NELCO 2013 Post Event Report – Religion in LARP

My last panel at NELCO 2013 was titled Religion in LARP. I can’t recall if I suggested this particular topic for a NELCO panel, but I did end up as one of the two panelists.

I was actually extremely hesitant to act as a panelist for this topic. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I find that there’s a significant amount of hostility towards religion, mainstream religion in particular, in my LARPing community, despite the fact that this community seems to pride itself on being open minded and accepting. I learned fairly quickly after becoming part of the local LARP community to stay largely silent on this topic.

Acting as a panelist on this topic pretty much flies directly in the face of my policy of just not responding, which is why I was so very anxious about the panel. It involved sitting at the front of a room, with an audience of members of the LARPing community, sharing my personal opinions and explicitly opening them up for discussion.

To the community’s credit and my surprise, I thought the panel actually went very smoothly. It felt like a respectful atmosphere, and I learned that there are other LARPers that feel very much the way I do about some of the issues raised. I had always assumed I was the only one who held those opinions. It only got a little unruly in the last five minutes or so.

In the interest of full disclosure, I opened with identifying myself as a practicing Jew. (My fellow panelist is a practicing Baha’i.)

We talked about how religion is commonly used in LARP. My personal experience is that religion is frequently used as a convenient source of evil. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this on an individual basis, but if it becomes a significant trend where religion is used a crutch for coming up with motivations for bad guys (or just plain old irrational behavior), without any actual thought put into it or awareness of the overarching trend, then it becomes a problem. Without development, it makes for unconvincing motivation and flat characters and can become offensive.

Other trends I’ve seen for how religion is used in LARP include serving as the neutral faction and as a source of magic. With regards to the neutral faction, I’ve played in a few historical LARPs where there are feuding political factions, and the church is used as the faction that is meant to be neutral in the political feud, and exists to push for peace and unity. The pitfalls of this include blandness- the church not only gets doesn’t get to push for one resolution in what are often the largest conflicts, but actively tries to reduce conflict. This is actually a pitfall of any neutral faction, not just the ones represented by the setting’s church(es), but I find that when it does take the form of a religious institution, if religion hasn’t been well integrated in the psychology of the non-religious figure characters… they get ignored, and can’t make any headway in their attempt to encourage peace. Invoking the name of a deity in their pleas for people to find a peaceful solution isn’t going to be productive or interesting to roleplay if none of the other characters will find that compelling.

I won’t name the particular LARP that comes to mind for spoiler reasons, but I did play a LARP in which there were multiple political factions in a Catholic country, some of which were on the brink of rebellion, and the local priest character’s primary goal was to prevent bloodshed. Even though, historically most characters would have likely been practicing Christians who viewed priests as wise authority figures, this aspect was largely glossed over, if mentioned at all, in most characters. The priest appealed to us in the name of Jesus and the Catholic Church to avoid violence, which might have been compelling if the characters’ religious lives had been better developed in character sheets, but as it stood, people largely ignored him.

Obviously, the notion that their religious sides being better developed in the character sheets might have lead to a more effective priest character is speculation. It’s possible the priest would have been ignored either way, because there were strong motivations for violently rebelling (or quashing the rebellion with violence) for most characters, and as the player base was largely non-religious, it’s possible the players wouldn’t have connected with that side of their characters no matter what. But it’s a possibility that was lost, I think.

Religion as a source of magic is an extremely common theme and a much broader topic. Much of how LARPers think of fantasy comes from Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop RPGs, where divine magic is ubiquitous. I suspect Dungeons and Dragons is the reason religious characters tend to get healing magic- it’s because clerics are the iconic healers of D&D. Using this model of religion is not inherently a bad idea; in fact, its popularity can be beneficial in that players will immediately recognize and understand the basics of the religion without the need for a lot reading material. That said, if you want religion to add complexity and depth to your setting, it might be a good idea to try exploring the implications. For example, if praying to a benevolent goddess grants you healing spells, why doesn’t every person in your world pray to her? What’s the downside, or the limited factor? And what does this system say about how religion affects the characters? Do they actually revere and love this goddess, or is this simply a beneficial contract they’ve entered into with a more powerful being? It seems like such a shame to have so many LARPs that don’t develop religion in their settings or explore how religion affects their characters, because religion is a very complex topic that has very profound effect on those who engage with it.

