Telling Stories: Keeping the faith

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

Whatever you believe in your day-to-day life, religion can have a substantial impact when roleplaying.  It has some real meat to it, as a topic.  There are a lot of ways that you can portray a religious character, a lot of options offered by the game when it comes to how religion is handled, a whole lot of different permutations available.  It’s also a thorny issue to discuss, since discussing religion as a category tends to overlap with religions in the real world, and that’s an uncomfortable series of land mines no matter what you believe.

That also is part of why religion is such a powerful force in roleplaying, though.  Religion is tied in with your identity, a combination of things that you’ve been told and things that you believe that are tied intimately with your personal identity.  Your religion in real life (or aversion to same) informs part of your identity.  What your characters believe is just as important to them.

And I believe that if I were a better person I wouldn't hurt all the time!

I believe… a spirit lives in everything!
I believe… those spirits mostly want me to suffer personally!

One of the mistakes a lot of people make is thinking of religion – in both real life and in games – as a boolean.  You’re either religious or you’re not.  But there’s a whole spread of middle ground that tends to get overlooked; religion doesn’t produce legions of fanatics and legions of atheists, but a spread of people between those rare extremes.  For that matter, even extreme devotion isn’t a uniform trait.  There are people so devoted to their faith that they give up their lives to help others according to their beliefs, and there are those so certain of their righteousness that they will attack and persecute those who don’t share their faith.

Both sorts are very, very religious.  But they’re both very different.

Religion also permeates society on an unconscious level.  Sure, your character in World of Warcraft may not be terribly religious, but she still offers the blessings of Elune to others as a greeting, because it’s just part of her culture.  She might even pray at shrines without actively believing that the moon goddess is listening in any way.  Cultures and religions don’t grow up independent of one another, and it’s entirely legitimate to have a character who doesn’t really believe but goes through the motions based solely upon the cultural momentum.

Moving past that, you get into the tricky matter of what your character actually believes.  Most games present religions as a series of morals but leaves out the fact that very few religions simply present ethics; that’s reserved for philosophers.  Religions usually present codes of conducts, stories, and rituals as parts of a connected whole.  It’s not simply enough to drink wine and eat crackers to absolve sin, it requires a ritual, and that ritual ties directly back to the Last Supper as a powerful act of redemption.

This is also where the permeation of society becomes a powerful force, because it’s easy to later divorce ethics and/or ritual from context.  It’s true for everything – very few people use handshakes to check for concealed weapons at this point, by way of example.

Your character does believe certain things, inevitably.  Some of them are directly tied to their religion, and it’s up to you to determine how many of those are a direct result of these religious tenets and how many are separate, perhaps even in opposition to what they’ve been taught.  You have to also think about how their devotion manifests itself, which stories they do or don’t believe, what they see as the core of their beliefs whether or not those are a core part of the religion’s teachings.

And you have to think about what might make them lose their faith.

And I believe that random murders won't have long-term perverse effects on our culture!

I believe… that Lolth loves each and every one of us!
I believe… that love requires a lot of people dying!

Tabletop and online RPGs are both classically terrible about losing one’s religion, with or without Michael Stipe.  If you’re a cleric of Wardroid the Anachronism in Dungeons & Dragons and you keep getting your spells refilled every day, you don’t have to question your faith.  “Am I doing the right thing?”  Yep, you’re cool with Wardroid.  “What does Wardroid want me to do?”  Well, just ask him.  He’ll let you know.  Faith becomes a lot easier when your question is tacitly answered due to the continued functionality of your faith-based magic.

But there are games in which religion is treated with more ambiguity.  WildStar has a religion based on stories that blend into religious doctrine, stuff that in some cases turns out to be demonstrably false.  Guild Wars 2 has an absent pantheon that was never super-communicative anyway.  Even when your faith-based magic works, you can try to get around it with some layers of vagueness – perhaps it doesn’t work quite like you thought, based more upon personal belief rather than outside influence.

And there’s a need for that, because part of the drama with religion requires you to not actually be certain.  There’s nothing interesting about it if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your religion is correct; faith requires something more.  It requires asking, searching, trying to understand whether or not you’re doing the right thing based on the words of others.  You’ve been told that something specific is wrong, but it feels right… and you don’t have an easy answer to fall back upon.  Your religion requires more than just consulting with your deity in a quick prayer session.

Not every character is necessarily very religious.  You can play someone whose morality is largely divorced from religion, who only brushes against the rituals as a point of social necessity.  Or you can play someone who does genuinely believe, who goes through the obligatory dark night of the soul trying to figure out what to believe in the wake of new information.  Someone for whom the rules of religion aren’t a hindrance but a help, something to cling to, a source of stability and joy or of terrifying moral certainty regardless of outside evidence.

The point being?  There’s a lot to be done with this.

Feedback, like always, is welcome however you care to leave it, in the comments or by mail or elsewhere.  Next week, I want to talk about making sure that you’re safe and comfortable when roleplaying, even if you know the person you’re roleplaying with pretty well.  The week after that?  Let’s talk about the amount of stress that roleplaying can generate.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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