Thursday, October 20, 2011

Christianity in Our Games!

The campaign I'm running now takes place in 1600 Europe. England, to be precise.

That means Christianity.

In some ways, that makes things easier. Religious characters can actually follow a religion. Even if players are working from anachronistic ignorance, there still is a basis to their religion and the expectations of how a religious character would act and restrictions and responsibilities they would have.

If working from entirely fictitious religions and gods (especially the dreaded homebrew!), it's harder to internalize such things and they tend to go the way of encumbrance tracking and recording how much food you have left on your great quest.

One problem I ran into right quick by using Christianity... "So, ah, what about all these Cleric scrolls in this old (Roman) dungeon then? Why can Cleric PCs use them? And if they can't, when the hell are Clerics really going to find scrolls?"

(my answer? "The scrolls are in Latin! Now stop thinking about it!")

Even in the classic D&D setup, these scrolls make no sense, but are more easily handwaved. "Why can a Cleric of St. Cuthbert use that scroll he just found in the drow city in the temple dedicated to the really evil spider goddess, huh?" Because, ahhh, some bullshit D&D fantasy reason about how the cosmos works, that's why!

(MU scrolls make perfect sense... every MU's style is unique, but hey, Read Magic!)

When using real-world religions, that gets a little tougher to explain. If the PCs are looting/exploring some heretofore unknown Egyptian pyramid, it's not unreasonable

(INTERRUPTION: My wife would like it announced that she likes ice cream with crunchy oat bits and syrup)

... it's not unreasonable to assume that there would be Cleric scrolls in there. The PCs in such a setting are going to be Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Hindu, or whatever.

Should the Clerics in the party be able to read and use these ancient Egyptian scrolls? Why? If you handwave it, aren't you basically saying that the religions are all merely different denominations of the same True Faith in your campaign?

If they can't use them, then aren't you basically hamstringing Clerics (especially if using an old D&D edition that doesn't even give Clerics spells until 2nd level) in a way that the whole class and ability structure didn't have in mind? (be real, if doing the regular exploration thing it's rarely going to be the PCs' own religious artifacts they'll be finding)

(and if you're not even using our own Earth in your campaign, how do you even use real-world religions in it? I mean, one can reasonably conclude that early D&D Clerics were implicitly Christian, but one can also reasonably conclude that the implied setting in early D&D wasn't our world...)

ay ay ay. This stuff's a headache before even worrying about offending anyone by gamifying their religion.


  1. You want real world magic? Transubstantiation. Bread into the body of christ.

    Apply that catholic bit of magic to scrolls. Let a priest bless them and the scrolls magically transubstantiate their divine energy from one god to another.

  2. "A basic premise of [GURPS Banestorm] is that magical banestorms pick up people and whole villages from other worlds (including Earth) and deposit them on Yrth. As a result many of the societies and cultures are reminiscent of a Crusades-era Earth, albeit with magic. One significant difference this brings is that, unlike many fantasy settings, Yrth has many of the major Earth faiths as its core religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and others."

  3. There were Christians in ancient Rome.

    See how easy that was? :)

  4. Well, giving the scrolls some thought here - Finding them under Rome wouldn't be a problem. Christians were in Rome at least as early as 64 AD when Nero was persecuting them, and if I remember correctly, they hid in the catacombs. Jews were in Rome a lot longer - and it seems to me that a Christian cleric in D&D should be able to use a Jewish scroll just fine.

    And as for Egypt - the Copts were around for quite a time - and befroe that, Jews happened to live in Egypt - so scrolls could have been all over the place.

    D&D-ly speaking, or course. :)

    - Ark

  5. (I'm quite familiar with Yrth, back from the 80s at least!)

    Even if we agree that Christians can use Jewish scrolls (better not let the Inquisition find out or you are, as it was called at the time, fucked... although I have no problem with the idea of the Abrahamic religions having interchangeably usable scrolls), I have a hard time believing Jewish scrolls would be in the Pharaohs' tombs.

    I mean, the PCs are poking around in Raggi dungeons. God (in any incarnation the players or PCs would recognize) ain't in there.

  6. It's the same thing we do when we roll random stuff on a chart: have some fun explaining why this crazy thing is there.

    Why are there Christian scrolls in a 3,000 year old Egyptian Tomb? Tomb Robbers. Time Travellers. They're cursed scrolls that only _look_ like Christian scrolls but have a "Viral" type application that executes in the background when you run "Cure Light Wounds 1.0". etc.

  7. @Jim - Of course, you could just utter 'Moses' and explain it all away, but that would be too easy.

    As a DM, though, I would find it much more satisfying to make, when a cleric tried to activate a scroll of the wrong religion, a burst of electricity shoot from the sky and have said cleric be reduced to a pile of burnt dandruff.

    Or at the very least, a severe thrashing by an vengeful angel with a flaming sword.

    - Ark

  8. The cleric could have some sort of sanctify ritual or prayer similar to read magic. This would actually have some metagame resonance, as many pagan gods and practices have been syncretically incorporated into Christianity. I imagine there would be some reasonable limits to this; for example, a scroll written by the dark minions of Set might not be convertible.

