CtD Podcast, Episode 3: The Gygaxian Tone

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For our third episode, we commemorate the birthday of the late Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master par excellence!  In an effort to remember him well, we explore a number of quotes that I’ve chosen that accentuate his personality and role in relation to the roleplayers.

A few links to sites referenced in the show:

And without further adieu, the podcast:



Experienced AD&Ders Needed!

If you’re new to my project, Chasing the Dragon, you may want to read an introduction here.

I need your input on my first house rule.

Now this may surprise you, as I’ve never even played a session of AD&D yet.  Not as a GM.  Not as a player.  Never.

Now I’ve played 4e extensively and the 5e playtest.  I’ve played the FFG Star Wars RPG extensively, as well as FIASCO, Pathfinder, and the Mouse Guard RPG.  I’ve played an RPG or two, but I’m certainly no expert.

So please answer my question, oh experienced grognards of the first edition!

Is the following rule going to work well, while keeping the spirit of the game in tact?

So here we go.

Continue reading

CtD Podcast, Episode 2: Which Edition Now?

Subscribe to the CtD podcast on iTunes!

In my sophomore episode, I am joined by Daniel Fisher, podcaster for Innroads Ministries and owner of knucklebonezdice.com.  I enlisted him to help me sort out the early history of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as why we call AD&D “first edition,” when it wasn’t actually the first D&D.

A few links to sites referenced in the show:


And without further adieu, the podcast:



AD&D Players Handbook: The Best

If you’re looking for the AD&D podcast, subscribe here!  For the history of this project (Chasing the Dragon), start here.

The 1e AD&D Players Handbook is the best RPG rulebook that I’ve ever read.  I say that without any qualification whatsoever.  Here are my reasons why:

  1. This picture on the title page.  It sums up  the very essence of the book and the game.http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ozG3jA3ewPE/UzdDAg-sXTI/AAAAAAAAAJI/THAsyTtnElU/s3200/smoking-sorcerer-atop-d6.jpgGygax is seeking to harness the Tolkienesque ambiance of the Lord of the Rings with the help of a die.  I actually didn’t even notice the die in the picture until my third or fourth time looking at it.  And really, the game should function the same way.  The fantasy is primary–the dice, secondary.  Whether or not that is how it turns out still waits to be shown (to me).
  2. I actually read the whole thing in one sitting.  And I enjoyed every second of it.  Now granted, it’s only 126 pages and I may have skimmed a bit here and there, but it was an absolute blast to read.  It’s just plain fun.
  3. The organization is pretty remarkable.  I commented previously on the shoddy organization of the Dungeon Masters Guide…not the case with the PHB.  Basically, the book takes the player step-by-step through character creation, reserving some of the more space-intensive matters (spells) for later.Additionally, the way that Gygax references items that would come later or had come before really showed that he had a command of this book’s organization.  It is well thought-out, easy to process, and if something is going to be left unexplained for a time, he tells you.
  4. How blatantly Gygax is ripping off Tolkien.  On the ranger table (pg. 25), a level three Ranger is called “Strider” and levels 10-12 are called “Ranger Lord.”  This theme continues in the Dungeon Masters Guide.
  5. This explanation of hit points, which makes more sense than any other RPG (whether print, or video):It is ridiculous to assume that even a fantastic fighter can take [85 hit points, the equivalent of four huge warhorses]. … Thus, the majority of hit points are symbolic of combat skill, luck (bestowed by supernatural powers), and magical forces.So every hit point is not actually physical damage, but rather it represents the gradual wearing down of the character, as it battles and expends its energy and skills to survive.
  6. Hirelings and henchmen.  Players are straight-up encouraged to get NPCs to help them.  I could see this getting old as a DM, but as a player it sounds like a hoot.
  7. There are 60 pages of spells.  Saves you from buying a second book and I appreciate this.
  8. The optional appendices: as much as I want to play rules-as-written, psionics seems a bit complex to add to a first-time campaign.  I’m glad to feel like it’s an optional bit.

