Monday, August 4, 2014

Religion in D&D: Sacredness

How deep does the DM want the rabbit hole to go?  How well-defined should the religious practices, beliefs, and traditions be and how much should the DM demand the players conform to these?  Let's be honest, the lion's share of players won't be all that interested in a deep understanding and knowledge of complex religious practices, taboos, and rituals.  They're interested in killing monsters and getting loot, right?

Some players, however, will enjoy and appreciate the deep immersion in aspects of rite, tradition, and belief in a campaign setting.  Some settings will lend themselves very well to such detailed and complex concepts as ritual purity, for example.  Knowing the audience is important for the DM but as for myself, I prefer to run for a specific type of player and if a player in my game does not enjoy my presentation of a world then they are best suited to finding another DM.  Period.  No hard feelings.  We should all be adults about this.

So, it is with that caveat that I consider the building-blocks of belief and tradition in a campaign setting, especially one such as the Forgotten Realms.  The Realms has always been a favorite of mine, alongside Dark Sun and Ravenloft.  However, the ruminations I made for D&D in my last post on religion in the game apply equally to those settings as well.  It is not enough that gods and religions exist in a setting.  There must be some sort of expression of belief in the setting as well.

So, let's discuss the concept of sacredness in D&D worlds.  To begin this discussion let us start with a quote from Mircea Eliade's introductory chapter to The Sacred and the Profane:
The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from "natural" realities.  It is true that language naively expresses the tremendum, or the majestas, or the mysterium fascinans by terms borrowed from the world of nature or from man's secular mental life.  But we know that this analogical terminology is due precisely to human inability to express the ganz andere; all that goes beyond man's natural experience, language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience. 
...We propose to present the phenomenon of the sacred in all its complexity, and not only in so far as it is irrational.  What will concern us is not the relation between the rational and nonrational elements of religion but the sacred in its entirety.  The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.  --Eliade, p. 10

What this demands of the DM is to mentally divorce his running of the campaign world from the realities of Planescape and The Manual of the Planes, if the DM actually uses them.  Why do I say this?  Because these works establish a rationality for the multiverse of D&D that goes against this concept of sacredness that Eliade is identifying and describing throughout the work.  By building up a framework for the Planes and the dwellings of the gods, by giving the gods hit points and other statistics, they're able to be approached by players, interacted with, and heck, even killed and replaced.

When I hear stories of players who have achieved godhood in their games, I shudder to think of the damage being wrought to the sense of wonder and mystery endemic to the human religious experience as it is simulated in D&D.  Maybe I harp too heavily on realism, especially for a fantasy game (though that's another discussion entirely) but I want to run believable worlds in believable systems and this sort of thing just breaks it down too much for me.  Unless the game is purposely calibrated to simulate the heroic epic where the players are demigods like Hercules, the effect of the setting is diminished and the appreciation for the scale of the power these gods have and the distance they possess from mere mortals is traumatically reduced.

Does that mean the DM should entirely dispense with the Planes?  Absolutely not.  The DM can know that there's a rational system at work in the background so long as the players' characters do not know.  If a player is capable of divorcing his knowledge of the Planes on a metagame level from his character's ignorance of the outside universe, a sense of wonder at the majesty, terror, and mystery of the supernatural can be maintained.

That which is sacred is by necessity other.  It is otherworldly.  It is set apart.  In comparison to that which is sacred, that which is mundane or secular is offal.  Eliade describes how a tree struck by lightning can be seen as sacred because it was touched by something far beyond the understanding of the populace.  Stones, buildings, and objects can all be sacred and they possess a kind of uniqueness.  As a medieval studies professor of mine in graduate school once described it, sacred relics possess a sort of "holy radiation."  Nearness should generate awe.  These things should not be touched with unclean hands, these words should not be spoken with unclean lips, this sight should not be seen with unclean eyes, etc.  It's special in a way that is not rational but not random either.  There is reason for these things to be special but that reason cannot be contained in secular rationality.

