Friday 24 February 2017

Religions of the Great Road

The Scholar . Samarkand:

As I've mentioned before, one of the things that interests me about Central Asia is the diversity of its religious traditions. Judiasm and Christianity came into the region from the west, Zoroastrianism and Islam from the south, and Buddhism from the east, and all five of these religions interacted in various different ways with the Tengriist and shamanic practises indigenous to the area, giving rise to regional variants such as Tibetan Bon, Khazar Judiasm, and Nestorian Christianity. The extremely mobile nature of missionary groups and nomad communities mean that you end up with situations like nomad communities in south-west Russia professing spiritual allegiance to the Tibetan Dalai Lama (Kalmyk Buddhism), or Zoroastrian sects which were persecuted into near-oblivion in their native Iran going on to become the state religion of distant empires in the far-off Tarim Basin (Uyghur Manicheanism).

I think that trying to represent any of these directly in a non-historical D&D game would be a terrible idea; but the basic concept that this is a region where faiths from far-off empires compete and intermingle and develop into forms which would probably seem very strange to their distant (or extinct) religious authorities is one that I think has a lot of potential. Here, then, are a handy set of tables for determining the religious beliefs of any random traveller or community your PCs might happen to encounter along the length of the Great Road:

Korean Shaman (1930s):

What is the religion called? (roll 1d20 on each table)

  1. The Path...
  2. The Way...
  3. The Church...
  4. The Temple...
  5. The Fellowship...
  6. The Adherents...
  7. The Doctrine...
  8. The People...
  9. The Children...
  10. The Disciples...
  11. The Followers...
  12. The Students...
  13. The Order...
  14. The Brotherhood...
  15. The Acolytes...
  16. The Apostles...
  17. The Seekers...
  18. The Upholders...
  19. The Defenders...
  20. The Soldiers...

  1. ...of Holy Righteousness.
  2. ...of the Seven Sages.
  3. ...of the Great Revelation.
  4. ...of the Divine Law.
  5. ...of Heavenly Light.
  6. ...of the Word of God.
  7. ...of the Ultimate Truth.
  8. ...of the Eightfold Glories.
  9. ...of the Supreme Prophet.
  10. ...of the Universal King / Queen.
  11. ...of the Sun and Moon.
  12. ...of the Fourteen Stars.
  13. ...of Enlightenment.
  14. ...of Eternity.
  15. ...of the Transcendent Lord / Lady.
  16. ...of the Infinite Emperor / Empress.
  17. ...of the Master / Mistress of Heaven.
  18. ...of the Secret Treasures of Holiness.
  19. ...of the Sacred Masters.
  20. ...of the Ancient Code. 
(NB: faiths whose name share the same 'of'' component are probably offshoots of the same religion, albeit possibly very distantly related ones. You have no idea how much the Children of Holy Righteousness and the Disciples of Holy Righteousness hate each other...)

Where did this religion come from originally? (roll 1d3)
  1. The distant east.
  2. The distant west.
  3. The distant south. 
How is this religion regarded in its far-off homeland? (roll 1d6)
  1. It's the state religion, and you occasionally get encouraging letters from your distant religious authorities, praising you for keeping the true faith alive in foreign lands.
  2. It's a heretical variant of the state religion, and you occasionally get visited by disapproving missionaries telling you that your doctrines are riddled with errors and you should really adopt the official theological line.
  3. It's a variant of the state religion which, while not strictly heretical, would seem deeply odd and unfamiliar to the official religious authorities. You occasionally get visited by missionaries who try to convert you to a religion that you already believe in, which is embarrassing for everyone involved. 
  4. It's a minority sect, marginal and grudgingly tolerated. The trade networks that communities like yours have established along the Great Road play an important part in keeping the religion alive.
  5. It's been outlawed, and only lives on in hiding. Religious refugees sometimes arrive in your community seeking shelter, bringing with them horrific tales of persecution. 
  6. It was persecuted into oblivion and is now extinct in its homeland, living on only in communities like yours. 
Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam, Afghanistan - a UNESCO World Heritage site.:

What does this religion worship? (roll 1d8)

  1. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). All other 'gods' are false.
  2. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). Other gods are probably real too, we just don't worship them.
  3. One god or goddess (equal chance of each) served by a whole host of lesser divinities, who may or may not actually just be the personified aspects of the godhead. (It's complicated.)
  4. A dualistic religion with two divinities, both of which are revered equally as king or queen of one half of reality.
  5. A dualistic religion with two divinities, of whom one is revered and worshipped, and the other is reviled and (when necessary) placated.
  6. A full-blown polytheism which recognises dozens or hundreds of divinities.
  7. A remote and abstract godhead who is best contacted through prayers directed to the deified saints and prophets of the past. 
  8. In theory, it doesn't really 'worship' anything: it just conveys the moral, mystical, and philosophical teachings of its founders. In practise, most of its followers worship its founders as though they were divinities.

