In Myth and Place I wrote about the use of myth to give a sense of where a game takes place. For escapist role-playing games it is important that the setting is made distinct from mundane places. Whether it is a campy romp through space, a heroic tale of sword and sorcery, or a Victorian horror thriller, myth is required to separate the in-game setting from the real-life context that it exists within. Often, but not necessarily, this is done through religious myth in particular.
Every Dungeons and Dragons game I have played in relies heavily on its pantheon. Whether it is an original concept created by the DM or the deities of Greyhawk detailed in the official resource books, the gods always seem to matter in D&D. This isn’t as much the case with other systems, such as most World of Darkness variants (except Scion where everyone is a demigod). But whenever religious myth matters at all in one of these fictional game settings, I find that it tends to serve very similar purposes to the mythology of real religions but with much different weightings and outcomes. And if the DM isn’t making religious myth enough of a big deal, sometimes the players will start to fill in the gaps.
In our real-life religions we tend to rely on the pedagogical and sociological functions of myth more heavily than the mystical and cosmological. In plain terms, most people don’t reach for their Bible or their Quran first when trying to explain the physical properties of matter. Many of us do, however, go straight to the stories within those books to define the right way to live, what is right and what is wrong, and what kind of values ought to be enshrined in the rules by which our societies operate. This is not to say that all of us have entirely abandoned the cosmological and mystical functions of our respective religious mythologies, but that we have a tendency to spend more time seeking answers about the human experience than about the concrete physical realities of the world.
In the realms of fantasy fiction, though, we lean much more heavily on religious myth to explain the exotic cosmology and the mystical aspect to make the setting feel different than the world we actually live in. We don’t seek answers to big life questions from our fantasy pantheons. We seek theatrical intervention, plot advancement, and a coherent explanation of the physical world the characters inhabit. Moral and ethical frameworks matter in interactive role playing games, but without a sustained focus in the roleplaying those big questions can easily take a back seat to looking into the settings religious mythology for how to do about smiting ghouls and skeletons with divine light or effectively leveraging the force or whatever it is the player characters are trying to accomplish at the time. Campbell’s four functions are still there, but the emphasis is different.
An interesting thing happened in the World of Darkness campaign I am a player in. The Asylum setting lends itself to stories with a Gothic fiction feel rather than those which prominently feature interventionist gods. Initially, the dominant religion in the setting was just there to make life feel complete; the first mention of it being when my character decided to make seasonally appropriate holiday decorations for her kids as something to do while waiting for other events to play out. Over the course of the campaign, religion has become a central focus and the mystical function has taken on a much bigger role than the sociological. This was not something that we were shepherded into. On the contrary, one of our players almost single-handedly dragged the religious myth of the settings from the margins into the spotlight. The character, in her self-appointed role of priestess in a tabletop system where spellcasting clerics aren’t actually a thing, picked up on religious myth and ran with it so far that it has become part of the canon. Now our characters look to their religious mythology for answers to physical phenomena. This is a fine example emergent gameplay at the RPG table, and I love it. And so, while a highly detailed and original pantheon may not be required for every interstellar mission or dungeon delve, this is not something we can afford to ignore in an open-ended campaign. God only knows what can happen when players engage with the religious mythologies of fictional universes.