Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Church, The Old Ways, Cults and Their Loathsome Gods

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Author's Notes: This is likely the longest post I've written so far, please bear with me. In this post I mainly talk about THE CHURCH and THE OLD WAYS. These are essentially a monolithic abrahamic faith that the cleric class is a member of and polytheistic pagan/folk religion faith which would be more inline for a magic-user/druid/shaman class. I also mention CULTS towards the end but I think most people know what those are when I mention them. 

Dynamism of Faiths

a.k.a. Why your clerics should belong to a monolithic centralized faith

I think there is an inherent issue with the incompatibility of the OSR cleric and Polytheistic Faiths. There are two large components to this based on the nature of the priesthood in polytheistic faiths and the implicit function of the OSR Cleric.

In polytheistic faiths the function of clergy and priests is to oversee worship and supervise rites, essentially insuring that invocations of aid to their deities are successful. They function as a middle man between mortals and their gods. There is a fundamental difference between the metaphysics of abrahamic (I use this term loosely) and polytheistic faiths. Th abrahamic faith has a singular covenant which creates a standardized contract of moral righteousness in return for salvation and protection while polytheistic faiths involve offerings order to receive a benefit in turn. The function of the clergy, in polytheistic faiths, is then to officiate these offerings on behalf of people for their benefit. Polytheistic clergy do not go out and proselytize, the covenant of their gods are not open to admission and exist merely as a consequence of gods power over existence.

The implicit function of the OSR cleric is to essentially lengthen the amount of time their party may explore a dungeon/a hexmap without returning to a safe place to heal. Clerics are essentially Magic-users with different spell lists, the ability to turn undead, and weapon restrictions. The spells of OSR clerics function to mainly heal HP, remove curses or poison, raise the dead, and are defensibly and reactively cast rather than the combative or dungeon circumvention which is proactively cast. Firstly these spells fit a deity which holds power over life and death, such as a supreme abrahamic deity, be the origin of a cleric's powers. Polytheistic clerics facilitate invocations to a multitude of gods and I really don't see, outside of Vancian influence, why gods couldn't grant Magic-User spells to clerics. Why not simply combine the spell lists and fluff priests and wizards as the same class. Clerics have a unique relationship with the undead which is the result of the history to their creation. But it further complicates their existence as members of a polytheistic faith as why would Mars/Thor/Nagaynezgani turn undead? It fits it stronger thematically that a deity which holds power over life and death, such as a supreme abrahamic deity, be the origin of a cleric's powers. I believe that the weapon restrictions are merely a result of balancing gameplay as blunt weapons dealt less damage then edged ones and magic swords wouldn't be usable by clerics. As such I think they aren't necessarily relevant.

I would then say that OSR clerics and Polytheistic Faiths are incompatible due to the dissonance of the mechanics of the cleric and the generally polytheistic nature of most OSR settings. I would say then that there IS precedent that Clerics in OSR settings should worship a supreme abrahamic/cthonic deity and I will now list other reasons why you should have a singular monolithic church that characters who are clerics follow in your OSR games.

Contrast and Conflict Sources

If you have a singular monolithic church in your setting you can create multiple sources of contrast as well as conflicts. A large component of culture is the theological/existential/philosophical beliefs they share and most players of OSR (whom I assume are familiar with/from western cultures and traditions that are heavily steeped in abrahamic and monotheistic notions) would have an intuit understanding of THE CHURCH. Through cultural osmosis they would be familiar with THE CHURCH and I would wager that most would be unfamiliar with non-occidental religious practices and have a less intuitive understading of those cultures. Familiarity of THE CHURCH then allows you to create contrast with other cultures or races your players interact with and creates  a source to create conflicts from as THE CHURCH has a long history of heresies, religious wars, pope stealings, excommunications, witch hunts and the like. You have a strong tradition to draw from and can even steal things wholesale such as mythologies about demons and other apocrypha.

Further if you have THE CHURCH you have cause for multiple relics to be recovered from dungeons (they sued to be cathedrals and churches). Further you likely have saints and from them a source of multiple magic items be they real items the saints used or relics.

Religious Beliefs as Alignment

I think that Tabletop RPG's and OSR especially so are simply a continuation of the mythic Chaoskampf. There are a few points of civilization (Law) which are surrounded by sprawling wilderness (Chaos). There is a massive duality between Primordial Darkness and the Civilized Light and players take the role of the Law-Bringer striking down the Serpent. What's great about this is this already fits into the OSR alignment chart. Further this fits into the theme of ruination inherent to OSR. Great calamities bring doom and recycle the Lawful Civilizations into dark dungeons. I don't think I can emphasize how strongly the idea of a "points of light" setting fits into this Chaoskampf. The civilized areas are points of light and law and so having a monolithic faith, THE CHURCH, as an aspect of law underscores the metaphysics of OSR.

