When I was around thirteen, I wilted under parental pressure and briefly quit Dungeons and Dragons. It didn’t take. I did this because my Mother, who was and still is a devout Roman Catholic, objected to the game’s subject matter. This occurred when D&D was under substantial pressure from religious conservative groups…well, more than it is now. To her credit, my mother never prohibited me from playing it.
Call it a desire for logical answers or a simple love of science and the fictions around it. Eventually I stopped following her faith. The transition to rejecting religion en-masse took longer. Despite the obvious pagan undertones of most fantasies, one thing D&D does not preach is a rejection of faith or a refutation of divine creation. Even though a number of fantasy settings exist that don’t subscribe to divinity or use theology to explain their setting, Dungeons & Dragons is not one of them. Through nearly every edition, the roots of the setting were deeply ingrained in the foundations of divinity.
Recently, Trask discussed religion and how it interacts with D&D. He spoke of the death of faith. He wondered why the faithful regard their deity as a simple weapon pusher–a pimp of power. You subscribe to it like a mailing list and as long as you tolerate an annoying amount of spam, you can smite enemies in holy fire. Fair trade. If you play a character that has faith, said faith should have ramifications and complications. This is not a distant god but an active one. It demands servitude, and punishment doesn’t necessarily have to come from the hands of another mortal. Your deity will smite you directly, avoiding any subtlety in the act. I had made identical observations as Trask. However, I came to a far different result…kill your gods.
My problem deals with the Douglas Adams’ argument. Proof denies faith for without faith a god is nothing (slightly modified quote). Neal Gaimen commented on this as well in American Gods–the personification of Odin explained that every human was a honeybee with a miniscule amount of honey, and gods fed on the honey of the masses underneath them (honey equating faith). However, in a world where god/s exists without simple belief, a world with undeniable proof that can’t be discounted scientifically, there is no need for faith. (When I mention undeniable proof, I don’t mean a setting sun or a rolling river—observable events that can be and have been explained by science. I refer to the blotting of the sun and the stopping of clouds. You know…the biblical stuff.)
I contend that settings like D&D that possess both faith and an overabundance of miracles (up to and including faith-bullets) is a farce–a world that can’t hold up to its own internal logic. I find settings where gods require faith and show no proof of their existence far more realistic. It was for this and many other reasons why I took divinity out of Amethyst. This is a setting placed on our real Earth, which offers up obvious complications. In the 3.5 version of the game (released in 2008, 30 days before 4E—awkward), we allowed divine classes by redefining them as tapping an obscure power some people claimed as divine. Characters used such power without the need of being religious. I later considered this a dodge. I had an issue over allowing the proof of god/s in a setting, especially with it being on Earth. I had received some criticism for this, as it limited class options in a system supposedly encouraging player freedom. Thankfully, I took Dark Sun’s duplication (not imitation) of this setting point as vindication (Dark Sun took clerics out for different reasons).
If we allow a priest to have divine powers and a cleric to have divine powers, this forces a proof of god in the setting. We could say, “Your faith gives you power, not your god.” Unfortunately, that’s still heretical in the eyes of many religions. We’re not smoothing the waters by allowing it without condition. You can spend years reading books to cast a spell or you could just “believe” really, really hard. I wanted to enforce the idea that WE, the human race, are still the same from modern-day. The issues over religion and faith are unchanged. I wanted it to be a mirror of our real world, which means divine power is delegated to holy books and bad Kirk Cameron films.
Therefore, I would encourage one of two options. Either you deal with the power of gods directly with consequences and commitments ever-present, as Trask suggests, or you allow faith to remain as it now. Disputable miracles. Blind fanaticism. Corrupted spiritual leaders. I would never admit to be the killer of faith. We don’t require the parting of the Red Sea or someone leaping fire from his fingers like Colwyn from Krull (that’s right, I just made a Krull reference). People find their symbols in clouds, coffee cream, and on grilled cheese sandwiches. Most of the conflicts in our world come from the confused misinterpretations of holy books. What fun is there in a setting if a god could just shout to the masses as a booming voice of heaven for what it desires?
I look at the deities in D&D and consider them vastly inadequate. Theology was crafted to explain a universe the people within it didn’t understand. Deities weaved the threads of fate. They controlled the stars. They commanded nature. They offered blessings or sapped a land of its strength. They snaked their fingers into the lives of all mortals, absolving them of their actions (forced by the hand of the divine). By their decree, they could beckon the end times, taking away all the lives they created. Gods release us from the concerns of free will, allowing us to thank or blame them for all events in the world. Without these testaments, gods are undeserving of our faith.
I know it may seem I am preaching an agnostic view upon your own game worlds. I am not, well, not entirely. But, by giving people divine power, we are saying that agnosticism and atheism is wrong. Must all fantasy worlds be forged from the hand of god? If you want clerics in your setting and wish to keep deities ambivalent, you can always spin the theological view of them and have the cleric PC an aberration, proclaimed by the temple/church as sacrilegious. The cleric is a title in class only, as he may have no insight on the origin of his power. He may be hunted under charge of being a heathen, a demon, or better still…
“A witch! Burn the witch! Burn her!”
And I end with Monty Python. Good day.
Dias Ex Machina Games