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Author Topic: Fantasy Heartbreakers and Religion  (Read 12512 times)
clehrich
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« on: January 17, 2003, 10:52:00 PM »

In Ron's new article, he raises a fascinating historical issue.  I'll quote at length, because I'd like to take it as the starting point for discussion.
Quote
My biggest criticism concerns some thematic content. I'm really starting to wonder about the god-lists and religion in general in Fantasy Heartbreakers. It's a unique phenomenon; I don't think it's possible to imagine anything less like religion in any sense. It includes a lot of highly-imitative or downright dumb names, direct correspondence with player-character options (as opposed to societies or organizations), and lots of un-fun strictures. The best of the bunch is Forge: out of Chaos, probably (as I read it) because this material was taken the least seriously and written for fun imaginative-background rather than as a personal fantasy opus.

What's odd is that most Fantasy Heartbreakers take great pride in their world-settings: maps, elaborate histories, wars, borders, economies, cataclysms, wilderness areas, and more. I'd think that religion, as such a major feature of culture, would get a bit more intellectual consideration beyond "what must a cleric avoid doing in order to get his healing spells back" or when a character gets a minor bonus.

So the question is: why?  Ron hits the nail on the head when he points out that setting is very often the centerpiece of these games; the designers have clearly gone to a lot of trouble, and had a lot of fun, designing these worlds.  So how come religion gets such short shrift?

Since my professional career is devoted to studying the ins-and-outs of the history of religions, I have a few suggestions here, but I don't think they do more than scratch the surface.

1. It may be an unfair stereotype, but I associate this sort of fantasy world with science-engineering types.  I know that when I first started playing AD&D (just after it appeared, actually), I considered myself part of this group.  (Funny old thing, life.)  And my experience as a teacher is that many people who align themselves very strongly to a scientific mindset are uncomfortable with religion in the real world, sometimes going so far as to see it all as idiotic superstition and whatnot.  (Lately, Penn and Teller would be excellent examples of this perspective.)  So I wonder whether part of the failure of such games to deal with any of the more interesting possibilities of fantasy religions have to do with this fundamental discomfort.

2. These games tend to be mechanistic in one sense or another.  What I mean is that if you have Trolls in your world, what you want to know is how much damage they can do, and how hard they are to kill (and how much they're worth).  Remember Deities and Demigods?  It included detailed information on, you guessed it, how much damage each god could do, and how hard he or she was to kill.  The same was true of the senior Demons and Devils.  By extension, I wonder if part of the problem is that if you have gods in the world, you want to know what they do, because if they're just there, what's the point?

3. In such games, the tendency for the various gods is to have a brief mythological "back-story" arising from a kind of set canon, often described in essentially historical terms.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of religious conflict going on at an intellectual level; rather, the worshipers of A hate the worshipers of B because the rules say so.  It seems to me that this points to a dislike of things like theology, liturgy, and so forth.  Not that these things always cause fights, but the idea that people might take them very seriously indeed seems glossed over.  I think this may be a projection of the designers' concerns: they don't take these things seriously, so neither does anyone in their universe.

4. Finally, I think Ron picks up something interesting when he uses the word "culture."  As a rule, these games describe culture in a few terms: economics, military and political history, and some material culture (at least implicitly).  But just about all of what I would focus on as primary for "culture" --- art, literature, music, stories (not big-ass myths, but just plain old stories), family life, social structures, and of course religion --- gets hand-waved away.  So I sort of wonder whether the total failure with respect to religion isn't really part and parcel of an unwillingness or inability to deal with culture more broadly.

Okay, that's me for a start.  Anyone else have ideas about this?  I would rather not get into what religion ought to be in these or any other games; there are several threads running to discuss aspects of that question.
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Chris Lehrich
Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2003, 02:05:14 AM »

Hi.

