Three games about religion

Started by Ron Edwards, June 08, 2011, 01:54:44 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Ron Edwards

Last fall, I conformed to a common stereotype about men in their mid-40s and apparently became obsessed with matters of religion. Its roots lie in my work on Shahida but that's all politics and history, very little to do with specific religious content. Still, I did a lot of reading of and about Judaic, Christian, and Muslim texts, and I suppose it's not too surprising that a lot of stuff went into the dark well at the bottom of my head and fermented.

So, long story short, I wrote three alpha game drafts, none of which is definitely titled yet, only one of which I've playtested, and which I strongly suspect are totally not suitable for presentation or discussion on the internet. Which ridiculously, I'm doing anyway right now.

First things first

These are not Story Games. They are arterially-spurting Narrativist, yes, but the whole connotation of the "story game" term is totally not applicable. That connotation, as I see it, is a cute little wind-up game which you sit down to and kind of free-associate into, and you move tokens around the table and stuff, and it spits back a fun little story for you. It will take care of that little task no matter what you say. Your job is to figure out how the currency works and at most, strategize about how to get a lot of the black tokens, or something of that sort. These are not like that. They demand commitment to the moment on the part of everyone playing, specifically, without reference to how things are going to go, without planning for the ending. Everyone has to read and know the rules; there cannot be a person who says, "Hey, look at this Ron Edwards hotness, let's sit down and I'll show it to you."

Furthermore, not one of them will give you a blowjob. They are written much more in the frame of mind I was in when writing Sorcerer: a set of musical instruments. Which is to say, at least in terms of my ideal, the first electric bass, for instance. So that's a real tricky aesthetic design goal: the consumer has to be skilled enough to understand what it can do when they see it, but it's new, so they don't really know they want this exact thing, but also has to really want it nevertheless. In other words, although they've never seen or tried an electric bass, they have to be musicians who will assess it in musical terms. Which adds up to a kind of arrogant take-it-or-leave-it presentation: (i) if you really want to try this for the right reasons, then it'll work for you; and (ii) if you don't, and you suffer and flail, it's no skin off my nose. Not nice, but as far as I can tell, necessary.

The reason I went into all this is worth explaining too. Usually, my design process grows right out of successful play. I do X when playing a particular game, and then I say, "Hey, X really made that game work well," and I manage to articulate X and make it the rules-basis for a new game. For example, the rules for scenes and conflicts in Trollbabe grew right out of the techniques that I found made Dust Devils work really well for our group, especially since they were so different from the techniques that worked well for us in playing Hero Wars. But these games or notes-for-games are different. Here, I was designing totally out of my comfort zone, combining techniques that I wasn't sure that worked with others that were frankly utterly new - raw inspiration, stuff that really shouldn't be let out of the workshop at this stage. I am completely ignorant concerning whether any given piece of the rules or the rules as a whole work at all.

So, OK, what are they?

1. The "red" game, which I'd love to call Estimated Prophet, or possibly The Stress of Her Regard, both of which are already commercially-important titles of other works, so I can't. It's about ordinary people who experience mysticism, revelation, and madness. It relies very heavily on a personal commitment to the concept of beauty. Overall it gives off a very strong whiff of Philip K. Dick's Valis, but also allowing for some Matrixy or Akira-ish glowing zaps. The system includes making a collage, really, actually right there at the table. Scissors and glue and all that.

2. The "ophite" game, which is definitely the most ambitious of the bunch. I'm not even sure how to describe it ... well, it's mainly about coming of age and confronting death. Both playing it as an experience and the fictional content draw heavily upon semi-autobiographical comics techniques, being highly conversational and unconstructed, as well as combining embarassingly revelatory naturalism with free-floating visual weirdness whenever you feel like it. It's also supposed to be short-form, at least potentially, meaning that a session might be as short as twenty minutes. And if that weren't odd enough, it also requires learning a made-up religion and being honest about your own early religious observance (and boy have I found that people lie like rugs about that!).

3. The closest to a real title, Relic, which is about a church as an institution and the various soap operas that occur at different historical stages of its existence. You play it backwards, chronologically, using both a sanctified skull and a page or two of religious text as touchpoints. I was a bit stalled out on this one since I couldn't seem to get away from its initial notes as a minor hack of In a Wicked Age, but then the Solitaire RPG Contest provided exactly the mental breakout I needed. You do have to put some writing time into the preparation, but after that, play is quite simple. It's the only one I've tried and I used the experience for the examples.

