Friday, April 7, 2023

On Gods and RPGs

A reader of this blog recently asked me to comment on their favorite TTRPG, Fading Suns, which they partly describe as follows:
…it's base premise is that the major religion is a mix of real world ones, predominantly Christianity, but with lots of Islam, Buddism and so forth. There are lots of theological disputes within the system, there's "magic" that "works", when you're praying to a game version of God (Pancreator, a semi-gnostic syncretic deity). Lots of saints and rituals resembling the Church's rituals and so forth.
The question here is whether or not it is okay, from a strictly Christian POV, to allow for magic to be awarded to followers of, for lack of a better word, “pagan” gods?

First, we must clear up something. Neither Orthodox Christianity or Scripture posit strict monotheism, as understood by most moderns, Jews, and Muslims. Take for example this prayer from the Presanctified Liturgy and the Vespers service:

Compassionate and merciful, longsuffering and very merciful Lord, hear our prayer and attend to the voice of our supplication. Give us a favorable sign. Guide us in Your path that we may walk in Your truth. Gladden our hearts that we may fear Your holy name, for You are great and work wonders. Only You are God, O Lord, and there is none like You among the gods. You are great in mercy and gracious in strength and in aiding, exhorting, and saving all those who place their hope in Your holy name. [My emphasis]
When I first encountered this prayer, I was a bit scandalized because it explicitly acknowledges the existence of other gods(!); however, this prayer merely reflects a viewpoint expressed by Scripture. Take Psalm 82:
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.” Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations! [My emphasis] 
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT used by the ancient Church), the “divine council” from the first verse is συναγωγή θεών. That first word is a root word of Synagogue and the second is a declension of ο θέος — God. There is no escaping the idea of other gods or their existence.

The polemic presented here in Psalm 82 is that Yahweh — the Most High God — is the creator of all things, including these other gods. This is made clear by the line, “you shall die like men.” Within the context of the Fall, everything that has a beginning also has an end. These gods were originally created to watch over and protect the various nations, but turned against their cretor and accepted worship from those very same nations.

It is important to remember that within the context of a Fantasy or Science Fantasy world, whatever magic system exists is part of creation and something God made. Like all things given by God, this magic system can be used as God intended or used in a manner that does not. In Scripture, we see this happen with technology.

The Book of Genesis presents us with two Civilization builders: Cain and Noah. As the first city-builder, Cain uses technology to build a society of personal pleasure, power, and sin. This civilization is so evil that God deems it unsalvagable and calls forth the Flood in order to start over. Noah is the means by which this happens. He uses technology in obedience to God. Through this use of technology, humanity and through humanity all of creation, gets to participate in a salvation event.

Thus, if I were to play a TTRPG where various gods grant magic to their followers I would portray it as the gods of Scripture giving out technology to Cain’s civilization. While it might temporarily give a character influence and power, it ultimately will lead to destruction. In contrast, that same magic used in context of the Most High God and in obedience to Him and His Church can be salvific.

One of the reasons I like 0e and B/X is that the mechanic of arcane vs divine magic make this distinction very easy to emulate and communicate in game play. I myself have never read anything about the Fading Suns game world or mechanics, so I don’t have any explicit advice about how to implement these ideas mechanically or mythically within that setting or rules; however, Scripture can help here, too:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. — Matthew 16:18
No matter what situation a TTRPG places humanity or what alternate history it proposes, it is very easy to insert the Most High God as creator of all things. In a scifi or future fantasy setting, the Church survives somewhere, however big or small. As long as I present this knowledge and this reality in some way shape or form, the story that emerges from play is an exploration of the consequences of our relationship (or lack thereof) with the Most High God.

If you are interested, this is a subject I have written many times about. You can find several here.


Solomon VK said...

Fascinating! I'm used to thinking of God and a world of spirits - see The Discarded Image, but part of me would rather resist calling even the most potent gods.

You may be interested to know that this is not the only discussion of Fading Suns and Christian belief:

NB - The labels below read 'Falling Suns' not 'Fading'.

FrDave said...

