Dragonmarks 4/11: Religion, Faith and Souls

As always, this blog is about how I run Eberron in my home campaign. It’s not canon in any way, and certain elements may contradict canon sources such as Faiths of Eberron. Use the version you like or come up with your own.

“They’re cheating!”

My mother read The Iliad to me as a child. I loved the story… right up until Poseidon and Hera interfere with the battle after Zeus specifically told them not to. Apparently this outrage remained with me over the years. One of the distinctive elements of Eberron is that the gods are distant. They do not directly intervene in the affairs of mortals. Clerics don’t have to match the alignment of their religion. There is no absolute proof that all of the gods people worship actually exist, at least in the form people believe they do; it’s entirely possible divine magic is simply a variation of sorcery, a way of shaping ambient magical energy through pure will.

Despite my fury at Hera’s duplicity, I loved Deities & Demigods as a child. I used to make my friends in kindergarten play Greek vs Egyptian Gods. So why did we push Eberron down a different path?

Consider two of the basic themes that drove the creation of Eberron. We always wanted it to be a noir world, a place filled with shades of gray. And I wanted it to be a place where the consequences of having magic and monsters in the world were played out in a logical manner. Now stop for a moment and think how different our world would be if it was simple fact that the gods exist and manifest in our world. That a cleric could reach out to her god with a ritual and get an immediate answer. That someone with enough power could actually go visit a deity in its home and beat it up. The divine is no longer a mystery, and with it the universe itself becomes a more mundane place. “Faith” in a god is more like supporting a football team than a true choice to trust in the unknown. Look at our history of schisms, crusades, and the terrible conflicts that have arisen over heresy and differing interpretations of the same sacred principle… and imagine what it would be like if those debating the point could literally call up the god and ask for a ruling. This is too concrete for Eberron, which is a place where good people can do bad things and vice versa. The Church of the Silver Flame can do something terrible with the best of intentions, and no god is going to manifest to stop them. A cleric’s faith grants him divine power, but he must decide how to use that power – and mortals make mistakes.

Beyond this… if Dol Arrah can manifest in our world, why doesn’t she? Why did she allow the Mourning to happen? Why didn’t she stop the slaughter of innocent shifters during the Silver Crusade? Does she hate shifters? Why didn’t she just stop Bel Shalor herself? Another core theme of Eberron is that the player characters are the greatest heroes of the age, and if something terrible happens, it’s their burden to bear; the gods won’t come down and fix it for them.

Of course, for that very reason some people have asked why anyone actually does have faith. If the gods don’t appear, why does anyone care about them? I’ll give you four reasons.

  • Look out your window. When’s the last time you had a god manifest and directly intervene in events in our world? And yet, are you going to tell me that religion hasn’t been a powerful force in the world? Shared faith helps to create community. Most people don’t go to church for a cure light wounds spell; they go to hear the sermon, to seek spiritual guidance, or simply to strengthen their bond to the people around them. A typical priestess of Boldrei isn’t a spellcaster. But she is a mediator, a source of comfort and wisdom for her community, and the person who performs weddings and other rituals that call on the favor of the Sovereigns.
  • The Sovereigns work in mysterious ways. So Dol Dorn doesn’t appear on the battlefield and fight. That doesn’t mean he’s not there. The fundamental basis of the Sovereign faith is that the Sovereigns are EVERYWHERE. Onatar is present in every forge. Arawai brings the gentle rain, and the Devourer’s hatred turns it into the destructive storm. Why doesn’t Dol Arrah get rid of the evil monster? She does – through you. She’s with you when you battle it, guiding your hand and giving you strength. Note that the faithful vassal will say that Dol Arrah is with you whether you believe in her or not. She puts the strength in your arm and the light in your soul; if you’re too stubborn to see that, more’s the pity.
  • There is more to the world than we know. Tied to the above point, faith lets people believe that there IS a purpose to their misfortunes or triumphs. That if Aureon placed this burden in your path there must be a reason. Beyond this is the question of the afterlife. People KNOW what happens when you die: your spirit goes to Dolurrh and your memories fade a way. That is concrete fact. But faith lets you believe that there is more than that miserable truth. Followers of the Sovereign Host maintain that the Sovereigns exist in a higher plane no mortal can touch, and that the fading of memory isn’t DESTRUCTION of memory, but rather a reflection of your transition to this higher plane; the soul left behind in Dolurrh is like the husk left behind by a snake. The followers of the Silver Flame say that noble souls ultimately merge with the Flame. The Undying Court seeks to keep its greatest souls out of Dolurrh, while the Tairnadal anchor their greatest heroes by tying them to the living. Eberron doesn’t have a concrete, proven happy ending for the dead; but many religions provide hope that there is a way to escape dissolution. You’ve just got to have faith.
  • Divine Power. Believe what you will about the gods: divine magic exists. The Silver Flame and the Undying Court have access to wells of pure divine power. Those who follow the Blood of Vol can find divine power in their own souls. The vassals of the Sovereign Host believe that the power of the Sovereigns is all around them, and the faithful can call upon it. To the vassal, this proves the Sovereigns are with us. Boldrei doesn’t appear herself; she’s beyond that. But she grants her faithful priest the power to aid those in need.

