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.
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.
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.
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:
#26: Fields to Harvest January 7, 2020, noting that Christian ministries to the “geek” community still have work to do.
#27: Believing Balance February 4, 2020 continues the miniseries on Dungeons & Dragons alignment with a consideration of neutrality.
#28: Vampires March 3, 2020 considers the metaphorical value of the undead.
#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.
#30: Conflict May 5, 2020, looks at Dungeons & Dragons as a metaphor for spiritual warfare.
#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.
#32: Zealots July 7, 2020 continues the alignment miniseries with a look at the side alignments.
#33: Psionics August 4, 2020 reopens the issue of mind powers in fiction in response to questions and comments from a reader.
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:
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.
This is Faith in Play #37: Balancing on the Corner, for December 2020.
When “balance” is mentioned in connection with Dungeons & Dragons™ alignment, thoughts immediately leap to neutrality, and of course neutrality is frequently about balance—but not always. As we noted in connection with the side alignments neutrality can often mean simply ignoring one axis in favor of the other. Thus a character who is neutral in one axis can be religiously devoted to one value, whether Good, or Evil, or Law, or Chaos.
Yet there is another aspect of alignment in which balance is happening constantly, and players seldom recognize it.
When I was talking about the side alignments, I told the story of a Neutral Good cleric/fighter who tortured a criminal suspect in an effort to obtain a confession. When I penalized him for violating his alignment, he said that he was “only” Neutral Good, and he could justify a penalty if he were Lawful Good. What does a Neutral Good stand for, I asked, if not Good?
He might have been able to make an argument that torturing that particular acolyte ultimately would benefit the greatest number of people; he did not. On the other hand, at least one of the characters who participated in this, who was also penalized, was Lawful Good, and he could have made a more cogent argument: the preservation of order in the settlement demanded the solving of the murder, and so justified the use of torture to obtain critical information from one of the key suspects. That is, in this particular situation my commitment to Law outweighs my commitment to Good.
That is the balancing act of the corner alignments. If I am Chaotic Evil, in this particular situation do I stand by my commitment to individual freedoms or pursue my own selfishness? Sometimes it looks simple. When Chaotic Good Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor, he is fighting against an oppressive system that takes the rights—and the money—from the peasants by restoring it to the peasants. When Lawful Evil Darth Vader kills people on behalf of the Emperor, he is both maintaining the rule of his master and securing his own position. Yet when Lawful Good Ivanhoe comes to the aid of the Jewess Rebecca, it is because he has decided that Good—the benefit of Rebecca and her family and her people—is more important than Law—the authority of the Paladin who would demand her servitude. Yet even as he takes this more chaotic stand, he does so in as lawful a manner as he can.
It is, I find, the characters on the corner alignments who make the toughest choices in following their faith. Law does not always align with Good, nor Chaos with Evil. Someone once pointed out to me that an American Soldier had to be Neutral Good, because usually for the sake of protecting people he became part of a very structured and orderly organization to maintain another social structure which was primarily built on Chaos, that is, on preserving the rights of individuals. He of course still had to make difficult choices for his neutrality, but could more easily justify them. Those who have chosen to commit to two separate values, one moral and one ethical, face the most difficult choices in balancing their distinct commitments.
That, it strikes me, is very like us, as we find ourselves committed to more than one value and have to make choices between them.
This is Faith in Play #36: Thanks, for November 2020.
Later this month Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving, a secular holiday established for religious people to give thanks to God. Canadians did the same in the middle of last month. Most cultures and nations historically have had a harvest festival celebration to express gratitude for the food; indeed, Pentecost was originally such a celebration.
I’m not going to ask why we don’t have these in our games; as holidays go, this is an obvious one, and I’d wager many of my readers have had an in-game harvest celebration at some point in their gaming calendars. Nor does it make much sense to discuss cultural details, as feasting and frolicking are the obvious choices. Rather, I would raise the fundamental point and address gratitude.
