Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Light, the Dark and the Gray

I'm taking a break from my Z Kit posting to write about something which has taken up residence in my brain and refuses to let go -- religion in D&D.

The panoply of gods in a typical D&D setting has always bothered me on some level, mostly due to redundancy. If there's a god of war that the Humans worship, do we really need an Elf god of war, a Dwarf god of war, an Orc god of war? Why can't we just say that there is ONE god of war, venerated by all races, and if one of them is especially warlike then that god is considered their patron? I toyed with this for a while, but it never really developed because it quickly became so stereotypical that if we were talking about real cultures I'd be accused of racism.

So the general idea languished for a while, until Trollsmyth linked to a series of PVP strips about D&D, and Jade's dialog in panel 3 really grabbed me:

"It's fantasy. It's a new mythology." Indeed it is. Why then do we feel the need to shackle ourselves to the notion of multiple polytheistic pantheons? Why not have something that's a bit more accessible to our Christian friends?

This is how many of my ideas develop: take an existing conceit, add some contrarian viewpoints, and let simmer until fully heretical. Thus was born what I hope is a fully-developed cross-cultural D&D religion:

The Light, The Dark, and the Gray

The Church of The Light

It isn't a church in the typical sense of the word in that it doesn't worship a deity. Instead, its followers worship and revere the Positive Material Plane, although they don't call it that -- to them it is simply The Light. It is the fount of all healing and the source of all souls, and when parishioners die they simply rejoin the glory of the Light. When priests turn undead or heal the sick, they are directly channeling the Light.

The Light, as a supernatural force, has a very simple agenda: Promote life. Healing, fertility (of both crops and animals), bounty; these are what the Light promotes. All "normal" cultures revere the Light. Who would be fool enough to reject a force that wishes to heal everyone, regardless of race or alignment? Even those with evil alignments like to have their wounds mended.

However, all is not puppies and roses. The Light fosters openness; truly, one cannot do harm to one's neighbor if his actions are made plain to all. The Light wants to burn away the darkness, prevent deception, and establish truth as an immutable concept. These are all admirable goals, but as they say, the devil is in the details...

Or in this case, the implementation. Mortals, as is their wont, have screwed things up. If the Light seeks to burn away deception, then it is the purpose of the Church to seek out all deception and expose it for the world to see, and bring it to justice if necessary. This means that "privacy" is often considered a sin by more extreme versions of the Church. After all, if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide, and so you will have no problems if the nice Paladin enters your home and takes a look around. The Light Sees All, and if you try to hide something, then clearly you are a servant of the Dark.

Extreme adherents of the Light -- what other cultures would call hermits or ascetics -- do not live apart from the community. Instead, they are what we would call "naked, raving madmen." They live their lives in complete openness, hiding nothing (yes, nothing, develop that in as much detail as your depraved minds desire) from their community.

Churches of the Light are grand things, full of stained glass windows near the roof that capture the sun's rays from all angles, and large clear windows at the bottom so that everyone can see inside. They provide healing for free, but will not resurrect unless under the direst of circumstances, for that is "pulling a worthy soul away from its communion with the Light." The Church makes a tidy profit selling such things as Everburning Torches, Sunrods, and glass (indeed, they pioneered the art and still possess the finest glaziers around.) They're also excellent scryers.

Priests of the Light receive their spells at dawn.

The Cult of the Dark

You would think that the Dark would be universally hated in this setting, but it occupies a necessary social niche: people like their privacy. If the Church had its way, everyone would live in glass houses, and the entire town would know what you're eating and who you're sleeping with.

The Dark says, "Do what you want. We don't care." And that is very, very liberating.

If you're a young lover who is meeting her beau for a midnight tryst away from prying eyes, you are serving the Dark. If you plot to overthrow an oppressive tyrant in secret, you further the Dark's agenda. If you simply don't have the wherewithal to be honest all the damn time (and deal with the consequences thereof) and instead put on a "game face" when you're out in the world, and revert to who you really are in the comfort and privacy of your own home...

... you're a filthy lying Cultist and you should be ashamed of yourself! For your own good, the Paladins of the Light will kick your door down, drag you out into the street, and make you confess everything. You will feel so much better afterwards. You will.

The Cult of the Dark maintains that while the Church espouses honesty, only the Dark truly embodies it. After all, honesty is who you are when no one is watching, and the Light wants to watch you all the time. It wants you to be something that you aren't, forcing you to live a lifestyle you detest. The Dark doesn't care what you do. The Dark encourages you to do what you want. In the darkness, no one can see you, and no one will judge you...

... and from there, it's a very easy step on the slippery slope from "basic civil liberties" to "deviant behavior" to what is obviously evil behavior. If no one sees you sin, there are no consequences, and therefore you're free to indulge every little twisted desire you might normally repress. People who give in to the corruption of the Dark frequently become necromancers, assassins and blackguards, and those who die with its taint upon their souls frequently become undead. The Dark, of course, is the Negative Material Plane, the source of all destructive and necromantic power and cradle of undeath.

