RPG-ology #41: Over My Shoulder

This is RPG-ology #41:  Over My Shoulder, for April 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.

We are skipping another which has already been published, but since this thirteenth entry is itself an index of the first twelve, all but one of which have been republished here, we will go directly to it.  A few editorial notes will be [bracketed].


I doubt any of you have been counting, but this is the thirteenth article in our Game Ideas Unlimited series.  I’m not superstitious (in that sense of the word).  The number thirteen doesn’t mean anything frightening to me.  But if you’re adept at calendar math, you know that thirteen weeks (and not twelve) is three months, a quarter of a year.

It’s our anniversary.

I’m a believer in holidays that look back at the past, to see whence we came in an effort to know whither we are going.  There are a dozen columns behind us, each one different.  If you haven’t read them all, perhaps now would be a good time to see what ideas you missed; and if you have, it won’t hurt to jolt them back to your mind.  But we’ll also take a moment to look at looking back.

I introduced myself and the series with a column appropriately called Introduction [not included in our republications but now available as mark Joseph “young” web log entry #384:  Game Ideas Unlimited Introduction].  In it we promised that these columns would include many and varied ideas, sometimes giving you something you could use directly in your games, but more importantly trying to teach you how to be creative, where to find ideas.  It also contained links to several other articles I’ve written, as a way both of introducing myself and of providing game ideas to you.

The second idea, An Amusing Dungeon, was primarily for fantasy gamers.  It sketched out an adventure in which standard medieval fantasy characters found themselves in a magical amusement park, terrified of the rides and confused by the rest.  More basically it was about devising challenging and creative settings by taking something familiar and putting it in the wrong place.

Transmats, the third entry, took us solidly into science fiction.  If you run a sci-fi game and have matter transmission technology, you probably added a lot of things to your world after reading that one.  Even if that’s not you, the challenge behind it was to look at the technology in your worlds and make sure you consider all the implications.

By the time we looked at My North Wall in the fourth article, we were looking for world ideas and finding them in very mundane places.  There was a brief side trip into misdirection as a story tool and a chance to look for the leprechaun in the painting on my wall, but overall we were finding ways to draw ideas from the things around us.

The fifth article, Screen Wrap, talked about ways to use teleportation to create maze-like challenges.  It was presented in a practical, nuts-and-bolts sort of way that works with both fantasy and science fiction, and included some ideas on getting a very similar effect without moving the characters at all.

If you’re carrying a notebook around just so you can write down something you see each day, it might be because you took my advice seriously in Pay Attention.  This sixth column suggested things to include in such a volume, and how they might be useful in the future.

I told you a little bit about my family in number seven, and asked you about yours.  I said we were all Living in the Past, and that there were far more story, world, and character ideas in the past than in the present, worth exploring.  And from some of the mail I received, I’d say that many of you began exploring those ideas, finding out about your parents’ lives.

We went for a walk in a blizzard in Snow Day.  I wanted you to move your mind out of where you were into another world, and experience it vividly enough that you could bring your friends into it with you.  If we did that, the eighth entry succeeded, and may have helped you develop some tools for better presentation of your setting.  And if it’s a hot day today, maybe you’d like to go back there for a moment and cool off a bit.

Number nine was in some ways controversial.  I told you about Invisible Coins, and how to use these to control the direction of your game.  Many of you are probably afraid of this idea, as I was; but sometimes the importance of the die roll isn’t what it is but what you wanted it to be.

Maybe we got a little heady with Empiricism [republished under the title Creatures], discussing the philosophy of David Hume.  But the tenth article had a practical side, too, as it made us consider the limitations of communication, and examine the degree to which our descriptions need to convey impressions rather than information.  It also had a clever sketch from Dimitrios “Jim” Denaxas “illustrating” the idea.

I unscrambled the word Aptrusis in column eleven.  In doing so, I looked at my own approach to solving a puzzle, and the place of puzzles in games.

Although column twelve was called Monster Design, I didn’t design a monster.  Instead, I presented a set of ideas which to my mind were important in creating a good monster—not game mechanics, but the nature of the beast itself and the way it is presented within the game world.

The value in looking back lies in looking forward.  [Thirteen] weeks ago, I said I was going to give you ideas, but go beyond that to help you learn to find your own ideas.  I promised that our column would turn in every direction, sometimes practical and sometimes esoteric, sometimes fantasy and sometimes science fiction, sometimes design and sometimes presentation.  So far we’ve been there and done that—not in a tired way, I think, but in a way that suggests successes on which to build.

But my opinion is not the important one here.  What matters is whether you think we’re achieving the objectives.  More to the point, what of all this did you find useful?  Of what that we’ve done would you like more?  And is there anything you expected that you’ve not yet seen but would still like?  Have we gone too far?  Have we gone far enough?  It’s not that I’ve run out of ideas—I might never run out of ideas.  It’s that not all ideas are equally valued, and there are many directions which could be explored in the next quarter.  I’m thinking about developing character background, looking again at how people think, maybe examining superstition.  Which ideas will we pursue?  In part that’s up to you.  By the time you read this, I’ll be several weeks ahead in writing them; but your thoughts on what is worthwhile will certainly affect the future of the series at some point.

So roll some of those invisible dice, and as they clatter on the table [write a forum post leave a comment] to tell me what it is that you really want them to say.

Previous article:  Aptrusis.
Next article:  Who?.

Faith in Play #41: Faith

This is Faith in Play #41:  Faith, for April 2021.


Recently somewhere on the Web a discussion arose that suggested that if you build a world in which God or the gods manifest visibly frequently and work wonders regularly, there is no need for faith in such a world.  I am persuaded that this is a serious misunderstanding of the concept of faith, and that we should understand it aright not only for our games but for our lives.

Abraham is said to have entertained God face to face, and yet is also given as the prime example of what it is to have faith.  How can Paul say that Abraham had faith in God, when Abraham had absolute proof of God’s existence?

Faith ultimately means trust, and it is actually the most common thing in the world.  It is, in fact, the way we know most of what we think we know.

How do I know that George Washington was the first President of the United States?  Someone told me; I trusted both that they were correct and that they were honest.  That’s faith.  How do I know that the earth is eight light minutes from the sun, and that the earth goes around the sun, and not the sun around the earth as it appears?  Again this is faith, that I believe what I was told.  Why do I hop out of bed onto a floor, believing that it will be there, and will support my weight?  Once again, that’s faith.

How do I know that my God is concerned about me, even when life is not going according to my plans?  That’s faith—I trust Him.

We have faith in people, that is, we trust that our friends and family are not going to harm us or abandon us.  Sometimes our faith is misplaced, but it is still faith.  So even when the proof of one God’s or many gods’ existence is incontrovertible, faith is a critical part of that—or any—relationship.

It was also asked whether to have one God or many gods in your fictional world, whether for game or story, but I wrote about that decades ago in Faith and Gaming #8:  In Vain (link to more recent republished copy).


Previous article:  Harry Potter Series Follow-up.
Next article:  Lucifer.

RPG-ology #40: Aptrusis

This is RPG-ology #40: Aptrusis, for March 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was not one of them, but the unearthing of about two thirds of the articles complete plus other partials has led to the decision to run as many of the series as we can in as close to the original sequence as possible.

We skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; and already ran the second and third, so that last month featured the fourth in the series, linked below. This is number eleven, as we ran quite a few out of sequence already. For the sake of history, we ran number five Screen Wrap almost two years ago in June, six through eight, Pay Attention, Living in the Past, and Snow Day in sequence the summer before because they connected to each other, and number nine Invisible Coins last September. The tenth, originally entitled Empiricism, was rerun under the title Creatures two years ago.


I really don’t like certain kinds of puzzles. People think it’s strange. After all, aren’t I one of those super-intelligent people, and since I am, wouldn’t I enjoy games for the super-intelligent? Bah. I don’t like those mathematical magic squares. Finding the next one in the sequence doesn’t excite me.

And these: Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cook and Mr. Baker met on the street. “It’s funny,” said Mr. Baker to the man who was the carpenter, “that each of us is named for a trade, and although between us we represent all three of the trades of our names, not one of us has the job that matches his name.” So which one is the carpenter, which is the cook, and which is the baker? The Law School Admission Test—L.S.A.T. for those of you more familiar with test abbreviations—has those, in varying levels of complexity, as about a quarter of the questions.

I hate those, too.

And I don’t unscramble words.

It isn’t that I don’t think I can do these. On the contrary, the problem is that as soon as I see the problem, I know that I can solve it, given enough time and effort. It generally becomes clear fairly quickly that if you shift the information around sufficiently, eventually the answer will appear. It is inevitable.

And that reduces the entire exercise to busy work.

I don’t like these puzzles because they are exactly like having to do homework. The answers are attainable, often without much that could be considered cleverness or even thought. You just have to plug away at it until you find it. I’ll show you what I mean.

My youngest was handed an assignment in which all the adverbs had been “scrambled” and he had to unscramble them to answer the questions. I’m supposed to help him with his work (this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me—I can do his work easily, and don’t see how that helps him learn, but I don’t have the patience to listen to him whine some days about how hard it is and how he can’t do it), and I’m supposed to check it when it’s done. So I read the paragraph, and all the words quickly revealed themselves, but for one.

  • aptrusis

So I have no idea what this is. I note that it contains the word “apt,” and that the “usis” ending is worth considering. But as yet I don’t see a whole word. So I change things around, at first keeping the two halves isolated.

  • partsuis

I like the way the first four letters work; they seem to have a lot of possibilities. The last four don’t, though, and I’m already thinking of pulling one of the “s”‘s to the front, as there are an awful lot of words that begin with “s,” and “sp,” “st,” “str,” and “spr” are very common starts. But before I do that, I try another twist.

  • tarpiuss

It’s not working. It’s time to shuffle things in a larger way, move letters between the front and the back.

  • utripass

Understand that in the back of my mind I’m already aware that I could systematically examine every combination—start by switching the last two, then shuffling the last three, the last four, as if testing permutations in a Mastermind game. I’m also quite aware that it can take a very long time to do that, even with the aid of a computer. I wonder if there’s a scrambled word cruncher on the net, like the “convert your phone number to words” site I once saw. But I’m working on the assumption that poking at this inductively will eventually give me a letter combination I recognize. In fact, I get such a letter combination when I bring the “s” up to the front.

  • straispu

However, it’s too much. I’ve got a five letter run that looks good, but the rest can’t be made into the end of any word I can see.

And this is supposed to be third grade work. Did I mention that I don’t like scrambled words?

