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No Good

XP for Jesus

by Juhana Pettersson
Jan 29,2004

 

XP for Jesus

- Juhana Pettersson

For some reason, I have had more than my share of religious characters, from dorky priest characters in Vampire: the Dark Ages to a Mormon in the larp Ground Zero. It seems that when a GM looks at me, he starts to think Jesus. This has been a problem for me, because I suck at identifying with religious people. I come from an atheist family, and I think religion is like superhero comics in the sense that you can get into it a lot better as an adult if you were exposed to it as a child.

This is not the worst typecasting I get. In Vampire games I always ended up with Gangrel or Tzimisce. The Gangrel characters were usually failures, unless I got to do the patented Juhana plays a violent retard -routine. That's one of my favorites. That Dark Ages character was not only a priest but a Gangrel too. Fortunately that game died quickly.

Anyway, the subject of this column here is religion and roleplaying, and specifically what to do with religion in a roleplaying game. I haven't seen interesting treatment of religion in RPGs very often. The lists of gods that often pass for religions in old AD&D stuff were not a very promising start. Vampire improved it a bit, since Christianity is by default more interesting than, and there's a bit of theology for scenery and even some religious themes, but in the end it doesn't add up to much more than decoration. Why the Middle East is suffused with religious energy that makes life difficult for vampires, but Italy is not, I do not know. The official explanation has something to do with all the blood and backstabbing that has apparently tarnished the Vatican, unlike the Middle East, naturally free of bad blood and blasphemy.

The same seems to be true of most modern roleplaying games, where the mythological aspects of religion are brought to life on a regular basis from In Nomine (one of the greatest could have beens I've seen in roleplaying) to Armageddon, but actual religion, the stuff that is religion in the real world seems to be missing. Although it's cool to play a demon, I don't think that has much to do with the actual experience of religion.

My Boss is Untamo, Lord of Dreams*

In a fantasy roleplaying game, the most important question you have to ask is "What is religion?" My definition would include things like mythologies (structures of truths about the world), a belief in the supernatural and possibly a god or gods, moral strictures, history and tradition and mystery.

In your average D&D religion, there's none of these. Perhaps a bit of history, which is usually irrelevant and some moral constraints which more resemble the Flaws of the Storyteller system. Therefore, you can have an essentially non-religious fantasy game where the priest is a character who has an extremely powerful and somewhat irritable mentor (the god) or you have to come up with something new.

Frankly, I wouldn't bother. The systems rarely support this kind of thing in any way and I find real-life religions much more interesting. If you wish to bother, you have to come up with the whys and wherefores of the religion, its morals, history and most importantly you have to know what's it like to be a practitioner. How are these people raised? What constitutes for them a religious experience? How do they relate to their God?

The big question is the superpowers you receive if you believe. Is it really believing if you know your god is going to help you to Detect Evil and Cure Light Wounds? Doesn't seem to me there's much need for belief after that.

However, you can also ask another question, which is this: "In this system, there are beings called gods who grant powers to their followers and reside in foreign dimensions.What does this mean?" This question leads you to the god as a mentor -scenario, which can also be interesting, but strips away the mystery of religion pretty totally.

The general dorkiness of religion in D&D and it's descendants often resulted in weird discrepancies. The Complete Paladin's Handbook greatly offended me as a kid, because it was so contrary to the way paladins are presented in the core material. In the Handbook, the role of the church was stressed as the organization to which the paladin is responsible. However, from most of the D&D, AD&D and D&D3 material you get the impression that the paladin is first and foremost responsible for his god, who's a concrete, existing, verifiable entity. So the church is kinda pointless.

Which was the reason I didn't like the book as a kid. Now, however, I appreaciate it more. Trying to make religion work on the basis given in the game is very hard, and the Handbook took the route of patterning after the real world, which I find more interesting than the bizarre fantasy constructs originally arising from hapazardly created game concepts.

* Information about Untamo may be found at least in the On Hallowed Ground supplement for Planescape. Other deities of the Finnish Pantheon featured in that book are Hiisi (Lord of Darkness) and Ukko, leader of the Finnish Pantheon. I wonder if Norwegians have this same bizarre feeling when they're reading the Mighty Thor. Perhaps they're used to it, since the rape of their mythology has been a much more popular pastime.

