Category: Faith in Play

Faith in Play #9: Clowns

This is Faith in Play #9:  Clowns, for August 2018.


When I thought I was reaching the end of the Faith and Gaming series, Christian Gamers Guild member Lynette Cowper (who wrote GURPS Rogues) suggested that I address Archetypes.  It was a challenging suggestion for me—I had never thought about characters in terms of archetypes.  However, I undertook it, and wrote about Warriors, Knights, Rogues, Wizards, and Holy Men before turning my attention to another subject (after all, that was half a year of monthly articles spent on one subject).  I think I might have had a couple other possible archetypes identified in my notes, which as I have previously reported were abruptly lost in a computer crash, but every time I turned my mind back to them, my impression was that I didn’t know any other “archetypes.”

Perhaps it was because I had run so much original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and these really were the major character classes, almost everything else in the game falling into one of these groups.  On the other hand I could see that functionally a medic was a non-religious holy man, most techs were non-magical wizards, and maybe spies and ninjas are distinct from most other rogues, but not enough to warrant another article on the subject at that time.  Really, in my mind, archetypes were pretty much covered.

However, when I was talking about doing this series, webmaster Bryan Ray wrote to me, “I always thought there was a lot of space in the Archetypes sub-series that you hadn’t yet explored.”  That caused me to reconsider my own conception of an “archetype”, to attempt to get out of my own box, as it were, and think about what else might be covered.  I recognized that in stories we often have character types that serve what we would call a story function.  They make the book better, the movie more entertaining.  And as I thought about movies, a few characters came to mind who are what I believe Jack Slater (addressing his boss in The Last Action Hero) called “comic relief.”  I remembered a reviewer complaining about the movie Willow that brownies Franjean and Rool were comic retreads of Star Wars robots C3PO and R2-D2, who were also there for comic relief, like having Abbott and Costello in a serious movie in which someone else is the star and the hero.  So I realized that this, too, was a type of character archetype, inserted to break the tension, to make the story a bit more fun.

I am calling them “clowns,” not just because they are funny.  They often appear at scene changes, breaking the main action with a lighter aside before returning us to the heroes.

I rarely see these in games, and even more rarely do I see players undertake playing them.  Everyone wants to be one of the heroes, one of the serious characters contributing to the victory in the game.  I have had occasion to use non-player characters for the function, but players often regard these a waste of what could be productive game time.  We tend to exclude clowns from many of our games.  Perhaps, though, we do our games a disservice in doing so.

Of course, the story function of clowns in movies and books is to break the tension and delay the resolution.  They are in that sense a bit like the horror movie trope in which we discover that the movement of the curtain is just the cat, and a moment later the monster pops out of the closet.  They take us away from the chase scene or the shootout or the face-off, entertain us for a moment, and then drop us back into the action eager to know what is going to happen next.

Yet as archetypes they are something more, and perhaps something very important.

Clowns remind us that not everything in life is serious, and that the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.

Let me repeat that:  the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.

The time you spend playing games with your friends is probably more important than the time you spend pushing papers or digging ditches or building machines at work.  We tend to confuse that which is most necessary with that which is most important.  The clowns are not necessary.  They do not contribute to the success of the plot (well, R2-D2 does, being a hero who saves the day in almost every Star Wars movie and usually over the comedic objections of C3PO—but someone else could have done it).  Fun is not necessary; we can live without it.  Yet it is important, because it is that which makes life enjoyable, in a sense which gives value (not meaning or purpose, again things which we tend to confuse) to living.  Clowns remind us that we should enjoy life, even in the midst of its seriousness.  C. S. Lewis told us, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”  In a sense, the Christian life is about learning to enjoy, to enjoy our relationships with God and each other.  Game play is part of the enjoyment of those relationships; clowns are a serious reminder that it is not all serious, that we are here to have fun.