I want to stress that none of them are about religious belief, which as I see it, is a huge non-issue which tends to blot out all the relevant issues about religion through its very non-ness. It's kind of the opposite of the elephant in the room that no one will talk about; instead, it's the elephant which is not in the room but which no one will shut up about.

I've made the current write-ups available here at the Adept website.

Related thoughts - warning, highly provocative

Here are two other notions which factored into these games' design, or at least, as far as I can tell in retrospect, given that I was musing over them more-or-less during the design period.

1. For a couple of years, I've been thinking a lot about how many of the role-players I've met in the last decade had strict religious upbringings. Many although not all of them come from the American evangelical tradition. Maybe "strict" is misleading; I've found that people will say, "Oh, it wasn't strict" and go on to describe hair-raising guilt trips and routine practices which are best described as behavior-mod indoctrination. In fact, I don't mind telling you this up-front, the main thing I've found is that many role-players flatly lie when it comes to admitting how they were raised in these terms. Or they deflect into what might as well be a lie when they go on and on about their current free-thinking atheism or exceptionally fuzzy feel-good alternate church, as a way of not actually saying how they were raised.

Clinton was a Baptist from the holy-roller 'Bama tradition. Vincent was a Mormon. Jim Henley was some sort of squeaky-clean evangelical Protestant, Presbyterian maybe or something like that. It goes on and on, nowadays with Joel, Kevin, Sydney, Clyde, and many others. And these are just the ones who are being up-front about their backgrounds. It doesn't surprise me that at least some of them seem to congregate (heh) at Vincent's blog, and I often get the idea that there's a need being met there on a level which only makes sense to the people I'm talking about.

What I'm saying is that this is kind of an unspoken commonality or at least well-represented demographic which may well be a primary source from which RPG hobbyist culture is fed, every generation. I think role-playing for this demographic was the most daring and scary rebellious thing they were able to do,  What I'm saying most especially is that openly discussing this issue is so chilled and so not honest that it chokes up and stifles many other discussions. Even those who are up-front about their backgrounds do so only in the context of saying how Not Like That they are now.

I'm not part of it, coming instead from the radical left coast from a very distinct and brief time period, hence part of a scene or subculture which has no corresponding members of older or younger vintage. As a similar example with different details, neither was Josh Neff, who's a classic deep-red commie Jewish American, also a vanishing demographic. For us and a few others, role-playing wasn't our way to rebel against mommy and daddy and God. Nor did BADD rear up as a meaningful threat to my participation in the hobby. I think that's why my deeply underground, deeply politicized take on fantasy and sex (see Naked Went the Gamer) is so foreign to many role-players, and why I'm dismissive and bored regarding perceived mainstream views about role-playing, instead of fearing them.

The following points aren't intended to describe any single individual, but two or three per person do seem to show up again and again among the role-players I've been thinking about.

i) A strong tendency toward rebellious-looking attire and hair, frequently hippie-pagan but also sometimes punky - and completely divorced from the original political context in which these looks originated.
ii) A strong tendency toward prudishness in RPG content once you get past the original rebellion of playing RPGs at all. It's a weird kind of Victorian prudishness, though, perfectly accepting of extreme porn when it's "in its place," i.e., available in private and quite distanced from anything resembling ordinary or public human interactions.
iii) A strong tendency toward saving and helping others especially in anonymous masses, often in the full assumption that one knows exactly what to do and think better than they do. (i.e. despite breaking with one's natal church, retaining and even elevating its presumption of secret spiritual insight over that of humanity; i.e., not joining the ignorant mass "down there" but rather elevating above the church to a third plane of super-insight)
iv) An overwhelming need, even anxiety, regarding being liked, as opposed merely to operating in one's own terms and letting being liked find its own level.
v) Bright as hell, full of ideas, but often choked-up and anxious when it comes to implementing them.
vi) Surprising tolerance for militarism in details and even in full-blown political content, both in fiction and in life, to the extent of occasional fetishism and not recognizing military criticism or satire.
vii) A very strong commitment to a new name representing their break with their old upbringing, whether legally changed or a username or whatever.

Food for thought, perhaps.

