Are You There, Pelor? It’s Me, Margaret.

2008 March 4
by Vanir

I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household, but I did grow up believing in God. But, being a little nerdy kid who wanted all the answers, I was never really big on the whole idea of faith. I wanted to know (among many things) where God was, where Heaven was, how exactly to get there, and how not to burn in Hell.

I suppose it was a little worse for me not going to church because at least people who do have scripture to try to answer a few of these questions, but by and large pretty much anybody who believes in a higher power just has to take it on faith that what they believe and the power they believe in are up there and they don’t get a whole lot of proof to back it up. Unless, of course, you’re a pantheist, in which case the air you breathe and the electricity powering your computer are proof enough. Having to take the existence of such a being on faith can lead a person to doubt that faith under the right circumstances. Even Mother Teresa wasn’t immune to such things.

Your average D&D cleric, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem. Ever. They wake up in the morning, and pray, and then their deity grants them superpowers. A crisis of faith for a cleric doesn’t typically consist of “does my god exist” (well, unless the spells stop coming some morning). It would be much more of a question of “do I believe in the values this deity stands for, and am I an appropriate champion for this person”. A cleric basically embodies this deity’s power and they are this god’s physical presence in the mortal world. Sure, you hear about the gods visiting in person now and then. And you also hear about giant cataclysmic battles and gods dying and their bodies turning into mountain ranges and magic leaving the world for a time — typically it royally sucks for mortals when the gods visit so they don’t do it much. At any rate, an interesting roleplaying opportunity (if you are bored with your do-gooder standard cleric, for instance) would be to have him realize he’s not on the right path. He could go several other directions including to a different class, or to a different god who suits him better. Not to say that this would be without consequences. In addition to disillusionment with life and general despair, loss of faith is loss of powers (and a haunted cemetery is a hell of a time to realize you and Corellon aren’t getting along very well). Depending on the cleric’s deity, there might even be a little divine retribution on the way. Which could be grandiose and mystical but more likely it’s just some members of the cleric’s former order coming by to play “dogpile on the blasphemer”. All of this would make for fantastic roleplaying fodder (conflict is the mother of interesting characters, after all), but I would highly recommend working with one’s DM beforehand if you plan to do this to avoid suddenly finding yourself in the aforementioned “haunted cemetery without the ability to turn undead” scenario and subsequent death from PHB trauma to your skull.

One thing I never did understand about gods (in D&D and real life) is why they desire (or require?) mortals to believe in them and worship. Especially for people in a fantasy realm who get superpowers, it seems like the gods are getting the raw end of the deal. But since they’re gods, we mere mortals cannot comprehend their desires, and we just don’t understand the rules. So when your god asks for macaroni pictures, just give them to him. This is not to say, of course, that the other all-powerful being in your D&D campaign (that’s you, DMs!) cannot come up with a reason why the gods might want something, and consequently why the PCs need to do it for them.

One interesting thing to consider is that a non-cleric person in a fantasy realm might have a much easier time believing in their god because they’ve seen divine magic in action. Maybe their local cleric healed them or something. Watching the wound I got from a rabid opossum suddenly stop hurting and close up before my eyes would make me believe in something higher than myself. However, I don’t imagine most peasants have any ranks in Knowledge(Arcana) and arcane magic is going to look like the work of the gods to them as well. (I suppose it is the work of the gods in the Forgotten Realms, in a way, but that’s beside the point.) The PC’s might be able to easily tell a mage from a priest, but even a low level wizard could fool the natives into following “the will of the gods” to his own ends. How many of us here have ever cast Light on something to fool a mob of rubes? You know, the more I think about it, the more I’m glad I’m not a peasant in the Forgotten Realms. I might see one gp my entire life, which some crooked illusionist will trick me out of, and then when I go out into the forest to chop wood I can get eaten by a manticore. I don’t need to worry about manticores! I have way too much to worry about already!

One last thing lest I rant any further about my irrational fear of manticores: Katherine, who plays D&D regularly with the SR crew, recently played a character who was a cleric of the sun god Horus-Re. About halfway through the campaign, she had an extremely spectacular (and complicated) crisis of faith in our current campaign when her friend (a paladin of Horus-Re) got killed — so much so that she spent the next several months after his death being generally disillusioned and hard to deal with. In the end, her character refused to be brought back from the dead due to her religious beliefs that the afterlife was a better place and a natural part of having lived and her role on the Prime Material was finished. (Think Buffy season 6 except without all the angst or coming back.) Now that’s dedication to roleplaying, people! (Although it did rob us of our precious healing bitch.)

This particular incident was interesting to me both because it was well roleplayed and because of the player who did it. You see, Katherine is an ordained minister. When we first met her, we’d invited her husband to play with us and he mentioned his wife wanted to play as well. About three nights before they show up he mentions her job — so we were initially somewhat hesitant when she wanted to play with us, because most of us were used to minsters thinking of D&D in rather negative terms. To be honest, I had visions of this new player demanding we play a modified version of D&D in which nobody casts spells lest our souls be damned and I wasn’t about to have some newbie performing an exorcism in my dining room. Thankfully, Katherine turned out not only to be not like that at all, but to be a very deep and excellent roleplayer. Not only that, but she also writes a fantastic series on her blog called DMing the Bible in which she is, in her words “looking at Biblical texts with the eyes of a Biblical Scholar and as a Dungeon Master”. I’ve never read anything like it before and even if you’re not a Christian or religious, you’re going to find what amounts to a gatling gun loaded with new and interesting ways to look at our chosen method of fun shooting you directly in the face and brain. It’s really great stuff, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to read it. (And I’m not just saying that because she knows where I live!)

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Mlund permalink
    March 5, 2008

    Spirituality is just weird in fantasy settings. I suppose the element of faith that kicks in is in doubting whether or not any particular deity is truly the best choice to support, and further whether or not they’ll even take interest in your fate as a mortal. It is really hard to have a theological debate in a pantheistic setting, though. You’re basically picking teams, not searching for universal truth.

    Monotheistic settings change these dimensions significantly. You can still enjoy a lot of diversity as humans formulate their own religious dogma and practices. You can even have Infernal and Abyssal forces spreading corruption and darkness through the land. The only thing you don’t see a whole lot of is the Almighty handing down proclamations of smiting evil with an Avatar like you might see in the Dragonlance campaign setting.

    In a monotheistic fantasy setting people wouldn’t spend as much time pondering faith in the existence of God, so much as the mystery of the true nature of the Deity and His will.

  2. kanati permalink
    March 5, 2008

    All I can say about Katherine is that you know you’ve done Bad Things and have set a historic role playing high-point when you can get an ordained minister to go “WHAT THE FUCK!?” during a game. I am quite proud to have done that.

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