Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Ceremonial

Girls wave to a kamikaze pilot before he departs on his mission

cer·e·mo·ny   [ser-uh-moh-nee]  noun, plural -nies.
  1. the formal activities conducted on some solemn or important public or state occasion: the coronation ceremony.
  1. a formal religious or sacred observance; a solemn rite: a marriage ceremony.
  1. formal observances or gestures collectively; ceremonial  observances: The breathless messenger had no time for ceremony.
  1. any formal act or observance, especially a meaningless one: His low bow was mere ceremony.
  1. a gesture or act of politeness or civility: the ceremony of a handshake.

I've been thinking a lot about ceremony lately. In the past two months, I have been to three weddings, several birthdays, floated around the periphery of the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and as my arguably warped mind is wont to do, thought about how such events can be applied to a fictional world like a D&D campaign setting, video game or novel.

Specifically, I have been thinking about how to use ceremony to breathe life into a part of my game world's pantheon that I find really dull--the lawful-good church that worships Heironeous, god of chivalry and valor. The D&D rulebooks present Heironeous in a way that resembles the medieval Christian church, but without all the dark, interesting bits. He is the god of knights and heroes and slaying of dragons. Always brave, with a strong arm and cleft chin. To me, this deity feels like he has the personality of a main character in a Shakespearean comedy, or -to use a more contemporary analogue- a popular kid at school (i.e. he is dull and intended to get by on looks alone)

Unfortunately, this particular stick-in-the-mud is hovering over the center of my current campaign. The kingdom that my players are trying to save consists of some of the god's most devoted followers, so I am forced to deal with the religion and turn it into something more interesting than a cub scout meeting with swords (which actually sounds really interesting, now that I think about it.) and I have come to the conclusion that ceremony is key to adding a sense of depth to an otherwise one-dimensional message of "do good all the time."

The September 11th anniversary manifests an odd phenomenon that could easily be applied to the shiny Heironean faith and which actually seems pretty perverse when you separate yourself from the emotional context: The human desire to sanctify horrific events. Why do we do this? Ground Zero is actually the site of a mass murder, and yet we often refer to it as "sacred ground" as though it were a church. Perhaps it is part of our coping mechanism when faced with human evil and mortality? Perhaps, by focusing on the selfless acts committed by those who were ultimately victims of murder, or attempted murder, we are able to wrestle control of that narrative? Examples of this sort of positive-spin symbolism are everywhere in human history, from the hallowing of Pearl Harbor, to the Crucifixion of Jesus (Easter is a celebration of ritual torture, execution and a missing body!), to countless tales of martyrdom in numerous religions. These events supply a comforting meaning to an otherwise horrible tragedy. "I'm sorry this happened, but your brother died a hero." One could easily use such events as an example to create fictional ceremonies and or beliefs for a faith like that of Heironeous. Perhaps his worshippers celebrate a 300-esque last stand, or have constructed a cathedral on the site of a mighty victory. While one could argue that such deeds were brave and good, hallowing such conflicts begs the question, what about the other side? Why was there conflict in the first place?

Memorials to conflict are not the only way to add shades of gray to an otherwise black and white belief. While thinking about Heironean ceremony, I also stumbled across the notion of putting on a public display of bravery in the face of pants-wetting danger and worry. A book I am reading for work talks about NASA's tradition of having the astronauts' spouses meet their spacefaring significant others at the launch site a few days prior to launch. It is a big press event intended to send the message "we are sending representatives of the wholesome American Dream into the cosmos!" Everyone smiles and waves and looks excited/unconcerned. What is not publicly shown is that the astronauts and their spouses often have tearful goodbyes prior to the launch, full of conversations of "just in case I don't come back". The spouses are even assigned a NASA handler to make travel arrangements for them, but also to act as a casualty liaison for the family should something go wrong. As I read about this ceremony, I immediately envisioned a procession of soldiers parading in front of their wives before going to battle.

These examples reveal something that can make a Dudley-do-Right religion seem much more dramatic and rich from a storytelling standpoint. Exploring the difference between a public show of bravery and meaning, and the inner worries and thoughts secretly harbored by individual members of the faith, opens up a world of plot seeds and rich storytelling possibilities.

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