Essay:RPG Religions, No Faith Required
Ah, my childhood.
I remember when I was very little, I'd sit on my dad's lap, mom would sit next to us and knit, and dad would play Balder's Gate, Heroes of Might and Magic, or some other computer game. I loved it. I loved fantasy games, both on the computer and on pen and paper. I think my first run-in with Dungeons and Dragons was as a tot, watching a session my parents were playing. They don't do anything of the sort nowadays (too busy being antisocial together to have friends, I suppose) but they're still part of the culture. My dice were theirs: rubbed smooth, corners to nubbins and numbers to faint contours. They're not fancy dice, they're cheap plastic. Cheap plastic that rolled to hit armor class 0 over not a book-edition, but distributed photocopies of the original game notes.
When I was little, I really liked bards and rangers. I don't remember why. I think it was because I was small and I didn't think personally I could hit an orc in the nose, and I always placed myself in the game, as kids are wont to do. In my child-brain, shooting a bow meant that I didn't have to be a big burly warrior to hit things.
But later, as early as middle school, I began to play clerics and paladins. And I didn't stop. They were actually very fascinating to me; religion didn't have any real associations in my mind other than what was presented. I'd never stepped inside a church, or inside a temple, or a mosque, or anything else in my entire life, but there I was: playing someone who was supposed to be devout.
Pelor no likey dogma.
I didn't really understand the full implications of this until much, much later. For a long time, I did fine, mostly because no one cared. In my mind, I was Good first, a servant of Pelor second. And I didn't question that, mostly because it didn't matter. Pelor was a Good deity in the game, so basically just not being an asshole was enough to follow his tenants in-game. From Wikipedia, a summary:
- Pelorians believe that the life-giving sun is the best cure for all of Oerth's ills. Justice and freedom are brought about through charity, modesty, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. Pelor's priests teach that the truly strong don't need to prove their power. Pelorians strive to perform so many good acts that evil has no room in which to exist, though they will fight if necessary. Pelor is wrathful against the forces of evil, and is especially opposed to the undead. However, Pelor urges his followers to remember that excessive attention to things of evil can blind one to the truly important things: compassion and goodness. These are what must be emphasized above all.
So basically, 'be a nice person, don't be an asshole, fight injustice but fixate on peace.' How low-effort. It would really take a dick move from a Dungeon Master to force you to do something sufficiently nasty enough such that you'd break his 'don't be an asshole' philosophy.
I had no frame of reference to really compare this philosophy to the dogma of actual religions. I really liked being a cleric or paladin; it made me feel like a superhero, going around and smiting undead and evil. That was pretty much all the personality my characters at the time got: how playing the character made me feel.
Then I began writing. And I began looking at the world. Sometime when I was in early high school, my father first began getting Church and State magazine, a secular awareness publication. As I read more and saw more, actually watched and read the news, I researched and learned more about contemporary religion. Before that, I sort of had a vague understanding of it. Some people went to church and some guy said stuff about God and other things. They had to pray before eating, something that confused me when I went to friends' houses (one time I took a bite before they prayed and I was pretty embarrassed) and didn't really make sense to me because if you didn't have to ask God permission to live in the first place, why were people thanking him for letting them live another day?
You didn't, in-game, thank Pelor for the tasty food at the tavern before you ate.
But then I realized, you did thank Pelor when he helped you smite those nasty undead.
Testable deities? Testable deities.
That was when I realized the biggest difference between religion on earth, and depicted religion in fantasy. Both God (assuming Christianity here, place whatever other deity that people worship in this place) and Pelor are unreal. But for his also-unreal followers, Pelor is observable. He actually exists in an understandable way, with clear cause-and-effect. The thing making the undead run away is absolutely provable to be Pelor; if you are a high enough level, you can cast a spell and ask him yourself. And he will be able to prove to you, without a doubt, that he is Pelor and he smote those zombies for you when you were level 5.
You don't need to have faith that Pelor exists. He can freaking demonstrate it to you. You can know Pelor exists.
If anyone in the Dungeons and Dragons universe(s?) wanted to, they could try and figure out how Pelor did his stuff. They could study him, or even ask him, and work out a science of how incredibly powerful beings on another plane of existence (there is a greater space somehow outside their model of the universe, containing many universes) can produce observable effects.
Pelor is limited. There's no reason to believe that he would be omnipotent or able to solve all human problems. In fact, more than just humans worship Pelor, even if humans seem to like him in general than the other Gods; the model of religion is not human-centered at all. Pelor didn't make humans, and humans weren't made for any special purpose. Neither did the other Gods create their respective races. Instead, rather like having a home sports team, every society seems to have their own deity that they're a fan of (or the other way around sometimes.)
Pelor is not an answer for anything that can't be explained. You could ask him yourself. He's Good (unlike some other 'good' God we know) without question, so he won't be a dick and lie to you. Chances are, he'll say, 'No, bro, I didn't do that phenomenon, sorry.'
