Autumn of 2021, I wrapped up the Irtep’s Dish campaign, in which players found that a wizard had trapped himself inside a petri dish in order to evade the attention of gambling debts. It’s the 9th full campaign I’ve run in the Dawn State! While players didn’t particularly interact with religion in this game, I do tend to build more on faith and politics with every game I run in the setting – a “just in case” measure, and with 9 separate brainstorming sessions on faith and politics, I felt that I finally had enough where a compilation of my thoughts in one place was a worthwhile endeavor.
Faith has value to me because it imparts a spotlight on player characters of faith. You are given an opportunity to grant visions, a sense of grander conflict, a home in the temples that dot your setting, a whole religious community if you are willing to put in the effort. What’s more, I’ve a strong belief that clerics are the only original class that pushes players towards role-playing in a more personal sense, rather than just playing Dungeons & Dragons as a monster infestation logistics game. I want to honor all of that.
The first deity of the Dawn State was made for my first cleric player: the goddess Morwyn, deity of home and hearth. Back then I had neither experience nor desire to flesh her out myself, so she was an adaptation of two separate goddesses from the Book of the Righteous by Green Ronin (a GPTS, by the way). Morwyn is no longer canonical to the Dawn State, but I think her replacement, Morrowyn the Pale Hart, is recognizable enough!
As my ability to improvise and world build for cleric players grew, so did my interest – I started reading more religious and philosophical texts out of curiosity on, uh, “how to religion better”. This proved to be not the best place for inspiration perhaps, as real-world religion’s nuances are often too subtle for players to express (or to want to express) in-game. An eclectic mix of readings regarding the Bible, nihilism, Mohism, Confucianism, Humanism, theodicy, Monism, Marxism, filial piety, other fantasy religions, criticisms of religion in video games, the Satanic Panic, Manichaeism, pacifism, anarchy, et cetera serve as a backdrop to my eventual choices, but only in a peripheral sort of way.
From a productivity standpoint, I don’t recommend anybody go through all that for the purpose of elf-game lore creation. From a journey standpoint though, it was an illuminating and rewarding – I like to think I’ve come through it both more open-minded and more in awe of the many perspectives that exist in the world.
Reality is cooler than fiction, and all that.
You’ll note that this is a Dispatch post – a rambling, indulgent compilation of everything and anything that comes to mind. Consider that both an amused warning and a fond send-off as we dive in. If you don’t really want the back-end philosophy and just want the gods and their domains, feel free to jump straight to THE PANTHEON OF THE DAWN STATE header for the familiar, “stuff you pick from as a cleric” content.
THE FIVEFOLD THOUGHT
1. Stand straight, not straightened, that you might cultivate selfhood.
2. Duty accepted, not received, that you might cultivate sanctity.
3. Household revered with discernment, that you might cultivate filial piety.
4. Thrive in the presence of truth, not falsehood, that you might cultivate integrity.
5. To know one is not so virtuous as to love them, and to love them is not so virtuous as to delight in their existence. Meditate on this, that you might cultivate unity.– Descent Unto Ruin, sacred canon of the Dawn
The Fivefold Thought is the underlying set of principles behind the primary faith of the Dawn State. As with any D&D world, faith is not so much a matter of believing in deities or not – deities are essentially known to exist. Rather, faith has to do with which texts you believe, how you read those texts, which temples you frequent, how much you let the gods into your life, and how you interpret divinity in a world where the gods themselves are rarely clear.
The primary faith, if it’s ever referred to outright, is named after the five principles above – you will hear priests say things like “I am a student of the Fivefold Thought” or “I do not believe you are a faithful adherent to the Thought, it may be instructive for us to meditate on it.” More commonly, priests will refer to themselves as simply “adherents to the Faith”, and then specify which particular god of the pantheon they honor. The Fivefold Thought is widespread on an international level – all competing faiths echo it in some fashion. The schisms that do exist in the Dawn State have to do with breaking from the philosophy in some way, rather than proposing a new set of gods as is more typical in fantasy religions. Think “Jedi but with gods too” rather than “Christianity”, and you’ll be properly primed to get how this all shakes out. There’s even a consonance of thinking of the Thought as the Way of the Force, though that will become clearer with the second post in this series.
Before speaking about splinter sects, I want to address the tenets in a bit more detail.
Stand Straight, Not Straightened
The idea of selfhood as envisioned by the Faith is one of self-mastery, more so than self-expression or independence, as the modern reader might be more inclined to see. In the presence of authority, you should stand straight because you have mastered your slovenly impulses, not because you are afraid of them – not, in other words, because you have been “straightened” by their presence.