I Belong to a Church, You Belong to a Cult

You need a relatively social game to get something out of religion. Having your religious Nosferatu have some sort of a moral angst about his state of being and its relation to God will not get you anywhere near as far as having your Catholic computer nerd character dump a girlfriend of three weeks because she wanted to get frisky. Religion has no real impact on a tactical RPG like D&D, except to maybe arbitarily separate friends from foes.

It's a classic mistake to think that interesting and deep roleplaying experiences will abound if you put people with wildly divergent beliefs in the PC team. The theory is that the Buddhist and the Scientologist will have many and varied conversations about philosophical subjects as their beliefs come to contrast each other while exiting social drama manifests as we thrill to see whether the Jew and the Muslim can work together after they've both been Embraced by a Nosferatu elder called Mustafa.

I've found that this doesn't work in practice, especially not in the short term. People can get along if they have to, and need some motivation to have those philosophical discussions. They don't spring out of nothing. In practice, I've found you get more drama if you make one character have a phobia of cleaning detergents and another a big fan of antibacterial washing solutions, or have two characters who're always having extremely loud sex at a communal apartment.

On the other hand, in long campaigns it can work very well if you're subtle and realistic enough. If you contrive to force a Tibetan monk and an American TV evangelist to talk to each other, it may turn out they don't have much to say. On the other hand, if you have a pro-gay Episcopalian and an anti-gay Baptist, sparks will fly at some point, though probably not right at the beginning. Things like this have to develop. And they develop better if these people have some reason to get along, to like each other despite their differences.

In Jaakko Stenros's campaign Lohkeileva kynsilakka (Cracking Nail Varnish) I play a burnt-out political activist called Risto while another player plays what would be the Finnish equivalent of a Young Republican. Her (the character's) name is Susanna. They live in the same student apartment, which means that they have to get along on a basic level. Common traumas influcted during the game drove our heroes into an improbable romance which only seems to work when things are absolutely fucked. If we have a moment to talk, we remember why we couldn't stand each other in the first place.

Values come into conflict, practices and habits come into conflict, but if you're hoping for deep and meaningful philosophical discussions, forget it. In the end, the Jew and the Protestant have more reason to debate how to celebrate Christmas/Hanukkah than the nature of Jesus.

Religion as Content

To me, the two most interesting aspects of the phenomenon of religion for the purposes of roleplaying are the religious experience and the church hierarchy, organized religion. The latter is pretty obvious. All hierachies of power are interesting as game environments, and church hierachies, especially monumental ones like the Catholic Church are real-world environments the workings of which provide excellent content for a game.

Obviously, when you're playing a religious character, you can't just let it go with some half-assed idea that your character thinks God is the man. In the games I've played in, the focus has always been on religious upbringing. This is a bit of a cop out, since this way you can just say that instead of believing in the Big Bang, you believe in God. It trivializes religion into a world-view and thus doesn't really take into account religious experience.

Obviously, I'm not the worlds biggest expert on exactly what is this religious experience. I've had experiences which I think would have felt religious if I had had the inclination, mostly when faced with some immense natural spectacle, the sort of thing which makes you feel insignificant yet happy that you live in a world with such splendor. But I don't really know.

Nevertheless, I think the character's personal relationship to these issues is an extremely important factor. A character who's a Mormon because he's been raised that way views his religion from a different perspective than a character who has felt the presence of God.

The persistent focus on religous upbringing means that characters who have turned to religion later are very rare. Perhaps this is a feature of my particular gaming culture. In Finland, teens who belong to the church traditionally go to a religious summer camp around sixten or so, the idea of which is to brainwash the kids into thinking that the church can be pretty cool after all. Depressingly, it's often successful. My high school had a lot of kids who had come to believe and decided to inflict their beliefs on the rest of us in the form of horribly lavender guitar music. Not a lot of these kids as characters in games, though.

Perhaps this is because excessively religious people, and especially later converts, are generally viewed as boring, monomanical types with ugly hairdos and no cool. Religious people are not associated with drama, excitement and adventure. They're not even associated with the sort of your weekly dose of suffering -games I run and play in.

I think the idea of a religious experience, of the concrete meaning and way to relate to one's religion is the key to getting under the skin of religious characters. That and putting some thought into making them less boring.

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