  • spartius

A classic movie comes to mind; but this is supposed to be a time or place.

  • aspurtis

This actually sounds like a word; I pause to see if I can find the word—no, it would be a cute pun in a way, but probably very few would get it. Keep going.

  • spraitus

Well, I’d tried the “str” opening, I had to try the “spr.” This is so far from inspiring that I drop it.

  • parssuit

I’m beginning the think again about whether I can have the computer print them all to a text file. Then I could open it in Word, and the spellchecker would choke, but maybe find for me the one word that is not misspelled.

  • pastusir

Um… no.

  • upstasir

And suddenly I can see it; it’s right there. I have enough of it that the rest falls into place. I have unscrambled the word.

Did I mention that I really don’t like scrambled words?

I’m sure some of you knew what Aptrusis was almost as soon as you saw it in the title; your mind is geared to unscramble words more quickly than mine. Others have not yet made the final step to finish the process. Don’t worry about that—we all process information a bit differently. But more than a few of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with game ideas.

Quite a bit, actually.

I just took you for a walk through a mental process. This, in a perhaps abbreviated form, is the way I thought about this problem. In some ways it should have seemed familiar to you, like I was doing something you might have done; in some ways it should have seemed surprising, like I turned left where you would have climbed the ladder. That means that there are similarities between the way you and I think, but we don’t think quite the same way. What looks easy to you, what is easy to you, might stump me, at least for a moment; and I might breeze through something that would confuse you.

Years ago, before people were talking about drama, karma, and fortune mechanics, or about narrativist, gamist, and simulationist goals, or about actor and author (and more recently director) stances in role playing games, someone tried to divide players up into categories of what they wanted to do. Some, it was said, were there for the action, fighting monsters and escaping with treasure. Others were there for the characters, the creation of story and the development of their world. But there was a third category about which I don’t hear much anymore: some play for the puzzles. They like solving them. Whether it’s a riddle, or a logic problem, or a scrambled word, the moment that the story stops and the players have to put their minds to cracking a problem is the moment this player shines. And in fact, I am that player. I like solving puzzles as the way to the solution of the mystery in the game. It’s just that there are some puzzles which don’t seem to me like puzzles at all. They seem like homework. I never liked homework (and left too substantial a share of it unfinished over the years). I want puzzles, but I don’t want homework.

And because we know that each of us thinks a little differently about everything, it follows that the puzzles that appeal to you might not appeal to me. So if you’re creating the situation, you need to think of puzzles that will appeal to the players, particularly to the players who are going to be the ones to tackle and enjoy them. If they like wordplay and don’t like numbers, they aren’t going to enjoy a numerical puzzle so much as a linguistic one. And probably they’re going to have trouble with some puzzles, to the point of frustration. The last thing you want to do is give them a puzzle that they aren’t going to like and will frustrate them. After all, they’re here to have fun. The puzzle should be challenging and fun.

This was a lot of words to say that, if that was all I was going to say. Why did we bother to go through that look at how I solve scrambled words? It was supposed to bring into focus the fact that everyone approaches puzzles a bit differently (at least, of those that bother to approach them at all). Everyone likes different types of puzzles, and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in puzzle solving. So you can’t assume that because a puzzle looks too easy to you that they’re going to get it right away. You need to have a grasp of what puzzles entertain your players, what kinds of puzzles they enjoy and which ones provide the right level of challenge, if you’re going to use them, and gear things for that. The puzzles that appear in your adventures must entertain and challenge without frustrating.

Did I mention I hate scrambled words?

The word was “upstairs.” I have since been given the URL for AnagramFun.com, which would indeed unscramble any collection of letters you insert into whatever word or words can be derived from them.

Mr. Baker says that he is not the baker, and that the carpenter is not Mr. Carpenter; but since Mr. Baker is talking to the carpenter, he is not the carpenter either. (I don’t know—they don’t allow that Mr. Baker might be mistaken; and they don’t allow that he might talk to himself. But I suppose in logic puzzles things have to be logical, even if they aren’t realistic.) He must therefore be the cook. Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Cook are therefore the baker and the carpenter, but since Mr. Carpenter is not the carpenter he must be the baker, and thus the carpenter is Mr. Cook. But perhaps the answer is as confusing as the question.

Previous article: My North Wall.
Next article: Over My Shoulder.

Faith in Play #40: Harry Potter Series Follow-up

This is Faith in Play #40:  Harry Potter Series Follow-up, for March 2021.

This was originally published as an entry in the Blogless Lepolt web log at Gaming Outpost under the title Opinion Vindicated, and recently recovered thanks to Regis Pannier of the French edition of Places to Go, People to Be.


Many of you will by now have seen the news that J. K. Rowling has stated her heroic and much-revered character Dumbledore is “gay.”  Already I have been asked about this, and I will be giving my answer here in a moment.  What interests me more is her revelation, more quietly reported, that the entire Harry Potter series is, and has always been, a Christian story.  Rowling kept this “secret” close to her breast while dealing each book, as she feared giving it away too soon would lead readers to guess the end before they reached it.  This pleases me.  I’m not the only person to have noticed the Christian influences in the Harry Potter series, and I’m certainly not the most vocal of those defending it, but I have taken a stand in defense of the stories as part of my unofficial position as defender of Christian fantasy in the modern world.  Having her say what I have been saying is rewarding.

On the other report, over on MySpace, a mysterious friend through a friend who often asks me odd questions, Dr. Jack Centipede, asked me my opinion of the report.  My comment there was truncated—apparently I failed to keep to some unstated word limit imposed by MySpace—so I am going to copy what was saved and attempt to complete it here.

I don’t want to say that an author is wrong about her own character, so what I’ll say instead is, I don’t see it.

There is something of a pernicious error which grew in the twentieth century, which holds that two men who care about each other and who bond with each other are therefore homosexuals.  C. S. Lewis complained about this, saying (I think in The Four Loves) that when you have these close friendships, that “philos” “brotherly love,” someone will say that of course they are “really” homosexual—and that what you feel is pity for the one who says this, because it suggests that he has never known real friendship.  It is quite possible for men to care about each other without being homosexual, but in our age every effort is made to characterize such relationships as homosexual, because those in homosexual relationships want to be able to claim that their relationships are “normal.”

I see nothing in Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald that indicates it to be more than a very close friendship, the kind of friendship I have had rarely in my life.  Dumbledore is not gay, but caring and sensitive and eager to know people and to forge relationships with them.  It is not the same thing.

Let me make two more points on this, briefly.

First, if Dumbledore is gay, then any man who has ever felt a close connection, a bond of sincere friendship and mutual interest, with any other man, is also gay.  I think—indeed, I would hope—that that would be all men everywhere.  By this definition, then, every man is gay; and if that is so, then the category is meaningless, and no man is.

Second, it is significant in my mind that the same is not said about women.  We assume that women forge these dear and close friendships with other women, and that this says nothing about their sexuality.  It is only when men forge such relationships that this becomes “homosexual” or “gay.”

This puts men in a lose-lose situation.  On the one hand, we are accused of being cold, uncaring, unemotional, self-centered and self-interested, failing to bond with others, failing to share our true feelings.  On the other hand, should we venture to warm, care, emote, reach out to and bond with others, and share our true feelings, we are suddenly branded as “gay.”  You can’t have it both ways.  Either it is quite normal for people—men and women—to have caring relationships with each other, or it is always abnormal for anyone—man or woman—to care about a member of the same sex.

Thus I think Rowling has fallen into the trap of assuming that her character Dumbledore must have been gay because he cared deeply for and about another man.  I care deeply for and about my father, my uncles, my cousins, my brothers, and my sons; that does not make me gay—nor does it make me gay if I also care deeply about friends who happen to be guys.  What’s a guy to do, anyway? After all, if I, as a married man, care deeply about other men, I am labeled “gay;” but if I care deeply about other women, I am labeled “lecherous.”  The only kind of man we will accept as manly is the one who doesn’t care for anyone but himself, and that’s not the kind of man we need in this life.

From there I commented on the Christian connections of the book, including the above news link, but since I’ve already done that here I won’t repeat it.

There are a dozen things I am supposed to be doing right now, I suppose, but rather than attempt to list them here, I’m going to attempt to do them, and maybe tell you about them tomorrow.  The gout persists, flaring up overnight, but calming a bit as I work; I wonder to what degree the constriction of my feet within my shoes is reducing the pain.


Previous article:  Of Aliens and Elves.
Next article:  Faith.

RPG-ology #39: My North Wall

This is RPG-ology #39:  My North Wall, for February 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.  This was not one of them, but the unearthing of about two thirds of the articles complete plus other partials has led to the decision to run as many of the series as we can in as close to the original sequence as possible.

We have skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; the second and third, An Amusing Dungeon and Transmats, have already appeared.  This was the fourth in the series.  Others which have already been republished will be noted but skipped.


I’m looking for world ideas.  I’m always coming back to that.  I’ve got books to write, games to run.  For every idea someone promises to prepare for publication, I need another one lined up in case it doesn’t come through.  So I’m looking for world ideas much of the time.

Right now I happen to be looking for them in my office.  But they’re here—you just have to know how to look.

The room is a mess.  I’d like to tell you that it’s because I’m still moving in, and I could get away with that as it is true.  For the last couple of years I’ve had office materials in two places, and everything from one of them is here—but the other houses two file cabinets and many boxes of books and papers which will have to find a place here.  But the truth is that I’m a messy sort of person, and have been so since I was very young.  I read an article thirty years ago that mentioned that creative people preferred a degree of clutter, and I’ve armed myself with that as a defense ever since.  I’ve a pretty good idea in which of these piles to look for anything from world maps to bank statements.  Still, I should put some of this away.

Across the room I see four mugs on top of a cabinet.  The cabinet will eventually house some of those books and papers.  I’ve never done a world about corporations and businesses; but who would want to play in such a place?  The mugs are of more interest to me.  The first was a Christmas present from one of my kids; it’s one of those Coca-cola™ mugs with the playful polar bears on it.  I’ve done an ice age world; it should be published soon.  My second son has written a sketch of a world with intelligent animals and dumb humans—not really an original idea; Jonathan Swift did a good job with that, but it has potential.  I don’t see combining the two ideas, at least not at present.  And those bears would make for a bit of comic relief, but not a world.

