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.
In September 2006, Christian Gamers Guild member Scott Bennie posted several drafts of this article to the guild group mailing list. It appears not to have made it to the web site, an oversight which is being addressed presently.
Christianity and Role-Playing Games: Toward Reconciliation
The price of living in grace is that we must examine ourselves in heart, soul, and mind to determine whether the things we do and the activities that we love are right with God, whether they support or hinder us in the spiritual journey of our lives.
I have an activity that many Christians associate with decidedly un-Christian behavior. I play role-playing games. I’ve been engaged in the role-playing hobby, off and on, for close to 30 years. Back in 1977, when nobody had ever heard of them except for a few college students, I played a cleric in an AD&D game at a Vancouver Science-fiction convention. I’d loved fantasy literature ever since I was 5, when I snuck a peek at my brother’s copy of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The lure of pretending to be an adventurer, seeking his fortune against monsters in perilous dungeons and caverns, rolling strange dice, proved irresistible. That my first adventurer’s career lasted a mere twenty minutes (during his first encounter with a monster, my character was bitten by a giant rat and bled to death on the spot) was irrelevant. I was hooked.
Over the next few years, I picked up more and more gaming material and joined a few gaming groups. My second character lasted much longer than my first: years longer. I went to university and met quite a few gamers there, and I eventually started writing in the field. My first article was published in 1981, and over the years I went on to write many more supplements and books. Twenty-five years later, I’m still gaming (mostly superheroes and 1930s pulp adventure games now). It’s fun, it’s an emotional release, and it’s (still) a great way to spend time with friends.
I was a Christian long before I was a gamer. I was born into a family which, while not the most religious, still respected religious traditions and felt we should be exposed to them. I attended a Mennonite Brethren Church throughout my childhood and early teens and accepted Christ as my savior when I was 5. When I first started gaming in 1977, no one in the Church knew about gaming. It was only until about three years after I started gaming that religious leaders started speaking out against it.
I viewed gaming as a positive thing. Yes, there were demons and dragons and monsters in it. Those were the bad guys, the creatures my characters were fighting in the game world. Yes, there were spells in the game. These spells were game rules meant solely to alter the game environment or affect imaginary characters; they resembled the real world occult as much as a Chance card in Monopoly resembles an actual business deal (which is to say, not at all). There was a huge disconnect between the games I was playing and the games that church leaders were warning against in extremely graphic terms. People claimed that the games would lead me down a path to demonic possession, homosexuality, and suicide. My reaction was “Huh?” For the most part, I was just someone who enjoyed pretending to be a hero, going to war with the bad guys, and doing classic hero. Never once did I feel that my soul was ever at risk in a game or that I was doing anything evil. I wasn’t the only Christian gamer who felt that way.
Even so, I understand the problems that many Church leaders have with elements of the games. The world of fantasy is steeped in myth, mysticism, and the occult, and gamers are exposed to those forces. In my experience, however, the instances where Christian gamers are attracted by those elements of gaming to the point that they abandon their faith to engage in occult worship range from non-existent to (at best) unlikely. Nonetheless, we are commanded to scrutinize what we do. “Let us examine our ways and test them,” Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:40, “and let us return to the LORD.” The Bible has many passages that advise us to avoid corrupt activities and stay true to the Lord. If gaming is important in a Christian’s life, they’re obliged not to play it mindlessly but to be mindful of its impact on their lives.
What I’m hoping to do in this essay is to challenge both sides in this controversy. I want Christian gamers to honestly challenge their gaming habits and make sure that when you defend your activity, you’re doing it from a position of righteousness and in a spirit of correction. For non-gaming Christians who are worried about gaming, I want you to consider the good that Christians can do in the gaming world, the harm that unfounded and reckless accusations can do to someone’s faith, and appreciate that some people are drawn to appreciate myth for righteous and Godly reasons, working toward His purposes. Too many people have been hurt by the conflict between the Church and gamers; it’s well past the time to end this.
In the 1980s, role-playing games were first brought to the attention of the popular media by the sensation surrounding the disappearance of a young student named Dallas Egbert III. The reaction from many churches to role-playing games was unmitigated horror. Games where people pretended to be people who ran around hacking other people to pieces with swords? People worshiping pagan deities? People who ran around with books of spells and were involved in occult rituals?
We were actually playing a game of make-believe that combined board game elements with improvisational theater. Unfortunately, “make-believe” is not nearly as sensational as “suicidal demon worship!” and even Christians aren’t immune from sensationalism and media hype. Repeat a claim often enough, and it will eventually be accepted, even by smart people with good moral character. Thus, a lot of Christians came to associate Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs with real-world occult practices.
