March 25, 2016 by dlnsctt
Last time we talked about No God For Dirt, I gave a really brief overview of the setting. I mentioned some civilizations: Zaelondia, Acobi, the Icricu. Most of the setting guide, as far as I can tell right now, is going to be made up of descriptions of these civilizations, what they value, what they despise, their aesthetic, etc. Honestly, the game is really an exploration of cultural clash, so the cultures need to be very different while retaining their specificity. I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I’d like to share some of that thought here. In this post, I’m going to go into detail on Zaelondia, specifically Zaelondian religion.
The City of Wonders
Early in the design process I started thinking about how I wanted magic to manifest in the world. I love the D&D-style idea of magic as an academic field, mostly because I like the idea of magic serving as a metaphor for education and technology in a fantasy world. For this setting, though, I wanted magic to be very common, and that doesn’t really jive with the idea of the wizard in their ivory tower. Furthermore, I feel like it’s been done before. I wanted to do something new, so ironically I went further back into our collective past.
Early in human history, magic often happens as a result of religion. Think of the Dreamtime religion in Aboriginal Australia, or Celtic tribal groups in Western Europe, or Native American religious leaders. We as a species used to have a class of people who generally dealt with everything outside of our standard reality: a shaman, a mystic, a spirit guide, etc. Before we separated the two, magic was just a manifestation of faith in the world. This makes sense when you think of faith not as devotion to a god, but as our ancestors did: as your will and belief. What is magic if not our will demonstrating itself in the world? That’s how I wanted it to be in Zaelondia, and in the setting in general – magic comes from faith.
The City of Gods
So what was their faith going to be? I had had an earlier idea before I even started working on this setting – what if your religion was based around food? I dug back through my notes, and I ran with it. The central tenant of the religion of Zaelondia is that every edible plant or animal or substance (every ingredient, basically) has a god associated with it. This was perfect for several reasons:
1) It forces the player to think physically.
This is something I don’t like about RPGs compared to LARPing, my other major roleplaying experience – you never have to think about the physical reality of your character. You never have to consider the feeling of buckling armor onto your body, or the strain of your pack on your back, or the weight of your sword in your hand. If physical sensations exist in RPGs, it’s mostly as a punishment. Your hit points are a representation of physical sensation, as is your carrying capacity. But, if your religion is based around food, it will necessarily force you to think of your character’s physical experience of the world in a fun, positive way. The player will have something tying them to the world of the game, which will lead to deeper immersion.
2) It’s messy.
When I had this idea, I wrote down a list of foods that I wanted to have in the setting and started assigning names to them – the names of the gods associated with them. Looking down the list, I realized that I had written down both milk and beef. For a second, my logical brain kicked in and wanted me to make them one god, maybe a wise water god who gave milk to the people out of a flowing urn. But that’s stupid! Real religion is messy and doesn’t make sense all the time. If Zaelondians were perfectly logical, they wouldn’t worship food. They know what a cow is! In any fantasy setting, unless the character is ridiculously rich and high-class, they know where both milk and meat come from, and they know every step of the process along the way. I really like it that the setting has a messy, illogical religion that nevertheless has practical effects in the real world.
3) It spirals outward into many cool stories.
How does the God of Beef feel about the God of Milk? How do they both feel about the God of Cheese? How do the God of Hemp, the God of Tobacco, and the God of Tea feel about being in the club of gods who aren’t directly consumed, but smoked or steeped? More importantly, how do their worshippers feel about all this? Since the gods don’t talk to humans, it’s up to humans to interpret what the gods would want them to be doing. This leads to many, many religious sects in the city, all of whom have alliances and rivalries with all the other sects.
Furthermore, I can take cues for the structure of Zaelondian religion from real-world food culture. In many real-world cultures, there is a set of three ingredients that, when combined, form the basis of much of their cooking. In France, it’s the mirepoix – finely diced and gently simmered onions, carrots, and celery. Sub out the celery for its cousin, celeriac or bulb celery, and the onion for the leek, and you have the German Suppengrün. Sub out the carrots for green bell peppers, and you have the Cajun Holy Trinity. Sub out the carrot and the celery for garlic and tomatoes, and you have the Spanish sofrito. In addition, in many cultures, there is a classic dish that combines two ingredients that together have all nine essential amino acids that the body can’t make for itself. This is called a “complete protein.” Mexican rice and beans is a good example, as is Indian dal and roti. Essentially, any time you combine a legume and a grain, you get a complete protein. Also, human beings can’t survive without salt, and without salt, food would taste like garbage.
In Zaelondia, the three principal gods are the Gods of Barley, Beans, and Brassica Greens. Together, they form a complete protein and have a ton of vitamins and nutrients, and almost all Zaelondian meals have at least one present. There is a fourth central god, who is sometimes considered the parent of these gods, or sometimes their doom. It is the God of Salt. They are also always there, and though in large amounts he spells the death of the meal, they are necessary for any true flavor to exist. This is why they are also considered the god of death.
Honey never goes bad, so the order of monk-like warrior women who worship the God of Honey are often sent out on quests to retrieve ancient casks of the substance laid down in bygone eras. The God of Water is the only god considered to literally BE their ingrediant, distributed throughout the world. The God of Black Sapote and White Sapote are twin brothers. The God of Geese is also the god of actors and politicians, and anyone else who makes their living by being loud. You can begin to see how just following the logic of the religion as it’s set up leads to interesting things.
Do you have any questions about the setting as you understand it so far? What do you think of the only magic in the setting coming from faith? Do you like the idea of Zaelondia’s food religion? I respond to every comment, and I would LOVE to answer some questions here.