Sunday, 5 December 2010

Church World Triumphant

Of the three settings for D&D I proposed - the clericless Sorcery World, the polytheist Pantheon World, and the monotheist Church World - I chose the latter for my ongoing campaign. And I'm not regretting that choice.

Running off the D&D grid, with an old rule set, gives many freedoms. One that keeps getting spotlighted is the freedom to use all the red-blooded trappings of 1970's fantasy that were expunged in reaction to parental and Christian pressure groups. Demons, devils, half-orc assassin PCs, human sacrifices, naked lady pictures, naked lady human sacrifices ... Both Third Edition official content and Old School revivalism have produced intentionally notorious products, as returns of the repressed.

But ironically, another historical element purged from the game has never made such a loud comeback: the backdrop of medieval Christianity that gives us clerics, paladins, relics, and a spell list ripped straight from the Bible. In part, this is because the repression was self-imposed and subtle. No atheist or Jewish groups sought to expel D&D from schools because it promoted Christianity, even if the case that it promoted Satanism was equally ludicrous. The shift from a Church World of OD&D to a Pantheon World of 2nd Edition was gradual, and in keeping with the adoption of standard campaign settings, Greyhawk (especially the 1983 version) and Forgotten Realms. Those products, unlike the more open-ended 1980 Greyhawk, forced TSR's cards on the table regarding details of religion.

Uncensored knights from Valdemar Miniatures
With the Satanic panic stinging, it's easy to see why TSR skirted monotheism by the length of a ten-foot pole. Ever since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for daring to suggest that God had created other worlds than ours, the relationship of speculative fiction to Christianity has been questionable. Any fictional or counterfactual treatment risks offending a religion whose truths are deterministic and rooted in historical time (see here, Experiment 5).

The Catholic Tolkien and Anglican Lewis famously finessed this point by placing their tales, respectively, in a world of virtuous pagans, and a world where Christ was represented in a plain allegory. But presenting an alternate monotheistic Church was not a path easily followed as TSR got bigger and more accountable. The typical North American paralytic reaction then set in, as seen elsewhere when handling issues of sexuality and race: better to burn out and bowdlerize, than to discuss, risking offense and dissension. The "cleric" took on a life of its own as an ahistorical pagan-Christian hybrid who wasn't sacrificing animals and casting auguries so much as healing, healing, turning and healing, all in the name of, uh, Odin or someone like that.

With freedom restored through the return of powers to the gamer, I see no reason to observe the taboo any longer. A monotheistic world has certain advantages. The cleric class gets a lot simpler - no more domain spells, or god-weapon lists. Clerics stick together rather than worrying about whether they should fight each other. The competing concerns of Church and State, moral and temporal, add variety to power struggles without the need to factor in 18 Churches.

Working in folk beliefs that take the Church "halfway to paganism" in some places also add variety, and a further moral question of toleration versus orthodoxy. In fact, I'll be showing off some of the folk-saints of Mittellus in the next series of posts, who are very much inspired by popular beliefs in Europe that represent a syncretism of ancient gods and Christian saints - Voudoun for white folks, if you will.

What's more, I think a fantasy-historical version of the Church can be presented without offending either believers or nonbelievers. The nature and origin of miracles, salvation, and reality can be debated in-world, without the GM needing to pronounce ex cathedra, and the historical Christian church offers enough examples from saints to simoniacs that both the good and the bad can be explored.

But, as with everything from rulings improvisation to in-game romance, this approach requires a knowledgeable GM with a mature and balanced attitude. And that's not something that can be easily extracted from a supplement.


  1. Careful ... next thing you know I'll be plotting out alignment drift on a Cartesian grid ...

  2. Nice -- two awesome posts in a row.

    One church makes it a lot more Medieval and as you say it really clears up a lot of troublesome issues with warring religions. I went with one church in my campaign too, although I guess for a certain kind of game more religions in rivalry could be fun.

  3. I don't think monotheism is essential, but I do think a single pantheon is important. In real life, each culture has their own creation myth. Presumably in the fantasy setting, there is a real, objective creation story. All living beings should worship the same gods, even if they give them different names (Greek vs Roman would be a great real world example of this). But I totally agree... in order to use the archetypes (spells, turning undead, etc...) of power, you have to also approximate the archetype of power structure.

    I've come up with a solution I think works well... an empire wide pantheon, where individuals place various importance on specific deities, but never ignore the rest.