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Real Religion in Adventure Design

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
You can approach religion in an RPG from several angles, and if you show respect for the source material you will more likely do well than do ill.

There is no Biblical (or archeological / historical) evidence for the Ramses / Moses / Nefertiri love triangle in The Ten Commandments but the audience let that slide as not of primary importance.
In contrast, Last Temptation of the Christ misportrayed Jesus and so every other mistake in the movie was highlighted and criticized.
 

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In contrast, Last Temptation of the Christ misportrayed Jesus and so every other mistake in the movie was highlighted and criticized.

It was a provocative movie though, and more about the director grappling with Jesus nature. Theologians certainly found fault. And that is fair for them to weigh in, but the point in a film like that is not to cleave to an accurate account of the Bible. And I would still say a movie like this should still be made.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
You can approach religion in an RPG from several angles, and if you show respect for the source material you will more likely do well than do ill.

There is no Biblical (or archeological / historical) evidence for the Ramses / Moses / Nefertiri love triangle in The Ten Commandments but the audience let that slide as not of primary importance.
In contrast, Last Temptation of the Christ misportrayed Jesus and so every other mistake in the movie was highlighted and criticized.

When dealing with millennia-old literary figures who are central to world religions, any portrayal is likely to arouse ire from one quarter or another.

To characterize one as "not of primary importance" and another as a "misportrayal" is suggestive of an inconsistent standard. The Ten Commandments clove very close to 1950s accepted mores and expectations, whereas Last Temptation was challenging even for a late 1980s audience. It seems pretty tame by today's standards; consider the portrayal of Yahweh in Ridley Scott's 2014 Exodus, where the deity is presented as a sociopathic child. The reaction of audience and critics? - shrug
 

In the case of designing adventures, religion will often come up in parts of lore and background. Usually, these religions are either spin-offs of existing religions or entirely new religions with a host of different deities within the pantheon.

But I wonder...what about real, practiced religions being accessible in a TTRPG?

My interest is because real religions have such a rich and diverse set of traditions and cultures with iconic stories and memorable moments that define the beautiful aspects of the various regions they originate from. Having the party meet the Judeo-Christian Messiah or the Shinto Goddess of Sun Amaterasu or the Hindu Deity of Destruction Shiva would make for excellent encounters and events that not only show the lore of the fictional world but also gives context to real life religious figures and how they operate.

So, do you think these implementations of explicit religion can be done tactfully within an adventure, even one meant to be published for profit?
Can be? yes.
Have been? seldom.
Done wrong gives offense? hell, yes.

Personally, I'm happiest when fantasy religions exist, instead of real ones, except in certain specific settings, eg: Pendragon.
 

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.



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.

View attachment 137126
Pendragon AVOIDS religion in play; actual practice is almost entirely veiled/off-screen, and by design.
Religious traits? different matter. Pendragon enforces certain belief structures through the trait system, and that includes religious traits. But no published adventure I've bought had religious praxis as more than a token mention. (Specifically, Boy King and GPC include references to the Catholic Mass as part of certain events, but only as a "after mass X happens..." mode.)
This avoidance of actual praxis is part of it's strength in avoiding the issues that real religion in play can bring. 4th edition and the magic system really stepped up the importance of following the faith's tenets.
I have always included real-like extinct (or nearly so, at least as far as I know) religions without problems, such as the classic staples Roman/Greek paganism, Norse and Egyptian. The only contemporary religion I have used is Shinto, but presumably not very realistically represented.
Note that the Norse Pantheistic faith is not only not extinct, but still has active groups that never Christianized in both Sweden and Norway. The thing is, the name for that faith is Asatru. And it's persevered in Sweden and Norway despite 9 centuries of serious hardline oppression.
I also know of a few who inherited it as their faith from ancestors a century to two ago who left the Norse homeland for the US in hopes of religious freedom.

Nope. Back in the 70s it was common, and never went well. Trying to mix sacred beliefs with entertainment is a bad, bad idea.
It's been done a lot in the 80's and 90's, too. It can work, but the best examples avoid making the theology and the praxis important to play.

If it’s for your table then know your audience and if it’s not a problem with them, then of course you can do it... if it’s gonna be quality and interesting.

However, I’m assuming you mean for publication in which case... you need to know your audience even more. You don’t need to produce a product to make everyone happy (in fact definitely don’t try... you’ll go round the bend). You just have to make sure your audience is happy with it... and that the product doesn’t get drowned out because you’ve provoked too many people.
You also need to make certain your work isn't going to be a criminal offense to possess nor simply destroyed by customs in your nor your audience's localities due to forbidden imagery and/or subject matter. If you're intending worldwide, it becomes relevant.

