Religion as Values
Two weeks ago I wrote about three ways I’ve seen religion used as a cultural force in rpgs as a preface to talking about the way that I like to use it, along with some general thoughts on religion in games. I think there’s a lot of different relationships characters can have with their faith, just like in real life, and I wanted to find a way to articulate religion so it was accessible to everyone and couraged people to created deeper characters with a more interesting narrative. As an ethicist who’ll talk anyone’s ear off about values, it seems like the obvious way to do it.
About my setting
Most of the cultures in my setting have polytheistic pantheons with gods that follow a couple of themes. You’ve got your war gods, your travel gods, your nature gods, etc. The portfolios are deliberately similar so I can have different cultures interpret them in different ways. Mind flayers worship evil conqueror gods because they like being evil and eating brains, while goblins worship evil gods because they’re small and want their protection. Elves care about good and evil, but the major organized religion of Temir only really cares about law. It’s all the same two pantheons, but there’s a million ways of looking at them, and I try to encourage players to come up with their own dogma and way of interpreting them. Even in real life, there isn’t a lot of unity in religion. Christianity has dozens of denominations, and each of those denominations is further sub-divided into various organizations. Each church has their own traditions and practices, but they’re all still recognizable as Christianity. This has been really interesting as a social force, but doesn’t help define an individual’s relationship with the gods.
Religion as values
Serik, the big daddy lawful good god in Temir, values compassion, honesty, and justice. His followers try to help others in need, be trustworthy people, and maintain law and order because even though they might share those values in varying degrees, they hold them as an ideal. Tural, on the other hand, is the god of deception and betrayal. He values ambition, ruthlessness, and opportunism. His followers will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, which can make them very effective and very dangerous.
I find that making values the sort of primary mode of religious dialogue has a lot of benefits.
- It encourages PCs to find a god or gods who shares their values, and does so in specific terms rather than vague ones. A god of thievery values cleverness, ambition, and trickery. He has a portfolio and flavour text in addition to that, but the values are the part that come first, rather than just flavour text from which people might extract different sets of values.
- It turns religious conflicts into conflicts of values, which makes them more interesting and easier understand. It’s one thing to play “My god is bigger than your god,” but values give this conversation a common ground. Tural thinks Serik is naive for his compassion, and Serik thinks Tural heartless in his ambition. They’re both right sometimes.
- It takes “the right thing” out of conversations. It is entirely meaningless to say that your Lawful Good god wants you to do the right thing. Every god wants you to do the right thing, but they have wildly different definitions of what the right thing is in any situation. Phrasing things in terms of values forces players to talk about what value matters and why it matters most in this situation, rather than just insisting dogmatically. Even if they insist dogmatically based on their values, it’s at least based on a premise that’s intelligible.
That’s the benefit of talking about values, and I’ve written about it before. They’re a common language. Our individual ideas of what constitutes valour, honesty, or humility might all differ, but we can probably find a few cases where ours track with someone else’s. We might disagree on which values are heroic or which are worth having, but we can at least agree that they are values, which gives us a common ground to discuss things. I find that values are usually the best way to talk about anything prescriptive, that is something that describes what a person should or shouldn’t do, in a game. In real life it’s more complicated, and you can hit Concept Crucible for some more nuanced thoughts on that.