Fantasy Monotheism: Faith by analogy

“I am [in your world].” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

How do you create a fantasy game compatible with broadly monotheist values?  If it adheres completely to religious teaching, it ceases to be a fantasy.  If it is too fanciful, it reduces the sacred to frivolity.  The way around this dichotomy is analogy.

As a Christian game designer striving to create a game-world rife with adventure but reflective of monotheistic virtues, I turned to analogy in a similar way that C.S. Lewis used allegory in his creation of Narnia.  Many game design challenges emerged during the process of crafting this religious/fantasy hybrid.

Genesis (sort of)

Let’s begin with a brief introduction to the game-world itself.  “The World of Nimbus” is a pocket universe embedded in the Lower Planes of the Great Wheel Cosmology.  This pocket universe is about the size of Earth’s solar system and has a single star and a single planet.  It was invaded by fiends who damaged its protective shell allowing physical evil and chaos to seep-in, introducing arcane magic.  For millennia fiends enslaved humanity until the messiah arose.  Known as the Torchbearer, his teachings of law and goodness pushed back evil and chaos, allowing humanity to escape their bonds and eventually form an empire.  As long as humans adhere to the teachings of the Torchbearer their empire keeps evil at bay.  But as their faith wavers, so too does their border.

A struggle between good and evil

The victory of good over evil is central to the spiritual life of many on Earth.  So too on Nimbus.  Whereas most game worlds allow players to take on any role be it heroic or villainous, a monotheistic game world must take a stand.  Heroic adventurers struggle to shore up a flagging and increasingly senseless empire.  As the citizens collapse into greed and sensuality, adventurers aspire toward a higher truth.  As civilizational decline takes hold, heroes live by the mantra, “be in this world but not of it” .

Divine magic:  why not smite ‘em all?

One problem with a monotheistic game is, if you have an all powerful deity why not just destroy evil and return to a Golden Age?  A game designer must craft a believable and dramatic struggle that maintains a need for heroic deeds.  The wise believe the Torchbearer created Nimbus in the heart of the Lower Planes to forge a people unlike any other – capable of contending with and overthrowing evil.  The test placed upon the faithful is to grow in righteousness until the Torchbearer returns in glory.  Humans have largely failed in this task, allowing the Torchbearer religion to be replaced with a watered down version of the faith.  True clerics and paladins fled the continent but set up a rebellion before going into hiding.  These rebels, regardless of their class, have the chance to access divine magic through interactions with nine holy sites.  From a game design perspective, this dramatic religious schism allows for an all powerful deity to be rediscovered – and to have the divine essence of the world reignited through deeds of faithful adventurers.

Arcane magic:  reigning it in

With divine magic being so rare, wouldn’t arcane magic be a more alluring alternative for players?  To create game balance, arcane magic needed to be rare as well, but how achieve this?  Firstly through widespread illiteracy.  With a largely illiterate public, reading books of magic is for a tiny percent of the population.  As for sorcerers born with access to arcane power, they must use it rarely or risk becoming corrupt.  Since arcane magic comes from the Lower Planes it is tainted with evil and chaos.  Through these design-limits Nimbus counterbalances the rarity of divine magic with the high cost of dabbling in the arcane.

Conclusion:  Fantasy Monotheism as Spiritual Adventure

Balancing the elements of fantasy role playing games with the righteousness inherent to monotheistic faiths requires analogy as a means of engaging the imagination.  As noted in the introduction to The World of Nimbus, this fantasy roleplaying game’s design “reflects humanity’s inner-world; a spiritual and imaginary landscape visited in our secret thoughts where we face evil and explore the archetypal hero lingering within.”

By creating a world where heroes struggle against evil and corruption, players go on an imaginary journey where some virtues of monotheism are engaged with and explored.  Honesty, compassion, self-sacrifice, and steadfast faithfulness support a broadly monotheistic conception of heroic righteousness – all while having fun in a world similar to yet far from our world and from typical fantasy tabletop games.

One Comment

  1. Alexander

    Thanks, this is super helpful. I’m really keen to start playing RPGs with my 7-year-old son but have been looking to avoid the standard pantheon approach – hopefully it’d just be a background thing anyway as he’s keener on a more Robin Hood style of character than a Merlin, so not likely to be shaking the cosmos during play!

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