Of course, clowns also have their down side.  They are ineffectual; they rarely contribute to our success.  Yet when we realize that those goals, as noble and necessary as they often are, are not the ultimate purpose of our lives, we also recognize that our clowns are trying to remind us of this, and so even in their weakness they are strong, even in their folly they are wise, and they teach us to be weak and foolish so we may be strong and wise.


Previous article:  Redemption Story.
Next article:  Goodness.

Faith in Play #8: Redemption Story

This is Faith in Play #8:  Redemption Story, for July 2018.


Years ago I wrote Faith and Gaming:  Redemption, which was republished last spring.  In it I made the distinction between the “Prodigal Stories” that we sometimes call stories of redemption and the real “Redemption Story”, the story of how the price was paid, how we were saved.  I then addressed whether prodigal stories were inherently and specifically Christian, although I admit that the answer was a bit inconclusive—after all, even its creator says that Star Wars is about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader—you knew that, forget I mentioned it), but he would never claim it to be a Christian story.

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Yet it never occurred to me to consider the other side of that, the actual redemption story, and whether that might be included in our games and stories.  Further, I’m embarrassed to say, I find that it has been included in a number of stories with which I am familiar, so apparently it can be done.

Maybe.

The glaringly obvious example is the one I mentioned in that other article:  the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of The Chronicles of Narnia.  The redemption in that particular telling is very individual:  Aslan dies to save Edmund, although there is a hint of more in the statement that when the innocent dies for the guilty, the ancient magic would cause death to work backwards.  It is one of the best pictures of the Redemption Story in fiction.

It is not alone, though.  J. K. Rowling ultimately explained that she never wanted to tell anyone that the Harry Potter series was a Christian story because she believed that one fact would be the spoiler that gave away the ending.  In the end, Harry voluntarily sacrifices his own life to save everyone at Hogwarts—and because of magic Voldemort never realized he had cast, Harry’s death becomes Voldemort’s defeat, and Harry returns to life to finish the dark wizard.  We thus have the chosen one defeating evil by dying and returning to life.

I was further reminded, by the piece we wrote decades ago on The Problem with Pokémon, that in the Pokémon movie Ash also gives his life to save his friends, and is brought back to life.  It has been a long time since I saw that movie, but it again appears that the self-sacrifice of a lead character was a redemptive act.

I don’t want to stretch this too far.  Many stories include the hero sacrificing his own life; not all of them are redemption stories, and I’m not even completely certain all of these necessarily are.  Yet they suggest that a redemption story is possible in a fictional setting.  It is something that can be done in a book—I won’t say easily, but with care and skill successfully.

The much more difficult question is whether it can be done in a game, and if so how it would be done.

The critical problem is, who plays the redeemer?  When Mel Gibson directed The Passion of Christ he cast himself in one on-screen role:  his hands drove the nails.  If I am the referee in such a game, is the most important character in the story, the central character who pays the redemptive price, one of my non-player characters?  Or if it is one of the player characters, how do I make that work?  I am all in favor of player characters making dramatic sacrificial deaths—Multiverser encourages them, because the death of a player character becomes the tool that moves him to another world, another story, so the player can both let the character die and and have him survive.  However, how do I arrange the sacrificial death that leads to the redemptive resurrection?  Does the player have to be in cahoots with me on that, or do I have to keep it a secret, hope he will make the sacrifice, and surprise him with the outcome?  What if he balks at the sacrifice?

And after all that, would it be a necessarily Christian story?

That is a difficult question to answer.  I don’t know whether the Pokémon movie was intended as a Christian story, or how many people recognized it as such, despite the fact that Pikachu won the big fight by repeatedly turning the other cheek until his attacker collapsed from exhaustion just before Ash made his sacrificial move.  I do know that there are people who have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and probably more who have seen the movie, who do not know it is a Christian story by a Christian author.  It may again be one of those stories that you can tell, but without someone to call attention to it some will never recognize.

If any of you know of a game in which it was done, I would love to hear the story.


Previous article:  Coincidence.
Next article:  Clowns.