The spirit of the times only exacerbated the situation. The 1970s and 80s were a time when a lot of occult-based crimes were being covered in the media spotlight, so there was a natural tendency in religious circles to connect the two, a dreadful convergence where the church was ready to pounce on anything even remotely occult, and fantasy gamers got caught in the crossfire. Furthermore, the link between D&D and suicides made by organizations like Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons or the National Coalition on Television Violence only reinforced the assertions in the public imagination. That actual witches denied that D&D was their gateway into the occult was irrelevant. That each suicide case was thoroughly examined and the role of RPGs was seen (at best) to be a secondary factor in comparison to the victims’ other emotional problems—and that every judge who ever heard the “D&D Defense” in a court of law gave it less credibility than Twinkies—was conveniently ignored by every one of its detractors, who were determined to sell their viewpoint regardless of contrary facts. Within gaming, a siege mentality developed. Organized Christianity became the enemy.
Even among some believers, Christian churches were seen as a hostile force that needed to be fought against, not corrected. Gamers who played heroic paladins heard stories of how gaming was nothing but demon worship; one televangelist program even dramatized an anecdote where game books shrieked demonically as a dutiful Christian parent burned them. What were Christians whose games didn’t even remotely resemble an actual occult ceremony to think? Gaming is (as mentioned earlier) pretend. If you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons (or most fantasy games), you don’t actually wear a robe, mutter an incantation, draw a magic circle, or sacrifice an animal. You say “my character casts a [Fill in the blank] spell,” and then the dungeon master describes an effect that happens in the game world. Sometimes, games have an illustration of a pentagram or other symbols, but that’s usually as close as most D&D players get to the actual occult. Unlike your daily horoscope or Ouija, role-playing games make no claims that they affect the real world. Gamers would laugh at them if they did. Most Christians who are used to gaming look at the illustrations and ignore them. Anyone who bought a D&D book hoping to learn how to perform actual occult rituals would probably return it to the store the next day and angrily accost the salesperson for selling them a defective handbook. Role-playing games are fantasy.
As time has passed since the controversies of the 1980s, and more and more people have become exposed to games, the attitude in the church has evolved from hysteria to hostility or (at best) an uneasy tolerance. Christian gamers feel uncomfortable discussing their hobby with members of their congregation. Some have left congregations and even abandoned careers in ministry because of this hostility. The schism is still present. Since we Christians are commanded to unity, this begs the question: how do we bring them together?
The Bad Stuff
For Christian gamers who are used to getting defensive when our church talks about gaming, it’s still healthy to ask ourselves whether the detractors have a point.
Let’s be honest. Many long-time gamers like to trumpet the good things about the hobby: the requirement for literacy, math (in some games), historical knowledge, and imagination, and the good times we have had playing them, all of which are true. However, gamers, especially Christians, need to acknowledge the flip side of the coin. There is occult influence here. Some of the things that happen in RPG campaigns are disgusting, and non-gamers can’t be faulted for wondering why players are harboring such sick fantasies.
Examples of really disgusting character behavior are all too plentiful. We’ve all heard about games where the paladin was escorted out of the room so the rest of the party can torture the prisoner—a scene that’s often accompanied by evil chuckling. In our old D&D game, the dissection and mutilation of corpses in fantasy games to get spell components was another source of evil cackling.
In my second time playing Dungeons and Dragons at a science fiction convention back in 1977, I came upon a group of players who had taken casualties battling Ents. It seemed unbelievable for me to imagine Ents, the good wood-giants from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, attacking a group of heroes. “We were evil,” one of the party members explained. My jaw dropped. To me, the idea of not being heroic was inconceivable; heroism and the chance to emulate heroic fiction is what appealed to me about RPGs. Clearly, for some people heroism was not the game’s chief appeal.
While attending university, I knew players in one D&D party whose standard operating procedure when they entered a village was to poison the well water, rape the mayor’s daughter, set the village on fire, then proceed to the next village to repeat the same procedure. They worked for an evil, nihilistic demi-god whose goal was the destruction of the world.
So when a pastor comes up to a member of his congregation, discovers he’s a gamer, and asks “What do you think you’re doing?” it’s probably a good thing to put one’s natural defensiveness aside and try to engage in a real dialogue over the question: with the pastor, with yourself, and with Christ. Do the darker elements of gaming affect you? Does gaming with people who enjoy those darker elements affect you? Is gaming causing you to be exposed to more temptation than you can handle? Is it interfering with your relationship with Jesus? Are there any elements in your game that are a corrupting influence on your life? Does gaming occupy a space in your life that should be reserved for God?
Fantasy and The Great Reality
Non-gamers, however, do need to be open-minded. Exposure to sin is not sin; temptation is not sin; fantasy is not reality. Fantasy, even when its steeped in the mythology of false gods, is not always evil, and believers should be wary of thinking that Christians who enjoy mythology have one foot in Satan’s door. In fact, mythology often points to Christ.