You've nailed it for me, as far as I'm concerned.  While I'm not trying to get into a discussion of what religion "ought" to be in your examples, the "negative space" of most RPG religions is, to a great extent, what I'm trying to introduce on the other threads.

Thanks,
Christopher
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Maurice Forrester
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« Reply #2 on: January 18, 2003, 03:58:17 AM »

Excellent observations, clehrich.  I think you're right on target.  Remembering my own attempts at writing this sort of game long ago, I think that these games generally start with a map and some lists.  It's rather like designing a software program: here's the system architecture, here's the list of features.

Myth and culture don't really lend themselves to that sort of quantification.
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Maurice Forrester
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #3 on: January 18, 2003, 08:32:54 AM »

I have a theory about this, and like all good theories it is unlikely to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt nor likewise disproven.

I think that when Gygax was writing the original D&D, he really had no idea what he was doing. This makes sense because it was never done before. He didn't know what it needed or not.

Now he probably decided to add deities to D&D for two reasons.
1) he himself at least has some kind of interest in them. I believe he's credited with adding Clerics to the game and holy men imply rather strongly deities, especially if you give them powers that imply that such deities are real.
2) Fantasy from the time had gods in them. Conan was always saying "by Crom" and things like that. Not to mention Mythology which is also a source of inspiration.

The problem was how to represent these gods in game terms. I'll bet he had no idea, really but he looked at the monster list and it seemed to make sense. This became one of the assumptions that D&D fantasy heartbreakers are built upon. Supreme beings are just like any other monster.

I had a rather interesting discussion once, I forget who about gods in RPG and I was of a mind that you really didn't need stats for gods because, well, they're gods. Cthulhu is a huge being. He rolls over in his sleep and whole races are wiped out. How can you rate that on 3d6 or whatever? ANd the guy says, well, yeah, but I still like to see his stats. I still like to see what he's capable of.

You know there's thinking inside the box and there's sealing it shut and covering it with cement and then dumping it in the lake.
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John Kim
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« Reply #4 on: January 18, 2003, 09:49:30 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
So how come religion gets such short shrift?

1.  ...I associate this sort of fantasy world with science-engineering types....

2. These games tend to be mechanistic in one sense or another...  

3.  ...a dislike of things like theology, liturgy, and so forth.  

4.  ...an unwillingness or inability to deal with culture more broadly.


I think that this is actually somewhat unfair to RPGs.  Now, I'm not that widely read in fantasy literature, but it seems to me that religion is given short shrift in modern fantasy literature in general.  Certainly it is largely overlooked in seminal works like Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, and others.  

In Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is close to the foundation of the genre, you can see the genuine attack on religion.  On Barsoom, the religions are explicitly shown to be self-destructive, false views which have lead thousands to their deaths over centuries.  Even in other works, religion shows up most often as evil cults such as the occaisional mention of cults of Sauron in Tolkien, or the cult at the Tombs of Ataun in Le Guin.  

Now, I'm sure that people more well-read than me can come up with examples of positive, deeply thought-out religion in modern fantasy works.  But it seems to me that RPGs are simply following the leaders in the genre.
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- John
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: January 18, 2003, 10:18:38 AM »

Hi there,

John, that's a damned interesting point. One of the issues I raised in Sorcerer & Sword was to identify that the source material (a much narrower range than you're pegging) is essentially existential, with the Void as a real and awful element of insight, and with churches or religion only being defined in terms of societal and political entities.

My take on this discussion so far is to agree with Clehrich about the general issue, but to ask, let's please avoid the use of the term "scientific mind-set," as the attitude that it's usually applied to is rabidly nonscientific. Contrast Scully and Mulder in the first season of the X-Files - one of them is a classic scientist, and it ain't Scully.

Any discussion about that should probably go off-forum, though. Let's stick with RPGs, religion, source literature, and so on.

Best,
Ron
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clehrich
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« Reply #6 on: January 18, 2003, 11:24:01 AM »

Ron wrote:
Quote
let's please avoid the use of the term "scientific mind-set," as the attitude that it's usually applied to is rabidly nonscientific.

