Category: Faith in Play

Faith in Play #34: Guidance and The Machine

This is Faith in Play #34:  Guidance and The Machine, for September 2020.


Some people I know are terrified of the vision of the world in Person of Interest, the television series currently available on Netflix.  In it, a man going by the name of Harold Finch has created a hardware/software combination that monitors and analyzes all the data everywhere—cameras, cell phones, online computers, everything.  Using this data, it predicts terrorist attacks and gives limited information to a secret government agency so that these can be thwarted before they occur.  Yet Harold took the system one step further:  he designed it to inform him of the identities of anyone about to be involved, as victim or perpetrator, in a planned violent crime not related to terrorism.  He wanted to save the lives of people involved in such crimes, and so the machine gives him social security numbers of such people.

Harold Finch is brilliant at computers, but slightly handicapped, walking with a limp, so he can’t do this himself.  He recruits John Reese to do the legwork, and eventually Sameen Shaw joins them; two police detectives, Lionel Fusco and Joss Carter, also help them when called, knowing that their information is always good but not how they get it.  Eventually someone who calls herself Root (Samantha Groves to Harold, but she doesn’t like that name) also joins them, apparently recruited by the machine itself.

It doesn’t frighten me.  I see in it a wonderful metaphor of divine guidance, and the fact that God directs each of us in accordance with our own place in His plan. Read more

Faith in Play #33: Psionics

This is Faith in Play #33:  Psionics, for August 2020.


About eighteen years ago, in July 2002, I published Faith and Gaming:  Mind Powers, and thought I had said everything that needed to be said on the subject of psionic powers in fiction and games.  It was republished fourteen years later on our refurbished reformatted website, August of 2016.

I could not have foreseen that seventeen years after it was originally written, November 2019, the republished copy would be discovered by someone who wanted to discuss it in enough detail that it has expanded to eighty comments, fewer than half of them contributed by our webmaster and me, filled with questions and links and references attempting to determine whether these “powers” were actually part of the “occult” practices condemned in Deuteronomy 18.  Many Christians think so; for reasons covered in that article, I do not.  However, the morass of commentary there obscures the critical points, and so I have returned to address the question again.

The issue we addressed was whether, within a fictional setting, it might be plausible to include characters who for one reason or another had developed “natural” mental abilities beyond those common to humans today—the mutant Jean Grey, for example.  We demonstrated that in fact modern humans had mental abilities that were completely unknown less than two millennia ago, and that while it could not be said that we therefore would have greater powers in the future, it just as certainly could not be said that we would not.  There was no harm in imagining such naturally developed mental abilities in fictional characters. Read more

Faith in Play #32: Zealots

This is Faith in Play #32:  Zealots, for July 2020.


Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime.  They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these.  They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.

Simon the Zealot by Reubens

After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment.  One player objected.  His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.

My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?

This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value.  In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism.  We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment.  But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.

And it matters pointedly.  Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals.  The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish.  This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.

For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments.  We’ll get to that.


Previous article:  Magic Roads.
Next article:  Psionics.

Faith in Play #31: Magic Roads

This is Faith in Play #31:  Magic Roads, for June 2020.


Some years back I was playing in a game in which the city was ruled by chaotic gods who objected to anything being orderly or sensible.  This was particularly noticeable in connection with the roads:  it was impossible to make a map.  I secretly believed that this was because the referee didn’t want to make one himself and so thought it was easier just to pretend that he knew where everything was and how to get there, and make it up as needed.  In play, though, if you wanted to get somewhere in the city, you asked for directions from a non-player character who knew, and you followed them precisely.  These directions were as much ritual as geography–you might have to go around a block and find yourself on a different road when you returned to your starting point, or go halfway down a road or into a cul-de-sac and then return before continuing, or walk under an arch or between the columns on the front of a temple.  If you missed your turn, you hoped you could get back to wherever you began and try again.

I was reminded of this last night as I was driving home and came to the intersection pictured in that satelite view (courtesy Google Maps) pictured to the right.  Coming down route 109 from the west northwest (top left corner) you bear left when 109 curves right into Cape May (The Lobster House, one of the best seafood restaurants in the state, is right below the map) and come to a traffic light.  This is the onramp for exit zero on the Garden State Parkway, which runs off to the north northeast.  There is a conspicuous sign there that says No Turns, so you continue straight across the intersection onto that loop that goes around and returns you to the same traffic signal, where again you go straight to merge with traffic coming over the bridge on 109 from Cape May to get on the Parkway northbound, which begins here and goes off the top right corner of the map.

