Recommended Reading Review: M. A. R. Barker, ‘Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit’
Some time ago, Kent spent some time talking up this essay by the author/engineer/creator of Tékumel as being exemplary and inspiring stuff for the GM interested in establishing their own campaign world. Relevant to my interests though it assuredly is (and I’ll get around to building worlds once I’ve blown the dust off my practical at-the-table GMing skills, as it’s all for naught if one’s running a boring and directionless game), it’s taken quite a while to get around to reading it.
Barker’s starting point is a polite but firm dismissal of how most RPGs treat religion, on two grounds. Firstly: that nothing like enough detail about the on-the-ground societal aspects of a fictional religion is presented (especially since the gods in these religions are almost always active forces with the capacity to bestow miracles on the favoured and smite the unworthy and so on and so forth) – what rules does this god insist that my character abide by? what is this god’s perspective on the killing of orc babies, the raising of the animate dead, and other pressing ethical issues of the day? What festivals demand observation, what privations must be undergone, and so on and so forth? Secondly: that a combined lack of scholarship and tendency to treat mythology as a grab-bag of concepts to be employed according to the Rule of Cool leads to an unoriginal and rather jarring world, as if a sack of totems and trinkets had been upended onto the table and deposited wholesale, and then the depositor had simply walked away and left the Crucifix tangled up with the Eye of Horus.
Barker’s point is not that this is ‘historically inaccurate’ – unless you’re playing a historical game, who gives a rat’s nadger? – but that it’s half-hearted. If you’re going to dump all these active, living religions side by side, then some thinking needs to be done about how they interact, how the cultures which they shape/are shaped by interact, which are subsuming the others and which are co-existing and which are in outright conflict and so on and so forth.
Barker also raises a point concerning creativity and the making-up of things out of whole cloth, a point very similar to that of our friend Mr. Mieville that I’ve quoted with tiresome regularity in these transmissions, to whit:
It has to be underlined again and again that we are creatures of our own cultures, bound by them, limited by them, and unable to produce anything that really transcends them. We do have the broadening of our horizons vouchsafed us through history, philosophy, anthropology, and a host of other disciplines; yet we are still parochial in our outlook and limited by our own mores as to what we can and cannot imagine.
The point, one feels, is that one can never get away from one’s religious roots (in the sense that one’s culture has a religious component) – even to identify as an atheist is to identify as being against (a-) a particular conception of the divine (-theism). If I might paraphrase Terry Pratchett: if the atheist does not believe, why do they bother to deny? The act of non-belief is not just personal, it’s political and cultural, it’s an opposition to the machinery of religion acting on the personal life, it’s a decision made based on processes of thought which exist in a culture and language profoundly influenced by religion. It has to be. Without the idea of gods, there’d be no atheists.
(While I’m on this Pratchett tangent, I still think his finest moment is in Nation, where a young lady, frustrated with the “so Northern Hemisphere” thinking of her explorer father, turns a globe on its head so that South America, Africa and Australia are at the top. That’s the same sort of thing. It’s a symbolic retreat from or challenge to our view of what the world looks like and how it works, but it’s utterly and completely inspired and caused by that worldview. This, I think, is what Barker’s getting at – your attempts to do something different implicitly contain that which they are different from.)
The upshot of all this, Barker claims, is that it’s both difficult and potentially unrewarding to entirely make something up – difficult because, without ‘a staggering amount of work and thought’, the new world will simply be a repackaging of its creator’s own cultural machinery, and potentially unrewarding because familiarity sells and unfamiliarity poses a thorny problem for the player who wants to enter into that world (cf. the popularity of Tolkienian claptrap, ‘Lovecraftian’ as a devalued adjective, and, I’d argue, the ‘just glue some gears on it’ form of steampunk as a comfortable, superficial form of time tourism).
Nevertherless, the good Professor believes there is some value in making the effort, and stakes out a route by which he recommends doing it. Barker starts from real-world religions – those which (for the sake of argument) we can say might have been divine revelation at some point but which have definitely evolved as social and cultural machineries over time – and, quite rightly if you ask me, determines that what starts as ritual and ceremony rapidly becomes narrative and legislation and ends up involving damn near every aspect of a society on some level.