Many Biblical stories have their mythological parallels elsewhere. For example, when Christ goes through the corn (or grain) field in Matthew 12 and permits his followers to take the corn, he might be foreshadowing his role as the risen savior. Although our culture has long forgotten it, in all likelihood Judeans at the time of Christ would be familiar with the mythical legend of the Corn King, a foreign fertility god who died and rose from the dead to symbolize the rebirth of spring from winter. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Christ adopted the role of the true Corn King, ending the long winter of man. Not only was Jesus the answer to Judaic prophecy, he was also the actualization of many pagan beliefs. In Him, the lies and legends of pagan deities like Baal-Hadad, Tammuz, and Osiris became truth, just as they did in the Old Testament with the tales of Leviathan and Behemoth, which were falsely attributed to mythological gods by other cultures, but were true in Yahweh.
The obvious question is: why would God use pagan myths? Some speculate that the enemy purposefully infected foreign mythologies with parallels in the hopes that these would discredit the truth by leading people to think of it as “just another phony legend.” or (if that failed) make it easier for syncretism to gain a foothold and pollute true Christian beliefs. Certainly both have happened. However, when you examine this parallelism in practice, another possibility presents itself. On numerous occasions, we’ve seen missionaries who’ve found elements in the myths of local cultures that mirror Christianity—and successfully used them as a bridge to the truth. Are we to view this as a coincidence? Could not God, who gave numerous prophecies in the Old Testament to herald Christ’s arrival into the Jewish world, knowing His Son would be a Lamp to all peoples, have permitted commonalties to exist within the world’s mythologies so his servants could more easily point the world toward the Truth?
It is folly to draw forced conclusions about the mind of God. However we can point out patterns of His grace in practice. C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity is a perfect example of the usefulness of myth. Lewis came to Christianity through conversations with two Christian friends: J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. While coming to Christianity, Tolkien used the sacrifice of Baldur in Norse mythological stories to illustrate Christ’s sacrifice in a way that Lewis understood. As Tolkien said, while recalling one of the conversations that led to C.S. Lewis’s conversion:
You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word… You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth. We have come from God… and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.
Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer, however shakily, toward the true harbor.
Of course, Lewis soon gave his life to Christ, and what a life it was! The pagan deities of the Norse gods were enemies of God, and their religions persecuted early Christian missionaries. Yet their stories inspired one of the great 20th Century theologians to come to Christ, a person who was responsible for countless conversions. If Tolkien had shunned the stories of Norse mythology because they were pagan and filled with the occult, Lewis’s conversion might never have taken place, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of souls would be lost.
It was truth twisted into a pagan myth that brought Clive Staples Lewis to Jesus. At the risk of oversimplifying his conversion, much of the credit for it belongs to a Christian who was knowledgeable about the mythology, who could untwist it and point Lewis in the right direction.
If one studies Lewis’s work, one sees that one of his greatest gifts as an essayist is his ability to pluck examples, not just from the Bible, but from pagan sources such as Greek and Roman writers, and use them to bolster his arguments. Lewis is a classic example of someone who lived in the world but was not (at least after his conversion) “of the world.” He was familiar with mythology and various writings that we might deem “occult,” but he was certainly no practitioner (though his appreciation of mythology never waned after his conversion, as evidenced by the presence of creatures from Greek mythology in Narnia.) In a similar fashion, many Christian gamers who appreciate mythological-based games are not tempted by the occult or corrupted by exposure to it might provide fellowship and guidance to those who love mythology but have not yet found the Truth behind all truths.
Gaming and the Door
There is but one Door to God, but there are many roads that can lead a person to that Door. Some people find certain roads easier to travel than others. The road of fantastic imagination may not be appreciated by some Christians, yet there’s an irony in this. Many of the symbols of fantasy are intimately wrapped with the enemy’s arts—but they’re also steeped in the Biblical. Magic? The Bible contains magic and miracles, the divinely sanctioned flow of the supernatural into our world. Monsters? What of demons, Leviathan, or Behemoth? Outer planes? What of heaven and hell? Heroes and villains? Look at the Old Testament! Good and evil as moral absolutes? Have we got a Book for you…
Many of the elements of role-playing games might be seen as gateways to the occult, but they can also point to Christ! Has not the enemy attempted to subvert and mock God’s symbols and power since the beginning? However, those who understand the symbols, at least in the pastime of gaming, are primed as few others to find God. If fantasy and mythology are twistings of the truth (and I’d contend they’re far more), a little guidance can untwist them and point gamers in the right direction. This is why it’s important for Christians who understand and appreciate myth to be involved in gaming with non-Christians. The occult is the enemy’s method of usurping the worship that rightfully belongs to God and to wrap himself in the symbols that rightfully belong to God.
In some cases, the enemy has done a really good job. For instance, many of the symbols that are associated with the occult, such as the tarot, originated with medieval Christianity. And how many modern horror movies steal elements from Judeo-Christian beliefs, but somehow fail to include little things like Christian redemption? How many movies fear Satan without any sign of Christ? How the enemy loves to co-opt Christian symbols!
Recently, scholars determined that the long-held belief that the Number of the Beast was 666 was based on a mistranscription: the true number is 616. When asked whether they’d change the number, a prominent Satanist answered: “As long as 666 pisses off Christians, that’s the number we’re using.” Note that the Satanist wasn’t interested in factual accuracy for his “religion.” His sole interest was in appropriating a Christian symbol for his own use. He wanted power to turn a reference in the Word of God into something that supported his personal corruption and hatred for the organized Christian faith.
