Controlled by Fear

Several years ago, I ran a fantasy horror game for a group of teenagers from my church. It was their very first roleplaying game, and I felt both very privileged to have the opportunity to introduce them to the hobby and very responsible for keeping them on a godly path in their play. My own experience with roleplaying at that age was… Well, let’s say that some of the encounters were less than holy. In that light, horror might seem like a peculiar choice of genre—the kind of conservative Pentecostals of my home church are just as uncomfortable with horror films as they are with roleplaying itself. Nevertheless, although I don’t care much for the genre in film, it’s a gaming mode that I enjoy and that I think has much to offer. This article isn’t meant to be an apology for the place of the macabre in the Christian imagination, so to keep it short, I’ll offer this link to Christian Fandom’s essay list on that topic and chaplain M.J. Young’s previous articles Writing Fear, Faith in Play #5: Fear, and RPG-ology #11: Scared. Rather, I would like to look at one particular moment in that game and offer some observations on gaming, Christian fellowship, and courage.

First some background. I seem to have lost my notes for this game, so I’m just going to make up some names. My apologies to the players. The Emperor was assassinated. Vanel, an officer in the Palace Guard, and a pair of the emperor’s Executioners, Chorr and Percy, were charged with finding out who hired the assassin. Their investigation led them across the empire and back again, to an unknown courtier within the imperial court, a demon-worshiper who had insinuated himself into a position of power and was attempting to bring his master into the world by preparing a human host for it.

As soon as the heroes set foot within the palace grounds, they were ambushed and captured by the diabolist’s minions. The court jester revealed himself as the mastermind behind the plot and taunted them with the knowledge that his unholy ceremony was going to take place that night, and there was nothing they could do about it. They were separated from one another and locked away, helpless to stop what was about to happen. In the deepest part of the night, each received a visitor.

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun by William Blake, circa 1805

At this point, I pulled each player into a separate room one by one and played out a scene in which the Empress came to them, now possessed by a powerful demon, and offered them a choice between everlasting torment and great power. Each of them responded at first with the usual bluster you’d expect—you’ll never get away with it, and so forth. She countered with promises to imprison, torture and kill their loved ones, to ruin their reputations, to condemn their immortal souls. She told them lies about what awaited them in the afterlife (in that game world, the demons know no more about what happens after death than humans do). She described in detail the sensation of having the sinews removed from their arms and legs, leaving them alive but unable to move, and other such tortures.

She offered them glory in battle with her magical powers to aid them. She promised wealth and positions of respect in the empire. She even offered personal happiness. And as the Empress, she really did have the ability to fulfill many of her promises. Two of the PCs held firm—no matter what she threatened or bribed them with, they vowed to oppose her. Vanel, though, broke. I don’t honestly know what was going through his head, but I guess I scared him so badly that he thought the only way forward was to capitulate. So he made a pact with the demon.

I had reminded the players that their characters weren’t together, and so they shouldn’t discuss what had happened while I was off in the other room. I had a friend observing the game, and she kept them honest, so each player only knew their own decision.  We returned to the table and resumed with a jailbreak led by one of Vanel’s men. Once the PCs were free, they quickly exchanged notes on what they’d experienced and formed a plan to storm the palace with as many loyal soldiers as they could rally. The traitor said nothing about the promise he’d made to the demon. Both Chorr and Percy assumed that he’d made the “right” choice, just as they had. I don’t know what Vanel assumed.

The PCs scattered to gather their troops and rejoined one another later. Vanel had reported to the Captain of the Palace Guard and was given command of a troop. Chorr and Percy, as Executioners, were used to working alone, so they’d assigned other members of the Executioners’ Guild (these served both as formal executioners and also the Emperor’s personal agents in the realm) to various jobs throughout the Palace and the city at large. Percy was the best stand-up fighter among the PCs, and Chorr was a more classical assassin, so they decided that Vanel’s troop would hold off any minions the Empress had surrounded herself with, Percy would engage the possessed Empress directly, while Chorr looked for an opportunity for a backstab. These were pretty solid, classic tactics, and if everything Percy and Chorr believed to be true had actually been true, they may have succeeded. But Vanel was a traitor.

At a critical moment, the demon spoke to Vanel telepathically (via a note I passed under the table). Until that moment, I really thought he had just been playing along with the demon in order to double-cross her. But then he pointed to a side corridor and ordered his troops that direction, away from the fight. Percy had just stepped into the throne room to battle the demon. I must have reacted to Vanel’s actions, or Chorr was quick on the uptake, because he realized immediately what had gone wrong. Vanel put his sword through the Guard Captain’s back. At the same time, Chorr dashed forward and took cover—he knew he’d never stand a chance against Vanel in personal combat, but he was really good with throwing knives.

