On belief in RPGs

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 22•13

In the early incarnations of D&D, the creators emphatically stated that ‘this game does not deal with the beliefs of your characters, nor should these beliefs become a part of play’. I can understand why the designers took this view, because delving into strange fictional belief systems is hazardous when you are still shrugging off accusations of ‘devil-worship’ and fighting the other mass-misconceptions about role-playing games that existed in the 1980s and which still occasionally rear their heads even today. Then there is the problem of offending players if in-game religions co-opt real world theology in order to give the world that visceral feel that is so much a part of games like Dragon Warriors.

Yet something about glossing over beliefs has always struck me as wrong; I mean how can you play a character, especially a religious character, when you have no idea what they actually believe? Indeed, no game like Dragon Warriors can ever feel truly authentic unless the game pays a greater degree of lip service to religion and belief than is found in your average FRPG.

I have already written elsewhere of the value of having a Creation Myth for Legend in terms of world-building and have presented our version for Mundus that could also do double duty in your Dragon Warriors game if you’re so inclined. Another side benefit of such a myth is that, being obviously tied to Kastianism (our version of medieval Christianity) the myth also includes the orthodox world view of the main sect of the Kastian Church, and by extension if you so desire, the True Faith in Legend.

This means that your new shiny religious Knight PC now has a much more fleshed out belief system than he did before. Sorcerors and monsters can now be ‘hated’ with the vitriol of the true believer because the myth furnishes the player with the perfect justification; that they are anathemas. The former are actually draining the One God’s mortal frame of life, weakening him and pushing further away the day when he will remake the world as it should have unfolded. The latter incite mortals into false beliefs that have the same effect when those apparently mundane humans go to sleep; because the myth tells us that unguarded dreams are the means by which unwary humans originally changed the world and continue to distort in to this day. This gives a such a character a reason to adventure beyond the usual desire to ‘fill his haversack with bright silver’ to misquote Bretwald the priest from The King under the Forest.

The myth also explains why it is imperative for humans to pray daily and to observe the rituals of the church; these daily rites renew the Ward of God upon men. This has two effects; the first is to protect their dreams, so that the power of their unconscious begins to bolster the Most High rather than the monsters of the world. The second function of the ward is to protect those who pray from the effects of magic itself. Indeed in LORE, all characters must track their Piety score because this can aid them when they are attacked by many types of sorcery. This balances the game by providing an integral mechanism for how the devout warrior can fling aside the eldritch blandishments of the Fey or the dark magic of demons, without having to imbue these mundane warriors with any form of magical protection. In LORE religious observance protects prince and pauper alike from real evil and this feels right to me, because those of faith were always able to conquer darkness in the stories of old and somehow we all want our own deeds to reflect those ancient tales. It also explains why the Kastians/True Faith seek to convert ‘heathens’ because not to do so distorts the world ever more, creating more monsters and more Gloamings as unguarded minds, lacking the protection of The Ward of God, fall foul of their dreams.

Of course certainty is actually the real anathema to roleplaying; especially to a world like Legend, which is why the canny GM uses the creation myth to hint at but not to confirm any one set of beliefs. Indeed in LORE, Sorcerors commonly believe that God’s mortal frame died in Ehdan long ago and so they claim that humans are now the rightful heirs of God’s power whereas Pagans religions teach a different world view. The Narrator (as the GM in LORE is called) is instructed never to resolve which of these beliefs is true, for all are compatible with the nature of magic. The wise GM uses such contrasts in belief to enliven his stories without ever letting the players know which one is true; so religion and belief became yet another facet of the ever changing interplay between PCs, and their environment and another way for the dedicated player to enrich his experience of play.

One facet of play in LORE that was always hinted at in Dragon Warriors but never fully explored was the concept of the religious year. In real medieval times, the year was a tapestry of Saints’ Days, so we have co-opted these festivals into a calendar with religious but also magical implications. The mundane implications are the feast days, and Fayres that were so much a part of the colour of real medieval life. Yet here again our Creation Myth and the concept of Gloamings allows us to once again get more out of a simple religious calendar than might otherwise have been the case, because the size and exact boundary of many Gloamings are affected by such religious events, particularly those based on originally pagan festivals. Indeed on the festival of Sorth, the boundaries between many Gloamings and the waking world break down completely, allowing all manner of dark things birthed from human imagination to range across wood and field for this one night of the year, till dawn sends them scurrying home; at least in most cases….

Such a calendar can give a rhythm to a game that is often missing but sorely needed, when the PCs have to wait for a certain festival in order to enter a certain Gloaming for one of their nefarious purposes for some spells can only be enacted in a Gloaming and not all Gloamings are the same. The wise GM uses this again to flavour his campaign and to make it unique from the run of the mill dungeon bashes found in D&D, for in a Gloaming, nothing is mundane and danger lies around every corner. Have more fun in the Cobwebbed Forests!

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  1. […] just thought I’d call out this post on my other blog; that talks about how to use and expand character beliefs in LORE and Dragon […]