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Author Topic: Building Religions  (Read 8492 times)
M. J. Young
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« on: January 22, 2003, 12:41:12 AM »

Kester Pelagius started an interesting thread, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4884">Is religion really that much of a mystery?, which inspired this one rather by accident. Jack Spencer Jr., an avowed atheist, posted what I found to be a highly offensive declaration of the nineteenth century evolution of religion idea (a time at which evolution was so popular a theory that every field had to find a way to apply it to itself) that I was eager to object; and when Reverend Daegmorgan, a known Pagan, objected, I, an identified Christian, was ready to say Amen--and then Ron, quite rightly, killed that discussion before I got there. I read the rest of the thread with interest.

But then, Jack and Raven had started something in the back of my head which is still brewing, and I'm wondering if it would help the religion discussions at all to put it forward. Jack thinks that religion is about man inventing explanations for what he doesn't understand. Raven thinks that man is discovering something of a spiritual reality that is there. I think that God is revealing truth to man. Each of us has very different attitudes about religion because of that; but that's not the point here. The point is that all of those methods, and maybe another, could be used to create realistic religions in the game world. After all, one of the best ways I've found to build a city, or a dungeon, is to go back to what was there before there was anything, who started it, what they built, who came and changed it and why, and how over the history of the world this place was expanded and altered to become what it is now. Why shouldn't that work for religion?

Let us start with Jack. We will sit down and think of our imaginary peoples. What are their hopes? What are their fears? Let's have them project those hopes and fears into anthropomorphic deities. The old pattern, as I recall (the evolution of religion as conceived in the nineteenth century), suggested that the earliest religion was animism, as primitive man started to think that all the things around him, from animals to plants to rocks and rivers, had a consciousness like himself, which he identified as a spirit, and so attempted to communicate with the spirits of these things. Over time, the spirits of the greater things--the sun, the sky, the river, the earth--became the greater spirits, and we evolved into polytheists. Polytheism then became henotheism, the belief that these other gods are real but that this people belongs to this one god (although Israel is cited for this, Philistia and other kingdoms of the age are probably better examples). Henotheism becomes monotheism, as the other spirits are discounted as not really gods, perhaps not really spirits (or it becomes pantheism, in which all the spirits are considered expressions of one spirit). If we take this as true in our game world, we can build a variety of different religions based on different starting points. Desert people are afraid of drought; river people are afraid of floods; northern people are afraid of cold. The fears might be earthquakes, volcanic eruption, ocean flooding--using this as a starting point, we create a religion that evolved from the feelings of people.

Reverend Daegmorgan doesn't think reality is like that. (Of course, I don't either, but we'll go with him next.) If I understand correctly, he sees these spiritual issues as undiscovered reality, aspects of our universe that we don't know. The process of developing religion is one of discovering what's really out there. We get it wrong sometimes, or we see the same thing in different ways. This, too, can be a developmental approach to creating religion. We establish a few core concepts of what the spiritual realities are, and then we start to explore how these, discovered in fragments, are understood by the people. Different people will understand the same things differently, in part because they have different physical realities to analogize it, in part because they're asking different questions based on their situations. Thus starting from a fundamental spiritual reality and then allowing that people have gotten glimpses of this and tried to fill in the gaps from what they knew, we again develop a set of varied religions.

My view is that there have been divine revelations, that is, from time to time God has given man a bit of information about what the supernatural realm is like. But I'm not thinking in terms of ongoing revelation, really--I'm thinking in terms of historic revelation, that at particularly moments in the past God or the gods gave the world some information about themselves. Religions then are built from these revelations. But not everyone got all the revelations. Some are still building from the first one, others got them all. Even between people with the same amount of revelation, there's a lot of disagreement. Part of that is that not everyone has this revelation written down, or written down the same way. Part of it is that whatever is written down, people have to try to figure out what it really meant, and there are disagreements about this. So again we are able to create a variety of religions, this time branching out from each other as they understand the revealed truths differently, and accept or reject new revelations, as well as apply what they know to the very different parts of the world they are in.

I said I could see a fourth approach. This is the idea of ongoing revelation. We have a world in which gods are real, and they speak to people. That always complicates the religion question (because it is so much more evident, and immediate revelation means few doctrinal arguments within the sect). But this can work, too. For one thing, different gods might have different ways of explaining reality to their people without actually lying about it--you can say "it's like this", and have it be "like" something very different from what another god said it was "like", and both be right, because you're trying to analogize things beyond human experience to things within human experience. It's also perfectly reasonable for a deity to refuse to answer your questions if he answered the same questions for your great-great-great-great-great grandfather; the man should have written them down, or at least told them to someone, and if in the passing of the tradition from generation to generation it gets distorted, that's not the point. So again, we can construct our world religions from how they formed.