We need to treat myth and fantasy and the imagination as one of the battlefields of the Christian faith, and take it back. Christians at work in those fields need less judgment and more support from fellow believers.
In, But Not Of
We all have to live in the world, and because of this, we’re all exposed to worldly influences. Some Christians are good at going into worldly situations and not being adversely affected. Other Christians should avoid them all costs. In the book of Ephesians, Paul refers to the necessity for Christians to wear the Armor of God while in the world. Applied here, the Armor of God might refer to the gift that allows a Christian to go into the world and resist its corruption, thanks to the power of their faith, and draw out useful examples from the world that brings people to Christ and edifies them in their Christian journey. Clearly, Lewis and Tolkien were blessed with this gift. Some people have a very strong shield of faith. It may be difficult for a non-gaming Christian to identify and appreciate those who possess this special strength when it leads them into unfamiliar and even dangerous waters, however, this doesn’t mean they don’t possess it. This doesn’t mean that we should embrace exposure to sin, or that sin cannot corrupt even the strongest of us. Paul and James tell us to shun evil for very good reasons! It does mean that (among other things), by the grace of God, those who wear the Armor of God that go out into the world may find unlikely things to use as His instrument in the salvation of others.
Some people find elements in gaming that mirror Christian themes—Dungeons and Dragons is very concerned with the struggle of good vs. evil—many Christian gamers who play Dungeons and Dragons, myself included, place a heavy emphasis on this timeless struggle. This is how I played D&D in the 1970s and 80s. Subconsciously, I filtered out the parts of Dungeons and Dragons that might have corrupted me and embraced those that supported my faith. Where possible, I tried to live that faith in my characters.
Due to a combination of neglect, misfortune, and corrosion from worldly influences, my faith did falter during the 1990s. Even so, this was not because of my gaming; if anything, RPGs were a bastion that encouraged me to keep holding true to the ethical values that my belief in Christ had given me; there’s no doubt that I’d have fallen sooner if I hadn’t been gaming. Furthermore, when I came back to my faith, it was my fellow gamers (including one of the players involved in that “sick” game group at university that I described earlier) who encouraged me to seek the pastoral help that rescued me.
Paul talks in Romans and 1 Corinthians about meat sacrificed to idols. In the first century world, this was a common source of income for pagan temples, to resell their sacrifices as cheap meat to feed the populace. For much the same reason that people flock to Walmart today, this meat was very popular, however early Christians worried it was sinful. Paul’s reply is highly instructive about how to treat elements of the fallen world. He said (1 Cor 8:1-8) that idols are nothing, and that we can eat food sacrificed to idols, provided they don’t produce a stumbling block for a weaker brother. However, a Christian wasn’t supposed to become so comfortable with the practice that they allowed themselves to become involved in the actual worship of pagan gods and demons (1 Cor 10:18-21). Eating the meat is part of living in the world. Feasting at the pagan temple, on the other hand, is part of joining the fallen world. In a similar way, fantasy is a fancy, without bearing on the real world. Pretending to be a D&D character who casts a spell is, to use Paul’s words, “nothing at all.” Actual occult practices, on the other hand, are an affront to God and must be avoided at all costs.
Most Christian gamers understand this division and game comfortably within it. Some Christian gamers are uncomfortable with these themes; they find ways to avoid them, usually by playing games without those elements. Both approaches are fine. As we’ll see later, the Holy Spirit, which is the best guide to whether we are “in” or “of,” does not lead all gamers down the same path. Unfortunately, many Christians become so terrified of the occult that they’re often quick to break fellowship with gaming believers who’d never go near a genuine occult ceremony under any circumstances, rejecting a useful avenue of ministry in the process. We cannot abandon areas of ministry simply because the enemy has polluted them with a few symbols and gained a foothold. That does not advance God’s purposes. God wants us to be in the world just as adamantly as he wants us not to be of it. Is there any man or woman alive on this earth whose needs God does not want us to meet?
It’s important for Christians who feel drawn to gaming, fantasy and mythology to feel comfortable and supported by their fellow Christians. As mentioned earlier, that does not mean that gaming is without its pitfalls or that the risks are negligible. However, every aspect of modern life holds similar risks.
The Two Minute Warning
As a counterexample, let’s look at the values inherent in professional football. Football is violent, which is clearly a sin. Football’s combative elements are prideful, which is a major sin. Many football teams employ scantily-clad cheerleaders. That’s certainly not a Christian value. Football fans get angry at other teams merely because they’re the opponents, or rail at the lawful authority of a game because they don’t agree with their decisions, and even bring down their wrath on their own teams, merely because they made a mistake. Is that Christian? Television networks use football games to tempt people with commercials that encourage people to indulge in strong drink and covet luxurious possessions. My goodness, what a horrible pastime! To make matters worse, football games are most frequently broadcast on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Could there possibly be a less transparent Satanic plot to corrupt Christian souls?
