Sunday, August 2, 2020

Revisiting World-Building and Clerics

JB of BX Blackrazor has been interested in having religion being part of his RPG experience for a long time. As a consequence, our two blogs have bounced off of each other several times over the years. So, it came as no real surprise that JB decided to use my last post as a jumping off point for discussing his current state in the ongoing struggle of all us who play D&D with Alignment. As it so often happens with these kinds of things, JB has inspired me to revisit a post I did earlier this year on world-building.

In his own attempts at world-building for the purpose of creating a campaign that he could be entertained by for the rest of his life, JB wanted to ground his world by
…picking an epoch in our real world past that is so far removed from today that who knows WHAT might have happened "way back then"
To this end, he has gone far back enough in time that Judeo-Christianity is not a thing. He does, however, indicate that he still wants his cosmology to be sensible.

He opts for what he calls a “New Age-y” cosmology than boils down to a form of pantheism. Historically speaking, the word “pantheism” was coined in the late 17th century and as a concept only really ever showed up as a tendency in other non-pantheistic religious traditions.

While not my cup of tea, he does pose a world-building conundrum that I find tantalizing: how would I build a FRPG game world based on a real world human epoch in the far distant past? As suggested by the title of this post, this isn’t my first time meditating on such things, but JB lays out a few needs that I find inspiring:

  • The cosmology need to be sensible
  • There needs to be a answer as to what is evil and how it came about
  • The cosmology needs to justify the existence of a megadungeon as a central focus of the campaign

In a move that will surprise no one, I am going to turn to the Biblical narrative of Genesis for a lot of these answers; however, where I go in Genesis may be unexpected:
So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. — Genesis 11:8-9
So, the idea here is that Tower of Babel represents that move away from the monotheism of ancient man towards the development of a pagan pantheon as humanity moved from hunter gatherers to agriculture. The people who built the Tower seek to elevate themselves and the gods they have created to the heavens. God came down (which in a Christian context would have been the Angel of the Lord, aka the pre-incarnate Christ) and scattered the people and confused their tongues. In a fantasy context, this could be the genesis of all the various fantasy races. Humanoids in this context can be seen as members of the different races that are twisted because they continue to strive for the goals of the builders of the Tower in defiance of God.

This event also marks the collapse of the prior, more technologically and magically advanced age. These artifacts are not inherently evil, though one might be tempted to have the occasional intelligent sword remind players that the civilization that created the sword set itself against God. So, there would be a desire for the current civilization to recover what it could of the old and use it in a more appropriate way.

The Tower itself could be the megadungeon. The city that built it was abandoned. Given the apparent size of the building, it would be a perfect vehicle for a megadungeon. Want something resembling volcanic caves? No problem, the presence of God Himself walked down to earth using the Tower. Given that God tells Moses that anyone who looks upon the face of God would not survive, we have a lot of leeway as to what the Tower looks like in the present campaign.

In terms of building a civilizational ethos without the advent of the Covenants of the Old and New Testaments, we have the command of God to tend the garden. The People (which will cover all of the various fantasy races, given that God’s action at the Tower is the origin of all the races) are created according to the Image and Likeness and therefore bear the responsibility of representing God to creation and to lift up creation to God. Thus, being caretakers of creation and attempting to return it to a pristine condition might be the motivating factor for lifting up the sword against the humanoid hordes which seek to claim creation for their own.


JB said...

This is a pretty nifty use of the Babel allegory. Back when I wrote Five Ancient Kingdoms, I used scriptural mythology to account for humanoids, but riffing on the "giant kind" theme from AD&D made them descendant offspring of demons (fallen angels) and humans...i.e. the nephilim story from Genesis. That worked pretty well to explain humanoids' inherent "evil" nature, as well as provide a justification for human ascendence.

For my current setting, I'm going away from Judeo-Christian-Islamic sources, but I wouldn't call it a strictly "pantheistic" approach...I do believe God has a personality that loves and cares for His creation. After all, *I* care about the setting (and I am the setting's creator).
; )

B.W. Byars said...

Just last Friday I was taking my children through the Tower of Babel story via the Orthodox Study Bible. (For the past couple weeks, we've been aiming for "lessons on my lunchbreak").
I had been thinking of setting up a campaign along the same lines - Bronze Age, but not in the usual location (Mediterranean) but Scotland or thereabouts. Maybe even a campaign around the builders of Stonehenge (plenty of prehistoric monuments to pick from - perhaps even Skara Brae).
I love your blog, by the way. I've passed it along to my Dungeon Master, who happens to also be my 19-yo son. Keep up the good work!

B.W. Byars said...

Oh, I meant to ask, have you ever looked into the Noahide Laws? They seem to jive pretty well with Acts 15 - and I think they make a good primitive law/religious system.

Crouchback said...

Thinking about certain things implied in early D&D that might mesh with pre-Christian monotheism...

OD&D required Clerics to be either Lawful or Chaotic implying alignment is a little more flexible for lower level clerics. The 1st edition DM's guide has rules for clerics that indicate lower level spells are gained through study while higher level spells are require contact with angels or ultimately the gods themselves. There was at least one module that stated clerics who fell out of favor with their god could still cast lower level spells.

So let's assume clerics are people attempting to commune with the divine. Perhaps pre-Babel all could commune with God more easily so there was no need for clerics. They refrain from swords & bows out of humility and stick to humbler weapons as part of their discipline. The cleric seeks to commune with the divine and comes into contact with spirits are the lowest levels of discipline. Of course some spirits are malign - at best inhuman and indifferent to humanity and at worst diabolic. They tempt with access to chaotic spells. At higher levels the Cleric is forced to confront what he's really communing with and must choose between Law & Chaos. So all clerics start out seeking God but some become corrupted. Which is where the Evil High Priests come from. There's no Satanic faith - rather the Chaotic Clerics are all fallen from true faith. Like the line from Screwtape, "Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar."