Religion and Gaming

Over at The Inner Sanctum, Josh recently commented on his religious faith. No gaming content, just a post about his faith.

Now, this may be deemed as gauche, but I thought a brief discussion of the role of religion in gaming might not be out of line. If this sort of talk offends, then by all means scroll down one post and download my jester class and comment thereupon. I left a response over at Josh’s blog, but on consideration, it needs a whole lot of embellishment.

I can say, for myself as a committed Norse Pagan of going on two decades, that my own faith has led me in several directions regarding the study of folklore, mythology, and so forth that has most definitely influenced my gaming. To not only learn, but internalize, the depth, beauty, and complexity of the Germanic world-view deeply influences my own game designs in various ways both subtle and gross. I can understand how a polytheistic religion can both exist and thrive beyond the simple choosing of “a patron deity”.

In the jargon of the World of Greyhawk, the Suel, Baklunish, Flan, and Oeridian pantheons are not just ethnic collections of individual deities; they are intricately woven families of Gods and Goddesses, each of whom has an integral and significant role to play in that culture, and who is supported by a corpus of mythological tales that support and inform that role. Even though no such corpus exists (although I must admit the creation of such a collection is a project way on one of my many back burners), it is implied and, when necessary in my own campaign, referred to. (Gygax’s own reference to a tale of how Olidamarra got his turtle-back shell is an example of this sort of story.)

The “common” deities are those whose nature transcends mere cultural/racial boundaries, and (like the Egyptian Goddess Isis, whose worship was known far beyond the boundaries of Egypt itself, albeit in vastly different form, through Greece, Rome, and beyond) whose forms of worship among one community of believers might be very different from that found in another. Incabulos could very well be verrrrry different in Tenh than he is in Keoland.

My Pagan faith also informs my interpretation of those Gods who are depicted as less than tolerant of other faiths in the Flanaess; Pholtus, St. Cuthbert, Wastri, etc. More often than not, I indulge my sense of humor (which is appreciated by my current playing group, most of whom are pagan themselves, and two of whom are actually playing clerics) in describing those faiths and the actions of their heirarchies and believers as a parody of the worst practices of the Christian church, both in medieval times and today. It should be noted that Gary Gygax himself was a very dedicated Christian for his entire life (which is in and of itself an ironic piece of information), and was the creator of the notion that followers of St. Cuthbert beat nonbelievers over the noggin, and that Pholtus was the embodiment of “the blinding light”. I just flesh it out a bit.

I can honestly say that my own religion, which places a premium on scholarship, study, and so forth (necessarily so, as mine is what is referred to as a “reconstructionist religion“, thanks to the intervention of Christian missionaries a millenium or so ago), has given me the impetus to treat religion in the game as much more than the caricature or even impediment it is often portrayed as.

I would genuinely like to hear how others’ religious beliefs and practices have had an impact on their gaming. How about it?

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

26 thoughts on “Religion and Gaming

  1. My family are devotees of Krshna Consciousness, a movement with roots in ayurvedic indian religions. While per se this has not influenced the story or treatment of religion in my games, it did interest me enough that I became more informed about eastern religions, specifically polytheistic religions which contain deities major and minor as opposed to Gods as D&D would treat them. This all has influenced my Spirits of Eden campaign setting, which does not have pantheons but rather a massive single group of deities from which many can be worshiped, along with worship of natural elements or of concepts.

  2. Great post and a fascinating topic! I’m sure that a lot of people shy away from this sort of thing, but it’s a great area to explore provided one’s mind is open to divergent ideas about faith and philosophy.

    It’s unavoidable — our “background ideas” about religion, ethics and philosophy will inevitably leak into our game — either as the God-like DM world-builder, or simply as a player character.

    Despite my keen interest in religion in general, I think I have a pretty strong relativist streak that has prevented me from ascribing to any one set of ideas about the Truth. As a consequence, when I DM my portrayal of religion and religious figures tends to be rather cynical. Even the gods themselves come off as poseurs — or worse: parasites feeding off the fervent devotion of their followers. I don’t think I purposely set out to create this sort of relationship between the gameworld and the gods, but those pesky background assumptions that I carry with me from real life like to creep in.

    For what it’s worth, I think it would be an interesting challenge to consciously avoid such a pessimistic angle and present the deities in a more reverent manner.

