something beyond the personal and projecting it onto others. Take Exalted, for instance: I have more issue with the high power levels of characters than I do with them being the chosen of a god. I never felt a belief structure was being imposed or that to be Exalted mandated worship or overt religiousness.

I have no issue with clerics or paladins in DnD, though I am left cold and uninterested by the overt nature of their power being granted by their gods (ideally, and personally, I would leave the root of their magics ambiguous). I simply have no desire to play one myself even if I could get past my distaste for the system itself - though a godless paladin (where the role of a god is replaced by something personal) would potentially interest me.

In Warhammer the religions bother me not at all: in fact I like the idea of the Cult of Sigmar, perhaps because it is largely described as a cult and the "magic" available to priests is explicitly from the same roots as all other magic. Faith in WFRP reads and feels like a very personal phenomenon to me, despite its central presence in life in the Empire and the superstructure of clergy and sundry others that it supports.

In all those cases aspects of religion are present but are not projected onto a character; ones beliefs are ultimately ones own to decide, and one choses whether to belong to a religious organisation and follow its rules. Religion is not central to the game unless you make it so. Once that choice is taken away and religion is explicitly a large part of the game I lose interest and/or gain aversion.

I can only see that this is a reflection of life: to me religion is an intensely personal thing. I lack it, while others find great strength in the various different organised or personal belief structures out there. To me religion has no place in school or state (not least because there are so many different religions and I have a really hard time swallowing a claim that any given religion is more right than any other), or any sphere other than the personal.

When it comes to games if religion is explicitly present at all then the same freedom of choice (none, one, many) and subjective worth (none, some, lots, good, bad etc.) must hold true in order for me to feel comfortable and stay interested. I have not come across an explicit proscription of religion in gaming but I could only assume that because it is in line with my take on life it would not bother me the way explicitly prescribed religion does.

Note too: this is not intended as an attack on organised religion in any way. Rather it is just the articulation of thoughts that have struck me about my personal preferences since I picked up Dogs. These thoughts were spurred by both my reaction to that game as written and a retrospective look at games and characters I have played in the past. They are specifically related to games and gaming.

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