Over on his blog the other day, Gareth posted about religion – or the lack thereof – in RPGs (pencil & paper as well as computer). His point is that religion is usually treated in a superficial manner, and he’s right about that.

Typically, a pantheon of deities exists solely for the convenience of clerics, or clerics and paladins. The magic these characters use is divinely inspired, a sign of a particular god’s favor.

Which is about as far as things go. There may be temples in towns and cities for various divine beings, but they exist as backdrops, or possibly as hooks for an adventure. You know, “There’s a temple dedicated to the evil god Mushface The Reckless. It must be destroyed!”

Religion as a part of daily life is usually absent. Faith, except as it applies to cleric types, is ignored. Religious strife, if it appears at all, is restricted to “good god” followers vs. “evil god” followers.

This simplistic approach has advantages. It keeps to the edge of a very touchy subject. We know all too well about the antagonisms between and among various faiths in the real world. Do we want to bring this into our fantasy worlds?

Gareth thinks so, but I don’t agree with him. Yes, a strong religious background (as he describes in his post) would certainly make for a more interesting world in certain respects. However, he’s looking at this as a way of introducing conflict.

Particularly, he’s focused on faith, which is belief without any logical, rational, or evidential basis. People may worship various gods for various reasons, but there is no surety, except in their own minds. The gods are remote and mysterious, and therefore also, clerics have no special powers. For them, too, it is a matter of faith.

This is at odds with just about every RPG system. We know the gods exist, because they grant magical abilities to certain devotees. Faith thus becomes a given, with little or no uncertainty.

Religious systems in RPGs are designed to get around the problems of real-world faiths. By keeping to the “beneficent vs. maleficent”, much conflict is avoided.

Why drag in all the unpleasant baggage of “uncertain” beliefs? When it comes to faith, people are ferocious in defense. Pagan. Heathen. Infidel. Heretic. Apostate. Idolater. Any term that would brand the “non-believer” as something less than human. We don’t need this in our world, and certainly not in a make-believe one.

Fantasy worlds tend to be inviting because they allow us to leave behind, for awhile, much of the nastiness and complexity of reality. RPG pantheons – bland, stereotypical, predictable as they are – help in that regard. Religion is one less problem to worry about, and that is a good thing.

Religion And World Design on Scars Of War