Yet the point I’m trying to make isn’t that football is evil, though a Christian football fan should question whether the game is more important in his life than Christ. The point is that most Christian football fans are perfectly capable of watching football and cheering for their favorite team without putting their souls even remotely in jeopardy or dishonoring their savior. The armor of God, even when we misstep, is incredibly strong. God is an armor-smith without peer. Even though football is steeped in worldly values, many Christian football players and coaches use the sport as an effective tool for ministry. If we were to be so puritanical that we opposed the pastime (and their ministry) on the grounds that football was ungodly, how many souls would be lost?
Furthermore, concentrating solely on the negative activities of football does it a serious disservice. What are football’s virtues? Football requires determination and self-discipline, which are both positive things. It requires teamwork, another positive thing. The sense of community that a team inspires is a positive. The fellowship that comes when someone learns to respect an opponent is extremely positive. Despite the negatives, football can reflect some very positive Christian values. Christians who are football fans are able to filter out the corrupting influences (sometimes by ignoring them, sometimes by knowing their limitations well enough to change the channel when the world tempts them) and embrace the positive aspects of the game. That’s what Christian gamers do. Either they’ll confine themselves to games that celebrate Christian values, alter other games to be more Christian-friendly, or accept the division between fantasy and reality and not allow it to affect their non-gaming lives.
Everything in the secular world holds some risk for Christians. Although I’ve never heard of a Christian being drawn into actual occult rituals in my thirty years of gaming, there are real risks in gaming too. If a Christian’s faith wavers because it’s being mocked or picked apart by a non-believer at the gaming table (which is, in my experience, the single biggest real challenge that Christian gamers face) or (like the ultra-fanatical football fan) he’s turned his pastime into an obsession which displaces God in importance in his life, correction will be needed. This is best done by other Christian gamers who know him; however, in their absence, friends in the congregation should draw round to support and correct the believer in a spirit of Christian fellowship.
Non-gaming Christians should never treat a gamer as a pariah or gaming as a sickness. Never suggest that a gamer should abandon the pastime. That will often be seen—sometimes correctly—as a knee-jerk reaction. If you see a Christian whose faith might be suffering because of his hobby, draw his attention to your concerns and discuss them calmly, at length. Listen carefully. If, after giving him a fair hearing, you can agree that there are problems, ask if making a few minor changes to his game would correct the problem. If the answer to that question is no, ask him if switching to a gaming group of believers would help.
Only if there’s no other choice should you suggest that the gamer give up the hobby, and even then, suggest that he only do so temporarily, to give him the time and perspective to reflect and spiritually renew himself, so he can come back later with a heart that’s more attuned to the purposes of God. Remember that no one goes to Hell for gaming. We only go to Hell when we don’t have a relationship with our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s that relationship that will bring in the Holy Spirit, and it’s the Holy Spirit that will bring true correction to the believer. Therefore focus on restoring the gamer’s broken relationship with Christ, whereby he’ll experience genuine repentance; don’t try to force a quick “purification” down his throat that runs the risk of driving him from the Church.
Gamers, being as imperfect as the rest of the human race, will inevitably stumble. Even the best of us will make mistakes. How fortunate that we have the benefit of a very forgiving God.
In the mid-1980s, one of my best friends, a man named Brian, played Dungeons and Dragons with our game group, playing a thief and a mage in the same group where I played a holy warrior and a priest. Brian was going through a serious spiritual crisis at the time, and was longing, even though he didn’t realize it, for Jesus. He decided to run a solo adventure for my priest, Eleador, who served the god Auru (whom I’d established as the analog of the real God in our D&D world, in the same spirit that Aslan is the analog of Christ in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia). Brian gave Eleador a special problem: Auru wanted a specific piece of land to serve as a temple, which was controlled by an evil warlord. This was unusual, because in the many years we’d played together, it was maybe the second time that I can recall Brian ever sitting in the GM’s (referee’s) chair.
In a typical Dungeons and Dragons game, the solution to this problem would be to embark on an epic quest: in this case, my character would attack the warlord and seize his land by brute force. This time, however, Eleador chose to employ other methods. He went to the edge of the estate and began preaching to the slaves. He preached of God’s love and mercy, of the hope that people got from worship, and how God wanted to help them. The slaves converted to Eleador’s message. The warlord, seeing a difference in the slaves’ lives, asked to meet the priest who was delivering this message of love and hope. Eleador told the warlord about God, and spoke persuasively. The warlord converted and gave over the estate to serve as a temple.
What was infinitely more important, this adventure demonstrated the power of evangelism to Brian in a way he had never considered before. It was one of the final things he needed to understand in order to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Shortly afterward, he gave his life to Christ.
Salvation through Dungeons and Dragons? If this comes as a surprise, remember Romans 8: 27-29. “And we know that in all things” (emphasis mine) “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” No one should be surprised to find the Lord at work at the gaming table.
