I mentioned when I began this section that I used to have a D&D group at church and another at a progressive learning center where my son went to high school. During that time I would make a "holiday special" one shot to be played over break. In the spirit of the season, I thought I would share it's founding myth.
A couple of things are worth mentioning. This holiday is essentially a regional one affiliated with local legend more than a specific faith. There are two gods (or "gods" that are manifestations of a greater power) whose followers exist in the same region. While religion is sometimes used by one nation to attempt to assert control over other nations, it is generally understood by the common self-aware being that the true culprit in these conflicts is money and power rather than theology.
Anyway, I hope you like it and that it gives you ideas. It is just one take on the winter festival and the one-shot notes might make an appearance here before Advent is over. It doesn't look like I will have a chance to use it again for a while...
When Aaron Rhymer Stopped the Sun
The single most important holiday in the Wilds is the 9 day festival known as the “Season of the Sun” Held during the shortest days of the year, it commemorates the ancient legend of the poet/wizard Aaron Rhymer. Rhymer is a character that the people of the Wilds brought with them in the migration north, so he is equally important in both Karranite and Sandozian Folklore. While it is banned as heresy in the City of Sandoz, nearly every other community, regardless of their dominant faith tradition, holds some sort of celebration. Karran’s Arc and Free Port are particularly famous for their festivals. Many people dream of making the sometimes-arduous journey to be on one of these places for the holiday.
The Tale of Arcan and Rostaphar
The story is usually told as a poem, which is recited every night during the festival. It follows the travails of two young, star-crossed lovers named Alcan and Rostaphar who lived in a city “far far away” and a “long time ago”. Their parents were rivals in everything. They challenged each other in business and they strove for control of the town from the safety of their urban fortresses. To escape their parents, Alcan and Rostaphar would sneak out and meet in a private walled garden near an area that was considered “neutral territory” by the various factions. Nonetheless their parents caught wind of the situation and--their mutual hatred strangely bringing them together--they made a pact with each other that if their child was not home by dusk each day, they would kill that child and send the body to the other family as proof that the deed was done.
The couple was naturally frightened by this prospect so they agreed to meet one more time in the garden. However, they got so into their conversation that they lost track of time and realized that they wouldn’t make it home before dusk. This is where Aaron the Rhymer comes in.
The garden--as it turned out--was owned by Rhymer. Hearing the cries of dismay from his seat at the window of his second-floor study, Aaron rushed down to the garden to reassure the couple. He promised to stop the sun in the sky long enough for them to make it safely home. Of course, the couple returns the next night and the next so, predictably, Aaron find himself stopping the sun a little later every night as Alcan and Rostaphar squeeze out every moment they can with each other.
As time goes on, people in the town notice. The seasons seem to be moving in reverse! Astrologers start to worry, farmers rush to protect their crops, animals wake up from their hibernation. This, of course, could not be tolerated for long and Aaron found himself in an awkward situation. So he devised a plan.
He invited the parents of the couple over to dinner and arranged for them to find Alcon and Rostaphar in the garden. At that point, just as the parents were preparing to tear the youngsters asunder, Aaron the Rhymer reveals that it is, in fact, he who has stopped the sun and threatens to keep things that way if any harm befalls the couple. Facing that fearful prospect the parents realized that they were bested and imploded with rage.* The couple got married and unified the town, ushering a century of prosperity and peace.
The traditions vary depending on the area. However some remain standard throughout the Wilds. People decorate their houses with things found in nature, for example. In addition there are wandering bands of musicians and quite a bit of eating and drinking after dark (and therefore after fast-time, see below).
There is also a cycle of feasting and fasting. On the first day there is a great feast lasting well into the night. On the next 7 days the people fast during the day and eat after dark. It has been noted that the winter solstice is a rather convenient time for such a fast, but it does mean that almost everyone abides by it. During these days there is a cycle of staying up as late as possible and then sleeping in. On the final night the rhythm shifts again and there is a feast that begins at noon.
