Badass Larp Talk #3: Livin’ On A Prayer

There are three subjects you’re not really supposed to raise in polite conversation, universally speaking: money, politics, and religion. Mostly because unless everyone goes out of their way to be funny and light-hearted about it, before long they’re going to wind up throwing insults if not punches. In this post, the first “by request” column in the Badass Larp Talk series, we’re going to bend that rule just a little and talk about religion from a purely roleplaying perspective. Specifically, how do you portray a character with faith in a way that is fun and engaging for you and everyone around you?

Before we get too much further, however, let’s make a clear distinction between playing real world faiths and purely imaginary ones. For instance, the difference between portraying, say, a Jehovah’s Witness and a follower of Paladine from Dragonlance. We’ll start by talking about the real world faiths, since it’s a bit shorter and more to the point:

Do your research, start small, and be respectful.

Now, that’s true of a lot of things in larp, but here’s what I mean in particular. The research part is easy – if you’re going to be portraying a member of a real world faith, chances are you can draw on hundreds if not thousands of years of material. I’m not saying that you must learn enough to earn your doctorate in that faith’s theology, but at the very least you should get beyond the common stereotypes and generalizations of that faith (if any). It’s kind of sad to see a fiery “born again Baptist preacher” character who doesn’t know anything about what it actually means to be born again or Baptist. Likewise, I remember feeling a little dumbstruck when I met a character who cheerfully gave their faith as “Native American!” and then looked blank when I asked what specific belief system they practiced. It’s not a matter of judgment as much as it is a sense of loss in missed opportunities – with just a little more research, those players could make their character a lot more compelling and three dimensional.

If you’re portraying a real world belief that’s not familiar to you, the best bet is to start small and build up to it more as you go along. Running in and talking constantly about how it’s awesome to be Catholic, how you totally love the saints and the Pope and can’t believe you got such a good deal on this bitchin’ rosary is, ah, strained, to say the least. Start with small touches and add more as you are more comfortable. It’s also good to find out if there are other players who know more about the faith and get their take on it, or at least make sure you’re not out to offend anyone. Yes, larp is a game and it’s all imaginary, but it’s also a social activity, and if you can avoid offending your fellow players that’s good for the flow of the game as a whole. Quite often they’ll be more than happy to let you know what’s good and what’s crossing the line. Done well, however, portraying a different real world faith can yield a fascinating take on a whole different perspective that you never imagined.

Purely Imaginary Faith

When it comes to purely imaginary faiths, one of the big factors to consider is the impact of faith in your setting. Many game settings, for example, feature characters touched by the divine who openly and frequently manifest the power of their faith to heal wounds, smite heathens and even raise the dead. Step back a minute and consider the implications of that sort of divine presence in everyday life. Many people in our world struggle to come to terms with their faith in the absence of direct, miraculous proof – but what happens when divine power is an everyday occurrence, where the gods are an obvious, accepted fact of life? So much of the average 21st century outlook on religion is colored by a sense of uncertainty and skepticism that just would not belong in a setting where evidence of the divine is commonplace. It’s pretty hard to be an agnostic, much less an outright atheist, when gods manifest themselves on a daily basis.

And that’s not even considering the fact that outright evil deities exist in many of these settings, making “the Devil made me do it” not just a legitimate possibility but a serious concern.

So what does that mean for your roleplaying experience? I think it’s important to peel away a lot of our modern ambivalence and uncertainty and dive into the mindset of someone who has never doubted the existence of the divine. Even if you have a strong personal faith in real life, that is often contrasted by contact with a secular culture, which simply doesn’t exist in these settings in a meaningful way. Rather than subtracting ambivalence and uncertainty, then, a believer must consider the implications of everyone in society acknowledging that their god exists, and what a society built on that foundation would really be like. Especially when you factor in that many of these societies have multiple deities, some with competing agendas or spheres of influence.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a simple-minded goof or a frothing zealot, by the way. For one thing, knowing that the divine exists doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be happy with it – a once-zealous character may abandon their faith in the god of battle after some of his friends die in combat, for instance, feeling that his prayers and devotion have been betrayed. In this case, though, it’s not a question of the god’s existence, but a repudiation of their action (or inaction), which is a subtle but very important distinction from a roleplaying perspective. That your character acknowledges that a particular god exists, but has chosen to reject them anyway, is very different from wondering if there is a god at all, and adds good subtext to your roleplaying experience. The ancient Greeks believed in their gods, but not because those gods were especially kind or loving as a rule. The gods were powerful and eternal, and respecting that was just good sense to them. Besides, the love of a divine being can be as dangerous as their animosity, so it was best to avoid any attention if possible and make sure you were on their good side if it wasn’t.

Likewise, the ability to call down miracles on-demand has its own implications – if priests can raise a dead hero who falls in battle, why don’t they also raise a poor farmer who falls in his fields? (And if they do, what does a revolving door to the afterlife do to attitudes about life and death?) Do miracles have a cost – in money, in time, in exhaustion? If so, who determines who receives them and who is left wanting? What does your character’s deity ask of her? How does she uphold her creed? Where does she feel that she falls short? Is she part of an organized group of believers (very likely in a divine-positive world)? What are they like? What parts of her faith do they stress, and what parts do they marginalize? Has she ever sinned, and if so, did she atone? Does anyone else know about it? Is there another deity or faith she just cannot stand? Why not? All of these are just a start, but they should inspire some good character backstory and attitudes.

Of course, faith is in the details too. Some games mandate specific prayers or ceremonies, but many others leave the details wide open for player interpretation. Prayer, in particular, is a hugely telling thing. I can still remember some of the simple prayers and chants I heard at the first fantasy boffer larp I ever played, because they were so emblematic of the characters repeating them and helped set the tone for their faith in my mind. Most were very short and to the point, but that’s OK – it’s hard to remember the really long prayers in the heat of battle! What’s your character’s most common prayer? What was her “baptism” into her faith like? What symbols of her faith does she wear/carry? (If she doesn’t display her faith, why not?) What are her faith’s colors, icons, prohibitions? What religious rituals are her favorite, and why? Which ones does she avoid, or participate in only grudgingly? Are there any holidays she considers especially dear? Why?

If the answers to any of these are “I don’t know” or “I don’t think those exist in game”, that’s fine too, no worries – that just means you get to make them up yourself! Or perhaps better yet, gather a few more faithful and develop them together. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results. Larp is a social activity, after all, and ritual is one of the most powerful binding agents that brings people together. Even years after we left our first fantasy boffer larp, we found out that some of other followers of the faith we had started there were still doing the same prayers and the same rituals that we had created. Many of the people doing them had no idea who we were, either – the rites had been passed down to them by other players. That’s an incredible sort of roleplaying connection to foster, when you think about it, and one reason of many to explore playing a character with a powerful devotion to the divine.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.

Don’t forget to bring a light to find the way.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

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One response

  1. You make a lot of very good points both real and imagined belief systems. I just wanted to mention one note that I recently learned about Hellenic (ancient Greek) religion. I was reading an online Q +A with a Hellenic reconstructionist (modern day worshiper of ancient Greek gods) and he mentioned that the Greek gods as they were conceptualized in official mythology (what we tend to have heard about or read) were very different than the Greek gods as they were worshiped. He mentioned that in everyday worship, sncient Greeks thought of their gods as generally benevolent and good, rather than the capricious personalities described in many of the myths with which we’re familiar. Firstly, I just found this interesting and thought you might too, and secondly, the concept of understanding the perspective of real world believers, rather than just common tropes and stereotypes, fits in well with your first point above.

    April 19, 2013 at 5:46 am

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