The second mug has been mine for a long time.  I’ve had my coffee in it at late night games for as long as I can remember, took it with me when I was teaching cub scouts, and keep it in my room so that no one will break it.  I’m surprised it’s lasted so long.  It’s got a Magellan age map on it, and says Captain.  I don’t think I’ve done a good swashbuckler yet—a merchant sailing adventure of that period, yes, but I could do something on the order of Captain Blood, where the pirates are the misunderstood heroes.

The third mug was another gift, an “I love you” mug from one of my younger sons.  It’s really very Valentines and Lace.  I remember playing in a game in which my character fell in love with a non-player character; and I remember running a game in which one of the players went actively seeking a wife.  Come to think of it, there have been a lot of romantic interludes over the years, from the time Marsonian rescued Lemunda the Lovely to the time Chris married Olivia in The Dancing Princess and Bill asked Blake’s 7‘s Cali to be his bride.  But I’ve never tried to do a setting in which romance was the focus.  I’ll have to give that more thought.

The fourth mug is navy blue, almost black, slightly marbled.  I bought this one for myself, because I really liked the color.  From here, it’s just a dark mug on top of the cabinet—hardly a fount of inspiration.  Yet it immediately reminds me of Tristan’s Labyrinth, an underground maze with no exits and no lights.  Darkness can be an important element in a setting.  A world entirely in darkness presents its own challenges.  Of course, as with the labyrinth, the creatures who are native to that world would not rely on sight, or at least not in the same sense as we do.  It would only be interesting if the player characters come from another world, one in which light is abundant, and have to negotiate the darkness.  In Tristan’s Labyrinth there were walls, and if you had no light you could navigate by feel through the darkness.  Perhaps I could do darkness again, this time without walls.

There is a window fan tossed up on the cabinet behind the mugs.  I just finished an underground world with giant exhaust fans providing circulation, so that’s the first thing it brings to mind.  Is there something else I can do with fans?  I vaguely recall some underwater science fiction piece in which huge impellers drew water into conduits.  An underwater setting has special problems, although you can do it sort of like the Mars of Total Recall, limited biosphere containments on the ocean floor.

The TV is next to the cabinet; it’s on top of my son’s dresser, which is in here until I can get the extra hardware to put his bunk bed together in his room.  The dresser itself has an almost colonial look to it, suggesting a foray into an historic game.  The juxtaposition with the television and VCR stacked on top creates an impression of an eclectic technology, a world in which the old and the new coexist; and I wonder whether they do so in harmony or tension.

There is a painting tossed up on the wall behind the TV, partly obscured.  It landed here because it had to go somewhere, and there was a nail in the wall there.  It was a wedding gift from the artist, Bernice Wurst; I’m told she is one of New Jersey’s outstanding artists today, but I still think of her as the lady who lived around the corner and had coffee with my mother once in a while.  And I always remember the Halloween night when she came to the door convincingly made up as a Chinese waiter.  (At ten years old, I did not recognize her; but my mother didn’t either, and thought she was a boy, so it was a convincing disguise.)  But none of that is in the picture, as useful as it might be.

The painting is a still life, flowers in a vase.  I’m not a florist, but they look to me like mums, mostly in orange and yellow, with a splash of red and leaves in several shades of green down to almost brown.  It’s the sort of painting style which is somewhere between realism and impressionism—I see carnations, but if I look more carefully I realize that there are no petals in the puffs, just splashed on highlights and paint texturing.  In another context some of them would be popcorn balls or cotton candy.  And there is something very strange about this picture.  It hung on our walls for years; and then one day my wife asked if that leprechaun had always been sitting in the middle of it.  I looked and looked, and finally I saw the profile of a pink and white face, the brown hair and sideburns, the green-suited body with arms and legs, seated on one of the flowers as on an ottoman.  I had never seen him before; but now he is the first thing that catches my eye whenever I see the picture.  I suspect that you would not see him the first time you looked at the picture; but that if once you saw him he would be obvious.

As I think about that hidden leprechaun, it reminds me that you can often hide things in plain sight; misdirection is one of the best tools for building suspense.

I once ran some early episodes of Blake’s 7 as a Multiverser game.  One of them has a wonderful piece of misdirection that worked like a charm.  The crew boards a spaceship that seems to be in distress, finds the crew drugged and the pilot dead.  They begin sorting through the disorder, and find that the pilot scrawled something with his blood on a piece of panel.  In preparing for the game, I carefully etched the awkward wavy lines to a blank sheet of unlined paper.  This became my piece of panel.  I pulled it out and looked at it, and in character read off the squiggles as a number while handing it to the player, asking his character whether that meant anything to him.  It did not.  The adventure continues, the player has that sheet of paper with that number on it the entire time, and he tries to solve the mystery—who killed the pilot and placed the gas in the ventilation system?  Why did they do it?

But those squiggles aren’t numbers; they’re letters.  They spell the name of the killer.  As soon as someone points that out, it’s obvious—but because I told him what number it was, the player only saw the number, no matter how many times he looked at it. He was trying to figure out what the number meant, not what the squiggles meant.

There’s a speaker in the corner, part of the last bit of musical equipment I ever bought, a P.A. system. I had my computer running through it a while ago, and the audio feed from the VCR still does.  There are a lot of good stories you can do in the music world, but you have to start with a character who is a musician.  In Sliders, Rembrandt Brown was in a world where his other self was a huge success (and in an irony that probably rang deeply with a lot more than musicians, his success was credited to the fact that he went left where our Rembrandt went right).  My Multiverser player character also met a self who had become a star.  Not every character, not every player, is right for such a story.  But it reminds me that some of the best stories are built on the lives of the players, the “might have beens” that they missed, and an exploration of what that could have meant.

I’ve finished one wall.  There were quite a few ideas there, if you knew how to see them.  I’ve got three more walls I could do, and more things in the middle of the room.  The house has seven rooms and a hall upstairs, three or four (depending on how you count them) downstairs, so I could find many more ideas here.  I could keep going.

But I think I’ll let you look at your walls instead.

Previous article:  Polyglot.
Next article:  Aptrusis.

Faith in Play #39: Of Aliens and Elves

This is Faith in Play #39:  Of Aliens and Elves, for February 2021.


Fantasy and science fiction are riddled with races.  Star Trek offers Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, Bajorans, and a host of others.  Dungeons & Dragons gives us multiple varieties of Elves, Dwarfs, Gnomes, and Halflings, just for starters, and keeps going from there.  Even Harry Potter gave us the giants and the centaurs and the house elves.  It is inherent in fantasy and science fiction that there are intelligent beings who aren’t human.

This, though, gives us a theological problem:  how do they fit into the plan of salvation?

One possible answer is that they don’t.  In original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons humans and quite a few demihumans had souls and could be resurrected, returned to life in the same body.  Elves, however, did not have souls and could not be resurrected.  Instead, they had spirits and could be reincarnated as some other creature.  There is an implication that humans have an afterlife on the Outer Planes, but elves do not, continuing their lives in the Prime Material Plane perpetually.  Given that, it would follow that elves neither needed nor could receive whatever salvation brought humans into heaven.

A viable alternative is that all the races are in fact related, that by whatever peculiarity the elves are also descendants of the first human, or in the science fiction realm, humanity on earth is descended from a first Adam who was not on earth, and so all intelligent life in the universe is similarly connected through that one ancestor.  In one of his short stories, Ray Bradbury suggested that after ascending into the clouds Jesus kept going to carry His message to other planets.  Perhaps the connection is such that the gospel applies to all intelligent life forms.

It has been suggested (by C. S. Lewis) that perhaps humanity is the only intelligent life that is lost and in need of saving, or most lost and most in need of saving, and so the rest of the universe is safe because it never fell.  St. Paul would seem to think otherwise, but he doesn’t talk about it much so it could be overlooked.

I confess I don’t have an answer to this with which I am fully comfortable.  I do think that because it is fiction we can skirt the issue a bit—after all, fictional characters aren’t really lost or saved, even when we say they are.  They are only illustrations of being lost or saved.  If in our fictional world our soteriology stretches to cover some we would have difficulty covering in our real world, that’s part of what fiction is about:  exploring what might be.

As always, I am interested in your solutions to this problem.


Previous article:  Places of Worship.
Next article:  Harry Potter Series Follow-up.

RPG-ology #38: Polyglot

This is RPG-ology #38:  Polyglot, for January 2021.


I was going to call this article I Speak Jive, but it just happens that earlier this week I was chatting with someone about movies and he suggested that a movie could not get away with that joke today.  Given the recent clime (I am writing this the summer before it publishes, because I like to stay ahead of schedule on my deadlines) I decided that maybe I could mention it, but I couldn’t use it for the title.

It is important to mention, though, because it illustrates the problem being addressed here.  How do you communicate in a world in which many languages are spoken?  Last month I wrote about inscriptions, and gave a link to a table of one hundred sixty-nine identifiable recognized languages in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I won’t swear I got them all.  At any moment a character’s life might depend on his ability to talk to someone, or something, that doesn’t happen to speak the same language.  What are the options?  Complicating it further, even people who speak the same language can have trouble understanding each other.  There are jokes about Scotsman, Irishmen, and Welshmen speaking English to Englishmen, and when you mix in Yorkshire, Liverpool, and the East End of London, you wind up with the beginnings of a new Tower of Babel.  Indeed, Chinese may be the same written language, but those who speak the various dialects from different parts of the country are incomprehensible to each other.

The “common language” of the Dungeons & Dragons world is not so absurd as we might think.  The Greeks conquered a substantial part of eastern Europe and the Middle East, and when the Romans took over that territory, the Greek language became established as the language of trade throughout what they called the civilized world.  Still, although most even modestly educated people were at least trilingual (their native language, the commercial language Greek, and law language Latin), there were many who spoke only the local tongue, and as with Americans traveling in Europe you might suddenly find yourself faced with someone who doesn’t have a clue how to speak English, and doesn’t understand even when you speak it loudly and slowly.  Not everyone speaks common.

Star Trek resolved the issue by giving everyone “universal translators,” implanted in the ears, which automatically converted anything anyone said to the language of the listener.  Of course, from time to time the travelers encountered people whose language was too alien for the translator to render, and Spock had to do a computer analysis of the new language and reprogram the devices to handle it.  Not everyone speaks a language the device can translate.

Historically the solution has been to find interpreters, persons who speak more than one language and can translate what each party says to the language of the other.  This is tricky.  My high school French teacher commented once that she could get around Paris quite comfortably, but if her car broke down she would be clueless concerning how to talk about the distributor.