Duty Accepted, Not Received
Different temples emphasize different aspects of this tenet – the less scholarly sects tend to be more ambitious with their interpretation, suggesting that every individual must know their place. A common parable is of the peacock and the crow – a crow attempts to steal feathers to become a peacock, rather than accepting his role as a crow. The result is ugly and laughable, and not only that, the crow is unable to fly away when threatened, and, weighed down by peacock feathers, is eaten by a fox.
More scholarly sects mention that there is fulfilment in accepting one’s duty actively, rather than merely receiving one’s duty passively. They speak of how civil unrest results from the latter, but both virtue and prosperity result from the former.
Incidentally, it’s usually this tenet that is used as a vector of attack against the Thought faith – other competing faiths say that the Fivefold Thought is a slippery slope to slavery because of this line alone.
Household Revered With Discernment
Descent Unto Ruin is very specific about the roles that people should play in a household – what righteous action from a parent looks like, what righteous action from a grandparent looks like, what righteous action from a middle sibling looks like, et cetera. “Discernment” in context refers to the ability to discern whether your household is filled with righteous or wicked actors, and “reverence” is owed not to any household, but only households that are in proper alignment with the Thought. As such, mainstream interpretations of this tenet have affordances for leaving families behind and making “found families” into a “household”, and applying filial piety within that context. This tenet is often an adventure hook for a temple – a party is hired to help with the relocation of abused children, and it’s not merely a matter of charity, it’s an action that is considered in accordance with divine revelation about just conduct.
The flip side of it is that if a household does follow righteous action, but this righteous action stifles children, as often happens in large clans or with more traditional families, temples will actively seek to “re-educate” children in the way of the Thought. This is considered a disgrace, so it’s not sought-out, but several villains I’ve run have been products of this pathway, becoming incredibly traumatized and perpetuating that trauma upon the world.
Thrive in the Presence of Truth
The value that faith places on truth is a fairly self-explanatory point, but in the context of actual role-play, this tenet mostly serves as a recognizably annoying “gotcha” moment in arguments against splinter sects, where if a Thought priest wants to stop having a conversation, the splinter sect priest can always say, “but your faith says you care about truth”. As a result, this tenet is not popular despite also not being controversial. “ah, so Fourth Tenet” is shorthand for “ah, so you are arguing with a person who really won’t let things lie”.
The last tenet is one that some scholars argue is added by a outside party, because of how different it is from the other passages. Others argue that it’s the most significant tenet, hence the added word-count. These are both fringe opinions though – the broadly accepted teaching is to teach it as equal to the other tenets in importance.
“Unity” is somewhat of a mistranslation here, which is one source of schisms in the faith. The original term is Jen’ai, a core part of basically every sect, and means something more close to “universal love”, or “mutual aid”, or “unconditional rapport”. Not quite any of those three, but some meaning in the middle. The fact that Thought practitioners use Jen’ai as more of a “societal engineering” term is seen as offensive to a lot of serious priests who have left the Thought behind for other sects.
As taught to Descent Unto Ruin devotees, “Unity” is a blend of “treat others as you would like to be treated” doctrine and the general sentiment that, as diverse as the Empire is, people should “assimilate” to some ideal of the Empire’s core values in order to be morally upstanding citizens. This, it is taught, is the biggest barrier to true harmony in the Empire.
THE FIRST MAJOR SCHISM…A PREFACE
Dear reader, you probably are chomping at the bit for an alternative faith now, aren’t you?
I made the Fivefold Path the frustrating way it is on purpose. I can see a lot of citizens living according to its teachings and living a happy, good, life. But it’s also crafted to help the ruling class, to be a tool to quell rebellion and unrest, and most importantly, to cause tensions in campaigns. That “this isn’t quite right” feeling is very useful when creating a central philosophy that most everyone believes in, and so I went out of my way to introduce possible tensions as I made this the dominant religion.
There are definitely schisms to discuss, but to understand the first and most major one, I need to introduce a passage from a different religious work: The Weaver of Ryban.
THE WEAVER OF RYBAN
This is the tale of the first cleric of the Divine. What appellation they answered to is unrepeated in histories both oral and written, except as letters scratched upon broken eggshells.
d.b. was a human linen-weaver accused of theft and murder. Their exile to a village of old echoes and abandoned stone quarries, Ryban, was as much self-imposed as it was applied in punitive measure. None in the village trusted d.b., and they on their part had lost faith in community. When hatchlings came to observe the spinning wheel, d.b. would fix them with a gaze so rife with emptiness that they would take to their legs in terror.