Faith in Play #7: Coincidence

This is Faith in Play #7: Coincidence, for June 2018.


If you follow this series, odds are fairly good that you followed, or at least were aware of, the previous series, Faith and Gaming. It originally ran monthly, as this one is scheduled to do, beginning in April of 2001 and ending in that same month in 2005. The series was always popular, was compiled with several other articles on the subject and released in printed form twice, and then in May of 2016 the Christian Gamers Guild decided to republish it as part of a website overhaul. My contribution to that reposting process amounted to giving permission for it and sometimes finding free artwork that fit with upcoming articles, if I managed to get to that before our efficient webmaster.

I mention this because something happened in that process that got me thinking, and since I had already committed to writing this series I made a note of it for this article. What happened was, in the very literal sense, a co-incidence: two events occurring simultaneously without an identifiable causal connection between them. I mentioned it then, but did not pursue it, and it’s worth taking a moment to discuss it now.

Bryan Ray, our diligent webmaster, had begun posting the Faith and Gaming series, as I mentioned, on May 10th, 2016. It was a Tuesday. At that point he had quite a volume of material to post, given the years for which the Guild had been publishing material and the people willing to contribute, so he was posting material every Tuesday and Thursday, and an installment of Faith and Gaming hit the web every week, on Tuesday. He ran through the first seventeen of the forty-nine original series articles at that rate, along with materials by quite a few other contributors and one other of mine, and then on September 1st realized that he was going to exhaust the stores faster than new material would replace it, so he cut back to posting on Tuesday only. Faith and Gaming appeared every other week thereafter.

The coincidence is that the twenty-ninth article in the series appeared on February 14th, 2017. At the time it was decided to post on Tuesdays and not Thursdays, no one was aware that Valentine’s Day would fall on a Tuesday, nor gave it much thought. Nor did anyone ever count out what article would appear when, other than calculating when the series would end so we could know when to start this one. However, the twenty-ninth article, which by this string of unrelated unconsidered causes happened to fall on that particular romantic holiday, is Faith and Gaming: Sex, discussing the propriety of sexual relationships within our role playing game worlds.

It was unexpectedly appropriate. Yet, as I hope I have persuaded you, none of us took any specific steps to make that happen. I did not realize it was happening until I saw it that morning.

These “coincidences” are interesting because they happen. I worked in Christian radio for a time, and there were stories of “mistakes” that were exactly what was needed. One that came to me was that the disk jockey had started a prerecorded program that came to us on a vinyl disk, and had left the studio to get his lunch; he had half an hour, he figured, so he took his time. A few minutes into the program, the record started skipping. Meanwhile, someone was listening. He was in his car, headed for the Delaware Memorial Bridge with the notion that he would get around the safeguards and jump into the Delaware River below. He flipped the station on his car radio and somehow hit us, where he heard the record skipping—a man saying, “Jesus…Jesus…Jesus…Jesus” for perhaps twenty minutes before the DJ caught it. Once the station identifier played, the man found a phone and called; he did not jump into the river.

I’ve written a book under the title Why I Believe which discusses the evidences for the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus, and one of those evidences is something Carl Jung called synchronicity and Wolfgang Pauli attempted to explain. It is about coincidences that defy the odds to the point that it is thought they must have an “a-causal connection”, that is, that two events regularly occur together without either causing the other or being effects of the same cause. Their occurrence strongly suggests the existence of something like a god, pulling the strings behind the scenes. How many fictional detectives have said, “I don’t believe in coincidences”? Whenever two events seem suspiciously connected, we always assume that someone had a hand in them. I recently heard a quote from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

It can be argued, but then, in our role playing games we actually have someone like a god pulling the strings behind the screens. In Multiverser we call him the referee, but his original title was Dungeon Master, and he has been called Game Master, Storyteller, and many other titles over the years. That means that those incredible coincidences can happen precisely because someone manipulated events behind the scenes—and if a referee is going to “play god” in his game, what better way to do so than to create exactly the kinds of events that look like someone up there likes someone down here, or conversely does not like them much?