The things you might not like

Just because it’s the best RPG rulebook I’ve read doesn’t mean that it’s flawless.  I’m trying my best to reserve criticism or negative judgments until I’ve played.  And I do plan to play (at first) rules as written.  But here are a few things I can tell might be less-than-preferable:

  1. Determining characteristic scores randomly, but then limiting the races, classes, and even genders on those randomly chosen numbers.  Seems like it could be cumbersome for the player who came to the table with a clear character concept beforehand.
  2. It does seem pretty apparent that a lot of classes are squishy, especially the Magic-User (which has only 1d4 Hit dice, meaning a possibility of 1-4 hp at Level 1).  Heaven help you if you start with 1 hp.  With this game, it seems apparent that you really do need to start with at least 4-5 characters created, because characters will die.

All in all, this book may have absolutely sold me on the system.  I got into a conversation with some guys the other night who were lauding 5th Edition.  My only response was, “I don’t know, 1st Edition AD&D seems to have captured by curiosity.  It could even be the best…”

What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Have you read it?  What would you add?  Sound off in the comments below!

AD&D: Where to start?

If you decide to learn 1st Edition Advanced D&D, don’t start with the Dungeon Masters Guide.  I repeat!  DO NOT BEGIN WITH THE DMG!  Why not?  Well it’s helpful to know the release dates for the three core rulebooks for 1e AD&D:

Monster Manual (December 1977)
Players Handbook (June 1978)
Dungeon Masters Guide (August 1979)
    [These dates come from this unbelievably helpful site]

That’s right, the DMG didn’t come out until almost two years after the first release!  Well how did players play without a DM’s guide?  Easy.  They were using the rules from either the Original D&D (January 1974) or D&D Basic (June 1977).  So DMs more or less cobbled together a way to play until the DMG came out in 1979.

So why not read the DMG first, oh new learner of AD&D?  Here are my reasons why:

  1. Gygax has assumed you’ve read and used the Monster Manual and the PHB already.  So when he hits the ground, he hits it running 100mph.  If you don’t understand the basics of character creation and stats, you’re really going to struggle to know what you’re reading.
  2. The organization of the DMG is less than stellar.  It’s fun and fascinating to read, but without the grounding knowledge of the other books, retaining that information will be very difficult.
  3. If you’ve read the other two books first, you’ll feel competent enough to jump in and DM, even if you’ve only read a bit of the DMG.

So where should you start?  As someone who has now officially read them completely backwards (DMG -> PHB -> MM), I’m actually going to give the advice I’ve gotten from my grognard friends: go in chronological order.


The Monster Manual is a quick read (if you only read the introduction, conclusion, and skim the monsters).  It will give the necessary explanation of hit dice, monsters, and encounter style.  Plus, you’ll get Gygax’s personality instantly.

The Players Handbook is next.  And what a treat it is!  I’ll be dedicating a whole post to that wonderful work either this week or next.  I literally read the entire thing in one sitting.  Perfectly organized.  Really fun to read.  This is the bulk of what you need to learn.

And finally, the DMG.  I bailed after 140 pages to go back and read the other books.  Now I’m wrapping it up.  Again, it’s classic Gygax, in terms of tone and writing style.  But, good heavens, it’s poorly organized.  Now thirty-seven years later, this organizational problem has been mitigated for us by the good folk over at OSRIC.  Using the 3rd edition Open Gaming License from WotC, they’ve reproduced the rules from AD&D in a more organized, easily processed version.  It sure doesn’t have the flair of Gygax, but it’ll get the rules across more clearly.

Anyway, that’s my recommendation to you.  Don’t…please don’t start with the DMG.  I made the mistake so you don’t have to.  Start with the Monster Manual, then the PHB, and you’ll be on your way, faster than you can roll a d20.