  3. An excellent topic. I choose to be an Agnostic Theist, because I think that the universe was more than series of coincidences that occurred after some unexplained big bang… yet god(s) are inherently unknowable.

    I was raised in a family that strongly believed in Christianity, but, growing up I was interested in history. So eventually (probably 5th grade) I had come to the conclusion that given the age of Christianity and the multiple occurances of far older Christ myths, it was very unlikely to be the one true way.

    How has this impacted my gaming? Well, the way I approach religions in games has changed as my understanding and philosophy has changed. Initially, I took a very cynical approach and my games involved a LOT of taboo, much like K. Forest above. But now, I approach each religion as a character in the story, one that has strengths, weaknesses, motivations and goals. I tend to experiment with the morals and expectation of players by making them make difficult decisions that conflict with both the player’s and his character’s religious outlooks.

    Most recently (as in this week) I have even began a grand experiment with creating my own mythology in the Church of the Radiant Polyhedron. It began as tongue-in-cheek satire, but I think it has grown beyond that now.

  4. My Christian faith is largely that of George MacDonald (1824-1905), who arguably started the modern fantasy genre with his Phantastes (1858).

    I got into fantasy by way of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. That led me to C. S. Lewis, who led me to George MacDonald.

    Fantasy (whether fiction or RPGs) moves me deeply. I consider my enjoyment of fantasy worlds as a slight foretaste of our everlasting enjoyment of Paradise.

    I recognize Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all the hopes and longings found in mythology, legend, and fantasy. Even dark fantasy moves me to praise Christ. “Yet who shall declare the dark theme a positive handicap? Radiant with beauty, the Cup of the Ptolemies was carven of onyx.” (H. P. Lovecraft)

    I believe that even the vile sacrifice of innocent humans (whether in reality or in imaginary worlds such as Carcosa) dimly (and tragically) shadows forth Christ, Who is the Innocent Sacrifice.

    In sum, all mythology, legend, and fantasy for me is inextricable from Christ. All of it points to Him.

  5. Like K. Forest, I too have a somewhat cynical view of (organized) religion and keep myself “from ascribing to any one set of ideas about the Truth”, but this POV has never really reared it’s ugly head in my games. In real life I love to discuss philosophy and theology at great length, it’s fascinating. However, in the game world detachment is key to immersing oneself in the game’s religious culture.

    Unfortunately, I’ve had run-ins with players and non-players who have had trouble separating their real-world religious views and the game’s fantasy religions. For some the hang-up is the monotheistic vs. the polytheistic, but for most it is simply a matter of certain moral and ethical dilemmas. Ironically, one of the many beneficial aspects of role-playing is being able to “become” someone else and explore different moral and ethical POVs in a safe environment.

  6. Interesting subject. My campaign world religion is much in the vein of my real world Deistic beliefs; the gods created the world, and very rarely have any effect, good or bad, on what they brought into being (basically, "You guys are on your own, get after it").

    Some of my religions have worshippers of radically different alignments (for example, followers of my world's God of Battle often battle..each other). Gods reward priests their spells, no matter their alignment, dependent on whether or not they fufill the God's ethos. It has led to some interesting moral and ethical dilemmas in my games. At this time one druid character is actively recruiting to battle a "Dark Druid", one that reveres animal life over human (or demi-human) life and creates creatures such as Owlbears and Perytons to enforce his will. Yet, both druids worship the same deity, which has led to some interesting roleplaying situations. I have also created some controversy through my interpretation of paladins (basicaly, there are no "anti paladins"….evil paladins think they are just as blessed with insight to what is right and wrong as any "true" paladin, and receive the same powers). I think I've done a good job over the years of making religion in my D&D interesting and relevant to the game without becoming preachy.

  7. I’m agnostic. I use gods and their portfolios to suggest spell selections, domain powers, temple descriptions, motivations for good and bad guys.

  8. Intriguing (and quite brave) choice of conversational topic Joseph.

    You know, I don’t think this has come up as something any of my gaming groups have *consciously* thought about. Maybe it’s British reticence, maybe it’s just good manners. I really don’t know.

