An Essay From Matt Daley
One of the things I do is offer my platform to other gamers and creatives as a place they can have their words hosted and, potentially, given broader exposure. Matt Daley asked me if I would post this for him, and after talking with him a bit I agreed.
I’m not hosting it because I agree with or endorse everything Matt has to say here. But I absolutely see his point, and I consider it well-reasoned and supported. It’s not a context through which I have ever looked at any RPG setting, and that itself is enough for me to want to take it seriously and give it due weight. It’s easy for worldbuilders and game writers to only consider the impact of their choices through the context of their own experiences. From my point of view, Matt’s most important point in this is that creating a fictional cosmology that reinforces the ideas behind some real-world manipulative behavior can have consequences the creators likely never considered.
And that’s worth thinking about.
-Owen K.C. Stephens
Abusive Christianity Tropes in Tabletop RPGs
Content Warning: discussion of afterlife, absolute morality, and gods as they pertain to abusive practices. Those who are struggle with these issues are advised to use discretion about this article and to take care of themselves as they feel necessary.
I am somebody who has found great solace in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game over the last decade of my life. I have played with friends on the weekly for years, pored over the rulebooks and lore for countless hours, and even written a number of rules supplements for the game. I love the game, the community, and my fellow game authors, and I write this in the interest of improving the game and fixing several longstanding issues which have alienated myself and others from the inclusive environment which I know that many Pathfinder developers are actively working to foster. This piece is not meant as a takedown or smear against Paizo, Pathfinder, or any particular author. My ultimate intent is to reveal and explain the issues within the text so that they can be amended. While my concerns are not exclusive to this game or company, I have chosen Pathfinder as the subject of this exploration because it is the game with which I am most familiar and where these concerns have become the most prominent in my mind.
I come from a conservative Catholic background, one which stressed service and obedience as the highest virtues and was generally indiscriminate about belittlement, bigotry, and physical/mental abuse. I remember how quickly my school, family or church would point to scripture or tradition to justify cruelty, manipulation, or disdain. I don’t owe anyone my life story, nor do I think that it’s of particular interest to any of you, but I will say that I led a life where I believed violence or misfortune could be inflicted on me with divine mandate the moment I let my defenses slip. I garbed myself in the same hostile and judgemental “righteousness” which I believed that my family and my god wanted from me.
My deconstruction of these beliefs has been a long and painful process, and tabletop RPGs have been a solace throughout this experience. My Pathfinder groups gave me a community which I could safely confide in and a place where I could be emphatic and vulnerable without feeling broken, humiliated, or sinful. This wasn’t to say that I didn’t feel trepidation at times (I was scared to open the Monster Manual to any page on devils whenever a cross was mounted on the wall), but I do believe that gaming helped me build the emotional health necessary for my deconstruction.
This experience has made me rather vigilant to a particular trend in gaming lore, that being the unironic and unexamined repetition of conservative Christianity’s more toxic elements within the mythology of Golarion. When digging into the latest Pathfinder book, it is common to see my trauma responses re-ignite when certain hostilities from my youth are not only repeated, but explicitly coded as objective elements within good- or neutral-aligned faiths. I have decided to catalog the most egregious and noteworthy of these trends across Pathfinder’s recent publications in the interest of bringing these concerns to light and showing how they could be written with a more empathetic inclination in the future.
Throughout this piece, I’ll be using the term “deconstructor” to refer broadly to those who have left Christianity. This category covers atheists, agnostics, and those who have moved on to a new faith or spiritual practice. Despite divergent theological and philosophical views, these groups share many experiences in leaving Christianity and are often categorized together in Christian conversation.