@Solomon VK Thanks for the correction...fixed!

JB said...

Fascinating stuff, Padre. While I know that, historically, the OT writers/creators lived in a world of multi-deity worship, I had not known/read that this paradigm had been subsumed into Christian teaching...rather, I've always thought of 'false gods' as illusionary (non-existent) rather than minor (in comparison) supernatural beings created (for whatever reason) by the Lord.

That being said, it was only recently I discovered the Roman Catholic church teaches Satan to be an actual being.

Curious: would any of these beings ('lesser gods') be considered benevolent? Something akin, perhaps, to saints as being able to intercede or help in particular spheres/areas of influence? Here I'm just thinking from a game/D&D-type perspective (creating my game world cosmology) my own religious life, I don't pay much attention to saints and whatnot, preferring to focus on the Triune God. However, here I am pondering why God might have created such beings in the first place. If the Almighty is a great and mysterious Unknowable (perhaps in a campaign world that lacks the requisite prophets/Messianic figures) might they be there to aid humans (and humanoids) in guiding them towards righteousness, even providing them with beneficial (divine) spell powers?

Just wondering your thoughts. Thank you. And happy Easter!

Solomon VK said...

@JB - not to usurp our host's function, but CS Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy addresses (in part) ideas of other soul-bearing creatures with benevolent guiding gods in a Christian universe and Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight deals with a world in which different humanoids have different guiding or divine leader-prophetic figures.

FrDave said...

@JB One of the works of the Church is to replace all of the various gods that sit on the divine council mentioned in Psalm 82 with Saints. God’s throne is consistently described as a flaming chariot in the OT (because He is not tied to a singular place like other gods and His dominion is all of creation so He can move HIs throne wherever He wishes). When Elijah is taken up into heaven, he rides a flaming chariot — a throne. Christ tells the disciples that He has prepared for them thrones upon which they will judge the twelve tribes. Pagan gods are often associated with places or activities. Athena is the god of Athens, Hephaestus is the god of blacksmithing, for example. The Church associates saints with similar roles. For example, St. Demetrius the Great Martyr is associated with Thessaloniki and St. Brenden of Clonfert is the patron saint of navigators. Thus, when forced to deal with Domains from more recent editions of D&D and its clones, using saints and archangels is a nice way to bridge the gap.

As far as why God created the gods in the first place, this is described in Deuteronomy 32:7-8, "Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will tell you: when the Most High divided the nations, when He scattered the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the nations by the number of God’s angels (in Greek)/sons of God (in Hebrew)."

This is retelling the tale of the Tower of Babel (which in Akkadian means “gate of the gods”). He gave each nation a guardian angel/divine being/god to watch over it and protect it; however, they all fell away from God, “They provoked Me to wrath against foreign gods; with their abominations they embittered Me. They sacrificed to demons, and not to God” — Deut. 32:16-17. This is a theme throughout Scripture: all of the pagan gods are equated with demons. This is why, in the past, I have never taken issue with the way D&D has historically portrayed the various gods both historical and fantastical. They all have hit points. They are monsters and demons that can be killed.

JB said...

Thank you! That all makes sense.

But then (re your final paragraph) is it reasonable to consider some demons to be "good" in one's game? Helpful/benevolent demons?

FrDave said...

@JB In a word, no. Every good gift comes from the Father of lights, as James says. God is the source of all good in the world. Demons are considered demons because they turned their back on God in order to receive worship that properly belongs to God. Since God is the source of all good, and demons have rejected God, they cannot be good because they have cut themselves off from the source of all good. If you are looking to emulate a world where a Christ analogue has yet to become incarnate, and want to have various religious orders I would suggest using archangels as patrons.

Argus Tuft said...

Thanks for the post.
The way I handle these things in my games is that Christ's death and resurrection reverberates through space and time and does its work "as far as The Curse is found."
God's plan of salvation is specifically for the line and race of Adam. If there are humans in a setting then God is working for the Good News to reach them.
Saints/believers get through some thin spot in our own world to bring the message to new worlds. Something like the forebears of the Telmarines coming from our world into Narnia.
Christ's work will redeem all creation. Because Christ did the work of redemption as a human, humanity are the inheritors of this task and, using B/X, only humans can be clerics. Other races didn't necessarily fall, though sin has marred them.

