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Worlds of Design: Escaping Tolkien

In my previous article we discussed technological differences; this article focuses on cultural differences. Perhaps the cultural differences aren’t as clear in one’s awareness, but can be very important and just as far-reaching. Don’t underestimate culture!

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Part of world building is figuring out the consequences of changes you make from the technological and cultural background that you start with. You always start with something. For example, there’s often an assumption that there are horses large enough to be ridden in the world, even though for thousands of years of real-world history, they weren’t large enough to ride.

Trapped by Tolkien

Some world builders get “trapped by Tolkien” as I like to put it. They think elves must be like Tolkien’s (even though those aren’t traditional), dwarves must be like Tolkien’s, etc. Imagine elves with the capabilities of Tolkien’s, but inclined to be Imperials! It’s a change of culture only, but a mighty one. Imagine if dwarves and orcs tended to work together! Similarly, monstrous humanoids aren’t necessarily antagonistic towards humans and vice versa. These are cultural changes that can differentiate your fantasy world from so many others and while subtle, but they can make a big difference. Turn your imagination loose, don’t let it be constrained by a single author or book.

Magical Attitudes

Attitudes toward magic make a big difference on how a setting works. In one setting the magic users may be the rock stars, while in another they may be dreaded and avoided shadowy figures; they can be as rare as professional athletes or an everyday occurrence.

Modern Attitudes

It’s probably inevitable that modern attitudes will shape how game masters create their fantasy worlds. Using slavery as one example, whether or not it “makes sense” in a world must also be balanced by how it will be represented in the game. If you are going to take on mature topics for a fantasy world that has a long history similar to our world (including the unpleasant parts), you should consider how your players will deal with the topic.

Intentions

I haven’t said much about intentional versus unintentional change to a fantasy world, because in the end it’s the change that matters, not the intention. I suppose you’re more likely to figure out what changes will occur, when you’re intending to introduce changes. But a world is a huge collection of interactions, and any change is likely to affect more than you intended.

Now it’s your turn: In your experience, what was the change (from the “default”) in world-setting that made the biggest difference?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Tonguez

Legend
I'm not sure. There are classes dedicated to religion, an entire system of magic dedicated to religion, major events with hundreds of pages of lore dedicated to religion, races were created due to religion. How is that an afterthought?

Firstly religion and gods arent the same thing. The Cleric is dedicated to a god but there is very little religious practice going on in most games beyong “share an alignment, carry a symbol and meditate to get spells”. I suppose there is some Lore and players are free to develop their own religious rituals, but how many actually do that?
 

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Scott Christian

Adventurer
Because there are classes that are dedicated to gods, not religion. There is a system of magic that is largely shared between all casters, though some believe that divine magic connects a caster to their god. Major events with hundreds of pages of lore that are dedicated to gods, not religion or common piety, or cultic practices, etc. And there are races that were created due to gods. You are basically conflating gods with religion. Gods and divinities may receive a lot of attention, but religion in D&D settings are mostly half-baked afterthoughts.
You do not have religion without a god. You can have philosophies. You can have teachings. You can even have practices. But you can't have religion without a god attached. Hence, the two are the same when discussing it in a roleplaying game.
 

I'd be happy of they broke out of the oddly monotheistic polytheism. It seems like most D&D characters are only concerned about their one god and pay no mind to the myriad of others that might exist within the setting. And usually it's only the clerics who care. For one of my characters, a fighter, I once wrote "As Needed" under his deity of choice and the DM gave a little chuckle at that but it wasn't meant as a joke. When going into a fight my fighter prayed to the god of war, when it was harvest time he prayed to the appropriate god, and when he had to do on a sea voyage he prayed to that god. But for a game where some characters literally channel the power of divinity, D&D is an oddly irreligious game.

At least for the Forgotten Realms setting, polytheism is the norm, at least for your "average folk." A farmer will pray to a Chauntea to help crops grow and to Talos to keep damaging storms away, for example. Most do end up leaning towards one deity above the others as they go through life (maybe the farmer has a particular affinity to Chauntea), and this is likely the deity that takes their soul when they die.

clergy and paladins are going to have a definite patron, and this makes sense to me, as they are dedicated to a particular deity, and will receive spells from that deity. Even in real world polytheistic religions, you did have priests of a specific god. But they of course acknowledged the other deities. I guess this is the henotheism others mentioned.