2. Here's a video of some of my recent talk at InterNosCon 2011: No one talks about religion in role-playing (the sound is crappy). The event was longer than 52 minutes; I figure the substantial talk lasted for another forty minutes or so, but I don't know if the rest is going to be posted. Key points include:

i) "Religion" as a term needs to be broken into four independent components to make sense: belief, observance, institution, and culture. Again and again, the current discourse clearly displays the need to get past the first and to recognize it as a non-issue, especially the misconception that it provides the foundation for all the others. As I see it, getting past that first term means that we will recognize that the other three are glaringly present and involved in our lives. (My example in the talk: as a self-described non-religious person, with the most political and non-spiritual Unitarianism as the only formal influence, I wear a wedding band. I can rationalize it and babble about it all I want, but the point is that my culture is Christian, like it or not, and I am of it as well as merely being in it.)

ii) Texts used for religious books - especially the fragmentary older ones which have been folded into what can only be called "church books" - often say and depict nothing like what the church doctrines claim they do. When I sit down and read them without being distracted by doctrine, I find that they are often mainly about people: families, politics, sex, power, obligations, cheating, and all that stuff, and frequently taken to rather shocking extremes. My take is that a very great deal of human discourse about really quite relevant issues has been conducted through such texts, and to reject or abandon familiarity with them on the basis of objecting to the metaphysics would be a stupid thing to do. Note that this point is not the same as the common desires to uncover the "real" religion through seeking backwards through texts, or to discover historical authenticity or lack thereof through such seeking. Those aims don't interest me very much.

iii) Religion in RPG settings is generally flawed to the point of absence, especially in the adventuring-party context of D&D-type fantasy, mercenary high-tech like Shadowrun, and anything based on those. Either it provides a skill-set for utility purposes or a setting-context for villainy. The main exceptions I identified were the Glorantha setting, especially in the post-millenial games starting with Hero Wars; the Church of the Celestial Sun in Fading Suns; and a couple of others I'm probably forgetting. Davide Losito (in the video, sitting to my right) offered some examples of churches used as centers of resistance against tyranny.

iv) The first content revolution in RPG play/design in the past 15 years concerned substantive drama as opposed to faking it; the second concerned sexual and gender content which acknowledged the reality of these issues for people at the table; and the third, already in progress, concerns both politics and religion as genuine human concerns. The third is receiving exactly the same combination of resistance and eager reception as the first two did, although my current thinking is that the barrier is actually higher in this case because the exact same people in the RPG community who want relevant content are the same ones who like to pretend they are above politics and religion. So far, the games in question for politics include carry, Spione, Steal Away Jordan, and Grey Ranks; the ones for religion include Montsegur 1244 and Thou Art But a Warrior, and I'm probably missing a couple. I suggest that Dogs in the Vineyard is a case study with special properties but we can save that for later posts.

What I'm hoping for

Essentially, I want responses straight from the heart. Whether it's your reading of the current write-ups, any attempt at playing them, your thoughts on religion in RPG settings, your personal accounts and admissions regarding religion and role-playing, all I care about is your honesty. As long as that's there, whatever you toss into this thread for those topics will help me a lot, and I hope to be able to provide interesting feedback that shows more about where I'm coming from with these ... well, not games yet, "things."

I really don't want writing advice. These are not game texts yet and if any of them ever becomes one, I'll write it from scratch and will need comments then. For now, these are design drafts, and I hope you can read them in that light.

Best, Ron


Hey Ron,
I'm glad you're expanding upon that idea of RPGers having a strong religious background/presence in their background, and I am dying for more religion and politics in games (as you probably know).
One logistical thing, though: the links on the Adept Press site seem to not be working. Help!
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress -

Ron Edwards


Refresh the page and see if that works. When I first posted, I had to test the links and fix them, which is why the page is marked as edited. It's possible you're clicking on the first version.

Best, Ron

Lavinia Fantini

The problem is that there's an extra
 at the end of each link (it shows as <br%20> in the address bar when opened) when you try to open it. Delete the extra bit and you have the correct address :-)

Very interesting thoughts Ron, I'm going to watch your talk at INC (for some reason I still haven't!).
English isn't my first language, be kind and forgive my mistakes please.

Lavinia Fantini

*there is an extra < br / > at the end of each link
English isn't my first language, be kind and forgive my mistakes please.

Ron Edwards

Ah-ha - now I see it. I fixed the link; all three documents are now available with a single click.

And more! The internal link to the "provocative thoughts" (which are present in this thread already anyway) is now fixed too.

Best, Ron

Erik Weissengruber


Glorantha appealed to me because myth was front and centre.