As a slave who had earned their freedom, but also as a criminal in exile, d.b. had no right to even their own life except those afforded them by the grace of the villagers of Ryban. Yet this grace was great, for the old scaleborn weaver of the village had perished, and even modest residents appreciated their share of yarn at the year’s end. None of these could fault d.b. their strangeness in the face of their utility.
Nonetheless, if outwardly d.b. lived a life of peaceful monotony, their internal life was one of turmoil. Daily they would undergo convulsions of despair at their innocence, but would suffer this in silence. Some stories say that this was the result of anger, and of controlling and directing that rage towards fermenting thoughts, until their anger itself gave communion to the gods. Others say they were silent because they sought tranquility from conflict, and it was this cultivation of peace that moved the gods to speak to them. Still others said these convulsions were the result of strange sorceries exercised upon them by the scaleborn’s sorcerer-kings as a means of tormenting them.
Whichever story the reader may select for their consideration, even some further explanation not offered here.
It is known that love found d.b. It was in love that they found purpose, and it was the embers of their courtship that rekindled their faith. It was love too that composed them into an image bent and broken, for their lover and their children were each killed, quartered, and hung out to dry by those same hands and claws that had pointed to d.b. and accused them of murder, come to find them and to exercise an unjust reckoning upon their family.
d.b. stood upon the cliffs of Ryban, and there they asked without anguish or joy at the purpose of the world. They asked in a state of numbed despair, of a spiritual death so complete that they were as a void to the world.
This is the tale of the First Cleric, but also a tale of the First Godshatter. For in this void there entered a God, who then walked our earth and still walks the earth to this day. The Weaver of Ryban vanished from history, and with their disappearance, so did the Divine enter into the lives of the people.
OKAY, SO WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT
The Weaver of Ryban is, according to those who believe that they are real, the indirect author of Descent Unto Ruin – that text was written by various acolytes who followed the First Cleric, though the Thought priesthood contests whether the Weaver is in fact the First Cleric. According to those who believe in the weaver, the Weaver of Ryban is supposedly the first-ever cleric to have existed, and apparently the first by virtue of screaming to the gods at the cliffs of Ryban while utterly emotionally wrecked, and receiving an answer.
The Weaver of Ryban is supposed to have brought the gods from their “natural realm” in the sky, down to the “mundane realm” of the earth. They then underwent something called the First Godshatter, and stopped existing as the Weaver of Ryban, instead existing as an earth-walking God. As this God, they then started gathering the acolytes who wrote Descent Unto Ruin.
The Thought priesthood actually has their own version of the First Cleric, a virtuous and pious scholar who was rewarded for his humble life with divine revelation. But as there are no compelling documents from the First Cleric, they do not have a competing document for this next bit.
See, exactly one hundred years after the penning of Descent Unto Ruin, still in their God-state, this Weaver of Ryban purportedly wrote another book by their own hand, the Pandemonium Solace, a sort of spiritual sequel to Descent Unto Ruin, that re-contextualizes Descent, as well as sharing many personal experiences from their experiences in the intervening time.
Here is an excerpt from Pandemonium Solace:
Walking amongst the collapsed communities created by cycles of war, I see a toll that I could not have seen when I first walked the earth. I see that there is violence not just in blood and steel, but in silence, in incarceration, in questioned unasked, in soil improperly treated. In first wakening, I was asked what peace was, what divinity was, what justice was, and I readily answered. These days I am the one who asks. I have learned to listen.Pandemonium Solace
In comparison, here is an excerpt from Descent Unto Ruin:
Some time afterward, Veingraicht, deity of industry and crop cultivation, put Enleth to the test. He appeared to him as a vine become a serpent, and said, “Filled with liveliness, I behold you”
And Enleth said, “I am here.”
Veingraicht cried out,
“Your farmers set upon the paddies at high noon,
Sweat, as rain, burrowing fierce channels,
Can you even know with your vaunted learning,
The exchange of sweat for every grain of rice?”
Then Enleth said to his farmers, “You must leave me a rice paddy for one season. I will hoe it alongside you, so that I might gain a sage’s wisdom.”
Veingraicht cried out,
“Before a bed the moon grows cold,
Floor so thin pain clings to bruised toes,
By candlelight your farmer repairs a hoe,
That you claim without thought, having none!”
Then Enleth said to his farmers, “Let me delay so that I might craft for myself a hoe. I will care for it even if it breaks, so that I might gain a sage’s wisdom.”Descent Unto Ruin
As you can see, there’s very much a difference in voice between the two tomes. The more lyrical quality of the first is attributed both to a “younger” God and to the fact that Descent was written by acolytes by those who wish to incorporate Pandemonium Solace, while the dissonance in tone is used by Thought priests to disparage any worth that Solace might have as a religiously relevant text.