And there will also be lay followers of a certain deity, so it isn't too strange to me.
 

Aldarc

Legend
You do not have religion without a god. You can have philosophies. You can have teachings. You can even have practices. But you can't have religion without a god attached. Hence, the two are the same when discussing it in a roleplaying game.
Your first point is debatable but misses the point either way. It is not that you can’t have a religion without a god but rather that D&D mostly has gods with half-baked afterthought religions. I hope you can understand a distinction as simple as this without further mentioning the triviality that gods and clerics exist in D&D settings.
 

I'd be happy of they broke out of the oddly monotheistic polytheism. It seems like most D&D characters are only concerned about their one god and pay no mind to the myriad of others that might exist within the setting. And usually it's only the clerics who care. For one of my characters, a fighter, I once wrote "As Needed" under his deity of choice and the DM gave a little chuckle at that but it wasn't meant as a joke. When going into a fight my fighter prayed to the god of war, when it was harvest time he prayed to the appropriate god, and when he had to do on a sea voyage he prayed to that god. But for a game where some characters literally channel the power of divinity, D&D is an oddly irreligious game.
Yeah, I do want to see more religious flexibility and diversity, and player preference, especially for the Cleric class.
 

MGibster

Legend
Your first point is debatable but misses the point either way. It is not that you can’t have a religion without a god but rather that D&D mostly has gods with half-baked afterthought religions. I hope you can understand a distinction as simple as this without further mentioning the triviality that gods and clerics exist in D&D settings.

Yeah. Religion in D&D seems like an afterthought to me. It's not even important to most players with cleric characters.
 

I have learned a term today from you and Tonguez. Knowing the term now I think doesn’t change my disquiet over the ubiquity of it in D&D settings.
I have seen "henotheism" to mean two different things.

In Southwest Asian studies, henotheism tends to mean there are many polytheistic gods, but an adherent picks only one. But in South Asian studies, henotheism sometimes describes Hinduism, in the sense that all of the polytheistic gods are really manifestations of only one God, a kind of monotheism.
 

Yeah. Religion in D&D seems like an afterthought to me. It's not even important to most players with cleric characters.
The Cleric class is being used to force a specific cosmological setting.

If the Cleric class became more open-ended to DM and player preferences about religion and philosophy, the core rules would become friendlier to other kinds of settings. More setting diversity would be more normal. And settings like Eberron and Dark Sun would feel legitimate D&D because the Players Handbook Cleric class could be used straightforwardly. These other settings wouldnt have to be shoe-horned into the same monolithic multiverse cosmological setting.
 


Religion/politics. This is not the place for your views on religion.
You do not have religion without a god. You can have philosophies. You can have teachings. You can even have practices. But you can't have religion without a god attached. Hence, the two are the same when discussing it in a roleplaying game.
Animism is a religion without a god.

Buddhism is a religion without a god.

And so on.

Religion is a sacred way of life.

A god is a specific kind of personification of some thing, in a way that it wields higher "authority" than a human life.

Theism is a bi-product of Bronze Age bureaucracy and slavery.

A "god" is literally a "master", and the servants of a god are literally "slaves". Theism is slavery.

Theism is highly problematic ethically.

Animism also has personifications, but humans and other personifications are understood to be each others equals, coexisting. This egalitarianism is important.
 
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Aldarc

Legend
Theism is a bi-product of Bronze Age bureaucracy and slavery.

A "god" is literally a "master", and the servants of a god are literally "slaves".

Theism is highly problematic ethically.
You know what else is highly problematic ethically? When people make ridiculous reductionistic arguments like this about complex topics such as religious history and theology.
 

oreofox

Explorer
And I don't think you'll ever see too many D&D settings where you can't play an elf, dwarf, or halfling. These things exist in the PHB and it would be off brand to create a setting where you couldn't use the basic races in the PHB.

My setting, I removed humans. Well, they used to exist in history, but the "modern" time of the setting has them as being eradicated. I only included elves because my sister loves them and exclusively plays elves. She doesn't play anymore, and I'd have to come up with something completely different in the setting if I wanted to remove them, so I keep them. Dwarves are in because dwarves are awesome. Halflings dies out millenia ago (even before the humans). I never liked hobbits, nor kender. The only halflings that exist are descendants of planetouched halflings, though those are rarer and rarer, only showing up from the offspring of gnomes who these planetouched halflings interbred with. The "monster races" such as orcs and goblins exist. Half-orcs and half-elves don't exist.