CtD Podcast, Episode 1: Dead at the Door

As a complete noob to 1e AD&D, I thought I’d enlist the help of some experts to educate me (and you as well!).  Thus for my first Chasing the Dragon podcast, I am joined by Jeff Romo, board member of and podcaster for Innroads Ministries, and Joshua Brown, member of and podcaster for The Mad Adventurers Society.  I interviewed them on topics like:

  • Their first AD&D experience
  • What they loved about the game
  • What they would (and did) change in the game
  • What their advice would be to folks (like me) who are learning AD&D

A few notes from the show:

  1. Our theme music was used with permission from the excellent band, Lame Drivers.  For more on their music, click here.
  2. Links that are mentioned in our conversation:

And without further adieu, the podcast:



Chasing the Dragon: The Beginning

There’s just something about the first time you play a roleplaying game–the newness, the mystery, the excitement, the fun!  As soon as my first session was over, I wanted to play again.  And in many ways that initial experience of roleplaying compels us to keep going.  In the drug subculture, they call it “chasing the dragon,” always trying to recapture that initial experience–trying to get back to that first high.

Despite the necessary warnings attached to such an endeavor, I have decided to chase the dragon.  Which dragon, you ask?  The advanced one, of course.

In 1977, the first AD&D rulebook was released.  Gary Gygax had taken the kernel of an idea that was original D&D and developed it into its own independent game.  And thus, modern roleplaying games were born.  Unfortunately, I was not yet born.  When I first saw the light of day in 1983, AD&D books were already in their 7th printing.  It was a bit before my time.

In fact, I didn’t start roleplaying until 2011, using the oft-maligned 4th Edition D&D.  Maligned or not, me and my friends enjoyed it for quite a while.  For three years in fact.  Eventually I grew tired of the system (for a whole host of reasons) and I moved on to other games, most relevantly the FFG Star Wars RPG.  But when 5e starting getting really good reviews, I found myself wanting to go back to the swords and shields…yet I was left with a nagging question:

Why play 5th Edition, when I could play 1st Edition?  Why play new modules and scenarios, when I haven’t even played the oldest, most revered, and most nostalgic?

So I envisioned a project, which I’ve called Chasing the Dragon.  It’s all about going back in time and recapturing the experience of the first D&D players.  I’m learning the rules of 1st Edition AD&D from the ground up.  And then I intend to either DM or play through every module written by Gary Gygax.  And I’m going to chronicle this process here on MadCleric.com.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, you can expect new content.  It may be short and sweet.  It may be a full-length podcast.  It could be recordings of live-play!  The sky (and my schedule) is the limit.  So, grab your sword and put on your running shoes, because we’ve got a dragon to chase.
Have you ever played 1e AD&D?  What advice would you give me?  If you’ve never played it before, why not?  Answer below in the comments!

Religious Intolerance of RPGs

Welcome to Experience Points, my weekly response to one of your questions about anything!  Life, relationships, faith, or gaming…really anything is game!  If you’d like to send in a question, feel free to email me.  Here’s this week’s question:

Have you experienced intolerance from religious people about your gaming hobby?

This is an excellent question—and one that I dealt with in more philosophical terms here for the Mad Adventurers Society.  But for our purposes today, I’ll just tell you the story.


Consider the Source

Three years ago, I was sitting on my front porch, typing away at my laptop.  After all, sermons don’t write themselves!  As I was working, my phone buzzed—a text from an old friend.  Apparently, he’d seen me posting on social media about playing Dungeons & Dragons…and he was concerned.  He had lots of questions about witchcraft, magic, and the power of demonic beings.  What was frustrating is that it didn’t matter how I responded.  I had no leg to stand on, as far as he was concerned.  This new hobby was dangerous, opposed to the Bible, and hazardous to my faith.

Does that count as intolerance?  Compared to many of your stories, I’m sure it seems more like a minor inconvenience.  But really, let’s think more about this brief interaction.  What motivated my friend in contacting me?  His real intent was love, even though it was communicated in a way that didn’t necessarily feel that way.  He wanted to protect and guard me, which is a noble desire, regardless of how it felt and regardless of whether he was right!

