The Role of Religion in Dark Ages: Online Roleplaying

David Ethan Kennerly. May 20, 2003

Religion is my favorite feature in Dark Ages.  It brings people together.  Since there are eight religions, and each of them covers a unique and significantly large fraction of the ideological pie, there is something for most people.  Chloe outlined their various beliefs in “Reflections on the Interactions of the Gods.”  (http://www.darkages.com/2002/community/phi/Chloe_Theology.html)

 

There is no one complete answer, so I hope these answers will suffice (from least important to most important):

  1. Personal Interest
  2. Experimental Game Design
  3. An Alternative to Violence
  4. Theater for Imagination
  5. Epic Role-playing
  6. Creative Inspiration

 

Personal Interest

There's several ways to practice religion.  There is the private practice, which William James adequately explained in Varieties of Religious Experience.  Whereby divinity is felt.  There is the philosophical practice, whereby divinity is contemplated.  There is the mystical practice, whereby divinity manifests.  There is the social practice, whereby worshippers congregate.  I was interested in giving a game that created a bit of each of this. 

Personally I am pan-theistic.  In my life I've gone through religious transitions.  My parents raised me as Seventh Day Adventist.  I gravitated toward a sort of hippy Unitarianism when I entered my teens.  I continued to gravitate toward agnosticism.  I became athiest and then began practicing Buddhism.  Then I was turned on to Thelema, which itself is an eclectic synthesis of religious traditions.  I can understand all these beliefs, and I avoid imposing any of them.  Instead I hope to offer the gems that each one has.  Even an athiest can benefit from prayer.  Even a Buddhist can benefit from wine.  Even a skeptic can benefit from faith.  There's traits in every religion that work.  That have profound benefit to its practitioner. 

 

Experimental Game Design

Since Dungeons and Dragons, there have been religion in RPGs.  In MMORPGs up until now, though, they were just backstories.  The religion did not respond to the player.  He could pray as much as he wanted to the in-game god and it meant nothing. 

When I began on Dark Ages, there were many items that fit into eight categories.  Soonsung Kwon designed these in Legend of Darkness.  Dark Ages is a mod, or modification, of Legend of Darkness.  It's close to a total conversion, since there are so many features added to Dark Ages: religion, politics, creative contests, fairs, epic events, crafting, labor, etc. 

I thought that the items and the gods, which Soonsung Kwon had made a few mythic stories of, were interesting.  I aligned each of the gods to one of the pinnacles of the octagram.  From there I conceived a theology.  The relationship between each god.  Each god has exactly two allies and exactly two enemies.  And the alliances overlap so that eventually one's allies become one's enemies.  This gave game balance, and ensured factions. 

 

An Alternative to Violence

I've always wanted, as a player, to be able to interact in the world in many ways.  I've always wanted multiple solutions to problems, so that a creative solution can be encouraged.  In Dark Ages, religions offer the player another way to interact with the environment.  Before Dark Ages, in MMORPGs there has been mostly monster-bashing.  There is plenty of that in Dark Ages, too.  But what if you don't care for monster-bashing?  In truth, bashing monsters became fairly dull to me in most every game I've played not too far into the game.  There's only so many ways to kill a monster, and each one of those ways quickly becomes uninspiring. 

Perhaps the first philosophers asked: Is there more to the world than its materials?  To the religious personality, the answer is yes.  In Dark Ages, it is possible.  One can spend a significant amount of time and gain entertainment within the temple.  The players do this.  They participate.  They also discuss and evolve the nature of each diety. 

It's always been my aim in Dark Ages to offer non-combat entertainment.  Religion offers another way.  It's also been my goal to make the society itself entertaining.  Religion offers social methods.  There is the religious mass.  A religion offers roles to play, like Joachim Wach writes about in Sociology of Religion (56).

 

Theater for Imagination

Religions are sort of social magnets, in that a religion aligns its members.  The most dedicated gravitate toward the center.  Worshippers naturally respect them if they embody the ideals of the religion.