This is something that has been lost in secular modernity.  Even Protestant Christianity does not have such a ritualistic and irrational reverence for the sacred because in Protestant Christianity that which is sacred is incapable of being perceived.  The Bible is just a book, the pages and ink just that--pages and ink.  The ideas within The Bible that are sacred to the Protestant Christian.  Contrast this with the Jewish approach to the paper and ink which comprise Torah scrolls, which should not be directly touched by human hands once completed and instead pointers are used or the handles are held, or the Muslim approach to the Koran, which is wholly sacred because it contains the words of Allah as transmitted by Mohammed.  The Protestant Christian is highly rational (yes, believe it or not) and highly secular, especially in comparison to adherents to other religions and belief structures both current and historical.  Indeed, I've argued elsewhere that Protestant Christianity, building upon the Renaissance, made possible the Enlightenment and the secular rationalism/humanism of Modernity.  Had Protestantism not arisen, the Renaissance would have been suppressed beneath tradition and doctrine from the Holy See.

But I digress (and that's an argument for another day).

Americans have a long, long legacy of Protestant rationalism.  Thus, we're not used to the idea of mystery like the Catholics (unless one is from a Catholic family).  Even then, American Catholicism is effected by that secular rationalism that the American Protestantism bears.  (NOTE:  Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Jerry Falwell, here, who may seem irrational in comparison to humanist/atheist/secular thinkers like Dawkins, Russel, Hitchens, etc.  This comparison is to ancient, medieval, and even modern religions not to actual non-religious rationalism and humanist or atheist secularism themselves.)

Therefore, it is quite likely that non-American players or non-Protestant players may actually have an easier time of dealing with this concept of irrational sacredness.  I can't speak for how truthful that may be, though, it's just a guess.  Nevertheless, Protestant and American players have a small challenge in accepting and readjusting their mentalities during game.  We have to forget that lightning is actually an electrostatic discharge that equalizes a charge imbalance between two regions of space separated by a highly resistant medium and remember what our ancestors knew--that the world was full of spiritual and supernatural power that we didn't understand.

NOTE:  To my Canadian, UK, and Commonwealth readers, of whom there are a few, please forgive me for not setting you guys apart as an aspect in this argument.  Since I'm not a citizen of your countries and haven't been raised there I don't feel qualified on speaking about any approach to sacredness in game except for my own native one.  I'm happy to hear perspectives on the issue, though.

Hence, we have to break with rationality for the purposes of immersion within a world that should actually function rationally.  Yeah.  I know.  It sounds crazy, right?  The entire point of suspension of disbelief being difficult or easy is the accuracy with which the system a) simulates reality and b) what doesn't simulate reality should still be governed by rational systems.  So, if a rationally believable religious system in-game is to be realistic then it should be somewhat irrational?  Wow.  Welcome to Postmodern/Deconstructionist D&D!

Perception does not equal reality.  Humans often mistake perception for reality all the time.  Even scientists, secular rationalists, empiricists, etc., all mistake their perceptions for reality as well--confirmation bias is, after all, a bitch when you have to interpret data.  No human is immune.  We are all guilty.  That's why belief has power.  Belief influences perception and therefore humans will approach reality based on their assumptions about it, no matter how right or wrong.  This is why postmodernism and deconstruction arose in the first place--as a critique of the assumptions and beliefs of post-Enlightenment modernity, secular empiricism, etc.

Thus, the perception that the waters of a river, no matter how polluted, have healing and purifying properties will see people bathe within it and risk infection.  It's irrational, especially when confronted with facts.  In the absence of measurable proof that the river has "holy radiation" and it can cleanse ritual impurities, we can claim that it's detrimental to bathe in it.  Well, that's all well and good but in D&D the gods are assumed to be real (clerics do cast divine magic spells, after all).  Indeed, in The Forgotten Realms, during the Time of Troubles the gods actually did walk the surface of Toril.  So, at least in game, you can have a river that is polluted and bathers risk acquiring all manner of nasty diseases but that bath actually can have a measurable spiritual effect--in metagame terms.  This makes for interesting dilemmas, especially if some characters are reaching for rational empiricism in a world where gods can walk the earth.

So DMs should seek to delineate sacred spaces, sacred phrases and words, sacred events and time, sacred histories, sacred tunes and music, sacred objects, sacred boulders or rocks, sacred trees, sacred animals, sacred geographical phenomena, sacred symbols, sacred bricks, sacred flames, sacred anything.  These things are sacred because the gods say they are (or at least the priests and shamans do).  They don't even have to have a mechanical effect.  The players don't have to know or not.  Keep them in the dark if you want.  It's easier on your book-keeping to know that if a player bathes in the River Ashaba in Shadowdale that he gains a one-time +1 to his Will saves against mind-effects he can write it on his character sheet.  It's more interesting if he doesn't know but you (the DM) do.  Then again, your mileage on that may vary.