What About Godshatter?
Oh, yeah! Godshatter is when a cleric has such strong connection with a deity that they pull the deity from the Pantheon down to earth itself. (I stoledopted the idea from the Zones of Thought books- highly recommend them). Some see it as a stroke of divine inspiration, others see it as a flow of knowledge and experience into a mortal. If the account of the Weaver of Ryban is to be believed, Godshatter is more akin to possession, with the loss of the individual as their body becomes host to the God in question. The way Godshatter is interpreted creates even more schisms in the faith, but I’ll cover that later.
THE FIRST MAJOR SCHISM
The biggest splinter sect from the Fivefold Thought is from priests who think that Pandemonium Solace and Descent Unto Ruin should be taken together to form the religious canon. This creates quite a bit of tension.
You see, Descent Unto Ruin is a prophetic text as well as a moral and religious text. It states, in very ambiguous terms, that everything about the world will eventually come to a head in a great moral conflict between the righteous and the wicked – the “Ruin” that is in the title. A not-insignificant part of the religion is wrapped around the idea that generation after generation, mortals must live righteously so that society can advance, and that only by continuously advancing will society be ready to stand against the upcoming tide of wickedness. This is a big deal! It means that “being a good person” isn’t just a matter of your moral standing today, but is your incremental contribution to some grand conflict that will happen down the line – the conflict to end all conflicts, to determine whether Good or Evil reigns supreme. Being moral is part of preparing for a war with the ultimate stakes…and when being moral also means things like “Duty accepted, not received,” that has immense social implications.
Pandemonium Solace clarifies the ambiguity of Descent Unto Ruin. It proposes firstly, that deities are fallible – written as it is as an almost documentary-like-account of the First Cleric’s life, it shows them struggling with solving problems in the world despite having the power and insight of a God. It shows growth. It shows failure. All of these things would cast doubt as to the validity of that prophecy.
But secondly and more damningly, Pandemonium Solace clarifies that the “Ruin” is an ever-ongoing process. Everyone goes through cycles of being too weak, or too arrogant, or too hurt, to be a virtuous, righteous person. Correcting that is a matter of remembering your principles, being willing to listen to others…finding solace in the pandemonium of the world, and then finding ways to order your local chaos into an environment where you can flourish more than you flounder. It’s not some fated doom that everything is headed toward, but rather a matter of personal cultivation of virtues, along with making change that allows that cultivation to be easier, or less obstructed.
Pandemonium Solace also has its own replacement ideology for the Fivefold Thought, though it is targeted at societal leaders, rather than individuals. It is laid out as follows:
THE SIXFOLD PATH TO RUIN
1st Path: The Path of Incapable Defense. Societies work towards aesthetic or poorly-thought out expenditures before they can yet protect their demesne. This path can be avoided through the cultivation of a martial soul.
2nd Path: The Path of Weak Coalitions. When great difficulties arise, a society calls on its neighbors, yet the neighbors are unwilling to come to its aid. Those who are loyal end up unreliable, while those who are reliable are disloyal. This path can be avoided through the cultivation of Jen’ai.
3rd Path: The Path of Incentivized Frivolity. People in a society find that devoting themselves to frivolity earns them a better living, and people find that there are many ways to being promoted without merit. This exhausts the will of virtuous people, and depletes the resources available to society. This path can be avoided through the cultivation of sacrosanct pursuits.
4th Path: The Path of Corrupted Motives. If officials in a society prioritize privilege and wealth, scholars prioritize influence through under-the-table friendships, and rulers capriciously revise laws to harm their vassals, everything slowly decays. This path can be avoided through the cultivation of integrity.
5th Path: The Path of Arrogant Complacency. Those who believe themselves to know everything cease to ask questions, those who believe themselves to be safe cease to reinforce safeguards, and those who are naïve become surrounded by sycophants or opportunistic leeches. This path can be avoided through the cultivation of open-minded listening.
6th Path: The Path of Poor Logistics. Imagine that a land has virtuous people, but who know nothing of farming. Imagine if the rewards in that land grant no joy, punishments serve as no deterrence, and cause and effect are ignored. It would still suffer, would it not? This path can be avoided through the cultivation of logistics.
Expansion & Discussion
If one is of the Thought orthodoxy, one can immediately see the threat that the Path presents. For instance, the 3rd Path speaks of sacrosanct pursuits, using the same language as Tenet Two:
“Duty accepted, not received, that you might cultivate sanctity.”