Now, some people assume that because clerics can have alignments other than that of the faith and because they can create new religions that clerics don’t have to actually believe in their creeds. I feel exactly the opposite is true: a divine spellcaster must have absolute faith in order to perform divine magic. A priest of the Silver Flame may be lawful evil, but if she is a spellcasting cleric, she has to believe in the principles of the Flame and that her actions are justified. Our history is filled with people who justify horrific actions in the name of peaceful religions. The cleric doesn’t have to be right; but she has to believe that she’s right. It’s all about faith; this is the fuel of the divine caster.

With that said, there’s always ways to get around this if the story calls for it. You want an agent of the Lords of Dust in the Church of the Silver Flame? Well, his faith is strong – but he’s loyal to Bel Shalor, the Shadow in the Flame, and that’s where he draws his power. Another supposed cleric might actually be a warlock or psion, disguising his powers as divine magic. Nonetheless, the key principle is that faith matters. Mortals can make mistakes. They can misinterpret doctrine and do evil in the name of good. But drawing on divine power requires tremendous conviction, even if that conviction is misplaced.

To sum up: I love mythology. I enjoyed the Illiad, and for that matter, I liked the Time of Troubles when it rolled through the Realms. But I wanted Eberron to be a place where you could tell stories that don’t make sense in a world of active gods.

Having said all that, let’s move onto some more specific issues.

EBERRON HOUSERULE: CLERICS AND ALIGNMENT

Eberron allows a cleric to have an alignment other than that of her faith. However, many aspects of divine magic are tied to alignment. Does an evil cleric of the Silver Flame get blasted when one of his comrades casts holy word? Does a good cleric of the Blood of Vol turn undead?

My answer is based on the mechanics of detect evil/good in the 3.5 SRD. By these spells, a “cleric of an evil deity” has an evil aura that is far stronger than that of an evil or good creature with no divine connection. Note the wording – not “an evil cleric,” but rather “a cleric of an evil deity.” My houserule is that the cleric’s connection to the divine power source is what determines his alignment for purposes of magical effects. So a cleric of the good-aligned Silver Flame will read as good on detect good, can prepare good-aligned divine spells, will be unaffected by holy word and blasted by unholy word, and turns undead instead of rebuking them… even if the cleric’s personal alignment is evil. His faith provides a connection to the divine force of positive energy, and that connection is so powerful it drowns out his personal aura. Likewise, the good cleric of the Blood of Vol is still blasted by holy word and rebukes undead instead of turning them.

In the case of the Silver Flame, there is the interesting fact that the Shadow of the Flame exists within the Silver Flame. The Shadow of the Flame is an evil force, but because of Bel Shalor’s connection to the Flame, I would allow someone who worships him to actually possess the magical “good” aura of the Silver Flame. Given how far ahead the Lords of Dust plan, it’s entirely possible that Bel Shalor planned this from the start – that he allowed Tira Miron to bind him precisely so he could infiltrate the Flame in this fashion.

QUESTION: Even though worshipers can have an alignment that differs from that of the worshiped entity, could one of the latter (if assumed to exist in a given campaign) punish such a worshiper directly, such as stripping him of his powers by neutralizing them with its own force or otherwise; or indirectly, e.g. by sending supernatural beings or mortals to compel him to respect the tenets of the faith he holds to have?

