The Good, the Bad, and the Gray

In honor of Easter, I though I’d discuss the usefulness of religious establishments in D&D games and fantasy fiction.

Religious organizations, both good and bad, seem to be a staple of the modern fantasy series. The Wheel of Time series has the Aes Sedai, the Sword of Truth has the Sisters of Light, A Song of Ice and Fire has many more—the list goes on. And yet in older fantasy series–Conan, Lord of the Rings, the Shanna series, the Earthsea trilogy, and the like—religion is notably absent. There is no evil church trying to control the population; there is no religious organization fighting against the Big Dark Evil. Somehow, these older fantasy series seem to have sidestepped religion. Oh sure, there are elements that allude to religion, but nothing like these more modern series. So what is it that has caused this integration of religion into fantasy fiction? Is it a good thing? Or is it just lazy? And has it been used so much that it is now joining the many other cliches of fantasy?

I think ultimately it depends on how the author is using religion in a book. If an oppressive religious organization is just a way to fuel a reader’s frustration and to provide a villain, then that seems like a cliche; it seems easy. If a church or a religion is tangled up in a fantasy world, and—like in our world—possesses both good and bad qualities, then it is more convincing and contributes to the overall verisimilitude of the world. Of course, different rules govern fantasy worlds. In a fantasy world where a god or gods are actively involved, it is easier to point to a deity and say “he is evil” or “she is good.”

In Dungeon & Dragons, this scenario is often the case. The gods are tangible beings that you can gain as allies or can battle as enemies. In a core setting, I think it’s fine to line up the gods along the lines of good and evil. This presentation lets a player and a Dungeon Master easily disseminate the different forces in the world. In my game, though, I like to mix it up a little. Sure, I still have the demon lords and the devils who represent pure, unadulterated evil. Heck, the PCs are currently dealing with worshipers of Vecna and Tharizdun, who are bent on domination or destruction. It’s important to give the PCs something they can focus on and know is evil, yet I learned early in my D&D experience that you can do this and still play with the players’ assumptions.

In my first D&D campaign, the Dungeon Master had a religious organization that at first was an ally to the PCs. It helped us fight off a horde of undead led by a vampiric lich. Later, we discovered that the ranks of the church contained dissension, which inevitably resulted in the assassination of the emperor. We had to reconcile these conflicting aspects of the church. The experience was rewarding, and it helped create a campaign rife with intrigue and moral ambiguity.

If you’re playing a D&D “Point of Light” setting, it’s likely that any churches and religious organizations are fractured, having few if any connections to neighboring states or settlements. If you’re like me, though, and enjoy a game with mighty competing forces—vast empires, powerful city-states, secret organizations capable of toppling kings—I heartily recommend giving serious thought to what role you want religion to play in your game. It’s easy enough to dodge the issue; let the gods be silent or distant observers. If you plan on involving divine powers in your campaign, though, consider playing with the assumptions of good and evil. For me, the most interesting stories are those that remain thoroughly in the gray space between good and evil. That’s probably why I prefer the unaligned gods of the D&D cosmos over those that we define as good or evil.

As an aside, if you’re interested in the unusual origin of Easter, I recommend checking out the article here. The origin of the holiday is not what most people think.

Next Blog: Monday, April 5

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