As you think back on your own experience of intolerance, it can help to consider the source.  Why did that person say anything about your hobby?  What motivated their actions?  Perhaps their desires really were well-meaning.  It’s a question worth considering.

Consider the Worldview

I can only speak from my own experience as a Protestant who grew up in the Southern United States.  But I’ve found that often there are other things underlying intolerance of the gaming hobby—specifically, tabletop RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons.  It’s not only personal intentions that motivate action, a person’s worldview also motivates their actions.  The ever-insightful Rob Almond once pointed out that the people who oppose Dungeons & Dragons on religious grounds are often the same people who oppose rock and roll on religious grounds.

And, yes, those folks are still out there too.

And yes…they do still refer to it as “rock and roll.”

There are lots of words that people use to describe them: fundamentalists, legalists, literalists.  The labels at this point are inconsequential.  I inhabited that religious realm for much of my life and, I would imagine, some people might still apply some of those labels to me.  That’s OK.  Again, the labels are inconsequential at this point.  I believe there are three philosophical/religious errors that these groups make—and these errors lead them to their attitudes about tabletop RPGs.

Now why am I going to point out what I believe to be flaws in their worldview?  First, it’s to help you—the gamer—to understand them better.  It’s easier to forgive someone, when you can understand them.  It’s easier to let go of past frustration, when you understand what brought it about.  Second, I point out these flaws not so that you can attempt to change people’s minds on this matter.  As I mentioned over on the Mad Adventurers Society, you’re not likely to change people’s minds if they already have a worldview that is bent against tabletop RPGs.  Don’t sweat that.  This discussion is purely to help you sort through the intolerance that you’ve experienced—or that you might experience in the future.  So here we go:

Error #1:

If an activity seems associated with something wrong, then the activity must be inherently wrong.

If you believe that demons are (a) real and (b) evil, it might seem that playing a game that involves demonic characters is also real and evil.  If you believe that killing is objectively wrong, it might seem that pretending to kill (even for good intentions) is likewise wrong.  And yet, I don’t find too many Christians hassling me for listening to Johnny Cash. 


After all, Johnny was a Christian!  Sure, he had some rough times early on, but he cleaned up, found Jesus, and got on the straight and narrow.  And then, he kept singing about killing and drinking and fighting and cussing.  Say what?!  That’s right!  You see, Johnny was a storyteller.  And his stories teach you something about life—about manhood—about loss—about struggle.  And there’s something redemptive in that.  There’s something cathartic in those stories.

Tabletop roleplaying games can work the same way.  In fact, I think they should.  I like to walk away from a campaign appreciating life and looking at it in a different way.  I like to be thinking about justice and brokenness and redemption.  I like to participate in a story in which I learn about courage, fallenness, and honor.  Here’s the bottom line: telling a story doesn’t make you guilty of the wrongdoing that happens in the story.  At least, no more than Johnny Cash was a killer and a scumbag.

Error #2:

Behavior modification is the intended ends of all religion.

I can’t speak to all religions, but I can speak to my own religion.  The God of the Bible is not primarily concerned with changing people’s behavior.  Now, that may come as a surprise to you, because it seems like many professing Christians have started thinking that.  And how do they implement that belief?  They try to change your behavior!  In this case, your gaming.  In other cases, any manner of behavior they find reprehensible or dangerous.  After all, if your game has demons and killing, you must be doing wrong, right?  And if God wants to change your behavior—and God is loving—then it must be loving to try to change your behavior, right?

I think you see how this train of thought works.  I won’t go into a full-blown sermon here, but here’s the salient point: changing people’s behavior doesn’t change people’s hearts.  In fact, it works the other way around.  Behavior change is a consequence—a result—not a starting point.  And yet, many religious people have got this all turned around.

And here’s the real kicker: God is not in the self-help business.  He’s not looking to rehaul your behavior.  He’s looking to rehaul your priorities—your mind—your direction.  That’s a totally different thing.  Sure, it effects behavior, but that behavior change is not the goal.