Brian did give up gaming; his mage and thief characters had done enough things contrary to his newfound faith that he felt God directing him away from gaming, so he consigned D&D to his pre-conversion days. His gaming friends missed him, but we understood that his faith had to come first. We continued to game, and Brian didn’t express any problems with that decision on our parts. We made a decision based on our conscience about the things that interfered or reinforced our Christian walk. That we came to opposite yet correct decisions is an example of the wonderful power of grace in our lives and a good warning to both sides to avoid simplistic judgments.
Game Content and Self-Examination
If we accept that the subject of mythology is not off-limits to Christians, provided they are strong in their faith and prepared to face the problems of wading in what many hold to be dangerous waters, there’s a second issue that gamers have to deal with, and that’s the non-occult content of games. Gaming may not be an occult activity, but it certainly shares elements with other forms of popular entertainment in the secular world. A role-playing game is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with most of the details determined by a consensus between the referee and the players. If the group wants the game to feature protagonists in a heroic role in a world with strong moral values, it usually will. On the other hand, if the group wants the game to feature a pack of psychopaths who run amok committing acts that make Natural Born Killers look like a church picnic, it can do that too.
This is one of the things that makes it impossible to make a generalization that accurately encompasses the spectrum of moral content in role-playing games. It’s like trying to make a useful statement that passes a sweeping moral judgment that applies equally to Lassie and Kill Bill.
Christians are commanded not to compartmentalize their lives; we do not keep parts of our lives separate from God or from our Christian duty. Therefore, we are on some level accountable for how we conduct ourselves when we game. The key question is, therefore, how much influence do our in-character actions have on our Christianity?
Most people would find that when we’re playing a character, be it in a role-playing game or in a dramatic production, we’re not committing sin by proxy; we’re not responsible for the sins of our characters. When I was in high school, I played the role of Caiaphas in a production of Dorothy Sayers’ The Man Born to be King. When my character helped condemn Christ to death, I wasn’t committing the most heinous sin in human history, rather, I was pretending to be a character in a reenactment. Similarly, I believe that when I play Ascarin the mage in a Forgotten Realms game, and he lies, cheats, and becomes involved in magic, I’m not actually committing sins, I’m pretending to be a character who sins.
If this seems unreasonable, let’s reverse the analogy from sin to virtue. I have a character named Billy Deighton, Canadian Rocket Man, in our weekly Pulp Hero game (role-playing classic 1930s heroes like Doc Savage, Indiana Jones, Tarzan, and the Shadow). Billy is a Hero with a capital “H.” He regularly puts his life on the line to protect the innocent, he tells the truth, and is generally a virtuous guy. He goes to church regularly. When I’m playing Billy and he’s doing good deeds, I’m not actually doing good works, I’m just playing a game of pretend. If Billy were to bring a character to Christ in the game, he’s not performing an actual rescue, I’m pretending to be a character who performs a rescue in the context of a game. Fantasy, for good or ill, is still fantasy, unless it has ramifications that go beyond the game table.
This may seem like a pretty clear-cut distinction, but as usual with life, contact with the real world muddies the waters. We know that our outside thoughts and imaginations can affect our spirituality. Just as a method actor can be affected by going too deeply into a character, role-players can submerge themselves so deeply into their role that it does interfere with their Christian relationships. Sometimes it’s too deep, too affecting.
A game’s subject matter does count, especially in areas that are governed by thought and emotions, particularly anger and sexuality. Are we playing a lustful character in recognition of his flaws, or is the character an excuse to act out sinful fantasies? The former could be okay, however the latter definitely is not. Christians should be wary of giving themselves excuses to let their minds wander to unsavory behavior. At the very least, we need to be mindful of a character’s quirks and ask why we’re playing them. Why should a Christian pretend to be a torturer when he can pretend to be merciful? Why should a Christian pretend to be lustful when he can pretend to be righteous? Why should a Christian pretend to be a rebel against lawful authority when he can pretend to be respectful? Why should he fantasize about humiliating people and not edifying them?
However, there are valid situations where Christians can play flawed characters. Sometimes it’s done for the benefit of other characters; the villain allows other players to enjoy foiling his plots and allows their virtue to shine in comparison to him. Sometimes it’s because the role involves a redemptive journey, and going from sinner to saved is certainly a theme that a Christian can put his teeth into. Sometimes it’s done because a role that’s unlike a person’s actual character tests one’s acting abilities, which (like all talents) is a divine gift and needs to be practiced. Sometimes it’s done because a player has a hard time believing in a character unless he’s underlined by serious or believable flaws, or to fit in with the style of the playing group (more on why this isn’t always a bad thing later in this essay). Sometimes a player simply uses gaming as a safety vent for stress or negative emotions.
Fantasies don’t translate into direct behavior: most people are adults who are capable of handling the distinction between the real and the fantastic with ease. Earlier, I mentioned a group of university students whose D&D campaign was pretty disgusting. Twenty years later, every member of that game group is a family man who’s employed at a respectable job, who’s never committed a serious criminal act. Those in-game deeds simply didn’t apply to their actual lives.