I greatly advocate for extremely humanocentric settings and in this you are able to use faith as an alignment system. THE CHURCH is lawful, THE OLD WAYS are neutral, and CULTS are chaotic. This works pretty similarly to alignment in OSR games especially so with the cleric spells of Protection from X and  Circle from X as these spells become Protection BY X. Rather than a magic circle against evil you have a Circle of Protection by God. Rather than asking the "metagaming question" of what alignment is he, you could simply ask what faith does he believe. This further ties in with the alignment nature of creatures. Lawful beings such as Angels are servants of the of THE CHURCH's God. Neutral beings such as animals arise from nature's existence. Chaotic beings then are the spawn of some CULT'S worshiped diety. I think the last aspect especially significant as it explains the existence of every dungeon denizen as supernatural and circumvents questions such as "what do orcs eat?". The next section of this post deals with the nature of THE CHURCH, THE OLD WAYS, and CULTS as alignment systems and their fundamental differences.

The Faiths

I didn't want to stop using Black Metal Album Art so here's another good album 


So THE CHURCH is essentially the veneration of The White God so revealed to his prophets by Covenant and Miracles. There are two important parts here the Covenant and Miracles. Unlike THE OLD WAYS or CULTS central to THE CHURH's theology is the concept of The Covenant which is essentially a spiritual contract made by the prophets with The White God on behalf of the nations of man. The Covenant is extended to all those inducted into the Church by the rite of baptism. Those people are now Protected and Preserved by The White God but must follow the rules of the Covenant as written in the Holy Writ.

Holy Writ
Thou shalt have no other gods before The White God
Thou shalt not kill
Thou shalt no commit adultery
Thou shalt not steal
Thou shalt not bear false witness

In terms of alignment the Holy Writ ends up as the following rules. Worship and partaking of only THE CHURCH's faith. Do not use murder as a means of solving conflicts, in extenuating circumstances this may become lose but essentially it means you can't just kill someone for disagreeing with you. Marriage is an important institution because it comes not from joining bloodlines but because it is allowed by The White God. Do not purjer yourself when people seek to attain justice.

Those who holds the Covenant and it's precepts in highest regard walk the earth as saints, idols of charity to the less fortunate able to preform miracles. Those who can perform these miracle in the name of The White God are viewed as saints (these are the cleric characters).

If you are a member of THE CHURCH/are Lawful you are devout in practicing your faith.


In contrast to THE CHURCH which has a singular covenant, the old faith is predicated on offerings made to one of many deities in order to illicit certain result. The church has a firm and established relationship while the Old Faith is in a state of constant flux. Rather than following a code of conduct and receiving benefits, you make sacrifices/offerings and in turn receive a benefit.

Types of deities often found in polytheism generally include:
Culture Hero: Hercales or Cu Chulainn
Death Deity (Chthonic Function): Hades or Orcus
Life-Death-Rebirth Deity: Osiris or Mitras
Political deity (such as a king or emperor): Imperial Cult
Sky Deity (celestial): Wakinyan or Perun
Solar Deity: Sol Invictus or Amaterasu
Trickster Deity: Loki or Anansi
Water Deity: Neptune or Susanoo no Mikoto
Gods of Endeavors: Athena Palas or Inari Okami

In terms of alignment THE OLD WAYS are essentially the ethics and code of conduct which predates THE CHURCH. The important aspects in "pagan" or "tribal" cultures tend to focus on the following things which were held as supremely important as they indicated one could trust you.

Our Ancestors Had:
Honor - Honor is a reflection on the merit of your word and ability to hold oaths, you would lose honor by being unable to do what you say. In ancient times your word was vastly important and if someone has no honor then they cannot be trusted.

Courage - While this does tie in to Honor, your ability to act in dangerous situations is an indicator of your trustworthiness. If you breakdown when scared or are easily shaken then why should people trust you.

Hospitality - In the ancient world there was massive importance on being a good host and on being a good guest. The outside world was cruel and dangerous so those who acted upon the politeness of hospitality risked much by offering aid. Those who would go against hospitality go against kindness offered by total strangers and as such could not be trusted.

Perseverance - If a person falters when they encounter difficulties then how can you trust them. If however they can keep struggling until they achieve their goal then they are to be noted for their actions.

If you keep THE OLD WAYS/are Neutral you may merely be a member of the church who isn't devout or you may keep the faith that your ancestors did making offerings to the old gods.


This should be the standard for the aesthetic of  every "evil" cult in OSR games

In the darkness of a dungeon many work awful rite in order to obtain promised power to fulfill their deepest desire. They worship forgotten gods which whisper from the darkness asking for sacrifice. These are literally every antagonist from the Conan books. By partaking in such anti-social rites you are rejected by much of society and aren't necessarily trusted by them. Flip through a monster manual to determine which creature you venerate.

If you are in a CULT/ are Chaotic you do not care about the horrible nature of what you may be praying to as long as it aids you no matter how it does so.


  1. Are you familiar with "The Malacia Tapestry" by Brian Aldiss. He has a simillar distinction between the high and low church in that book and it has some excellent world building.

  2. Thoughtful analysis on reasoning behind the structure of religion(s) in an OSR game. I appreciate the discussion of the difference of the overarching "covenant" of a monotheistic religion versus the more ad-hoc ritual structure of pantheonic religions. Props.