I knew about the Runequest RPG around '80 and '81 was enthused to play in a world where religion mattered.

This is after readling lots of childrens' books on mythology and reading a bit about Jung and Freud.

Moreover, I liked the opportunity to imagine what it was like to be one of the Homeric or Germanic heroes who got entangled with the gods themselves.*  The chance to be a character in a myth, rather than a worshiper or a mythic pantheon.

My connection with organized Christianity was minimal -- I sang in a Presbyterian church choir because its leader ran the children's theatre program I was in -- but the tropes of Christian eschatology, the imagery of the martyred Christ, the demands of Christian ethics, and the taboos/anxieties/"thou shalt nots" of Christian personal morality ended up in my head without any church attendance being mandated by my parents.

It seems that the games you are proposing have more to do with the legacy of doctrinal Christianity (and the other Abrahamic religions) than it does the kind of pagan/mythopoeic religious experiences pushed to the fore in Runequest.*

In terms of playing or running games, I would vascillate between bloody, nihilistic power fantasies or focusing on characters who had to live out the consequences of chosing to become the incarnations of greater-than human forces.

Janet Morris' treatment of Tempus in the 2nd Thieves World book brought both kinds of story together and I suppose that I got bored of role playing when I couldn't get that kind of drama at the table.

Perhaps dealing with religion in gaming requires thinking about adolescent thoughts about death/mortality/family/sex/power and adult takes on those subjects.

* [Yes there are monotheists and animists in Glorantha.  I am talking about what appealed to me in the flavour text, some of the rules, and illustrations of the 1st and 2nd editions.  And I really can't say what it's like growing up in a society untouched by the big monotheisims so the desire for the "pagan" is projection and wish fullfilment]

- Did we gamers turn to Call of Cthulhu because we wanted the experience of smashing debased, slavish worshipers into nothingness?  A little vicarious atheist/agnostic revenge on those believers who make non-believers feel like outsiders?

- Gnosticism (the flipside of doctrinal Christianity, almost from day one).  What's up with this belief that the official interpretations of the sacred books, or those texts themselves, are just cyphers for the REAL cosmological/theological struggles?  You can see this trope at work in many games that deal with the occult (the hidden), like Mage.  You mentioned both Valis and the Matrix, two imaginary worlds heavy on the gnostic "everything you know is wrong" or "sleeper ... awake from the dream reality that has enslaved the majority and join in with the select few who see things as they are."  Perhaps each kind of religion produces its own kind of dissent and a kind of tightly conceived and rigidly taught scriptural religion produces a counter belief -- a counter scripture that demands a certain kind of reading and the practice of envisioning a total or deep reality that the unenlightened cannot see -- without guidance from the [counter]institution..

David Berg

Hi Ron,

Playing D&D as young teens, my groups (of secular atheist players) totally got into the color of being a cleric.  "I wear these colors and perform these little rituals, and speak in such and such a tone when asking my deity for stuff!"  It neatly fleshed out a way to roleplay the character beyond their cool powers.  Usually one player in a given group did this, and everyone else thought it was cool, and looked on it as "that's who that character is".

But there was no faith to be found -- there was only a belief in that which had been proven.  "If I do this stuff, I get healing powers."  Each cleric's deity was verifiably real, and the observance made was verifiably the correct way to relate to them (plus flourishes and embellishment to taste, or course).

Later, doing some world-building with this same group of players, trying to emulate high middle ages Europe, we got hung up on religion.  "I can't roleplay these people, they're fucking psychotic.  This culture supports an entire religious class based on their story that they know the best way to talk to a God who acts quite like us and needs to be bribed, but no one has ever seen?  I am not that good a roleplayer; I cannot possibly immerse myself in that mindset."  So we endeavored to create a fictional society which looked somewhat like medieval Europe, but whose functional logic was based on stuff we understood from our own lives -- economics, mostly, with some geography and physics.  Characters were allowed to sacrifice animals to the Gods for good fortune on a voyage, but no one's getting killed or going broke for something they can't see or touch.

Subsequently, my history-researching friend has found more and more instances where actual economic motives coincided with supposed religious ones.  I don't think it's quite as simple as "the Crusades were 100% about money and land", but he brought up some stuff like that.  So it isn't that medieval Christians were actually psychotic; certain narratives about the time just make them look that way.