Anonymous said...

A lot of the sacredness you mention was present back in the 1980s and 1990s, back when there was no movement to vilify or erase the gamer niche of game master. Let me explain:

Sacredness often comes from a sense of an underlying meaning to reality that can be glimpsed but not yoked to human (or sapient) control, including the perceptual control that comes from quantification. Many people focus on the seeming randomness or inexplicability of the lack of quantification, but that quantification is only a manifestation of the central notion that the sacred can not be reduced to formulae, to books of rules, to unvarying principles or "laws", or to any of the other means through which humans attempt to flatten meaning into finite sets of tools they can wield, dismantle, modify, or put away into storage whenever they wish.

This essence of the sacred can be seen in Judaeo-Christianity when God provides no name except "I am" and when God confronts Job, in Hinduism when Arjuna is urged by Krishan to adhere to his dharma even when he can not understand it, in Buddhism when we are reminded that the insights can not be harnessed within words, or when Lao Tse reminds us that the Tao which can be explained is not the Tao.

In the gaming of the 1980s and 1990s, before the anti-game master movement came into power, that sense of the sacred was inherent in having a game master embody the campaign reality.

Just as secular science can be expressed in formulae and books of rules or "laws" that can be leashed and driven forth by anyone with enough knowledge of science and/or its practical crafts, so the campaign's physical science is expressed in game mechanics formulae and game mechanics rule books. Want to know the composition of water? Look in a chemistry book and realize that (barring a miracle) water is always two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Want to know how to cast magic missiles or aim a starship phaser? Look in the rule book for the unvarying game mechanics involved.

However, an individual game master would have his or her own aesthetics, interests, sense of humor, eccentricities, etc., many of which could be noticed and taken into account but none of which could be quantified into controllable rules because humans are not dry iterations of formulae and rules.

So the player who was attuned to the underlying meaning provided by the game master's unconscious humanity -- i.e. the sacredness of the campaign world -- would notice that when this particular game master had to make a sudden judgment call about whether the horses were spooked, the PCs who had been kind to cats were more likely to be able to calm their horses. A bad player would say, "Oh, Bill likes cat-lovers, damn his bias!" but a good player would say to himself, "Ah, I see, cats have something to do with the poetry of this universe." Similarly, the player would notice that moments of good luck came more often to those PCs who did not torture. A bad player would grumble, "Ah, Mark's subconscious wussiness is giving an edge to the good PCs, and that aint in the rule book for me to find loopholes, so damn him!" while a good player would think, "Hmmm, there seems to be a universal morality to this universe beyond what we can play 'rules lawyer' with." Or the player would notice that this game master tended to describe safe magic fountains as silvery but cursed magic fountains as flashy, and instead of personalizing this as an eccentricity of the game master's descriptive habits, she or he would realize this is one more manifestation of the underlying patterning of the campaign universe provided by the game master who had created it for the players.
-to be continued-

Anonymous said...


These were not seen as acts of conscious or unconscious favoritism any more than an American would label karma as cosmic favoritism or accuse Jesus of favoritism for choosing apostles instead of letting anyone who could make a d20 saving throw become an apostle. They were seen as an underlying pattern of meaning that any genuinely involved game master could not help but impart to a campaign by dint of his or her humanity, and they were welcomed not resented.

Of course, that all changed with the decade plus of anti-game master outcries.

It always reminds me of a friend who adored GM-less gaming and hated the notion of a game master, a deist Christian, who once told me something to the effect of "I resent the very idea of miracles because miracles are nothing more than God's disrupting scientific law for the sake of His agenda, and I want a world where I can rely on scientific principles to stay the same at all times so I can get on with my own agenda without any interference from God's messing around with physical law!" He was the same way about gaming: he didn't want mystery or meaning (or a game master) or any sense that there might be anything beyond the game mechanics because a person can't control those things, and he wanted to have absolute control in his gaming.

And you can never have the sacred where you have absolute control and the deification of rules lawyering.

Dave Cesarano said...

I feel that this comment has so much interesting stuff going on that I'm going to post a response as a regular blog entry. Give it a few days and I'll have something up.