Thursday, February 18, 2010

World Building, Evil Religions

A while back there were a couple of excellent posts about evil and evil religions one by Friar Dave at Blood of Prokopius and the other by Rob Conley at Bat in the Attic. Friar Dave goes into detail about what is evil and his concept boils down the absence of good (or God) there is evil. Fair enough. But for gaming purposes it doesn't work for me. Rob Conley takes on evil religions from a historical point of view. It sparked quite the flurry of activity and debate. Rob's points are solid, but the problem I had with it is it based in reality. I don't know about all you out there, but I play a fantasy game with spell slinging wands and greedy little goblins and swords that glow and beans that turn into giant bean stalks and where decapitating a troll is celebrated with elven wine. I'm not anti-reality, in fact I use it as a foundation to my campaigns, but there is a strong fantasy element that lets me tweak whatever I want. And I want evil religions in my campaign. There, I said it and it doesn't make me a bad person.

Developing an evil religion is tricky. I don't like to make mine the mustache twirler. Again for this there are different ways I approach this. One version is a cult or sect of an established religion. This group is usually made up of extremists that have taken one part of the teachings and developed their entire philosophy around it. Skewing the intended meaning when taken out of context. These make wonderful enemies and add a lot of flavor on a small scale. Cults are formed around a charisma leader. The leader is usually well versed in the religion he is preaching. He develops an 'us against them' mentality. He wants to build his own power base by keeping those around him loyal by using fear. Soon you have this core of people who will do anything. When something threatens the power structure, whether that threat is within or outside the group, it is dealt with harshly. All in the name of the god they worship.

The second version I use is 'it depends on which side of the line you are standing' evil. I have two gods that are always battling and their people follow suit. The followers of Delaquin think the followers of Sarrath suck and Sarrath followers of Delaquain are the suckiest. Both believe the other is evil. If I have characters that are coming in from the Delaquain side and they are in a culture that prays to her then Sarrath is going to come off as the evilest dude since the guy who decided to put peanut butter and jelly in the same jar. That just ain't right. And the same if they decided to start on the Sarrath side. In the beginning it's easy for one side to start hacking away at the other. They are evil and need to be destroyed. But once the religion is explored they may find they have way more in common than different. Epiphany baby.

The third type of evil religion is the true evil. The kind of evil where the followers of both Sarrath and Delaquain agree to put aside their differences and deal with their common enemy. This is usually some sort of primal force such as chaos or in my campaign oblivion that manifests itself and needs to be purged from the realm. Is this a religion? There is a strong enough movement that believes if the structure of pantheon can be destroyed and all those in power are brought down then a new world can be rebuilt in their view of how things should be. Another example from my campaign is when the god of the underworld decided he should lord of the gods and started putting foot to them. And everyone pays their respects to the god of the underworld, he decides who goes where and they want to get where they are going. During this time this god ended up murdering one of the more beloved goddesses who promoted peace and harmony. Her death corrupted him further. So you have this god gone insane who controls where the souls go. The people are screwed. The gods are screwed. He demands to be the only god worshipped and his clerics threaten if the people don't worship him alone than when they die they will be sent to the very worst of places.

The forth version of an evil religion is the racial version. This is a fantasy campaign and you may have evil races. Well they general worship someone who shapes their beliefs. The one that always stood out for me from the old Deities & Demigods was Gruumsh, god of the orcs. It seemed like a natural fit. So this kind of god can be added as an evil religion because they have a prolific race backing him or her.

Next part will include kingdom and empire building.


  1. A bit off-topic...

    Well, the real crux of the point is the attitude toward the sanctity of life, and which lives are deemed sacred, if any.
    --The rest is the methodology by which that world view is executed. The scary thing about that can of worms is that it is a quick leap to understanding that unless the PCs are only ever killing irredeemably-evil creatures, they are themselves committing acts of evil.

    Warfare and defending the innocent bystanders from predators of the two-legged sort can often fall both into and out of that crisp spotlight insomuch that the taking of a human life by a human is a tragedy, regardless of the circumstances which precipitated the (perceived) necessity of the killing. It becomes a question of what scale of repercussions are to be experienced if the repelling of a human-on-human act of aggression is not enacted, versus the price those involved in the defence are willing to pay personally (both physically and psychically).

    An organised religion that addresses these thoughts in a coherent manner could well be 'evil' in the fantastical sense, as easily as it could be 'good' by the same measure. It really boils down to who is doing the judging, and their standards.

    Two human realms bordering each other could each see the other as fundamentally corrupt; field forces to oppose the other's depravity; and both feel internally justified --receiving their respective blessings from the pulpits, and both be wrong, or both right, or neither from an outside, objective PoV.

    In the end, from a gaming perspective, I think the GM simply needs to take a hands-off approach and allow foes to interact as they will, with individual characters perhaps coming to some sort of method of solution, whatever that may involve (genocide, crusade, conversion by sword, or détente and co-existence).
    --Placing characters into a setting in which there are no easy conclusions to draw is perhaps not everyone';s cup of tea, but I find it helps let everyone feel free and also fosters a deeper (in-player) view of reality through the vicarious events of the game.

    Okay, so perhaps it was more than a little off topic. ;)

    Best to you and your gaming group,

  2. Actually I think it was right on topic. The only part I would disagree a GM taking a hands off approach just because I would be the one running them so I need to understand them. What motivated them. How far their beliefs will allow them to go. No matter how good or evil someone is that value something. In the primal sense it is a simple as food and shelter. And as you go up the intelligence ladder their value become more specific.

    TS thanks so much for your input. As always, great stuff.

  3. Thanks, Tim.

    I suppose I should have been clearer.

    The hands-off approach I meant was that once created/defined, the evil in question should more or less do its own thing.
    --Certainly it responds to, and in certain cases, is pro-active in its efforts, but by virtue of being 'evil' it doesn't need to be bothered with questions of moral righteousness, the implications of its actions, or indeed, what the 'good guys' are doing apart from how it affects running the shop.

    In the same way that a leve-1 dungeon should remain a level-1 dungeon if the PCs never investigate it until they are level-10. However, in both cases, once the L10 PCs kick the L1 dungeon, it has every reason to become something other than what it was in response.
    --Having other 'evil' groups beating up on each other and changing in response is reasonable, but if a tyrannical overlord and his evil church lackeys are successfully oppressing their own valley society, they don't need to up their game until the LG foreigners come in and start sewing seeds of hope and light in the midst of the most fertile growing region, for example.

    Sorry for not being clearer on that point.

    Glad to be useful in this discussion. :)

  4. Love the insane-despot of the underworld - looks like some of your pantheon just found its way to my game!

  5. i pretty much run things the way you describe in that post

    or at last i did until the PCs decided to _join_ the albino spider cult.