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Real Religion in Adventure Design

I'm not as familiar with other traditions, but - to echo @Bedrockgames upthread - when I watch wuxia films religious characters and ideas seem to figure pretty prominently. Just to give one example, Tai Chi Master is all about Jet Li's character changing from an establishment-oriented Buddhist outlook to a more idiosyncratic Daoist outlook, which enables him to be victorious at the end. Just as I would expect Christianity to figure in some fashion in an Arthurian game, so I would expect Buddhism and Daoism to figure in some fashion in a wuxia game.

Tha is a perfect example. One, Tai Chi Master is an amazing movie with stunning martial arts choreography. But two, it is based on Zhang Sanfeng. It is about the invention of Tai Chi.
 

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Sure, but if peace in the Middle East was the pre-requisite for fiction involving Old Testament tradition we’d be waiting a long time.

The old testament has been a source of material for fiction for ages. Taking that and other religious texts off the table, really guts the cultural well we can draw from. I mean surely there is room for stuff like Paradise Lost. And surely we can handle multiple points of view emerging when this stuff comes up (people mentioned historicity of Exodus: you can have historically realistic campaigns based on religion, but you can also have campaigns where the assumptions of the religious text are treated as 100% true....and I am sure there are plenty of other approaches). One of my favorite movies set against a religious backdrop was Agora. It certainly takes its liberties, and it is critical of Christianity at times, but it is also incredibly compelling and offers a vision of what the rise of Christianity may have looked like to Romans. I feel like I can handle both games that are sympathetic to the perspective of believers and ones that are critical (even if it is critical of my own beliefs). Not that most games would include that kind of commentary, but just in the establishment of cosmology a point of view, and an opinion, could emerge.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Sure, but if peace in the Middle East was the pre-requisite for fiction involving Old Testament tradition we’d be waiting a long time.

So, it would be great to know why you thought a comment about how touching warring nations in that area would be difficult at this very specific moment implied that folks could not touch any element of Biblical tradition until there's peace in the Middle East.

One of the things that makes these discussions difficult is the implied expansion of people's comments. I said something very limited, but you responded to it as if it were broad, which has the appearance of putting words in my mouth that I did not say or intend. This is a dynamic that tends to drive internet discussions to irreconcilable poles, when the individuals did not begin there.
 

MGibster

Legend
Not to mention that, given current real-world events in that part of the world, however you position the confict is going to be seen as an allegory for today, and thus pretty insensitive.
I remember Iranians were quite irate about the depiction of Persians in 300. I'd wager that most Americans didn't view the movie as an allegory for conflicts between Iran and the United States but a lot of Iranians did.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
So, it would be great to know why you thought a comment about how touching warring nations in that area would be difficult at this very specific moment implied that folks could not touch any element of Biblical tradition until there's peace in the Middle East.

One of the things that makes these discussions difficult is the implied expansion of people's comments. I said something very limited, but you responded to it as if it were broad, which has the appearance of putting words in my mouth that I did not say or intend. This is a dynamic that tends to drive internet discussions to irreconcilable poles, when the individuals did not begin there.
That’s fair. Though in my defense you made a vague allusion to problem with Middle Eastern biblical history as a result of current troubles in the Middle East which are by no means unique or limited to one area. It’s hard to appreciate a narrow criticism if it’s not described in a specific way. Though I appreciate the rules on politics may preclude that.

I certainly am not of a school that any thing goes and a writer shouldn’t choose carefully what they say. Or that everything that can be published should be published. Work should be well researched, consider multiple sides and at least attempt not to portray opinions or inspirations as facts.

In that regard I’m fairly moderate and not really polar opposites of anybody. You should be able to print quality work with a religious inspiration if it’s done well.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I think it’s problematic unless you consciously narrow the perspective and make that narrow perspective an explicit feature of the game you are trying to create. In the real world, religion is embedded in culture and cannot be meaningfully distinguished from it. The best you can hope for in a game is caricature.

