Roleplaying Spiritual And Religious Characters (Full Moon Special #4)

Please note that the post comes from a slightly spiritual and totally non religious person – and that my views might differ from someone who participates in a religious or spiritual practice. I mean no disrespect whatsoever.

Photo (featured) by Martina Šestić. (Terra Nova, spring 2013, Croatia)

Happy Full Moon! Today’s topic can actually be linked to the event itself – if you were to play a character who worships Moonlight or something similar. (Or a werewolf!) For the purpose of this Full Moon, I’ll define “religious characters” as those who are a part of a recognized, organized religious practice, usually based on deties. “Spritual characters” can be seen as those who are spiritual on their own, not neccessarily a part of an organized religious practice in a game world (but they can be). They are usually connected to spirit beings, elemental and earth spirits or lesser deities, closer to what people usually think of shamanistic or animalistic practices. Hope it’s not too confusing – or if it is, the post might shed a bit of light on that.

The temple of Dibella, priestess of love and beauty, after dark. Photo by Mojca Brenko Puzak. (The Elder Scrolls Chronicles, Croatia, March 2014.)
The temple of Dibella, priestess of love and beauty, after dark.
Photo by Mojca Brenko Puzak. (The Elder Scrolls Chronicles, Croatia, March 2014.)

Why play spiritual or religious?

If you’re totally non religious, it’s an awesome opportunity to explore different points of view and lifestyles not connected to your own. Religious individuals tend to have strong opinions on different things, and they are oftentimes perceived as highly motivated people. That may be a nice change if you regularly play wandering characters or those just starting out in life.

If you are deeply religious, playing a character of a different religious practice or even an atheist might give you some insights into points of view which contrast your own – and the understanding of others is sometimes one of the biggest reasons for larping in general. On the other hand, if you’re slightly spiritual or religious yourself, it may be a chance to explore parts of your personality not prominent in everyday life. Prayers and rituals in larps tend to be a bit exaggerated when compared to standard religious practices, and it might be a nice way to see if you can relate to something like that.

Taking part in the shiny things – prayers and rituals, both improvised and well thought out before the game – can be another perk of playing a character with that sort of background. Two years back I’d discovered that I really, really like leading prayers for character groups and that I have a sort-of knack for improvised spiritual rituals. Ingame spirituality suits me a bit better than ingame religiousness, but it’s still something I love to explore (especially since I’m, you know, non-religious).

Being a part of a character group (as we did with the temple of Dibella for The Elder Scrolls Chronicles larp – six priestesses plus one guardsman) can be another experience not neccessarily linked to playing religious characters – but religion can be a strong cohesive force. Everyone in the group will still have their own views and agenda, but the religion will be something you can mutually build upon when you’re preparing for the larp.

The religious character’s point of view

As mentioned above, people who are perceived as strongly religious are oftentimes presumed to be highly influenced by their religion. If you’re looking for a deeper game, it might be great fun to try to understand your character before the game starts, their views and the way their beliefs have helped form them as a person. Religious characters sometimes seem to have answers to everything life throws at them – and you have to understand the mindset to be able to roleplay it convincingly. If you’re designing your own ingame religious practice, it’s up to you to set some dogmatic principles for the religion, but if you’re joining an already existing ingame religion (usually based on a setting and the info provided by the GMs), you’ll do yourself a favour if you take a moment to grasp the religion’s dogma.

When the player’s beliefs differ greatly from the character’s – which, coincidentally, happened to me on my very first larp – you should take special care to portray the character believably. We tend to be very strongminded as people when it comes to our rights and beliefs – and sometimes it’s both a challenge and a blessing to play someone who has to think, say and do stuff you hate. Larp is a great medium to do exactly that – explore different personalities and try to understand each other as mankind.

The spiritual character’s point of view

The inner part of the spiritual character’s pov is probably quite close to that of the religious one – the difference comes with the style of play and the “organized worship” part of a religion. The spiritual character may not always question their beliefs – as some religious practices do, be it a scholarly study or an evening gathering over a sacred text – but they can very well have strong opinions on issues. Spirituality as well as religion can be inherited from the character’s native background, or can be acquired later in life.

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in the actual spiritual ingame practice is that prayers and rituals are more improvised, they come from the introspection of a character etc., and the shrines can be as simple as a candle lit at the top of a hill. With religion, players tend to prepare written prayers and sometimes simple scenarios for rituals. I’m sure there’s spirituality which can be as hierarchical and dogmatic as organized religion, but I’ve yet to see such an instance at a larp.

Spiritual characters tend to be perceived more as peaceloving – unless you’re a part of a decidedly dark spiritual practice – so you might want to check first if you want to play that sort of character. A friend recently mentioned to me (after being part of the Dibella priesthood – which counts as a religion, but a peaceful one) that at her next larp she really wants to play a character who can react to things when they anger or upset her. The peaceloving characters oftentimes just seem to want to share love and peace and happiness – which might be in direct contrast with an action-packed larp.

A simple shrine to Dibella created by a mutual effort of six players. Photo by Mojca Brenko Puzak. (The Elder Scrolls Chronicles, Croatia, March 2014)
A simple shrine to Dibella created by the mutual effort of several players. Photo by Mojca Brenko Puzak. (The Elder Scrolls Chronicles, Croatia, March 2014)

The shiny stuff – prayers, rituals and shrines

Just thinking about writing this makes me puff in exhaustion. I’ve seen so frakkin’ many incredible ingame prayers and rituals – and a temple or two (like the Dibella one, above – and the temple of Air, featured) – and it’s an overwhelming task to try to categorize them or hint at the “right way” to do them. Larping may have its traditions and customs – and every game has its own rules and guidelines – but it all comes down to the player. You’re making your own choices – and you will be the one making your ideas come to life. If you can’t add something of your own to the game, what’s the point?