There’s a joke about gangsters questioning a foreigner about the location of some loot they had stolen.  They found a translator, who put the question to the prisoner.  “I don’t want to die,” he said.  “It’s not worth it.  The million dollars is in a suitcase behind the basement furnace at 1212 Delancy Street.”  The interpreter turned to the gangsters and said, “He says, you can kill me if you want, I’m never going to tell you what you want to know.”  Interpreters are not always reliable.

My sister speaks three languages—English, French, and Chinese—well enough that she worked as a United Nations translator for a while, but she sometimes gets thrown by words that are apparently not uncommon.  Still, multi-lingual interpreters are the go-to for communication between those who don’t speak a common language.

Even when they do, sometimes an interpreter or two is needed to avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that arise when neither party speaks the shared language well.


Previous article:  It’s Greek to Me.
Next article:  My North Wall.

Faith in Play #38: Places of Worship

This is Faith in Play #38:  Places of Worship, for January 2021.


As a boy I several times went to summer camp at Camp Lebanon (in Lebanon, New Jersey).  One of its more memorable aspects was a chapel in the woods known as The Green Cathedral (pictured).  To me there always seemed something providential about the place—a perfectly flat open space was surrounded about three-quarters of the way by cliff walls, highest opposite the opening; people had added crude benches, a lectern or pulpit, and a simple cross, but regulars would point out that there was a natural cross in the cracks of the rock of the cliff face directly behind the wooden one.  It was one of the few places I’ve been in my life which seemed to have that air of the holy, that feeling that this place was in some sense sanctified, set apart for God.

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That was not, though, the first place that came to mind when I thought of places of worship.  I rather thought of the great cathedrals and mosques of Europe and the Middle East.  Then as soon as I thought of them, I was reminded that in the far east it is much more common to have tiny shrines, buildings so small the worshiper cannot enter but simply stands in front making his prayers.  In Dungeons & Dragons, the druids have less than that, groves in the forests.

There was something grove-like about that chapel in the woods at camp, something almost druidic.  Sitting alone in a place like that, it was perhaps easy to understand the nature religions.

I didn’t have to wonder why the west built such huge stone buildings as places of worship and the east tended not to do so.  There were three reasons why large buildings were constructed in the west that didn’t apply in the east, and understanding the religions in your game world will help you understand what kinds of religious buildings you need, and where.

The first and obvious reason why large buildings were constructed in the west is that the religions of the west—and I’m including Islam along with Christianity and Judaism—involved and indeed required gathering.  In some places it was a crime not to attend regular services, and at least a sin in many others.  That meant large numbers of people coming together at regular times, and without regard for weather conditions, making large buildings necessary.  The more densely packed the local population, the bigger the building had to be.  It was also valuable to make them sturdy enough that repairs would not be required as often.

In the East, faith was more a private and personal thing.  Large gatherings were uncommon.  You went to the holy place to bring your offering and make your prayer, and you left; sometimes you spoke to a holy person who attended the shrine.  If you encountered someone else there when you arrived, you probably waited respectfully for them to finish so you could start.  They didn’t need a building for that.

The second reason should not be discounted.  We might call it ostentation, but should not suggest thereby that it was a bad thing.  The people building these gathering places wanted them to be beautiful, wanted the world to know that they loved their God or gods and were willing to make financial sacrifices to give the best, most beautiful, building possible.  The Gothic arches in cathedrals of that period had pointed tops, accompanying tall spires, all of which pointed to heaven.  They were designed to say, see how much we love our God.

Whoever built the shrine in the East might have been known or recognized for having done so, but in the main it was done for his personal use and shared with others.  Perhaps a significant sum was spent on it, but there was no competition, no need to be particularly ostentatious.  A small building was sufficient.

The third reason for these buildings, though, was defense.  Nations were frequently at war even with themselves.  Don’t be fooled by the hype—the wars weren’t usually about religion, but about territory and sovereignty.  Religion was just a side issue often used as a rallying cry.  Yet because it was an issue, religious leaders had to defend themselves and their people.  Even monasteries would have walled enclosures and defensible gates, and would bring in the peasants when soldiers were known to be approaching.  Princes would help build cathedrals that doubled as fortresses—after all, if you’re going to spend that much money on one large solid building, it ought to do more than one thing, and these buildings did many things, but one of them was provide a last line of defense against invaders.  Some invaders had the respect not to attack a church, but some did not, so defense was necessary.

In the East, no one cared, really, whether you were particularly religious or which religions you believed.  Even today worshipers can be syncretic, following the practices of several religions, and no one thinks they are being unfaithful to one just because they also adopt another.  Conquerors didn’t care about the shrines or the religious leaders or the faith of the people; they were just there for the land and the tribute.

Obviously there are religious buildings sized between the huge cathedrals of the Western cities and the tiny shrines of the Oriental countryside—but the size of the building is to some degree a measure of these factors:  does it have to provide a meeting place for worshipers, such as a synagogue?  Will it be ostentatious, such as a mosque or Greek temple?  Does it have to be defensible, such as a monastery?  Answer those questions, and you’ll be closer to knowing what kind of religious building you need.

And maybe it’s just a grotto in the woods with a few benches, a lectern, and a religious symbol.


Previous article:  Balancing on the Corner.
Next article:  Of Aliens and Elves.

2020 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

The year 2020 surprised all of us, as we scrambled to make life work under entirely different conditions.  However, the viral impact on our web site was minimal, as although we slowed down a bit we continued providing what we hope are valuable quality articles on gaming and faith.  Last December we published 2019 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous year and so maintaining a continuous index of sorts working back through the previous Thirteen Months in Review covering a bit more than all of 2018 and Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website covering 2016 and most of 2017.  I am now attempting once again to summarize another a calendar year of material, for those who missed something or want to find something they remember.

Again January opened with a new Faith in Play article, and we got a full year from the series:

  1. #26:  Fields to Harvest January 7, 2020, noting that Christian ministries to the “geek” community still have work to do.
  2. #27:  Believing Balance February 4, 2020 continues the miniseries on Dungeons & Dragons alignment with a consideration of neutrality.
  3. #28:  Vampires March 3, 2020 considers the metaphorical value of the undead.
  4. #29:  Victims April 7, 2020, explores what it is to be a dependent character, and the importance of such characters not only in our games but in our lives.
  5. #30:  Conflict May 5, 2020, looks at Dungeons & Dragons as a metaphor for spiritual warfare.
  6. #31:  Magic Roads June 2, 2020 discusses the notion of roads that don’t go where you expect unless you go the right way, and connects it to divine guidance.
  7. #32:  Zealots July 7, 2020 continues the alignment miniseries with a look at the side alignments.
  8. #33:  Psionics August 4, 2020 reopens the issue of mind powers in fiction in response to questions and comments from a reader.
  9. #34:  Guidance and the Machine September 1, 2020 looks at the show Person of Interest as instruction about how God guides us.
  10. #35:  Seekers October 6, 2020 considers what to do about friends who are looking for “real” magic.
  11. #36:  Thanks November 3, 2020 talks about thanksgiving celebration and thanks the readers for their ongoing support and encouragement.
  12. #37:  Balancing on the Corner December 1, 2020, finishes the alignment series with a look at how those with corner alignments have to juggle two values.

Two weeks behind that the RPG-ology series also continued:

  1. #26:  Monster Design January 21, 2020 reprints a Game Ideas Unlimited article about what makes a good monster.
  2. #27:  Cures for Dropping Dice February 18, 2020 gives some practical suggestions for keeping the dice on the table.
  3. #28:  Character Death March 17, 2020 talks about the death of the player character and how to handle it.
  4. #29:  Political Correction April 21, 2020 argues that in fiction and games particularly we need to have freedom of speech.
  5. #30:  Story-based Mapping May 19, 2020 suggests that the best way to start a map for a game is to begin where the characters are and work out as needed.
  6. #31:  Screen Wrap June 16, 2020 reposts the Game Ideas Unlimited article about using teleportation to create confusing map sections.
  7. #32:  Doing Something July 21, 2020 suggests how to use odd objects to enhance story by figuring out what they are later.
  8. #33:  Flirting August 18, 2020 recalls a lost article about using role playing to learn about ourselves.
  9. #34:  Invisible Coins September 15, 2020 reproduces a slightly edited version of the Game Ideas Unlimited article, about a valuable illusionist technique.
  10. #35:  Believable Nonsense October 20, 2020 recalls the ideas from a Game Ideas Unlimited article about superstitions and how to work them into play.
  11. #36:  Phionics November 17, 2020 suggesting a category of special abilities that are neither magical nor mental, but reflect the extraordinary body skills of the contortionist.
  12. #37:  It’s Greek to Me December 15, 2020 talks about inscriptions and decorations on magic items.

Although it hardly counts as an article, I also posted Worship Service at Gen Con 2020 Game Fair, announcing the online virtual event which Dave Mattingly organized and hosted on our behalf.

Michael Garcia opened the year on January 14, 2020, with a wonderfully detailed study of Sewers and Such, everything you could need to know to run an adventure in these urban dungeons.  COVID suspended his gaming, so we didn’t get tales of the adventures for a while.  However, he did give us a four-part tutorial in how to design one-shot adventures:

  1. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 1 on July 14, 2020, in which he explores the basic starting point for the task;
  2. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 2 on August 11, 2020, in which he talks about detailing the adventure;
  3. Prep for Single-Session Adventures on September 8, 2020, in which he talks about final preparations;
  4. Running the Single-Session Adventure on September 22, 2020, in which he covers actual game play matters.

He followed this with Tough Choices Make for a Good Game, on October 13, with a holiday-themed adventure, Spreading Yuletide Fear:  A Dark Holiday-themed Adventure, on November 24, and some adventure design advice to finish the year in Designing Deeper Adventures.

Matthew Butler returned with Tales of a D&Degenerate: Volume 2, on June 9, 2020, and The First Line of Offense, August 25, 2020, continuing his humorous look at his gaming experience.

We were honored to be permitted to reprint “Geek Preacher” Derek White‘s article from Knights of the Dinner Table, Quiet in the Convention Center, about gaming conventions providing facilities and services for handicapped and autistic attendees.

Grade school religion teacher Nikolaj Bourguignon brings his experience using games in the classroom to a new series, Roll for Teaching, beginning with:

  1. Hi class. Nice to meet you all! on July 28, 2020, in which he introduces himself and a few of the games he finds best for use with grade school students.
  2. Goals on December 8, 2020, in which he discusses why we are playing, and how to keep that in focus.