Shrines to the Dark exist in caves, basements, even dense thickets and copses of trees. They aren't blood-stained abattoirs or dens of perversion (though they can be); they can just as easily be a secluded glen where lovers go to escape the prying eyes of their parents. Wherever dimness and privacy reign, so too does the Dark. The Cult isn't organized like the Church, but it manages to flourish in individual cells. Cultists make a brisk profit selling wards and anti-scrying measures, and are the best fences in town. They'll even resurrect you... sort of.

Priests of the Dark receive their spells at dusk.

The Cabal of the Gray

Because sometimes people get tired of all this dogma and just want to be left in peace.

The Gray isn't so much a force or a plane as it is a compromise between the Light and the Dark. Yes, healing is good, but we'd like to keep our family drama private, thank you very much. Is that too much to ask?

By paying obeisance to both forces, they have created a third; a middle path of moderation, a gestalt entity, a "compromise god" if you will. If Light is Yang and Dark is Yin, then Gray is the line where they meet. Gray is the source of all other forces which are neither Good nor Evil. If you're looking for a place to jam elementalism, illusion, psionics, or anything else, this is the place for it.

Believers of the Gray aren't organized in any sense of the word -- there are no "Gray services" for people to attend. In fact, most people wouldn't even consider themselves Gray, just worshippers of the Light with some common sense and no time for dogma. Chores aren't going to do themselves, and while everyone needs healthy crops and livestock, sometimes you have to cut ethical corners to ensure that healthiness because the Church can't be everywhere.

If the Light is Neutral Good, and the Dark is Neutral Evil, then the Gray is just plain Neutral. It's the default belief system of most NPCs, who (conveniently) also happen to be Neutral.

Priests of the Gray come in two flavors: Druids who find all the Light-Dark extremism ridiculous, and wandering philosopher-monks who preach moderation in all things. Needless to say, the Church finds them dangerous heretics, the Cult thinks they're weaklings, and the common people are happy to take whatever assistance is offered as long as the Cabalists don't lecture them too much.

Priests of the Gray choose at character generation when to receive their spells: dawn, noon, dusk, or midnight.


Hopefully I've fleshed these ideas out enough that they make sense and provide multiple uses within a a campaign. I've tried to balance them out, putting a little evil within the good and a little good within the evil, just to make things interesting. It's all in how they are used... the Dark can further good by protecting rebels who oppose an evil (if law-abiding) tyrant, and the Light could seek to expose their conspiracy, while the Gray goes about its business helping (or hindering) both sides as convenient.


  1. I like this scheme. You start with the basic Good/Evil division that often overpowers a setting and introduce some very nice human ambiguity. Suspiciously lacking in slobbering frog demons or scary Book of Revelations angels as outlined, but I'd play it. Though it must be said that I'm a sucker that makes Paladins look like big pushy jerks even though they might be right.

  2. I like!

    At first, I was worried you were going the way of the Crystal Dragon Jesus, but of course you weren't. I love the way you've sprinkled some evil in the Light and some good in the Dark, and I'd be tempted to take that idea even further, blurring the lines even further and having known representatives of both in every hamlet and city. People might mistrust the Dark and it's representatives, but they worship it none-the-less, recognizing it as a legitimate and powerful force in their lives due respect and demanding propitiation.

    For some reason, it's tweaking thoughts of Blue Rose, but I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the duality thing.

    The other nice thing about this idea is that it makes it very easy to decide who gets which spells. The spells remain flavorful without having to adopt or recreate 2nd edition's very baroque but cool spheres.

    The lack of actual anthropomorphized deities is also interesting. People don't actually worship beings, but forces. It'd be fun to spin these out into organizations and personalities. I was already thinking of some respected (and probably martyred) philosopher-saint of the Grey before I'd even finished reading that section.

    I've been kicking around the idea of a very High Fantasy game with lots of fey in it based heavily on Taichara's inventions and the art of Brian Froud. If that game ever gets off the ground, I may steal this for religion in the human lands.

    (PS - Got the link to you up today. Yeesh, yeah, I know, I'm slow. ;p )

  3. I particularly like the idea of giving good and evil campaign-specific flavor. Privacy vs. honesty is an issue pretty much everyone understands, and it makes sense as a lens to lay over good vs. evil, but it's also very distinctive. These are religions that players will remember.

  4. Ooh, lovely comments! :D

    @Jeff: There's no reason why angels and demons couldn't exist in this campaign setting -- they'd simply be in service to higher (lower?) ideals rather than a deity -- although I would use the lesser-known Yugoloths or Demodands instead of demons, just to play up the divide.

