Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Setting Talk: American Gods

We had a big question in the comments recently about American history in Hero's Journey! There are a lot of moving parts to that discussion - because there's a vastly different religious landscape, with a large number of major religions instead of a handful of dominant ones, the difference between majority monotheistic and polytheistic populations, and how those line up with politics and historical events, it's a very big area to cover. We're obviously not going to do all of it in this post (or in the book, really - there's just too much, and there needs to be room to explore things in the future as well as for individual games to make their own calls!), but we can talk about the basics of a few things!

How is history different in the Americas?

In a lot of ways, actually: not very.

One of our main goals with HJ is for history to be, by and large, the same. Obviously, you have to roll with that some; if there had been a vastly different religious landscape for literally hundreds and hundreds of years, history would have been different, and there are literally endless scenarios you can come up with to talk about why and how, many of them conflicting with each other. How different would the history of the conflicts between Ireland, England, and Scotland be if Christianity and its different sects weren't the major powers there? How many laws in the United States would be different if majority religions had different moral hangups about things like gender or sex or warfare? There are countless answers and you could literally write endless speculative fiction about it, and that's fun, and we encourage it for those people who want to go for it!

But for the base game, we don't want to have players have to walk in learning an enormous alternate history for the world in order to play in it or understand the context of it. (There's nothing wrong with RPGs that do that, it's just not our goal for this one.) Setting the game in a modern world that is in broad strokes "the same" lets players start right away without a lot of prep work or cultural whiplash, and gives them all the space they need to slowly build the world out of its differences as they go, rather than needing to figure them out ahead of time.

You're going to notice, in this book, that there isn't a ton of page space devoted to things like "how the Catholic vs. Protestant conflicts in New England in the nineteenth century were instead Celtic deities vs. Mediterranean deities", and it's on purpose. It's not that those things aren't interesting, but because there are endless permutations and for the vast majority of games, it doesn't actually make any difference, we're saving the wordcount there for future supplement stuff. For one thing, if your game doesn't involve any characters being historians investigating New England religious conflict in the 1800s, you don't care; for another thing, even if your game does care about it, there are so many ways to do it that we prefer in a lot of cases not to give a "canon" event or explanation, so that players have room to choose the version that works best for them.

So for the most part, if a historical event happened in the real world, assume that it happened here, too. If it would be weird, because it had a religious component or motivation that doesn't seem to match the HJ setting, there are examples for how to go about choosing a version for your game!

What are the major religions in the Americas?

Just as in the real world, the Americas are completely lousy with immigrants from various time periods, which means that they brought their religions with them. In the United States, influential religions include Celtic, Hindu, Mexica, Norse, Roman, Russian, and Yoruba (and diaspora religions) beliefs, but these are just the most common, and there are huge numbers of people of other faiths actively practicing, existing, and affecting things, many of them varying depending on where you are. (The west coast, for example, is likely to have a greater presence from east Asian religions due to the larger concentration of people of east Asian descent there; the southern states are more likely to have Mexica and southwestern Native American beliefs prevalent, and so on.) Canada tends more toward Celtic and Norse than any of the other religions mentioned above, but has a strong Inuit religious presence, especially in the north; Mexico tends more toward Celtic, Catalan, and Roman religious presence, but with the very widespread prevalence of Mexica, Maya, and other native Mexican religious exerting significant control over various parts of the country.

Someone mentioned the "four dominant religions of HJ" in this comment question, by the way, I think, so I wanted to just note that the four pantheons represented in the core book here are not necessarily the dominant pantheons in the Americas, or various other places in the world. Hinduism, for example, is massively influential worldwide, but while there are strong Hindu communities in the United States, it's not one of the majority religions there (but go anywhere in southeast Asia and the story is completely reversed!). Egyptian religion is very influential in northern Africa and around the Mediterranean, but the Americas have a comparatively small northern African diaspora - a game set in Europe will probably see more Egyptian religion than one in the US or Canada, even though it obviously exists in both places as well, and a game set in Africa will probably see it as one of the dominant forces.

(If you're wondering, Roman, Celtic, and Norse beliefs are so prevalent in the Americas because they were carried there by the European invaders and later immigrants whose descendants now make up the white majority there. Other areas of the world - middle Asia, for example - that were not colonized or where those groups did not arrive in more than small numbers are going to have much more negligible presence for those religions.)

What does a world with all these religions in play look like?

Really complicated!