I’m sure that the intersection is designed that way because during the day, and particularly during the summer, traffic is crazy and someone trying to make a left turn would just hold everything up.  As I sat there around midnight on a late February night with no other cars in sight waiting for the light to change, an odd thought struck me.  It wasn’t that there would be no harm in simply making the left turn and cutting out the loop.  It was wondering about a road where if you made that left turn instead of taking the loop it would take you somewhere else.

I sometimes use my Global Positioning System to direct me to places I already know how to find.  I do it partly because I am interested in whether Google thinks there’s a better way to go than the way I know, but also partly because I know that the system is updated in real time for things like traffic jams and accidents, and have more than once had it send me by a different route than it usually does because the usually longer route will be quicker.

All of this comes to me now as illustrative of divine guidance and intervention.

Like most people, I am often annoyed when a traffic signal turns red as I am approaching.  I am annoyed enough that I often watch the pedestrian signals–at least here in New Jersey they’ve begun installing “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs with countdowns which turn to “Don’t Walk” when they reach zero and usually also change the green light to yellow at the same time, so I can estimate whether I’m going to make the light.  When I don’t, though, I sometimes remind myself that God might be stalling me to avoid a potential accident or incident ahead.  My father often said “Don’t be there when the accident happens,” and it may be that our Father takes these little steps to prevent such events–obviously not always, but sometimes.  There is somewhere a book of stories about people who called out of work or were delayed on the way to their offices in the World Trade Center on that fateful day in which so many died.

And so I wonder about our path through life, and whether God sometimes takes us to the place we always expected to go by the route that we never could have foreseen, because it was the best way to get us there.  It might even be that “straight down Main Street and make a right on Broad Street” won’t actually get you to number seven South Broad Street, because that address won’t be there unless you go a block down thirteenth and come back up fourteenth before continuing.  Like the home of Sirius Black, if you don’t take the right steps to get there the destination can’t be found.


Previous article:  Conflict.
Next article:  Zealots.

Faith in Play #30: Conflict

This is Faith in Play #30:  Conflict, for May 2020.


A few years back my band Collision left its equipment set up in a church in which we had been practicing.  The drummer had gotten our logo made as a drum head cover, so there was this picture of the earth crashing into a giant cross and exploding.  (I don’t know whether you can see that in the picture, but that’s what it is.)  The youth pastor saw this and complained to the pastor about it; the pastor replied, “Are you kidding?  That’s what it’s really all about.”

My Multiverser co-author E. R. Jones was at a church service somewhere and the pastor asked the congregation how they would define Christianity in one word.  Several other people gave the kinds of responses one expects, and then he gave his:  War.  Our religion is, on one level, about a major spiritual battle between God and all that would oppose Him; we are soldiers in that battle.

When I first read about Dungeons & Dragons™ back in 1980, I was drawn to it because it sounded like this was finally a game that could actually reproduce the kinds of adventures we read about in Tolkien and Lewis and other fantasy authors.  Once I started playing it, though, I realized that it went much deeper than that.  Its use of magic and demons, of good and evil alignments, of spiritual forces, made it a wonderful metaphor for the real battle in which we are all immersed, whether or not we are aware of it.  It reminds us that only spiritual weapons can be used against spiritual adversaries, and that our enemy often is not flesh and blood, even when it uses people as its weapons.

There is some reason to think, and some believers do think, that the ritual of bread and wine was never intended to be a special moment overseen by a priest, but was supposed to force us to take our everyday meals as a reminder of what Christ did, that every time we opened a meal with a bite of food and closed it with a final drink that this would remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice, of the body and blood given for us.  Our faith is filled with images and objects whose purpose is to remind us, to cause us to think in terms of our faith.  How wonderful would it be if we played a game that also reminded us, that we are in a spiritual battle fighting on God’s side against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

That’s where we are, what we are called to do.

Fight the good fight.


Previous article:  Victims.
Next article:  Magic Roads.

Faith in Play #29: Victims

This is Faith in Play #29:  Victims, for April 2020.