Chorr and Vanel battled in the lobby while Percy fought the demon alone. It was not a fair fight. Realizing that help wasn’t coming, Percy knew that his plan of fighting defensively was a losing proposition. It was risky, but he had to go on the attack. She burned him. Slowly. The Empress took so much delight in ending Percy that she was too slow to reach Vanel in time to prevent Chorr from putting a dagger through his throat. The jester, on the other hand, was just as sneaky as Chorr, and since there were no troops to control the battleground, he was able to get close enough to backstab Chorr. And the curtain fell.

To this day, that game remains my only TPK (total party kill for those unfamiliar with roleplaying parlance). The final battle would have been dicey even if everyone had executed the plan as intended. There was very little chance any single character could have stood up to the possessed Empress, but they had reasonable odds if they’d worked together. I have frightened players before, but never so effectively that they switched sides. I am not a killer GM, but I really feel like I ‘won’ the game that time. Not because I successfully slaughtered the party (that’s very rarely my intention when designing a scenario), but because the choice that Vanel made really mattered in the end, and because all of us had fun. I am frequently guilty of fudging the dice to favor my players. Generally I think that seeing the heroes triumph is better than seeing them fail. This game, though, taught me that it’s the consequences of the players’ deeds, for good or for ill, that make a game enjoyable and memorable years later.

In many groups, a PC’s betrayal that leads to a TPK would lead to arguments, maybe even broken relationships. I had a bit of an advantage in this game in that the campaign had always been designed to be only five adventures. Win or lose, these characters were never being played again, so there was no perception that future fun had been ruined by the loss. In addition, we were playing a narrativist game in which characters didn’t accrue much power or wealth—everyone was much the same as when the campaign started. There was no sense that an investment in leveling up and gathering items had been wasted. Finally, these were all brand new roleplayers. They hadn’t been exposed to the roleplaying culture in which a PC’s betrayal is often seen as a serious social infraction. In the end, everyone remained friends and were enthusiastic to try another game.

I caught a little bit of suspicion from a few parents of teenagers in the church because my players were excited about the game and talked about it often. For the most part I could deflect it by pointing out that they were playing a game of heroics and opposition to evil (and it very specifically was not D&D). One parent even came around from their suspicious stance and endorsed the game as a lesson about spiritual warfare. Ultimately, though, I think what helped the most was how the three players bonded over it. Normally they wouldn’t have had much in common. The clean-cut pastor’s kid, the budding goth freshman, and the aloof skater senior just didn’t cross paths much normally. Their shared adventure created a friendship that lasted well beyond the end of the game. I’m not sure if they still keep in touch, but at least for a few months they were each spending time with some people quite unlike themselves.  They learned some things about each other and about themselves. Those relationships are the most important part of the time we spend at the table, and seeing them grow was the best argument I could have had for the benefit of roleplaying.

Now I’d like to turn my attention to that fateful decision that Vanel made. Just what made him betray his friends, his country, and his principles? What caused the hero to turn into a villain? I know quite a few gamers who would have leapt at the chance to gain power through an infernal pact. As soon as the Empress offered wealth and prestige, they’d have agreed to just about anything. That wasn’t the case this time. No, Vanel turned because he was afraid. The demon managed to push all of the right buttons to make him genuinely fear for his own survival. He’d come to the end of the options that his own abilities offered him, and he saw no hope of a way forward. When someone threatened to snuff out even the paltry amount of life that he had left, he caved in and agreed to turn. Furthermore, the demon impressed upon him its great power and superior knowledge—he believed it when it told him that there was no turning back for him, that the deal was binding.

Vanel was unable to imagine a future for himself. He had no faith in his friends, nor in God to oppose the darkness that oppressed him. The demon was present and flaunting its strength, but God was, to Vanel, an abstract force. Remote and unknowable. He was afraid.  Even after he was rescued, he continued to feed his fear. The demon whispered in his mind, and that made him believe that it was still in control. In the midst of a making a good plan that had every chance of success, Vanel continued to allow terror to dictate his actions. And every decision that he made under the influence of his fear reinforced its hold on him. He couldn’t tell his friends what he’d done for fear of their condemnation, or even worse: their pity. He was so afraid of their mistrust that he in fact became untrustworthy.

In the end, Vanel’s fear led directly to his death, and to the deaths of his friends and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other people. It’s a dramatic story, and one that a fantasy game is well-suited to tell. In our real lives, we seldom see the results of our fears played out so clearly, but the final end for anyone who allows fear to dictate the way they live is the same: death. It’s all too easy to see our problems, to see the darkness in the world, and to be completely unable to imagine a future in which there is anything other than more of the same. We listen to the news, we contemplate our bank accounts, we fight with our spouses, we despair of our children, we remember our sins, and we lose sight of hope. But there is hope! If Vanel had chosen to grasp it, his story would have had a very different ending. Maybe he still would have died, but he’d have done it opposing evil instead of drowning himself in it. And at least he’d have had a chance for victory.

You will have much trouble in this world. But take heart, for I have overcome the world! —John 16:33


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