    @Trollsmyth: I'd not heard of Blue Rose before. I'll need to give it a look.

    Also, I had originally thought of naming this "The Light, the Dark, the Gray and the Fey" but I really couldn't think of a fey belief system that didn't boil down to "Let's get drunk/high and fuck/abuse the mortals." If you can develop one that makes sense alongside my Three, I'd love to see how it turns out.

    @Oddysey: Thanks! And welcome to my blog. :)

  5. No, wait... not yugoloths or demodands, but NIGHT HAGS. Especially if you give them necromantic magic. Now you can have hag coveys as main villains/recurring characters!

  6. I often create characters that Eschew the established pantheons in D&D and follow their own religions, since I rarely play a Divine Caster, it's just for flavor's sake.
    Your homemade ideals resonate really well with my own independently generated concepts, and are, in fact, fleshed out WAY more than my own. I may have to start using these...
    Kudos! These rule.

  7. Well, if the Grey is a middle way that seeks balance between the two, adopting one and then the other as the situation calls for it (symbolized by a stitched seam or a sheet bend knot), then the Fey perspective would be a universal view that denies the dichotomy, and instead perceives both Light and Dark as halves of one greater whole. The Fey perspective would celebrate dichotomies while embracing the notion that all are false and that everything is part of a single, great universal One.

    Part of the fun of transforming people into beasts is watching the poor humans freak out. The fey understand that the difference between a pig and a person is merely a matter of perspective. The terror caused by blinkered human perspective is always good for a laugh.

    This would make the Fey both more benevolent and more vicious than those who live within the worldview of Dark vs. Light. On the one hand, the Fey have a perspective that allows for universal empathy. They feel for the plight of rabbit in the jaws of the wolf. On the other hand, that universal empathy also allows them to feel the wolf's thrill at the hunt (as well as the grumble of hunger in her belly and the desire to feed her pups). To those inside the Dark vs. Light dichotomy, the fey would seem amoral. The fey would respond that the morality of the Light is based on a lie that would destroy all worlds if taken to its logical extreme.

  8. @Trollsmyth: First you say they deny dichotomies, then you say they celebrate them?

    I am confoozled.

  9. tried to email ya, but it bounced back saying your account was disabled?

  10. This feels to me like a classic Order/Chaos division more than one about good or evil, something vaguely recalling Moorcock or Zelazny, or Modesitt's Recluce setting. Order/Chaos isn't a bad dichotomy on its own, and a little more nuanced than Good/Evil, but it's still pretty simplistic for my tastes.

    I love pantheons and even multiple conflicting pantheons because they provide a lot of differing flavor and nuance within the broad tags of alignment. To point to some stock/Greyhawk gods, for example, Heironeous provides a much different take on Lawful Good than, say, Rao, or even Cuthbert. And Pholtus? Oh my, there's a reason the Pholtans and Cuthbertines loathe one another; they're too alike.

    I also prefer it because, well, it's a more realistic world that way. These pantheons developed in isolation from one another, just like they did in the real world, and then they met. Racial/ethnic/cultural politics aside, in the real world, when two cultures with differing religions one into one another, syncretism tends to be the last thing on either one's agenda, particularly if one is going conquering. It happens more in young faiths trying to gain a footing (Christianity's roots that rather resemble a large number of other cults of the time), and one culture rising in proximity to another and taking its place (Babylon abducting Sumer's gods), but you're going to have a hell of a time getting elves to absorb dwarven gods, or vice versa. They may talk about some of the same things (war, fertility, death), but with very different perspectives born of their cultures and environments. If nothing else, pantheons are a powerful tool to provide some distinctive flavor between differing cultures.

    Eberron recalls some of what you're on about, though. It still presents it with multiple gods, but there's a broad pantheon that's good, and one that's evil (or at least, not-good, in some cases). Each has its place in the natural order of the world, and people are more likely to follow a pantheon as a unit than an individual god (people whose lives delve into a particular god's area overmuch, like blacksmiths and the god of the forge, will focus on one, but not to the exclusion of others). There's also the Church of the Silver Flame, which basically is the same thing as your Church of the Light.

    Though for my homebrew setting, I kind of go half and half. Different cultures have different pantheons because, frankly, that's how it tends to work out. Especially when you're divided by oceans or large deserts or just plain simple distance. There's also a syncretic pantheon of growing popularity where each god embodies some broad principle, in a distant and neutral kind of way. Their faiths schism all over the place, so you've got good cults of the god of death (who's also the god of peace and freedom from suffering) and evil cults of the god of creation (who, by his nature, is the creator of disease and natural disasters, too), and everything in between. The only monolithically evil force isn't even evil, it's just the unthinking force of destruction.

  11. Sorry, yeah, not the best description. Let me try again:

    First, they recognize that everyone perceives dichotomies around them: light/dark, male/female, etc. And the Fey enjoy these they same way they enjoy a fine work of art or a gripping play. They'll gladly lose themselves in them, but they never mistake them for reality.