Guild President Rodney Barnes brought us Complex Firearms for D20 Games on September 29, 2020, followed a month later on October 27 with Starfinder Stuff for Pathfinder Second Edition.

Lance McClintock approached us to introduce a Christian game he was designing, and we invited him to explain to us what makes a game Christian.  He gave us Christian Game-ism in response, published November 10.

Over a decade ago Scott Bennie drafted an article for us entitled Christianity and Role-Playing Games:  Toward Reconciliation, which slipped through the cracks until late this year when our webmaster found it and published it as Christianity and Role-Playing Games, on December 29.

We expect to follow at least some of these authors into the new year.  In fact, already we have Faith and Gaming and RPG-ology articles standing by.

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

Christianity and Role-Playing Games

In September 2006, Christian Gamers Guild member Scott Bennie posted several drafts of this article to the guild group mailing list.  It appears not to have made it to the web site, an oversight which is being addressed presently.


Christianity and Role-Playing Games: Toward Reconciliation

The price of living in grace is that we must examine ourselves in heart, soul, and mind to determine whether the things we do and the activities that we love are right with God, whether they support or hinder us in the spiritual journey of our lives.

I have an activity that many Christians associate with decidedly un-Christian behavior. I play role-playing games. I’ve been engaged in the role-playing hobby, off and on, for close to 30 years. Back in 1977, when nobody had ever heard of them except for a few college students, I played a cleric in an AD&D game at a Vancouver Science-fiction convention. I’d loved fantasy literature ever since I was 5, when I snuck a peek at my brother’s copy of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The lure of pretending to be an adventurer, seeking his fortune against monsters in perilous dungeons and caverns, rolling strange dice, proved irresistible. That my first adventurer’s career lasted a mere twenty minutes (during his first encounter with a monster, my character was bitten by a giant rat and bled to death on the spot) was irrelevant. I was hooked.

The Testament RPG by Scott Bennie

Over the next few years, I picked up more and more gaming material and joined a few gaming groups. My second character lasted much longer than my first: years longer. I went to university and met quite a few gamers there, and I eventually started writing in the field. My first article was published in 1981, and over the years I went on to write many more supplements and books. Twenty-five years later, I’m still gaming (mostly superheroes and 1930s pulp adventure games now). It’s fun, it’s an emotional release, and it’s (still) a great way to spend time with friends.

I was a Christian long before I was a gamer. I was born into a family which, while not the most religious, still respected religious traditions and felt we should be exposed to them. I attended a Mennonite Brethren Church throughout my childhood and early teens and accepted Christ as my savior when I was 5. When I first started gaming in 1977, no one in the Church knew about gaming. It was only until about three years after I started gaming that religious leaders started speaking out against it.

I viewed gaming as a positive thing. Yes, there were demons and dragons and monsters in it. Those were the bad guys, the creatures my characters were fighting in the game world. Yes, there were spells in the game. These spells were game rules meant solely to alter the game environment or affect imaginary characters; they resembled the real world occult as much as a Chance card in Monopoly resembles an actual business deal (which is to say, not at all). There was a huge disconnect between the games I was playing and the games that church leaders were warning against in extremely graphic terms. People claimed that the games would lead me down a path to demonic possession, homosexuality, and suicide. My reaction was “Huh?” For the most part, I was just someone who enjoyed pretending to be a hero, going to war with the bad guys, and doing classic hero. Never once did I feel that my soul was ever at risk in a game or that I was doing anything evil. I wasn’t the only Christian gamer who felt that way.

Even so, I understand the problems that many Church leaders have with elements of the games. The world of fantasy is steeped in myth, mysticism, and the occult, and gamers are exposed to those forces. In my experience, however, the instances where Christian gamers are attracted by those elements of gaming to the point that they abandon their faith to engage in occult worship range from non-existent to (at best) unlikely. Nonetheless, we are commanded to scrutinize what we do. “Let us examine our ways and test them,” Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:40, “and let us return to the LORD.” The Bible has many passages that advise us to avoid corrupt activities and stay true to the Lord. If gaming is important in a Christian’s life, they’re obliged not to play it mindlessly but to be mindful of its impact on their lives.

What I’m hoping to do in this essay is to challenge both sides in this controversy. I want Christian gamers to honestly challenge their gaming habits and make sure that when you defend your activity, you’re doing it from a position of righteousness and in a spirit of correction. For non-gaming Christians who are worried about gaming, I want you to consider the good that Christians can do in the gaming world, the harm that unfounded and reckless accusations can do to someone’s faith, and appreciate that some people are drawn to appreciate myth for righteous and Godly reasons, working toward His purposes. Too many people have been hurt by the conflict between the Church and gamers; it’s well past the time to end this.

Dubious Content

In the 1980s, role-playing games were first brought to the attention of the popular media by the sensation surrounding the disappearance of a young student named Dallas Egbert III. The reaction from many churches to role-playing games was unmitigated horror. Games where people pretended to be people who ran around hacking other people to pieces with swords? People worshiping pagan deities? People who ran around with books of spells and were involved in occult rituals?

We were actually playing a game of make-believe that combined board game elements with improvisational theater. Unfortunately, “make-believe” is not nearly as sensational as “suicidal demon worship!” and even Christians aren’t immune from sensationalism and media hype. Repeat a claim often enough, and it will eventually be accepted, even by smart people with good moral character. Thus, a lot of Christians came to associate Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs with real-world occult practices.

The spirit of the times only exacerbated the situation. The 1970s and 80s were a time when a lot of occult-based crimes were being covered in the media spotlight, so there was a natural tendency in religious circles to connect the two, a dreadful convergence where the church was ready to pounce on anything even remotely occult, and fantasy gamers got caught in the crossfire. Furthermore, the link between D&D and suicides made by organizations like Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons or the National Coalition on Television Violence only reinforced the assertions in the public imagination. That actual witches denied that D&D was their gateway into the occult was irrelevant.[1] That each suicide case was thoroughly examined and the role of RPGs was seen (at best) to be a secondary factor in comparison to the victims’ other emotional problems—and that every judge who ever heard the “D&D Defense” in a court of law gave it less credibility than Twinkies—was conveniently ignored by every one of its detractors, who were determined to sell their viewpoint regardless of contrary facts. Within gaming, a siege mentality developed. Organized Christianity became the enemy.

Even among some believers, Christian churches were seen as a hostile force that needed to be fought against, not corrected. Gamers who played heroic paladins heard stories of how gaming was nothing but demon worship; one televangelist program even dramatized an anecdote where game books shrieked demonically as a dutiful Christian parent burned them. What were Christians whose games didn’t even remotely resemble an actual occult ceremony to think? Gaming is (as mentioned earlier) pretend. If you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons (or most fantasy games), you don’t actually wear a robe, mutter an incantation, draw a magic circle, or sacrifice an animal. You say “my character casts a [Fill in the blank] spell,” and then the dungeon master describes an effect that happens in the game world. Sometimes, games have an illustration of a pentagram or other symbols, but that’s usually as close as most D&D players get to the actual occult. Unlike your daily horoscope or Ouija, role-playing games make no claims that they affect the real world. Gamers would laugh at them if they did. Most Christians who are used to gaming look at the illustrations and ignore them. Anyone who bought a D&D book hoping to learn how to perform actual occult rituals would probably return it to the store the next day and angrily accost the salesperson for selling them a defective handbook. Role-playing games are fantasy.

As time has passed since the controversies of the 1980s, and more and more people have become exposed to games, the attitude in the church has evolved from hysteria to hostility or (at best) an uneasy tolerance. Christian gamers feel uncomfortable discussing their hobby with members of their congregation. Some have left congregations and even abandoned careers in ministry because of this hostility. The schism is still present. Since we Christians are commanded to unity, this begs the question: how do we bring them together?

The Bad Stuff

For Christian gamers who are used to getting defensive when our church talks about gaming, it’s still healthy to ask ourselves whether the detractors have a point.

Let’s be honest. Many long-time gamers like to trumpet the good things about the hobby: the requirement for literacy, math (in some games), historical knowledge, and imagination, and the good times we have had playing them, all of which are true. However, gamers, especially Christians, need to acknowledge the flip side of the coin. There is occult influence here. Some of the things that happen in RPG campaigns are disgusting, and non-gamers can’t be faulted for wondering why players are harboring such sick fantasies.

Examples of really disgusting character behavior are all too plentiful. We’ve all heard about games where the paladin was escorted out of the room so the rest of the party can torture the prisoner—a scene that’s often accompanied by evil chuckling. In our old D&D game, the dissection and mutilation of corpses in fantasy games to get spell components was another source of evil cackling.

In my second time playing Dungeons and Dragons at a science fiction convention back in 1977, I came upon a group of players who had taken casualties battling Ents. It seemed unbelievable for me to imagine Ents, the good wood-giants from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, attacking a group of heroes. “We were evil,” one of the party members explained. My jaw dropped. To me, the idea of not being heroic was inconceivable; heroism and the chance to emulate heroic fiction is what appealed to me about RPGs. Clearly, for some people heroism was not the game’s chief appeal.

While attending university, I knew players in one D&D party whose standard operating procedure when they entered a village was to poison the well water, rape the mayor’s daughter, set the village on fire, then proceed to the next village to repeat the same procedure. They worked for an evil, nihilistic demi-god whose goal was the destruction of the world.

So when a pastor comes up to a member of his congregation, discovers he’s a gamer, and asks “What do you think you’re doing?” it’s probably a good thing to put one’s natural defensiveness aside and try to engage in a real dialogue over the question: with the pastor, with yourself, and with Christ. Do the darker elements of gaming affect you? Does gaming with people who enjoy those darker elements affect you? Is gaming causing you to be exposed to more temptation than you can handle? Is it interfering with your relationship with Jesus? Are there any elements in your game that are a corrupting influence on your life? Does gaming occupy a space in your life that should be reserved for God?

Fantasy and The Great Reality

Non-gamers, however, do need to be open-minded. Exposure to sin is not sin; temptation is not sin; fantasy is not reality. Fantasy, even when its steeped in the mythology of false gods, is not always evil, and believers should be wary of thinking that Christians who enjoy mythology have one foot in Satan’s door. In fact, mythology often points to Christ.