Obviously, I don’t think every LARP needs to explore religion as a theme, but sometimes it feels like an untapped resource for adding depth to characters, plot, and setting.

Personally, I find that I haven’t always given much thought to religion in my characters’ lives when that religion is Christianity. For a long time, I was operating under the assumption that because I live in a predominantly Christian country, I must know more than enough about it to engage with it in LARPs.

But recently I’ve realized that sadly, I actually know extremely little about Christianity. For example, did you know that the three magi, the three wise men, and the three kings of the Christmas story are all the same people? I only just recently learned this. More relevantly, I only recently learned about how large a role forgiveness plays in Christian doctrine. We can all spout some of Jesus’ more famous soundbites, but many of us know so very little beyond that.

I typically like to do at least some minor research on things relevant to my characters in order to take on a role- for example, I’ve read some Philippine myths in order to play a character from Philippine mythology and read Princess Alexandra of Wales’ wikipedia page in order to play her in a Victorian LARP. But when cast as a nun, I didn’t bother reading up on Christianity… and then, in game, realized I didn’t really know what to do with myself, because everything I know about nuns, I learned from Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. Pity.

Related to the topic of Christianity, I notice that for religions that are made up whole sale for LARP settings (usually fantasy settings) often take cues from Christianity, Catholicism in particular, in terms of structure and appearances. Their religious figures are often titled Father. They frequently dress in cassocks, white collars, monk robes, stoles. Their churches often have a distinct hierarchical structure that mirrors the Pope, cardinal, archbishops, bishops, priests structure of Catholicism (I realize that structure is not entirely rigidly tiered, but there’s a general structure, and I find many imaginary religions in LARP settings resemble it.)

Again, I don’t think this is inherently a bad idea. There are lots of valid reasons we use this kind of visual and structural cues in LARP religions. Having religious figures wear visually recognizable elements like cassocks and stoles allows LARPers to instantly recognize religious figures from across the room without needing to explain anything, even if they haven’t read or don’t remember the chapter of your setting description that describes what priests in the setting wear. If your church’s structure resembles Catholicism, it’s easy to remember and understand where people stand in terms of relative authority, or how important their presence is, again without needing detailed explanations in setting descriptions that may not be remembered or even read.

However, it’s still a good idea to consider the implications of using these shorthands for “religion” when incorporating them into your LARP setting. For example, seeing an NPC in a black cassock with a stole may mean that players are subconsciously assuming he is celibate, or that most or all priests are male. If these things aren’t true, and the fact that the priest’s spouse or children are plot-relevant, it could be a problem if your players never make the mental connection because they assumed your priest is celibate. Or they might erroneously assume that the presence of children indicates scandal, or a lack of adherence to church rules. Or players may make assumptions about various doctrines about your religion- perhaps that divorce is not recognized by your in-game religion. This is particularly true if you leave a lot of these details out- players fill in the gaps with whatever associations they have.

This sort of fill-in-the-gaps tendency is something I only relatively recently realized. I played a LARP last year in which abortion was an issue for my character, and my character’s religion was never specified. As the character came from a fairly typical American suburban family- something with which I can easily identify- I mentally superimposed my own religion (watered down a bit) onto my character. I don’t know if that’s what the GMs intended, but it’s something to be aware of. In the absence of details provided in the character sheet, players may mentally superimpose their own religious backgrounds onto their characters, which can affect how a LARP is played. Also, players may have real life biases that bleed into the LARP. This is especially true if your LARP involves real world religion, or if your made-up religion resembles a particular real religion.

