Wednesday 5 September 2007

Religions in Middle-Earth

One of my esteemed collabourators in Unangband has taken me to task on the implementation of religion in a game currently set in Middle-Earth (And I'll save talking about the risks of doing this, and my transition plan away from Middle-Earth for another time - be assured that its a version 2 item). His original post is here. I'll quote the relevent sections. Its worth noting he's much more more informed about Tolkien's work than me, and that he posts enough information to support the decision to retain priests in Angband, as Nick McConnell notes.

Not that I am a purist, but I wonder, do you know any priests in Middle Earth? Anything close? I guess Numenorean kings, the good and the bad ones, I guess lots of evil men, if you want evil religion, anything else? I seem to remember Silmarillion and other unfinished tales have more magic and more religion in them. In LOTR and Hobbit it is all but absent. Frodo calls Varda, anyting else? I've heard something about a dwarven (secret?) religion, or was it Silmarillion?

I guess the angels (gods) were much easier accessible to the people in Middle Earth. Just over the Sea and often visible, so this may be why there was less rituals and more cooperation (or at least the memory of cooperation). They were better known so it was obvious they cannot be bribed on one hand and do not persecute for lack of worship, on the other hand.

It was obvious they are not The One, so they were not worshiped as autonomous God/Gods, but as servants of The One. It was useless to try to get their help in opposing the justice/song/fate of The One. They didn't try to be self-sufficient, so a worship of one Vala exclusively would be foolish, because every Vala was weak in very many vital areas and strong only in his chosen ones. The One has not shown his face to the people back then, nor revealed himself in any other way than through world and Valar (though some say he was Tom Bombadil, etc., or that he was yet to come to Middle Earth). So it was quite hard, abstract and impersonal to worhip The One (but there are the Numenoreans, I wonder why them of all).
In response, I was trying to put in religions as the priest version of mage schools e.g. an game based element, rather than an attempt to recreate Tolkien's mythology. Think of the Unangband religion implementation more as 'favours' or 'dedications' than religions - I know Tolkien deliberately eschewed mentioning of any formal religions in Middle-Earth. Maybe renaming religions.txt as favours.txt and discussing 'favours from higher powers' as opposed to religions will help in this regard.

Having said that, I'm really not happy with what I've currently done with 'religions' from a game implementation point of view. There's not enough to differentiate the various religion startups. At the moment I have 9 1st level and 9 3rd level priest spells that are viable for the first book. Each religion has 5 of each these in their starting book. And each 3rd level spell has (usually) 1 1st level spell as a pre-requisite.

The intention was that you'd pick a religion to try and sway which spells you ended up getting 'randomly assigned'. Priests, as a game mechanic both in Angband and Unangband, can only choose which prayer book to study - they get gifted a random spell by the gods of all the valid spells that they can learn from that book. That suggests I should probably cut down the number of starting spells per book to 4 1st /4 3rd or even 3 1st / 3 3rd for all or some religions, to allow religion choice to lead to a less random spell selection.

However, there's certain spells that are pretty much mandatory. Like the mage schools, priests need a starting healing spell, and a starting detect creature spell to be playable. This is not a requirement: I could see Tulkas not granting a detect creature spell for instance, but any priest without a starting healing spell is going to die pretty quickly.

The problem is, is that if I go down this path, the religions/favours are going to end up looking like mage schools. In which case, what's the point of distinguishing the two, or having separate priest and mage classes for that matter?

I definitely picked too many religions to start with as well (9) instead of growing the mage schools organically up from 3 to 7.

So I've disabled all the religions except Mandos for the moment, and am going to feel out this one and probably sit on it a little while and let my subconscious digest it.

Probably in the same way I'm going to end up rolling back the MALE | FEMALE changes I just did (which don't really work either and are too hacky).

And that sometimes happens with the way I develop Unangband. I might spend half a day or a day on a feature, only for it not to work out, and have to throw it away. Its a good learning experience, and one I'm taking forward to the next game I'll be developing.