There are eight religions in Dark Ages.  Each one offers a different perspective.  In the theology, each one also offers a different phase of existence.  Each one is a slice of a cycle that a spiritual being may travel through. 

The Aisling is a candle in the darkness.  Each god or goddess is also a light of some sort.  Having these landmarks to the soul allows the Aisling to find which she most resembles and belong to it.  Dark Ages' religions provide another way to meet people of similar ideologies and philosophical perspectives. 

 

Epic Role-Playing

Religion offers a means for role-playing to be done on a community scale.  In a MMORPG, which has thousands of players, its not practical to tell stories of every player.  But it is practical to tell stories of eight entities, to which many players align themselves.

The religions offer a way to tell epic stories.  Most religions anthropomorphize nature and add to it a super-nature and a super-man, its gods.  These gods are fashioned in the image of man.  I guess it's deep within our psyche to see entities at work in the world, causing everythign from floods to faminines, to war or peace. 

In Dark Ages, I wanted each person to have a way to participate in epic events.  With thousands of players, the satisfaction of being one in a thousand does not feel personally gratifying.  It feels like being lost in the crowd, being insignificant.  But by belonging to a religion, one has a team.  The size of religion is smaller, and the nature of the comraderie goes down to the core of their creativity.  Now each person can have at least a taste of personal experience in the epic events. 

For example, in the Entreaty, the first epic event, which was started around the end of summer 1999, the Grimlok and Goblins went to war over religious relics.  Both claimed ownership.  Both worshipped their own gods.  Both entreated the players.  Players, as members of their own religions, competed to gather the fragments of these religious relics.  The winners were the first to receive mythic creatures that they could summon. 

 

Creative Inspiration

Not only a spiritual being but also a creative process may travel through the eight phases of the octagram.  Like the ten sephira of the Kabbalah, the twelve signs of the western zodiac, the twelve animals of the eastern zodiac, the three elements of alchemy, or the three gunas of Hinduism, there is a cycle that each of us go through when we create. 

I've encouraged players to express themselves creatively.  In the religion, there are now eight ways to do this. 

                1. Spontaneously.

                2. Compassionately.

                3. Serenely.

                4. Inductively.

                5. Deductively.

                6. Economically.

                7. Courageously.

                8. Destructively.

Many players understand this and gravitate toward their own inspiration. 

Throughout the world there is a theme: the Aisling, the creative spirit within.  It is a unique inspiration.  So there is not one god of worship.  In fact, the Mother/Sun Goddess, Danaan (modeled after the Celtic "Dana").  Is not an objective of worship, since she is positioned like the white light.  Where each of the Temuairan gods is one semi-mortal expression of that light. 

In my life, I've found that the experience of one's creative potential is liberating.  It has freed me.  It allowed me to conceive of many possibilities and to realize a few of those. 

Dark Ages religions are eclectic.  They blend Eastern and Western cultures, albeit with predominance of Western influence, since that is what players understand best. The myths of gods become the stories of the culture.  They are an integral part.  Dark Ages is a fictional world.  Its gods are fictious.  But the experience is real.  The inspiration is real.  The volumes that people write, and the thoughts that a community in discourse conjures is real.  It is a theater for the creative spirit. 

In an MMORPG, the bandwidth is too low to experience anything religious.  It's just a connection displayed on a computer screen.  But when you are encouraged to imagine yourself in a relationship with divinity, the deep elements within yourself that religious people describe as the reflections of divinity shine.  Thoughts you hadn't expected within your grasp naturally come to your tongue.  Depths of ethical decisions become fathomable.  An appreciation and reinitiation into the wonder of the world is born.  That's being an Aisling. 

 

Further Reading

Chloe. “Reflections on the Interactions of the Gods.”  1999. (http://www.darkages.com/2002/community/phi/Chloe_Theology.html)

David Ethan Kennerly. “To Be: The Magic of Role-playing.” 2003.

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