This includes no swastikas in games intended for Germany, no negative depictions of Islam in most of North Africa and the Middle East (other than Israel), no religious symbology on the outside in most Muslim dominated nations.

It's not terribly likely to be an issue for most, but it has had some very real issues. A bloke I know sold a copy of a WW II wargame to a buddy in Germany, and both were notified that it was destroyed by German customs for unlawful inclusion of Nazi imagery, specifically the SS runes and the 4-bar swastika on unit counters. This was about 2005 to 2006.
 

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.
Well, that's sort of my problem here. Because as soon as you start looking at other things, you get into some much more hairy conundrums. For example, consider works like Neon Genesis Evangelion or even The Chronicles of Narnia. The former is...shall we say, extremely loosely inspired by real-world Gnosticism, and has Christian and Jewish symbols and mysticism sort of thrown around willy-nilly. It's also very specifically created in a culture for which Christianity in general (and Gnosticism especially) is foreign and unknown. The latter is often upbraided for its depiction of a really obviously Arabic-like culture that worships the explicit equivalent of Satan, and despite my love of the series I can appreciate this criticism.

Even the OP has some issues in that direction, like referring to Shiva as a Buddhist deity--rather clearly an out-of-context thing. And that's ultimately the problem with a published game that includes any deeply-impactful elements of a religious tradition: it's gonna go far beyond the "larger tradition that audiences/participants are...themselves located within." Not, I should note, that any given element can't be deeply impactful, but as Asisreo noted, retellings and pastiches of things like David and Goliath, the story of Momotaro or The Bamboo Cutter, heck even some of the Thousand and One Nights, are things you see these cultures doing, whereas retellings and pastiches of--say--Moses receiving the Ten Commandments or Muhammad transcribing the Quran are substantially thinner on the ground. The Narnia retelling of Christ's sacrifice is probably the only example I can think of that does such a thing, but that was done by one of the most prominent lay theologians of the 20th century. Not exactly comparable to a (frex) Christian or atheist/agnostic caucasian American writing an adventure module that features totally-not-Amaterasu needing to be drawn out of a cave, or having that's-so-not-Raven tricking definitely-not-Bear, or whatever.

Which is to say: Though I'm not keen on cries of "appropriation," there is an EXTREME risk of being cavalier, even by totally innocent accident, with really really important values or stories for other cultures, often ones that are poorly-represented and whose actual members rarely get a voice in how they're portrayed. That sort of thing sucks, and it's bad to contribute to it. Not saying it would be impossible--as I said before, Islam is a major influence on the fictional monotheistic religion of my home game--but that you have to be really really cautious because of how likely it is that your words aren't going to be seen and understood in a context shared by both you and your audience.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
I would avoid using real religions for many reasons. Even if you want to use a real one, just reflavor it enough that no one can say it is the religion it is based upon. One issue is you may have players who know the real religion better than you do. This is why I have avoided campaigns set in the "real world" because some people may know history better and then you have debates about what would Romans really do or not do. It just isn't worth the trouble. If you want to use real stuff, the effort to change it up a bit is worth it. The time spent will save tons of time later.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
I would avoid using real religions for many reasons. Even if you want to use a real one, just reflavor it enough that no one can say it is the religion it is based upon. One issue is you may have players who know the real religion better than you do. This is why I have avoided campaigns set in the "real world" because some people may know history better and then you have debates about what would Romans really do or not do. It just isn't worth the trouble. If you want to use real stuff, the effort to change it up a bit is worth it. The time spent will save tons of time later.
That is always a danger, even when you use made up published material, but imo also represents the big advantage when using historical source material. No setting is as detailed as history is. That includes knowing all the little details you would not even think off when creating a setting of your own.

And we are defaulting to the real world a lot anyway. Who really invents a completely new way of how nobility works instead of just reuising European nobility with, maybe, changing names, does not have a trading city in the style of Venice or really goes through all the trouble to invent a new culture for their seaborne raiders instead of just renaming vikings? How many NotChinas and NotJapans are out there?
So why not do the same for religion and have, for example, a renamed pope including a council of cardinals, etc.? Its not that many RPGs don't already have many christion references in the form of angels and devils or reuses the word crusade.
Large parts of the cosmology in D&D is basically a copy of the Divine Comedy which is a religious and political text.
 
