Thursday, April 12, 2012

Religion in LARP

So this past weekend was Easter, for those of you observing, and it got me thinking - what's the place of religion in a LARP?

When I first started, WAR was proud of saying that there was no religion in the game. The plot and setting didn't have it, and the oog atmosphere was neutral. Being able to say this is a nice point to tout to outsiders. Nervous parents can come and see that the game is not a cult, and those who might be predisposed to see some sort of devil worship can be told otherwise.

It also makes players of all creeds and none more welcome. No one has to worry about being discriminated against, or having awkward moments in (or hopefully out of) the game. No holy wars or inquisitions that everyone may not be comfortable with.

However, over time, I also started seeing negatives. Religion is a strong aspect in most table-top and fantasy settings. Historically, humans have had beliefs in deities probably since the beginning, and so an absence of those beliefs can feel like a hole in the story. Especially as your world tries to explain the big questions (even just in game). What happens when characters die? Where does magic come from? Are there greater powers out there? And so on.

From a story standpoint, having religion of some sort can add a lot of atmosphere. You can create a pantheon that suits your setting and allows your players to explore different aspects of the world. You can set up religious orders to guide the PCs and provide plot hooks, as well as make for easy points of story and conflict. With religion, there's an automatic system in place that characters step into that helps them categorize the world. If you see followers of Bobthor the Destroyer, you know they're bad; and if you see people wearing the symbol of Bambi the Healer, you know they're helpful (well, in general :) ).

And of course, religious figures allow you to insert powerful beings that can be challenging villains, or can simply step in to take action when things need to be steered in a certain direction. Having an established NPC with that sort of clout may keep people in line without ruining your immersion - if it makes sense. Obviously staff should avoid being heavy-handed with this, and let the PCs decide their own fate as much as possible. But in those instances where it might make sense, you can give your PCs a clue or a little help. Maybe even save them from death if they've put in the time and effort.

For PCs, it can be an interesting role-play experience to follow a certain path, as the restrictions or beliefs of various orders can make for good characters. These paths can also (with enough work) lead to things that make that character unique, like certain knowledge, abilities, or items.

WAR has since gone to what I see as a middle ground with the elemental paths and having the transform/apprenticeship system. Basically, the elementals fill in the deity role - they're powerful, involved, and can grant information and other favors. They also come with a built in recognition system - water vs. fire, death vs. life, and so on. This allows plot to build various groups and orders and stories with the same themes of an actual religion (devotion to a cause, fighting the enemy, and so on), but they don't ever need to take it to the point of saying "god" "worship" or otherwise confirming it is a religion. So basically they can still claim the "no religion" immunity while allowing the good stuff in :)

It also works for their transform system, since you can give each character their own sort of path and contact. Without that ability to customize, it can be frustrating for everyone following the same path to have the same NPC contacts, the same role-play suggestions/restrictions, etc.

But depending on your game, a pantheon or religious system may add a lot of immersion. For example, if you've got more of a historical theme, religion is a huge part of most time periods. Players can live out roles they grew up watching/reading about, like secret monastic orders and holy warriors. Having a pantheon can help get your players into the atmosphere, give them something to do, and give them something to shoot for. You can still single out characters for rewards, but there's not the same pressure to give everyone their own interaction.

And I think there's some weight behind saying someone was touched by an angel, vs. saying they were touched by an elemental - we've got more of an ancestral memory that gives the spiritual some heavier recognition. And you can use real-world happenings, documents, languages, and iconography to enrich your story and setting (hey, it's hard to make it all up yourself!). Most people attracted to gaming and LARP are usually understanding of the line between life and fiction, and aren't offended by in-game representations. But if you're casting the widest net, certainly a game that references real-world religion may put off more people.

Can the religious aspect be avoided all together? I'm sure, but it's probably going to be hard to keep it that way and keep it in game. Characters and players are going to want to know the answers to the big questions, especially as they get more attached to their characters. And now that LARP and gaming in general are becoming much more mainstream, and everyone is forgetting about the whole "Mazes & Monsters" nonsense, having to counter anti-fantasy stereotypes seems to be less and less important.

So what do you think? What's the place of religion in your game?


  1. Mark Henry ~MariusApril 12, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    I think religion helps define characters and their actions. A lot of time in D&D I start with a deity I want o follow that coincides with the rough character idea I have. By picking the deity I then can begin to choose more specifics about my character. In some cases it will even effect my race or class.

    I can understand why Nero stays away from religion. In its' absence I feel they should provide in depth backgrounds from starting cities that can help fill some of that void. By having the cities geography, history, professions, and other misc. it can help flesh out your character.

  2. Honestly, the lack of religion in WAR is one a big selling point for me. As someone who is fairly devout in my own beliefs, I tend to feel weirded out about even pretending to worship or pray to other deities, imaginary or not. I think if religion became a big part of the game in a way that I couldn't avoid, I'd have to think twice about continuing to play.

    The lack of religion provides an opportunity for people to set their differences of beliefs aside during the game. Hardly anyone at LARP knows what my religious preferences are OOG and I'm concerned that if I had to voice objections to in-game religion or not be involved with certain plot because of OOG concerns, it would impact some of my relationships with other LARPers both in and out of game.

    I look at the totally atheistic nature of WAR as a big positive because it creates a level playing field in which people of all beliefs and comfort levels can interact and play without judgement being passed.

    Also, one of the big differences between tabletop and LARP is that in tabletop you can say "my character prays to this deity" but in LARP you have to actually act it out and perform fake religious rituals. For the devout, that difference can cause a lot of discomfort--enough to potentially drive them away from the game compleetely. It does leave some holes in the story but I'm more comfortable with holes than with in-game religion.

    I like Mark's suggestion. The absence of religion in-game should be taken as an opportunity to provide more flesh and background to a character to make up for it! :)

  3. NERO really is a unique situation as far as LARPing goes, since we allow players as young as 14 to participate. But regardless of any one character's beliefs in NERO, it is hard from time to time to dance around the fact that not even the idea of "Religion" exists.

    I think that smaller games or games that require players to be 21+ can have a little more leeway with allowing religion to exist in game. The one thing that I have no tolerance for is mocking/satirizing a specific religion.

  4. I tend to agree on Beth with this one.

    However, I see Karin's point.

    I think the big difference between Elementals and religious deities, however, is they have finite powers. Plus, pc's don't "worship" them. While they may follow a particular path, I view it more as a profession/choice than having religious iconography associated with it.

    In Exiles, the religious aspects work because they are fairly intangible. There is a "church" and a "catholic priest' pc character, but they aren't actually delineated. There are no tenets drawn up in game that force pc's to adhere to them. There are no religious services in which you are forced to participate. No one really puts much emphasis or whatnot in to it. If that makes sense.

    My .2