I don't know that these are mutually exclusive views. In fact, I have no problem with seeing them as all real-world explanations for the variety of faiths in the real world--some evolved, some were discovered, some revealed. But the point of what I'm suggesting is that building religions in one or more of these ways, as an exercise in historical creation, might create more realistic and integrated religions.

Thoughts?

--M. J. Young
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contracycle
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« Reply #1 on: January 22, 2003, 02:42:04 AM »

It sounds plausible, in terms of generating valid output, but I'm not sure its doable.  We've stepped on a lot of toes and heard a lot of squeals already; I for example found Jacks analysis uncontroversial and Ravens counterpoint as offensive.  I can't imagine that any believe would fail to be offended by my honestly held opinion of religion, which is why I have not discussed it publicly as yet.

I don't think I could play a Catholic without a How To manual, a serious precis, of Catholic dogma and praxis.  But I cannot see how such a work could fail to be polemical.  And I could certainly expound upon my vision, and how I see it accomodating the observed phenemonon, but again I cannot see how that would fail to be polemical.

IMO, the frailty of game religions occurs in large part becuase of the polemical implications of any serious exposition.  I agree that fully following any one of the conflicting analyses would produce more plausible religions than not following any model, but it seems to me that player consent would be hard to obtain.
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Paganini
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« Reply #2 on: January 22, 2003, 06:49:32 AM »

Awesome post, M. J. I think that idea could be applied to any creative venture, not just RPGs. I don't usually bother including religion in any of my RPGs, but such an approach would be really useful for writing fiction.

Gareth, I think that the problem is not as overwhelming as you make it sound. Maybe it is if you want to accurately play a catholic priest... but for creating a religion you don't have to do that. Most role-playing entities are not as complex as their real counterparts - they're stylized (and perhapse idealized) representations of them. A game religion doesn't have to be as vast and complex as a real world religion. It only needs to have the appearance of realism. If, based on real world perceptions, we accept that such a religion *could* exist in the imagined reality, then that is sufficient for causality. (IMO, this entire discussion is a matter of causality. If it isn't, D&D religion works just fine. :)
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #3 on: January 22, 2003, 08:40:49 AM »

Quote from: M. J. Young
Jack thinks that religion is about man inventing explanations for what he doesn't understand.

Actually Jack thinks that religion is about man find comfort and/or security and/or peace with the inventing explanations being one and admittedly simple example thereof.

I wasn't very clear in the referenced post, I guess. It disturbs me that it spawned another thread like this, but I'm used to misspeaking and ticking people off like that.

I had offended you and I appologize. I feel I should point out that I am only posting this response because I *could* feel likewise offended. (The nineteenth century? Yes that is out of date) but I'd rather not have the conversation go that way. It did feel like you were putting words in my mouth, but I really can't get mad because, well, I did say that didn't I? Regardless of what I may have meant.
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greyorm
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« Reply #4 on: January 22, 2003, 12:56:25 PM »

The same thing brewing in the back of MJ's head started brewing in the back of mine, I just didn't jump on it yet. Let's assume the various approaches to religion are all valid starting points for reference.

In doing so, we must also remember that each of these starting points will color our resultant religions according to it. However, I'm not sure the real question is how to go about making a "realistic" religion, but rather, how to give religion meaning in a game.

Not actual religious meaning, but meaning in its importance to the players. After all, we can sit and talk all day about how something should be important to a character given this or given that about their culture or society or background...but ultimately, if the player doesn't invest in the idea, the idea is meaningless and has no impact.

Quote from: M. J. Young
Raven thinks that man is discovering something of a spiritual reality that is there.

Well, that's not quite it. Let's forego the existance of a supernatural reality entirely and assume the gods, real or imagined, exist as cultural icons: that is, they are the measures and references by which a given individual (and society) lives their life.

To take a modern example, one might deify Michael Jordan in this fashion: choosing to live like, be like and behave like Mr. Jordan because they see some ultimately superior way of life and being in doing so.

Thus the gods are cultural guides or iconic reference points towards which one aspires: emulation is the key.

This might tie nicely into mechanics for the game: emulation of your chosen diety (or rather, a chosen deity) results in bonuses, special abilities, or what-have-you that are not otherwise available without.

The Faith benefit in 7th Sea is a different handling of the idea of faith. As John discussed in another thread (which escapes me at the moment), you can take it for your character, but you do not know what it will do, if anything!

In a game where the gods are more active, real and walking-the-earth (such as D&D) this can be expanded to something like the Devotion skill I created for my own D&D campaign.