Error #3:

Garbage in = Garbage out.

We’ve all seen Back to the Future 2, wherein Doc Brown uses organic waste to power his time machine.  There’s an important lesson to be learned there: one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.  What you may be able to handle in good conscience, I may not be able to handle.  This can apply to matters like alcohol, for example.  If someone grew up with alcoholic parents, they may not tolerate any drinking in their home.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for you to drink.

The same applies to roleplaying games.  Someone may perceive your hobby as “garbage.”  They may expect it to result in “garbage” results.  And, as a result, they want to intervene and help you.  So let me be the guy to ask the question!  We all have our predispositions and histories.  Maybe what’s OK for one person isn’t OK for another?  I understand there are moral absolutes and that sort of thing, but last time I checked, no religion says anything explicitly about roleplaying games (I’m open to correction here).

“Garbage in” may typically result in “garbage out.”  But how can we judge what garbage is objectively?  It’s a question worth considering.

Understanding Yields Understanding

As you consider your own experience of intolerance as a gamer—especially from religious loved ones—I hope you’ll consider these three errors that may have been motivating their actions and words.  As you do, I hope you’ll find that their intentions—though perhaps misguided—were really seeking your best interest.  As you understand them, I hope you’ll grow in a sense of understanding.  That you’ll be able to forgive and to move on.  After all, it’s not your job to change their hearts or their behavior.  We’ll leave that up to more capable hands.

How have you experience intolerance from religious folks?  Do you find these errors to have been motivating factors?  How did you respond?  Sound off in the comments!

(Photo Credits: Vicki & Chuck Rogers and Philip Kromer)

As We Shape Stories, the Stories Shape Us.

Welcome to Experience Points, my weekly response to one of your questions about anything!  Life, relationships, faith, or gaming…really anything is game!  If you’d like to send in a question, feel free to email me.  Here’s this week’s question:

Why in the world are you, a Pastor, playing tabletop games?


For the record, I know the person who sent in this question and he/she means it in the absolute nicest way!  It is odd to stumble upon a cleric of any tradition in your FLGS, let alone one born and raised in the Bible belt and now serving in a conservative, Protestant institution.  It raises the question: what’s your angle, preacher-man?

Stating the obvious: tabletop gaming is fun!

I was born in 1983, two years before the US release of the Nintendo Entertainment System.  When my dad brought one home when I was four years old, things changed in our home!  I became a console gamer.  Really, quite frankly I was a Nintendo gamer…and still am.  Except for the Gamecube and the Wii U, all the systems are currently hooked up to my gaming TV.  But early on, I developed a gaming sensibility that continued.

My first brush with tabletop gaming was in junior high with the WEG Star Wars RPG.  A friend lent me the book and after school I and my brothers sat down to try it out.  When one brother’s PC decapitated the other’s with a lightsaber in the first five minutes, my mom made us take the book back.  And then tabletop games disappeared from my life.

…until 2011, that is.  I was actually a month away from moving to Louisiana, when the then-NBC sitcom Community had an episode about Dungeons & Dragons.  I was immediately intrigued.  I actually downloaded the basic 4th Edition rules from the WotC site, but moving soon took precedence and it slipped between the cracks.  But only for a few months.

After moving to Louisiana and taking a new position at a small suburban church, I became acquainted with a college student who was doing some volunteering for us.  As we got to know each other, we learned that we had a shared love of many things: the Beatles, comic books, and video games.  But then he mentioned Dungeons & Dragons

I knew all the horror stories from the eighties.  I knew the sermon illustrations.  I knew the Scriptures against witchcraft and the like.  But when he invited me to join his gaming group, I took the Players Handbook home, read it in a week, and joined up.  And guess what?  It was fun.  It was a heckuva lot of fun.  As an extrovert who loves games and epic stories, I realized this could become a really great outlet for creativity, relaxation, and good old-fashioned fun.

The less-than obvious: tabletop gaming is good.