    The implicit assumption seems to be that – even if we do use IRL mythic figures or archetypes – our games are informed by the understanding that “they do things differently over there in Fantasyland”. Names, iconography, cult practises and rites may look oddly familiar, but the resemblance is purely the result of DM pack rat-ism. My Grimnir is patently *not* the Norse revivalist Odin; my Iranon may have qualities reminiscent of Baldur, Mithras, Dionysus, or Christ, but he’s definitely *none* of the above.

    My personal take is that game religions should be exotic, baroque and more than a little weird (for reference, think of the Roman cult practises in HBO’s “Rome”). The weirder and more removed from our familiar experiences the better in some respects. It avoids offending anyone, and adds to the swords-and-sorcery flavour.

  9. I’m what you might call “Generic Protestant”. The largest religion in my homebrew of Irrin is monotheistic, though there are sects that worships “aspects” of the main god in a way that suggests polytheism. Although in my games there’s definitely the threat of corruption and stagnation through church bureaucracy, I think overall the church is painted in a fairly hopeful manner. I love Christ and try to walk in the Faith, but I don’t feel any issues with polytheistic portrayals when I game in say, Greyhawk.

    C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were big influences on my introduction to fantasy. Interestingly enough, I’ve met as many people of Faith who are into Traveller as anything. I don’t know if that speaks to anything in particular, but it is interesting to me.

  10. I tend to be somewhat skeptical towards organized religions. The Christianity to which I subscribe is more about believers emulating models (such as Jesus, or Martin Luther King Jr, for example) rather than rigidly interpreting the “word” of God.

    In my DnD worlds the gods are philosophical ideals that characters (PCs and NPCs alike) strive towards. In the game though, the gods recognize these efforts and, on occasion, they intervene.

  11. “Interestingly enough, I’ve met as many people of Faith who are into Traveller as anything.”

    I was moved when I discovered that at least some of Far Future Enterprise’s compilation reprints of the classic Traveller books have this quote at the beginning:

    “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.” (I Corinthians 15:41 [NIV])

  12. Well, I’m an Atheist so my religious beliefs, or rather my lack of them, has not influenced my gaming much.

    My interest in religions gaming-wise is usually limited to the trappings and paraphernalia of the priests and the politics behind the organized religions of the setting.

  13. What a truly fascinating topic. I'm Catholic, and a believer. I do not feel my practice of role-playing games is in any contradiction with my Faith, and always find myself cringing when I see Religion artificially put in opposition to gaming.

    I think, like others here, that my Faith does affect my representation of the world when running a game, particularly when the setting is the result of my own design, as in D&D.

    I tend to see pantheons and deities as the manifestation of the world itself, and through it, of a unifying concept which, outside of the game world, could be branded as "God" (and is explicitely named in some published settings, like for instance Ao in the FR).

    I've been an eager student of mythologies and spiritualities all my life. In many ways I understand them as different emanations of Faith. We each worship the same idea, though we interpret it in different ways, and in the end, variety is good – it sparks debate, a sharing of ideas and insights, and allows us to constantly enter inner discussions about our own Faiths.

    I believe that not questioning our beliefs on a regular basis ultimately kills Faith itself. We need questions, and through them, conscience, to reach for the nature of our souls.

    Gaming, in this regard, through its make-believe very nature, may bring up some of these questions in the most innocuous ways, since the support itself is and remains fictional. Thus gaming may participate to one's Faith, and grow it over time, like many other activities would.

  14. I am an agnostic, and I try to play whatever faith in the game exists as honestly as possible. I’m running a game set in medieval France right now and the I do my best to portray the religion as part of everyday life, for example.

    As a kid I was pretty hostile to Christianity, but that has passed. Also, there were poorly veiled attacks at the institution in our games; maybe even someone killing Jesus, though I can’t be sure of that.

  15. Well, I’m an Atheist so my religious beliefs, or rather my lack of them, has not influenced my gaming much.

    My interest in religions gaming-wise is usually limited to the trappings and paraphernalia of the priests and the politics behind the organized religions of the setting.

    Interesting. Isn’t the fact that your interest in religions gaming-wise focuses on the trappings and politics of priests in organized religions in itself a way in which you atheism affects your gaming?

    It certainly seems like it.

  16. No.

    What I meant was that for “color” and ideas for adventures, in my gaming I use both of the above.

    I think most folks just use religion and deites in gaming as magical kegs the players can pump spells from.