Many Biblical stories have their mythological parallels elsewhere. For example, when Christ goes through the corn (or grain) field in Matthew 12 and permits his followers to take the corn, he might be foreshadowing his role as the risen savior. Although our culture has long forgotten it, in all likelihood Judeans at the time of Christ would be familiar with the mythical legend of the Corn King, a foreign fertility god who died and rose from the dead to symbolize the rebirth of spring from winter. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Christ adopted the role of the true Corn King, ending the long winter of man. Not only was Jesus the answer to Judaic prophecy, he was also the actualization of many pagan beliefs. In Him, the lies and legends of pagan deities like Baal-Hadad, Tammuz, and Osiris became truth, just as they did in the Old Testament with the tales of Leviathan and Behemoth, which were falsely attributed to mythological gods by other cultures, but were true in Yahweh.

The obvious question is: why would God use pagan myths? Some speculate that the enemy purposefully infected foreign mythologies with parallels in the hopes that these would discredit the truth by leading people to think of it as “just another phony legend.” or (if that failed) make it easier for syncretism to gain a foothold and pollute true Christian beliefs. Certainly both have happened. However, when you examine this parallelism in practice, another possibility presents itself. On numerous occasions, we’ve seen missionaries who’ve found elements in the myths of local cultures that mirror Christianity—and successfully used them as a bridge to the truth. Are we to view this as a coincidence? Could not God, who gave numerous prophecies in the Old Testament to herald Christ’s arrival into the Jewish world, knowing His Son would be a Lamp to all peoples, have permitted commonalties to exist within the world’s mythologies so his servants could more easily point the world toward the Truth?

It is folly to draw forced conclusions about the mind of God. However we can point out patterns of His grace in practice. C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity is a perfect example of the usefulness of myth. Lewis came to Christianity through conversations with two Christian friends: J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. While coming to Christianity, Tolkien used the sacrifice of Baldur in Norse mythological stories to illustrate Christ’s sacrifice in a way that Lewis understood. As Tolkien said, while recalling one of the conversations that led to C.S. Lewis’s conversion:

You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word… You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth. We have come from God… and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.

Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer, however shakily, toward the true harbor.[2]

Of course, Lewis soon gave his life to Christ, and what a life it was! The pagan deities of the Norse gods were enemies of God, and their religions persecuted early Christian missionaries. Yet their stories inspired one of the great 20th Century theologians to come to Christ, a person who was responsible for countless conversions. If Tolkien had shunned the stories of Norse mythology because they were pagan and filled with the occult, Lewis’s conversion might never have taken place, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of souls would be lost.

It was truth twisted into a pagan myth that brought Clive Staples Lewis to Jesus. At the risk of oversimplifying his conversion, much of the credit for it belongs to a Christian who was knowledgeable about the mythology, who could untwist it and point Lewis in the right direction.

If one studies Lewis’s work, one sees that one of his greatest gifts as an essayist is his ability to pluck examples, not just from the Bible, but from pagan sources such as Greek and Roman writers, and use them to bolster his arguments. Lewis is a classic example of someone who lived in the world but was not (at least after his conversion) “of the world.” He was familiar with mythology and various writings that we might deem “occult,” but he was certainly no practitioner (though his appreciation of mythology never waned after his conversion, as evidenced by the presence of creatures from Greek mythology in Narnia.) In a similar fashion, many Christian gamers who appreciate mythological-based games are not tempted by the occult or corrupted by exposure to it might provide fellowship and guidance to those who love mythology but have not yet found the Truth behind all truths.

Gaming and the Door

There is but one Door to God, but there are many roads that can lead a person to that Door. Some people find certain roads easier to travel than others. The road of fantastic imagination may not be appreciated by some Christians, yet there’s an irony in this. Many of the symbols of fantasy are intimately wrapped with the enemy’s arts—but they’re also steeped in the Biblical. Magic? The Bible contains magic and miracles, the divinely sanctioned flow of the supernatural into our world. Monsters? What of demons, Leviathan, or Behemoth? Outer planes? What of heaven and hell? Heroes and villains? Look at the Old Testament! Good and evil as moral absolutes? Have we got a Book for you…

Many of the elements of role-playing games might be seen as gateways to the occult, but they can also point to Christ! Has not the enemy attempted to subvert and mock God’s symbols and power since the beginning? However, those who understand the symbols, at least in the pastime of gaming, are primed as few others to find God. If fantasy and mythology are twistings of the truth (and I’d contend they’re far more), a little guidance can untwist them and point gamers in the right direction. This is why it’s important for Christians who understand and appreciate myth to be involved in gaming with non-Christians. The occult is the enemy’s method of usurping the worship that rightfully belongs to God and to wrap himself in the symbols that rightfully belong to God.

In some cases, the enemy has done a really good job. For instance, many of the symbols that are associated with the occult, such as the tarot, originated with medieval Christianity. And how many modern horror movies steal elements from Judeo-Christian beliefs, but somehow fail to include little things like Christian redemption? How many movies fear Satan without any sign of Christ? How the enemy loves to co-opt Christian symbols!

Recently, scholars determined that the long-held belief that the Number of the Beast was 666 was based on a mistranscription: the true number is 616. When asked whether they’d change the number, a prominent Satanist answered: “As long as 666 pisses off Christians, that’s the number we’re using.” Note that the Satanist wasn’t interested in factual accuracy for his “religion.” His sole interest was in appropriating a Christian symbol for his own use. He wanted power to turn a reference in the Word of God into something that supported his personal corruption and hatred for the organized Christian faith.

We need to treat myth and fantasy and the imagination as one of the battlefields of the Christian faith, and take it back. Christians at work in those fields need less judgment and more support from fellow believers.

In, But Not Of

We all have to live in the world, and because of this, we’re all exposed to worldly influences. Some Christians are good at going into worldly situations and not being adversely affected. Other Christians should avoid them all costs. In the book of Ephesians, Paul refers to the necessity for Christians to wear the Armor of God while in the world. Applied here, the Armor of God might refer to the gift that allows a Christian to go into the world and resist its corruption, thanks to the power of their faith, and draw out useful examples from the world that brings people to Christ and edifies them in their Christian journey. Clearly, Lewis and Tolkien were blessed with this gift. Some people have a very strong shield of faith. It may be difficult for a non-gaming Christian to identify and appreciate those who possess this special strength when it leads them into unfamiliar and even dangerous waters, however, this doesn’t mean they don’t possess it. This doesn’t mean that we should embrace exposure to sin, or that sin cannot corrupt even the strongest of us. Paul and James tell us to shun evil for very good reasons! It does mean that (among other things), by the grace of God, those who wear the Armor of God that go out into the world may find unlikely things to use as His instrument in the salvation of others.

Some people find elements in gaming that mirror Christian themes—Dungeons and Dragons is very concerned with the struggle of good vs. evil—many Christian gamers who play Dungeons and Dragons, myself included, place a heavy emphasis on this timeless struggle. This is how I played D&D in the 1970s and 80s. Subconsciously, I filtered out the parts of Dungeons and Dragons that might have corrupted me and embraced those that supported my faith. Where possible, I tried to live that faith in my characters.

Due to a combination of neglect, misfortune, and corrosion from worldly influences, my faith did falter during the 1990s. Even so, this was not because of my gaming; if anything, RPGs were a bastion that encouraged me to keep holding true to the ethical values that my belief in Christ had given me; there’s no doubt that I’d have fallen sooner if I hadn’t been gaming. Furthermore, when I came back to my faith, it was my fellow gamers (including one of the players involved in that “sick” game group at university that I described earlier) who encouraged me to seek the pastoral help that rescued me.

Paul talks in Romans and 1 Corinthians about meat sacrificed to idols. In the first century world, this was a common source of income for pagan temples, to resell their sacrifices as cheap meat to feed the populace. For much the same reason that people flock to Walmart today, this meat was very popular, however early Christians worried it was sinful. Paul’s reply is highly instructive about how to treat elements of the fallen world. He said (1 Cor 8:1-8) that idols are nothing, and that we can eat food sacrificed to idols, provided they don’t produce a stumbling block for a weaker brother. However, a Christian wasn’t supposed to become so comfortable with the practice that they allowed themselves to become involved in the actual worship of pagan gods and demons (1 Cor 10:18-21). Eating the meat is part of living in the world. Feasting at the pagan temple, on the other hand, is part of joining the fallen world. In a similar way, fantasy is a fancy, without bearing on the real world. Pretending to be a D&D character who casts a spell is, to use Paul’s words, “nothing at all.” Actual occult practices, on the other hand, are an affront to God and must be avoided at all costs.

Most Christian gamers understand this division and game comfortably within it. Some Christian gamers are uncomfortable with these themes; they find ways to avoid them, usually by playing games without those elements. Both approaches are fine. As we’ll see later, the Holy Spirit, which is the best guide to whether we are “in” or “of,” does not lead all gamers down the same path. Unfortunately, many Christians become so terrified of the occult that they’re often quick to break fellowship with gaming believers who’d never go near a genuine occult ceremony under any circumstances, rejecting a useful avenue of ministry in the process. We cannot abandon areas of ministry simply because the enemy has polluted them with a few symbols and gained a foothold. That does not advance God’s purposes. God wants us to be in the world just as adamantly as he wants us not to be of it. Is there any man or woman alive on this earth whose needs God does not want us to meet?

It’s important for Christians who feel drawn to gaming, fantasy and mythology to feel comfortable and supported by their fellow Christians. As mentioned earlier, that does not mean that gaming is without its pitfalls or that the risks are negligible. However, every aspect of modern life holds similar risks.

The Two Minute Warning

As a counterexample, let’s look at the values inherent in professional football. Football is violent, which is clearly a sin. Football’s combative elements are prideful, which is a major sin. Many football teams employ scantily-clad cheerleaders. That’s certainly not a Christian value. Football fans get angry at other teams merely because they’re the opponents, or rail at the lawful authority of a game because they don’t agree with their decisions, and even bring down their wrath on their own teams, merely because they made a mistake. Is that Christian? Television networks use football games to tempt people with commercials that encourage people to indulge in strong drink and covet luxurious possessions. My goodness, what a horrible pastime! To make matters worse, football games are most frequently broadcast on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Could there possibly be a less transparent Satanic plot to corrupt Christian souls?

Yet the point I’m trying to make isn’t that football is evil, though a Christian football fan should question whether the game is more important in his life than Christ. The point is that most Christian football fans are perfectly capable of watching football and cheering for their favorite team without putting their souls even remotely in jeopardy or dishonoring their savior. The armor of God, even when we misstep, is incredibly strong. God is an armor-smith without peer. Even though football is steeped in worldly values, many Christian football players and coaches use the sport as an effective tool for ministry. If we were to be so puritanical that we opposed the pastime (and their ministry) on the grounds that football was ungodly, how many souls would be lost?

