The Reality of the Divine in RPG Settings

“Perhaps some could argue that I am agnostic.” “Agnostic?” “One who does not commit himself to the certain belief in a divine power,” he said. “I know what it means,” I said. “What shocks me is that you think it applies to you. You’ve met more than one divine power. Hell, one of them broke your arm not half an hour ago.” “Many things can break an arm. You yourself said that you do not need a god or goddess to define your beliefs about the supernatural.” “Yeah, but I’m not agnostic. Just nonpartisan. Theological Switzerland, that’s me.” Sanya said, “Semantics. I do not understand your point.” I took a deep breath, still holding back the threat of giggles, and said, “Sanya. My point is that you have got to be more than a little thick to stand where you are, having seen what you’ve seen, and claim that you aren’t sure whether or not there’s a God.” He lifted his chin and said, “Not necessarily. It is possible that I am mad, and all of this is a hallucination.”

  • Death Masks (The Dresden Files Book 5) by Jim Butcher

Your typical fantasy RPG setting’s religions have a pretty amazing advantage over real-world ones – their priests can perform demonstrable miracles in the names of their deities – and can often commune with said deities. It is of little surprise that in your typical fantasy RPG setting there are no atheists – the evidence for the divine in such settings is pretty compelling.

What I find a little disappointing is how rarely the consequences of such evidence are exploited. One notable exception is the world of Glorantha, the default setting of both the RuneQuest and HeroQuest RPGs. In that setting, the gods are incredibly real. Almost every single adult can manipulate spirit magic to some extent. People in Glorantha have no mystery as to what will happen after they die. The consequences of the gods are very real – when the followers of the Red Goddess temporarily slew Orlanth, the chief god of Sartar and their storm god, weather patterns were disrupted and a multi-year winter was unleashed, lasting until Orlanth was restored. Not only are the gods on Glorantha very real the consequences of wars between religions are often quite great.

Another interesting exploration of the nature of the divine side of existence can be found in the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of Eberron. Clerics get powers. But not all priests of a god are spell-casting clerics. And those that are can be hypocrites yet still gain the same powers as the most pious worshipper. It is uncertain where divine spellcasters (i.e. clerics) gain their powers. One compelling argument is it is the strength of one’s belief which grants clerical powers, explaining how followers of the non-divine Lord of Blades can have access to clerical magic. Sanya, quoted in the opening of this post, would appreciate that. A Knight of the Cross is a sort of paladin a holy warrior commissioned by God. Despite the overwhelming evidence Sanya encounters, he remains a skeptic. Sure his powers seem to come from the traditional Christian God. But can he be certain?

Religious beliefs are also important to characters in the King Arthur Pendragon RPG. There are a variety of religions a character can belong to – various Christian, Pagan, and Heathen sects. Like in Eberron, the strength of one’s beliefs are what is important. Mechanically, characters have personality traits measured on a 1 to 20 scale. If a character has 16 in all the traits important to their religion, they receive one or more mechanical bonuses, determined by their religion. Does this mean religion is true to some extent? Or perhaps it is the power of self-suggestion that gives these bonuses? There are more obvious instances of magic, though they are less common, from Merlin’s powers to the vision of the Holy Grail.

One of the most interesting settings to consider the religious implications is that of the Cthulhu Mythos.

The “gods” of the Cthulhu Mythos at best are horrifying but indifferent towards humanity (though still quite capable of destroying it) and at worst are hostile towards humanity. One interesting character challenge in such a setting is playing a holy person or true believer in a universe where there is no evidence for their beliefs but plenty of evidence for the Old Ones. It’s a great cause of sanity loss – especially in periods like the medieval period where religion played a far more central role. I think Charles Stross summed up religious beliefs around the Cthulhu Mythos in his Laundry Files series of books:

I wish I was still an atheist. Believing I was born into a harsh, uncaring cosmos – in which my existence was a random roll of the dice and I was destined to die and rot and then be gone forever – was infinitely more comforting than the truth. Because the truth is that my God is coming back. When he arrives I’ll be waiting for him with a shotgun. And I’m keeping the last shell for myself.

These considerations can and should alter how one plays characters in different settings. Consider Glorantha – you know that your god is real, you know what happens to your soul after death. It’s not that you have a strong belief, as one might find in our own world. It’s that you know. All that knowledge should change the way your characters lives their life. Bob Howard, in the Laundry Files series of novels, has similar, albeit darker, certain knowledge. When his God returns, whom he believes in with absolute certainty, much to his sorrow, humanity is doomed. Eberron and Pendragon give a more nuanced view. Characters get divine powers, but the source of them is deliberately left a little open, leaving some wiggle room for doubt. In an Eberron game, I’ve had great fun with clerics and paladins of the same deity having very different views on what their faith means.

~ Danial Stack

Follow Daniel on Twitter at @DStack1776
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