Heroes in a God’s World: Religion in D&D

The classic Western-fantasy adventuring party, appearing across a wide variety of media and baked into what Dungeons and Dragons in particular expects adventuring groups to be capable of, consists of four very different characters. By default, there is a “fighter,” who wears armor and specializes in swordplay or another close-range martial art; a “wizard,” who is a combination mobile artillery piece, library, and miscellaneous magical toolkit; a “rogue” or “thief,” whose specialty is stealth, lock-picking, smooth-talking, acrobatics, and similar skills; and a “cleric” or “priest,” who provides the favor of the gods to their allies, usually in the form of magical healing and defensive magic.

That last person raises difficult questions about the overall shape of the fantasy universe, which every D&D setting tries to answer one way or another. It’s not difficult to imagine a fantasy world where the term “cleric” means something more like what it means in our world, and refers to someone an adventuring party might visit afterward for wound-tending and soul-cleansing rather than a steadfast and magical battlefield ally. Ivanhoe is probably the work of fiction most famously within this tradition. But most Western fantasy assigns clerics and other agents of the divine power well in excess of the demonstrated abilities of real-world religious figures, including the power to raise the dead on demand, instantly heal deadly injuries multiple times a day, and brandish holy symbols to disperse zombies. The deities of a fantasy world that is home to this kind of priest are, thereby, much more powerful than the god of Ivanhoe and any deity associated with real-world religious practice, and have far more direct and overt effects on the world at large.

Inevitably, this creates a far more urgent version of the problem of evil: if the gods are so powerful, where are they? And why do they do almost all of their work through mortal proxies?

Tempus, a deity of war from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. He wears plate armor, as does the black horse he rides. He has a battleaxe in his right hand and the severed head of an opponent in his left.
Tempus seems like the active type, but has mostly been faffing around since the Time of Troubles.

Most fantasy worlds establish a distinction between mythic time and historical time, while treating both as the true history of the world. In the world’s mythic past, the deities are active in constructing the world and, almost always, come into conflict with one another over its shape. In mythic time, the deities are accessible, physical beings who behave in human-like ways. Part of what makes Western fantasy worlds full of magic is that they were almost all created by deities in ways our world most definitely was not—but it is very hard to write a world with active deities where mortal heroes have something to do. So, fantasy worlds almost all rein in their deities, dreaming up cosmic pacts, depleted reserves, and magical barriers that prevent these otherwise nigh-omnipotent entities from rearranging coastlines and conquering empires at their leisure. Whether they move to distant planar abodes, climb to the top of Mount Olympus, or simply stop being around, eventually, the deities are no longer moving about the world and exerting their power over it. Eventually, the gods always switch to influencing the world via agents, usually mortal. Even deity-like creatures laboring under no such restrictions are distant and subtle, preferring to avoid direct attention even when it is plainly easier for them to just show up somewhere and squish some upstart beneath their clawed heels. Adventurers still at the “clearing giant rats out of tavern basements and putting out barn fires” stage of their careers have no recourse if Thor or Dagon decides they’re a problem worth personal attention. If the gods are active, then they’re the characters worth watching, and the mortals in the story matter about as much as ants in an ant farm. But if the gods are inactive, a whole new series of questions arises: Why do we care what they think? Why do I pray at roadside shrines? Why do I complete quests for their representatives? Why does what they want affect my behavior at all?

Active deities steal the show. Inactive deities are irrelevant. Every fantasy world finds a different compromise between these two facts, usually settling on “whatever you think about the gods, the clergy are magic.”

There’s a sense in which even worlds in which deities are explicitly real can’t really treat them that way without ceasing to make sense to their mortal explorers. Our world works the way it does because deities aren’t real, or more precisely, because our world’s deities can’t be distinguished from deities that don’t exist. Deities can be the hand-wavy justification for why the characters who call themselves priests can be way, way better at healing than the average apothecary, they can be the source of coy omens and the implied authority behind religious hierarchies, and they can even provide searing sunbeams of holy righteousness as weapons for the devout, but the moment they take an active hand in the world, the questions immediately arise:

What the fuck took you so long!? If you could deal with Monsterface von Bigbad just like that, what did you need us for!? Was this really all so you didn’t have to get up from your Sudoku long enough to save the universe!?