I imagine the answer is obvious based on everything I’ve just written, but in case it’s not, it’s spelled out on page 35 of the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting, “A cleric who violates the tenets of her church or deity might risk punishment at the hands of the church… but risks no loss of spells or class features and need not atone.”

For me, this is about personal faith. If the cleric truly abandons his faith, I would strip him of his powers, because his powers are derived from his faith. But acting against the tenets of the faith? It happens all the time in Eberron. I could find examples of it for pretty much every listed faith, so don’t go thinking this is all about the Silver Flame. This is the point of heresy: I can disagree with you about your interpretation of our shared faith, and yet we can both continue to wield divine power. If one of us lost our powers or if an angel appeared to smite me, it would be pretty clear who’s interpretation was correct.

Now, you might say that the idea that someone can “make up” a religion or abuse divine powers without consequences should serve as proof that the gods DON’T exist. Here’s a few arguments you might get from theologians in Eberron.

  • Faith is the channel through which you gain power, but the object of your faith may not be what you think it is. The Sovereigns aren’t selfish. You may be worshipping the Lady Pine and the Horned Rider, but the fact of the matter is that your powers are coming from Arawai and Balinor. Dol Arrah doesn’t care whether you believe in her; if your heart is pure and your faith is strong, she will give you strength. Of course, if you worship her properly you’ll get MORE strength. This syncretic principle is a cornerstone of the Sovereign faith, and has been used by their missionaries over the course of centuries.
  • The Sovereigns are aware of your actions, but want you to learn your lesson on your own. Unless you come to see your mistakes on your own, you will never truly change.
  • Divine forces are with us all, but are not perfectly omniscient. They respond to the faith of the cleric, but are not aware of each and every action taken. This is the base belief of the Silver Flame, which has never been described as a sentient, anthropomorphic force; rather, it is a pool of divine energy that empowers those who fight evil.
  • And of course, there are those who will say that there’s no proof that the gods exist. Divine magic may simply be another method of channeling the ambient magical energy of the Ring of Siberys, using faith and will instead of arcane formulas. Perhaps they’re right!

QUESTION: What are your personal views on the nature of souls in Eberron?

This is discussed in some detail in the recent Baator Eye on Eberron article. Followers of the Sovereign Host assert that there is a higher realm that mortals simply cannot reach; only a purified soul can touch it. The “fading” in Dolurrh is not the destruction of memory, but rather it’s transition to the higher realm. When all memory is gone you are essentially dealing with a cast-off snakeskin; it has the shape of the former owner, but he’s moved on. One detail you may have missed: If you look at Dolurrh on the Orrery map of the planes, its symbol is also the Octogram symbol of the Sovereign Host. Because for a vassal, Dolurrh isn’t the end; it’s the gateway to the Sovereigns.

This is theoretical; needless to say, the Blood of Vol and Undying Court maintain that destruction in Dolurrh is just that. However, the existence of souls as a concrete spiritual force cannot be denied.

  • The Silver Flame. This is a divine power source originally created from the combined souls of the couatl. Followers of the Flame maintain that when they die, their souls pass through Dolurrh and strengthen the Flame.
  • The Undying Court. The divine power wielded by the Court is drawn from the gestalt souls of the Ascendant Councilors.
  • Baator Wants Souls. Asmodeus is trying to build his own little personal Silver Flame. Step one: Divert souls from Dolurrh. Step two: Profit.

By this, the Sovereigns could be the gods that the vassals believe them to be… or they could simply be pools of soul-energy that have coalesced around those concepts and respond to faith. Essentially, each god is its own mini collective unconscious shared by those with faith in that concept. Which makes the syncretic approach of the vassals not entirely wrong – their nature deity IS the same as the Talenta one – but neither one is exactly what they think it is.
So what are MY opinions? Souls exist; there’s no question there. A gestalt of souls is a power source that can be tapped to produce divine magic. But are the vassals right about Dolurrh being a gateway, or are the seekers correct that death is the end? Honestly, I’ve never decided. What’s important to me is that the universe behaves in such a way that either one could be correct. I guess I’m most interested in the mortal experience: once I decide that the Blood of Vol are wrong, it’s harder to sympathize with them, and the same goes double for the vassals if it’s the BoV who are correct. When it comes to warforged, I’ve considered answers that I like (castoffs pulled from Dolurrh; souls snatched out of the Silver Flame; the disturbing possibility that Cannith can create a soul)… but again, so far I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt I’ve had to answer it. Though I imagine if I went further with Lei and Pierce, I would.

