• Creating Gods: A Bottom-Up Approach

    by  • June 25, 2012 • Design & Art • 13 Comments

    A common liberal view of religion (popularized by esteemed religious scholar Huston Smith, a Unitarian Universalist and author of the classic comparative religion textbook The World’s Religions) is this:  All religions are fundamentally the same.  They are different paths that lead up the same mountain, to use Smith’s metaphor.  This viewpoint has been espoused by countless people around the globe, and is fairly popular among modern liberal people.

    The spirit behind this viewpoint is a noble one.  It is a viewpoint that suggests that while humankind might be different, we all are equals, and each of our viewpoints is deserving of respect.  However, some scholars suggest that this viewpoint is naive.  They suggest that minimizing the differences between faith is disrespectful, and thus gets in the way of meaningful interfaith dialogue.
    So what does this have to do with religion in RPGs? Hold on to your holy symbols, I’m getting there.

    One of the critics of the liberal viewpoint is Stephen Prothero.  Rather than viewing all religions as having the same destination, Prothero argues, it may be more useful to viewing all religions as having the same starting point.  “What the world’s religion’s share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.  They begin with this simple observation:  something is wrong with the world.”  The notion of exactly what the problem with the world is differs from religion to religion, and the rituals and beliefs that each religion has created to deal with the problem is just as unique.

    A few real-world examples, to illustrate the point:

    • Christianity views sin as being the thing that’s wrong with the world.  The answer to sin is salvation through Jesus Christ, expressed via various rituals (baptism, communion, etc.).
    • Buddhism views suffering as the big problem.  The answer to suffering is nirvana, as achieved through the ritual of following the Eight-Fold Path.
    • Islam views self-sufficiency and arrogance as the world’s problem.  The answer to that is obedience to God as expressed through the Five Pillars of Islam.
    • Judaism views spiritual exile as the problem.  The answer to spiritual exile is seeking closeness to God by obeying His laws.

    Are these analyses simplistic?  Of course they are.  Are the statements above broad generalizations that are boldly glossing over thousands of years of tradition and scholarship?  Yep.  Is there a lot more to (for example) Judaism than the notion of “spritual exile?”  Absolutely.  Prothero’s intent is not to be disrespectful of religion (and he is a proponent of the view that understanding the differences among religions is crucial to respecting religions other than your own).  But the problem-oriented approach offers an interesting and, I think, useful framework for looking at religion.

    And it can be very useful for game design.

    In fantasy RPGs, the gods (and it’s usually polytheistic) often get short shrift.  There is often a list (and a huge list) of gods of very specific domains.  It seems like the designers of these games created the gods first, and then created the religion as an afterthought, if they indeed bother detailing the religion at all.

    What would it look like if the religion were designed first?  Well, rather than focusing on a god’s portfolio, we would focus on this:  What do the people of this setting need?  What problems do they have that could be solved by a god?  After all, a god that doesn’t solve any problems for his followers — even if their problems are abstract or esoteric — isn’t worth following.

    The religions listed about focus on solving very big, universal human problems: they speak to people who struggle with problems like the meaning of existence, the existence of suffering, and how to be a good person.  In a monotheistic setting, your religion may want to address these problems.  In a polytheistic setting, you might feel a little freer to have the gods solve smaller problems.

    Let’s suppose a theoretical nation called Urf, because “Urf” is fun to say aloud.  Urf is a harsh place.  Snow covers the ground for nearly nine months out of the year, and the inhabitants eke out a marginal existence by farming what they can and fishing what they can’t. What sort of problems do these people face?  What sort of religion could help them understand and cope with their problems?  There are many answers to both of those questions.  Here’s an answer that I came up with:

    The people of Urf view isolation and division as the great wrongness of the world. The people of Urf value community. Resources are scarce, so they have tightly-knit communities and help out their neighbors who are in need.

    The religion of Urf would accordingly place a strong value on community.  It would punish thievery and intracommunity quarrels severely, and emphasize charity and hospitality.  The god of Urf is unlikely to demand great sacrifices (due to the scarcity of resources), but may have complex rituals in the form of dancing, or music — meditation seems out-of-place for a religion based on bringing people together.  Hospitality and generosity are important virtues; gift-giving may be seen as an act of piety. The religion might even encourage shamanistic rituals to promote a sort of expansive feeling among worshipers.