When you talk about “Christianity” in an Arthurian RPG like Pendragon, it is idealized in the context of medieval romance envisaged through a modern lens; in Kult you have a kind of “Gnostic” world-view with a very dark cast etc. But in neither case do these religious systems faithfully represent anything beyond a literary re-imagining (in the case of Pendragon a modern re-imagining of a medieval re-imagining). I mean, how close is “Christianity” in Pendragon to what was happening on the ground in Sub-Roman Britain in the 5th Century – not very.
While I think it is theoretically possible to put together a table-specific game that is simultaneously textured enough and broad enough to actually use real-world religions and their content without it being bad....I find it very difficult to believe that people can do that with something published and not have it come across very badly. It's a simple problem of compactness. A game--be it a system, a module, an adventure path, whatever--necessarily must be smaller than the body of text and tradition it references. This means you are, of necessity, presenting only a narrow perspective on the topic.

To use one of the repeatedly-cited examples above, Arthurian myth (as far as its religious elements are concerned) is the product of a doubled re-imagining of Christianity in the Medieval Period, first by the people who lived then, second by more recent authors. It's going to be nearly impossible to not present a highly elided, simplified view of Christian theology, practice, and values, and the enormous set of cultural elements that went into making "courtly love" (which is critical to the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot tragedy arc) are almost certainly going to be either forgotten, unmentioned, or severely simplified. But as with any system purporting to transmit value-judgments across time and geography, the devil is (sometimes literally) in the details here, and the kinds of elision and simplification that would be required to communicate the core ideas efficiently are exactly the kinds of elision and simplification used to dismiss or deride religions in real life.
I don't think that there is any reason why Christianity in an Arthurian RPG would look anything like 5th century Britain - that's not the cultural milieu of Arthurian romances! But it might evoke or relate to some high mediaeval ideas; or it might present those through a contemporary lens; or a bit of both. The film Excalibur features a wedding presided over by a prelate; Arthur is knighted in the name of God, St Michael and St George; a monk overseas the drawing of the sword from the stone; the Holy Grail is - notionally - the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Those are all Christian ideas, and they play important roles in the film both as tropes and as expressions of thematic content. I don't see why a RPG can't be similar in this respect.

One of Graham Greene's best novels is The End of the Affair. It is a Catholic existentialist presentation of Christian belief. I don't see why a RPG - whether something lighter like Wuthering Heights, or something more serious (maybe PbtA inspired) - couldn't engage with similar ideas. When my group played a Wuthering Heights one-shot one of the PCs was a protestant clergyman, and while it was politics rather than religion that figured prominently in the game (because the other PC was a socialist) it could have easily been otherwise.

The film Pitch Black includes overtly religious (Muslim) characters, who engage in and lead prayer. Why couldn't a Traveller game include such things?

Part of the point of using real religions in a RPG is just like any other cultural product - you don't have to provide an encyclopaedic explanation of what you're doing, precisely because you are locating your work within a larger tradition that audiences/participants are already familiar with and themselves located within.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
I don't think that there is any reason why Christianity in an Arthurian RPG would look anything like 5th century Britain - that's not the cultural milieu of Arthurian romances! But it might evoke or relate to some high mediaeval ideas; or it might present those through a contemporary lens; or a bit of both. The film Excalibur features a wedding presided over by a prelate; Arthur is knighted in the name of God, St Michael and St George; a monk overseas the drawing of the sword from the stone; the Holy Grail is - notionally - the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Those are all Christian ideas, and they play important roles in the film both as tropes and as expressions of thematic content. I don't see why a RPG can't be similar in this respect.
Well, yes. That's my point. That the "Christianity" of Arthurian myth is part of a literary conceit which has been accreting and reworking material since the Middle Ages, and emphasizes certain motifs and values. I'm not suggesting that it is inappropriate to base an RPG on it - quite the contrary (Pendragon is one of my favorite games). Merely that it doesn't represent "real religion" - the subject of the thread's original inquiry.

Apparently I did not communicate very well in my previous post.

We could talk about the extent to which purposely fictive/literary constructs have, in fact, influenced "real religion" but probably shouldn't, as we'd end up in all kinds of trouble. :p
 

pemerton

Legend
Well, yes. That's my point. That the "Christianity" of Arthurian myth is part of a literary conceit which has been accreting and reworking material since the Middle Ages, and emphasizes certain motifs and values. I'm not suggesting that it is inappropriate to base an RPG on it - quite the contrary (Pendragon is one of my favorite games). Merely that it doesn't represent "real religion" - the subject of the thread's original inquiry.
It's hard to be sure about modern presentations - eg is John Boorman Christian? - but I think what the mediaeval and early modern authors wrote probably did bear upon real religion ie theirs.