Anyway, cultural practices and institutions of all sorts pop up in the fiction of the games I play, and there's no great distinction made about which of those might be defined as religious.  Wedding ring tradition is wedding ring tradition, and we don't need to know or care whether that came from Christianity in order to play it.  If in-game religion is just a subset of in-game culture, I'm already comfortable with it, somewhat familiar with it, and would be happy to play more games focused on it, but it ain't no big thang.

It's only when belief is a factor that I get interested in in-game religion for its own sake.  Who's a true believer, who's self-deluding, and who's a malicious faker?  Who's using belief as positive social pressure (e.g. for charity) versus negative (e.g. fear-mongering)?  Who really, truly acts like they believe what they say they believe?  How hard is it for believers and non-believers to interact and connect?

These are tricky issues for me in the real world.  You seem to dig putting that kind of challenging stuff into your games, Ron, so I'd have to say that vaulting past the belief issue seems like a bad move to me.

In Montsegur 1244, the tension between "if I recant, I won't be burned" and "but what if what I've been told to believe is The Truth?" was probably my favorite part.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Callan S.

It probably sounds glib but, if to game is to question, and religion is about unquestioning faith/belief, it strikes me a game about religion wont be? Or it wont be about questioning religion?


QuoteEssentially, I want responses straight from the heart. Whether it's your reading of the current write-ups, any attempt at playing them, your thoughts on religion in RPG settings, your personal accounts and admissions regarding religion and role-playing, all I care about is your honesty. As long as that's there, whatever you toss into this thread for those topics will help me a lot, and I hope to be able to provide interesting feedback that shows more about where I'm coming from with these ... well, not games yet, "things."
This is a deep well to plumb.

David Berg hit on it, faith vs. knowing; which makes playing a cleric little different than playing a mage. One prays for "spells" and the other memorizes. But both have a list and they both know it. That's why I don't like RPG clerics as typically presented in games. And I won't even get into how the existence of clerics must logically contradict mages or vice-versa. But those are rules/mechanics quibbles.
I do like fictional religions presented in games because it provides an extention of faith (or desperate hope) that there's something after.  I think that's one reason why fantasy games account for half (or more) of those enjoying the greatest popularity: There's usually magic and so (IMO) it's also easy to imagine/accept the existence of a pantheon of gods and happy hunting grounds for my immortal spirit. It seems perfectly reasonable. Or at least, it makes me feel like the odds are better.

On the other hand, in a sci-fi settting religion becomes the quaint practice of noble savages on some backwater planet. Which is still preferrable to something hella lame like a sentient head cold (read: the force). In sci-fi (hard sci-fi, space opera, etc.) technology is the religion. But the end result is the same; through it, I don't have to die. So, I don't have o be afraid of dying.


Anders Gabrielsson

My personal history with religion, with some historical background first. Those who don't care about religion in Sweden can skip the first three paragraphs.

I'm Swedish. Sweden as a country and society and Swedish people in general have (at least superficially) very different opinions and expectations than the US and Americans when it comes to religion. We're very secular and religious belief has no place in politics - not even the Christian Democrat party uses religious arguments for their positions.

On the other hand we had a state church until about 15-20 years ago, into which you were automatically inducted at birth. The Swedish Church is protestant, but very much "old" protestant; not quite Anglican but still rooted firmly in the 19th century traditional protestantism as opposed to more recent evangelical movements. That said, official church doctrine is very progressive, performing marriages between same-sex couples and such (though not without conflict within the church).

Speaking of the evangelicals, they were one of the three big popular movements at the last turn of the century (with the workers' movement and the sobriety movement being the other two). I think pentecostals and various forms of baptists are the biggest branches, but I'm no expert on that part.

I was raised in a traditional, Swedish Church family. Mom was (and still is) active in the church (singing in the choir, sitting on the council and so on) while my stepfather is from a somewhat puritanical family - of interest here may be that they specifically disliked gambling to the point of disallowing any form of chance-based games, i.e. any involving dice or cards. Chess was fine, and him teaching me that when I was five or so was probably my start in gaming. I went to church regularly as a child, sang in the childrens' choir and went through confirmation, though by then (at age 15) I had come to the conclusion that I didn't believe in God and probably never had. Social pressure will do that to you.

My sister (one of my half-sisters, but the only one I grew up with - that's another long and even more boring story) joined one of the more fringey evengelical churches in her teens and she's still part of that side of things though far less vocal about it. We had a couple of arguments on faith vs. reason and since then we've avoided the subject. Not that religion was ever up much for discussion at home otherwise - our parents expected us to go to church and that was about it. When I lost interest I was for the most part allowed to do as I wanted, though Mom would still ask me to come every now and then and I didn't really mind before I started to feel truly hypocritical about it.