Furthermore, concentrating solely on the negative activities of football does it a serious disservice. What are football’s virtues? Football requires determination and self-discipline, which are both positive things. It requires teamwork, another positive thing. The sense of community that a team inspires is a positive. The fellowship that comes when someone learns to respect an opponent is extremely positive. Despite the negatives, football can reflect some very positive Christian values. Christians who are football fans are able to filter out the corrupting influences (sometimes by ignoring them, sometimes by knowing their limitations well enough to change the channel when the world tempts them) and embrace the positive aspects of the game. That’s what Christian gamers do. Either they’ll confine themselves to games that celebrate Christian values, alter other games to be more Christian-friendly, or accept the division between fantasy and reality and not allow it to affect their non-gaming lives.

Everything in the secular world holds some risk for Christians. Although I’ve never heard of a Christian being drawn into actual occult rituals in my thirty years of gaming, there are real risks in gaming too. If a Christian’s faith wavers because it’s being mocked or picked apart by a non-believer at the gaming table (which is, in my experience, the single biggest real challenge that Christian gamers face) or (like the ultra-fanatical football fan) he’s turned his pastime into an obsession which displaces God in importance in his life, correction will be needed. This is best done by other Christian gamers who know him; however, in their absence, friends in the congregation should draw round to support and correct the believer in a spirit of Christian fellowship.

Non-gaming Christians should never treat a gamer as a pariah or gaming as a sickness. Never suggest that a gamer should abandon the pastime. That will often be seen—sometimes correctly—as a knee-jerk reaction. If you see a Christian whose faith might be suffering because of his hobby, draw his attention to your concerns and discuss them calmly, at length. Listen carefully. If, after giving him a fair hearing, you can agree that there are problems, ask if making a few minor changes to his game would correct the problem. If the answer to that question is no, ask him if switching to a gaming group of believers would help.

Only if there’s no other choice should you suggest that the gamer give up the hobby, and even then, suggest that he only do so temporarily, to give him the time and perspective to reflect and spiritually renew himself, so he can come back later with a heart that’s more attuned to the purposes of God. Remember that no one goes to Hell for gaming. We only go to Hell when we don’t have a relationship with our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s that relationship that will bring in the Holy Spirit, and it’s the Holy Spirit that will bring true correction to the believer. Therefore focus on restoring the gamer’s broken relationship with Christ, whereby he’ll experience genuine repentance; don’t try to force a quick “purification” down his throat that runs the risk of driving him from the Church.

Gamers, being as imperfect as the rest of the human race, will inevitably stumble. Even the best of us will make mistakes. How fortunate that we have the benefit of a very forgiving God.

Brian’s Saga

In the mid-1980s, one of my best friends, a man named Brian, played Dungeons and Dragons with our game group, playing a thief and a mage in the same group where I played a holy warrior and a priest. Brian was going through a serious spiritual crisis at the time, and was longing, even though he didn’t realize it, for Jesus. He decided to run a solo adventure for my priest, Eleador, who served the god Auru (whom I’d established as the analog of the real God in our D&D world, in the same spirit that Aslan is the analog of Christ in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia). Brian gave Eleador a special problem: Auru wanted a specific piece of land to serve as a temple, which was controlled by an evil warlord. This was unusual, because in the many years we’d played together, it was maybe the second time that I can recall Brian ever sitting in the GM’s (referee’s) chair.

In a typical Dungeons and Dragons game, the solution to this problem would be to embark on an epic quest: in this case, my character would attack the warlord and seize his land by brute force. This time, however, Eleador chose to employ other methods. He went to the edge of the estate and began preaching to the slaves. He preached of God’s love and mercy, of the hope that people got from worship, and how God wanted to help them. The slaves converted to Eleador’s message. The warlord, seeing a difference in the slaves’ lives, asked to meet the priest who was delivering this message of love and hope. Eleador told the warlord about God, and spoke persuasively. The warlord converted and gave over the estate to serve as a temple.

What was infinitely more important, this adventure demonstrated the power of evangelism to Brian in a way he had never considered before. It was one of the final things he needed to understand in order to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Shortly afterward, he gave his life to Christ.

Salvation through Dungeons and Dragons? If this comes as a surprise, remember Romans 8: 27-29. “And we know that in all things” (emphasis mine) “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” No one should be surprised to find the Lord at work at the gaming table.

Brian did give up gaming; his mage and thief characters had done enough things contrary to his newfound faith that he felt God directing him away from gaming, so he consigned D&D to his pre-conversion days. His gaming friends missed him, but we understood that his faith had to come first. We continued to game, and Brian didn’t express any problems with that decision on our parts. We made a decision based on our conscience about the things that interfered or reinforced our Christian walk. That we came to opposite yet correct decisions is an example of the wonderful power of grace in our lives and a good warning to both sides to avoid simplistic judgments.

Game Content and Self-Examination

If we accept that the subject of mythology is not off-limits to Christians, provided they are strong in their faith and prepared to face the problems of wading in what many hold to be dangerous waters, there’s a second issue that gamers have to deal with, and that’s the non-occult content of games. Gaming may not be an occult activity, but it certainly shares elements with other forms of popular entertainment in the secular world. A role-playing game is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with most of the details determined by a consensus between the referee and the players. If the group wants the game to feature protagonists in a heroic role in a world with strong moral values, it usually will. On the other hand, if the group wants the game to feature a pack of psychopaths who run amok committing acts that make Natural Born Killers look like a church picnic, it can do that too.

This is one of the things that makes it impossible to make a generalization that accurately encompasses the spectrum of moral content in role-playing games. It’s like trying to make a useful statement that passes a sweeping moral judgment that applies equally to Lassie and Kill Bill.

Christians are commanded not to compartmentalize their lives; we do not keep parts of our lives separate from God or from our Christian duty. Therefore, we are on some level accountable for how we conduct ourselves when we game. The key question is, therefore, how much influence do our in-character actions have on our Christianity?

Most people would find that when we’re playing a character, be it in a role-playing game or in a dramatic production, we’re not committing sin by proxy; we’re not responsible for the sins of our characters. When I was in high school, I played the role of Caiaphas in a production of Dorothy Sayers’ The Man Born to be King. When my character helped condemn Christ to death, I wasn’t committing the most heinous sin in human history, rather, I was pretending to be a character in a reenactment. Similarly, I believe that when I play Ascarin the mage in a Forgotten Realms game, and he lies, cheats, and becomes involved in magic, I’m not actually committing sins, I’m pretending to be a character who sins.

If this seems unreasonable, let’s reverse the analogy from sin to virtue. I have a character named Billy Deighton, Canadian Rocket Man, in our weekly Pulp Hero game (role-playing classic 1930s heroes like Doc Savage, Indiana Jones, Tarzan, and the Shadow). Billy is a Hero with a capital “H.” He regularly puts his life on the line to protect the innocent, he tells the truth, and is generally a virtuous guy. He goes to church regularly. When I’m playing Billy and he’s doing good deeds, I’m not actually doing good works, I’m just playing a game of pretend. If Billy were to bring a character to Christ in the game, he’s not performing an actual rescue, I’m pretending to be a character who performs a rescue in the context of a game. Fantasy, for good or ill, is still fantasy, unless it has ramifications that go beyond the game table.

This may seem like a pretty clear-cut distinction, but as usual with life, contact with the real world muddies the waters. We know that our outside thoughts and imaginations can affect our spirituality. Just as a method actor can be affected by going too deeply into a character, role-players can submerge themselves so deeply into their role that it does interfere with their Christian relationships. Sometimes it’s too deep, too affecting.

A game’s subject matter does count, especially in areas that are governed by thought and emotions, particularly anger and sexuality. Are we playing a lustful character in recognition of his flaws, or is the character an excuse to act out sinful fantasies? The former could be okay, however the latter definitely is not. Christians should be wary of giving themselves excuses to let their minds wander to unsavory behavior. At the very least, we need to be mindful of a character’s quirks and ask why we’re playing them. Why should a Christian pretend to be a torturer when he can pretend to be merciful? Why should a Christian pretend to be lustful when he can pretend to be righteous? Why should a Christian pretend to be a rebel against lawful authority when he can pretend to be respectful? Why should he fantasize about humiliating people and not edifying them?

However, there are valid situations where Christians can play flawed characters. Sometimes it’s done for the benefit of other characters; the villain allows other players to enjoy foiling his plots and allows their virtue to shine in comparison to him. Sometimes it’s because the role involves a redemptive journey, and going from sinner to saved is certainly a theme that a Christian can put his teeth into. Sometimes it’s done because a role that’s unlike a person’s actual character tests one’s acting abilities, which (like all talents) is a divine gift and needs to be practiced. Sometimes it’s done because a player has a hard time believing in a character unless he’s underlined by serious or believable flaws, or to fit in with the style of the playing group (more on why this isn’t always a bad thing later in this essay). Sometimes a player simply uses gaming as a safety vent for stress or negative emotions.

Fantasies don’t translate into direct behavior: most people are adults who are capable of handling the distinction between the real and the fantastic with ease. Earlier, I mentioned a group of university students whose D&D campaign was pretty disgusting. Twenty years later, every member of that game group is a family man who’s employed at a respectable job, who’s never committed a serious criminal act. Those in-game deeds simply didn’t apply to their actual lives.

Ideally, a Christian should seek game groups and experiences that allow him to do two things: (a) help other players triumph in their real-world struggles, and (b) edify his faith. Even when he doesn’t, however, it’s not a sign that he’s stumbling. Sometimes an entertainment is just an entertainment.

But What About THOSE Games?

Some would argue that Christian gamers should only play Christian games, games designed to edify their faith. I have no problems with people who want to patronize Christian gaming. However, RPGs are largely a tabula rasa, and edification can occur in the most unexpected places, as it did with Brian.

Christians should be quick to admit that gaming, like a lot of the world’s popular entertainment, is not very Christian-friendly. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, while they don’t provide a guide to participating in actual occult rituals, do include symbols of classic demonology in some of their literature; additionally, supplements such as The Book of Vile Darkness explore occult and depraved themes in greater detail. Graphic sexuality is prevalent in many gaming books. Beyond D&D, there are modern occult games like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, where one can play vampires, werewolves, and Hermetic magicians. There are horror games like Call of Cthulhu, whose premise is that the universe is inherently hostile, and that people will either die a gruesome death or linger in gibbering madness. Some games might represent contrary views to Christianity, such as Witchcraft, or be openly hostile to Christian beliefs, such as the original French version of In Nomine.