  9. Here's how I deal with the issue: Clerical scrolls detail how to invoke the power of 'a' deity, not any specific deity. They might mention a specific deity, but this isn't an integral part of the scroll's power, with the utilizing cleric petitioning their own deity instead.

    As far as language goes, one of the hallmarks of old-timey religi-guys was scholarship. They have to learn the language unless the scroll uses some sort of symbology they already understand.

  10. Well, since cleric scrolls are written in the language of the writer, being able to read ancient hieroglyphs is definitely a requirement being able to use Egyptian scrolls.

    As for religions themselves; I'd have the spells be specific to the religion that produced the scrolls. It might not matter with the low level general utility spells which god is the one powering them, but the boy is the cleric in for a surprise when using the Commune spell found in an Assyrian ruin!

    Foreign religions should probably have weird spells that are in that religion's standard spell list but available for christian clerics only as scrolls. Unless they're willing to convert to that religion :-)

    Why then would a cleric be able to cast foreign spells in the first place? I'd imagine the ability to open one's mind and/or soul to gods depends more on the personal attributes and training of the cleric, and less on just being one of the god's random chosen.

  11. LotFP said:...Now stop thinking about it!

    Sound advice. And I'm pretty sure it will work when you sit down at the table and the dice come out... if the players find potentially useful magic scrolls in the evil temple, are they usually going to refuse to use them because it "strains credibility"? The people I play with: probably not --- they will hop on the scrolls like a 'Get out of Jail Free' card.
    I always thought that scrolls could be like magic texts in some old pulp horror stories, where if people read them the magic is released when the words themselves are read --- which makes me want to create a house rule where anyone who can read can use a scroll but is unlikely to be able to control it's effects... so a non cleric using a 'remove poison' scroll might remove poison, or he might actually make it worse, or summon a farting demon, or cause hiccups or something else. I'll have to think on that one.
    If one had a magic system for clerics in which all cleric spells had opposite effects, then when a 'good' cleric used and 'evil' cleric's scroll, perhaps the opposite effect would occur (i.e.: it would harm instead of heal, pollute instead of purify, etc.), and vice versa. Back in the day I remember a rule (which I think came from OD&D) that clerics could not be neutral --- they had to be law or chaos --- which seems like one I would want to bring back.
    From a game perspective, though, cleric scrolls make a lot of sense since they are a tool that only clerics can use --- a reward for a particular class.

  12. Make it work however you want (or make a roll to decide) and then leave it to philosophizing player characters to make sense of their observations. ^_^

  13. Ok, so here is how I've handled it. Instead of "scrolls" (which I always thought was stupid idea for clerics anyways) they get monstrances and relics which are pantheon specific (sometimes deity specific, but that's rare) filled with divine mojo. This lets them cast x number of x level spells (same as a scroll) but the spells are not chosen beforehand.


  14. Scroll: Not as hard to reconcile as you might expect. Papyri have been found, showing Egyptian Magi utilizing Hebrew Lore in their incantations (calling on YHVH, Ra, pretty much any power they knew of that might get the job done.)

    The esoteric branches of the major religions have often (not always!) been far more open minded about such matters. In the 13 century, a few Rabbi's started sharing Qabalistic secrets with their Christian friends.

    Said Christians then set about trying to use the Qabalah to "prove" Christ was the messiah and were kinda rude about it, thus pissing the Rabbi's off and ensuring it would be many centuries, before Jewish and non-Jewish Qabalists would talk shop with each other, again.

  15. The word I was looking for before was 'consecrate' for the ability to make a heretical scroll usable.

    @fluerdemal I like the idea of (Christian-style) relics as cleric-specific magic items. The knucklebone of St. Whatsit that has a single use magical effect (and it even makes sense narratively to find such things in dungeons, if you are playing that sort of game).

  16. Or you could count each scroll as a separate religion, so a Cleric scroll needs to say what religion it's for rather than just Cleric. Just as you'd note "Detect Magic (M-U)" you'd say "Dispel Magic (Abrahamic)" or "Sticks to Snakes (Mesopotamian)". It might be nice to have a different class for each type of Cleric, with different weapons allowed, spell lists, etc.

    Or you could say it all just works.

  17. Limpey said "which makes me want to create a house rule where anyone who can read can use a scroll but is unlikely to be able to control it's effects"
    I like sprinkling this sort of Call of Cthulhuish mechanic in my games, and it's always been the source of a lot of fun (for the players too, heh)

  18. James:
    1. Why are clerical scrolls that big a deal anyway? If no explanatory answer is satisfactory, why not just substitute other useful items?
    2. To me, it makes total sense that there would be old Jewish religious stuff in Ancient Egyptian tombs.
    3. It also makes total sense that 16th/17th century Christian clerics could make use of Old testament era Jewish religious stuff. Whatever the attitude of Christians or Christian authorities at the time towards contemporary Judaism or contemporary Jewish people (quite often not good, obviously), the general Christian view is and has always been that Christianity was an extension of 1st century Judaism, not a counter to it or replacement of it.
    4. Your campaign sounds fascinating. Are there firearms? How do you treat the Catholic vs. Protestant thing? Do THEY both use the same spells?