My take on prayers and rituals is that they highly depend on the players, sometimes (but on a lesser note) on the organizers. Some people are not versed in improvising in front of a bigger number of people, and it shows – when they have to lead a prayer or a ritual and then do it in under ten seconds. Larps often relate to times before the industrial revolution – and definitely before the modern rush began. Believable religious and spiritual practices last longer. And no, they don’t always have special effects – but hey, it’s make believe, right? (And there’s nothing wrong with making it both believable and shiny.) I’m not going to give any specific guidelines or hints for prayers and rituals, other than length – as mentioned – and inspiration. Draw things out from yourself, as in larping in general. Make it yours. Make it matter. If your characters and you have similar points of view, think of things that matter to you and use them in your speeches. If you differ from the character, try to feel as they would feel. If they believe every drop of water on the ground is sacred, connect it to something you find sacred (or very dear) and use it. If you find roleplaying prayers or rituals challenging, devise a reason for your character to be introspective – after all, most of spirituality and religion does rely hugely on personal interpretation or introspective meditation.

With shrines and temples, the same goes as above – it has to suit the setting and your own ideas – but there’s also a need to make it fit the gameworld for the other players. Basically, it should be something visual and interesting – at least to leave a passing impression on a character walking by. You’ve probably seen shrines and temples ingame yourself, so there’s no need to bother with theoretical details – and yes, there may very well exist a shrine or a temple without the commonly unavoidable candlelight. It’s just that atmosphere counts more than anything else when another player comes to your character’s sacred site. You can create it any way you want – with candlelight, incense sticks, drapred courtains, melodic wind chimes etc. Have your own take at it as much as you’d like. You might have noticed the naked bottle lady above (it’s kinda hard to miss), representing The Elder Scrolls’Dibella – it was a moment of inspiration from the co-alpha herself. Sure, it did seem a bit odd at times – but it definitely added to the idea of a goddess who is really present.

A friend had built a temple at the same larp which was nothing more than a part of the ground surrounded with colorful tarps, complete with sitting carpets and omnipresent coffee rituals – but no one was surprised when it was revealed as a shrine of an ingame illegal deity (yup, Talos). Atmosphere counts.

Convincing spiritual and religious characters

Unless you’ve created your character as a future renegade, for the duration of the game, you should agree with the religion’s dogma as a whole. On another note, religion tends to be more hierarchical than spiritual communities – at least loosely organized ones (organizations perceived as cults are a different thing). Take that into consideration if joining other players in a group.

Given the endless old-school graphic novels and fantasy movies it might be hard to imagine, but religious characters don’t always swear on their deities’ names. Still, “may Dibella (goddess of love) shorten your orgasms” did most definitely sound convincing as a curse – as long as the priestesses didn’t overuse it. It’s all a matter of dosage.

As an endnote, I’ll just say that spiritual characters can commonly be perceived as basically benevolent by other players – and it’s up to you to decide whether you will keep up with the expectations or surprise your fellow larpers.

Good luck with your character! And may Moonlight grant you safe and pleasant dreams this night.

3 responses to “Roleplaying Spiritual And Religious Characters (Full Moon Special #4)”

  1. No worries, I’m really glad you brought the topic up so that there’s a place to discuss it! I think the “show, don’t tell” thing is a really great point. I’ve seen a lot of priest/cleric type characters who use the abilities it grants but often don’t express their character’s piety outwardly. Which is ok for some — for many people, religion is highly private, but if your character has chosen to become a priest, and/or are granted magic spells or healing in return for your character’s devotion, it makes a lot of sense for them to be the kind of person who isn’t afraid to pray in public, or openly perform religious acts, or sprinkle their speech with religious sayings. And that can be a lot of fun to roleplay.

  2. Hi, and thank you for the feedback 🙂 Sorry it took me ages to respond 😉
    I love roleplaying religious characters, too, but mostly because of strong(er) inner character motivation and ritualistic practices. Regarding the tropes, the “bad guy” one can be really tedious.
    When it comes to agreeing with the dogma, what you said is definitely true, especially about leading to realistic contradictions between characters, but I felt a bigger need to adress those who use their character’s religion as a cosmetic add-on, rather than something that is deeply important to the character. I definitely prefer the “show, not tell” approach, and saying “I’m religious” is not nearly good enough as having a character truly believe and act on it. Still, I couldn’t agree with you more on the idea that dogmatic differences add to a character’s realistic depth.

  3. Interesting post. I personally enjoy playing religious characters in LARPs because it’s one way to create a character who is serving a cause bigger than themselves, which is a trait I really enjoy roleplaying. I also tend to enjoy plot related to the cosmology of the setting, and I find that those plots tend to occur around religious characters.

    However, I find that there are a handful of major pitfalls that can sometimes make playing a religious character unenjoyable. (For example, I’m particularly tired of the “bigoted zealous religious bad guy” trope, and the “science vs. religion” trope.)

    “Unless you’ve created your character as a future renegade, for the duration of the game, you should agree with the religion’s dogma as a whole.” I completely disagree. Religious people disagree with various tenets of their religion all the time, often very strongly. And that can create interesting discussions and fodder for nuanced roleplay. Moreover, all real world religions have practitioners that strongly disagree with one another’s interpretations of the religion. Completely following your version of your in-game religion’s dogma may contradict another PC or NPC’s interpretation of the religion, if the in-game religion is well-developed and realistic, and not oversimplified.

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