This is Faith in Play #61: Christian D&D, for December 2022.
Someone I have known online probably since I first became Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild recently read my recently republished book Do You Trust Me? (and made some positive comments about it), but then messaged me thus:
…in your book Do You Trust Me? in the early part of the book you made a statement that “Dungeons & Dragons™ turns out to be one of the most Christian games around today.” I’m not disputing that claim I’m just wondering if I could get more information on it.
I responded that this would need a significant essay, and this is that, or perhaps at least the beginning of that.
It is difficult to know where to begin, but let’s start with the magic. There are Christians who believe the game is evil because it involves magic, and players pretend to use magic as part of play. Of course, it is an error to think that players actually go through the motions of casting spells, any more than that they draw swords and attack each other. They simply describe what their characters are doing, which usually amounts to something simple like “I cast a continual light spell,” and everyone imagines that this is what the character did. But there is a notion among Christians that magic is always bad.
I have addressed this quite a few times in the past, and you can read my thoughts in the old Faith and Gaming series in Magic (which demonstrates that it is the source that matters to God), Fantasy (which suggests that a world without magic is an atheistic world), and other entries, and in my contribution to the Magic Symposium in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice, Magic: Essential to Faith, Essential to Fantasy. The short answer is that almost everything about our faith is magical, and in fiction, magic is the easiest way to represent those realities. Christian writers George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, and Madeleine L’Engle all used it for that reason.
More importantly in this instance, the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ was very much about the spiritual battle between good and evil. Magic was used by evil enemies, certainly, but it was also used to fight evil enemies. The devils and demons–another aspect of the game people criticized–were certainly evil, but they were in a very real sense Christian evils, evil personified in terms consistent with our faith. Only spiritual weapons, magic and magically-enhanced weapons, could defeat them. It was as near a perfect analogy for a spiritual battle by faith against spiritual evil as one could put in a game. And the demons and devils of the first books were soon balanced by ranks of angels to which were given the names solars, planetars, and devas.
And on the subject of magic, if you look at it closely you’ll notice how very much of it is drawn from the Bible. Lowering and parting water was done by Moses at the Red Sea, and then by Joshua at the Jordan River, and later by both Elijah and Elisha. Elijah also called fire from heaven, as a fire fall spell, to consume a sacrifice, which had been done before when an angel visited Gideon and when Solomon opened his temple, but Elijah then did it, twice more, as attacks on soldiers who came to arrest him. Paladins heal by laying on hands; and in speaking of how to fight vampires, it specifically says that the cross (along with other unspecified holy symbols) is sovereign against them. And Jesus was not the only person in the book who was raised from the dead, nor even who raised someone from the dead. Certainly the authors drew on other sources to fill out the game, but the amount of Christian influence and imagery within those pages is remarkable.
It should also be mentioned that Dungeons & Dragons™ is one of the earliest cooperative, not competitive, games. It is an overlooked anti-Christian aspect of most games that they pit the players against each other, that to win the game you have to defeat the other players and prove yourself the best. While there are positive aspects to working to be the best, the competitive spirit is not one of them. In D&D™ the players are encouraged to join forces, combining their abilities, working together to win or lose jointly. That Christian approach to game play has caught on a bit more since the game appeared, but it is still rare.
I once had an online chat with game co-creator Gary Gygax in which he confided that in designing the game he intentionally gave an edge to the powers of good, which throughout are marginally more powerful than the powers of evil. That is as it should be. It reflects a Christian cosmology, that good is the greater power.
I remember a story of a preacher trying out for the pulpit of an evangelical church somewhere who in preaching about all the evils that were plaguing society included that wicked role playing game Dungeons & Dragons™. After the service, the elders invited him to talk with them, and introduced him to one of their own, Dave Arneson, the other co-creator of the game. Dave, from whom I heard this, said the man apologized, claiming that he spoke in the ignorance of one repeating what he had heard from others.
That underscores a significant aspect of the story: this game about spiritual warfare set in a magical medieval world was created by believers. I spoke with Dave, and know that he was a respected Christian leader in his home congregation. I spoke with Gary, and answered some of his difficult Bible questions as he sought better to understand the faith he had embraced. These men created a Christian game from their Christian beliefs. It is hard to imagine it being a more Christian game without being blatantly so–and as with Narnia and Harry Potter what makes them truly effective in bringing Christian truth to unbelievers is that they are not blatantly obvious. Dungeons & Dragons™ is in that sense very like them.
I should at this point caveat that I am familiar with the original (Holmes edition) Basic Dungeons & Dragons™ (pictured) and intimately so with the original “first edition” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™. I read the second edition of the game and didn’t like the changes they had made, although I adopted some fragments from its supplements. I was given copies of the two core books from “3E“, the third edition launched in the late 90s by Wizards of the Coast, but could not get through the Player’s Handbook for my dislike of the differences, and my knowledge of subsequent iterations of the game is entirely hearsay, so what I say is based on those early versions of the game as produced by those two believers. I don’t know how much of the more recent versions are different.