When I was around 10-12 there were a couple of runs of moral panic regarding violent comic books and movies on video. (During this time Sweden still had a government-owned television monopoly - not state-run, but not far from it - with all of two, count 'em, two channels. Cinemas were private, though. Anyway, the arrival of the privately owned VCR was huge.)

I've always had an interest in Norse mythology, which has been very popular in Sweden since it was revived during the national romanticism of the 19th century. We all study it a bit in school, and I don't think there's a town in Sweden that doesn't have a street named after Thor or Odin. The area I grew up in is called "Vi" (or "Wii" with an older spelling), which I've been told is Norse for "place of sacrifice". (Having another religious system to refer to, one that was actually used by people who lived where you live, probably changes one's perspective in some ways.) As a sidenote on the sidenote, there are some modernized Norse god adherents in Sweden; my impression is that they're fairly similar to other neo-pagans: harmless, with liberal modern values and a varying degree of spirituality.

My religious views haven't changed much over the years, really, but I have become better at putting words on them. In a strict philosophical sense I'm an agnostic, because I believe it's impossible to know for sure if God exists or not, but in a practical sense I'm a "strong" atheist, in that I believe (in the everyday meaning of the word) that God does not exist.

In the gaming groups I've been part of, faith has rarely been presented as something positive. When religion isn't part of the setting players very rarely play religious characters, and when it is part of the setting it's usually present as fact which makes it more like a weird kind of science than anything else. In my experience, this type of religion (as in D&D and many other fantasy games) can't stand up to any serious examination because it makes the world very, very different from the one we have any experience with, personally or from history. There's a massive difference between being convinced of something and having absolute proof that it's true.

For my currently running D&D 4E game I made an attempt at reconciling the gods as presented in the books, how people actually act with regards to religion and the knowledge people would have with regards to the will of the gods, the afterlife and so on, but partly because one of the PCs is a cleric with some backstory I couldn't be too radical. I'll probably revisit the subject for the next game.

I would like to get more religious themes in my gaming to explore that mindset, but I'm not sure I could get a good group together for it.

Erik Weissengruber

I've read the three games. 

The red game engages players in the gnostic experience of begnining to know a more powerful truth than the (fictional) people around your character.

The ophite game really brings in the social dynamics of adhering to a doctrine outside of the socially sanctioned one, and which looks on the dominant one not only as incorrect or evil, but the very enemy of all that is true and right and good.

"Belief" or evidence don't seem to be the subject matter.  The human consequences of living out religious docrines do.

Is that what you were aiming for?  Did I grok it?

Related reading:
- The references are good and have grounded the games sufficiently
- (the majority of Biblical studies scholars believe that there was some historical figure whose teachings and actions initiated the Jesus movement but that dispute doesn't really affect the ophite game's fictional cosmology or the validity of your statements about the production of religious texts scattered across the games and associated discussions)

I cam across a discussion of the gnostic trope in popular fictions -- particularly fictions for adolescents -- that might come in handy when discussing/promoting/explaining the game:

Some of the highlights

"I think there is also something in the modern adolescent temperament that science fiction and fantasy appeals to: the idea that you're being held back and oppressed and that with time you will acquire devices or skills that lend you great power to overcome forces that seem to be evil. Later, unfortunately, you discover that those forces are not so much malicious as incompetent and lazy and that the structure of the world is very hard to change; what those novels often don't show is how the heroic quest is symbolic in the real world not of battling demons but of study, thought, and work."


"But if a kid asks you "Is there a God?" or "What's a prostitute?" you'll probably say "Ask your parents."

Since we all agree [about lies to tell kids and forbidden questions], kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. The biggest disagreements are between parents and schools, but even those are small. Schools are careful what they say about controversial topics, and if they do contradict what parents want their kids to believe, parents either pressure the school into keeping quiet or move their kids to a new school.

The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they're told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation.

I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That's why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill."

The fun thing about the games is that they allow players to play out undergoing, living out the repercussions of, and engaging in the theological/scholoarly pursuit of breaking the simulacrum [] (and in the skull game's case, facing up to how the institution betrayed its followers).

Ron Edwards

I'll contribute some thoughts, not necessarily formal responses, to what's been posted so far.