Please tell us how you portray the participation of the Silver Flame during the last war and whether there is religious discrimination or conflict against flamers in Karrnath or Breland.

This can easily be the subject of an extended post on the Silver Flame, and since I just wrote about Faith I want to wait a few more weeks until I hit religion again. So I’m just going to bullet point this.

* The fundamental purpose of the Church of the Silver Flame is to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. It’s not to promote the church or Thrane: it is to protect the innocent from harm.

* Throughout the history of Galifar, followers of the Silver Flame HAVE laid down their lives to protect the innocent, regardless of nationality. The church began in Thrane, but its templars fought across Khorvaire; one reason it’s widespread is because people who have been literally saved by the Silver Flame have often turned to the faith. Today the most zealous followers of the Flame are in Aundair, because if the church hadn’t intervened Aundair might have been wiped out my the lycanthropic plague.

* Canon sources have already established the existence of groups of the faithful who believe that the theocracy is a mistake that distracts the church from its mission and makes it more vulnerable to corruption. Leave governing to kings; the role of the church is to protect, not rule.

* Put all this together, and what you get is that MOST followers of the Silver Flame saw no conflict between their faith and fighting Thrane. Far from feeling obligated to fight for Thrane, a Brelish follower of the Silver Flame could feel that Thrane’s leaders were hijacking the faith and the Keeper, and that only by winning the war and putting Boranel on the throne can they get the church focused on its proper mission again.

In any case: When the war began, there were followers of the Flame everywhere. Some chose to immigrate to Thrane to fight in the service of the Keeper, believing that the army of Flamekeep was surely the most righteous cause. Others stood by their kings. A Brelish sergeant who followed the Flame could certainly fight and kill Thranes, because it’s a temporal battle. Now, if there was an incursion of demons during the battle, he’d stop fighting the Thranes and join forces against the supernatural threat, because THAT’S the duty of a follower of the Flame. But when the Church was founded, it wasn’t created to rule Galifar or the world – and people can be faithful to those beliefs and still believe their ruler should be the one to unite Galifar.

Is there religious discrimination against the Silver Flame in Karrnath and Breland? Breland has the highest degree of corruption, but that’s true across all of their religions; there’s priests of Aureon taking bribes, and don’t get me started on the Brelish priests of Kol Korran! So no, there’s no special discrimination against the Silver Flame in Breland. Mind you, there’s discrimination against THRANES – you can see some of this in The Queen of Stone. But you can follow the faith without being a Thrane.

Looking to Karrnath, I’ve never seen the Silver Flame as having much love there. Karrns tend to be grim and stoic. Fight your own battles. Look after your own people. The Silver Flame is fundamentally an altruistic faith, which Karrns find both suspicious, foolish, and patronizing. Add to this the fact that the Silver Flame is violently opposed to the Blood of Vol, which has had strong support in Karrnath since well before the Church of the Silver Flame existed and you get even more reason the faith never took root there. So Karrnath is where people are most likely to associate the Silver Flame with Thrane and assume your Brelish priest is an agent of Thrane, because they don’t have centuries of experience with the faith predating the theocracy, nor are they used to trusting that if something bad happens, templars may show up to take care of it.

That’s the last point I’ll make quickly. SUPERNATURAL EVIL IS REAL. Eberron is filled with aberrations, Quori, undead, rakshasa, and more. If I’m a Brelish farmer, it’s comforting to know that if werewolves attack, soldiers of the Flame may show up to protect me. Many families across Khorvaire have stories of how their ancestors WERE defended by followers of the Flame. They don’t support the theocracy of Thrane, but they’re still happy to have those local patriotic templars around to protect them from local supernatural threats.