Mikolaj said...

Tee-hee, it's about me! It's me, it's me! =8-D

Mikolaj said...

"my transition plan away from Middle-Earth"? "the next game I'll be developing"?

Noooo! ;O

Is it the copyright problems? Will it be high fantasy? Really high?

Unknown said...

Priests have always been just another mage school. The only real difference (aside from different spell selection), has been that they were better fighters to compensate for their generally less spectacular spells.

I would not mourn the end of the priest class, and the rise of a healing school of magic. Priests have always used the same mechanism for casting spells as mages (learning per day or mana). They have merely exchanged stat a (intelligence) for stat b (wisdom).

My thought is that you should either differentiate the priest class more by making it a fundamentally different play experience, or remove it altogether. For instance, I would not be averse to priests having a 'favour' stat rather than mana. Favour could be used for more powerful spells, but did not regenerate naturally, instead having to be earned from a deity by accomplishing holy acts. Only this kind of fundamental difference can make the priest anything more than a mage with healing powers.

I may be wrong here. I tend to be of the opinion that each class should be a wildly different play experience and require a completely different style of play.


Mark Hughes said...

The reason there are no priests or overt religions in Middle Earth has nothing to do with the internal logic of the setting.

Tolkien was a English Catholic. Inserting his beliefs unchanged would be inaccurate to the setting. Changing them to fit would be blasphemy to the Church. And most importantly, putting Catholic propaganda in his books would have severely limited their appeal, probably endangered his career, and perhaps endangered his life, as English Catholics were still considered heathens and potential traitors.

So leaving it out entirely was the only safe course of action. If you read anything about his arguments with C.S. Lewis about religious fiction and allegory, he was also generally opposed to the concept for several reasons.

Realistically, there would be religions and priests in Middle Earth, worshipping the Valar and Maiar in semi-random pantheon groupings, various local spirits, outsider things like Ungoliant, dragons, and entirely fictional religions, because humans (and presumably other humanoids) are crazy and like making up gods. Whether the pseudo-Christian "One God" is ever worshipped or not is really pretty irrelevant.

Making priests be another kind of mage isn't very accurate to any religion, but mages aren't very accurate to historical astrologers, wizards, and alchemists, either.

Mikolaj said...

Interesting reply. You may be right. Or perhaps Tolkien could get away with portraying something corresponding to Judaism or Mosaism. After all, descriptions of Old Testament rituals in the Bible were known and, in some ways, accepted by both the Roman-Catholic Church and general public of that time. I'd like to try something like this in the future, but I'd need to know a lot more about Judaism so that I don't make a caricature. :) Do you perhaps remember where to find the arguments with Lewis about religious fiction?

Perhaps Tolkien also wanted to provide some "generalized spirituality" --- something that you can't just look at, say to yourself "these are rituals I could possible perform" and turn away, instead you have to soak with it through stories for some time and only then tell which particular intuitions you share and which you don't. And perhaps only then seek some rituals that express what you found.

I don't agree with you about "realistically". In a world with such an obvious, corporeal, powerful revelation as in Middle Earth and such bright, numerous, long-living and well-connected people as Elves experiencing it, I can't imagine "semi-random pantheon groupings" or disregard for "One God". Yes, Men once taught by Elves and then sundered by Dark Ages of barbarians' domination, or Dwarves with their secrets and suspect for Elvish lore, could make up crazy ideas and perhaps gradually succumb to evil cults. But again, worshipers of Sauron or other incarnate evil would also have very sane, concrete beliefs --- they would believe in what they see and they would worship as they are ordered. I think "making up" religions is actually a very strange phenomenon, possible only in such a unique world as ours, where both the forces of light and darkness chose to mostly hide themselves behind people, for reasons of their own. Notice that it is not so in (the first ages of) Middle Earth.