As previously mentioned, the entire (5-hour) epic poem is recited every day of the festival, beginning in the afternoon and ending well after dark, at whatever the largest public gathering place is in the area. In Karran’s Arc there are 9 long-time “houses” of citizens that sponsor a reading on their given day. Each has a special uniform and the competition to provide surrounding entertainment is stiff. Since food and drink are not allowed until dark, each house will bring their best beverages in barrels and perform the poem on top of them, using song and dance for interpretation. Once it is too dark to see the barrels are tapped, food is distributed, and the stage gets noticeably smaller.
In Free Port there are multiple readings and by tradition anyone passing by can be dragooned to continue the recitation (sponsored in this case directly by the guilds) . Again, kegs and crates of free food and drink are very much in evidence in an effort to attract the populace. For this reason--in every municipality--the Brewers Guild loves the Recitation and strives to cater it to the best of their abilities.
The tradition among the populace is to find creative ways to skip the first few hours, but most people--at least in Karran’s Arc and Free Port--can recite parts of the entire poem from memory.
The wealthy will sometime hold private recitations as well. It is a big deal to be invited to one, even though they can be deathly boring.
Entreating the Sun:
At dusk on the last night the entire community (or family, it varies) gathers at a high point and an elder recites the words that end the poem. “Love has stopped the Sun and love will make it move again”. If the sun stops and night is delayed the party continues. If it doesn’t stop and night comes, then the kids go to bed.
In recent memory the sun has just kept moving as it always has. There are legends (perpetuated by eccentric drunk old uncles) that the sun did stop once in recent memory and the so-called “shortest day” was an hour longer. No one believes them.
*Tradition says that when they parents imploded they did not die, but instead turned into Scantlings or “Mountain Trolls” which are not real trolls at all but instead resemble hideous misshapen gargoyles and are accustomed to living in cold dark places, like caves and sewers.
Well that is it for now. I may post more from this world as I really liked it and it would be nice to know that some of it lives in the ether. By the way, if you are interested in the learning center I talked about, here is a very non-D&D sermon I gave a year or two ago...
Perhaps not surprisingly, I am very interested in clerics. I am a clergyperson in real life, serving a small congregation affiliated with two progressive denominations. In some sense, then, I, too, am a cleric! However, my interest in the character class goes all the way back to the B/X (Basic/Expert) Dungeons and Dragons that I played in the '80's. That was WAY before I did anything churchy. If you wanted your PC to live, a cleric was a nice choice. Playing a cleric I had solid armor and weapons, reasonable hit points and (at second level) spells to get those hit points back. I was attracted to the class because of the mechanics. The whole religion thing came later.
In a sense that "original" cleric stayed with us. It is a martial archetype, a sort of pre-paladin off to the crusades. However, as the game developed I--and a ton of other people--found that archetype limiting. After all, when we look at today's religious landscape there are all kinds of religious leaders. There are sequestered monks, scholarly rabbis, and dynamic, entertaining pulpiteers just to name a few. Then, when one adds in the fact that many--probably most--traditional fantasy settings are polytheistic, the range of clerics increases. When we look at the vast array of religious experience--both real and imagined--that strangely medieval "high church' knight of the early years knocking out heathens starts to make the least sense of all.
Now, I have played a variety of clerics of the years. Also, for our church youth group game (no "Satanic Panic" here) I tried to develop an order of clergy loosely based on my own tradition (Congregationalism). What I ended up with was an order of druids and bards who all run taverns and debate the existence of their deity who--strangely enough--occasionally drops in for drinks in the guise of an anthropomorphic lizard.--Sometimes the ministry feels like that.
Thanks to these experiences, I have decided to focus on two big challenges when roleplaying a religious leader. However, before we get to these challenges it is worth mentioning an overarching dynamic. Certain character classes in games like D&D or Pathfinder, for example, have clear real-world analogies. For RP purposes you can be (or know) a cleric, a bard, or any number of rogues. One could make a real-world argument for fighters and rangers as well. However, none of us actually knows a wizard or warlock or monk. They have fantasy hard-wired in. That said, I do believe that RP'ing clerics presents another special hurdle or asset, depending on how one looks at it. So on to the challenges...
