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.