Monday 6 July 2015

Gaming in fantasy Central Asia: religion

Mongolian shaman. Photo from the Mongolian shamanism blog.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on the Silk Road, Central Asia was, historically, a very religiously cosmopolitan region of the world. Traders and travellers from India and China brought Buddhism with them; those from Iran brought first Zoroastrianism, then Manicheanism, and finally Islam; Christianity (especially Nestorian Christianity) came from the west, and Judaism came up from the Middle East and the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria. The steppe peoples practised their own animistic religious traditions, known as Tengrism; further north, shamanism was practised by the peoples of the Siberian taiga.

(A side note: 'shamanism' is the name of the religion practised by the indigenous peoples of northern and central Asia, such as the Evenks and Yakuts. It is not a catch-all term for all animistic religions. Referring to the religion of, say, the San people of the Kalahari as 'shamanism' just because it involves ecstatic states and drumming is rather like referring to Zoroastrianism as 'Christianity' because they both involve the organised worship of a single god.)

As a result, medieval Central Asia probably came as close as anywhere ever did to the bizarre religious model which I think of as 'D&D polytheism', where there are a whole load of active religions existing side by side, all believing different teachings and serving different gods, but you only follow one of them. A given city could very easily have Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Manichean, and Buddhist inhabitants, plus Tengrist mercenaries from the steppes and shamanist fur traders from the taiga, all putting up with one another's religions while knowing in their hearts that only theirs was really true. This kind of uneasy coexistence of radically different religious traditions - with intermittent flare-ups of violence, intolerance, and shifts in the balance of power - makes for fantastic gaming and story-telling material.

Now, one way that you could model that in a game would be to fill your game-world with analogues of real religions, so the followers of Fantasy Islam could have arguments with the followers of Fantasy Nestorian Christianity, and so on. This isn't my preferred solution, though; partly because it seems like a really easy way to pointlessly offend a whole bunch of people, and partly because inventing weird religions is one of my favourite things about RPG world design. Cutting my links with real religious traditions means that I can fill my game-world with all kinds of cultic lunacy without having to explain to any of my prospective players that, in this world, the stand-in for his real-world religion is a mad sect of ritual murderers who worship ducks.

Instead, I think the same effect can be achieved by creating your fantasy religions as normal, and then dividing them into four groups:

1: Religions from far away

These will be your equivalents of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity: religions whose cultural centre of gravity is located in distant empires, far, far away. Their followers know that, somewhere out there, their co-religionists run mighty kingdoms in which their faith is the only game in town; once in a lifetime, the richer ones might even save up money to go on pilgrimages there. For the most part, though, following one of these religions means accepting that you're on the geographical fringes of your faith's religious world. Religious communities in this category may experience occasional and irregular influxes of support from the outside world, as their respective religious leaders remember they exist and throw a wave of money, missionaries, and new theological expertise in their direction; and if the locals mistreat them too severely they can send pleas for help to their distant Caliph or Pope, who might just send an army to help them out. (He's more likely to send a strongly-worded letter, though, which the local king will then ignore because he lives two thousand goddamn miles away.)

Religions in this category have to be good at surviving far from their institutional infrastructure. As a result, they're probably 'religions of the book', which can survive intact for centuries so long as the community hangs onto its scriptures and the knowledge of how to read them.

2: Religions in exile

These will be religions like Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheanism; religions which once commanded the faith and loyalty of mighty nations that have since succumbed to newer faiths. (Probably the faiths in category 1, in fact.) They've survived out here because jihads and crusades tend to run out of steam when faced with three thousand miles of emptiness, and the local king has no interest in alienating any of the merchant dynasties upon whom his wealth relies by setting up an inquisition. The category 1 religions at least know that they have a proper religious hierarchy out there somewhere, even if it does tend to forget about them for decades at a time; but members of these religions know that they have to do everything for themselves. With no-one to enforce orthodoxy, their customs may vary strikingly from place to place, incorporating various folk traditions; the meanings of many of their ritual observances may have been forgotten, and they may lovingly preserve whole masses of ceremonial lore which hasn't been put into practise in centuries, because the holy sites they are supposed to be performed in have been under enemy occupation for several hundred years.

Practitioners of religions in this category are prone to speaking longingly of the good old days, when their faith still had an empire of its own and everything was right with the world. They are almost certainly waiting for a messiah who, they believe, will one day come and lead them back to glory.

3: Heresies

They don't think of themselves as heresies, of course; they think of themselves as true doctrines whose obvious correctness has, tragically, not been recognised by the highest religious authorities of their faith. They survive out here, along the road, for much the same reason as the exiled religions: so far from the centres of religious power, such heresies are very difficult to stamp out. (Nestorian Christianity would be the obvious historical example.) The locals will probably have learned to live and let live, but the presence of these heretical sects can cause real problems when a new bunch of missionaries arrive from foreign lands and find that the people here practise the 'wrong' version of the faith...

4: Religions of the empty lands

They're not really empty, though; that's just how they look to far-off kings and emperors when they cast their eyes over the latest map of the world and see all these enormous regions with no cities in them. The desert, the steppe, the taiga, the tundra: they have their own religions, better-suited to the lives of their nomadic inhabitants than the resource-intensive, infrastructure-heavy faiths of more heavily settled lands. These are going to tend to be animistic, worshipping nature spirits, ancestor spirits, and/or local and tribal gods; they will have sacred places (lakes, mountains, etc) rather than temples, and will pass on their traditions orally rather than in written form. (Who would be stupid enough to write down all their most precious sacred knowledge in a book? A book can be read or stolen by anyone!) The closest things they have to scriptures will usually be the epics of their ancestor-heroes, which are memorised and performed by travelling poets. They are long. They are really, really, really goddamn long.

PCs might have any of these as religious backgrounds. Then again, especially if they've travelled around a lot, they might also be syncretists, opportunistically picking up whichever bits and pieces of different religions they happen to think sound resonant or useful or true. After all, it's a big world out there. You can never have too many gods watching over you.

Probably best not to worship the Wicked King, though.

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