(I also created a complimentary Superstition skill to serve a similar purpose for non-religious beliefs in the supernatural, but that's a different discussion)

Such methods create a sense of the benefit of prayer and devotion for the player of a character in a game world; by making religion central to the mechanics, or beneficial to the character, one makes it central to play experience.

This may seem utterly "gamist," but it isn't; this is the old coherency trick used prominently by Sorcerer: make the (important) mechanics about what you want the game to be about, or what you want to be important in the game.

And one thing we've avoided discussing entirely is game mechanics. This is a huge oversight, IMO, since (again IMO) the mechanics and the world must invariably be linked. If something is to be important in the world, it must be important in the mechanics.

So, before we even begin building specific religions, we must provide some game-base on which to construct them, rather than construct the religion, then shoehorn it into the world.

I believe the best foundation of that would be to answer the question: Of what importance does religion play in your game? (note: I have not said campaign or world) Or even, or perhaps afterwards, of what importance does (this specific) religion(s) play in your game?
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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greyorm
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« Reply #5 on: January 22, 2003, 01:17:46 PM »

Quote from: contracycle
I for example found Jacks analysis uncontroversial and Ravens counterpoint as offensive.

I should definitely apologize, as I have already to Jack, for the "security blanket explanation as security blanket." That was thoughtlessly analytical of me.

The rest, however -- the facts, as they were -- I hold to since I find no reason to accept as scientifically valid (individually or personally is another story) the viewpoint I opposed. Thus I welcome any private discussion of the matter along the lines above, otherwise, let's drop it.

Quote
don't think I could play a Catholic without a How To manual, a serious precis, of Catholic dogma and praxis.  But I cannot see how such a work could fail to be polemical.  And I could certainly expound upon my vision, and how I see it accomodating the observed phenemonon, but again I cannot see how that would fail to be polemical.

This is interesting since it ties into something I'd stated to Ron about his censure of me in another thread -- a similar statement was my response; so I agree in that context, that it is not possible to adopt or correctly play impromptu a viewpoint or mindset you do not hold to.

I don't think, however, that this causes problems in building a religion in a game in which players can can find (non-religious) importance, and so "fake it" more accurately...or perhaps at that point it isn't "faking it," since the effects and importance are concretely tied to the game, creating meaning the player can latch onto.

(Again, I'm not discussing religious meaning...such as a player latching onto a game religion as real, or providing the mechanics by which he might do so.)

Hrm, I just realized that one also has to be careful to avoid the "power tools" syndrome of D&D...the importance and meaning have to come from the religion itself or the importance of the religion itself, not from the powers and abilities it grants (ie: a cleric's ability to heal and etc).
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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John Kim
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« Reply #6 on: January 22, 2003, 01:42:06 PM »

Quote from: greyorm
I just realized that one also has to be careful to avoid the "power tools" syndrome of D&D...the importance and meaning have to come from the religion itself or the importance of the religion itself, not from the powers and abilities it grants (ie: a cleric's ability to heal and etc).


This seems like a tricky question.  I think what you are saying is that you want to avoid having a "religious" character be purely economically motivated -- i.e. "I think we should spare his life because otherwise I might lose my powers" rather than "because it is the right thing to do".   The danger of this seems inherent in giving supernatural powers to religious characters at all.  

I can think of two obvious solutions:
    [*] Don't give supernatural religious powers at all.  I think it is easily possible to portray religions well in a game of this sort, and it deserves some mention.  Religion can play a part in a Star Trek game just as easily as a fantasy game.  Within a fantasy game, you can have religions be background rather than mechanical powr sources.  
    [*] Make the powers not worth the restrictions imposed.  So a priest gets some benefit, but could be just as effective a character overall even if he renounced his religion.  
    [/list:u]

    On the other hand, these aren't the only solutions.  It seems to me that one can keep religious powers without making it into pure economics.  However, I'm not sure what makes it one way or the other.
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    - John
    Valamir
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    « Reply #7 on: January 22, 2003, 02:01:51 PM »

    Quote from: John Kim
    I think what you are saying is that you want to avoid having a "religious" character be purely economically motivated -- i.e. "I think we should spare his life because otherwise I might lose my powers" rather than "because it is the right thing to do".  


    I would argue that for most of religious history that the former is likely the exact motivation a real worshiper would have.  "If I do this Ba'al will be pissed off and make all my goats barren...so I guess I won't do it".