This all leads to additional motivation in these settings- against spiritual and physical evils/beings. And, Chaos is held in check and driven back by the planting of churches and developing civilisation/ order/ law.

Anyway, Thanks for the blog- long time reader, first time caller.

pi4t said...

An interesting concept, and one which echoes comments made by a friend of mine who went to a Catholic seminary.

One difficulty I've often had is that I prefer to run prewritten modules, and modern ones are nearly always set in polytheistic worlds like the Forgotten Realms, Golarion, etc, which has always made me slightly uncomfortable. (I realise I could adapt the adventures to a homebrew world, but that's often quite difficult with the ones I use.) Fr. Dave, do you think this concept could be used to adapt those worlds to be compatible with Christianity?

As far as I can see, there are two key difficulties that I need to find ways around to make this work in a world like Golarion.
1) It's possible for mortals to become "gods" in the setting. (In fact, one human once became a god by accident during a drunken bet!) Others have other origins in comparatively recent history.
2) There are good "gods", and all - or at least a great deal - of the religion of forces of good is centred around them.

I can see ways to solve either one of these on its own, but not both simultaneously. I'd appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

FrDave said...

@pi4t I cannot speak for the Forgotten Realms because I never used it or adventured in it, but I really wish Golarion did not have such a developed pantheon, because it is a really neat setting. That being said, I tend to “demote” good gods to the role of saints. This is fairly easy to do with Serenrae (who can be understood as an archangel), as well as Iomedae, and Erastil (who can both be seen as a saints). The rest I tend to see as demonic (though this could be a conversation with someone who is more familiar than I).

As far as normal men becoming gods, this can be understood as either sainthood or (especially when it comes to Cayden Cailean) as a fall into some kind of demonic pact/possession/reality.

Given that most of the various governmental institutions (that I am aware of) in Golarion are dedicated to the more demonic gods, I see Golarion in light of the early church under Roman or Persian rule during periods of toleration.

pi4t said...

I've just noticed something regarding the "humans becoming gods" thing. In the distant history of the setting, a moon goddess called Acavna (and her lover Amaznen) sacrificed herself to protect Golarion from a catastrophic asteroid hit (the Earthfall). The Starstone, which Aroden, Iomedae, Cailean and Norgorber all used to become gods, is the shattered remains of that asteroid. If I'm reading correctly, it's being subtly implied that some of Acavna's divine power was left on the Starstone, and that was how those four became gods.

One could interpret Acavna and Amaznen as archangels, who sacrificed themselves to stop the disaster and as a final action (in order to allow someone else to take on their role watching over the planet) arranged for their divine power to grant itself to whatever mortal came near. This is particularly plausible since Aroden - the person who found the Starstone and the first to ascend - was one of their most important followers at the time of their deaths.

This would mean that Cayden Cailean and (especially) Norgorber didn't fall into a demonic pact, but received what was meant to be a gift for the world, and misused it.

FrDave said...

@pi4t That is a very cool interpretation that I will definitely play with!

pi4t said...

I just noticed something else interesting, in my wiki diving. The minor goddess Milani "was simply one of dozens of saints within the Last Azlanti [Aroden]'s faith" before his death. This implies that Aroden's religion, at any rate, had a concept of sainthood quite aside from the Starstone, and of those saints having some kind of supernatural power. I'm not sure quite what to do with this - Aroden himself was once mortal and ascended using the Starstone, as I discussed in my last post.

FrDave said...

@pi4t You could look at it like the prophets at the time of Elijah. We are told that there are hundreds of prophets...and we don't know their names. At the same time, when Elijah is called to heaven, Elisha is given a double portion of Elijah's mantel. The gift given to Aroden, Iomedae, Cailean, and Norgorber could be seen in such a light...and make what Cailean and Norgorber do with that gift even more significant (and why they are better known than the likes of Milani, etc.)