You don’t hear too many people talking about things being objectively “good” these days.  But here’s what I found to be good about tabletop gaming.

First (which I’ve talked about at length elsewhere), there’s something sacred about tabletops.  How many life-changing moments happen at tables?  How many important conversations happen there?  How many relationships are strengthened or challenged there?  How many children are shaped slowly and daily by what happens there?  In the Christian faith, one of our most important practices happens on a tabletop!  Any time I find myself at a table with other people, I know that there is great potential for good.  There is opportunity for relationships—for encouragement—for mutual care—for self-expression—for community.  And these things are all objectively good.

Communities have much more potential for good than the individual does.  That’s not to say individuals can’t accomplish good things.  But unified communities bring about exponential change.  Unified homes, seeking good things, are objectively good.  Unified workplaces, seeking good things, are objectively good.  Unified friends, seeking good things, are objectively good.  And unified gaming groups, seeking good things, are objectively good.

Even if that means something seemingly trivial like “telling good stories.”  Telling good stories enriches lives and homes.  Humanity itself came of age while telling stories around meals.  Before we ever wrote them down, we recited them and participated in them.  As communities shaped the stories, the stories shaped us.  It’s a sacred practice, happening at a sacred place.  And I believe this to be good.

The draw for a Pastor

As a Pastor, I am a storyteller and a story-shaper.  I tell stories that I believe will shape and transform the lives of the hearers.  The stories that I tell occupationally are stories of faith, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  I believe them to be true.  But that does not mean that other stories cannot also be life-changing and redemptive.

As such, tabletop gaming (more specifically tabletop RPGs) is more than a simple interest to me.  I believe it to be a means of transformation.  Friendships happen there.  Ideas are challenged and shaped in the process.  People are transformed through these stories.  As we shape them, they shape us.  And I believe that to be good.

How have the stories at your tabletop shaped you?  How has it strengthened and catalyzed your friendships and your worldview?  Sound off in the comments!

(Photo credit: Mary)

Experience Points: The dangers and benefits of religion at the tabletop


Welcome to Experience Points, my weekly response to one of your questions about anything!  Life, relationships, faith, or gaming…really anything is game!  If you’d like to send in your question, feel free to email me.  Here’s our first question:

As a GM, how can I help players play religious PCs well?

There are a lot of ways that this can be answered, depending on how you define “playing religious PCs well.”  Here are some of the different ways you can look at it:

In the case of real-life religions (like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.):

  • How can I help players play a PC whose religion differs from their own?
  • How can I help players play a religious PC without being offensive to others players?

In the case of setting-specific religions (like the Cult of Sehanine):

  • How can I help players embody their character’s religion in a believable way?
  • How can I help players actually utilize their religions, rather than them simply fading into the background?

Religion can complicate your tabletop…

The first two questions really challenge the player to be a student of the religion that his or her character believes.  If you’re embodying a faith that is not your own, you’ll need to learn more about itWhat do proponents of this faith believe?  Why do they believe those tenets?  And how do their beliefs impact their thinking and their lives?  The only way that players will know this is through a little research, either interpersonal, or academic.  You’ll want players to talk to people and to study sources that are generous, rather than critical.  The goal in our gaming is not to deconstruct other religions!  It’s to tell a story that is fun for everyone at the table.

As a conscientious GM, you’ll want to guide your players away from stereotyping people of faith.  Stereotyping may be fun, when you’re talking about a dwarf or a dragon.  Stereotyping others is not fun, when you’re talking about real people.  You can extend that beyond matters of faith, even to matters of race, culture, sexual orientation, and beyond.  Not only is it not fun for everyone, but I would argue that it’s objectively wrong.  On what grounds?  It isn’t loving.  And I think we can all agree on that!