    This would be what I called a "mechanical" religion in another thread.
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    John Kim
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    « Reply #8 on: January 22, 2003, 05:46:06 PM »

    Quote from: Valamir
    Quote from: John Kim
    I think what you are saying is that you want to avoid having a "religious" character be purely economically motivated -- i.e. "I think we should spare his life because otherwise I might lose my powers" rather than "because it is the right thing to do".  


    I would argue that for most of religious history that the former is likely the exact motivation a real worshiper would have.  "If I do this Ba'al will be pissed off and make all my goats barren...so I guess I won't do it".

    This would be what I called a "mechanical" religion in another thread.


    Yes, well, I disagreed with you there as well.  First of all, I don't agree with you about what historical people thought.  There is plenty of evidence of historical religious folk having serious issues of faith.  Of course, there were people in history who only went through the motions of religions -- just as there are folks today who only go through token motions of religion.  A person raised to believe in Baal might easily be scared into thinking he had to do sacrifices, but along with that belief was also instilled the idea that the sacrifice is the right thing to do.  

    Beyond this, there is a huge difference between the historical results of sin (which were subtle to nonexistant depending on your belief) and a game mechanic which tangibly shows it as a reliable factor.
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    - John
    greyorm
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    « Reply #9 on: January 22, 2003, 10:57:15 PM »

    Quote from: John Kim
    Beyond this, there is a huge difference between the historical results of sin (which were subtle to nonexistant depending on your belief) and a game mechanic which tangibly shows it as a reliable factor.

    A thought struck me while reading John's post, specifically the text quoted above. That thought was: the game mechanics do not necessarily have to reflect the actual workings of the world, only the character's perception of them.

    That is, when a given individual believes in something, they tend to gather evidence in support of that belief and view circumstances in a light such that the events verify the belief -- whether or not the belief is true is irrelevant to this -- that it seems to be to the individual is, however.

    Hence, one could create a game mechanic around the idea that the character's beliefs are validated -- when the character acts in concert with those beliefs, her actions are validated and supported by the metagame.

    Thus the character's religious perceptions do in fact matter, because they believe they matter -- or perhaps they just begin noticing these things more, and thus the things matter more because they are noticed and then capitalized upon.

    To keep such from becoming simply a matter of belief, and lack any further importance, one can change the scenario slightly, so that other forces are at work upon the character, some proving stronger than the character's own beliefs and ultimately challenging or even altering those beliefs.

    Take, as a pure example, my conversion to Paganism: despite my strong Christian beliefs at the time, some other "force" proved stronger than my investment in and belief in that structuring of the universe and altered those beliefs and my view of the structure.

    Perhaps this might be explained by the extension of other's beliefs onto the character, who may not believe such. Whether they believe something different or have no opposing concept would be highly relevant to the outcome.

    In the case of the former, whosoever beliefs are strongest wins; in the latter case, the believer wins by default, since a lack of belief is not in actuality an opposed belief (that is, you cannot prove a negative).

    In my example case, however, there was no "individual" with an opposing belief extending it onto myself -- hence the GM would also set up universal forces that play a sort of tug-of-war on the characters at various times.

    And I wish I had time to finish those thoughts, but it will have to wait for the moment.
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    Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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    Mike Holmes
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    « Reply #10 on: January 23, 2003, 12:34:37 AM »

    I'll try to make my point again, here. It's related to the idea found in Sorcerer & Sword that it may be better to begin with no map, and create things as we come across them. I very muuch believe that this applies to religions in RPGs. That is, just like I feel that one wastes a lot of time writing up portions of a fantasy world that will never be used, only to find the players wandering into uncharted portions of that world, religions are also so complex. As such, one can use the "historical" method described above to create very good religions. We can make them all day long. The problem is that we cannot make them "complete". And to the extent that we attempt to we will be wasting much time. Players will ignore much of he detail created, and will ask questions that as yet have no answers.

    So my policy is the same for both these things, nowadays. Instead of making it up beforehand, have mechanics set up to cause the religions necessary (such that they are) to pop up and become detailed as needed. There are a few obvious choices. One is to just wing things as a GM. Difficult but some people seem to be able to pull it off. Yes, even for things like religions. Better, however, is to co-opt the players. This ensures that they will be interested in the results, and makes the GM's life easier.

    So, if you want, for instance a game in which the institutions of religion were well defined, you could allow the players director stance power to create such things, and, further, reward them for doing it well.

    Again, I can envision other methods of "virally" producing such necessary data. I'll leave it for people to discover, but they would involve doing things like using the results of otherwise unrelated resolutions to be incorporated into the religions portrayed (somewhat like Walt's FitM example in the other thread, but perhaps more mechanical handling involved). And I'm sure others can come up with even better methods.

