Social Science and Fiction Part 6: It’s Time For Some Game Theory

The philosophers of Western Civilization recognize seven cardinal virtues. The first four come to us from antiquity, as detailed in Plato’s The Republic. Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence are, for lack of a better term, the pagan virtues. The theological virtues are faith, hope, and love. Together, these seven prescribe the foundations for a righteous life. In combination, they are the elements of more complex virtues like honor, respect, chastity, nobility, or forgiveness.

I mention this because one of the cardinal virtues is heavily warped in science fiction and fantasy settings.


Faith is the enduring habit of accepting claims for which no evidence exists. Faith in, say, The Resurrection demands of the devout an eager willingness to defy reason and accept extraordinary claims supported by nothing more than testimony. Testimony from folks who just witnessed a particularly nasty execution of their beloved teacher, no less. Faith is vital: it sustains folks when hope wanes.

Those of you who have been reading me long enough know that I take seriously the role of the theological virtues in supporting and sustaining the vast underpinnings of modern commerce. Without faith in strangers’ willingness to honor contracts, without hope that productivity goals will be met, and without a common love for the enterprising act, the ties that bind commercial man dissolve, leaving us dead or destitute.

But something interesting happens in most high fantasy and science fiction settings. Capital-F Faith in an absentee God who may or may not exist is absent. In Dungeons and Dragons, the gods exist. If you want proof, watch a paladin lay on hands. Science fiction settings can be a little looser with divine intervention tropes, but a sufficiently advanced AI is a reasonable substitute for a supernatural entity, and for ordinary NPC plebes, even modest mutant, cybernetic, or technological abilities are sufficiently advanced to provide a reasonable stand-in.

A curious and noteworthy exception is found in the Warhammer 40,000 lore. The God-Emperor sitting on the Golden Throne on Holy Terra exists in a liminal realm between order and chaos, life and death, real and unreal. Statistically, zero percent of Imperial citizens will ever visit Earth, let alone lay eyes upon the Emperor. Magical power emerges as a property of the Immaterium, rather than from divine intervention. Stable warp travel is possible thanks to a giant beacon powered by sacrificed psykers who failed their examinations. All of this is done in the name of the Emperor, but it is left as a matter of faith among loyal imperial citizens that it is done by the will of the Emperor. It is probably no coincidence that among my traditional Catholic friends who game, Warhammer is a popular franchise.

Exceptions aside, the absence of faith in lieu of direct, incontrovertible evidence should have more influence on your world than just a couple of character classes available. A simple first order effect would be that with active, interventionist gods who can credibly promise a genuine, eternal afterlife, fanatical cults should be commonplace. If you have a god of murder, there should be politicians who put Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kissinger to shame. Cults to the god of commerce should make Bezos, Gates, and Buffet look like paupers. Have a god of carnal pleasure? You’d better also have gilt fornication palaces suitable for the lustiest of Argonian bar maids. Indeed, if you want to avoid this natural consequence, you’d have to give your proletariat profoundly curtailed time preference profiles. They’d have to discount a literal eternity in paradise that medium-high level wizards can visit the same way you might head to the beach on Memorial Day weekend to indulge in even petty sin.

And then you’ve got a curious problem with the way the faithful deal with heretics and apostates. Or even just blasphemy. In our world, the results are often gruesome. Imagine if you knew your god was watching, listening. The temptation to pursue a career as an inquisitor would be overwhelming if you thought it would curry favor. Think for a moment how insular a world swarming with inquisitors would be. It would be perilous enough to misspeak to your own ingroup. Accidentally badmouthing another god would strew broken glass and razor blades all over the floor of the marketplace of ideas. And where ideas don’t flow, neither should people.

Come to think of it, that might be a fun campaign idea to try. Strict border controls over tiny religious sovereignties featuring extensive entry tests to earn a passport.

Hm. Thinking about it now, this could actually be quite easy to fold into the campaign I’m running at the moment.

Please excuse me. I have some notes to modify.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

4 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction Part 6: It’s Time For Some Game Theory

  1. If you have a god of murder, there should be politicians who put Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kissinger to shame.

    Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!

    The problem with the existence of gods is that they imply a meta-morality that includes good and evil.

    And people who follow this god are “good” and people who follow that god are “evil”. And, presumably, the people on this side of the divide are allowed to harm the people on that side of it. (Maybe good people will make a token attempt to convert Gruumsh followers to Bahamut first… but, hey. Some people you just can’t reach. Gruumsh followers who make it to the tip of the spear aren’t likely to be particularly convertable.)

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  2. This is a really interesting question – would the daily verifiable existence of interventionist gods increase the level of fanaticism, or diminish it?

    Like, people used to sacrifice livestock they could ill afford, sometimes even humans, to have the gods protect them from disease. Now we just have to pop down to the clinic to get a powerful talisman against disease injected in our upper arms on the way home from work, and it’s kind of a pain because the parking is always crap and then I’d be home at least half an hour later than usual and have to rush dinner to get the kids to gymnastics on time.

    We get really threatened by blasphemy because we know their blasphemy is not inherently more credible than our divine truth. They might steal people away from our own faith. They might even steal us.

    Someone who doesn’t believe in something we can all verify with our senses – we’re not threatened by that. We understand that they suffer some delusion, and hope they get better. But their disbelief in the existence of the escalator to the second floor of the mall is not threatening the way someone’s disbelief in the heavenly escalator to the good afterlife is threatening.

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