Barker therefore begins the true thrust of his work with the notion that authors or game designers ‘err on the side of oversimplification rather than that of overcomplexity’. They either create a religion which fails to resonate across every aspect of the societies it’s embedded in (assuming that there isn’t the tedious one-for-one equation between species, society, religion and damn near everything else which frankly pushes me toward vomiting every time I encounter it in a work of fantasy – breathe, Von, breathe!), or they rehash ‘the old Faithful’ in a fashion which bores Barker to tears (and me too, for what it’s worth).
This is not just my own insatiable dilettantism: bored and blase with the old, casting about for a new plaything. It is just that as fantasy roleplaying games have evolved during the past five or six years, I have come to believe that a really good “world” has to have as many of the dimensions of real life as possible. There always have be more unknowns, facets which I have not seen yet, materials for further curiosity and speculation, and complexities which can keep me interested long after the initial thrill of the world or its game has worn off.
It’s not just a matter of phoning it in by whipping up a few names and one-paragraph descriptors for your gods either; these are entities which are going to govern the lives and livelihoods of player characters, and so you’re going to want to answer a lot of questions about the gods and the religions from the players.
(At this point I think Barker maybe overestimating ye typical fantasy role-player, or perhaps he’s just being generous. Does everyone who sits down to play an RPG really want to know the ins-and-outs of their character’s religious and social life? Some assuredly do – Hark had a great many questions about the Imperial Cult when she came to play Dark Heresy, questions which the game – rooted as it is in that conceit that there is Only War in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future – failed to answer to her satisfaction. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying who was in the majority, but there are definitely players out there who just don’t care about this sort of thing. While such a group might well be easy to run a game for, I’m not sure whether it’d be a particularly fulfilling game… but let’s leave it at that and get back to the Professor, shall we?)
That said, the single-paragraph description of the god is still there; Barker demonstrates just how much of a religions’ nature can be derived from examining a detailed and well-written description of its god. However, it’s not actually Barker’s recommended starting point. We’ll come back to that in a moment, after noting Barker’s consideration of the existence of gods as active forces within a world, the necessity of some curbs and checks on magic to stop the setting from simply unravelling under the curious gaze of players who really can take the world apart to see what makes it turn, and the relative nature of alignment. Barker grasps something which becomes clear to many gamers after a while, to whit that ‘Our “Good” appears “Evil” when viewed by the other side’ – or vice versa, as Sutekh the Destroyer would have it.
(It’s another Doctor Who reference. Just… never mind.)
Anyway, what Barker also notes about alignments, besides their relativity, is their situational, flexible qualities. Accepting the distinction between Friendly and Hostile, as he terms the mechanical manifestations of alignment (shorn of the moral terminology imposed by many developers who instinctively enshrine their cultural mores as ‘Good’ and the other stuff as ‘Evil’, even if they’re preoccupied with the ‘transgressive’ potential of ‘Evil’), he has trouble with anything else, particularly Neutrality. Neutrality, to Barker, is a state of casual indifference or scholarly detachment on the part of an individual; it is not something which can be adopted by an entire culture to ‘events which intimately effect its welfare.’ There is isolationism, there is dealing with both sides, but there are inevitably things which make cultural neutrality untenable. Isolationism only lasts until someone learns to cross the Great Wall or until Pearl Harbour is successfully bombed.
In reality (to use that ugly word again), “alignments” shift with the winds of politics and social change. The enemies of today are the friends of tomorrow. I can imagine starting out in a fantasy campaign with Sect X in violent conflict with Sect Y. Events within the campaign may then make it likely that this hostility must end, and the two groups might end up as allies and the best of friends.
I bring this up partly to illustrate that the essay has considerable value beyond the issue of building religions in fantasy games, and partly to demonstrate how Barker actually recommends building religions: from the ground up. Worry about the social, the political, the economic situation on the ground, in the cultures where the player characters move – then get your arse up there and think about what kind of gods might appeal to those cultures, or might have formed those cultures through exerting influence on their situations. Treat religion as the social process it is and you’ll get something rich and deep for your trouble.