    So what might the God of Urf be?   Well, based on the above information about the religion, Urfgod might be considered to be the cumulative spirits of the ancestors — a sort of collective unconscious.  It would protect against the cold, and extoll the virtues of unity and warmth.  Urfgod might be harsh and fascistic (Urf is a harsh place, after all, so maybe the person in charge isn’t so nice), and punish outsiders and transgressors mercilessly.  They might have a notion of “hell” where souls who turn away from Urfgod are frozen into crystalline isolation, doomed to eternal frozen desolation.

    Sprituality and religion have played a huge role in human civilizations, and vice-versa.   A bottom up approach to religion can help create a world that feels rich, organic, and maybe even more meaningful for your players.



    Dymphna posts frequently on Google Plus as Dymphna C.

    13 Responses to Creating Gods: A Bottom-Up Approach

    1. avatar
      June 25, 2012 at 16:58

      Dig it :) This is a great way to look at religion, period, and useful in game design. Thanks.

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    2. avatar
      June 25, 2012 at 17:48

      Most of your examples are monotheistic; how would you cover polytheistic societies with this method?

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      • avatar
        June 25, 2012 at 22:13

        Glad you asked, Susan :) My original draft had a polytheistic sketch in it as well, but I edited it out for brevity’s sake.

        There are a number of ways that you can approach a polytheistic religion. One way is to approach it from more or less the same angle as the monotheist society. “What is wrong with the world?” can potentially have many answers, and a god for every answer. Sometimes it’s not just that “Injustice exists and the wicked go unpunished” that is wrong with the world — sometimes it’s “injustice exists and the wicked go unpunished and the sea is fickle as all hell and women miscarry and sometimes crops fail and arrgggh!” Consider also the history of the culture in which your religion has arisen; many polytheistic religions have had gods added over time as diverse peoples have been assimilated into a single religion.

        This seems like a vague answer, but I hope it’s useful.

    3. avatar
      Melody Haren Anderson
      June 25, 2012 at 18:52

      Nice ideas. I’ve used them myself, but mostly to modify existing deities.

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    4. avatar
      June 26, 2012 at 02:44

      Have you ever read any of the old Glorantha supplements for Runequest? Cults of Prax, Cults of Terror, etc.? They have some incredibly useful section headings like “Reason for Continued Existence” and “Cult Benefits” that codify these kinds of questions, and they serve as paradigms for good religious design in games.

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      • avatar
        June 27, 2012 at 19:49

        I have not. Thanks for the recommendation!

        • avatar
          June 28, 2012 at 00:04

          Hope you enjoy them. I’ve also heard great things about the Mitlanyal for Tekumel, though I’ve never read it myself (I’m not much of a Petalhead).


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    5. avatar
      June 28, 2012 at 06:31

      MAR Barker, creator of the world of Tékumel, once wrote an interesting essay on this topic called “Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit.” While one could make many objections to both tone and content of the essay – many have seen Barker’s attempt to teach a player what it means to perform a sacrifice by having him sacrifice a child as “fucked-up”; I’m not entirely comfortable with it myself – it is an essential read. Unfortunately, at the present time, it is only available from drivethrurpg.com for $US4 (‘m not advertising – I just don’t want to breach copyright laws) .

      There is much to be said on the subject of Tekumelyáni religion, but sadly a comment is not the place to do it.

      And as a PetalHead (I love this – may I use it?) par excellence, I too recommend Mítlanyal.

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      • avatar
        June 29, 2012 at 21:50

        Sure, use away!

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    6. avatar
      July 5, 2012 at 08:40

      I actually found this particularly interesting, especially when you take into consideration so-called “purely malignant deities” — examples that keep popping to my mind include Hextor, Nerull, Gruumsh, the Mockery and Lovecraftian entities like Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and the like.

      I mean, I can get my head around “monster” deities like Gruumsh and Maglubiyet — those deities would serve a particular purpose in the communities they serve, and this approach would actually deepen not only the deities themselves, but the communities themselves. But I can’t wrap my head around deities like Hextor, Nerull and the Mockery, whose existence seem to be just as adversaries, or even Lovecraftian gods, who are less objects of worship and more objects of fear.

      And then this raises the question of people who ascend to deity-dom. How do you manage something like that?

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    7. avatar
      July 9, 2012 at 04:33

      This is totally awesome. I, um, have nothing constructive to add.

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    9. avatar
      July 17, 2012 at 16:56

      I find this a fairly awesome idea – one I’ve never had before myself. I’m now pouring through old notes of mine from the campaign worlds I’ve created over the years to see a) if I’m guilty of doing the top-down method and b) for any that I am, how can I alter things.

      Thank you for sharing this!

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