One of the early superhero role playing games gave us the concept of the “DNPC”, the “Dependent Non-Player Character”, the person who is in the story because the hero needs to save someone.  Superman has Lois Lane (pictured) and Jimmy Olsen; Spiderman has Mary Jane and Aunt May.  Within the mechanics of the game system, these people are identified as “weaknesses”, points at which an otherwise powerful hero can be attacked.  If you want to cripple Superman, either you find some kryptonite or you kidnap Lois and Jimmy.

When I asked readers to suggest archetypes, someone suggested these, calling them victims.  Indeed, within the sweep of the story there are these characters, and they are often important to the story.  They create something at stake for the hero.  You can create the threatened child or damsel in distress, but the threat is more potent if it is to a character who is more than two-dimensional, who is a friend of the hero.

Of course, no one particularly wants to play the victim, as necessary as the victim is.  As popular as they are in television and movies, we don’t usually have party members whose primary function is to get in trouble and need to be rescued.  I think if I sat down to group character creation for a campaign and one of the players said, “I want to be the guy the other characters are always having to save,” I would be stunned, and would suggest that he play something that contributed to the party in other ways, at least so that they would have a reason to want to save him.  For most players, if they find their character caught or trapped or imprisoned, their first hope is usually that they will find a way to free themselves, not that their friends would come for them.  Victim is unlikely to be a popular player character class.

Yet I think this reflects an important point for our real lives.

Paul wrote to the Philippians (Philippians 1:21ff) to the effect that he was confident that he would remain alive as long as they needed him.  He wrote this from prison, at a time when it was entirely possible that any day the government would decide to decapitate him.  Yet he was right:  he was released from that prison and continued his ministry to Philippi and so many other places.  We can take confidence from that that we, too, will remain alive as long as we are needed.

I’ll caveat first that neither we nor our loved ones are likely to be the best judges of when we are no longer needed.  It seems to us that many husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, siblings and friends, die when we thought they were still needed.  God knows whether we are needed, or whether His plan would be better served by our departure.  This is not a promise of invulnerability nor even of longevity.  It is a promise that our deaths will not leave our loved ones bereft of something necessary only we could have provided.

But it is the other side of that which matters to me here.  Our world is also filled with the dependent–the infirm aged, the terminally ill, the severely disabled.  We look at some of these and think that their caretakers would be better off were they to die.  They might have contributed much to others during their productive lives, or they might never have done so, but in their present state they contribute nothing and consume much.  Why does God keep these people alive?  If Paul is right, that we will remain alive as long as needed and then go home to God, why are these seemingly useless people still here?

The answer is difficult, but it is that we need these people.  We need people who need what we can give them and can give nothing back.  It is those people who teach us how to love, how to put our love into action, how to do things that matter.  If there were no people with needs, we could do nothing to meet those needs.

Once we understand that, there is one more step we must take:  at some point in our lives we will probably be one of those people, one of those dependent non-player characters who need to be rescued by the hero, one of those needy people who can do nothing for themselves and nothing for those who help them.  Those people are necessary to God’s plan for our lives, and we might one day be those people.  Indeed, some of us might be those people already, wondering why God has us still alive given how much of a burden we are on others and how little we can contribute.  The answer is that we contribute precisely by being a burden, by giving others the opportunity to help us.

So we learn this valuable lesson from the victim archetype:  dependent people are a necessary part of God’s plan for us, and sometimes it is necessary for us to be those dependent people.


Previous article:  Vampires.
Next article:  Conflict.

Faith in Play #28: Vampires

This is Faith in Play #28:  Vampires, for March 2020.


When Tim Brown suggested I explore the subject of the undead, I was, I think the word is, nonplussed.  Maybe that’s too strong a word–but I’ve never really been a fan of the undead generally, and I find that they are very popular in popular culture in forms I don’t find particularly appealing.

Part of that, though, is that they’ve lost their original significance.  The undead are metaphors for humanity against God.  Our modern world has found godless scientific explanations for them–zombies, for example, are living people infected with a virus or a drug.  The metaphor is if not gone at least buried, altered drastically.  This is particularly true for the vampire.