    I just like to mine religions in the RPG for more than that. So if the folks in my game meet a wandering druid I’ll make sure to get his clothing and items right and run his sun-greeting ritual in an entertaingly descriptive manner.
    What I won’t deal with is dogma and spiritualist insight and that kind of stuff. It’s only a game.

  17. I too am Neo-Pagan, and have been studying runes for about 20 years now . . . crap I'm getting old!

    I think that I have a deep understanding of how D&D religion works, but I really disagree with giving the gods STATS, I don't think that they should ever be physically defeated.

    I am really getting into Greyhawk now, and am enjoying the different cultural gods of the Flanaess. Iuz is an intriguing case, is Iuz truly a god? What would happen to the world of Greyhawk if he were really killed, and if the Arch-mage of Greyhawk Castle was so tough, why didn't he just kill Iuz? Is Iuz just a spook story? A legend? These are all exciting concepts!

  18. I like the 'Agnostic Theist' link above, which might come as close to describing my religious/spiritual views. Vaguely Taoist? I dunno…

    When I was young (9? 10?), my D&D books were burned by my brother, a recent convert to a Charismatic church – this at the onset of
    the pop-culture-D&D-is-The-Devil days.

    This troubled me for several years. In some ways it made me doubt myself in continuing to play RPGs – or worry that I was doomed to peridition or somesuch.

    When I was 17 I had the opprotunity to help a teacher who had travelled here from India and was being supported by my girlfiend's church group. She was moving out of her apartment and I packed the van. At the end of the day, she (the teacher) approached me and asked me if I had a question for her. I honestly hadn't come up with one consciously that day, but as soon as she asked me to ask her, one sprung to mind!

    In short I had to explain what D&D was. She had absolutely no knowledge of it. Instead she answered the question in a more general sense, something to apply broadly – "In all things created by man, look to it's origins."

    Seems like something a lot of us have been doing recently!

  19. just for the record: Gygax has stated that he became a christian in 1982. And like most of us it takes some time to get the walk right. But it is interesting that people who interacted with him before the early 80s seem to remember a very different person than the people that interacted with him after.

    I am recticent to give my opinion under this identity because I want to keep my publishing imprint professional. I will see if I can post on this with another identity.

  20. First off: I’m an atheist. Not one of those religion-hating atheists, though.

    This is a complex question. On the one hand, the Norse myths and legends speak to me at a gut level in a way that other religions do not, and the Norse gods are the real-world pantheon I can use in a game-world while feeling I do them justice. OTOH I do not believe they actually exist, except as the embodiment of peoples now gone, but whose genetic and cultural (ethnic?) legacy still deeply influences our own. This was the primary influence of my youth, spent in a very conservative Christian culture (Ulster).

    On the other hand, as I’ve grown older, and living many years in the sink of iniquity that is London, I’ve gained a respect for and interest in Christianity, Christian thought and traditions, in a way that probably would not have happened had I stayed in Northern Ireland. The replacement of Christianity by Islam as the dominant religion in London and other English cities is also a factor. So the religious setup in my current tabletop campaign’s world is one of taking Christianity seriously, using a quadi-Christian analogue and with influences of CS Lewis and Tolkien – the latter bringing back a certain Nordic sense of tragedy, perhaps.

  21. Thanks for the comment and nod on your blog. To put things in a nutshell after a run of the full spectrum of religious set ups my world (Theia)is overseen by a pantheon od “steward Dieties” a nod to Tolkien. Religion really takes a back seat and the only church around is the “Church of Deus” ( I flirted with Dieism at one point) but it has begun to split into differing factions.

    To be honest though it was basically set up so clerics have something to worship. 😉

  22. A wonderful topic.

    I’m an agnostic, a humanist, and to some degree a Buddhist.

    I use religious themes and elements extensively in my games, though. Partly, I think, because they had such an impact on real-world history, art, and philosophy. Partly because, like other complex emotional forces (romance, politics, vengeance…), faith makes for great plot motivators.

    If there’s any direct influence, I think it lies in the fact that I tend to make my religions very grey. Since I don’t use standard alignment, the same god can have vastly different worshippers.

    Or to put it another way, show me a character in my game world who thinks Pelor is a shiny happy all-good god, and I’ll show you someone who’s likely to suffer a severe sunburn once the weather turns.