Just as The End of the Affair bears upon real religion - Greene really is a devout Catholic. The fact that someone else might regard it as a misleading or inapposite depiction of religious or theological ideas doesn't change that.
 

It's hard to be sure about modern presentations - eg is John Boorman Christian? - but I think what the mediaeval and early modern authors wrote probably did bear upon real religion ie theirs.

Just as The End of the Affair bears upon real religion - Greene really is a devout Catholic. The fact that someone else might regard it as a misleading or inapposite depiction of religious or theological ideas doesn't change that.

I think this gets at something else, which is the drive to get at the root (the literal and 'accurate' experience of Medieval Christianity, while laudable for a historian, and people seeking that authentic answer for some reason, misses that culture and religion doesn't work that way (as you said earlier). Not only is the Author legend a product of later periods, exploring the Christian elements through their own lens, but stuff like Boorman is examining it from a modern point of view looking back (which is entirely valid on its own as a form of artistic expression). I think the danger of narrowing things down, so that only the authentic, accurate, and, presumably, orthodox, view of the religion is considered appropriate, is it is effectively left only to the priesthood, to historians, etc (and even among them it is fraught). I think you want as many perspectives a possible to flourish: the insider view, the orthodox view, the unorthodox view, the outsiders view, since these are things that exist in the real world and they are encountered from all perspectives. Boxing it away will just make it an artifact
 

MGibster

Legend
It's hard to be sure about modern presentations - eg is John Boorman Christian? - but I think what the mediaeval and early modern authors wrote probably did bear upon real religion ie theirs.
I don't know if it matters if Boorman is a Christian today or back in the 80s when he directed Excalibur. Boorman was born and raised in England, which has it's own state religion in the form of the Church of England, went to a Roman Catholic private school, and you really can't avoid Christian semiotics and references in literature, history, or even watching the BBC. Even if Boorman isn't a Christian he was raised in an environment where Christianity was very much a part of his cultural milieu.

Well, yes. That's my point. That the "Christianity" of Arthurian myth is part of a literary conceit which has been accreting and reworking material since the Middle Ages, and emphasizes certain motifs and values. I'm not suggesting that it is inappropriate to base an RPG on it - quite the contrary (Pendragon is one of my favorite games). Merely that it doesn't represent "real religion" - the subject of the thread's original inquiry.

Nothing representative is real. Take a gander at the picture below, is it a pipe? You can't put tobacco in it and you can't use it to smoke anything so the answer is no. Does Pendragon represent real religion? Of course it does. It's a very narrow representation of an idealized version of paganism and Christianity but it's still representing something real even if it's not real itself.

pipe.JPG
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Are genuine believers the target audience, or do they even play the game? I knew a few believers growing up that were not allowed to play at all, even as a paladin battling devils. It was the 80s though so things may have changed.
Things have changed. I know many true believers who play, including a group who gets dispensation from their priest to play D&D, just in case.
 

John Dallman

Adventurer
You can't put tobacco in it and you can't use it to smoke anything so the answer is no. Does Pendragon represent real religion? Of course it does. It's a very narrow representation of an idealized version of paganism and Christianity but it's still representing something real even if it's not real itself.
Be careful of that one. Pendragon uses Pelagianism - Wikipedia as its Christianity, which has been defined as heretical since 418CE. It does not make a big fuss about this, but it's there.

In broad outline, Pelagianism does not claim that Christianity is the only way to salvation. It does say that it's the best route, but it admits of others. You'll understand that there are christians today to whom that would be a major problem, and others who would have no trouble with it. I spotted this during a Pendragon campaign, and congratulated Greg Stafford on it. He was pleased that someone had noticed.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
It's hard to be sure about modern presentations - eg is John Boorman Christian? - but I think what the mediaeval and early modern authors wrote probably did bear upon real religion ie theirs.

In some cases. I'm inclined to think that early Arthurian Romance illuminates Medieval Christianity in the same way that The Omen illuminates 20th Century Christianity; the author(s) took some elements which would make for a good story and ran with it.

