Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Antipopes

Antipope Benedict XIII, also known as El Papa Luna
Antipope Benedict XIII, also known as El Papa Luna

Most of us are probably familiar with the Pope. Head of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter. The word, ‘Pope’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘father,’ symbolizing the position this individual had over its followers. To say the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope have wielded authority over the centuries is like saying Niagara Falls is some falling water. In societies where religious life and secular life were one and the same, the authority of the Church accomplished much all over the world and the holy seat of the Pope has never been something taken lightly. With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, people are speculating as to which bishop will be elevated to this seat of power and service.

The Roman Catholic Church has in its history Antipopes; Antipopes were individuals who were more than qualified to have been elected Pope themselves but for whatever reason were not elected. This would cause rifts within the church, with kings, cardinals and even kingdoms rejecting the elected pope and recognizing another individual as the leader of the Church and therefore the everyday lives of many individuals. Some of the antipopes reconciled with the Popes. Others were ran out, tortured, murdered or excommunicated. On occasion the antipopes were named by rulers themselves, in obstinance to the elected Popes who held much power in those days. Others named themselves Pope, saying they had a better claim to the seat. Popes and Antipopes disrupted the lives of everyday citizens, disrupted records as people tried to keep track of who was in charge. Some people even believe a period of frequent antipapacies allowed a woman to briefly become Pope, though some say that is Church legend.

In any religious organization, there are always leaders and there will always be those who really wish some other person was in command. When everyone is dead set on an individual being the Chosen One there are those who would have chosen differently. Maybe it’s because they doubt the qualifications of newly elected leader in question. Perhaps they consider another person more compassionate, more ruthless or more charismatic. Perhaps they want the seat for themselves. No matter how high the seat, no matter how big the service required, if power is involved someone else will have their eyes on it. Politics and religion intermingle and the consequences of opposing one of the highest spiritual leaders of the land can be grave indeed.

If religion plays a big part in your campaign, issues of hierarchy and position can affect everyone. How are the PCs involved in the political maneuverings of the the holiest individuals of the land?

For GMs

  • What structure do religious organizations have? What does the hierarchy look like and who is at the top of the pack?
  • How do the leaders divide their influence? Over buildings? Geographical locations? Number of individuals?
  • How are the leaders of the organization chosen? Do they have to perform tests? Are they elected? Who elects them? Do people not officially affiliated with the religious organization influence the decision making?
  • How much clout do the top religious officials have and how are they regarded by secular leaders?
  • What are some of the important doctrines within the religious organization and what are the main schisms within? Who are the leaders of various schools of thought and how are they regarded by other factions, leaders and the follower?

Plot Hooks

  • When the current religious leader dies suddenly, the region is in a clamor trying to decide who the next spiritual leader will be. When rival cities suggest well known locals to the highest seat, fighting breaks out in the streets and its up to the church leaders and local police to keep the peace while the next leader is chosen. The PCs are caught trying to keep the peace while those making the decision lay behind closed doors. Who do the PC side with? How are the people advocating for one person or the other? Does the fighting help or hinder the process and decision making?
  • When the spiritual leader announces their retirement, the PCs are sent to the capitol in order to plant seeds which will hopefully lead to a certain individual being elected as the next head of the order. Who are the PCs trying to get elected? Who must they speak to in order to succeed? Who else is in the running? Why are they rooting for one person or another?
  • When an individual proclaims themselves the head of the holy order, the PCs are sent from the capitol to deal with this would be usurper. Their orders say to command the person to step down and if they refuse to execute them in the name of the church. Is the mission a secret one or a public one? How are they received along the way? Does their target know they are coming or are they surprised? What are they told of this possible usurper and what do they learn of them on their journey?
  • When the spiritual leader of their tribe appoints a rather unimpressive individual to be a spiritual warrior before an approaching battle, many of the members balk at the idea. They clamor for another person, more formidable in form to lead them in battle but the spiritual leader holds fast. The PCs are in the employ of the spiritual leader who bids them to prepare the chosen one for the battle, mentally and physically. All the while the enemy is approaching. What is the nature of this chosen one and what is so atypical of them? Why did the spiritual leader choose them? Do the PCs believe this is indeed the chosen one or do they have their doubts?

For PCs

  • Are you a spiritual person? Are you a religious person?
  • How do you feel about hierarchy in the religious world?
  • How do you view the current religious leaders? Who do you think their successors will be?
  • Do you keep tabs on current schisms within the church? Do you side with any of them?
  • Who do you think is the greatest religious mind of your time? What is their rank within the church? Do you think they could raise up the ranks? What would you do to get them recognized within the church?
  • What do you think the connection between political and religious power is? Do you think they should intertwine? Be separate?

What say you? What happens when the highest spiritual position is challenged within your campaign?

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