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Emerikol

Adventurer
That is always a danger, even when you use made up published material, but imo also represents the big advantage when using historical source material. No setting is as detailed as history is. That includes knowing all the little details you would not even think off when creating a setting of your own.
True but as GM, I don't want a lot of debates about that history. If it is my unique world there is no argument. I know history pretty well by most people's standard but I have friends who are like me and also know history well. I don't want the game to devolve into a debate about the real history. I tried running an ancient world rpg once (it was a book in 3e) and it didn't work that well in my opinion.

So sure the raw material of reality is something I use a lot. I don't use the exact forms though.

And we are defaulting to the real world a lot anyway. Who really invents a completely new way of how nobility works instead of just reuising European nobility with, maybe, changing names, does not have a trading city in the style of Venice or really goes through all the trouble to invent a new culture for their seaborne raiders instead of just renaming vikings?
Well sometimes I do but yeah I get the point. We change things but always from a baseline and that baseline is still there for most things even when we change up a few of them. Religions are in fact one of my favorite things to change up. Since our world has had pretty much every variation of government at this point, I can't imagine not in some ways duplicating what has went before. So I will base my city on Venice perhaps but I definitely won't call it Venice nor will I use a map of Venice. I will also change up some things.

So why not do the same for religion and have, for example, a renamed pope including a council of cardinals, etc.?
That would be my point. Steal all you want but rename it and reflavor it so that you as GM can still use it as a resource but avoid identifying it directly with the real world thing.

Its not that many RPGs don't already have many christian references in the form of angels and devils or reuses the word crusade. Large parts of the cosmology in D&D is basically a copy of the Divine Comedy which is a religious and political text.
And you may not remember if you are not as old as me, but that cause a major firestorm back in the 80's amongst religious people. The game was attacked and many kids didn't get to play it as a result. If you remember 2e even adjusted and removed all references in reaction.

I find demons to be something that spans many cultures and religions. Otherworldly spirits who are up to no good so I never had a game problem. I would never though have Satan as an enemy in the game. I realize Asmodeus is the French name for Satan but my group doesn't know French so I don't care. I also would never have God or Jesus as individuals in my game. I am religious and I would not want even for a second to be put in the place where I am representing their behavior.

That does not mean though I can't have a made up religion with a messianic like representation. What are avatars if not that?
 

Ixal

Adventurer
And you may not remember if you are not as old as me, but that cause a major firestorm back in the 80's amongst religious people. The game was attacked and many kids didn't get to play it as a result. If you remember 2e even adjusted and removed all references in reaction.
And 3E put them back again + all the references that were never changed (City of Dis, etc.). Plus many other RPGs which never had this problem to begin with.
 

Voadam

Legend
That does not mean though I can't have a made up religion with a messianic like representation. What are avatars if not that?
A physical manifestation/incarnation of a god not necessarily intended to be a savior or liberator of people.

Evil gods in D&D have avatars that generally would not be considered messiahs. Even good D&D avatars do not need to be messiahs.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
And 3E put them back again + all the references that were never changed (City of Dis, etc.). Plus many other RPGs which never had this problem to begin with.
That is true but is that a point? My point was that people can react badly and I gave my example. The outcome was bad. What does 3e putting them back in matter when it comes to the point I made?
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
A physical manifestation/incarnation of a god not necessarily intended to be a savior or liberator of people.

Evil gods in D&D have avatars that generally would not be considered messiahs. Even good D&D avatars do not need to be messiahs.
All Messiahs based upon the Christian one would be avatars. NOT all avatars would be Messiahs.
 

And you may not remember if you are not as old as me, but that cause a major firestorm back in the 80's amongst religious people. The game was attacked and many kids didn't get to play it as a result. If you remember 2e even adjusted and removed all references in reaction.

But the religious people were the ones in the wrong. I was there too. I was in a deeply religious community and I wasn't alllowed to play for some time. That isn't an argument against real world religious elements in RPGs, that is an argument against reactionary responses to art and entertainment (there were all kinds of crazy ideas being spread about D&D at the time around the satanic panic).
 


pemerton

Legend
I would avoid using real religions for many reasons. Even if you want to use a real one, just reflavor it enough that no one can say it is the religion it is based upon. One issue is you may have players who know the real religion better than you do. This is why I have avoided campaigns set in the "real world" because some people may know history better and then you have debates about what would Romans really do or not do. It just isn't worth the trouble. If you want to use real stuff, the effort to change it up a bit is worth it. The time spent will save tons of time later.
True but as GM, I don't want a lot of debates about that history. If it is my unique world there is no argument. I know history pretty well by most people's standard but I have friends who are like me and also know history well. I don't want the game to devolve into a debate about the real history.
I don't find this to be an issue.