I agree entirely.  That wasn't worded well in the original post.  Unless someone has a better suggestion, I propose substituting "scientistic" which seems to be standard in academic discourse about this sort of perspective.  I do think that some sort of term or category is required, or else nobody is going to discuss this aspect of the lack of serious religions in fantasy RPGs.
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Chris Lehrich
clehrich
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« Reply #7 on: January 18, 2003, 11:32:02 AM »

In reference to John's comment, I think you're dead on.  The problem for us, though, is that either we shift over to a discussion of why fantasy literature is like that, or the whole thread sort of collapses.

As a solution, I think that RPGs have been out there long enough that they have had a significant impact on fantasy literature.  One only has to look at the various RPG-based (usually AD&D-based, I think) fantasy novels that have been bestsellers, and that's just the really obvious stuff.  I read somewhere that Raymond Feist started his fantasy-world as an RPG, for example.  Further, I suspect that the designers, consumers, and primary audience of these fantasy RPGs are fairly avid consumers of fantasy literature, and that entails that such literature caters to their interests -- that's how genre-publishing consumerism works.  In short, while these RPG fantasies certainly imitate the vast genre-fantasy literature, the reverse is also true.

So the question returns: why does this audience have such trouble with, lack of interest in, dislike of, or confusion about religion?
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Chris Lehrich
erithromycin
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« Reply #8 on: January 18, 2003, 04:19:19 PM »

Perhaps because, in their real lives, they have trouble with, a lack of interest in, a dislike of, or confusion about religion.

I say that not to be facetious, but becuase it's probably true. As you've said, there's a large overlap between consumers and producers of fantasy literature and roleplayers.

What parts of religion are they most likely to be familiar with?
What parts of their hobby is religion most likely to be familiar with?

For many, religion is an alien thing [in that it is not part of their everyday life], and treating them as monsters makes them make sense. Ron's point about The Void and religion as a social club reflects many peoples views from that era, when people started to question the existence of gods where other people could see them. The horrors of the Great and Second World Wars did a lot to turn people against the idea of earthly paradises, and this grittiness is reflected in fantastic literature. Throw in years of lazy thematic plagiarism and the rise of the 'new age' movement [who plundered early fantasy work and were plundered in return] and bob's your proverbial half-elf.

- drew
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my name is drew

"I wouldn't be satisfied with a roleplaying  session if I wasn't turned into a turkey or something" - A
talysman
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« Reply #9 on: January 18, 2003, 07:22:23 PM »

I partially agree and partially disagree with some of the theories being presented so far. here's my take on it: I think the "scientific mindset" theory, although flawed, may be truer than we think. fantasy RPGs, as we know, are heavily influenced by '40s-'60s fantasy, much of which was written by science fiction writers rather than folklorists and mythologists. people like poul anderson and l. sprague de camp influenced fantasy by simply writing more of it than tolkein or lord dunsany.

and these guy were engineers and scientists. dunno if they really had a "scientific mindset" or not (I take it you mean scientific positivism,) but a survey of some of their writing suggest that most of the writers were agnostics, atheists, or humanists that didn't feel strongly about religion or actively disliked it. poul anderson's "operation chaos" has a big long rant against gnosticism ... was there a gnostic revival back then that the history books overlooked? l sprague de camp and fletcher pratt wrote about the norse and finnish gods in the "incompleat enchanter" series as if they were just guys in fur coats. zelazney's dilvish series has him killing petty gods, although there is a detailed description of his ancestor killing a major deity.

and other than the engineers, we have a few fantasists who weren't sci-fi writers at all -- tolkein, dunsany, c. s. lewis, and so on -- who were inspired by literature rather than the pulps. these people seem to be mostly devout christians of one kind or another, which you would think would have a good effect on their portrayal of religion, but it doesn't look that way at all. instead, their devoutness seems to have prompted them to hide all religious details (tolkein) or to practically proselytize for christianity (lewis).