Years ago we ran a miniseries on Faith and Gaming about how to express faith within the game; it began with playing the Good Guys and ran through quite a few very different ideas over the course of eight articles. To those perhaps we can add having your character express gratitude to his deity for good things, from food on his plate to the outcomes of battles or adventures. Such thankfulness ought to be natural in those who believe that a god is involved in their lives, and a natural expression of it within the game world makes perfect sense.
Further, as we said of a number of those other ways to express faith in the game, what is true of your character ought also to be true of you. Express your real-world gratitude in real-world ways. Let your fellow players recognize that you are grateful to God for the good things that come, and that you know that all things which come to you come from God and are good.
I trust you all will have, or have had, a happy Thanksgiving filled with gratitude for all God’s good gifts.
On a related subject, let me express our gratitude to you for reading, encouraging, and supporting this ministry. Some of you have promoted our efforts by purchasing what our webmaster calls “swag” from our Christian Gamers Guild store.* Many of you have registered for and attended our worship services at various conventions. Apart from support of the guild, I would thank those of you who have supported me (I may be chaplain of the guild, but I am a volunteer in all I do here) both by encouraging posts and by support through Patreon or PayPal.me. These contributions keep me online and writing, and are greatly appreciated.
So thank you.
*Editor’s note, for the purposes of transparency: The purpose of the store is to provide branded materials to members in order to advertise the Guild. Most items are priced at just a little bit over cost. We do make a small amount on each purchase, but so far the account hasn’t earned enough for Cafe Press to send us a check.
This is Faith in Play #35: Seekers, for October 2020.
The “magic” in our role playing games is “make believe.” It’s not real, and no one could by reading any of the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks or source books learn how to do any “real magic,” if such a thing exists. Indeed, you can’t learn it from any of our fantasy fiction, not Narnia, not Middle Earth, not even the Harry Potter books in which young “wizards” and “witches” attend classes in which the teacher characters explain to the student characters how to do it. It’s just not in there.
Yet once in a while someone tells about how the game was a sort of “gateway” for him to become involved in paganism and occult practices. What should our concern be for such individuals? How should we respond in such situations?
The first point that should be noted is that such people aren’t casually drawn into magic by the games or books. They are looking for something, and they use fragments of information from the books as a starting point to help them look. Magic in games such as Dungeons & Dragons is inspired by a wealth of sources, including the Bible (healing, parting water, calling fire, raising the dead, and more are all miracles from scripture), but also from other sources, mostly fictional, some of which have tapped popular culture and books about occult practices. It is apparently not impossible to use books about fictional magic to help search for occult magic, and easier now in the world of the World Wide Web than it was forty-some years ago when such searches required hours in library card catalogues. But these people aren’t stumbling into magic because it happens to be included in game books; they are seeking it, and using game books as a reference.
That matters because people who are seeking such things can usually find them. Game books and fantasy fiction are hardly the only sources for such information; they’re not even very good ones. Yet fantasy games do something in relation to these seekers that other sources do not: they bring them into contact with other people. This is why it is so important that Christians be involved in these games—if we leave the games to the Pagans and Wiccans and occult practitioners, then when someone is seeking magic, there will be people there to point them to Paganism and Wicca and the occult, and no one will be there to point them in the right direction.
While that is critical, it might seem that the second point contradicts it: it is not our job to prevent people from falling deeper into sin; it is our job to point them to the way out. Many people cannot be saved until they recognize just how lost they are, and we are often trying to prevent them from becoming that lost, damaged enough that they recognize their own need. At least sometimes we need to let go and let them fall, so they can grab the hand that really can save them.
But to help them at all we need to understand why they are looking for something at all. My impression is that people who want magic feel inadequate; they need something to make them feel more important, more empowered, than other people. We have the answer to that. We are in touch with the greatest of all powers, the Name above every Name, and He tells us that each one of us is infinitely important, important enough that Jesus died for us, not just for all of us, but for each of us. We need to communicate that to these lost people. Those of us who have truly connected with God don’t need the paltry substitute that they call magic. Our reality is much greater than that. We need to offer that to those who are seeking magic in their lives.
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
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
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.
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.
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.