Of course, you couldn’t do it all the time; you couldn’t really do it very often, probably, or it would seem contrived. However, you could do it in critical moments. You probably already do—you fudge dice, decide that the reinforcements for the player characters arrive in the nick of time or those for the villains are too late. You just aren’t sure of the justification for it. In Multiverser we included a “General Effects Roll” system, by which when the referee was not sure what was going to happen a die roll would guide him as to whether the outcome was generally good (from the character’s perspective) or generally bad, and the extreme rolls called for the one-in-a-thousand outcomes, good or bad. That kept it controlled, and balanced—but it doesn’t need to be so rigorous.

The point is, inexplicable coincidences happen, just as if someone were causing them, and there’s no particular reason why you, as referee, can’t be that someone.


Previous article: True Religion.
Next article: Redemption Story.

Faith in Play #6: True Religion

This is Faith in Play #6:  True Religion, for May 2018.


In the earliest versions of Dungeons & Dragons™, the original role playing game from which all others (including those electronic games that call themselves “RPGs”) are descended, there was a rules section known as alignment.  Many players did not understand it; many gamers did not use it; it was often badly abused.  However, I think it was one of the best and most important parts of the game, and I often defended and explained it.

I am going to make the perhaps rather absurd claim that I am a recognized authority on the subject of alignment in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™.  I know, that’s ridiculous.  However, I am also going to prove it.  When Gary Gygax was promoting his Lejendary Journeys role playing game, he placed on his web site exactly two links to pages related to Dungeons & Dragons™  One was to my Alignment Quiz, which had already been coded into an automated version by a Cal Tech computer student and translated into German.  The other was my page on choosing character alignment in my Dungeons & Dragons™ character creation web site.  He apparently believed I had a solid understanding of the issues.

So big deal.  I’m an expert in a game mechanic concept that isn’t even used by most of the few people who still play that game.  However, even if you don’t use it, don’t play that game, I think alignment is important to understand, because ultimately the character alignment was the real religious beliefs of the characters in the game world.  Read more

Faith in Play #5: Fear

This is Faith in Play #5: Fear, for April 2018.


I heard a comment on the radio to the effect that fear is a problem for intelligent imaginative people. The argument was that such people readily envision all kinds of terrifying possible outcomes of any situation, and so give themselves negative expectations. Stupid people, it was argued, don’t see what’s coming, but intelligent people think about all the possible outcomes and consequences in advance.

I am not persuaded. It is, after all, quite possible for someone to be afraid because they have been in a situation like this before and it led to a bad outcome; it is also quite possible to be frightened by a completely unfamiliar situation because you realize that you have no idea what might happen next. However, I can see that it is often the case that intelligent imaginative people frighten ourselves with what we conceive as possibly happening in the future. During the Cold War there were probably millions of people for whom the threat of nuclear annihilation was only a theoretical possibility discussed by politicians and military leaders and of no real concern to someone trying to get through the problems of ordinary life. It was intelligent writers, intelligent leaders, people with the ability to imagine what might happen, who were truly terrified of the possibilities. So there is some merit in the notion.

That caused me to wonder about the players in my games, and to suspect that you have seen something of the same in yours. Read more

Faith in Play #4: Bad Friends

This is Faith in Play #4: Bad Friends, for March 2018.


This started with a bit of silliness that over the course of a few hours became considerably more serious.

It was a morning drive, and on the radio someone was talking about how Jesus had saved her marriage. She said that now her husband was her “best friend”.

I know it was sincere, and it was undoubtedly truly meaningful, but I’m afraid it is so cliché that I immediately noted to my wife, “You know, no one ever talks about their worst friend.” We laughed. I said that there must be a way I can use that for something, and we pondered how you would identify your “worst friend.”