Imagine how complicated cultural and religious things are now. For example, in the United States, there's a perennial social argument that comes up every winter about winter religious festivals - how they should be practiced, how commercial they should be, what's appropriate to incorporate into government and public events, and so on. Christmas is the religion practiced by the majority of the country, but other religions and cultural groups have major holidays during this time period, too - Hanukkah for Jewish folks, Kwanzaa as a celebration of African-American heritage, the winter solstice for various pagan religions. Everyone is constantly arguing about how to include various people, whether they should have to include various people - there's even constant debate about whether or not it's sensitive to give a greeting/blessing from your own religion, or a generalized one (such as "Happy Holidays"), and there are ENDLESS thinkpieces about it all season long.

We have that now, with a comparatively small number of majorly influential religions. Now, imagine that there are potentially dozens more holidays and cultures or religions involved (not even instead, but in addition to - monotheistic religions still exist as minority groups!), and none of them are necessarily governmentally dominant, and this is happening all year long. In the world of HJ, people who work in cultural branches of the government are administrative wizards who try to provide safe and cooperative celebrations and forums for a LOT of different people, and that's not even counting community and individual practices. And think about the tax codes, y'all.

Holidays aren't the only thing that are happening all the time in a rapid and impressive array; different religions have houses of worship, if they use them, all over the place, so players are probably familiar with various kinds of temples, shrines, churches, and open-air worship spaces as a normal part of everyday life, just like the average midwestern American probably doesn't bat an eye at the different denominations of Christian churches they see all over the place. Commerce is another big place you'll see major differences: capitalism doesn't care which religion you want to buy stuff for as long as you're buying stuff, so various religions' deities, symbols, or heroes are going to be all over the place on products and advertisement both religious and secular.

And, of course, people are going to fight when their religions are in conflict, just like they always do. The potential for conflict is large-scale, and will probably be a major component in a lot of folks' games.

How do politics line up with these religions?

Obviously, we're talking about the Americas at the moment, and Canada, Mexico, and the US are all countries with secular governments and no official religion, so in their case, theoretically politics should be differentiated from religion. Separation of government and religion is even more important in a world with so many religions having major impact on the population, but that doesn't necessarily mean no one is trying to legislate religion - on the contrary, people are trying to do so just as much as they do now, and the lobbying industry is off the charts. Representatives are swayed by the religions of their voters and constituents, not to mention their own beliefs, and social movements frequently have to deal with powerful blocs of religious sentiment from various sources, usually with the most widespread religions (or the ones with the most powerful adherents) getting their way more than others.

Not everyone is badly behaved, of course, just like every single politician in the Americas isn't out there trying to legislate religion, but in practice, it's just as inescapable and pervasive in HJ as in the real world. The difference is in how many different religions might be having an influence, and how they might affect each other and the people involved as a result. (Obviously, in other parts of the world theocratic or enforced-atheism governments are causing other problems for their people, just in different directions.)

So how do I know what the religious landscape looks like? Can I just map major religions now onto major religions in HJ?

Not really, unfortunately, or at least not accurately (well, except for in areas where the major religion is one that is unchanged in HJ, like Hinduism or Shinto). Christianity is the dominant religion in North America because it was the major religion of the various European peoples who invaded and colonized North American countries, but because there were multiple different cultures involved in said colonizing, it isn't as simple as just saying, "Okay, Christianity now = Norse religion". The Americas don't have a single dominant religion - or two, or three. They have tons. They have their native religions, and they have the diaspora and syncretic religions created by people who traveled or were forced to move there, and they have all the religions that were brought with every wave of new people who moved into the place and put down roots there.

In general, the easiest way to not have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out religious demographics in an area is just to attach them culturally - if you have a large Chinese-American population, Shenist and Chinese Buddhist practices are probably more prevalent in that area, and if you have a lot of white folks descended from the Irish making up the majority in the area, religious influence there is probably Tuatha-de-Danaan-centric. But that's pretty simplistic shorthand, since people of all kinds of backgrounds can be followers of different religions, and the long-term influence of certain groups being in power will affect cultural context through laws and customs (for example, since white folks are the people in power in the US, their majority religions of Norse, Celtic, and Roman beliefs have probably affected a lot of the general culture). And, of course, minority religions still exist and are important, so everything boiling down to just "who has the highest percentage ethnic group here" isn't reflective of a balanced game world or the right call for every story.

We assume there are going to be some of y'all who get all in on figuring out the intricacies of the religious landscape in a given area, and others who go, "eh, it's Maine, everything here is Celtic/Norse gods", and either approach is probably fine!

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