Cradles of Civilization I: Cultural and Religious Progression

“It’s superficial progress, they call it a liberation.”
— “Part II (The Numbers Game)” by Bad Religion

“Religion itself is outraged when outrage is perpetrated in its name.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

Five fertile crescents form the cradles of civilization — China, Egypt, India, Meso-America, Sumeria. With the exception of India, these civilizations look nothing today like they did 7,000 years ago. Egypt certainly maintains none of its former glory and Mexico City is the opposite of the Aztec and Mayan societies that flourished in Central America so long ago. But ancient Sumeria and Iraq have much in common. So much so, that I’m going to use them as the basis for a discussion about culturally and religious progressions in fantasy gaming… and why you never see it.

For starters, let’s do away with the idea that fantasy roleplaying games are fantasy stories “structurally.” Instead, let’s admit that the frontier towns clashing with humanoid cultures with lower technologies are more closely related to stories of the American West. Conan was being pulp in the fantasy milieu and Tolkien was about myth-building and romanticizing the past. High Fantasy RPGs share a little of Tolkien’s view, but structurally are post-modern attempts to save the world each week. True fantasy stories are about the right to rule and the cost of that right. The Monomyth of the Hero’s Journey, made popular by Joseph Campbell can be told in any genre, so if you’re thinking that fantasy stories can also be a hero’s journey, you are correct. But these stories explore different tropes that hero’s journeys with different genre backdrops.

By I am getting away from my point.

Most often, when we play in a fantasy world or write stories in fantasy game settings, the world is presented as some static, unliving thing that never changes, and lacks any kind of organic history. The world is precisely the tool the author needs to tell the story he wants, and the history is retroactively designed to get the result of the static society cemented into place for publication and consumption. And if that’s how it is 99% of the time, so be it. I’m not going to tell WOTC to stop making unrealistic setting material for the Forgotten Realms. Give the people what the want. But, it occurs to me that perhaps a better understanding of how and why culture develops might help us all produce better gaming worlds to explore. Well. Maybe not better. But more organic.

First, let’s go all the way back to the first civilization: Mesopotamia, specifically for my purposes Sumeria. The ancient society of Sumer concluded that cities thrive through tolerance of diversity. This is well-documented. But tolerance of diversity is easy when everyone is of the same ethnicity, culture, and religion. As Sumer grow, this would not always be the case. As populations rose, technology advanced, and culture shifted to accommodate these changes. And 7,000 years ago, culture was synonymous with faith.

So. What does this teach us about religion?

In order to understand it all, we must accept that before civilization formed and people moved to cities, we were hunter-gatherers with animistic faiths. There were no churches or written languages yet, so the stars had to be explained and the knowledge passed on. Each subsequent generation that followed hand to recite a litany of fables about their “mythology” to each successive generation. And so on. But as things grew more complicated, so did faith. As Mesopotamia changed the Sumerian faith became more complicated, highly influenced by Zoroastrianism and the Ugaritic faith. And after the fall of Ur and Sumer, the people returned to the desert and Judaism was born (Abraham was Sumerian). From there, the faiths of Christianity and later Islam evolved; all branching from the Sumerian culture.

Like culture, Religion is an ever-evolving process (until the Age of Reason), as it must adapt to its tenets and faiths the shifting culture and the growing needs of new ethnicity migrating to the cities. We live in modern times where Lutheran and Methodist and Baptist have been written in stone for some 200+ years. So, we lack the perspective to see these adaptive changes. And even if we did, the changes don’t happen so quickly that people change overnight. But the important thing to understand is that religion and culture were once synonymous (still are in some parts of the world) and faith grows more complicated as society grows more complicated.

So. What does this have to do with gaming?

Roleplaying game faiths are rarely divided into subsects. There is almost never a new faith, branching from an old, that is slowly replacing the one before it. And this is the sort of static world design that permeates gaming. In the west we are taught not to argue religion or politics and this might certainly have an impact on our desires to see faith presented in as saccharine a model as possible in our entertainment. But if roleplaying games are made up of weird polytheistic pantheons that share nothing in common with the faith of Jehovah or Allah or Ganesha or whatever, why are we afraid to present them in a more organic light?

Is it because fantasy roleplaying games are predominately middle-ages driven, a time we often view as being mostly an issue of Catholicism and Islam? Are we forgetting the mass of Gnostic faiths that existed until Pope Innocent II declared war on all of them? Why does gaming ignore the divide of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, perhaps the richest most interesting aspect of the Judeo-Christian past? Why must fantasy RPG faiths being polytheistic set against a culture that is clearly too complex to explain with anything but monotheism? Is it just easier and more palatable to address faith in as sterile a way so as not to offend anyone? Can fantasy stories exist at all without addressing faith?

Roleplaying is a medium similar, but not identical to novels. The structure of roleplaying is nearly boundless. One of the arguments of the old guard is that they can do anything they want with their setting-dependent games. And if this is true, then fantasy games can explore reaches of imagination that novels and movies cannot. The prototypical 5-year campaign. The lush world setting painstakingly detailed by an obsessive GM. The clash of human development and orcish boundary markers as the backdrop of culturally schism. The characters who grew from 1st to 80th level. The list goes on.

The years of gaming provide countless evidences of roleplaying’s potential to be more than the sum of its parts. But the hobby continues to develop gaming material in these artificial vacuums as if there were no previous generations who made an individual fantasy setting “present” possible. And this is just unrealistic. The change should be noticeable, if only by the players and not their virtual counterparts. Where are these settings that acknowledge a deeper understanding of where humanity actually originates and where it is going? Is it a perennial trope of fantasy gaming that cultural evolution cannot take place lest it not be fantasy anymore?

I’d be interested in getting people’s opinions of their personal experiences of campaign dynamism before moving onto part 2.

One thought on “Cradles of Civilization I: Cultural and Religious Progression

  1. I think it’s easier for RPG companies to present ‘fantasy’ religions that are all a mish mash of various things that rarely evolve or grow. However, I think its probably for the best at the same time as almost any fantasy game falls completely apart under the weight of its own history when you think about the vast time scales that most of them are drawing on. Most have an ‘old age’, a ‘dragon age’, an ‘elf age’, a ‘dwarf age’, a ‘magic unparalled’ age, and each one is supposed to be the pinnacle of magic, fighting, psionics, etc… and the only real differences are when gods are killed and replaced. In some aspects Gary’s original Suel mythos had some interesting bits as it also had to face another pantheon and in some aspects the new Forgotten Realms strives a little bit with that as the Red Knight is Tempus’…. student if you will and a few other bits, like one sun god becoming another and Mask dying, but Religion is such a massively complicated facet that if it becomes as important as it is in history, the importance of dragons, elves, and ancient ruins goes away if you have to always worry about the dozens of numerous religious wars spread throughout the land.

    Some authors can have fun with it though. Michael J. Sullivan has a whole empire and faith based on a lie in his Riyria Revelation trilogy. Fun reading.

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