Designer Spotlight: Aaron Loeb

This interview with Book of the Righteous designer Aaron Loeb is from 2002.

GR: Let's start with an easy one. What is Book of the Righteous?

Aaron: Book of the Righteous is a 320-page hardback that provides almost 20 pick-up-and-play churches and a complete cosmology that ties them together. The churches are designed to be fairly portable, so even if you have your own cosmology in place there's plenty of useful material for you in the book. Each church write-up features myths from the god, common prayers, symbols, organization, dogma, and more. There are also another 12 smaller churches, heretical cults and evil sects for over 30 religious organizations total.

Most of these organizations have at least three holy orders:

First, a clerical order, which discusses the belief of the clerics of that god based on their alignment, their power structure and all the other bits you might expect (time of day for spell-prep, domains, etc.).

Next, we detail a "holy warrior" order. The holy warrior is a new core class introduced in the book; based on the paladin and the cleric, the holy warrior receives special abilities like the paladin's "lay on hands" and "Divine Grace" based on domains selected at character creation similar to clerical domains. The paladin can be produced using this system with the selection of two particular domains, but there are 20 domains to choose from and almost 60 new powers. In the holy warrior section, we discuss the structure of the holy warrior order, the codes of conduct for its members, and nuts-and-bolts issues like domain selection and mounts/animal companions.

Finally, we discuss any additional holy orders; nearly all of the large churches have a third order represented by a prestige class. Rather than providing prestige classes appropriate only to clerics and paladins, as many religious supplements do, we provide means for religious characters who aren't already receiving divine powers to achieve status and power within their church. This section discusses the status of this third holy order within the church, its belief system, and it purpose within church function as well as prestige class details.

GR: What About The Gods?

Aaron: Most of the book is very character-based. Rather than providing stats for gods, we focus on what your religion (or your players' religions) means to you in day-to-day life. What does it mean to be a cleric of the god of war? Who do you report to? Why? Who do you dislike or oppose? Why?

To provide this information, we go into a healthy amount of detail about each god. We discuss the holy symbols, representations, and even goals and purposes of the gods. Each section begins with an important myth of the faith that helps to illustrate what the followers of the god believe, and why. The PDF preview that accompanies this interview (First Vengeance and First Law) is one such myth.

GR: Is that the myth that's illustrated on the cover?

Aaron: Yes, the cover painting, by Brian Despain, illustrates a central myth of the faith of Maal, god of law and justice as well as the judge of the dead. In the cosmology we provide (which can be ignored or tinkered with if you already have a complete cosmology), it is Maal who judges the souls of the dead—determining whether they should be rewarded or punished for their deeds in life or should be reborn for another chance.

In this myth, set in the earliest days of the mortal races, Maal determined that the five mortal races—humans, elves, gnomes, halflings and dwarves—required the guidance of Law.

GR: What does this myth mean to the player?

Aaron: As is illustrated in the legend of Ceruill and Ophiel, Maal long ago gave the mortal races 12 perfect laws, the first of which was the proscription on vengeance. But the laws were destroyed and lost, and only the first—and the legend of the first—remain.

The faithful of Maal seek to bring law to the land; they are arbiters of conflicts and champions of those who have been victims of injustice. But they also are on an eons-old quest to discover the lost laws of Maal. Because the gods have agreed to no longer simply tell the mortal races what to do (as it denies them their free will), Maal cannot (or will not) simply provide them with the perfect laws once more. Instead, the faithful believe they must uncover them. This is the quest of any dedicated Maalite, her constant and secret desire on all of her journeys. And it is just one of dozens of religious quests, goals and secret aims of the religious organizations provided in Book of the Righteous.

GR: Many players and GMs are sure to be using some other cosmology or pantheon. What can Book of the Righteous do for them?

Aaron: The reason we wrote Book of the Righteous was to provide players and GMs answers to the questions that always come up when someone plays a religiously-powered character: "Okay, I worship the god of strength. What does that mean? What's his role in the pantheon? Who created the universe? Who created him? Etc. etc." Those answers are there with varying levels of detail that can be peeled away like the layers of an onion. If you want a complete cosmology that explains who all the gods are and their role in the universe, it's there. If you want more detail just on a church of the god of war, it's there and the other details can be ignored. Everything in this book can and does stand alone; it just also has a lot of additional information that makes it work even better together.

There's also an entire chapter of ideas for combining the material in this book with your existing cosmology; with subtle tweaking you can use nearly all of the material in ways that will be quite useful to any campaign.

GR: So Book of the Righteous is the size of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting; that's a lot of words! Did you intend to write a book this large when you started the project?

Aaron: Actually, no. Originally, the book was intended to be 80,000 words, but as I started explicating the churches it became clear there was a lot of detail necessary in creating a useful religious organization.