I’ve seen a few vampire movies, and always been disappointed.  I enjoyed Stoker’s book mostly for the writing style, the use of diaries and letters and newspaper articles to tell the story, interspersed with only occasional narrative.  But the vampire is a metaphor for a life turned against God–perhaps the reason why some of the best modern vampire stories claim that the original vampire was not Vlad Dracula but Judas Iscariot, or Cain son of Eve.  It gets its powers from the devil, from its devotion to evil.

Take the silly notion that a vampire could go out in the sun if he wore Ultraviolet Protection Factor 100 sunscreen–as if it were the ultraviolet light that mattered.  God created the light, and divided it from the darkness, and called the light day and the darkness night.  He made the sun to rule the day, the time when the world is filled with light.  Vampires cannot go out in the day because they are creatures of darkness, and the sun who rules the day would destroy them with the light.

Gary Gygax got it right.  In the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ Monster Manual he wrote

Vampires recoil from strong garlic, the face of a mirror, or a cross (or several other holy symbols of lawful good).

It is perhaps peculiar that even in a universe in which Christianity did not exist its prime symbol was still potent against vampires, because they are ultimately creatures of evil.  Interestingly one way to kill a vampire is to baptize it–to immerse it in cold running water, the method of baptism recommended in The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, second century record of church practice).  It is the power of God and of trust, faith, belief in God that destroys creatures of evil, and vampires are a wonderful metaphor for this.

I admit that I don’t much care for undead as they are portrayed in modern movies and television and books (what’s with that sparkling?)  However, I use them in my fantasy games, largely because they make decent enemies for my player characters and they fit in scenarios involving tombs, catacombs, crypts, or graveyards.  However, in writing Verse Three, Chapter One:  The First Multiverser Novel I used vampires as the enemy for one of my protagonists, and brought her back to that world to face vampires again in Old Verses New and finally in For Better or Verse.  Her stand against the vampires showcased her faith in a powerful way, both in the action of the story and in the literary presentation of it.  Vampires, used rightly, can be a powerful tool for highlighting the power of God.

So I’m recommending the use of the undead in your games, as metaphors for the godless and those who have turned against God.  One of the most potent aspects of fantasy role playing games is their ability to pit the players against the powers of darkness and force their characters to rely on the power of the divine.


Previous article:  Believing Balance.
Next article:  Victims.

Faith in Play #27: Believing Balance

This is Faith in Play #27:  Believing Balance, for February 2020.


Over a year ago we began a series on the notion that in the Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® game system alignment was the True Religion, what characters actually believed.  We have since examined those beliefs in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism, the four sides of the alignment grid.  However, the game also included a center, a middle ground between each pair of creeds, which it called Neutral, and a character could be neutral in regard to law and chaos or in regard to good and evil, taking the middle ground.

There are actually four distinct ways in which neutrality can be achieved in play; the book puts a lot of focus on the third, and connects it to druidism, but for the many applications of neutrality in the game it is important to recognize these concepts.  I label the four choices pragmatic, oblivious, druidic, and cross-principled.  Let’s start with a brief tutorial.  Remember, a character can be neutral in either axis, that is, a “neutral good” character is neutral in regard to law and chaos but committed to good as against evil, and a “lawful neutral” character is committed to the maintenance of order without regard for whether good or evil is the outcome.

The pragmatic neutral has a strong belief in that in which he is not neutral, but regards the other axis as tools to achieve this.  A pragmatic neutral evil character seeks his own benefit, and accepts that sometimes that is achieved by supporting the social order and sometimes by opposing it in the name of liberty.  He thus uses law and chaos as means to the end of his own gain.

The oblivious neutral does not recognize these as real values.  A chaotic oblivious neutral believes in liberty at any cost, and when people say that law is required to protect people and bring benefit to the greater number, he replies that this is so much sophistry, that the difference between helping one person and helping many is an illusion, and the many are just as selfish as the one.  To him, the concepts of good and evil simply do not exist; what matters is the struggle between law and liberty.

The druidic neutral is in some ways the most difficult.  The assumption is that the character will balance the good he does with a like amount of evil, and the chaos he causes with a like amount of law.  Thus in combat he kills a man, and then in another place he heals one who is dying; he steals from an enemy but then gives to the poor.  In this sense he is relatively unpredictable.  Most who play this alignment try to keep their actions contained, never doing anything too good or too bad, too structured or too anarchistic.  On the other hand, this alignment is open to some rather drastic conceptualization, such as a character who heals everyone in a village and then in the next village flame strikes a children’s playground.  For the druid, the concept is that good and evil, law and chaos, must remain balanced in the world, and they must not put it out of balance by supporting one against another.