A few hours later I shared the joke with my youngest son, who did not laugh but instead said that he knew exactly who his worst friend was.

There is something of an attitude in gaming groups that says we must be friends because we’re all gamers who get together to play. It’s like thinking that you must be friends with everyone who goes to the same bowling matches or bridge games or cocktail parties. I have talked about that before, in Faith and Gaming: Friends. I have also written in mark Joseph “young” web log post #93: What is a Friend? about two distinct concepts of friendship. I hold the word to a rather high bar. I think most of the people who think themselves my friends probably are only acquaintances who like playing games with me. That’s fine; it’s good to have acquaintances of that sort. You could even call them friends.

My son’s choice for “worst friend,” though, was enlightening. He named the high school friend who, after serving in Afghanistan, became a homeless drug addict. This boy seems impossible to help—give him shelter and food, and he takes advantage of the situation to steal from the house to buy drugs.

We have a short list of people who are not allowed inside the house. They are welcome to sit on the front deck and talk with people, and we will help them as we can, but the doorway is the boundary. I always explain it to them very simply: People who live here believe that you have stolen from them and that you will do so again. As long as you are never inside the house, no one can accuse you of having stolen anything from inside the house. Thus the rule protects you from being accused. It happens that it also protects them from the temptation of stealing from us. This friend is on that list.

As I considered this, I realized that there have been many people whom we treated as friends over the years who abused that status. More than once we had to discontinue having gaming groups play in our home because someone, never identified, stole things from us, and rebuilding a gaming group after something like that is not simple. If the people we entertain in our home are our friends, we have had some bad friends. What do we do about these people?

Love your enemies, and pray for those who mistreat you, so that you may become sons of your Father in heaven. For He makes His sun shine on the good and the bad, and gives the blessing of rain to the righteous and the unrighteous.

Let me be clear. I do not mean that you necessarily have to give your bad friends free rein of your home; I do not mean that you do not report theft or other crimes to the police. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is put someone in jail—if indeed you are doing it as the best way to help them. We have had to do that at least once. What is expected, though, is that we continue to love the bad friends, even the worst friend, and to look for the best way to help them. We were never promised that showing love wouldn’t result in pain or injury to ourselves. We were promised that God would recognize His own image in us when we did so.

There is a footnote to this story. This was written about a year before it was published here, and in the intervening months my wife and I were both hospitalized and released with some severe restrictions on our activities. During this time that “worst friend” appeared, clean and sober, and stayed with us for an extended time, cooking and cleaning and otherwise making life possible for us while we were recuperating. No one is irredeemable, and a little love and grace and kindness can go a long way.

So show love to your friends, even the worst friend.


Previous article: Javan’s Feast.
Next article: Fear.

Faith in Play #3: Javan’s Feast

This is Faith in Play #3: Javan’s Feast, for February 2018.


Have you ever been in a game in which a character in the game did something that impacted all the players at the table? It happened to me once.

Well, it probably has happened to many of us. It happens sometimes when one player crosses a line, bringing something into a game that makes everyone uncomfortable, such as a rape or graphic slaughter scene; or when a player gets the idea that because his character is a thief the other characters are not going to be offended if he cheats them and steals from them, and they realize this. However, have you ever been in a game where the action of a character had a positive impact on the gaming group?

I have such a story. Read more

Faith in Play #2: Portals

This is Faith in Play #2: Portals, for January 2018.


I’m going to begin this with a bit of a theology lesson, continue with a some words from a song I wrote a few years ago, and then tie it back to our fantasy and science fiction stories and games.

One of the things that is confusing for many Christians is the idea of being saved, in the ongoing sense. After all, the Bible sometimes suggests that we were saved, at some past moment when we repented and turned to Christ, and then sometimes that we will be saved, at some future moment when either we die or the world comes to an end and we land in heaven with God, but sometimes that we are being saved, right now, in the present as an ongoing process. We might justly ask which is true, but we can see in that case that it is not at all unreasonable for all three of those statements to be equally true: at a moment in the past we were rescued, and God’s continuing work is moving us from lost to saved, so that in the future we will be among those rescued.

