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

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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)

9 thoughts on “Experience Points: The dangers and benefits of religion at the tabletop

  1. Weatherwax says:

    I’m a fan of the Scarred Lands approach to religion in D&D. Essentially, the 9 gods (1 for each alignment because of course) will help anyone that offers a prayer to them, or at least any honest prayer that isn’t said by an ally of the titans. This takes effect as a minor bonus to tasks that fall within the purview of the god. So a craftsman might offer a prayer to Corean (the Lawful Good god of metal and the forge) and receive a minor blessing and in turn, the craftsman that fails to do so might instead find his task much more difficult. As the Scarred Lands deities are very much present and very dependent on belief after the war with the titans that gave the setting its name, they pay attention. Where this gets especially interesting is when a task might fall within the purviews of multiple deities. For example, while Corean is LG and the usual deity of choice for LG characters like paladins, Hedrada is also a god of law and justice so any time a paladin is put into a conflict between, say, Justice and Mercy, she’s also risking angering the god she doesn’t side with.

    All in all, it’s a very Greek Mythology sort of pantheon where you have to walk the line between being on one deity’s good side and really ticking off the others. It’s one of the best realizations of pantheons in high fantasy rather than the usual “there’s a bunch of gods but it only really matters if you’re a cleric.”

    The Icons system from 13th Age also has some good mechanics for relationships with powerful beings. Essentially you have relationships with the Icons that may be positive, negative, or neutral. A positive relationship means the Icon views you in a good light and is generally on your side even if they don’t directly help and your adventures will tend to reflect their support. A negative relationship means you’re an enemy or at least an annoyance to the Icon. A neutral means a mix of both but the connection is there (i.e. maybe you’re the agent of the Icon purely by necessity and don’t particularly like it). A positive relationship will mean you might get rewards that fit the Icon’s purview while a negative relationship could mean items that make you a more capable enemy. The DM has a set of tables and rolls dice to determine if your relationship triggers and relates to the current adventure.

    Of course the Icons aren’t all good and it can complicate your life to be on good terms with, say, the Lich King, but it can also make things interesting if the reason is something unexpected. Say you’re an undead hunting paladin but the Lich King favors you because you’re indirectly weakening his enemies or causing some kind of Highlander effect by destroying containers of negative energy.

  2. Melvis Cresley says:

    I would also recommend allowing players who choose a religion to work with GMs outside of the game to determine how the PC may undergo a personal transformation as a result of their faith. For example, an unaligned character with a Lawful Good deity would likely start trending toward Lawful Good if they actually try to follow their deity. Beyond that, organically developing traits of the deity into the PC’s personality over the course of a longer campaign has always made sense to me.

  3. MadCleric says:

    @WeatherWax,
    Do those systems allow for players to be irreligious? How does that effect the game?

    @Melvis,
    I agree wholeheartedly. As someone else recently point out to me, that’s assuming that the narrative is the goal. If you’ve got a story-focused group, that’s a great way to take it.

    • Weatherwax says:

      @MadCleric Technically, but in Scarred Lands it would be the definition of the “flat earth atheist” trope. The gods were visibly active and physically present (or at least manifesting avatars) in the Titanwar 150 years before the setting’s “present” (which is of course well within living memory for many races) and divine magic is common. Of course the existence of the gods doesn’t justify worship and believing the gods unworthy of worship is not an unreasonable position in a world that’s basically post-apocalyptic due to the actions of the gods, several of whom were killed in the war. System-wise, such a character might be favored by Enkili (trickster god of chaos) or Denev (true neutral nature titan that aligned with the gods) or even by the remnants of the titans. The GM could give them similar bonuses and penalties as a more devout character but in secret and less predictably.

      As for the 13th Age Icons System, a neutral or negative relationship would absolutely fit an agnostic or atheist character (likely for reasons similar to those above). In the canonical 13th Age settting, the Icons are not gods but mortals (albeit extremely powerful ones like an ancient gold dragon and an archmage) who nonetheless play a powerful and ever-cycling role in the fate of the world over the ages of time (hence the game’s title as it has semi-repeating cycles of time like a…I don’t know…Disk of Dates) . Considering the deities of D&D are very much destructible and finite in power (in the Epic scale anyway) and basically every setting has at least one mortal that ascended to godhood and/or a god that died, there’s plenty of room for irreligious characters.