For the sake of fairness, I’ll be covering only books which have been released within the last few years of Pathfinder’s publication. The culture of gaming has changed a great deal in recent years, and while a number of concerning elements can be found in older books I believe that it would be fairer and more valuable to analyze recent releases. Similarly, I will not be calling out specific authors in this post, as I feel that to do so would create undue pressure which would inhibit the change I want to see in the game. The books I will be referencing are as follows:
Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Concordance of Rivals © 2019
Bestiary 3 © 2021
Pathfinder Lost Omens: Gods and Magic © 2021
Pathfinder Lost Omens World Guide © 2020
Pathfinder Adventure Path #136: Temple of the Peacock Spirit © 2018
Section 1: Deconstruction as Malicious Conspiracy
One of the first parallels between Pathfinder’s lore and conservative Christianity is the notion of deconstruction or atheism as being the product of evil machinations. Questioning one’s faith is not viewed as a natural line of questioning but rather as a sabotage attempt by a secular conspirator or even a demon/devil of some sort. Pathfinder has designed several creatures which are designed specifically to fulfill this role: The Asura and the Deimavigga from Second Edition’s Bestiary 3 (a conversion from several other older books). The Deimavigga is described as using lies and mental magic to sow doubt in the minds of believers, a refrain which I have seen used by preachers on numerous occasions. Although the Deimavigga’s reasons are not spelled out in its lore, the intention behind their actions seems to be built on an unspoken assumption that those who deconstruct their faith are somehow more inclined towards thoughts and acts which the setting deems to be objectively evil (although the nature of alignment is an issue which I will explore in another section). The Asura, meanwhile, are written as explicitly interested in destroying religious faiths, using their appearance-altering abilities to pose as questioning children or dissenting religious scholars. Satanic involvement has long been an excuse for Christians to castigate or threaten congregation members, and the Asura’s existence presents such abuse as a legitimate and necessary defense of the faith.
Doubly concerning is that these lapses in faith seem to justify acts of force from higher powers, as if the process of questioning one’s faith invalidates the free will which the gods of Golarion seem inclined to protect. Page 8 of Gods and Magic describes how PCs experiencing a crisis of faith will often be visited by emissaries of various gods who will attempt to convert them, an environment which paints Golarion’s deities as mimicking evangelists who take advantage of those in need to win converts. Later on, the same book discusses how service to a deity is seemingly required for one to continue existence in any sort of afterlife (which, incidentally, contradicts statements made in Temple of the Peacock Spirit about heretics being turned into Asura). The demigod Ceyannan from Concordance of Rivals carries a weapon which is described as “capable of dragging out the faith any mortal soul holds for a god”, a description which seems to give cosmic approval to the act of browbeating deconstructors until they return to the fold. Phlegyas, meanwhile, is a demigod described as the “Consoler of Atheists” who was seemingly brought into Pharasma’s service against her will and now works to transform “godless souls” into servants of the goddess of death. These trappings of the Golarion setting, presented as factual within the world of the book, replicate the harshest sentiments of conservative preachers: that deconstruction and doubt are the products of evil manipulators and that the proper recourse for “redeeming” those who question their faith involves bludgeoning, aweing, or otherwise intimidating them until they slink back into the fold. The higher powers of Golarion, at the behest of the authors who write them, affirm practices of real-life religious abuse as a necessity for protecting the cosmos from the supposed dangers of deconstruction.
Compounding upon all of this is victim-blaming lore of Bestiary 3’s Abandoned Zealots, undead horrors who are created from devout souls who spent their life worshiping a nonexistent god or who worshiped in a manner their god does not approve of (the latter, as the book points out, tends to come from the direct involvement of a Deimavigga). The Abandoned Zealot’s offensive abilities (Rend Faith and Crisis of Faith) are based on inhibiting the divine magic of other creatures, while its primary weakness (Anathematic Aversion) is to respond as if traumatized when it encounters a holy symbol. Although the terminology of the Abandoned Zealot is specific to Golarion, the premise of punishing non-Christians or “impure” followers is mirrored in conservative Christian circles. The elements of enviously destroying divine magic and recoiling from holy symbols also link Abandoned Zealots to Christian perceptions of those who have been abused or traumatized by the church (viewing us as trying to ruin the faith for others and believing that we can be “defeated” by religious invocation because we still ultimately belong to the church).
On a macro scale, these are all worrisome pieces of worldbuilding, elements which (intentionally or not) encode conservative Christian ideology in what is purported to be a pantheistic fantasy world. The affirmations and fears of conservative Christianity are written into Golarion as fact, creating an environment where many deconstructors see the tools of their religious abusers justified. When these elements are made universal to the setting and a part of the fundamental process of Golarion’s background, enjoying the fantasy experience becomes a much more difficult task than it should be. Paizo’s depictions of deconstructors themselves is unfortunately no better.
