Kickstopper: Righteously Bland

This isn’t going to be a fully developed Kickstopper article because in all honesty I don’t have that much to say about the Kickstarter fulfillment process for the new 5E version of Aaron Loeb’s Book of the Righteous – Green Ronin were reasonably communicative, shipment of the physical books came about half a year after estimate but PDF delivery was substantially before then and that’s really not much as far as Kickstarter delays go, and crucially delays were clearly signposted and explained. I have no real complaints there and would generally trust Green Ronin to do right by their backers in future Kickstarters. Great job, ronins, hope you find a master who can make proper samurai of you again one day.

As far as the product itself goes, it’s clearly a well-realised product with decent art and production values, but I suspect how much you’d want to make use of it hinges on your personal philosophy of worldbuilding and the place of religion in it. For some, the book will be an absolutely amazing tool. For others, and I include myself in this category, I think it would be a bit of a woolen teapot – the craft and artistry involved in making it is impressive, but I’d never want to actually use it for its declared purpose.

The main draw of the Book of the Righteous is a lovingly detailed pantheon of deities, with a rich mythic backstory and a brace of detailed organisations dedicated to their worship. You get far more good and neutral-but-allied-to-good gods than evil, but the evil ones are quite fun and there’s a nice concept of renegade cults of the non-evil gods started by worshippers who have turned to evil. You also get some nice system details offering new subclasses, spells, magic items and monsters to fill out the servitors of this pantheon, and a really nicely detailed unpacking of the underlying design principles of the pantheon, lists of assumed setting and cosmology features to aid in modification, and guidance on changing up the pantheon or cherrypicking gods from it for your own purposes as you see fit.

On the one hand, you could argue that D&D is already more than adequately served for ideas for gods. Where I think some may find great value in the Book of the Righteous is in its status as a worked example – rather than presenting a brace of pantheons, it takes a single one and really unpacks how its cosmology and worship works. It’s clear that for some that’s extremely useful – in fact the 5E version has an introduction from 5E system engineer Jeremy Crawford talking about how influential the original 3E Book of the Righteous was for him.

What makes it less useful for me is the work I would need to do to use the pantheon as-is (and I find I have no desire to pluck any individual deity from here from this context – I’d want to use either all or none of them so as not to waste the nice connections between them). Because it is based exclusively on defining a pantheon, and only offers some implied setting details necessary for the discussion of that, it ends up in a weird place where on the one hand the implied setting is very specific, in numerous important aspects it doesn’t give a whole lot to work on.

Some of those specifics involve making judgement calls on the relative prominence of various faiths, for instance. For instance, the general assumption is that evil religions work underground and are not especially prevalent (particularly in the home cultures of your player characters) which carries with it a whole range of implications – societies and governments strong and widespread enough to suppress such cults, for instance, and a philosophy of religion which regards evil as an unwanted intrusion on the cosmos rather than an intrinsic part of it which, even if one doesn’t especially like it, must be accommodated somehow.

This may not suit a great swathe of campaign worlds, or a great many of assumed starting situations in a campaign. I think the intention is to define a starting point where the world seems to be broadly at peace but there are clear points of tension where evil may arise and a grand confrontation may occur – it’s not so good if you want to start your campaign in, for instance, a world which is already engulfed in a ruinous conflict, or which is trying to piece everything together after a massive disaster has brought the old modes of government low.

Another potentially contentious element is the Great Church. This is an organisation dedicated to worshipping all the gods together, and which is basically the sort of “medieval Church filtered through popular imagination and switched to polytheism” organisation that commonly pops up in D&D worlds that want their religions to work largely like Christianity with the serial numbers filed off. The declared reason behind the Great Church is that Loeb reckons that given sufficient time polytheistic religions would eventually develop a single hierarchical church, and I have some pretty major objections to that analysis. Namely, that this isn’t how polytheism works in most historical or current examples we can point to. Hinduism hasn’t evolved into a Grand Church of Hinduism, for instance, and when the Romans made a switch from numerous religions to a single state church they switched to monotheism.

Whilst you can drop the Great Church fairly easily without affecting anything else – Green Ronin specifically siloed it off in its own specific chapter precisely because they’re aware that it’s a highly divisive idea which lots of people wouldn’t want to implement – much of the rest of the book’s decisions would involve a bit more work to change. If you don’t like the small number of evil gods, you have to work to add more; if you aren’t keen on the assumption that this particular sect is of waning importance or that particular one is quite significant, you have to work on that too. Whilst the book does offer advice and assistance on doing this, it’s still a chore, and since part of the point of a book like this is to save you a lot of that heavy lifting, it’s far easier to take all those assumptions as read.

This is where there’s still a lot of work to do – we know the mythology, but we don’t know what nations or cultures exist in this implied setting, or even what the assumed technology level or aesthetic is. Here, for me, is the disconnect – I tend to see religion as emanating from culture – shaping it in turn, yes, but ultimately a product of culture and changed in turns by cultural shifts. (You couldn’t, for instance, imagine the “Prosperity Gospel” emerging from anywhere other than a conservative America very invested in cultural values of self-reliance and a national myth of pure meritocracy.)

However, what you get here is a bunch of religions and cults which are specifically designed not to put more constraints on the society they arise in than are strictly required by the concepts in question. For me, that doesn’t feel like enough. I can drag and drop in Norse, Greek, Chinese or Native American-inspired pantheons from Legends & Lore or Deities & Demigods and instantly get some idea of what the culture they are associated with is like – here, we’re given religions without a culture, which makes sense from the perspective of in-gameworld logic (everything proceeds from the gods, after all), but doesn’t jibe with the way I like to tackle worldbuilding these days, which is to develop a culture and in the process of doing that tailor religions that fit that culture.

One of the dissatisfactions I had with my AD&D 2nd Edition campaign from a whiles back was that I’d done exactly that – put the lion’s share of the worldbuilding work into the religions and then had everything proceed from that. The end result was that, because it’s the bit I worked on the most, it’s the bit that tended to dominate things, and the campaign felt (to me at least) like it was a bit hollow outside of the conflicts of religion.

One of the reasons that Richard Baker’s World Builder’s Guidebook is so good is that it recognises that with worldbuilding, you can potentially start anywhere and then build up or down as you desire; the lesson I should have learned from my previous actual play experience in that campaign, but only really got crystallised by the experience of looking over this book, is that often the place where you start your worldbuilding is the spot where the focus of your world is likely to be – if nothing else because once you’ve got your starting point developed to the point you are happy with, more or less everything else you subsequently make up will need to be broadly consistent with it, and in any situation where you need to change either the core “seed” of your setting or some subsequently-developed aspect you are more likely to change the later-developed thing than the seed because changing the seed has knock-on ramifications for everything else.

Just as Glorantha material keeps coming back to Dragon Pass because of the extensive development through writing and actual play that Greg Stafford and others did with the region, I suspect a game using The Book of the Righteous, especially if the entire pantheon is implemented, will tend to be a very god-focused game. I am in a place with my D&D gaming where I am much more interested in religious characters than the gods they serve, and as such probably won’t be keeping The Book of the Righteous, but I am glad it exists for those who would find it most useful and am equally glad I got this particular “eureka!” moment from it.

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