when it came time to make fantasy rpgs, most of the solutions seem to revolve around avoiding getting into the religion issue:

[list=1]
[*] don't have "working" gods at all (the fantasy trip);
[*] have distant gods who only act indirectly through their priests (gygax's D&D);
[*] assume the gods aren't "the real god", just souped up monsters you can stat out (post-eldritch wizardry D&D);
[/list:o]

a couple games -- Harn and EPT, for example -- attempted to flesh out religions more without turning it into another monster manual, but I dunno if they really succeeded.

and, frankly, maybe they shouldn't try. I think games should suggest a religion and a culture, rather than simulate it, and it's probably best to leave the fleshing-out to the players, unless a writer is going to create a coherent religion and culture that fit into a setting derived from a personal vision.
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John Laviolette
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #10 on: January 18, 2003, 08:03:54 PM »

Quote from: clehrich
So the question returns: why does this audience have such trouble with, lack of interest in, dislike of, or confusion about religion?

I stand by my original post in this thread and suggest that you may be reading too much into it. Religion isn't done very well in these games so therefore these people must have a lack of interest in, dislike of, or confusion about religion? I don't think so. I think that for a decent chunk of them it is this way because that's how D&D did it and it's as etched in stone as rolling 3d6 for your stats. So I doubt it's a lack of interest per se as thinking that they're doing it right according to the model they are basing averthing else on.

I really doubt if it's anything like this "scientific mindset" or whatever it is you're saying. It's not lack of interest. I read an essay by Ken St Andre in the book Heric Worlds about how he wrote Tunnels & Trolls, which probably would be a Heartbreaker if it hadn't've come out in 1976. He wrote T&T as a direct response to D&D. St Andre really didn't have any interest in religion personally, so he simply removed it, clerics and such from his game. Show me a heartbreaker that does absolutely nothing with religion, then I will concede that it's disinterest because that seems logical compared to what I have seen.

I had just re-read the paragraph in the article where Ron talks about religion in these Heartbreakers and you know what it sounds like? Alignments:
"direct correspondence with player-character options "
"lots of un-fun strictures"

That's what a religion is in these games. It's like an alignment which is just a way to limit or inhibit the spiraling ever upwards character power.
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clehrich
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« Reply #11 on: January 18, 2003, 09:01:33 PM »

Jack Spencer wrote:
Quote
I think that for a decent chunk of them it is this way because that's how D&D did it and it's as etched in stone as rolling 3d6 for your stats.

What I took Ron to be saying was slightly different.  If I get him right, and certainly I would tend to agree on this (although I sure as hell haven't read as many of these games as he has), every one of these "Heartbreakers" in fact has one significant and interesting change from the way D&D did things.  That's what makes them heartbreakers: they seem as though they have the potential to break out of the D&D et al. thing, but ultimately can't seem to resist the vortex.

The question for me, then, is why religion is never one of the things that seems to break free.  Mechanics, races (species, really), world politics, technology, magic, you name it --- there are Heartbreakers out there that play with these things.  But religion seems always to be a set of god-lists and clerics, or else it just doesn't exist significantly.  I agree with an earlier poster that Harn took a shot at it, although I don't think it was terribly successful.

So I don't think it's fair to say that "they're just emulating the model."  The point of the Heartbreaker concept is that these are games which try to break out of the model.

Jack further remarks:
Quote
That's what a religion is in these games. It's like an alignment which is just a way to limit or inhibit the spiraling ever upwards character power.

Precisely.  Religion is entirely a mechanic.  What a strange way of representing it, when you think about it!  