In my Prince Valiant game the PCs are Christians, and two of them are leaders of a military order - The Knights of St Sigobert - that they founded, after one experienced inspiration while working among the sick at an abbey dedicated to St Sigobert at the site of his healing waters.

When the PCs travel through Britain we use the map from a Pendragon rule book. When they travelled across Europe to Constantinople and Cyprus we used maps from a Penguin historical atlas (for the 8th century).

This doesn't cause problems.
 

I'm a big fan of looking how actual historical religions work and reflecting them in your world. (D&D extreme reluctance to have any depiction of monotheism is incredibly offputting and D&D's treatment of polytheism is almost as stupid), but gotta give a big no to putting real religions in settings that aren't Earth. And that goes for Thor, Anubis and Belenus as much as it does Yawheh.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I gave a no art preview of a science fiction setting I am making using the Cepheus Engine (Traveller) rules. By no art, I mean nothing external, there are still over 60 maps I have made of the cosmos and planets. The biggest hit was among my Russian and German friends with comments of it being very diverse and hard sf; which is cool. Not being religious myself I sort of gave it the pass using a quote from Andre Norton of various religions, sects, still exist, however the fervent style has lost its grip for the most part. One of my Russian friends asked if I was consciously trying for Russian cosmism, if that was a direct influence, expressly about transhumanism. Not directly is my reply, though probably indirectly, and starting to think about it, a future religion might root in the old ways from Russian cosmism.

 

That is true but is that a point? My point was that people can react badly and I gave my example. The outcome was bad. What does 3e putting them back in matter when it comes to the point I made?
In part because it shows a societal shift in tolerance of portrayals of evil.
And it also was a time that seriously was TSR trying a lot of bad ideas to expand the market... Well, more correctly, most weren't bad, but just weren't "good enough." 7 active setting lines across 2 games (AD&D 2 and D&D BECMI), 3 more games with 1 setting each (SF, GW, MSH/AMSH), and then Amazing Engine...
Plus, the bulk of the satanic panic was over by 1984... the renaming was (quite rightly) lampooned on various local BBSs and even some fidonet and usenet feeds as pure cosmetics and more than 5 years too late to matter.

That being said, certain fringe religious figures still rant against all RPGs (and board games, card games, comic books, novels, and so on) as "[...] the work of the Devil." (Jerry Prevo, 2012, stumping on TV for his next book burning.) And Prevo was, according to a friend who listened to his TV show, well aware the rename was a dodge, not a true removal of the objectionable content.
John Weddleton, owner of Bosco's Comics, retorted on the news to the effect that all the burned books meant more sales for him, since most of the kids would simply rebuy the books. Not quite a record quarter for the store, but John did confirm in conversation at the store that, indeed, D&D and Rifts sales picked up for the entire month after the bonfire...

That the news (all 3 local channels) presented Dr Prevo (I'm unwilling to give his website any additional hit to check the postnomials for exactly what doctoral degree he holds) in a quite unkind light shows the difference from when he was stumping in the late 70's... when their coverage was sympathetic.

So, yes, that 3E switched back to Demons and Devils is a significant evidence of change in public perception.
 

steenan

Adventurer
In the case of designing adventures, religion will often come up in parts of lore and background. Usually, these religions are either spin-offs of existing religions or entirely new religions with a host of different deities within the pantheon.

But I wonder...what about real, practiced religions being accessible in a TTRPG?

My interest is because real religions have such a rich and diverse set of traditions and cultures with iconic stories and memorable moments that define the beautiful aspects of the various regions they originate from. Having the party meet the Judeo-Christian Messiah or the Shinto Goddess of Sun Amaterasu or the Hindu Deity of Destruction Shiva would make for excellent encounters and events that not only show the lore of the fictional world but also gives context to real life religious figures and how they operate.

So, do you think these implementations of explicit religion can be done tactfully within an adventure, even one meant to be published for profit?

I definitely wouldn't put gods or other important figures of existing religions in an RPG adventure unless it was specifically set within this religion's stories. And, in this case, it would require a significant amount of research to stay faithful to the source texts and tradition if it was not a religion I'm already very familiar with.

On the other hand, I do use fictional characters that are loosely inspired by real world religions and mythologies. And, in settings similar to the real world, I obviously have many followers of existing religions as NPCs and sometimes also religious institutions playing some role.
 

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