The first of these problems comes from our own relationship with religion and our general lack of understanding about how it works. Because we don't know that much we bring our own biases into the game. This is not a shocker. Of course we do. However, it is limiting. If we do not know a fair sample of religious professionals (regardless of their religion) how can we make a fair assessment of our options? Certainly not by watching movies. More often than not--if there is a religious figure in a film at all--that person is a shorthand stand-in for the judgmental establishment. So many of the clerics I know in real life are non-judgmental and decidedly counter-cultural. I am not saying that hideous clergy don't exist--I know a lot of those folks too! However, It is worth remembering that Fred Rogers was also a minister..
Also, when we think of religion we often exclude the internal experience of our own naturally agnostic selves. This is too bad. After all what we see imperfectly outside ourselves should not be prioritized over our own thoughts and reflections. From a psychological or sociological perspective, we all have religious tendencies because we all want to make sense of the world we live in. This fact includes atheists. I actually know a large number of atheist clergy and they are some of the most religious people I have encountered. They are faithful to their world view and their beliefs.
Religions can be very toxic or they can be a blessing. Often one tradition can be both. Also, they can be organized or disorganized. Life is messy, after all. In its "purest" sense, though, faith isn't something you have permanently and all the time. It is an ideal that can be "lived into" even as we fall short. It is a path leading to a dimly conceived goal. It is an adventure of the mid and heart, which makes real-world--or RPG world-- adventures possible.
When we think of RP'ing a cleric, though, we often narrow our scope. even though that crusader image is increasingly a thing of the past, we often start with the idea that our character possesses theological certainty. Paladins have this problem as well. We think that they never have doubts or that they will want to "convert" everyone to their way of thinking (more about that in a minute). I have been a minister for 20 years and I have to tell you that I have doubts every single day. I also have never tried to "convert" anyone. Your clerics (and paladins) can be a hot spiritual mess sometimes while still being good people and being faithful to whatever divine entity they serve.
This brings us to the second problem. We bring our understanding of clerics into a world that is fundamentally different from that of our own. There is a wide variety of worlds that we game in. However, the default--certainly in the popular worlds put out by popular companies--is to take a polytheistic system of faith and put it into a Western European setting without making making all that many adjustments. In a lot of settings (like the one for my youth group that I mentioned earlier). The gods just wander around, dropping in on their followers. In others there is no clear religious system and instead a smattering of cults. The challenge for our brains is to separate these different systems from the one we are familiar with. It is a hard thing to do.
Naturally we look at these worlds through our own lens and can forget to make adjustments. In a world with tiny cults, for example, conversion makes total sense. In a world like ours--with a few large "world religions"--it makes less sense. In both of those cases what religion you identify as frequently has massive cultural implications. Think of all the people who don't go to church but do celebrate Christmas and Easter! A smaller cult would probably have even more intense cultural markers to separate themselves from others.
In a polytheistic world with "teams" of gods, conversion doesn't make much sense at all because someone else's deity might be besties with yours! Also, the existence of gods is not really questioned. They are right there...at the other end of the bar. Cultural markers will be different too and while it may not take a lot of thought it does take some. There might be some clues in Hindu practices if your world is one of these.
OK, I am running out of steam but there is so much more to say! Every once in a while I will come back to the topic of religion in world-building and roleplaying. I would like to talk about building realistic church or temple governance structures for fantasy worlds, for example. One can have a completely fantastic game without thinking about these things but if you want to think about them, they will enrich your world.
Bonus link of the Week:
Here is a sermon I gave a couple weeks ago about the deep welcome I have found in nerd culture over the years: NERDS!
A few years ago my intern and I began a D&D game for our church youth group. I wanted to get back into Tabletop Roleplaying games that I had played extensively as a kid and then off and on (eventually with my own kids) over the years. Anyway, fast-forward to now, I am gaming a lot and have become interested in the spiritual dimensions of the game as well as it's ability to spark the imagination about this world and other worlds.