Section 2: Uncharitable and Misinformed Depictions of Deconstructors
The Golarion setting includes a number of characters who are critical of religion, but their approach in representing them appears misguided. Rather than working to dispel the implications established in the previous section, the descriptions within the Lost Omens World Guild and Lost Omens: Gods & Magic seem to fortify several stereotypes from conservative Christianity about deconstructors. Namely, those who leave a faith behind are socially isolated and question their faith due to pressures from an outside world. Gods and Magic has a section on “Atheists and Free Agents” which discusses such people within Golarion, but is quick to bring up that they are only common in harsh authoritarian regimes with widespread bans on religion. Other Free Agent organizations mentioned include the Prophets of Kalistrade (a Ferengi-esque culture which is seemingly written to be the butt of jokes) and the Green Faith (which is described elsewhere in the book as a form of nature worship). The book then goes on to describe these groups as exceptions, stating that “most free agents on Golarion are loners”. The section goes on to make several points which are reasonable and charitable, such as stating the Free Agents may find gods unworthy of worship or may find meaning and belonging through themselves and their fellow mortals. However, the same section applies common misconceptions from Christian apologetics, such as the notion that Free Agents refuse to worship out of anger towards the gods and the recreation of The Brothers Karamazov’s famous line “If there is no god, then everything is permitted”. Furthermore, the section works to cage statements of “free agents aren’t amoral” and “free agents genuinely don’t possess faith in a god” as being matters of opinion, leaving open the viability of more common and toxic Christian apologetics within Golarion.
Rahadoum is a nation within Golarion which is immensely cynical about divine intervention due to its history of holy wars. The country’s opposition to divine servitude is enshrined in a legal code known as The Laws of Mortality. While the existence of such a nation holds promise for compelling commentary, Rahadoum’s lore falls comically flat in execution. Across Lost Omens World Guide and Gods and Magic, the country has a disproportionate wordcount dedicated to violence or intrusion against the faithful, a trend which is scarcely paralleled with other countries or belief systems in Golarion. A nation known for its universities is described as having “dockside propagandists” pushing passerby into leaving their faith, a description which seems to come right out of conservative scare tactics regarding higher education. Where this characterization pushes into genuine absurdity is the Pure Legion, a police force which is dedicated to destroying every religious item or scripture which people bring into the nation. The Laws of Mortality even list “expose and eradicate hidden worship” as a fundamental edict, presenting this ridiculous action as an end unto itself within the philosophy. Granted, while religious persecution has occurred throughout history and has been carried out by avowedly atheist nations, the descriptions of Rahadoum and the Pure Legion mirror the persecution complexes of many conservative Christians, who fabricate threats of secular enemies seeking to actively destroy their worship. The mentions of Rahadoumi people refusing magical healing from divine spells and their futile “proselytizing” towards theists (a word which is used only once more in the book, when it is explained as something which is not done) seem to draw more heavily from insults made by Christians towards deconstructors than from any activity by actual people. To expand these concerns further, Temple of the Peacock Spirit mentions that Rahadoum is being propped up by an aforementioned Asura,
Section 3: The Euthyphro Dilemma: Morality Dictated by Divinity
The matter of morality’s source has been a contested topic in real life and gaming alike for as long as people could exchange ideas. D&D’s Planescape setting in particular had developed and nuanced takes on how even the icons of good and evil could be reshaped through the power of belief. Pathfinder, within the context of it’s setting, gives a clear answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma on page 16 of Concordance of Rivals, which describes deities as “beings whose existence defines morality.” In this context, virtue and vice are defined by the gods and any mortal theorization is irrelevant. Acts are considered good on Golarion because they are in accordance with the will of good-aligned gods (or, more specifically, those gods that Pharasma labels as good-aligned) and are considered evil because they are proscribed by those same gods. All moral matters are reduced to a yes or no answer from a deity who need not provide any justification for their explanation. Having stated this, the authors of Paizo must now choose between the impossible task of creating a perfect system of morality and designing a world where virtue is dictated by beings by those too strong to be questioned. The fact that the gods have such an extensive list of edicts means that Paizo, like many conservative churches, has decided to create a universe where morals are dictated by unimpeachable force and the interests of those who bear it. For somebody who grew up in one such Christian environment, a fantasy world which explicitly operates by power-based morals brings about memories of extensive abuse: parents, teachers, and church leaders who justify callous acts as righteous because their targets lack the capacity to retaliate. This dogmatic approach to virtue is also used in real life to vindicate extremists, assuring them that the words of their holy book or minister are capable of justifying any means for their ends.