You mentioned above that the Grail was a "Christian" idea and I'm not sure that it is - I mean it is now, post facto - but Chrétien basically invented it for his Arthurian stories; maybe drawing on Welsh and Breton myth. But it only entered popular consciousness as a Christian artifact in the centuries after the Arthurian stories gained traction.

Malory definitely deals with religion (Knightly Piety, "lay chivalric Christianity") in a much more thoughtful and serious way, uses rich symbolism and asks important questions about the nature of holiness. But he is operating more than 200 years after the original Arthurian stories were committed to writing. His views are also rather idiosyncratic. They are also key to Pendragon, of course.

MGibster said:
Nothing representative is real. Take a gander at the picture below, is it a pipe? You can't put tobacco in it and you can't use it to smoke anything so the answer is no. Does Pendragon represent real religion? Of course it does. It's a very narrow representation of an idealized version of paganism and Christianity but it's still representing something real even if it's not real itself.

Feel free to change doesn't represent to doesn't faithfully portray if you feel that the original gist of my words was insufficiently precise.

John Dallman said:

I'd never thought about that. I guess it does.
 


Aldarc

Legend
Be careful of that one. Pendragon uses Pelagianism - Wikipedia as its Christianity, which has been defined as heretical since 418CE. It does not make a big fuss about this, but it's there.

In broad outline, Pelagianism does not claim that Christianity is the only way to salvation. It does say that it's the best route, but it admits of others. You'll understand that there are christians today to whom that would be a major problem, and others who would have no trouble with it. I spotted this during a Pendragon campaign, and congratulated Greg Stafford on it. He was pleased that someone had noticed.
There's more to it than that, and that "broad outline" doesn't cover the main problem that Church Fathers like St. Augustine and St. Jerome had with it. But well-spotted, indeed.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
You mentioned above that the Grail was a "Christian" idea and I'm not sure that it is - I mean it is now, post facto - but Chrétien basically invented it for his Arthurian stories; maybe drawing on Welsh and Breton myth.

The first known appearance of the grail was in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (by Chrétien, aka The Story of the Grail, written somewhere between 1180 and 1191). In that poem, the grail itself is not portrayed as having any supernatural powers. It is merely a dish (not a cup, but more like a large, wide, flat bowl), carrying a single communion wafer. As written, if there is magic, it seems to be in the wafer, or in the piety of the one1 who can eat the wafer and be sustained, not the grail. If there is a connection to Celtic myth in the poem, it is more strongly and directly in similarities between the Fisher King and Bran the Blessed. That invites the thought of the grail-as-cauldron, though there's not much explicit support for it in the text.

The Grail becomes a holy object when Robert de Boron writes Joseph d'Arimathie something like a decade later. This is where the Holy Grail as the cup from the Last Supper seems to originate in the Matter of Britain.

The Vulgate Cycle (aka the Lancelot-Grail) is completed by 1235, and the Post-Vulgate Cycle by 1240. And these two, more than anything else, were the basis for Morte d'Arthur, which is the most well-known version of the Arthur/Grail myth, which is published in 1485.

But it only entered popular consciousness as a Christian artifact in the centuries after the Arthurian stories gained traction.

I am not sure we can really claim it took centuries after Chreitian to become "popular consciousness", if only because claiming to know what stories were being popularly told in, say, 1290 is a bit of a bold assertion, hey what?

What we do know is that authors kept coming back to the Matter of Britain. You want to claim they came back to it, but is wasn't well known in the populace?




1. Depending on the version of the story you get, it is either the Fisher King himself, or his even-more crippled father.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
I am not sure we can really claim it took centuries after Chreitian to become "popular consciousness", if only because claiming to know what stories were being popularly told in, say, 1290 is a bit of a bold assertion, hey what?
I'm not really sure of the point of this hair-splitting, but feel free to substitute during the centuries which followed for in the centuries after, if in the centuries after means centuries after to you.

What we do know is that authors kept coming back to the Matter of Britain. You want to claim they came back to it, but is wasn't well known in the populace?
If by "populace" you mean to include farmers in Shropshire as opposed to literati in late 12th century Aquitaine listening to troubadours reciting poetry in Occitan, then yes.