The only time I can see an exception from the stereotyping rule is this: if all of your players have a shared faith, it might be humorous to play a stereotype of your own faith.  For example, I’m a Protestant Christian and I’ve played with groups that were made up of Protestants and Roman Catholics.  In that setting, I think it would be appropriate for me to play a Protestant stereotype, poking fun at my own history and experience.  As a GM, though, you’d want to gauge how appropriate that might be for your group.  If the players don’t really know each other well, I wouldn’t recommend it.  But in some special circumstances, it could be good for a laugh.

One final caveat and I’ll move on: designing characters to be “funny” doesn’t last long.  It may be fun for a one- or two-shot.  It gets old pretty quickly, though.  So don’t employ the self-stereotype, unless you’re playing a short-term game.  FIASCO is a great game for that sort of humorous PC.  In fact, it’s the only system in which I’ve seen this done appropriately.

…or it can enrich your tabletop!

In a recent episode of the awesome gaming podcast, potelbat, Sam Bigum made mention of how characters’ religions often fade into the background.  The cleric’s holy symbol becomes nothing but a means to an end and their religion as inconsequential as their hair color.  I personally think that’s a problem.  And here’s how we can solve it:

First, don’t require your PCs to have a religion.  Nobody requires that you have a religion, so why require your PCs to have one?  I understand that religion is a feature of some games, like Dungeons & Dragons.  You pick a religion and you get some extra little gimmicky feat or power.  Like you worship Moradin, so you get a +2 to social checks against dwarves.  Let’s be honest, in the real world, nobody really cares if you’re wearing a cross necklace.  So who cares if you’re wearing a charm of Moradin?

Here’s what I’m getting at: don’t encourage nominalism!  What is nominalism?  It’s when people profess to believe a faith that really doesn’t have an effect on their lives.  They mark “follower of Sehanine” on the annual census documents, but they burn down forests in their off-time.  That person isn’t really a proponent of Sehanine’s faith—he’s a nominal Sehanine follower.  So don’t require PCs to have a religion.  In fact…

Give your PCs incentive to not have a religion.  Now this might seem at odds with the original question.  But here’s the point: when people choose to be religious or non-religious, they do it for reasons.  There is some incentive, in their opinion, to that way of belief and life.  And that includes being irreligious—there is some benefit in it.  What incentives can you imagine giving a PC without a religion?  It’s something worth thinking about!  Maybe your characters inhabit a region where it’s illegal to be a proponent of a specific religion?  And because they are not religious, they actually get treated more hospitably!  How will this enrich your game?

It will make it more costly to be religious.  And then it will actually begin to mean something.  A costly faith will ultimately be more moving and meaningful to the player—and it will enrich the story in new and better directions.  There are other benefits that you could add to not having a religion, but I’ll leave those up to your imagination (and your comments below!).

A third and final recommendation: give PCs incentive for restricting themselves with their faith.  In the Mouse Guard RPG, players can be rewarded for using their own traits against themselves.  For example, a Hard Headed guardmouse might be good in an argument, but he might be terrible in a political negotiation.  If the player chooses to use his character’s trait against himself, it benefits them later in the game.  Similarly, find a way to reward players for using their religion against themselves.  Maybe it limits their activity on certain days or in certain settings?  Maybe they have to spend spare time in meditation or study, rather than going to the tavern for a pint?  While other PCs are getting new armor, maybe the religious character gets a +2 to defense for a certain period of time, because their divinity is shielding them.  Use your imagination, but find some way to both restrict and benefit your PCs with their faith.

Don’t be afraid to change your approach.

My experience with religion at the tabletop is very limited, because I don’t want to erode group cohesion.  If you decide to implement some of these ideas but find them not working well, don’t be afraid to change course!  Tell your players you made a mistake and invite their input.  There’s nothing wrong with realizing your current path is unhelpful and finding another.  After all, isn’t that one of the basic goals of faith?  To put ourselves on a better path?  And sometimes we GMs need to do just that.

How have you seen religion complicate the tabletop?  How have you seen it enrich your tabletop?  Would you add any advice to Jason’s comments above?  Sound off in the comments here!

(Photo Credit: Ben Templesmith)