With a little extra time towards the end of the hour, I decided to read a list I had prepared of various aspects of a religion that people might want to use to brainstorm when developing a new religion for a LARP. This list was largely inspired by my experience with religion in Cottington Woods, which has a fascinating concept for the primary religion in its setting. My character is a priest (priestess? …Priestess in training?) and I decided to write out a benediction on my costume. When I sat down to write one, I realized I had no idea what a prayer in this religion might sound like. I wasn’t even sure how the religion viewed its primary figures, the Patrons. This lead to some of players who have priest characters to develop the religion as we play. I don’t know if this was by design — if the writing staff intended to let the players flesh out the religion — but it seems to be happening and I think that’s pretty cool.

If you have any ideas of your own of aspects commonly overlooked, feel free to share in the comments below!

  • What factions exist within the church?

  • How does one become a leader?

  • What are the holidays?

  • What are the rituals?
  • What are the laws?

  • What are prayers like? Personal? Communal? Musical? Standardized or ad-libbed? Under what situations do people pray?

  • What are the tenets of that faith? (Something beyond “be nice, don’t be mean.”) What are the most controversial ones? The hardest ones to uphold? How do people feel about upholding them?

  • What does this religion say about violation of its tenets?

  • How does the church view conversion? Do they want conversion?

  • How do they view other religions? How do other religions view it?

  • Does the religion have opinions on contentious issues? (For example, what does it say, if anything, about the death penalty?)

  • How does it interact with the secular law? (Is the king ordained by a god?)

  • What are the traditions for things like birth? Marriage? Death? Adulthood?

  • What is does it say about death and the afterlife?

  • Are there any ascetic groups?

  • How does it view its deities? As parental figures? Masters? Shepherds? CEOs? Monsters who need to be appeased?

  • How does it interact with every day life? Does it say anything about how to dress, what to eat? How does it view sex?

Reading over this, I realize I left out some fairly obvious stuff, like… how many deities are there, what are their names, what stories and texts are there, what does it say about the origin of the world… probably because these are things that aren’t commonly overlooked.

We expanded on “what are the tenets of the faith one” in the panel. One audience member asked how does one avoid created religious characters who are only stereotypes. I said creating complexity in how characters felt about their religion might be one way to go. If a fantasy religion has only very clear cut, predictable tenets (e.g. be kind to others, don’t murder, don’t steal, give charity, etc.) players have little that provokes thought about how their character’s religion will influence their actions. (This is also true if the religion is intended to be evil, such as one where you worship a demon and sacrifice to it in exchange for power.)  If some of the tenets are difficult to follow, or do not appear to be entirely beneficial, that can create dimension and interesting internal conflict. One thing I like about the Jedi of Star Wars, as I mentioned to the audience, is that the Jedi Code includes both “there is no passion, there is serenity” and “there is no emotion, there is peace”. This not only begs the question, what is the difference between those two (a potentially interesting conversation to have in-character in a Star Wars LARP) but also why is it so desirable to avoid all emotion and passion? Is it even possible?

We also covered how LARP interacts with the religion of its players. For example, I keep kosher, so when food is involved in a LARP, I like to know it advance so I can prepare my own food if need be. Also, mimicking real religious rituals may offend players or make them uncomfortable. And there have been real cases of people dropping out of LARPing because of their religious beliefs that even made-up rituals have real world significance. (I’m not entirely certain this is something that can be reasonably worked around- rituals in LARPs are extremely common… but it’s something to be aware of.)

There is one last thought i have on the notes that I prepped for the panel but forgot to bring up at NELCO. But I will add it here. The weird idea of science vs. religion is a theme that comes up in LARPs fairly often. But it’s a false dichotomy, it’s overplayed, and it frequently crosses well over the line into offensive. Faith does not preclude understanding and accepting science. The reverse is also entirely false. This isn’t one of those things I feel should be done so long as it’s done with careful thought. I’d really just like to see it dropped.