There are beings who question the morality of the gods in various Paizo books, but these beings are almost invariably portrayed as being evil. Temple of the Peacock Spirit provides a sample conversation with Zurea, an evil cleric who justifies her faith by stating her (verifiably incorrect) theory that good and evil were created by mortals. Immediately afterwards, Zurea changes the subject by pressuring the PCs to join her faith, a conversation which is intended to end with the PCs killing her (she is described as fighting to the death in her tactics section). The same adventure provides extensive detail on the aforementioned Asura, elaborating on their origins by explaining how each type of Asura originated from a mistake, accident, or betrayal perpetrated by some manner of god. There are times when the article seems to sympathize with the Asura, discussing their origins as “impossible standards,” “punishment that exceeded its crime”, and “experiences of abuse”. The majority of the article, however, seems dedicated to depicting the Asura as obsessive, hateful, and outraged beings with ruinous ambitions and a need for “redemption”. The stories of the Asura pose legitimate grievances with the acts of gods, but at no point does the article question the supreme moral authority of the gods. The Asura, by the virtue of challenging the legitimacy of divinely-ordained morals, are depicted as invariably evil creatures who should be fought and stopped wherever they emerge. Like a number of church congregations, the gods of Pathfinder seem to view even legitimate grievances as threats which must be stomped out.
This vision of absolute and unquestionable morality is periodically juxtaposed with materials derived from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, an author who was openly critical of religion and human understandings of morality. Powerful entities from the stories of Lovecraft and his contemporaries are presented as alternatives to other deities in Gods and Magic, the book describing how reverence to these beings displays a certainty in the universe’s meaninglessness. The authors display such worshippers as inevitably debauched, stating that “because life has no meaning or purpose, self-indulgence and nihilism are the only rational responses.” While the existence of powerful entities outside the purview of the gods creates somewhat of an antithesis to their authoritarian morality, the setting presents this dichotomy as having an objectively correct answer. Reverence of the Great Old Ones or Outer Gods is presented as inevitably leading to a worthless and empty existence, an option that no sensible person would take. As this is the only alternative presented to the system of alignment enshrined by divinity, Paizo seems to follow the lead of Christian leaders who affirm that their teachings are the only path to meaning and fulfillment.
Section 4: Fixing These Issues
The concerns I have discussed here should not be interpreted as a mean-spirited takedown of Paizo or Pathfinder. As I have mentioned previously, playing Pathfinder helped me to work through my difficult deconstruction process. That said, the numerous parallels between the faith I am working to escape from and the fantasy world which I periodically escape into had made my forays into Golarion rather disquieting and unpleasant. I wholeheartedly support a more inclusive and socially conscious gaming scene, and I believe that Paizo and its game designers share my interests in this goal. My hope with this essay is that it will expose the conservative Christian elements which have (intentionally or not) come to shape the world of Golarion, explain the experiences of abuse such elements elicit, and offer alternatives to make the material more welcoming to people like me who are working to heal from Christianity-induced religious trauma. Hence, presented below are a number of suggestions which could be implemented in future releases or GMs’ personal campaigns to resolve these concerns.
Total Removal of Alignment
A number of games and tables have worked to remove alignment as a factor, and doing so could alleviate the anxiety folks like me experience regarding absolute, authority-based morality. Gods could be recontextualized as each doing what they think is proper for the universe without Pharasma or the authors trying to entrap characters in a binary of good and evil. Gods in this context are no longer sources or barometers of morality, simply powerful beings with desires they wish to fulfill. This setup gives recourse for characters to question the rules of deities and oppose the roles they fill in the universe without being immediately devalued as “evil”. It also opens up more compelling opportunities for interfaith conflict and debate while also leaving room for each deity and faith to be criticized. Maybe gods and their followers even recognize that those outside their own congregation could have a point, adapting their positions in light of cultural shifts.
