Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lore of the Old Gods

Today when we went to look for an appropriate mythology topic to discuss, lo and behold, there was a question in the box from one of you fine people. We've been talking about this very subject for a while, so now's a great time to bring it up. The question reads: In the setting, you guys says that the gods of the old religions and mythologies are still being worshiped, but what about the religions that we barely know anything about like the Gauls or Arabs? How would you guys do that?

This is one of the pitfalls (although a minor one) of using a setting that is close to the real world, but not exactly the same. It's never been a secret that we're all about as much mythological accuracy in this game as we can rustle up; we want to approach each culture's religion and beliefs respectfully and in the appropriate context, and also provide players with all the unique and interesting facets of their stories and religious practices possible, thus filling the game with neat stuff to do. To that end, we do a ton of research and reading and investigation to try to come up with the most accurate portrait of a given mythology as we can.

However, for some mythologies, like the aforementioned two, there's very little information left. This can be for a variety of reasons - the culture was irrevocably damaged, superceded or wiped out by colonization or wars with its neighbors, the religion was eventually absorbed into another set of beliefs and lost its original character and format, the culture was pre-literate or primarily preserved their stories through oral retelling or visual imagery, making it difficult for later scholars to try to go back and understand it, or a slew of other historical and cultural factors. But, in the world of Hero's Journey, these religions are alive - the Arab gods are still worshiped in the peninsular deserts, the gods of the Ainu still known in cold Hokkaido, and the wild-eyed lords of the continental Celtic lands still paid homage to in shrine and ritual.

The problem then becomes that if these religions are still alive and well and being practiced visibly in Hero's Journey, then those knowledge gaps don't exist within the game world itself - no one has to ask what a particular ritual really meant or what a particular scripture's worn-away words were trying to say, because those things aren't lost secrets. It hasn't been hundreds of years since these things happened, or even hundreds of days.

We have two options here: we can either try to guess what the ancient religions mostly gone in our world would have been like if they still existed, and use that as the basis for the religions of the game, or we can decide to move forward on the assumption that what we know about those religions is the way they actually appear in the gameworld, even if it's piecemeal. Hero's Journey takes the second approach, and decides that what we know about the Gaulish gods in the real world - guesses from inscriptions, inferrals from nearby cultures, secondhand accounts from outside forces - is an accurate and true portrayal of the Gaulish religion in the game.

This is totally weird, we understand. There's approximately zero percent chance that even with the best scholarship at our disposal we can actually get an accurate idea of what traditional Asante religion looked like five centuries ago, and even if we could, we would still have no idea what it would have looked like after being practiced all that time instead of syncretized with monotheist religions. To put it bluntly, assuming we can portray a religion accurately under those circumstances is just plain wrong.

But, on the other hand, inventing what we think it could have been like would also be plain wrong. Our guesses would just be guesses, not necessarily shared by anyone else with an interest in the subject, and since we are not even from any of the cultures in question and completely lack perspective on their worldviews, it would be ridiculous for us to try to decide what they should look like in an alternate setting. Damned if we do and damned if we don't - the nightmare of the mythology scholar who doesn't want to be caught not knowing if they're doing it right!

So, we're sticking with what we do know, even when that isn't a lot. In the case of the pre-Islamic Arab religions, to use an example, we assume that what we know about those mythologies is correct, and therefore is what is happening in the game's world - Hubal is a war god who divines via arrow-throwing, al-Uzza's cult celebrates her great beauty as evidenced by the female features of her ansab, and so on and so forth. Sometimes that means picking a theory and running with it if scholars disagree on what's actually going on; and yes, sometimes that'll mean it's wrong, although we can't prove it one way or the other so no one will ever know. It means that players don't have to learn any extra constructed mythology or history; they can go out and look up ancient Arab religion and have just as much information about it as the game does, instead of having to try to learn several metric tons of new mythology reconstructions set up just for the game. History still happened as it happened, simply with alternative forces substituted for those of monotheism, so while Islam never arrived to get all up in the Arab religions' grill, they may still have interacted with other major religions in the area (such as the Egyptian or Canaanite ones) and entered into historically similar conflicts as a result.

And this way, we can provide as much information as possible on those myths and religious practices we do know something about, and let individual games take it from there. If your game decides that Celtic worship in France experienced a resurgance after the fall of the Roman empire that allowed it to re-extend its influence in place of the Christianity that never arose there, that's groovy. If you instead decide that the Roman decimation of Celtic culture made it more of a minority religion with less powerful gods, so that it is still practiced widely in France but not as much abroad and sometimes alongside imported Roman mythology, that's groovy, too. We'll give you all the basics we can and suggest our best estimations of the modern cults and world of those gods, but you'll always have room to interpret how they fit into the world of Hero's Journey as your game sees fit.

The game world's default assumption is always that the religions of a given area's historical cultures are alive and well in the modern age (and that if monotheism is the norm in our world, they take its place), but when it comes to filling in the gaps where our knowledge of an ancient religion is incomplete, there will probably be many different approaches we (and you) can take. Which is part of the epic challenge, we think!