…Seems like a rather bitter, negative note to end on, but overall, running this panel was a very positive experience for me. I hope the audience got something out of it as well.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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11 Responses to NELCO 2013 Post Event Report – Religion in LARP

  1. Nat Budin says:

    Interesting post, thanks! I’d wanted to get to this panel and didn’t make it.

    As the co-author of a religion-themed LARP I know you’ve played, I’m curious about your thoughts. The Last Seder flies in the face of several of your recommendations here, most obviously the one about not depicting real religious rituals because it can be offensive. Obviously, in this case that’s pretty closely tied to the structure of the game, so I’m not sure we could have avoided it.

    Clearly pitfalls exist here. We tried very hard to be 100% respectful of people’s beliefs in The Last Seder, but I’m sure there are ways in which we got it wrong. Do you have any thoughts on how to do this kind of thing right?

    • Fair Escape says:

      The whole “real rituals in LARPs” could probably be the subject of its own multi-page wall-of-text post. I don’t think the idea of leaving any and all rituals out of LARPing is plausible or really, desirable. But C. made a good point that it’s good to be aware that there are people who believe any ritual can hold power, even ones invented for a LARP and that this has driven people out of LARPing. I had no idea about this until he described things he’d witnessed in the past.

      With regards to ritual from real religions, one of the best things a LARP writer /player can do is either have personal familiarity with the religion referenced, and/or consult with practitioners. Which, obviously, was something in Last Seder’s favor.

      I actually think Last Seder handled it very well. The experience was rather interesting for me because all of the Passover stuff was quite clear to me, whereas a lot the Passion stuff went almost entirely over my head.

      I gave some thought to what sort of Jewish rituals I would feel uncomfortable seeing in a LARP even if handled respectfully and recreated accurately. (Actually, complete accuracy may be what makes people most uncomfortable, especially for the more sacred rituals.) I haven’t yet come up with one. There are holy items I probably wouldn’t want to see used as LARP props, but I doubt it’ll ever be an issue for cost reasons. (For example, a new torah can cost up to $60,000.)

      Real rituals from other religions seem more likely to make me uncomfortable. The two that have actually come up are crossing oneself and wearing crosses. But I’ve tried reciting the All Father (or was it the Hail Mary?) without discomfort. (Bungled it, by the way. Worst nun ever.) I think it might be largely arbitrary. My mother has often expressed discomfort with the idea of incorporating crosses into costumes… and now I feel it. How sacred it is to the other religion might be a factor for others, but my ignorance of Christianity kinda makes that aspect moot.

      • Fair Escape says:

        B. correctly points out that unless I was praying to Odin, I probably meant “Our Father” and not “All Father”. As if my point needed further illustration…

      • I remember it was Hail Mary, when you were a nun in The Devil’s Karma–you said “blessed is the fruit of the loom” 😉 Which prompted EB to reply with, “Does Jesus wear tighty-whities?”

        Thankfully it was a humorous LARP 🙂

        I also remember in King’s Musketeers, giving lessons to you and other Jews on how to make the sign of the cross 🙂

        It’s okay, I don’t mind. Those twelve years of Catholic school have to be good for something.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Re overlooked aspects, I think this holds more in campaigns than in theater LARPs. In campaigns there’s much more time to spend on world construction because players are going to be spending hundreds of hours playing (say, 48 hours once a month, or if it’s a tabletop then 4 once a week). This means that GMs can write fleshed out religions, and have much less of an excuse if they do the standard fantasy trope of Christianity with polytheistic pretense*.

    Theater LARPs don’t have this, which means the world construction relies much more on tropes. Even Cracks in the Orb doesn’t have as much material in the blue sheets as a boffer LARP or a tabletop campaign setting. So it’s hard to create a realistic religion from scratch that a) has enough information to deal with the overlooked aspects, b) players can remember well enough for a 4-hour game, and c) doesn’t completely overshadow gameplay.