    Paladin does it in chargen. And the game being deceloped on this forum is showing a lot of promise as well. Look to the already extant work for guidance.

    Mike
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    contracycle
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    « Reply #11 on: January 23, 2003, 01:33:33 AM »

    Quote from: greyorm

    A thought struck me while reading John's post, specifically the text quoted above. That thought was: the game mechanics do not necessarily have to reflect the actual workings of the world, only the character's perception of them.


    Umm - why would you want to do such a thing?  What is the point of building mechanics which are about false internal perceptions?  The only purpose I see in mechanics is the resolution of conflict, and if someone is seeing what they want to see, there is no conflict.  The use of mechanics to support a perception instead of a shared space seems pointless to me; this might imply different mechanics for each character depending on their belief structure.

    Quote

    That is, when a given individual believes in something, they tend to gather evidence in support of that belief and view circumstances in a light such that the events verify the belief -- whether or not the belief is true is irrelevant to this -- that it seems to be to the individual is, however.


    Sure, I concede such a thing could mechanically be built.  But what would this achieve?  Creating a game simply so we can consistently verify beliefs?  Wheres the conflict, the drama, what would characters DO in such a game?
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    Christopher Kubasik
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    « Reply #12 on: January 23, 2003, 08:26:02 AM »

    Hi Mike,

    If I blew past your point before, I'm sorry.  What you wrote above is great.  It really nails what I was trying to get at in earlier posts: That with religion we really get a chance to crack open our imaginations as we make it up as we go along.  It's completely contrary to the "Build it from the outside so we know everything" crew, and presumes that religion is a mystery to be discovered as you go.  (This may not have been your intent, but its what I've taken from it.)

    This might run counter to the cliches of what "non-religious" people think of religious people ("religious people want certainty, religious people are done making the hard choices") but in fact, at least looking at M.J.s essays, you find that the work with religious devotion only opens up new questions and avenues of exploration.  In my view, true faith, like true scientific inquiry, always to expore further.

    Thus, your model (parrallel to the S&Sword geography model) really nails a lot of it for me.  You start with a few details, and improvise the "logic" of myth, ritual and so on.  Now, whether you do so with the logic of an anthropologist who doesn't give a rats ass about god, or of a poet modelled after Robert Graves is up to you -- but this process seems the best starting point I've heard so far.

    Thanks,
    Christopher
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    greyorm
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    « Reply #13 on: January 23, 2003, 09:00:59 AM »

    Quote
    Umm - why would you want to do such a thing? What is the point of building mechanics which are about false internal perceptions?

    Ron's post over in "Is religion really that much of a mystery?" provides a very adequate example of precisely what I'm referring to with my design statements above, and also nicely manages to answer your question and concerns with the use of such a method.

    Edit: Also note, I said nothing about false perceptions versus true perceptions; only perceptions, valid or invalid. As often as not, we only begin noticing the truth when we start looking for it, and occasionally we fool ourselves, too. So there is a conflict established already, and a point -- establishing truth from falsehood, and the distinction isn't clear.

    I know, I know: Cue argument about unknowables being false and thus meaningless, and the GM needing to know the truth of the matter...go read Ron's post. Obviously, in the model being talked about it simply doesn't matter whether it is known or not.

    We're talking perception, here.
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    Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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    greyorm
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    « Reply #14 on: January 23, 2003, 09:12:43 AM »

    Quote from: Christopher Kubasik
    You start with a few details, and improvise the "logic" of myth, ritual and so on.

    Sorry, I think both you and Mike are off, Chris.
    I think what Mike describes and you support is a secondary step. I still don't see on-the-fly creation addressing the central question:

    That is, in a game, one in which we desire religion to be important and more than color, how do we deal with issues of religion and faith such that they are important?

    The above doesn't do that. There's no foundation mechanic to use, to build religions on a bit at a time; and just building their elements (rituals, myths, funny hats, etc.) makes them D&D-style Color if they aren't tied to the characters and the game mechanics in some important fashion.

    That's the first step, beyond the excellent advice about religion being a mystery to be discovered as you go.

    But without the above answer, this is like painting a blank wall and saying, "Well, I don't know what it's going to be used for, but its darn pretty!" And if that's your intent, fine; but if you actually want that wall to be useful and important in the structure, just painting it isn't going to accomplish that (nor is shoehorning the painted wall into something existing).

    You have to create the barren structure, then paint the walls to make them pretty -- then your pretty painting will be more than pretty, it will be useful and important.

    The game mechanics are our structure...and this is a forum about games, not modelling or story-writing, so we have to deal with the issue of religion in a game as a game element, as a mechanic, at least if we want more than Color (and if you don't, that's fine).
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    Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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