Of the PHB races, dragonborn (changed to fit better in my setting), elves, dwarves, and gnomes exist. Gnomes changed to be less trickster fey illusionists into a more regimented warlike culture. Tieflings are a "template" race: they have their own seperate trait write-ups, but they don't look like halloween costumes being worn by humans. They can look like any race/species. I also have many homebrewed races.

So while it is rare, it can be done. Though incorporating any published adventure is exceedingly difficult without the overly pervasive humans. Also, no one race/species is as abundant as humans in default D&D and other fantasy works.
 

You know what else is highly problematic ethically? When people make ridiculous reductionistic arguments like this about complex topics such as religious history and theology.
The problem of theism=slavery, is a complex issue. Diverse points of view are welcome.

At the same time, pressuring Cleric players to adopt theism or slavery, is wrong.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
The problem of theism=slavery, is a complex issue. Diverse points of view are welcome.

I'm guessing it steps on discussing real world religions too much for the board rules?

At the same time, pressuring Cleric players to adopt theism or slavery, is wrong.

It also feels like saying DMs can't run games in cosmologies where gods grant clerics powers is bad-wrong-fun too? Why is it worse than having some settings where folks of real world religions can't find something in game that is similar to what they have in real life?

But yes, I like the editions that make the source of cleric powers broad so each DM/play group can do what makes them happy within RAW.
 


I'm guessing it steps on discussing real world religions too much for the board rules?

Yes. But the problem is, the core rules of D&D 5e force a religion. Discussion of religion for the sake of gameplay is necessary.



It also feels like saying DMs can't run games in cosmologies where gods grant clerics powers is bad-wrong-fun too? Why is it worse than having some settings where folks of real world religions can't find something in game that is similar to what they have in real life?

To force a Cleric player to roleplay a theist or a slave, is like forcing a Half-Orc player to roleplay being the product of a raped mother (God forbid). It can be, a certain player at a certain table wants to go there, and explore the issues sensitively. But these are not things to push on reallife humans who ethically dissent.



But yes, I like the editions that make the source of cleric powers broad so each DM/play group can do what makes them happy within RAW.

Yeah. The solution is for the core rules of D&D 5e to let the player define ones own character concept. Especially if the player is roleplaying a Cleric.

The player is responsible for deciding on a character concept. At the same time, the DM is responsible for roleplaying the world, and also needs official freedom to make the setting ones own. The Cleric class as currently written in the Players Handbook, is objectionable for several reasons.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
To force a Cleric player to roleplay a theist or a slave,

Does adding slave do anything for the conversation beyond just saying theist?

No one is forcing them to play a cleric. And I haven't seen many games where the DM actually enforces much religous duty on the cleric. If anything why aren't paladin oaths (theist or not) even more binding?
 

To force a Cleric player to roleplay a theist or a slave, is like forcing a Half-Orc player to roleplay being the product of a raped mother (God forbid).
No it isn't, don't be absurd. And as person who doesn't have particularly high opinion on theism or organised religion, I have to say that you comparison of theism and slavery is highly offensive, far more so than anything that is printed in PHB.

The player is responsible for deciding on a character concept. At the same time, the DM is responsible for the world, and also needs official freedom to make the setting ones own. The Cleric class as currently written in the Players Handbook, is objectionable for several reasons.
GMs are fully capable of customising the metaphysics and cultural aspects of their setting and nothing in the cleric rules prevents this.
 

Does adding slave do anything for the conversation beyond just saying theist?

No one is forcing them to play a cleric. And I haven't seen many games where the DM actually enforces much religous duty on the cleric. If anything why aren't paladin oaths (theist or not) even more binding?
It directly relates to coercion during gameplay, about reallife aspects that are ethically and culturally sensitive.
 

No it isn't, don't be absurd. And as person who doesn't have particularly high opinion on theism or organised religion, I have to say that you comparison of theism and slavery is highly offensive, far more so than anything that is printed in PHB.

GMs are fully capable of customising the metaphysics and cultural aspects of their setting and nothing in the cleric rules prevents this.
Some people were forced to join a religion against their will.

It is wrong.
 

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