Friday, January 16, 2009

The Paladin (Part 5E): The Paladin & Religion: Monotheism v. Polytheism

As a disclaimer to this blog, I am going to assume that my readers are at least familiar with the tenants of Christianity. While I will not get too far into the details of Christianity, I will be referencing the Old Testament for some of the discussion. For my discussions of polytheism, I will be referencing the Greek pantheon; however the reader is free to insert their favorite (D&D) pantheon as appropriate.

In part 5 of the series, I am trying to keep the discussion to the application of previous topics in the game play of the paladin, which holds for this blog as well.

One of underlying themes of the paladin class is religion. The paladin class occupies the space between the cleric and the fighter, and is frequently described as a holy warrior. The term “holy” means to set apart, which I think is very appropriate when looking at the paladin class. This class is special in terms of its origins and the role playing restrictions that are placed on it. In the later versions of the game, the restrictions start falling away, however, I will continually go back to the first edition rules as that is where the paladin was first introduced, and where a lot of us grognards have first started playing.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that most of us have a monotheistic view of the real world. The idea that there is a pantheon of gods watching over us has fallen by the wayside. Once the Roman Empire had collapsed, the concept of polytheism as believable religion also collapsed, and the monotheism of Christianity was firmly entrenched into Western civilization.

With the belief in the monotheism of Christianity, there comes with it the view that there is a universal truth, and a universal moral compass. With one God as a father figure over mankind, there comes with it the concept of one truth. Christianity has the Bible, which provides guiding principles by which we are to live by. This provides significant direction into our way of approaching and analyzing moral dilemmas. We carry this frame of reference into our every day life, and into gaming. While this is very good for real life, for gaming which requires us to accept the fantasy notion of polytheism, this may prevent us from seeing things from a different perspective.

With polytheistic ideology, there is no longer one truth, which means that there is no longer a universal moral compass. Each god has his/her own version of the truth and what that means. Apollo has his view, Athena has her view, Aphrodite has a different view, and of course Hera has her own theories. I would classify all the above gods mostly good, but they are all different, and they do not always agree. The Trojan War was a classic example of gods in conflict with each other. In this situation, there is no universal truth to align a common moral compass. Now we have increased shades of grey and the borders of good are fuzzy at best.

When Gary laid out the foundation of the paladin class, he was looking at history and literature with an eye towards monotheism. Looking at the write up of the paladin in the 1st ed text, there is no mention of deities, only an implication of law and goodness. I will take this as he was thinking about things from the perspective of a commonly held moral compass, which would imply monotheism. In the later Player’s Handbook, the idea of multi-god pantheons is written into the paladin text, of which the 3rd ed version is the best example of this. The 3rd ed is heavily influenced by the numerous campaign settings that were created in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, and uses the Greyhawk setting as the default setting. What is evident is that there is a shift in philosophy of the fundamental design of the paladin. I consider this fundamental, as the definition of lawful good is central to the paladin. With multiple gods of good alignment, we are going to get a slightly different view of what is good, which will shape the moral compass and our approach to resolving moral issues.

In first edition play, without a defined campaign setting, using a generic setting with little to no emphasis on deities, a monotheistic view is appropriate. Late first edition play and later editions, we need to change our orientation and think about things from a polytheistic view point. The paladin is a special servant, and I would go as far to use the term avatar, of their patron deity. It would not be correct to say that paladin of Aphrodite would approach issues the same way as a paladin of Athena would. For the player and the GM, they need to first see things from the deity’s perspective, and then determine what the paladin should do, based on what deity stands for. The monotheistic view is no longer the correct lense to look through.

As a final though on application of play, the players need to decide what kind of campaign are they playing. Is it a polytheistic campaign or a monotheistic campaign? In the polytheistic it is important to gain alignment on what is the patron deity and what is that deity’s frame of reference on approaching issues. Forcing a universal compass that is not aligned with the deity’s domains and outlooks does not make sense at all. A fertility goddess is not a war god, and the paladins of these gods should be played differently. If they are not, then what is the point of having a pantheon of deities?

Next up – Closing comments!
Paladin Series Summary For ease of reading, I will provide the links to all the blogs in the series:


Lior said...

1E already had a polytheistic view of its universe (see "Deities and Demigods" / "Legends and Lore"). In that world (like our historical one) there are two kinds of personal beliefs: you can believe in a pantheon (say the Greek gods, the Roman gods, or the Norse gods) or you can belong to a cult (the cult of Apollo, the cult of Thor). These are not quite mutually exclusive -- if you belong to the cult of Apollo you probably also recognize the rest of the Greek gods.

I always thought of most paladins as belonging to a Pantheon more than to the particular deity. There will be paladins from the Greek faith, paladins from the Norse faith, etc. Their personal patron, who judges them and grants them divine powers, is the god of war, but they are part of the (just like the Hephaestus is the personal patron of smiths). That said, with the larger cults (the cult of Apollo comes to mind) there might be paladins of that cult, who specifically follow Apollo rather than the whole pantheon.

Regarding the real-world faith statements you make: the Greek gods are mostly neither "good" nor "evil". They are selfish, play favourites, and care more for their followers than for abstract ideals of law and order.

Polytheism in Europe lasted much longer than the Roman Empire. Poland only accepted Christianity around 1000, and Lithuania was mostly pagan into the 1300s. Scandinavia was nominally Christianized by around 1100, but the Sami people only became Christian in the 18th century.

Mr Baron said...


I agree that 1st ed has a polytheistic view of its universe, and that was my initial opinion of the paladin in 1st ed. However, when I re-read the entry, what strikes me is the tone and language that Gary used in the write up. The tone in the 1st ed write up is very different than the 3rd edition write up. There is an undercurrent of the Christian view point in the 1st edition write up. Now one could argue that these are just generic terms, and that point would be very valid. However, I think that Gary had one eye on Christianity when he wrote the entry. He uses terms like confession, sin, penance, tithe, and charity. These terms have roots in Christianity. In his opening paragraph, he states that law and goodness are the meat and drink of paladins. I believe that he wrote this with a universal idea of good and morality. The concept of a universal moral compass stemming from an ideal of an absolute truth is a monotheistic view. As you move to a polytheistic view with multiple good gods, there are now multiple truths, with none of them being absolute in nature. I think this has two relevant points:

1. With multiple truths, you will have different ideas on the definition of good, which could be radically different depending on which two gods you are looking at.

2. With different truths, you have slightly different moral compasses which will influence a paladin's actions to moral issues.

My main point here is that with a monotheistic view, we have an absolute. With a polytheistic view, you no longer have an absolute. This needs to be taken into account when playing and GM'ing a paladin.

From an application of play perspective, I like the idea of a paladin having a patron deity, with his special abilities coming directly from deity. The concept of the paladin as an avatar resonates with me.

Your comments on the Greek gods being selfish and petty are spot on.

The Roman Empire lasted until about 400AD. The Roman Emperor Constantine I legitimized Christianity at the time of his rule in 306AD. The church was growing in numbers prior to that, but his rule really allowed the religion to flourish. By the time the 5th century rolled around, Christianity was the predominate religion in Europe.

I agree that the edges of Europe adopted Christianity much later than this, and there were pockets of other religions throughout Europe. My comment was definitely a generalization, as by the time the empire fell, the older religions were on their way out the door.