Monday, March 16, 2020

World Building and Clerics

Earlier this year, Circas K meditated about rethinking clerics and religion on his Sword of Mass Destruction blog. He and I are of one mind when it comes to the way later iterations of D&D model the cleric class: the game uses a pseudo-christian monotheistic foundation upon which is built a polytheistic structure. As a consequence, later editions of D&D don't do either monotheism or polytheism justice. For those of you who are interested in the latter, you can go and see how Circas K suggests building a polytheistic foundation. Of course, if you are a long time reader of this blog, I have spilled a lot of digital ink explaining how older editions of D&D actually do a really good job of emulating a Christian fantasy world with little to no modification.

One of the assumptions made in gaming where any form of religion is involved is that monotheism is a later development. Animism and Ancestor worship develop into polytheism which then develops into monotheism. A great example of this is Avalon Hill's Advanced Civilization, where Monotheism is one of the most expensive Civilization Cards in the game. Thus, in context of a pre-historical fantasy age like that found in REH's Conan stories, it seems to make sense to default to a polytheistic world-building foundation.

This, of course, is not what is found in the Biblical narrative. Scripture suggests that the most ancient peoples were actually monotheists. Polytheism arrises later as civilizations grow and develop. Despite the apparent uniqueness of the Hebrews, this pattern even develops within the nation of Israel. The prophets are constantly warning the People of God to stay true to the ancient ways of monotheism instead of adopting the polytheism of the nations around them.

Recently, I came upon this video done by Inspiring Philosophy:

I realize it is 55 minutes long, but given the fact that most of us are isolated at home why not take the time?

It takes us through a bunch of evidence that suggests that the general shape of the Biblical Narrative is actually far closer to historic reality than what is assumed by the games we play. Again and again we find that primitive, nomadic cultures tend toward monotheism. Some even have strikingly similar stories and concepts found within the OT. Thus, the whole hypothesis that monotheism is a later development than polytheism is neither tenable nor realistic.

Thus, for the purposes of world-building a fantasy world inspired by Swords & Sorcery pulp stories about a Pangean/Hyperborean age it is actually quite realistic to use a monotheistic belief in a Creator god who spoke the world into being. This god might go by many names, but the fundamentals are pretty much the same across cultures.

If one wanted to add some polytheistic pantheons, these would be features of decadent city-states and urban areas rather than the more "primitive" areas outside the cities.

This creates an interesting inversion of my own classic campaign structure of Christian Civilization  (Law) vs. the Demonic Wilderness (Chaos). Indeed, a campaign could be centered around retrieving objects and treasure hidden inside the City rather than the Dungeon and the classic fantasy and D&D trope of raiding a Temple could be a central activity.

In this context, I do find it quite ironic that the D&D ruleset itself mimics this historic development of religion. The farther back one goes, the easier it is to see the roots of a monotheistic influence on the game; however, as time goes on the game becomes more and more polytheistic not just in its assumptions, but in the rules themselves.

The real irony, though, is that the assumption made by both myself and Circas K that those later editions of D&D do a bad job of portraying clerics (whether you prefer monotheism or polytheism) may be less true than I ever thought.


Geoffrey McKinney said...

"Thus, the whole hypothesis that monotheism is a later development than polytheism is neither tenable nor realistic."

In my experience, monotheism (psychologically speaking) comes naturally, while praying to a number of beings takes a lot of work. I, too, am a member of the Orthodox Church. I find myself praying to God even with no forethought. But praying to the Theotokos and the various other saints and angelic beings? I never do that outside of the liturgy (which is written down for me so I need but follow along). It would take me a lot more effort to think, "OK, I want to pray about X. Ah! I should pray to Saint Such-and-So for that."

In short, it's fastest and easiest to simply pray to God. Praying to a host of beings (whether pagan deities or Christian saints) takes time and development. This suggests to me that the most primitive people would have been monotheists, and that polytheism was a later development.

Pilgrim Procession said...

Your discussion of raids on decadent, polytheistic cities brings to mind a game i have heard of and greatly researched called DragonRaid. It was made as a evangelical response to D&D during the scare of the 80s-90s. Predictably, it is mainly chaff, though decidedly old school in its general construction (Its stats run off virtues/fruits of the spirit, as, if i remember, pendragon does).

I bring this up only because its central conceit is the titular raid upon temples and cities controlled (in secret) by loathsome dragons masquerading as gods, inciting vice and cruelty. The game was mainly meant as a teaching aid (at least, that is its professed intention), so conflicts are mainly meant to be resolved in peaceful, christian manner (at least with mortals, I'd suppose against dragons and other spirits it is a different matter).

Nonetheless, it is an interesting and perplexing, if deeply flawed, system. I would not be surprised if you could not find or synthesize some interesting material from it, if you can find it online.

Pilgrim Procession said...

We ought, I think, consider our biases as knowing and well taught Christians in this matter. And I do wonder about the tension between Christianity, or at least monotheism, as something plainly seen by wise men and something really surprising. Perhaps it is a thing plainly visible to a 'waking' mind, but the ancients invented 'sleep' in polytheism, and only their greatest, or else those never tainted, arose. And so Christ is even more like dawn, the waker of sleeping minds.

As well, it is truly fast and easy to pray to the One God, but perhaps industrious and anxious ancients thought that work correlates with effectiveness. Thus they made complex and varied gods and ritual to sate a hunger for difficulty. I should not wonder that the priests of old Greece were of magicianly bent, for it is magicians and wizards, out of all men ancient and modern, who are fond of thinking 'what ought i do about x spell? Who should I invoke? What magic words do I use?' and making complex things which can and ought be plainly simple.

FrDave said...

I remember looking into that myself, and was turned off by it in the same way I find a lot of Christian music and movies off-putting. There was/is a cringe factor because the focus is so much on being Christian rather than letting Christianity organically inform the way we do art, or in my case, RPGs.

How does one deal with the inherent violence of D&D? Christianity has always seen the internal struggle against sin in military terms...why not externalize it? This is why my default campaign setting is Christian Civilization (Law) vs. Demonic Wilderness (Chaos). The whole Christian virtue thing organically emerges when players are required to spend their treasure to earn easy outlet is to invest in the town they use as home base.

This approach has always seemed more genuine to me because the Christianity implied by my world-building is never imposed (like it was with DragonRaid). Rather, the players themselves have choice. I have seen players whole-heartedly embrace the Christian world-view for their characters and others have skirted it or out right rejected that path. That serves to increase the organic and natural feel of the game. When someone chooses for themselves in an arena where choice is possible, that choice become genuine rather than a conceit.