This leads me to another question though… are there schisms in the CotSF? I recall that it has been mentioned that the Church uses excommunication, and that the faithful of Aundair tend to be more zealot than their counterparts elsewhere, so perhaps there are churches of the Silver Flame splitting from the one guided by the keeper… just some thoughts…

Certainly. Historically, the biggest schism was the Time of Two Keepers, when Melysse Miron challenged the sitting Keeper and was ultimately revealed to be the Keeper of Bel Shalor; Melysse has been kept in the stone ward of Dreadhold for the last few centuries. Meanwhile, page 79 of City of Stormreach calls out that the Keep of the Silver Flame in Stormreach was severed from Flamekeep after King Thalin’s death – and that there is a second heresy hidden deeper within it (I won’t spoil, but I will say that it’s NOT anything to do with Bel Shalor). And Aundairian Archbishop Dariznu – the governor of Thaliost and foremost spiritual leader of the Pure Flame – is definitely on a collision course with the Keeper, who despises the tortures he’s inflicted on his own people in the name of maintaining order. If there’s a split between the Aundairian faithful and Flamekeep, I’d expect Thaliost to be the flashpoint.

Beyond that, of course, you have the other cultures that have their own traditions tied to the Silver Flame. We’ve named the Shulassakar yuan-ti, the serpent cult of Khalesh, and the Ghaash’kala orcs of the Demon Wastes – but there can easily be others.

All of these are present in canon sources, but you could easily add more.

Comparing faiths and the dragonmarked houses, though, I have always had the feeling that given their powers and benefits dragonmarked may appear to be much more powerful than others, and think that Flamer characters, for instance, should receive additional benefits due to divine forces that make them stand apart from dragonmarked and perhaps even “envied” by them.

Sure! In my campaign, I call that benefit “divine magic.” You suggest that Jorasco can’t do exorcisms, and I agree. Most Jorasco healers have the mark and nothing else. They can’t call down fire or turn undead. They have no special power to smite evil. They can’t shield others from harm (that’s what House Deneith is for). A Jorasco house with a true cleric (likely dedicated to Arawai and Kol Korran) is a rare exception. Given this, I’ve never felt a need to give the faiths additional powers, because what they have is the powers that come with faith. Now, you suggest that they could benefit from miracles at the discretion of the DM, and there’s never anything wrong with that; for example, Tira Miron received divine aid from the couatl to battle Bel Shalor. No couatl’s going to pop into Jorasco House #153 to help with Farmer John’s hemorrhoids.

The main thing is that in creating Eberron, I wanted to break with the tradition I’d seen in the past of temples being places adventurers went to in order to throw money at the altar and get healed. Eberron is like our world. If you want to get healed, go to a hospital. If you want spiritual guidance, go to a church. But if you just walked into a church you’d never been to, handed the priest a thousand dollars, and said “I cut my leg, fix it” – how do you think that would work out for you? With that said, the Church of the Silver Flame does “heal for free.” They operate free clinics and do charitable work among the needy, as do some (non-Jorasco) priests of Boldrei and Arawai. The point is that this is generally use of the Heal skill as opposed to magic. In 4E, even if they COULD perform the cure disease ritual, it costs 150 gp to perform it; they couldn’t afford it to just wander around fixing the peasants. And frankly, for commoners, the Heal skill is going to handle most of their problems; it’s just not instant. Like our world, there are faith healers who can miraculously heal with a touch – but like our world, those are few in number in comparison to hospitals or clinics.  

This relates to the idea that player character classes are rare. The cleric IS that faith healer – the rare and remarkable individual whose faith is so great that he can heal you with a prayer. But the priest in the typical church isn’t a cleric; he’s most likely an expert trained in Diplomacy, Heal, History, Sense Motive, and of course Religion. He can preach; he can listen and counsel you; but he doesn’t do magic. In Jorasco, you don’t have clerics either. What I like about 4E with its rituals is that it finally allows a Jorasco heir to be a healer without ANY divine magic, which is how I prefer it. Jorasco house can heal, but they general can’t provide any other divine services – because they are businesses, not places of worship.

I’ll also point out that nothing prevents a Jorasco heir from joining the Church of the Silver Flame! In my campaign, one of the greatest healers is a Jorasco heir dedicated to the Silver Flame, who left the house to follow his faith. Beyond this, I would definitely consider letting a player character cleric learn the rituals normally restricted to the dragonmark, because that’s part of what makes her extra-holy and amazing.

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