A Twist of Faith – Religion and the Supernatural

You have forgotten the doctrine of your church, is it not so? The cross … the bread and wine … the confessional … only symbols. Without faith, the cross is only wood, the bread baked wheat, the wine sour grapes.

Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

In gaming and fiction, I enjoy seeing how religions are handled in supernatural settings. In this article, I’m going to examine the role of modern religions in horror RPGs. In addition to the above quote, I’ll also be referring to H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. I don’t believe I give away any major spoilers, but a minor plot point or two might slip through.

Much of this discussion ventures into territory that is often very personal for Gamemasters and players. Therefore, I implore you now to talk with your group more so than on other occasions. What one player may be perfectly comfortable with, another may be very uncomfortable.

I believe you can divide the effects of religious belief into three loosely defined categories and allow for variety in those categories and some overlap.

“The Host. I brought it from Amsterdam. I have an Indulgence.”

Van Helsing in Dracula by Bram Stoker

The first category is the idea that a specific set of beliefs is true—or at least effective—against the supernatural. One noteworthy example of this can be found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The protagonists use various Roman Catholic items, despite most of the characters not being of that faith—the host, the rosary, and the crucifix. The protagonists are fairly casual in their beliefs—taking for granted the Christian deity’s existence—treating these holy items as if they were “magic items” in a D&D game.

The second category is based on personal belief, as in the quote at the beginning of this article. Any deeply held belief can be used against the supernatural, but it needs to be sincere. Symbols can serve as useful—or even vital—tools. In the example from ’Salem’s Lot, Father Callahan is initially able to use his crucifix against the vampire Barlow, giving off a powerful blue light harmful to Barlow. However, as his faith falters, the light begins to fade until Barlow can touch the crucifix without harm. In the book The Dark Tower, he has an opportunity to redeem himself with a faith that has expanded beyond his Catholic beliefs:

The power of God commands you! The power of Christ commands you! The ka of Mid-World commands you! The power of the White commands you!

The reason this works can be variable. There may be some overarching source of “good” that rewards such faith, an ecumenical deity perhaps. It could be that personal conviction unto itself imparts a sort of psychic strength against the supernatural.

A subtle variation of this can be found in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which treats vampires more scientifically, with the beliefs the vampire held in life determining what can hurt them:

“[Crosses] don’t always work,” he said quietly, after a moment of looking at her.

She looked blank. “They don’t?”

“Why should a Jew fear the cross?”

The third variation in this model is religious beliefs and symbols have no practical effect against the supernatural. A believer might pray for strength—and attribute their success or failure to their beliefs—but in game terms, that belief has no effect (or at best, a minor psychological bonus).

This version is the one I prefer in a game of cosmic horror, like Call of Cthulhu. One of the sources of horror in such a genre is that our understanding of the universe is just wrong—as H.P. Lovecraft wrote in “The Call of Cthulhu”:

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

As the veil of ignorance is pierced, characters in such games can suffer great mental shocks and insanity. I believe these sorts of shocks would be highly effective in a game set well in the past, such as a Roman or Dark Ages game, where religious beliefs that help explain the universe turn out to be just wrong.

None of the approaches I’ve discussed in this article are inherently “better” than the others – though each will result in a different style of game. Please comment below with your thoughts and ideas on this topic; I’d certainly be interested in variations you might have used and approaches I haven’t discussed.

~ Daniel Stack

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