This solution would require some mechanical changes to the game, mainly through reworking the Champion and Cleric classes. Alignment-related options would have to be reworked or replaced, but I feel that these changes would be for the better. Such adjustment would expand the potential options of friend and foe within any given adventure, opening up many new opportunities for stories. It would also force players and GMs to give legitimate reasons behind their support or hostility rather than simply stating “this faction is good/evil”.
Virtue Shaped By Mortals
If removing alignment completely isn’t to one’s liking, another option would be to emulate the fluid and belief-based morality of D&D’s Planescape books. In this setting, gods are not good because their existence defines good, but rather because their behaviors and tenets coincide with beliefs of virtue (such as selflessness, compassion, and redemption) that are held by mortals. The nature of a deity can thus be shifted by the methods of how they are revered, as opposed to deities turning “incorrect” worshippers into undead monsters. In this context, ideas of good and evil exist independent of the deities and are not something that the gods are capable of overriding or asserting dominance over. One could argue that the Pathfinder deities operate like this already within the context of the game, with Erastil, Sarenrae, and Groetus all having their dogmas and roles quietly changed by writers as new books were released. Recontextualizing gods as striving for some manner of good rather than imposing the structures of good could go a long way towards distancing their presence in the game from the experienced abuse of deconstructors. Having gods fail at their pursuit of morality and acknowledge when mortals know their own needs better than a deity would be even better. If a deity steps out of line by trying to overrule mortalkind, maybe that deity would be weakened as the god’s exposed objectives diverge from the works and values of their following.
More importantly, it would be wonderful to see examples of people and cultures finding fulfillment and good outside of the scope of the gods. Paizo could show characters who view godly morality as pointless but still live positive and fulfilled lives. Social clubs and charity organizations could be run independent of the purview of any deity. Cities could be built without churches and populated by Free Agents who are confident enough in their knowledge of their surroundings to provide for themselves. Acknowledgement that there are people who truly have no faith in the gods and are happy and helpful because of their freedom rather than despite it. Moreover, design these characters and groups so that they aren’t anomalies or wonders, just normal and accepted parts of the world.
The mythology of Asura in Pathfinder seems explicitly designed to validate conservative Christian paranoia and legitimize the abuses they perform out of fear. In addition to that, their condemnation as innately evil for having suffered the abuses of the gods is an insult to those who have endured religious abuse in some form. Opening the game up to deconstructors would demand drastic changes to these creatures and their stories.
If one wishes to keep Asura as villains, then perhaps their fiendish goals and methods could be redesigned. The Asura in the games I’ve run are written as clinging to dead stories and ideologies, seeking to resurrect notions of heroism and virtue which the world has moved on from. They embody classical aspirations and morals which modernity understands to be cruel or ineffectual, and thus they work to re-establish faulty ancient traditions by murdering and silencing those who they view as representing modern values. In this context, their acts of meditation, hunger for violence, and appreciation for ruins remain, but their villainy is no longer directed at innocents.
Alternatively, the Asura could be legitimized within Golarion, covering every alignment in their mission to expose the hypocrisies and tyrannies of the gods. There are plenty of reasons to question the merits of even the most good-aligned gods, and Asura could become patrons of such opposition. Imagine a neutral good Asura who organize therapy sessions or planar safehouses for those harmed by deities and their followers, a lawful good Asura who protects a community targeted by a church, or a chaotic good Asura who pursues clerics and outsiders who mistreat their followers. Asura Ranas could grant spells not to worshippers, but rather allies who are fighting the good fight against oppressive deities. With those sorts of planar allies, deconstructors could find a place for their experiences within the Golarion setting.
Deimaviggas should likewise be rewritten, but could perhaps serve as more compelling allies of the gods rather than enemies. The Deimavigga could use lies and manipulations to keep people trapped within a toxic congregation, repeating mantras of damnation and helplessness in order to convince people that they need the god or church which is hurting them. This would certainly fit with Asmodeus’ ideology and with the point Mark Twain originally intended when authoring “The Mysterious Stranger” (which seemingly inspired these devils’ design).