Over the year I've been writing, it went from 80,000 to 160,000 to the final tally, about 260,000+ words (and when people see the layout, I think they'll be happy with the "text density" I keep reading is important in reviews). None of it was put in to "pad" the book and make it impressively large; it all felt important to making these religious organizations as useful to the players and GMs as possible.

The book also needed an explanation of the cosmology, guidelines for incorporating the religions into a campaign, ideas for changing them, some discussion of evil faiths, and (of course) spells, feats, magic items and creatures. All of that makes up for about a quarter of the book, so the bulk of the work was in creating really satisfying faiths.

GR: A lot of folks probably already have Deities and Demigods from WotC. What does Book of the Righteous offer them that Deities and Demigods doesn't?

Aaron: I'm not trying to bag on other peoples' work, so please don't read anything I say as an effort to degrade the hard work of the folks at WotC. My dissatisfaction with Deities and Demigods is that it wasn't for me or the people I game with. It was for a gamer who wants to have gods show up bodily and wants to have characters ascend to godhead. I really don't need rules for fighting gods or becoming a god as my campaigns aren't likely to go there.

Religion, for me, is at the center of a character's life (particularly, obviously, clerics and paladins). Role-playing a religious character can be a really sublime experience as you interact with myth, spiritual events, symbolism, holy quests, angels, and all the other trappings of great mythological heroism. Fighting the gods is directly orthogonal to the experience I want for religious characters. So, while Deities and Demigods has the "fight the gods" and "ascend to godhood" bases totally covered (and has some beautiful artwork), Book of the Righteous focuses more on the faiths and the faithful than on the particular abilities of the gods. Deities and Demigods provides a couple paragraphs about what the churches of these gods are like and leaves it at that. Book of the Righteous instead has complete and thorough explanations of the faiths, the gods' interactions with the faithful, and those people who receive power from the gods.

Also, Deities and Demigods mostly focuses on real-world mythologies. I find that enormously unsatisfying in a game (and I know a lot of people disagree with me, so I'm not claiming that this is objectively true). I loved the Desert of Desolation modules in 1st-edition written by Tracy Hickman et. al. but I always found it a little wacky to be in the middle of a fantasy game with real-world gods like Set suddenly present. The problems with this are manifold: A player who has a better understanding of actual mythology generally just wins any in-character discussion about "religion," and usually he's not the one playing the cleric; many of the legends you might like to draw on from real-world myths are actually grounded in real places and make no sense in the middle of a fantasy world; and I just find it pulls me out of the fantasy whenever I'm role-playing and I meet a 7th-level dwarven cleric named Gokfarth from the church of Apollo. So, for Book of the Righteous, we've made up an entirely fake mythology, all of the gods in it, and all of the religions based on those gods. No one can pull out Bullfinch and bring the game to a screeching halt by correcting your cleric.

GR: What's your gaming background? What are some of your favorite games?

Aaron: I've been role-playing for 25 years since my older brother introduced me to the original D&D books around our ping pong table in Urbana, Illinois in 1977. I've not actually written that much stuff for the role-playing industry: Chris Pramas and I contributed to the Underground Player's Handbook and the Underground Companion in the early 90s. I wrote for Rolemaster (but the project got canceled when the campaign setting got canceled) and Role Aids (also canceled when the line got canceled). I wrote the color text (fiction) that introduces each section of the Providence world setting book and I contributed quite a bit to the Whispering Vault back when it was published by Pariah Press, where I was the Managing Editor. That's it!

Mostly, I'm active in the computer and videogame industry. I was in the press covering videogames for about five years, where I was the founding editor-in-chief of the UGO network, editor-in-chief of Next Generation Online and the creator of Daily Radar. When the web biz died a horrible death, I got laid off, started writing this book and moved into the videogame creating portion of the business. I'm now the producer at Planet Moon Studios, makers of Giants: Citizen Kabuto and MDK. We're currently making a game for LucasArts (which will be a lot of fun), and I enjoy the work tremendously.

My favorite games of all time are Dungeons and Dragons and Champions/Hero System. I would say I've played those two games about a thousand times more than all other games combined, though I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which were our games of choice in college. I think to this day I'm haunted by the drubbings Pramas handed me in WFB.

GR: Will you be at GenCon for the big debut of Book of the Righteous?

Aaron: Of course! I'll happily walk people through the various faiths and talk about some of the hidden stuff 'til the cows come home. I really love this book and I hope people will find it as useful as I aimed for it to be. Now that most of the art is in, I can say that the inside will be as gorgeous as the cover—and given how gorgeous the cover is, that's no mean feat!

GR: Can I tell you about my character? :)

Aaron: Only if you let me bombard you with exhaustive details from the D&D campaign that inspired Book of the Righteous, GMed by Big Bill "Madness in Freeport" Simoni and featuring characters like the Mighty Finn, who's now Freeport's number one crime lord. See, I played this dwarven fighter/cleric who was blood-brothers with this... Guys? Guys?!