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Creation Myths or the Truth About Creation?

Kaspar Lundsby

This is a comment to Andrew Gould's tip regarding the truth of creation myths (Roleplaying Tips #188, readers' tip #4). While I agree with Andrew that creation myths can be of help when creating a new game setting, I find that promoting them to being commonly known facts may greatly hinder the further development of the setting. This is a serious point of critique, so in the following I intend to explain and justify that opinion-an explanation that leads me to pointing out some problems with divine intervention, and with what I see as the typical approach to creating cultures (especially in commercial settings), as well as to pointing out some of the forces of monotheistic religions.

Creation myths are exactly that-myths which have been created by people to describe and explain something as strange as creation. Letting the truth about the creation of the world be known to the people in the world is the same as removing one of the most fundamental parts of religion. It will show the people that the creating deities (assuming it's in a setting with multiple deities) exist, and that they will let their actions, their commandments, and even some of the most basic truths/facts about the world be known to their followers-they will intervene. The deities have thereby lost that aura of mystery and divinity that should surround deities and reduced themselves from being gods to being just rulers of the world-rulers with great knowledge and special powers, but still only rulers. And the fundamental of all religions-the belief that there is something greater than any person, something that has created everything and that watches over everything-is lost. There will be no need for belief and for faith in the world (these are replaced by trust in the deities), and therefore there will be no need for religion. Instead you will have clerics that act as if they were their deity's press corps and police force in one, communicating the deity's laws and exercising them, and not their deity's preachers and missionaries. This goes for divine intervention in general.

Now, some will surely argue that the presence of deities is necessary for clerics to give them the powers to cast spells (or to channel spells through them), or that the fact that clerics can cast spells implies that deities exist. I don't agree with that. In my opinion, the clerics might as well get their powers from space, drain it from themselves, or even get them from entirely differently deities than the ones they pray to-it's just their way of casting spells, and they (and others) believe that those spells come from their deities. So whether the deities actually exist or not doesn't matter-it's what each cleric believes that matters.

Actually, I find this a great problem in most role playing settings (especially in most commercial settings that I know of): that the deities are all well-defined and present in the setting, whereas religion is mostly neglected. While it is fine for the GM to know the specifics of the deities-after all, he/she has to act on their behalves-it is much more useful for the players to know how the deities are worshipped in order to play their characters well. The characters will not know all the details about their deity-they will only know how to worship it or how to act in accordance to its commandments. The same goes for creation myths: the characters will know one and hopefully believe in it, but they will (probably) never experience it, so there is no need to know whether or not it is the truth. And since the characters will never know the truth about the creation of the world, there's no need for the players (or the GM) to know it, and therefore there is no need to describe it. What is important to describe, however, is how the general populace believes that the world was created.

Another problem in the settings where only the deities and not the religions are described is that the societies of the setting will seem to be without religion. Even though there are clerics and temples, they are only there to perform a function, and not to affect the people around them. If you think of all the cultures in our world today, most (if not all) of them have been built around religion. Religion used to be such a large part of the daily lives of the people in the past that it affected them in everything they did. Most holidays (notice the word: holy days), many words (e.g. the names of months and days), signs, gestures, behaviour, and lots of other things are based on religion. Why shouldn't it be the same way in role playing settings?

In many settings it seems that religion is added to the cultures only to allow the presence of clerics. I believe that much more believable settings could be made if religion was taken into account much sooner in the design process. Before designing the various cultures in the setting, design the religions on which they are based, and you will seea much more consistent setting, compared to those where the cultures are designed before the religions. The trouble with this approach is that it takes a lot of work to describe how to worship each deity in a pantheon, and it closes the pantheon in the sense that it becomes very hard to introduce new deities-a freedom that I know many GMs/world creators want.

This is exactly the reason why I'm all for monotheistic religions. Even though monotheistic religions may appear a bit dull, I expect it sufficiently challenging for most GMs just to create one religion (note, this is describing the religion, not just the god). Also, with a religion without divine intervention, everything will be based on belief and on interpretations of ancient texts or tales, and thereby this religion will have quite a few different factions , who generally believe the same things, but differ at some points. Thereby it should still be easy for the players to find factions that their characters can sympathise with (and it will be easy for the GM to add factions if he/she wants to), but at the same time, all characters will share the same general religion, and that religion will also be the only one that affects the characters' society, so they will have that as a common thing to relate to.

Sure, you can (and aught to) write a creation myth for your setting, and I think that Andrew's description is very good and useful. But leave it as that-a myth-and base a religion on it. Then use that religion as a basis for one or more cultures, and you will get a realistic, believable setting. Having the creation myth be known as being the truth ends up reducing religion to being just history.

Actually, it can be argued that truth will always turn into myth unless it is constantly proven (mostly by example), or unless the observer/performer of the occurrence always maintains the trust in his/her relation to the occurrence. Since creation cannot constantly be proven by example (that would be quite messy) nor by a number of e.g. mathematical formulas, the creating deities will have to work to retain the trust of their believers, which can only be achieved through various kinds of divine intervention (scriptures will also turn into myth over time). So having a "creation truth" for a setting will have to imply that the deities are also very present and openly active in the setting (and thereby the role of clerics will have nothing to do with faith and religion), and it's up to the creating GM to decide if that is a desirable side effect.