This essay was prompted by the discussion of Hosier Rob’s situation on season 4 episode 15 of the Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast. What follows are my views of the subject of characters changing faiths during game play.
For simplicity, and commonality of terminology we will frame our discussion of characters, faiths and apostasy in terms of the D&D rules.
What does “faith” really mean in the context of a role playing game?
The first question to be considered when discussing any character motivated by religion is what does “faith” mean in terms of the game? Clerics, Druids, Paladins and a host of other characters are driven by and must adhere to the religious dogma of their faith. If you are the type of player or your game is the sort where such things don’t come up that’s fine, more power to you, but the rest of this essay will probably be pretty much meaningless to you.
The word faith can mean many things in different contexts. At its most basic level faith means believing without knowing. That’s a bit of a problem in a game where the gods roam the world in physical form and give spells to their adherents. In relation to characters in a D&D game setting, faith has to take on a somewhat different meaning. Characters in a D&D game setting know that their god exists as well as all the others in the grand pantheon of the game. The faith that a character has is that their god will come to their aid and that they are the instrument of their god’s will. They must act in accord with their god’s wishes. A character of faith in a game doesn’t get to do what THEY want to do, they are compelled either by their faith, or by fear, or by duty or whatever to do the will of their god. Certainly some gods would be more flexible than others. It could also be that the aims of the character mesh with the aims of their god. This is not an absolute, and I’m not saying that the character has no free will. However, depending on the god and the dogma of their god a character’s choices could certainly become very limited very quickly.
As an example my wife plays a cleric of Ilmater from the Forgotten Realms game setting. The character is an empathic healer. As it is her purpose to, “alleviate suffering,” in her faith she cannot refuse to heal someone. Being an empathic healer she literally takes their wounds or sickness onto herself and there is a very real possibility of her dying in the attempt to heal someone. She bears numerous scars, and a badly healed broken leg all from healing battle wounds. She’s never taken a single point of damage in combat herself.
Another philosophical possibility for a religious character is that of the “true” faith vs the false gods. In this scenario, the religious character believes that their god exists but that others are false gods or no true gods at all and merely pretenders. This is, in my opinion, a more difficult position in a game as blatantly pantheistic as D&D. It is however one option for a religious character.
Apostasy and the player character
The act of apostasy is defined as, “A total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principals, party, cause, etc.” For a character (particularly a player character) in a D&D game turning apostate from their faith has potentially very dangerous ramifications. The god of law and justice might be beneficent but may look very unkindly on the paladin that left his faith to join the god of tyranny. This opens up all manner of possibilities for adventure and role play. Gods have all manner of followers and servants that they can send to punish the apostate and return them to the fold, or at the very least make sure that they can’t be of any use to their new master. Even if their new god offered protection from the minions of those they had left the price tag is potentially very high. Evil gods likely don’t give away anything for free after all.
Apostasy is not a trivial decision, and would not be arrived at over night. The exact path that leads the character away from one faith and into another is so wildly individual that I won’t even try to map one out here. What I will say is that it should be a major series of events that lead the character to that point. The player and the character deserve for it to be meaningful. As the GM in my mind it should become a significant part of the story arch possibly not at the beginning, but as it moves forward it should become more dominant at least for the central character.
I would weave it into my story arch and make the things that push the character in that direction part and parcel of the central story arch. Perhaps the paladin of the god of law and justice begins to see injustice and suffering as a result of the prevailing laws of the land, and begins to doubt that justice can prevail in the face of such pain. It’s small, but it’s a start.
Like everything else that happens to a player character, it should have meaning.
Characters who are philosophically opposed to the majority of the group
The ability of a character who is philosophically opposed to the majority of the group to coexist in the game with the rest of the characters is a product of the player’s ability to play their character, and the way in which they approach the dichotomy. Another relevant point is the nature of alignment in the game. I take good and evil to be relative terms rather than absolutes. There is not an over arching EEEEVULLLL !!! that pervades the lands. Good and evil as I define them for my gaming purposes are relative measures of selfishness. The good person will go out of their way, potentially causing harm to themselves to help others. The neutral person will not go out of their way either way. They will seek to benefit themselves, but will not do harm in the process. The evil person will go out of their way hurting others in the process if necessary to benefit themselves. An evil person doesn’t likely think of themselves as being, “evil.” Rather they simply see their need or want to be preeminent.
So whether the party is evil and the loner good, or the other way round, the real question is will they work to hide in the group, or will they work to cause discord and uncertainty in the group? Either can be done and either can work. In my experience the loner who sets out to hide in the group and keep their differing philosophy to themselves is more likely to work in the long term but is by no means the only way to approach this situation. Personally I’m not adverse to strife in the party as long as it doesn’t bleed over into strife between players.
What I find much more telling than characters of differing alignments are characters who’s real philosophy is different. A druid in a group of wizards would likely encounter some fairly significant differences of opinion. I’m not saying they would be insurmountable, but they could certainly lead to moments of tension if not outright violence.
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