Call of Cthulhu, or the Mythos as presented through the game, presents a fascinating double view of religion. On the one hand, you have the right-thinking, deeply rational, civilized and effectively retro-Victorians opposed to the gibbering, unwashed, non-white cultists. On the other, you have the yawning and uncontrovertibly insane cosmic void confronting those right-thinking and rational types and turning them into mental patients. So there's a tension between (i) promoting an Anglophilic WWI-American worldview and (ii) challenging it. Not exactly the most enlightened tension considering that the "coloreds" get tagged as grunting hordes either way, but a tension nevertheless. How this gets involved in play strikes me as a major creative and aesthetic concern for the game: is or is not Mythos-inspired insanity insight? And if so, about what? The best Lovecraft stories really nail this, like Pickman's Model, regarding art, and The Thing on the Doorstep, regarding love. The dumb ones, sadly including the game's namesake, do not.

I should have specified that I am in fact examining the Abrahamic religious tradition, as such, not the shamanic and ecstatic approaches that are emphasized in most of the Gloranthan material. Although a look at monastic, prophetic, and other "edge" versions of Abrahamic religions certainly shows a lot of correspondence to those approaches, now that I think about it. Baptist snake-handling, whirling dervishes ...

I think you are caught in the exact trap that I tried to help you around: that whenever anyone does anything important with a religious sticker stuck on it, it must be about "belief." I suggest instead not to equate committed, relevant action in a religious context with faith, belief, religiosity, or anything like it. I suggest humans are more complex than that, even if the religion is providing the symbols and vocabulary for the action.

One thing I mentioned in the talk is that when it comes to diversity of observance and the discontinuity between belief and observance, people are quite tolerant and all "of course" when it comes to their own religion, but tend to see any observance to another religion as evidence of profound and committed belief. My carefully-chosen example to a European Christian audience was the head-scarf (hijab) issue - that people in the room may well take it as given that both the attendees and lack of attendees at Catholic Mass that particular week varied all over the map in terms of raw faith, but also may react to a person wearing the hijab as if she were expressing nothing but the fullest and most unquestioning faith. The reaction at the table confirmed my suggestion, or rather, people found it close enough to home for the point to be confirmed.

The decision at the end of a Montsegur story is not strictly about belief, as I see it, or more accurately, it is a framework for investigating belief rather than treating belief as a fixed thing. It is about the social expression of allegiance to a sect at the hardest edge of life vs. death. Whether that includes belief in the sense of personal religiosity is a dial for a given character and a given instance of play. In fact, I suggest that the spinning of that dial, and discovering where it lands for your character when the crunch comes, is what play is about. Does the harlot choose to burn because she believes in the Cathar doctrine, or because she wants to be "married at last" to her lover? Can one even tell the difference? The game leaves all of this up to play itself, most especially the back-story and emotional framing of her pregnancy. It does not dictate that she is simply and only a fanatic who either holds to it or abandons it.

You might be interested to know that the people who conducted human bomb operations for Hezbollah (a profoundly committed Shi'a Muslim organization) in the 1980s came from all of the religions and ideologies available in southern Lebanon, including Sunni Muslim, more than one version of Christian, and secular radical communist, and that Shi'a Muslims were not in the majority. This runs counter to the widely-held notions that Muslims are more prone to using such attacks due to some kind of belief in a martyr's paradise, or that Shi'a are more motivated to do so because of their doctrinal emphasis on martyred historical figures. Those widely-held notions are stuck in the trap.

Defining religion as "unquestioning faith/belief" is simply counter-factual. It's precisely the trap I'm talking about, a refusal to look at the practices, observances, doctrines, and institutions as human phenomena with features of their own. When you take belief, faith, all that stuff, out of the picture, all those other things remain - and remain consequential.

This is precisely why so-called enlightened, secular northern European culture can refuse to face up to its own ethnic and cultural bigotry and still be smug about it. No one is more classically, medievally Christian than my Nordic friends, especially concerning Jews and Muslims, no matter how modern and "we're all atheists now" they congratulate themselves for.

Take a look at the games (or drafts, or "things," whatever they are), and see what you think.

