Tag: druids

Faith in Play #38: Places of Worship

This is Faith in Play #38:  Places of Worship, for January 2021.


As a boy I several times went to summer camp at Camp Lebanon (in Lebanon, New Jersey).  One of its more memorable aspects was a chapel in the woods known as The Green Cathedral (pictured).  To me there always seemed something providential about the place—a perfectly flat open space was surrounded about three-quarters of the way by cliff walls, highest opposite the opening; people had added crude benches, a lectern or pulpit, and a simple cross, but regulars would point out that there was a natural cross in the cracks of the rock of the cliff face directly behind the wooden one.  It was one of the few places I’ve been in my life which seemed to have that air of the holy, that feeling that this place was in some sense sanctified, set apart for God.

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That was not, though, the first place that came to mind when I thought of places of worship.  I rather thought of the great cathedrals and mosques of Europe and the Middle East.  Then as soon as I thought of them, I was reminded that in the far east it is much more common to have tiny shrines, buildings so small the worshiper cannot enter but simply stands in front making his prayers.  In Dungeons & Dragons, the druids have less than that, groves in the forests.

There was something grove-like about that chapel in the woods at camp, something almost druidic.  Sitting alone in a place like that, it was perhaps easy to understand the nature religions.

I didn’t have to wonder why the west built such huge stone buildings as places of worship and the east tended not to do so.  There were three reasons why large buildings were constructed in the west that didn’t apply in the east, and understanding the religions in your game world will help you understand what kinds of religious buildings you need, and where.

The first and obvious reason why large buildings were constructed in the west is that the religions of the west—and I’m including Islam along with Christianity and Judaism—involved and indeed required gathering.  In some places it was a crime not to attend regular services, and at least a sin in many others.  That meant large numbers of people coming together at regular times, and without regard for weather conditions, making large buildings necessary.  The more densely packed the local population, the bigger the building had to be.  It was also valuable to make them sturdy enough that repairs would not be required as often.

In the East, faith was more a private and personal thing.  Large gatherings were uncommon.  You went to the holy place to bring your offering and make your prayer, and you left; sometimes you spoke to a holy person who attended the shrine.  If you encountered someone else there when you arrived, you probably waited respectfully for them to finish so you could start.  They didn’t need a building for that.

The second reason should not be discounted.  We might call it ostentation, but should not suggest thereby that it was a bad thing.  The people building these gathering places wanted them to be beautiful, wanted the world to know that they loved their God or gods and were willing to make financial sacrifices to give the best, most beautiful, building possible.  The Gothic arches in cathedrals of that period had pointed tops, accompanying tall spires, all of which pointed to heaven.  They were designed to say, see how much we love our God.

Whoever built the shrine in the East might have been known or recognized for having done so, but in the main it was done for his personal use and shared with others.  Perhaps a significant sum was spent on it, but there was no competition, no need to be particularly ostentatious.  A small building was sufficient.

The third reason for these buildings, though, was defense.  Nations were frequently at war even with themselves.  Don’t be fooled by the hype—the wars weren’t usually about religion, but about territory and sovereignty.  Religion was just a side issue often used as a rallying cry.  Yet because it was an issue, religious leaders had to defend themselves and their people.  Even monasteries would have walled enclosures and defensible gates, and would bring in the peasants when soldiers were known to be approaching.  Princes would help build cathedrals that doubled as fortresses—after all, if you’re going to spend that much money on one large solid building, it ought to do more than one thing, and these buildings did many things, but one of them was provide a last line of defense against invaders.  Some invaders had the respect not to attack a church, but some did not, so defense was necessary.

In the East, no one cared, really, whether you were particularly religious or which religions you believed.  Even today worshipers can be syncretic, following the practices of several religions, and no one thinks they are being unfaithful to one just because they also adopt another.  Conquerors didn’t care about the shrines or the religious leaders or the faith of the people; they were just there for the land and the tribute.

Obviously there are religious buildings sized between the huge cathedrals of the Western cities and the tiny shrines of the Oriental countryside—but the size of the building is to some degree a measure of these factors:  does it have to provide a meeting place for worshipers, such as a synagogue?  Will it be ostentatious, such as a mosque or Greek temple?  Does it have to be defensible, such as a monastery?  Answer those questions, and you’ll be closer to knowing what kind of religious building you need.