One solution to this seemingly erratic approach is the fourth option, the cross-principled neutral.  This approach recognizes that the side alignments, while in a sense coherent approaches to reality, can be divided into distinct issues.  A character who is neutral on the law/chaos axis might support the monarchy absolutely, but completely oppose legal slavery in the realm (a lawful structure in many societies).  A cleric neutral on the good/evil axis might feel it his obligation to heal the poor of their diseases but at the same time take whatever valuables they might have for himself.

By the book, a druid has to be druidic neutral in both axes; however, that can be achieved by being cross-principled.  Any character who is not a druid but is true neutral (“neutral neutral”) can be druidic in one axis and something else in the other, and those who are “side neutrals”–neutral good, chaotic neutral–can be any kind of neutral in the neutral axis.  A true neutral fighter could be pragmatic to the ethical axis and druidic to the moral, that is, believing that law and chaos are tools to maintain the balance between good and evil; or he could be druidic in the ethical and oblivious in the moral, believing that talk of good and evil is all nonsense and what matters is maintaining the balance between order and liberty.

It should be evident at this point that the neutral alignments represent a plethora of belief systems, even within the concept of druidism.  The druid, of course, believes in maintaining the balance of four beliefs, although he has several ways of achieving that.  The “side alignment” neutrals are perhaps more complicated, and we will return to them in a future article.


Previous article:  Fields to Harvest.
Next article:  Vampires.

Faith in Play #26: Fields to Harvest

This is Faith in Play #26:  Fields to Harvest, for January 2020.


Last month I wrote about the impact the Christian Gamers Guild has had on Christians and on gamers.  I noted that there were now many other “geek ministries” trying to make a difference.  In fact, between when I wrote that article and when it appeared I began to wonder whether we had become superfluous.  Role playing games had moved almost entirely from feared activities suspected of cult and occult connections to mainstream entertainment embraced by ordinary people worldwide.  Video games now pull more income than movies, as an industry.  Board games are on the rise.  Even such “fringe” geek activities as anime and cosplay are moving into the mainstream.  Certainly there are still some believers who embrace errors taught decades ago about the evils of such entertainments, but they are a vanishing breed.  I thus wonder if my job, defending hobby games to Christians, has become moot.

Then an odd thing happened.

You may know that I write two article series published here at the Christian Gamers Guild.  This one, Faith in Play, was envisioned as a resurrection of the notions of the Faith and Gaming series originally published in the early aughts and still on our site, looking at the intersection between our faith and our leisure activities.  However, when it was proposed, our webmaster said he hoped it would include material similar to and possibly drawn from the Game Ideas Unlimited series I did weekly for four years at Gaming Outpost, most of it lost when that site died.  (Some of it has been preserved in French translation at the Places to Go, People to Be French site, and indeed I also wrote material for the Australian Places to Go, People to Be, and for RPGnet, RoleplayingTips.com, MysticAgesOnline, and several other role playing game sites, not all of which still exist.)  Not seeing that as part of the faith and play connection, I suggested instead that I do a second series, which eventually was named RPG-ology, strictly about role playing game play, design, and theory.  Thus I contribute two articles each month to the site, aimed at slightly different audience interests.

I was responding to a post on a Facebook role playing gamer group, and the question was something I had addressed in one of the RPG-ology pieces, so I linked the article.  As I recall it was one that had been only slightly edited from a Game Ideas Unlimited original, and so had once appeared nearly the same at Gaming Outpost.  Bryan has somehow cleverly set up the site such that such links are branded:  the image shows the name of the article and the Christian Gamers Guild logo when it appears in preview on social media sites.  Seeing the logo, one of the participants in the Facebook thread commented that he never read articles on Christian web sites.  He said they had a certain “smell” to them.

I don’t know quite how to react to that. Read more

2019 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

Last December we published Thirteen Months in Review, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous thirteen months–the time from when our previous index, Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website, had been published.  I am now attempting once again to summarize, this time a calendar year of material, for those who missed something or want to find something they remember. Read more