Category: Faith in Play

Faith in Play #37: Balancing on the Corner

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.


Previous article:  Thanks.
Next article:  Places of Worship.

Faith in Play #36: Thanks

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.


Previous article:  Seekers.
Next article:  Balancing on the Corner.

Faith in Play #35: Seekers

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.

The image shown is the alchemical symbol for sulfur and as such has no more occult meaning or power than the letters of the alphabet.

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.

The author has previously written on this subject in Difficult Question:  What if Non-Christian Friends are Interested in Magic?.


Previous article:  Guidance and The Machine.
Next article:  Thanks.

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.