      On a broader note, I think seriously roleplaying characters of a religion different from your own is a fantastic way to open your mind to people different from yourself. After all, belief (and doubt) regarding the divine is a defining element of virtually every person’s experience and changing (if only in the game) some precept you consider absolute truth can lead to a wealth of experience.

    • Weatherwax says:

      Oh and I’m forgetting another one of my favorite “flat earth atheists” (though he’s actually agnostic), Sanya from The Dresden Files. Sanya is essentially a paladin armed with a Sword of the Cross (capitalization definitely earned), one of three swords bearing an old , bloody nail of ancient Roman style embedded in the hilt. The Swords are one of the most powerful weapons in existence (and certainly the most powerful belonging to an unquestionably good side), capable of harming even the most powerful supernatural beings. The Queens of the Fairy Courts and the oldest Fallen Angels will hesitate to face a Knight of the Cross in fair combat and all of them believe the Knights are empowered by The Almighty (albeit they may disagree on what exactly that means and of course such beings don’t worship The Almighty). Despite dealing with the supernatural constantly and wielding a literal holy sword, Sanya is agnostic and believes he may simply be hallucinating or in a coma dream or some such, and even if he isn’t, nothing absolutely proves the existence of God as He is usually described. But none of that really matters to Sanya, because he has the power to help people and that’s what counts. His fellow Knights are an ardent Catholic and a Baptist but of course they share his dedication to helping people.

      Of course Harry Dresden considers himself to be an atheist despite personally knowing all of the Knights of the Cross and regularly interacting with Angels (both Fallen and Arch). This is more a distaste for what he views as the agenda of God and the fact that his own powers are based in large part on belief in himself.

  4. Weatherwax says:

    Two of my favorite characters from the sadly late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series are built around some very interesting ideas regarding faith.

    The first is Dorfl, a golem. Discworld golems are enslaved to work but sentient (to varying degrees) and Dorfl works to free his fellow golems and gain status as free citizens. As part of being a free being, Dorfl considers religion and is approached by the various priests of the many gods of the Disc (who are very active and widely known to exist on the big mountain in the center of the Disc). After consideration, he states that he does not believe in the gods and is immediately struck by lightning. Of course, being made of clay, this doesn’t harm him in the slightest and he just replies, “I Don’t Call That Much Of An Argument.” Dorfl’s point of view can essentially be that “being powerful doesn’t make someone worthy of being worshiped” and of course, that’s the view virtually all D&D characters have (otherwise they’d all follow evil gods and never pick fights with dragons and liches).

    The second character is Brutha and he is a character I’d love to use as inspiration somewhere down the line. Brutha is a lowly apprentice priest in the powerful church of Om (a monotheistic religion on the normally polytheistic Discworld). The thing is, Brutha is actually the only person in all the world that actually believes in Om. Everyone else believes in the church and, more specifically, it’s inquisition’s brutal treatment of anyone that doesn’t tow the party line. Because of this, Om has been severely weakened to the point of becoming a small tortoise with very little divine power. I think Brutha could make a very interesting PC as the only cleric of a forgotten god (or possibly a god whose church has become so caught up in mundane power that nobody really worships). Rather than the cleric’s level being a representation of their favor with the god, it could instead represent just how weak the god is and each level gained could represent growing belief inspired by the cleric’s actions in their deity’s name.

  5. MadCleric says:

    Man, there’s a lot of material out there of which I was unaware! This is proof of the fact that I’ve only been gaming for about four years. Do you ever GM? I could see getting you in the GM’s chair in our group sometime for a change of pace, @WeatherWax?

  6. I rarely venture out of the realm of the fantastic where the many gods greater and lesser are pernicious and capriciously involved in the lives of the PCs whether they are “religious” or not. WoD has literal rules for the impact of True Faith in the game and, what little dabblings I have had outside those realms faith and the gods has had little impact, unless you count the Elder Gods … One tentacle, two tentacle, oh my god so many tentacles!!??

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