Ideally, a Christian should seek game groups and experiences that allow him to do two things: (a) help other players triumph in their real-world struggles, and (b) edify his faith. Even when he doesn’t, however, it’s not a sign that he’s stumbling. Sometimes an entertainment is just an entertainment.
But What About THOSE Games?
Some would argue that Christian gamers should only play Christian games, games designed to edify their faith. I have no problems with people who want to patronize Christian gaming. However, RPGs are largely a tabula rasa, and edification can occur in the most unexpected places, as it did with Brian.
Christians should be quick to admit that gaming, like a lot of the world’s popular entertainment, is not very Christian-friendly. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, while they don’t provide a guide to participating in actual occult rituals, do include symbols of classic demonology in some of their literature; additionally, supplements such as The Book of Vile Darkness explore occult and depraved themes in greater detail. Graphic sexuality is prevalent in many gaming books. Beyond D&D, there are modern occult games like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, where one can play vampires, werewolves, and Hermetic magicians. There are horror games like Call of Cthulhu, whose premise is that the universe is inherently hostile, and that people will either die a gruesome death or linger in gibbering madness. Some games might represent contrary views to Christianity, such as Witchcraft, or be openly hostile to Christian beliefs, such as the original French version of In Nomine.
Some may not see the value in these games. I have problems with some of them myself (though I confess I enjoy Call of Cthulhu for its over-the-top characterizations). Many Christians find redemptive themes in World of Darkness, and even though I don’t play them, I can’t fault anyone who does. I do, however, sympathize with Christians who want their game experiences to be tainted as little as possible by the world’s negative influences. There are a growing number of games that are designed specifically with Christians in mind. These include board games like Settlers of Caanan (a variation on the classic board game Settlers of Catan), Ark of the Covenant, or The Journeys of Paul, and even role-playing games like Spiritual Warfare or Dragonraid.
Also, it is not hard to adjust some existing games, including Dungeons and Dragons, to reflect a more Christian-friendly philosophy. Some even include hooks that make it easy: for example, the great overdeity of D&D‘s most popular fantasy world, the Forgotten Realms, is Ao, an abbreviated form of “Alpha-Omega”. This subtle inclusion of the Christian deity places Him in a position of prominence over pagan deities, who act (according to the laws of the campaign setting) under His authority. A gamemaster who emphasizes Ao’s importance in the Realms and de-emphasizes less Christian-unfriendly aspects might produce a game that’s more appealing to Christians in his game circle. Other games and settings will have other tools that a clever gamemaster might alter to fit his desired message. Darker aspects of the game world (such as those found in the previously mentioned Book of Vile Darkness) may be reserved for the bad guys, accentuating the fight of good against evil. Some magic (“white magic”) might be defined as a divine gift to the world, so players can use it within the confines of the game world while still being mindful of the danger of the occult in the real world. Some gamers play in Middle-earth or Narnia, both of which are substantially friendlier to the Christian ethos than most game worlds.
Before my recent return to Christ, I wrote a book called Testament, a guide to playing characters in the historical Middle East (with a heavy emphasis on the lands of the Bible). That book was not written from a Judeo-Christian perspective, but I wrote it knowing that it might find a Christian audience and that they could adapt it very easily to represent a Christian perspective. Likewise, a gamer could adapt other game systems, such as GURPS, the Hero System, Hero’s Journey, or Burning Wheel, and use them to role-play heroes of the Bible.
Of course, there are also a lot of games where players can take on more positive characters than in much of the fantasy milieu. In addition to overtly Christian games, there are superhero games like Champions or Mutants and Masterminds or Star Wars where the emphasis is often on heroic self-sacrifice, there are games like Pendragon where it’s easy for players to play Christian characters (in this case, the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table). Many games focus on heroism and positive values, and playing character roles can reinforce positive roles. Some of these games may have elements like the previously mentioned “white magic” that some Christians view with a jaundiced eye; even if one gives less weight to the division between fantasy and reality than one ought, a game group has a lot of control over a game’s content.
The Game Group
One thing that gaming’s detractors don’t understand is that a gaming group has as much (or more) of an impact on a game’s style and moral content than the actual game system: in other words, who you play with is more important than what you play. To use a football metaphor again, the difference is like watching a football game with sober Christians or with drunken, profanity-loving non-Christians. The game is the same, but the experience is (or we should hope!) totally different.
Some game groups are supportive and contain believers and/or tolerant non-believers. Others are composed of hostile non-believers who enjoy mocking the Christian faith. Games that might otherwise seem antagonistic to Christians can be edifying with the right group, particularly when the social dynamic of the game does more to shape the group’s adventures than the rules. Likewise, some gaming groups may be toxic to a gamer’s faith, even if the game itself is non-offensive.