If this is truly an evolution of the same deity’s will, or of the Pantheon’s will, this means that sacrosanct pursuits are far more about accountability and resource management than “knowing your place” in society. Being someone who engages in sacrosanct pursuits suddenly puts you under the scrutiny of those you serve, rather than being a private victory you can gauge for yourself.
This isn’t isolated to the idea of sanctity being moved from the private to the public sphere. We can see that for every major prescribed behavior, the focus has shifted from the individual to leadership, which places a strain on a lot of the styles of sermons – namely those that encourage a focus on personal growth and accepting one’s place – that are common in Fivefold Thought temples.
This is not to say that the Sixfold Path has nothing to say about individuals – it actually still suggests that many of the virtues extolled in the Fivefold Thought are worthwhile. It just doesn’t hold them up as sacred anymore, and removes the stakes attached to them. They become more guidelines or “models” on how to live one’s life, rather than the be-all end-all of the religion.
Any cleric in my games will eventually stumble onto this as the primary conflict within their Church, if they get to a high-enough level. This is essentially the central tension, religiously-speaking, of the Dawn State.
…I think that’s enough for now. We haven’t gotten to literally any gods yet, to how Godshatter and its interpretation led to more schisms, or to how the more “low-level” aspects of religious worldbuilding actually affect gameplay. I’ll cover at least some of those in the next post.
Though I guess I’ll give you the full pantheon now, just so you have them:
THE PANTHEON OF THE DAWN STATE
Epithet: The Silent, the Percipient
Appearance: A crane with a variable number of eyes, ranging from 1-100
Domain: Wisdom, Writing, Poetry
Seasonal Role: Herald of Winter
Sword Forms Dedicated? Yes, Form I: The Watchful Form
Associated Ritual Component: Breath
Epithet: The Pale Hart, the Flame, the Torch-Horned Stag, the Cultivator
Appearance: Pale lady in white OR white deer with blazing horns OR an infinite expanse of well-lit white buildings
Domain: Home, Hearth, Flame, Light
Seasonal Role: Depreciant of Winter
Sword Forms Dedicated? Yes, Form IV: The Measured Form
Associated Ritual Component: Blood
Epithet: The Verdant, the Primordial Basilisk, the Performer
Appearance: Greenery that transforms into a serpent, lizard, basilisk, dragon, or other draconic being
Domain: Industry, Fertility, Prosperity, Crop Cultivation
Seasonal Role: Herald of Spring
Sword Forms Dedicated? No.
Associated Ritual Component: Blood
Epithet: The Laughing Child, the Vexing Hound(s), the Laughing Twins, the Deliberator
Appearance: One or two laughing children, typically one bald and one with waist-length hair, or two hyenas
Domain: Music, Revelry, Philosophy, Self-Destructive Habits
Seasonal Role: Depreciant of Spring
Sword Forms Dedicated? No.
Associated Ritual Component: Breath
Note: Zhein Kayef is assumed to consist of two separate consciousnesses, one of which is supposedly still walking the earth in d.b.’s body. That is to say, the Weaver of Ryban, the First Cleric.
Epithet: The Bastion, the Bull, the Absolute
Appearance: A bull, minotaur, or powerfully built man, wearing golden rings around his neck
Domain: Truth, Justice, Morality
Seasonal Role: Herald of Summer
Sword Forms Dedicated? Yes, Form II: The Duelist Form
Associated Ritual Component: Bile
Epithet: The Uncaged, the Skeletal Phoenix, the Impassioned
Appearance: A skeletal phoenix, burning with blue flame
Domain: War, Plague, Famine, Death
Seasonal Role: Depreciant of Summer
Sword Forms Dedicated? Yes, Form V: The Obliterating Form
Associated Ritual Component: Blood
Epithet: The Leveret Spirit, the Garnet Rabbit, the Epicure
Appearance: Skinny man bedecked in red jewels, or a rabbit with red gems for eyes
Domain: Love, Sensuality, Obsession
Seasonal Role: Herald of Autumn
Sword Forms Dedicated? Yes, Form III: The Kinetic Form
Associated Ritual Component: Breath
Epithet: The Chain Breaker, the King of Rats, the Anarch
Appearance: A rat-human hybrid adorned in scars and rags, bearing a sky-blue wand
Domain: Revolution, Emancipation
Seasonal Role: Depreciant of Autumn
Sword Forms Dedicated? No
Associated Ritual Component: Bile
The Void Betwixt
Appearance: A city-sized rotting fish with glowing, unseeing eyes
Domain: Ignorance & the Unknown
Seasonal Role: Forgotten days, time that has been lost
Sword Forms Dedicated? No
Associated Ritual Component: Sanity
Until next time!