You’ll also get something that’s much closer to genuine fantasy. Barker points out that there will almost always be some point beyond which a particular player will not go, no matter how immersed in their character they may be. It might be having the character marry their sister ‘to keep the blood pure’, it might be personally sacrificing the innocent child to the dark powers, it might even be committing delayed-action genocide on a race of beings just because their leader is a power-crazed, blood-tainted destroyer of worlds. Fair play – we’re not in this to horrify ourselves into catatonia (Lamentations of the Flame Princess, take note).
Yet we should not regulate it all to the pleasantly innocuous atmosphere of an English back garden. This may be all right for games produced for children, but the players of advanced fantasy role-playing games are usually young adults. We should perhaps attempt to offer interestingly different, even “alien” roles to play, roles which teach the need for a deeper understanding of how other societies think and act, which help us to rid ourselves of our parochialisms and prejudices, and which build bridges of empathy rather than burn them down.
Barker is championing a building of worlds which develop along the lines we recognise, but which are not just comfortable palette swaps layered atop our own perspectives and positions. It’s fantasy as thought experiment and developmental tool rather than fantasy as coddling – an escape to something better rather than more of the same. Personally, I think that’s fantastic (whoops). However, the Professor is not quite done.
He notes, at the last, that such “realistic” societies propose a problem for our customary “adventuring” narrative – the more “realistic” a society is, the less likely it is that player characters will be able to get away with the sorts of things they get away with. My current group are very much embedded in Doctor Who, in that narrative where the mercurial Bohemian can swan into any place of importance anywhere in the world, snark off at the local tinpot dictator, act like they own the place and basically get away with it. That can’t happen often in a world built the way Barker builds them. Far from being just some among many “adventurers” in the world, the player characters might actually be near-unique; they’d have to be, or what would be interesting about them and make them worth playing?
Once Our Heroes have explored the dungeon, slain the beasties, and scarfed up the treasure, they must go back to living in the culture, and they must also become men and women of affairs. There is no social value to being an “adventurer”. Real power in any society is based upon wealth, prestige, family position, and in being the smartest cog in the Establishment’s machine.
Barker’s suggestion is that these characters must, like characters in a novel, eventually ‘retire’. He suggests that their duties and high social positions logically prevent them from gallivanting off, and that they can perhaps be returned for special and highly important occasions. (I refer you, in passing, back to my previous thoughts on ‘what to do with high level characters’ – a mythic solution rather than a political one, perhaps, but a similar ‘retirement until needed’, or perhaps promotion to the bottom rung of some celestial hierarchy. Twentieth level in Midgard is essentially level 1 in Valhalla.)
This is the ultimate virtue of Barker’s essay. By discussing religion in gaming he is not just talking about religion or about games but about all the other things which feed into that issue. It is impossible to talk about religion without talking about the rest of the society in which a given religion is couched; likewise it is impossible to talk about the RPG without talking about the principles and practices of play: of characters, adventures, styles and approaches. Barker maintains throughout that there is nothing inherently wrong with doing this differently, and that what he’s outlining is simply one way in which things can be done according to one set of priorities: of creating interesting, dynamic, and original fantastic societies, which actually live up to being called ‘fantasies’. He does it all because, at the last,
It is pleasant to be able to lay aside the endless details, elaborations, and superstructures upon superstructures of the “house” gaming magazines and consider some of our basic assumptions. We’ll all probably create and play better for it.
Lest it be thought that he’s just essaying forth, though, let me add that he settles down to present what is both summary of and system for his principles; a thirteen-point method for devising a fantasy religion and a set of example solutions for a particular problem facing developers, that of ‘intelligent weapons’. Like all good writing about gaming it eventually comes down to gameable concepts, and it’s on those that I’d like to conclude.
The proof of the proverbial pudding being the eating, my next RPG post will be an attempt to lay out Barker’s principles and generate a religion or two for the world I’m lethargically attempting to define for my own purposes. Stay tuned.