I guess what interests me is the disjuncture within these fantasy universes.  You have a world in which all sorts of supposedly "mythic" elements are present --- heroes, monsters, quests, whatever.  Furthermore, these things look back on both modern fantasy and also older heroic literature (from Beowulf to Malory to Homer to whatever).  In fact, a fair number of these games make a big point of using phrases like "high fantasy" or "epic" to describe what they're doing.  When you think about it, even the alignment system is attempt to simulate or force a certain type of heroic mindset: Paladins can whomp on orcs because orcs are bad, and we don't have to do a whole lot of modern angst and tolerance and whatnot, because this is an "epic" world, and monsters are bad, and that's that.

But the sources for this kind of thing tend to be rather heavily invested in various religious discourses, because mythology is generally pretty tightly bound up in whatever it is we mean by "religion."  In a way, this was Lewis's point in the Narnia series.  So it seems as though it would be fairly relevant for this sort of fantasy game to consider the issue of religion.  But they don't.

To end this rant, I did think of one other possibility.  Since many of these games still adhere to what Ron calls the Myth of RPG publishing, i.e. they have grand dreams of writing the new AD&D which will sell like hotcakes and whatnot, I wonder whether some designers avoid religion because they think it will make their products controversial.  After all, a lot of the really vicious and paranoid attacks on D&D and other fantasy RPGs came from the religious right-wing.
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Chris Lehrich
talysman
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« Reply #12 on: January 19, 2003, 01:00:24 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
To end this rant, I did think of one other possibility.  Since many of these games still adhere to what Ron calls the Myth of RPG publishing, i.e. they have grand dreams of writing the new AD&D which will sell like hotcakes and whatnot, I wonder whether some designers avoid religion because they think it will make their products controversial.  After all, a lot of the really vicious and paranoid attacks on D&D and other fantasy RPGs came from the religious right-wing.


actually, that's part of what I meant to imply when I talked about game designers avoiding religion, but I realized after posting that I didn't make that clear. I should have added a summary of my theory: "fantasy heartbreaker" game designers were drawing inspiration from fantasy writers who avoided religion for one reason (anti-religious sentiment) or another (avoidance of what they felt was blasphemy); the designers were also either too uncomfortable writing about a topic they didn't see in the source literature or too frightened to risk a controversial topic.

I should note also that isaac bonewits -- the neopagan magical theorist and author of the applied thaumaturgy game suppliment -- expressed a very strong opinion that  rpgs should never ever describe religions that have/had real worshippers who might be offended. I don't think I agree with this, but I imagine there are some gamers who do agree, who prefer frivolous, shallow, fictional religions to avoid violating anyone's religious beliefs.
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John Laviolette
(aka Talysman the Ur-Beatle)
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #13 on: January 19, 2003, 01:12:56 AM »

I noticed yesterday that John Kim was the newest member of the forums, and wanted to welcome him; but I was otherwise occupied, so overlooked it. Welcome to the Forge, John. I look forward to your comments.

Quote from: John Kim
I think that this is actually somewhat unfair to RPGs.  Now, I'm not that widely read in fantasy literature, but it seems to me that religion is given short shrift in modern fantasy literature in general.  Certainly it is largely overlooked in seminal works like Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, and others.


I'm not convinced that Tolkien really belongs on this list. With the success of the Lord of the Rings films, there has been an explosion of articles discussing his work. One thing that emerges is that he was partly motivated by a desire to create an English mythology, a sort of replacement for what was lost to the Roman and Norman invasions. Much of this appears in subsequently published materials, notably The Silmarilion, but the stories are clearly informed by the mythology, and the mythos is very much involved in the stories. Getting the backstory clear, it seems that Sauron and the wizards (Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast are identified as part of a larger group) are minor deities themselves, supernatural beings some have likened to angels, involved in the affairs of mortals. The others, particularly Aragorn, would be mythic heroes, akin in some ways to the likes of Peracles and Heracles. Lord of the Rings also includes religious references, such as the mention periodically of the greater deity Elbereth; at one point, a group of elves are heard singing praises as they walk through the woods. The religion of middle earth is integrated into the story at many levels. (Much of the imagery is also religious, notably the several allusions to death/resurrection which is a common theme in many myths.)

