Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Religion and divine beings in D&D

D&D religion has a few different incarnations, but is essentially based on Christianity and western paganism. Perhaps because of the accusations that D&D was a satanic recruitment tool in the 80s, the game has steered away from real-life religious traditions and stuck with what it developed in terms of a fantastic paganism.

This situation leaves a number of non-western religious ideas on the wayside, though 4e has added some aspects of that back with the idea of primal spirits and the primal power source which complements the divine and arcane.

But what I think is still missing is, to some extent, that sense of wonder and mystery religion holds. When the gods are active in the world and granting their followers spells and tending their souls, only that certain kind of religion can be portrayed in the game. Mystery cults, Buddhist enlightenment, or mystical union seem to be a farce of some kind, and the system end up far from some of the Appendix N source material (Conan comes to mind immediately) where the truth of the gods is largely unknown.

Its that sense of cosmic truth that can help make D&D what it is: monsters are evil and must be slain so their treasures and lairs can be reclaimed for the sake of goodness. But that sense of cosmic truth can also break the game. Souls can always be resurrected or reincarnated, deities can be fought and killed, and there is at best one shade of grey in the moral landscape.

While I do like a game where the forces of law, chaos, good, evil, and balance are vying for supremacy, I wonder what we might gain by having some of these aspects of ultimate reality undefined. Is there an afterlife? Is there a soul for magic to affect?

Clearly laying out the outer planes and rules for deities or immortals takes away some mystery from the game. In a world where gods clearly exist (and they exist as antagonists for PCs to potentially slay), certain metaphysical real-world conundrums are suddenly solved in favor of some religious views over others (i.e. there is little place for a Buddhist notion of no-soul in a world with souls). In this respect, I slightly prefer the system of Immortals from the basic D&D game.

Some of the old settings like Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, and Planescape do a decent job of handling religion. In Dark Sun, the elements are the object of worship, and there are no clearly defined deities, though the immortal sorcerer-kings also grant spells. Al-Qadim gives us aloof and uncaring deities who represent virtues, all ruled over by fate itself. Religion there is surprisingly undefined for AD&D. Planescape goes the other direction, and defines things clearly but in a way so systematic that I think works well. For that setting, at least.

I'd like a little more mystery in D&D religion, and perhaps the whole of the magic system, class system, and cosmology needs to change a bit for that to happen. But a more-inclusive world with a heavenly over-deity, gods, Buddhas, immortals, devils, demons, and the like would be a refreshing change of pace. Perhaps a change too big for the generic D&D game though.

No comments:

Post a Comment