    They perceive such dichotomies as illusions, masking a reality in which all things are united at a fundamental level. Light and Dark are handy concepts by which to understand your day-to-day living, but mask the truth in which both powers spring from the same source. The dichotomies have their uses, but those who can't see beyond them are considered little better than the intellectual equivalent of children.

    That make more sense?

  12. I recently inherited a Forgotten Realms campaign as the DM. After looking over the 100+ deities (and that's just the human ones), I started working on a way to pare them down to around a dozen or so.

    I stole shamelessly from Raymond Feist's 'Riftwar Saga' and have an original god of chaos/evil/etc who's setting about destroying the entire world, with my little twist being, that he's taking out the gods first to make things easier for him to accomplish this =)

    I'm combining portfolios across the board and then adding in my own little twists.

  13. ...but the Fey are obviously aligned with the Dark. Not the "necromantic/negative plae" Dark, but where else would you put creatures that rely on deception and half-truths as their primary means of interaction. Or so says the Church of Light and their oppressive inquisitors.

    Or are they?
    I'd figure Feys are more Zen Buddhist mixed up with the Younger Wittgensteins theory of language (that we have a number of concepts that are non-sense. Truths that are beyond language and forms the frame upon which we understand language) and than followers of the Dark. Their actions do follow a logic, their own very non-human logic.
    Any "Fey" belief system could be centered around some weird system of Fey Koans.
    The reward would be understanding the Fey and their Tir-na-nog (or what ever the Fey lands are called), to think fey and thus become Fey. Immortal and with almost godlike abilities to shape the reality around you.

    The Priesthood of the Fey would be kind of weird. They have some understanding of the fey, and can to an extent shape reality and conjure up illusions. But not only are they quite self-absorbed with their ascent to Fey-hood, but thinking Fey-ish (or at least their understanding of what Fey is) leaves them very prone to acting in a way that might be constructed as "abusing others".

    They obviously do interact with others to make a living, but they tend to be shifty fellows.
    A possible interpretations would be Fey priests traveling around as Gypsies or carnies. Entertaining, cheating but also providing valuable services in order to make a living while they search for victims of the fey. So that they can interview them and try to learn more of the Fey, find new Fey Koans and gain more powers etc.

  14. @Allura: Exactly. If you let it more than one pantheon, you're hard-pressed to explain why you can't let them ALL in.

    @Trollsmyth: So you're saying that the Fey are Discordians, then? (Read the quoted section here if that needs explaining.)

    @Kenneth: I can't please everyone. *shrug*

    @Bunny: Hm, you bring up an interesting notion. If Light is Neutral Good, and Dark is Neutral Evil, then it could be argued that Gray is Lawful Neutral (throw out the dogma and use what works) and of course Fey is Chaotic Neutral.

  15. Absolutely, now that you mention it. I've always considered gnomes to be fey, so it fits pretty well.

    Been way too long since I read that book...

  16. Heh. Seriously, gods forbid trying to please everyone, especially me. I just tend to babble a lot anyways. You've got a very solid model on the Order/Chaos dynamic here, one I'd at least pick through again later if I was going to go that route in a game. I've no problem seeing a fantasy world that actually works that way because, hey, fantasy. I love the Order/Chaos magic system and philosophical divides presented in the aforementioned Recluce books, so it's not like I don't think it can be done well.

  17. Several days late to the party - but great post! Very nuanced interpretation. I like the idea that alignment is expressed in such social ways - this is the way I tend to think of it in game, vs the gods vs devils schtick (except when that is too convenient to pass up...)

  18. Very thought provoking. I would consider the Grey to be more chaotic good (to heck with the laws/dogma, do what's right) and the Church of the Light spanning LN, LG, and NG depending upon who you are dealing with: the inquisitor that walks into your home to look around on the off chance you are up to something and because he can is LN, the priestess healing all who are injured no matter their beliefs as NG, and paladins doing their thing as the LG.

    Now the inquisitor walking in just to be nosy starts drifting towards the dark and would enter LE territory - he knows best and the laws support his ability to do what he's doing. Sort of the dark twin of the Gray Cabalists.

    Depending upon how you view the fey, they could occupy several different niches. Do they keep their word if given? Do they tell only the truth but not necessarily all the truth? Are they pranksters performing for their own amusement? (I've been listening to audiobooks of the Dresden Files which invoke the fey in many of the books.)

    I think I'm rambling now, so I'll stop here.

  19. Rambling is always good and very welcome!

    But the point I was trying to make, and what you carefully exemplified, is that it is very easy for each of these religions to become twisted based upon misinterpretations of their followers. All the Light truly wants is to promote life; everything other than that is dogma created by fallible beings who likely have an agenda.


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