It's easy to read the books and miss the religious elements precisely because they are the story. It's not about people who know the myths and have that affect their lives so much as about those who are the myths who affect the lives of others.

I've got a stack of links awaiting my attention to try to sort out which ones are worth posting, and at the moment don't have time to figure out which ones I was reading on this, but if anyone is interested I'll try to prioritize that.

--M. J. Young
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #14 on: January 19, 2003, 10:22:43 AM »

Hi,

I wrote this, and then read M.J.'s post, so it covers some of the same ground.

****

Just some thoughts about context here.

When I hear someone say Tolkien's work wasn't religious my ears prick up, cause it seems to me something's been lost in the translation.

A work does not have to mention religious institutions to be religious.  I need only point to the book of Genesis to make this clear.  No praying, no temple, no hierarchy of religious folk.  But clearly a religious tale.

I suggest that The Lord of the Rings was written in this kind of context: a world so shot-through with religion that we don't need even worry about having a Sunday Sabbath.

The point here (once again) is that one does not need to "model" human standards and conditions of the "real" world to make a religious tale.  Tolkien may not have anything mapping Christianity in the world of Middle Earth in a one to one ratio.  But Gandalf does die and rises, a "heavenly" creature with a mission on earth; the enemy is one who hardens hearts and engenders selfishness; the heroes are characters who submit to missions that are beyond their understanding but follow through anyway.  The world he created is so religious it does not need religious institutions.

As for the supposed post-modern criticism of religious institutions in 20th century fiction, I need only refer anyone willing to actually read the texts to the four gospels of the Christian Testament.  There you will find the Son of God working without a religious institution and constantly criticizing the current leaders of the religious institutions.  

(I've noticed that every generation seems to think it's discovered sex for the first time; I'm beginning to think that every generation thinks they've discovered cynicism for the first time, too.)

In the tale of the Gospels, Jesus is led to his death by religious leaders out of fear and jealousy.

The point here is that suspicion of religious institutions can be found in the most religious of texts.

Remember I am still dealing with stories here, not the recreation of how humans operate in societies.

In Homer, the gods are obviously present, as are priests.  But, for example, what is the most significant act of a priest in The Illiad?  Simply this: because of his love for his daughter he asks for her safety.  His desire to get her back sets in motion the rest of the story.  He is a priest, but his function in the tale is all about love, vengeance and keeping the story going.  

In AD&D religions are treated with a certain contempt: the contempt of those who know they are better than faith.  Bureaucracies of faith are built to offer bennies to the PCs who behave a certain way.  There is a kind of dispassionate capitalism to the whole process, like Babbits showing up to nine-to-five jobs to their steady salary and perhaps a gold watch at the end.

Truly religious tales, like the Iliad, where the passion of the characters are reflected in the gods, and the gods reflect the joy and pain of mortals, all spun into situations beyond any characters true comprehension, are in direct contrast to such thinking.

The point of all of this: First, let's be sure when we're speaking of religion, we're making a distinction between religious institutions and a religious sensibility.  Jesus did just fine without one, but definitely had the other.

Let's make sure not to look at religions with what amounts to the AD&D religious mindset: religion is religious institutions; religion is found in the begging of gifts from powerful creatures; religion is found in the utterly mundane and surface manifestation of buildings, symbols and holy orders.

That last one is the really important one.  Those are clues pointing toward a religious sensibility.  Typical RPGs religion typically has all the clues, but none of the sensibity.

Take care,
Christopher

PS Yes, I know the Homer's tales are different than the Christian gospels.  I'm trying to make a point that what these stories have in common is very interesting, especially when compared against the typtical RPG religious set up.  I am also, explicitely, using the texts as tales, not as source materials for religion.
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