My wife presents an excellent example of what you're talking about. When we moved to the neighborhood we now live in, as a Swede living in the States, she joined the local Lutheran church, in which we were married and into which our twins are baptized. Given the local demographics, most of the people who attend that church have names like Lindstrom and Lundberg, most of them third- and fourth-generation Americans. But the difference between her expectations of the church and what she encountered there is fascinating. To them and to the ministry there, personal belief matters greatly, it's at the center of all the observance and all the church activities. For instance, the baptism ritual was about nothing else. But to her, personal belief is kind of a minor and not especially interesting part of her desire to have church and observances be part of her routine. The discontinuity was strong enough to reduce her interest in participating in those observances and activities, quite a bit in fact, compared to her initial enthusiasm when we moved to the area. Our kids no longer attend the Sunday school there, for instance. By contrast, our third child was baptized in the thousand-plus-years-old church in Norrkoping, which includes the graves of my wife's grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great ... you get the idea. And that ceremony, steeped in concrete tradition unimaginable to most Americans, did not involve advocations of belief at all.

Erik again
Quote"Belief" or evidence don't seem to be the subject matter. The human consequences of living out religious docrines do.

Yes, that is it. Or not living them out. Or more precisely, reconciling religious doctrinal exposure with one's maturing personality and choices in life.

My reading of the "red" game doesn't include the notion of truth. I think instead that it throws that concept hard into the blender of beauty and insanity. My seminal inspiration probably lies in one of the sequences in Valis, in which the protagonist has a very colorful and cosmically-flavored vision of his child's hernia, and takes him to the doctor to discover that it's true. Vision? Prophecy? Insight? A rational decision retroactively colored in by a little too much imagination? Stupid luck? The text wisely does not say. The character's vision was quite arguably both beautiful and insane, and the question is raised whether it was insightful ("true"). And I think a darker, more profound question is really underneath that. Because the text does say, and I think elicits profound grief and horror in doing so, that the child had been suffering for years without anyone noticing. Say the vision was prophetic, true, insightful, cosmic, et cetera ... well fuck! How genuinely good is "truth" that let that go on for so long? The book is so good because that underlying howl of rage underlies every single plot point. I hope to have incorporated that into the game most especially regarding the outcome if you were, for instance, to rely on the Living Life to the Full option throughout, and more generally, in the rule that always decreases one or more scores by 1 after every round.

Regarding Relic, nothing in the game dictates that the church ultimately betrays its followers. That's one outcome that might happen, yes. It depends on where your mind goes as you play.

Best, Ron

Anders Gabrielsson

I've read the Red game now, and while I find the actual game interesting what struck me most was the appropriation of the character sheet as a physical object. I really like that.

I suspect that the Lutherans of Scandinavian descent in the US, especially in the communities where they dominate, are far more conservative than Swedes in general when it comes to these issues. Religion used to be a very important part of everyone's life, especially their communal life, and if your beliefs were slightly different from those of the people in the next town over that has a conserving effect.

QuoteOne thing I mentioned in the talk is that when it comes to diversity of observance and the discontinuity between belief and observance, people are quite tolerant and all "of course" when it comes to their own religion, but tend to see any observance to another religion as evidence of profound and committed belief. My carefully-chosen example to a European Christian audience was the head-scarf (hijab) issue - that people in the room may well take it as given that both the attendees and lack of attendees at Catholic Mass that particular week varied all over the map in terms of raw faith, but also may react to a person wearing the hijab as if she were expressing nothing but the fullest and most unquestioning faith.

This is very true. As I'm sure you know headscarves and similar types of clothing are hotly debated in many European countries currently, but obviously only in relation to Islam. That Christian nuns cover their hair is uncontroversial, and that it would have been scandalous for a grown woman to go with her hair uncovered here a hundred years ago is also ignored.

(As a sidenote, I've been quite amused by a book called "Scandinavian Humor & Other Myths" which is about Scandinavian Americans. It has a full chapter on Lutheranism.)

David Berg

Hi Ron,

As long as I get to explore whether my Montsegur character's a fanatic or not, I'm happy.  Maybe I explore that in the choice of whether to burn, or maybe I explore it in the motivation of why to burn -- either way is cool with me.  "No one cares if you're a fanatic or not," would be disappointing, though. 

As for your larger points about real-world behavior and perception, they make total sense to me: hijabs can look deceptively devout to non-Muslims, Hezbollah can appeal to various people for various reasons, etc.  I hear ya.

That said, if I had Game A about secular Hezbollah members, and Game B about exploring what you really believe in and relating it to your choices and actions, I'd be happy to play both, but the latter would be the one that scratches my "RPGs about religion" itch.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development