And maybe it’s just a grotto in the woods with a few benches, a lectern, and a religious symbol.


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Faith in Play #27: Believing Balance

This is Faith in Play #27:  Believing Balance, for February 2020.


Over a year ago we began a series on the notion that in the Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® game system alignment was the True Religion, what characters actually believed.  We have since examined those beliefs in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism, the four sides of the alignment grid.  However, the game also included a center, a middle ground between each pair of creeds, which it called Neutral, and a character could be neutral in regard to law and chaos or in regard to good and evil, taking the middle ground.

There are actually four distinct ways in which neutrality can be achieved in play; the book puts a lot of focus on the third, and connects it to druidism, but for the many applications of neutrality in the game it is important to recognize these concepts.  I label the four choices pragmatic, oblivious, druidic, and cross-principled.  Let’s start with a brief tutorial.  Remember, a character can be neutral in either axis, that is, a “neutral good” character is neutral in regard to law and chaos but committed to good as against evil, and a “lawful neutral” character is committed to the maintenance of order without regard for whether good or evil is the outcome.

The pragmatic neutral has a strong belief in that in which he is not neutral, but regards the other axis as tools to achieve this.  A pragmatic neutral evil character seeks his own benefit, and accepts that sometimes that is achieved by supporting the social order and sometimes by opposing it in the name of liberty.  He thus uses law and chaos as means to the end of his own gain.

The oblivious neutral does not recognize these as real values.  A chaotic oblivious neutral believes in liberty at any cost, and when people say that law is required to protect people and bring benefit to the greater number, he replies that this is so much sophistry, that the difference between helping one person and helping many is an illusion, and the many are just as selfish as the one.  To him, the concepts of good and evil simply do not exist; what matters is the struggle between law and liberty.

The druidic neutral is in some ways the most difficult.  The assumption is that the character will balance the good he does with a like amount of evil, and the chaos he causes with a like amount of law.  Thus in combat he kills a man, and then in another place he heals one who is dying; he steals from an enemy but then gives to the poor.  In this sense he is relatively unpredictable.  Most who play this alignment try to keep their actions contained, never doing anything too good or too bad, too structured or too anarchistic.  On the other hand, this alignment is open to some rather drastic conceptualization, such as a character who heals everyone in a village and then in the next village flame strikes a children’s playground.  For the druid, the concept is that good and evil, law and chaos, must remain balanced in the world, and they must not put it out of balance by supporting one against another.

One solution to this seemingly erratic approach is the fourth option, the cross-principled neutral.  This approach recognizes that the side alignments, while in a sense coherent approaches to reality, can be divided into distinct issues.  A character who is neutral on the law/chaos axis might support the monarchy absolutely, but completely oppose legal slavery in the realm (a lawful structure in many societies).  A cleric neutral on the good/evil axis might feel it his obligation to heal the poor of their diseases but at the same time take whatever valuables they might have for himself.

By the book, a druid has to be druidic neutral in both axes; however, that can be achieved by being cross-principled.  Any character who is not a druid but is true neutral (“neutral neutral”) can be druidic in one axis and something else in the other, and those who are “side neutrals”–neutral good, chaotic neutral–can be any kind of neutral in the neutral axis.  A true neutral fighter could be pragmatic to the ethical axis and druidic to the moral, that is, believing that law and chaos are tools to maintain the balance between good and evil; or he could be druidic in the ethical and oblivious in the moral, believing that talk of good and evil is all nonsense and what matters is maintaining the balance between order and liberty.

It should be evident at this point that the neutral alignments represent a plethora of belief systems, even within the concept of druidism.  The druid, of course, believes in maintaining the balance of four beliefs, although he has several ways of achieving that.  The “side alignment” neutrals are perhaps more complicated, and we will return to them in a future article.


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Faith and Gaming: Magic

It was inevitable that this subject would eventually surface in this series. After all, the supernatural elements in many role playing games are the ones most feared and criticized by those who oppose them, and eventually something would have to be said about them.

But it is just ironic coincidence that the issue has come up in October, the month in which issues of pagan magic and supernaturalism are most debated in the church, the month in which most Americans, at least, celebrate what some still think is the ancient and mystical pagan Druidic festival of the New Year, Samhain, thinly veiled under the pseudonym Halloween.

So what is it about imaginary magic which gets so many people so upset? Read more