What really confuses, though, is the notion that we are already in heaven. That’s a bit of eschatology (that is, the study of last things) which a lot of people just say isn’t so, and yet the fact is that we are new creations, and thus part of the new creation, which is the thing that comes into existence to replace the old creation, and that’s why it’s confusing—until we get the eschatology straight. Read more

Faith in Play #1: Reintroduction

This is Faith in Play #1: Reintroduction, for December 2017.


There is a sense in which this is the continuation of the Faith and Gaming series. I began writing that in April, 2001, and continued doing so every month for four years—and then stopped. It seemed to end abruptly to me, but as I looked back at it the final installment was an excellent last article, and it has stood the test of time as such, as the series was published first independently by me and then in an expanded book by Blackwyrm. The end seemed abrupt to me because it was occasioned by a computer crash at my end that took all my notes for future series articles (it ended the Game Ideas Unlimited series at Gaming Outpost as well), and at the time I could not see how to get back up to speed. However, it has been more than a decade—thirteen years this past April—since the series ended, and I am often asked, and often consider for myself, whether I am going to continue it. Part of my answer has always been a question: what remains for me to write? Yet there is always more to write; I just have to identify it and tackle it.

And thus there is another sense in which this is a new series—thus the new name, Faith in Play. Part of that is because I noticed from the vantage of years of hindsight that much that I had been writing specifically about role playing games applied much more broadly to all of life, and especially to all of our leisure activities. So with that in mind, I am again putting the fingers to the keys and producing more thoughts on how we integrate faith with life, and particularly with those parts of life that in some sense seem the least religious, the times when we are playing. C. S. Lewis more than once cited a conversation from Pride and Prejudice in which Mr. Bingley was explaining a ball, that is, a festival dance, to Miss Bingley, who had never attended one. Miss Bingley asked, “Would not conversation be much more rational than dancing?”, and Mr. Bingley replies, “Much more rational, but much less like a ball.” And that is the challenge we often face in our leisure activities: that they are what they are, not the least bit rational, and yet not for that reason unimportant. In some ways, how we spend our leisure time, what we do when we are having fun or relaxing, may be the most important part of our Christianity, because it is the one thing over which we have the most control, the one part of our lives in which we most express who and what we are, and usually the time when we are interacting with others most naturally.

This is not the first time I have begun a new series of articles, and I generally begin with an introductory post. That post usually explains what it is I hope to write, and who I am that I feel qualified to write any such thing. Having explained the former, that leaves me with the awkward part of presenting my credentials. Read more

Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website

Over the past eighteen months, our diligent and dedicated webmaster Bryan has been republishing much of the material generated by and for the Christian Gamers Guild over the previous two decades in a new web format which is thought to be more accessible and is certainly better looking.  That has included material from our e-zine The Way, the Truth, and the Dice, a couple of articles from elsewhere, some new material, and of course my own Faith and Gaming series.  The upside of this is that many readers have discovered these articles for the first time.  The downside, from my perspective, is that it became just a bit tougher for me to refer people to the articles—not individually, but as a collection.  The old site had a single “Chaplain’s Corner” index that described and linked the entire series plus quite a few other articles on and off the site, and when people had questions about role playing or other hobby games I could (in addition to addressing the specific questions) refer them to that page for more information than they perhaps would have wanted.  That page still has some valuable links, but Bryan agreed with me that now that the entire series has been relocated there ought to be a page that indexes it all at the new locations.

Several thoughts occurred to me as I undertook this.  One was that there were a few articles I wrote which are excellent pieces not originally part of the Faith and Gaming series, and they should be included here.  The second was that it would seem particularly arrogant of me to index my own contributions and ignore those excellent articles by everyone else, so I am going to attempt in essence to map the entire site—not in the old directory tree mapping style, but in something more useful. Read more