Most fantasy worlds have more evidence that deities exist than ours ever will. In most settings, one can physically visit the sun god’s palace, stand in front of them, have tea with them, discuss current events with them, and slap them in the face if they permit it. And one very well might want to, given the sun god’s habit of aggressively dictating mortal morals.

But with or without deities, the Western fantasy world is a mortals’ world. Mortals move events, mortals solve problems, and mortals make the decisions that matter. This is not just a narrative convenience. The world can be full of magic and manticores, but it needs to fulfill a baseline similarity with the real world to be comprehensible to players. This is part of the same verisimilitude that mandates that the world have gravity, integral to the world making sense.

That’s not a coincidence.

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Heroes in a God’s World: Religion in D&D
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3 thoughts on “Heroes in a God’s World: Religion in D&D

  1. 1

    This is part of the same verisimilitude that mandates that the world have gravity, integral to the world making sense.

    It makes sense because it’s based on the world grew up in. I would be fascinated to play a game where you have to “learn reality” and how the world works.

    If I were to try writing an RPG, I would have shawomen and shamen like the D&D non-human races (e.g. Orcs, Hobgoblins, etc.), not clerics and druids which are too steeped in white European religious origin, or perhaps dispense with religious classes altogether and make healing just another magic. Then again, I would probably rewrite everything (e.g. one bisexual gender, no females and males).

    I don’t know about Japanese CRPGs since I never played any, but I would imagine a paper RPG created in Japan would be steeped in shinto and buddhism. The anime series “Tenchi Muyo” is full of shinto symbols, even among the characters from other planets.

  2. 2

    Coming at this from a literary perspective, (I’m a lit prof), it seems to me there are two paradigms that tend to influence campaigns’ mythology.

    One is essentially the mythological perspective. While the gods are very powerful in Greek mythology, they aren’t united — in fact, they’re more likely to be in opposition to one another. In such a setting, the closest analogy I can think of to that between a hero and her god is that between a renaissance artist and his patron. The patron gives the hero advice and nice stuff and, well, patronage, and in return the hero does amazing things, whose amazing-ness reflects well upon the god/patron in front of the other gods. But yeah, in a situation like that, there isn’t too much sense that what you do really matters. If you don’t kill the manticore, some other hero probably will. You just want to rack up as much fame as possible before you die. There aren’t any ‘saving the world’ scenarios — if the world gets seriously threatened, it’s the gods’ job to handle that mess themselves.

    The other paradigm is the romance/medieval idea — particularly the Arthurian myths. That’s more where you get the idea of clerics doing miracles, etc. (though that also is a reflection of the old testament prophets, Moses, etc.) That’s where you get holy weapons that do amazing things, and so forth.

    One interesting thing about the Arthurian myths is that, when God gets involved with stuff, his influence is more likely than not going to be malign. The Grail quest destroyed the Round Table.

  3. 3

    You know, you raise a really interesting point here. It seems to me that the original pattern for the “God must work through human agents” schtick may come mostly through the Bible, especially the old testament. The Greek gods didn’t seem to have any problem with acting on their own behalfs when they felt like it –showing up on a battlefield to smite a hero they didn’t like, raping king’s daughters, whatever. Occasionally they spoke through priests and oracles, or were invisible, or showed up in disguise, but they always let everyone know who they were before they took off.

    It was really Yahweh who established the full “priest as intermediary” principle. There’s no reason he couldn’t have shown up in Pharoah’s court and done his own smiting, or chastised Ahab and Jezebel in person, but he always went to great effort to find a patsy to stand in for him and do his talking.

    Maybe that’s one of the reasons that Judaism as modified by Christians ended up overtaking the older mythologies. A deity who runs around using guys who can do magic tricks as his mouthpieces seems a lot more intuitively like the way the world works than do all those old deities who were supposed to be showing up all over the place in stories, but never actually appeared in real life.

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