    It makes faith a more personal and political thing… and characters who ask tend to find that the gods don’t typically care too much about dogmas. They care about advancing their goals. Even the God of Idealism is a bit of a pragmatist, although I admit to designing that one that way partly for the joke.

  23. I’m Orthodox Jewish, but I keep things separate as much as possible. Though it does influence me in what I like and promote and publish (like, I LOVE Green Ronin’s Testament and started publishing Targum Magazine to support it). But when I play, I can leave things aside and play whatever (even Mormon Cowboys in a West that never was, or Dogs in the Vineyard).

  24. Very enjoyable and interesting post.

    I am one of the (Pagan) players in Joseph’s campaign, which allows me to speak to how it shapes our gameplay. I am a fan of the roleplay aspect over combat. The religion within the game really does help flesh out the environments, characters, and overall enjoyment.

    That, and a certain tiny NPC that enriches my gameplay quite a bit. I should peruse older entries to see if I can find some mention of him.

  25. Good discussion. I'm a Christian and Seminary Student working on a Masters in Theology. I was raised Catholic but my belief was really just nominal. I met Jesus thru televangelism, and am now very interested in the Hebraic roots of Christianity. The relationship with Jesus is more important than any denomination. Don’t get me wrong being part of a community of believers is important, but they all have issues, so really you’ve just got to choose your dysfunction and operate within it. I fully believe and have experienced the gifts of the Holy Spirit (healings, words of knowledge, etc.) and my wife is a full time minister. So yeah, it is my life.

    All that being said – I game too. Board games, card games, minis, MMOs, and RPGs. In RPGs, I’ll play whatever kind of character, if it comes to religion I’m a Christian for the most part. I say for the most part as I’ve a big fan of Testament: Role-playing in the Biblical Era and have played Israelis during the time of Judges (no Christians there) and Have played in campaigns were the religion was centered on a monotheistic, benevolent God. I’ve played in a game of Castles & Crusades as an Elven Knight who was a Christian, while the other player, who was an atheist in the real world, took on a god from a polytheistic religion, and CK was an atheist.

    I’m currently in a Mutants & Masterminds game – kind of along the lines of ‘Heroes’ where we’re regular folks who discover they have powers and I’m playing a character with absorption power whose religion is Christianity. The guys in that gaming group all have various religious backgrounds in the real world – Christians, Agnostics, Wiccans – and their characters sometimes reflect this sometimes don’t. The GM, knowing that I was a Christian took me aside before we started as we had just met and hadn’t game together before. He asked if I was going to have any issues as he was going to explore Christianity in the game with some potentially negative aspects. I explained that it was his game and he could go wherever he wished, so don’t worry about me getting offended. It’s a game! We’ve had tons of fun and it is some of the best RPGing I’ve done to date. The GM true to form had a plot take us to a Christian televangelist compound that was collecting up super powered beings which turned out to be a lot of fun. One of the characters is playing a demon magic user type which has made for some interesting role-playing between our characters.

    We have fun gaming and sometimes the talk turns to religion. As a Christian, let me call it like it is -exclusive by its very nature (Jesus himself said no one gets in without Him – note Jesus saying that) and evangelistic (Jesus commanded to go make disciples of the whole world). I’d be lying to say I wouldn’t want everyone to know Jesus including all of you. That’s who I am. And you know my gaming friend is a Wiccan – that’s who he is. Yeah I’d love for him to know Jesus (and yes – I pray for him to) but he’s pretty adamant about his faith. I don’t thump him or anyone else over the head with a Bible, nor am yelling for everyone to repent for the end of the world is at hand. But if you ask me or the subject comes up I won’t mince words, no one expects me to nor do I expect anyone else to either – and believe me they don’t.

    So where does it leave us? The answer is simple. The place where Faith meets dice – At the Table…rolling the twenty sider, hoping (and sometimes praying!) for a Mr. Natural, cracking jokes, laughing and having a good time even if I roll a 1. Sprinkled with Good natured debates and being one another’s friend.

    Heck, I think I’ll have to start a blog of my own now. Where Faith meets dice.

    By the way, Daniel, Happy Passover and thanks for making Targum but when is the next issue coming out,along with True20 Ancients!

  26. @TheMetal1

    True20 Ancients: Rome is done and sent for approval, then moving to layout in the next couple of weeks.

    Targum #5 is done and edited.

    Basically all is on hold because I’m dealing with a family emergency. But soon.

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