    For example, take A Single Silver Coin. There’s a simple afterlife mechanic – you need to have at least one coin left to enter heaven. There’s a one-page background about the deities of the major overworld religion, and 1-2 paragraphs about the difference with the minority religion. This is what people need to know to play the LARP and interact with the other characters. Yes, much more detailed background is possible, but it doesn’t need to be there.

    * More precisely, the trope is that there’s a closed list of deities with a universal hierarchy between them – i.e. if there’s a pantheon head then he’ll be recognized as such everywhere. There may also be false gods, with no power at all. This is not how polytheists actually behave(d). They believed in local gods with local power, and when they conquered other nations they were okay with incorporating their gods as subsidiary. It was standard to pray to different gods on a long journey. Monotheism isn’t like this, and genre fantasy looks like universal monotheism except that there’s a fixed pantheon instead of one god.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Definitely agree with you on this stuff. Most 4 hour theater LARPs don’t flesh out these aspects of the setting much, and it’s often for perfectly valid reasons. It’s just not the purpose of the LARP to explore these issues, and brain space and reading time of players is limited. No LARP can explore every issue. Especially not the short one-shots.

      I guess I come from a background that’s (possibly) equal parts boffer campaign and one-shot theater. I also find that players are more receptive to long blue sheets in weekend-long theater LARPs, which also colored a lot of my notes.

      But if we do want to include religion as a theme (and many LARPs do have at least one or two token characters for whom it’s their defining trait, especially in historical and fantasy LARP in which case, if writers do want to develop those characters (and I as a player would be happy to see some development if I’m going to get cast as that token cleric or priest), I want to offer some thoughts to maybe get some ideas flowing,

      By the way, I love that phrase “Christianity with polytheistic pretense.” That’s a great way to describe a lot of what we see in LARP. I also agree that many LARP settings overlook the idea of how geography affects polythiesm. Some of them have the excuse that the LARP doesn’t involve travel to other places or foreigners, others are just trying for simplicity. Plus if the gods are real in the setting, it’s easier to explain unified ideas of who they are and how they work across cultures. (After all, every now and then the gods show up and clarify things for the characters!)

    • Brian R. says:

      I agree that larps (especially short ones) often, necessarily, lean on tropes because it’s a very economical way to get complex ideas across in a limited amount of time. There’s nothing wrong with that, and especially for short larps there’s probably no getting around it.

      With regards to religion, I’m a little concerned with the tropes we end up leaning on, though. The D&D trope manages to provide a shell of religion, without any of the things that make religion interesting as a theme to explore. The trope of faith vs. science is, in my opinion, a lazy way of generating conflict that is played out, borderline offensive, and leads to shallow roleplay. I’m not saying don’t use tropes, but the tropes we’re using more often than not aren’t getting the job done.

      I think you’re absolutely right that we do need to be economical in terms of the information presented, but I think the community spends limited wordcount in the wrong places sometimes. Specifically, we spend too much time on cosmological details, and too little time on basic values and philosophy. If you’re playing a Hindu character, what would you rather have: a paragraph enumerating some of the major gods, or a paragraph describing the concept of Dharma? I’d rather have the latter.

      • Fair Escape says:

        Well said on the limited wordcount point/Hindu example. I agree.

      • Alon Levy says:

        I agree with both of you. What LARPs do have space to do in character sheets is describe basic values and philosophy, and also social relations. In other words, if we’re playing in a society where priests enjoy prestige, then the priest character should be told in the character sheet, “people will defer to your judgment on matters of values,” and the other characters should be told something like, “___ is a moral authority and has a special connection with God.”

        It’s also fine to deliberately forgo these lines. If you’re in a Game of Church/Rabbinate/Whatever Thrones environment in which it’s all about bribery and threats and deals, then it’s fine to deemphasize the faith-based aspects. That’s actually way easier to do than to give background on a religion, since we have plenty of historical background material and multiple cable shows invoking the trope.

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