My point is that the Grail is a product of the Arthurian "craze" of the Middle Ages, wasn't current in Christianity before then, and took some time to percolate. It doesn't strike me as particularly controversial.
 

pemerton

Legend
Feel free to change doesn't represent to doesn't faithfully portray if you feel that the original gist of my words was insufficiently precise.
I'm not sure what the criterion is for faithfully portray? Does The End of the Affair faithfully portray Catholicism? Well, it does faithfully convey the convictions of at least one Catholic - it's author!

Leonard Cohen, in his song Suzanne, tells us that "Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water, and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower; and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him he said, 'All men will be sailors then, until the see shall free them'". Cohen himself was not Christian; I don't know if, when he wrote those words, he believed in God at all. But I don't think that means he was wrong to write his song, and to try to convey an idea of the relationship of Christ to humanity (both his own, and that of everyone else).

When I think of real religions in RPGing, there are a lot of ways of approaching it. One of those is a historically accurate description of what was typical of adherents in a certain past time and place; of course that is quite compatible with scepticism or atheism on the part of the game designer and game participants! Another is a presentation of religion, or religious ideas, that does the same sort of artistic work as Mallory (whom you mentioned upthread) or Greene or Cohen or the Evanescence song Tourniquet. This is consistent with unbelief also (qv Cohen) but might be seen as an attempt to "think inside" a certain religious idea or ideal. Just as in literature, or film, or the visual arts, so in RPGing we can ask whether historical authenticity helps, or even is essential, to truly understanding a particular religious ideal, but I think inevitably this is something on which opinions will differ. Star Wars's presentation of certain Daoist and Zen ideas is obviously a little bowdlerised, but I don't think that rules it out of bounds!
 
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I'm not sure what the criterion is for faithfully portray? Does The End of the Affair faithfully portray Catholicism? Well, it does faithfully convey the convictions of at least one Catholic - it's author!

Leonard Cohen, in his song Suzanne, tells us that "Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water, and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower' and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him he said, 'All men will be sailors then, until the see shall free them'". Cohen himself was not Christian; I don't know if, when he wrote those words, he believed in God at all. But I don't think that means he was wrong to write his song, and to try to convey an idea of the relationship of Christ to humanity (both his own, and that of everyone else).

I was thinking about Leonard Cohen on this topic as well. He actually invokes Jesus a lot, yet he was Jewish (while also being a Zen Monk---though he maintained his religion was Judaism). I found, coming from a Christian background but with one side of the family that was Jewish, that his point of view felt incredibly refreshing the first time I heard Suzanne or in another song when he referenced the Beatitudes. And this particular line of lyrics is so beautiful. If anything I think it is important for people to step outside their shoes, outside their religion and their culture and explore others, even if it is just artistically in a song, poem, book or even a game. I can't pretend to know exactly what Cohen was thinking in Suzanne (it is a very complex song for sure in terms of lyrical content), but that is a line that resonated with me in both times of belief and doubt.
 

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When I think of real religions in RPGing, there are a lot of ways of approaching it. One of those is a historically accurate description of what was typical of adherents in a certain past time and place; of course that is quite compatible with scepticism or atheism on the part of the game designer and game participants! Another is a presentation of religion, or religious ideas, that does the same sort of artistic work as Mallory (whom you mentioned upthread) or Greene or Cohen or the Evanescence song Tourniquet. This is consistent with unbelief also (qv Cohen) but might be seen as an attempt to "think inside" a certain religious idea or ideal. Just as in literature, or film, or the visual arts, so in RPGing we can ask whether historical authenticity helps, or even is essential, to truly understanding a particular religious ideal, but I think inevitably this is something on which opinions will differ. Star Wars's presentation of certain Daoist and Zen ideas is obviously a little bowdlerised, but I don't think that rules it out of bounds!

This. There are many ways to approach religion in games. You point to two that I have impulses to explore myself at different times (there are times you want to take a step back, try to be objective, their are time you want to explore something from within or even celebrate it---and there are times you may want to criticize. I think the mistake people make isn't say taking the historically accurate approach, taking the skeptical approach, or taking the celebratory approach, it is thinking that is the only way one ought to engage religion in RPGs or in art.
 

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