What are this religion's core beliefs? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)
  1. That all the world's problems are due to the failure of the people to follow the Divine Law.
  2. That this world is a place in which we are spiritually and morally tested, to determine our fitness for heaven.
  3. That if only the Reign of the Faithful could be instituted everywhere, then everything would be perfect!
  4. That we are being justly punished for the sins of our ancestors.
  5. That we just have to keep the faith until the prophecies are fulfilled. 
  6. That the material world is an illusion, and we must learn to transcend it.
  7. That we will be rewarded with wealth and power and empire if we obey the will of heaven,
  8. That this world is ruled by the powers of evil, and we must keep ourselves as pure and separate from its wickedness as possible.
  9. That worldly pleasures are sinful and asceticism is the path to holiness.
  10. That we must be kind to the unfortunate.
  11. That we must punish the sinful.
  12. That only those who follow our specific creed can possibly be saved.
  13. That all sin really comes from ignorance.
  14. That sin weighs down the soul, keeping it trapped within material reality.
  15. That we must destroy the enemies of our faith by any means necessary.
  16. That the correct performance of the sacred rituals and liturgies is of the utmost importance.
  17. That we must behave with scrupulous fairness and justice in all matters.
  18. That we must respect the social order, which represents the will of heaven.
  19. That we should treat all people as equals, regardless of social divisions.
  20. That the End of Days is upon us, and we must prepare ourselves for the final battle of good and evil! 
Dervishes of Central Asia. 1871-1872:

What are this religion's social institutions? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)

  1. Every faithful household maintains a small family shrine within its dwelling-place.
  2. The faith's most devout members are encouraged to become monks or nuns, who lead lives of celibate asceticism.
  3. The faith maintains a complex ritual calendar, which the faithful are expected to observe exactly.
  4. The faith is built around the teachings contained in its holy book, and the faithful are expected to memorise as much of it as possible.
  5. Due to the syncretic fusion of its teachings with the shamanic traditions of the area, the faith is actually mostly concerned with the management of troublesome spirits.
  6. Devout followers of the faith are encouraged to undertake pilgrimages to sacred sites in its distant homeland whenever possible.
  7. The faith prizes education, and its members often become doctors, lawyers, or scholars.
  8. The faith prizes military achievements, and its members are famous warriors.
  9. The faith practises ancestor worship, and requires its members to show proper reverence to the spirits and graves of their ancestors.
  10. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of silent meditation. Its holiest ceremonies are very quiet and very serious.
  11. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of ecstatic prayer. Its holiest ceremonies are loud and exuberant affairs, full of people singing, dancing, falling into trances, and speaking in tongues.
  12. The faith has exacting ritual purity requirements, which its followers are expected to observe scrupulously (although many of them don't). 
  13. The religious life of the faith is built around a handful of large temple-monasteries, where all religious and ceremonial activities are concentrated.
  14. The faith is radically decentralised, with small community congregations gathered in local shrines serving as the main centres of religious life.
  15. The faith places a strong emphasis on the importance of public charity, and its wealthier members are expected to make ostentatious displays of generosity.
  16. The faith features a strong cult of the saints, with prayers believed to be much more efficacious if they are uttered within shrines in which holy men and women are buried.
  17. The faith strongly encourages its followers to fatalistically resign themselves to the will of heaven. 
  18. The faith strongly encourages its followers to actively strive to make the world a better and holier place.
  19. The faith includes strong elements of folk magic, with the faithful encouraged to wear charms and talismans for good luck and to utter hymns and incantations to protect themselves from evil.
  20. The faith includes a strong esoteric element; its teachings are revealed to the faithful step by step as they rise through the levels of initiation, and are never supposed to be shared with outsiders at all. 
(NB: If a religion is regarded as heretical in its distant homeland, it's usually because it has the same social institutions but differs in one or more core beliefs. If it's regarded as orthodox but odd, it's usually because it has the same core beliefs but differs in one or more social institutions!)



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  2. Fantastic. I've been waiting for this. Lately, I've recently come to appreciate the value of a chart-based randomization. They usually make for much more interesting things than what I would come up with on my own. Yours have been exceedingly helpful.

    1. Glad to hear it, Ben! There should be some more coming up in the near future...

  3. Great ! As for myself, I had written a "Générateur aléatoire de religion"; the explanations are in French, but the tables are in English, collected from various sources :

    1. Thanks for this... Looking at your tables and your account of how you propose to use them, we're basically using the same idea: creating fantasy religions by jumbling up elements from real-world faiths, thus generating something which hopefully *feels like* a real religion while not actually being a direct imitation of any one real-world faith. I've just abstracted them one step further from their origins...

  4. I like this better than any other treatment of fantasy religion to date. The random aspect gives it a nice, respectful distance from sensitive material, but isn't so abstract it loses flavor.

    1. That's my hope. Straight-up 'fantasy Buddhism', 'fantasy Islam', 'fantasy Catholicism' and so on generally make me cringe; but mixing up the elements lets you evoke real-world religions, with all the symbolic power and resonance that comes from doing so, without actually making any attempt at a one-for-one correlation!

  5. Great tables!
    Fascinating stuff about the Central Asian syncretic religions. Do you have a bibliography for that? I'd love to learn more.

    1. I'd recommend the works of Richard Foltz, if you're interested: 'Religions of the Silk Road' (revised edition, 2010) and 'Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present' (2013). I can't claim to be an expert on the subject, though...

  6. This is amazing stuff. I'm impressed both as a GM and designer and also as an anthropologist of religion by how well you've evoked the mood and feel of the religions of the region without becoming imitative/appropriative. The fact that it's all eminently *gameable* and not just didactic is the best part - I aspire to your standard.

    Also I appreciate the fact that these tables (to my reading) generate organised religions rather than shamanic traditions, and draw a distinction between the two.

    1. Thanks, Luke! Yes, these are for the organised religions of the Great Road: your Islam / Zoroastrianism / Christianity / Buddhism / Judaism analogues. The religious practises of the north, which are supposed to be analogous to the shamanic and Tengriist practises of northern Asia, are modelled through the materials on spirits and shamanism I've written about elsewhere...

  7. Just found this. It will be of enormous help in developing the "Sea of Grass" region in my campaign world.