    By the way, I'm a Catholic that goes to a traditionalist Church that celebrates the Old Latin Mass (as well as the New Mass in English AND Latin!). There are some traditionalist Catholics who could with truth be accused of anti-semitism (though not at my Church, I hope). Ironically, however, there are many things about both the text and form of the Old Latin Mass that owe more to pre-1st century Jewish worship practices than they do to anything else. And I think this is well understood by all educated traditionalist Catholics even as the the small (I hope) racist subset might complain that CURRENT Jews are greedy and are secretly behind this or that conspiracy, etc., etc.

  19. Since I'm contemplating a "real world" game in the 17th century, it's fairly topical.

    I'd make the majority of scrolls in Latin or Greek, and let Christian priest/clerics use them (same with Judaic scrolls).

    Beyond that, I'd say it's a value choice by the DM: Does choice of religion matter in this campaign?

    I'd consider an approach like this: "pagan" scrolls could be used by any priest of a polytheistic old faith, and any monotheistic scroll could be interpreted by a priest from a monotheistic religion. No Christian priest would cast a spell off an Egyptian scroll dedicated to Horus and vice versa. Monotheism vs Poytheism seems to be a greater split in the history of religions than good vs evil or cultural divides.

  20. Of course a Christian priest can use Greek and Roman magical scrolls. He's a learned man, he's probably studied the classics quite thoroughly. You're squeamish because they're "pagan"? Please. Dude has Jesus to protect him. You, on the other hand, may need to go to confession, sir...

  21. In the real world, Christians have often 'found' monotheism in polytheistic religions. I remember reading a book on Norse myths which asserted that the concept of the Allfather was broader than that of Odin, and was a kind of proto-monotheism. So perhaps that's the in-world explanation.

    Alternatively they could believe that Horus, Thor etc are really angels.

  22. Johnson, we're presenting ideas on how to do something in a game, and you come out with admonitions about going to confession? Lighten up, man, don't take this stuff too seriously. The whole satanic scare thing happened 30 years ago.

  23. Dude c'mon, that line is obviously a joke.

  24. Christianity has a long tradition of absorbing elements of other religions for the sake of convenience. Most of the pagan gods and practices of Europe were white-washed into Christianity as saints and festivals. (Ever wonder why your are using a pagan tree to celebrate Christmas during the winter solstice festival?) Scrolls could be used the same way.

    Or go with the Beowulf model of potential Christianity in the scrolls. Beowulf features as a proto-christian. Someone who acted as a Christian acts before finding Christianity. One reading of the poem is that he had his successes because he acted in accordance with God's rules without even being told what they are. This success ended because he transgressed when he took the cup out of greed and was subsequently killed by the dragon. The parallel's found in ancient egyptian religions with the "black madonnas" portraying Isis and Horus but looking like Mary and Jesus support the idea of bits of Christianity being realized before before Christ hit the scene. These symbols and practices were lucky breaks that came ahead of their time.

    So the argument can be made that the old scrolls that have power in them only have that power because they accidentally fit into the Christianity that would eventually be revealed to God's people. Figuring it out early pleased god so these things became artifacts.

    This is not a comment on Christianity, just an argument that can be used to justifying scrolls from other, earlier religions in the game.

  25. "Christianity has a long tradition of absorbing elements of other religions for the sake of convenience."

    That's fine in the real world where there are no gods, but if the fantasy world has deities other than Jehovah ("Making it worse? How can it be any worse?") then there's a chance that that sort of talk will get some smiting done.

    How about: firstly accept that Egyptian scrolls are written in hieroglyphs and the cleric just has to deal with that by learning them or getting comprehend languages from somewhere. Secondly, the maker of a scroll imbues it with the mystical energy of their god and if another cleric finds finds it then they can release that energy TO THEIR GOD, in return for which their god generally allows the miracle on the scroll to take place.

    Thus the capture and use of scrolls becomes an aspect of the whole "war by proxy" that clerics are generally a part of - part of a set of rules by which deities can strive for advantage without risking direct confrontation themselves.

  26. You can keep track of how many times your Christian cleric has used 'heathen' scrolls. After n times, he loses all his spells and must atone for having practised heathen magic. Only a pilgrimage to some holy place (Jerusalem, Rome...) or participation to a Crusade would grant him back his spell-casting abilities.

  27. I use Mentzer D&D, and make quite fruitful use of the basic idea that clerics don't get their spells from gods, but from being in "tune" with the Spheres. As such, I consider scrolls in analogy to magical formulae and mantras, i.e. they describe rituals in a "common" language which is agnostic w.r.t. to any agency responsible to create them. What's important instead is the alignment of the caster. A Lawful cleric, while able to cast a Cause Light Wounds, would refrain from doing so except in life-or-death situations.