There are more Gods with observable effects than just Pelor. So there's really no arguments over whose God is the real God. All of them are real, it comes down to whose god is the best God, which is then chosen by culture. Some guy who likes the forest and unicorns and being nice might like Ehlonna more than Pelor, who is not very foresty and unicorn-y at all. Some nasty orc would want a god that would help him do nasty orc things.
By now, you've probably noticed my description of Pelor seems strangely personal. Pelor is a guy somewhere that helps certain people out to smite things and generally likes it when people are not dicks. It should also be a somewhat familiar description.
Relation to real-world belief patterns.
It is my opinion that this is the God that most (sane) people today associate with. Not the God of the Old or New Testament. Not that guy who turns people into pillars of salt or asks you to kill your firstborn. The being who exists someplace and wants you to be Good. He sometimes exists alongside a separate God concept, the 'or else' concept that threatens people with Hell. Because nobody ever does good because it allegedly makes God happy. I don't know a single person.
Which makes sense. Few players roll a character entirely to go on an epic adventure to please that character's selected fictional deity. In-game, you adventure because there's an adventure to be had, wrongs to right (or rights to wrong, depending on the campaign), and loot to get. The game imposes penalties for bad actions-- excuse me, the Dungeon Master imposes penalties for bad actions. The person who's actually the God of the game.
There's often not quite so much difference between what the Dungeon Master will forgive and what kind of character you roll. Generally in a campaign where you're the noble heroes vanquishing the evil black dragon, being the only asshole who is Chaotic Evil and constantly trying to kill everybody else will not earn you points. However, in a campaign where you're the forces of darkness out to ruin reality, usually following a nastier god like Vecna, that kind of unpleasant behavior might be OK. Of course, anything is possible with good roleplaying; some really great characters are of different alignments in a predominantly good game, or the contrary. But usually games have set tones, and the Dungeon Master allows the players to play roles that he's planned to accommodate.
So Pelor doesn't need any dogma to tell players what a sin is. The Dungeon Master will call you an asshole for stomping on everybody else's fun and ruining the campaign repeatedly. He could in-game throw you in jail as a consequence of your actions, or otherwise do what he wants.
Religions like Christianity don't have that. They don't have a Dungeon Master frowning across a card table. They use Hell to keep you following their rules.
And if the Dungeon Master is the actual God of the fictional world...
That's right. If there really was a God who could be called upon, demonstrated to work, be understood by humans as depicted in the Bible... there wouldn't be any need for stories of Hell. If God was the Dungeon Master, why would he not demonstrate that you're breaking the rules? Why would you need a threat of an imaginary punishment, when God could punish you directly such that you know you made a mistake?
Saying that God can and does do everything, and then having oh-so convenient excuses for why he waits until you're dead to do it... it doesn't add up. Is God a limited one, even more limited than Pelor who can at least smite some zombies like a boss? Or is he the Dungeon Master? Even when he doesn't seem to do anything?
Why fictional religions should scare real religion.
In the face of fictional depictions of deities that do an awful lot, sometimes religion, especially Abrahamic religion in particular, feels like an elaborate set of excuses. God is omnipotent, but he's not doing anything because... reasons. He is the ultimate judge, but can only do so when you're dead and unable to report back if he exists or not. He can banish you to the Bad Kid Corner of Shame and Hellfire, but you have to be dead so nobody can prove he can't do it. He can give you ultimate rewards, but you'll have to take their word for it.
All of these enormous claims are so much weaker than a god that can make the walking dead shuffle away in the other direction. Pelor isn't real. But in his setting, where he is real, he has an observable effect, and doesn't have to make any excuses for why he can or can't do things. That, to me, is a stronger God than anything the Bible depicts.
So maybe yeah, crazy Fundamentalists have reason to fear fictional depictions of magical religions. Because their own God is threatened by images so much more powerful and immediate than the cheap excuses that their own religion offers. Because even the depiction of a weak deity that can light a candle if you ask nicely, is stronger than a web of lame excuses not unlike a poor student explaining why they didn't
perform those miracles do their homework.
And is it any mystery why Pelor is this way? This is how people wish Gods worked. They wish they could actually see the effects. They wish they truly bestowed power. People want cool things, want cool powers, want to feel like a champion of something. Why else would there be televangelist exorcisms with so much spectacle and hundreds of gasping spectators? Why else would people play pretend that they can remove imaginary ghosts and demons, or bless others with sacred power? Pelor is fiction written to fufill our fantasies. An excellent demonstration of how we can wish the world worked. There's no coincidence here.
All the same,
I still play good paladins and clerics. I still bring light to the demon-ravaged land. I befriend dragons and smite the evil Lich Lord. But now, in my experience, my characters have some development. And it often goes as such:
Doing good because a deity said so,
Doing good because that's what you as a person stand up for.
And even as an atheist, I think that's all any Good deity, if one hypothetically ever did exist, would ever want from me. If it even was so demanding as to want anything from me at all in the first place.