Some may not see the value in these games. I have problems with some of them myself (though I confess I enjoy Call of Cthulhu for its over-the-top characterizations). Many Christians find redemptive themes in World of Darkness, and even though I don’t play them, I can’t fault anyone who does. I do, however, sympathize with Christians who want their game experiences to be tainted as little as possible by the world’s negative influences. There are a growing number of games that are designed specifically with Christians in mind. These include board games like Settlers of Caanan (a variation on the classic board game Settlers of Catan), Ark of the Covenant, or The Journeys of Paul, and even role-playing games like Spiritual Warfare or Dragonraid.

Also, it is not hard to adjust some existing games, including Dungeons and Dragons, to reflect a more Christian-friendly philosophy. Some even include hooks that make it easy: for example, the great overdeity of D&D‘s most popular fantasy world, the Forgotten Realms, is Ao, an abbreviated form of “Alpha-Omega”. This subtle inclusion of the Christian deity places Him in a position of prominence over pagan deities, who act (according to the laws of the campaign setting) under His authority. A gamemaster who emphasizes Ao’s importance in the Realms and de-emphasizes less Christian-unfriendly aspects might produce a game that’s more appealing to Christians in his game circle. Other games and settings will have other tools that a clever gamemaster might alter to fit his desired message. Darker aspects of the game world (such as those found in the previously mentioned Book of Vile Darkness) may be reserved for the bad guys, accentuating the fight of good against evil. Some magic (“white magic”) might be defined as a divine gift to the world, so players can use it within the confines of the game world while still being mindful of the danger of the occult in the real world. Some gamers play in Middle-earth or Narnia, both of which are substantially friendlier to the Christian ethos than most game worlds.

Before my recent return to Christ, I wrote a book called Testament, a guide to playing characters in the historical Middle East (with a heavy emphasis on the lands of the Bible). That book was not written from a Judeo-Christian perspective, but I wrote it knowing that it might find a Christian audience and that they could adapt it very easily to represent a Christian perspective. Likewise, a gamer could adapt other game systems, such as GURPS, the Hero System, Hero’s Journey, or Burning Wheel, and use them to role-play heroes of the Bible.

Of course, there are also a lot of games where players can take on more positive characters than in much of the fantasy milieu. In addition to overtly Christian games, there are superhero games like Champions or Mutants and Masterminds or Star Wars where the emphasis is often on heroic self-sacrifice, there are games like Pendragon where it’s easy for players to play Christian characters (in this case, the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table). Many games focus on heroism and positive values, and playing character roles can reinforce positive roles. Some of these games may have elements like the previously mentioned “white magic” that some Christians view with a jaundiced eye; even if one gives less weight to the division between fantasy and reality than one ought, a game group has a lot of control over a game’s content.

The Game Group

One thing that gaming’s detractors don’t understand is that a gaming group has as much (or more) of an impact on a game’s style and moral content than the actual game system: in other words, who you play with is more important than what you play. To use a football metaphor again, the difference is like watching a football game with sober Christians or with drunken, profanity-loving non-Christians. The game is the same, but the experience is (or we should hope!) totally different.

Some game groups are supportive and contain believers and/or tolerant non-believers. Others are composed of hostile non-believers who enjoy mocking the Christian faith. Games that might otherwise seem antagonistic to Christians can be edifying with the right group, particularly when the social dynamic of the game does more to shape the group’s adventures than the rules. Likewise, some gaming groups may be toxic to a gamer’s faith, even if the game itself is non-offensive.

A game group is a call to ministry, through example and (when opportunities present) discussion. It is also a circle of friends who support each other in times of need, who enjoy common interests and fellowship. A good gaming group, like any circle of friends, can minimize the impact of the worst events and amplify the good events. They’re the primary reason why gamers play, and why gamers find it annoying when other non-gaming Christians dismiss their activities without a lot of thought and discussion.

Behaving Like a Believer at the Game Table

So much effort is spent on judging a game’s content that we often neglect the real danger area of gaming, the social interaction between players.

In any social activity, particularly competitive ones such as gaming (even role-playing games, though usually cooperative, have their competitive elements), it’s important to watch our manners. We may play Risk or Diplomacy or Settlers of Catan with an implicit “social contract” that a person’s word may be broken. Likewise, RPG games such as The Mountain Witch require betrayal of player vs. player for drama, and in Paranoia it’s necessary for humor. The common social contract still does not justify boastfulness or insults or arguments designed to hurt people’s feelings. Too often I’ve seen an “omega male” at the gaming table, a gamer with incredibly clumsy social skills, a physical handicap, or poor hygiene become the butt of jokes, neglect or abuse. Our first duty as a Christian is avoid joining in bullying circles and other harmful pack behaviors.

Our character’s actions don’t equate to sin. There is one huge exception to this rule: when those actions are a passive-aggressive cover that’s meant to hurt other players on a personal level, either by knowingly humiliating them or destroying their fun, then we are indeed sinning. Christians at the gaming table cannot treat other gamers in the same way as the world. We need to be aware of how we’re treating other players as people. Gaming is such a useful tool to develop friendships, and through friendships, the presentation of positive Christian models, and through those models, lead people to Christ. We are always the ambassadors of Jesus Christ to the world. The front line of all ministry is love, including love for the outcast and the dysfunctional. Fellowship is the best evangelism.

Those who have been in gaming for a long time know that the hobby’s greatest quality is its capacity to bring people together and cement friendships. Most role-playing games follow the common theme of the classic quest story: a group of people getting together to solve a common objective, traveling together through dangerous lands and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against common enemies. That’s been a surefire formula for bonding with others since the dawn of time. Many gamers are non-Christians who have little or no exposure to Christians outside of the stereotypes presented by the world. Those errors desperately require correction. The gaming table can be a dangerous place for one’s faith, but we need to be there. And when we’re there, we need to exemplify the Christian virtues that lead people to turn toward our faith.

A Warning and a Hope

Back in 1980, when the Dallas Egbert incident first hit the news and the media began warning people about the “dangers” of Dungeons and Dragons, I had a confrontation with my mom over my gaming. She forbade me from gaming, and when I objected, she burst into tears and declared: “I don’t want anything to happen to you!”

Over twenty-five years later, I’m still here. Life has surprised me with crueler twists and turns than I ever expected to endure, however by the grace of God, I’ve survived thus far.

This year at Gen Con, the annual convention for role-playing and board games that takes place every August in Indianapolis, I was walking back to the convention center from a restaurant when I was intercepted by a gamer who recognized the name on my badge. “I met my wife playing Champions years ago,” he said, and then he hastened to introduce his wife. “We always played your stuff,” he added. “You’re indirectly responsible for our marriage!”

The remark was almost certainly an exaggeration; even if I’d never written those books, someone else would have, and the couple would have gotten together anyway. Even so, never in my wildest dreams did I ever suspect that my work would be credited for someone’s marriage. Since returning to my faith several years ago, I’ve wondered if I’m in the right place. From a business standpoint, RPG writing is the skid row of the publishing profession. Pay rates are no better than those paid to pulp fiction writers in the 1930s—when you get paid—and there’s plenty of young talent on the market capable of taking over from aging warhorses like me when you stumble over a deadline. Many publishers have no respect for their writers, and even the ones who do respect you will always put your name last on the list of people to get paid. This isn’t malice on their part; the grim reality is that if a company doesn’t pay their printers, they shut down. They’ve already got the writing on hand when the printer bill comes due, and there’s always another writer to replace you, so we fall to the bottom of the list.

I’ve prayed a lot to God many times during the last two years, asking Him if he really wants me in gaming. I’ve begged Him to place me somewhere where I can secure a more comfortable financial future. Part of this prayer is motivated by my struggles with physical disabilities, which disqualify me from most of the jobs in my area that can support me. Frankly, my long-term future frightens me. Without my faith, I don’t think I could take it. Partially, these prayers are motivated because there are aspects of the gaming culture that really bother me: I don’t like the general hostility to Christianity that’s present in a lot of gamers. I’m very uncomfortable with the role that occult gaming and conspiracy theory games have played in the development of RPGs during the last decade, even though I have friends who play them and who’ve worked on them. The people I like; the subject of their games, not so much.

However, experiences like a chance meeting with a married couple outside a convention in Indianapolis go a long way to convince me that I’m in the place where God wants me to be, that He has plans for me in gaming. 25 years ago, when mom broke down over my gaming, she was wrong. Something did happen to me, but it wasn’t what she feared. I have no idea what God’s plans for me in gaming are, but I feel the best place for me to start is with gamers, with people. Relationships are more important than content. In Corinthians 7:20, Paul says “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.” I was in gaming when He called me back, therefore it’s God’s will whether I stay in gaming or move elsewhere, and who am I to argue with my Lord? I’ve gamed, off and on, for nearly thirty years now. If that long experience has taught me anything, it’s that common interests lead to comradeship, and comradeship to friendship, and friendship to love, and love is the gateway to Jesus Christ.

So where does this leave the reconciliation between gaming and non-gaming Christians? I think most Christian gamers understand the objections of non-gaming Christians. Some of the contents of RPGs also bother us. However, please know that we’re not interested in wallowing in occult corruption, but we want to experience fellowship, using the divine gift of imagination given to us by God as a starting point. We have no interest in participating in the real occult, or in providing worship to imaginary gods, or in performing acts of gruesome violence or committing suicide. We are compelled not by darkness, but by the symbols of God that can be found in the mythology of the imagination. Though they may be hidden within the thorny briar of myth, we see them clearly, and we are drawn to them. Though the enemy tries to drown them out with the tumult of worldly noise, they speak to us with the voice of our Shepherd, the Storyteller, the Speaker of parables. How can we resist that voice?

Have faith that we are not being deceived, that with God’s grace we will be mindful of whatever dangerous path that has been set before us, and not stumble. If you cannot find that faith in your hearts, then pray for us, pray for our protection and God’s guidance, and let the matter rest in His will, against whose immeasurable power the forces of the occult are nothing but a crude, pale mockery. In that faith, you will find the unity to which we are all commanded, and come beside us to remind us of our work. For the most part, we’re only gaming for fun, and that’s how we perceive the pastime, much like your favorite activities. However, anyone who comes alongside unbelievers has (whether they realize it or not) a mission, thus we are dice bag missionaries, working on largely foreign soil. In this task, we need all the help we can get.

Your in Christ, amen.

Footnotes:
[1]This is discussed at length in the Christian Gaming Guild FAQ
[2]Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin 1977, p. 147