Rewriting Rahadoum and Free Agents
When the most prominent culture with religious criticism in a setting is written as an irrationally fanatical state who seeks and destroys all holy texts, it is difficult for deconstructors to view the authors as anything but hostile. As mentioned before, Rahadoum has the potential to be a compelling and commentary-filled nation, but establishing such nuance would require adjustment of existing lore in addition to establishment of new pieces. Elements such as Rahadoumi being afraid of healing magic and exiling people for possession of holy texts can be removed, as these aspects are seemingly intended to make the nation and philosophy look absurd (not to mention contradicting the statement from Lost Omens World Guide that private worship is permitted within Rahadoum). Similarly, “dockside propagandists” who press people into rejecting their gods on soapboxes can be thrown out as a premise. The Pure Legion can be kept, but they should be given something to fight against rather than being used as a random and deadly hazard for brutalizing religious PCs. The Laws of Mortality were shaped by a holy war between Nethys, Norgorber, and Sarenrae, so perhaps each of these faiths is serving as a powerful and dangerous element within Rahadoum (Nethys and Sarenrae in particular have ties to the nation’s former conquerors, so it would make sense to see them pressing for the re-integration or invasion of governments the Rahadoumi would sooner avoid). Rahadoum is apparently known for their philosophers, so maybe the Pure Legion also serves to protect traveling scholars when they go to speak outside the country (after all, a number of churches would be very upset about a foreigner telling their congregation that there are other paths to fulfillment). Maybe the churches of Sarenrae, Asmodeus, and Nethys have deliberately spread lies about the Pure Legion and the Rahadoumi people, coming up with concerning aspects of the lore in order to limit Rahadoum’s influence or justify military action. As for the Rahadoumi people themselves, it would be interesting to see their practical reasons for adhering to the Laws of Mortality. Maybe these people see no need for churches because government welfare programs and strong social networks provide for them without demanding tithes or loyalty pledges. Perhaps the gods could be vocal about hating the Laws of Mortality, but they know that simply smiting Rahadoum would only prove the populace correct.
Expanding the scope to a cosmic level, perhaps places could be established for Free Agents in the Outer Planes. Those who oppose the gods will likely still have convictions they wish to fight for as exemplars, so giving groups such people their own domains in each of the aligned planes would solidify them as equal and valid players in the great cosmic game. Authors could go one step further and allow people to actually choose their own afterlife rather than having their fates be decided by Pharasma. The lower planes would still be filled by those who believe that a cruel environment would make them stronger or wiser or whose self-loathing drives them seek out misery (in addition to characters who were pulled down by Faustian bargains), but allowing mortals to decide for themselves what faction they wish to join in the afterlife would force each god to make more compelling arguments for why their ideals should be followed. Such a choice would also support the alleged dedication to free will which deities are described as having in Gods and Magic.
Divinity as Grand Manipulators
My last idea for freeing Golarion from conservative Christian ideology has been used in my own games and doesn’t involve changing anything in the existing lore. The gods still wield unquestionable moral authority, shape the cosmos, and target questioners and deconstructors with various abuses and indignities. In this conception, however, the gods are not presented as fundamental forces but rather as powerful adversaries, akin to the True Fae in Changeling: The Lost. Adventuring in such a setting is a gnostic exercise in finding value outside of material existence, discovering meaning and preserving what you love as you are threatened on all sides by malicious and nigh-omnipotent entities who view you as a plaything or tool of validation. Maybe the gods don’t occupy all of existence and there exist beings who are attempting to subvert their rule by rescuing the mortals imprisoned within their influence, or perhaps the gods are desperately clinging to their power and work to conceal the ease with which they could be overthrown. Such a setup creates a very different fantasy environment from Pathfinder’s themes and is thus the least likely to be implemented in any official capacity, but could be a very functional solution for one’s table.
Section 5: Conclusion
I hope this piece of writing has been revealing, informative, or possibly therapeutic to readers. Should any of Paizo’s authors read this piece, I hope that the ideas, concerns, and changes discussed herein can be implemented in future Pathfinder materials. I want to see the game and the TTRPG industry improve in acknowledging and accommodating the experiences of people who have left Christianity and those who are still trying to leave, and I believe that spreading awareness of the concerns and triggers which have made their way into Pathfinder is an important step in realizing that goal.
This post is an editorial, and it not included in the content of this blog released under the Open Gaming License