A game group is a call to ministry, through example and (when opportunities present) discussion. It is also a circle of friends who support each other in times of need, who enjoy common interests and fellowship. A good gaming group, like any circle of friends, can minimize the impact of the worst events and amplify the good events. They’re the primary reason why gamers play, and why gamers find it annoying when other non-gaming Christians dismiss their activities without a lot of thought and discussion.
Behaving Like a Believer at the Game Table
So much effort is spent on judging a game’s content that we often neglect the real danger area of gaming, the social interaction between players.
In any social activity, particularly competitive ones such as gaming (even role-playing games, though usually cooperative, have their competitive elements), it’s important to watch our manners. We may play Risk or Diplomacy or Settlers of Catan with an implicit “social contract” that a person’s word may be broken. Likewise, RPG games such as The Mountain Witch require betrayal of player vs. player for drama, and in Paranoia it’s necessary for humor. The common social contract still does not justify boastfulness or insults or arguments designed to hurt people’s feelings. Too often I’ve seen an “omega male” at the gaming table, a gamer with incredibly clumsy social skills, a physical handicap, or poor hygiene become the butt of jokes, neglect or abuse. Our first duty as a Christian is avoid joining in bullying circles and other harmful pack behaviors.
Our character’s actions don’t equate to sin. There is one huge exception to this rule: when those actions are a passive-aggressive cover that’s meant to hurt other players on a personal level, either by knowingly humiliating them or destroying their fun, then we are indeed sinning. Christians at the gaming table cannot treat other gamers in the same way as the world. We need to be aware of how we’re treating other players as people. Gaming is such a useful tool to develop friendships, and through friendships, the presentation of positive Christian models, and through those models, lead people to Christ. We are always the ambassadors of Jesus Christ to the world. The front line of all ministry is love, including love for the outcast and the dysfunctional. Fellowship is the best evangelism.
Those who have been in gaming for a long time know that the hobby’s greatest quality is its capacity to bring people together and cement friendships. Most role-playing games follow the common theme of the classic quest story: a group of people getting together to solve a common objective, traveling together through dangerous lands and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against common enemies. That’s been a surefire formula for bonding with others since the dawn of time. Many gamers are non-Christians who have little or no exposure to Christians outside of the stereotypes presented by the world. Those errors desperately require correction. The gaming table can be a dangerous place for one’s faith, but we need to be there. And when we’re there, we need to exemplify the Christian virtues that lead people to turn toward our faith.
A Warning and a Hope
Back in 1980, when the Dallas Egbert incident first hit the news and the media began warning people about the “dangers” of Dungeons and Dragons, I had a confrontation with my mom over my gaming. She forbade me from gaming, and when I objected, she burst into tears and declared: “I don’t want anything to happen to you!”
Over twenty-five years later, I’m still here. Life has surprised me with crueler twists and turns than I ever expected to endure, however by the grace of God, I’ve survived thus far.
This year at Gen Con, the annual convention for role-playing and board games that takes place every August in Indianapolis, I was walking back to the convention center from a restaurant when I was intercepted by a gamer who recognized the name on my badge. “I met my wife playing Champions years ago,” he said, and then he hastened to introduce his wife. “We always played your stuff,” he added. “You’re indirectly responsible for our marriage!”
The remark was almost certainly an exaggeration; even if I’d never written those books, someone else would have, and the couple would have gotten together anyway. Even so, never in my wildest dreams did I ever suspect that my work would be credited for someone’s marriage. Since returning to my faith several years ago, I’ve wondered if I’m in the right place. From a business standpoint, RPG writing is the skid row of the publishing profession. Pay rates are no better than those paid to pulp fiction writers in the 1930s—when you get paid—and there’s plenty of young talent on the market capable of taking over from aging warhorses like me when you stumble over a deadline. Many publishers have no respect for their writers, and even the ones who do respect you will always put your name last on the list of people to get paid. This isn’t malice on their part; the grim reality is that if a company doesn’t pay their printers, they shut down. They’ve already got the writing on hand when the printer bill comes due, and there’s always another writer to replace you, so we fall to the bottom of the list.
I’ve prayed a lot to God many times during the last two years, asking Him if he really wants me in gaming. I’ve begged Him to place me somewhere where I can secure a more comfortable financial future. Part of this prayer is motivated by my struggles with physical disabilities, which disqualify me from most of the jobs in my area that can support me. Frankly, my long-term future frightens me. Without my faith, I don’t think I could take it. Partially, these prayers are motivated because there are aspects of the gaming culture that really bother me: I don’t like the general hostility to Christianity that’s present in a lot of gamers. I’m very uncomfortable with the role that occult gaming and conspiracy theory games have played in the development of RPGs during the last decade, even though I have friends who play them and who’ve worked on them. The people I like; the subject of their games, not so much.
However, experiences like a chance meeting with a married couple outside a convention in Indianapolis go a long way to convince me that I’m in the place where God wants me to be, that He has plans for me in gaming. 25 years ago, when mom broke down over my gaming, she was wrong. Something did happen to me, but it wasn’t what she feared. I have no idea what God’s plans for me in gaming are, but I feel the best place for me to start is with gamers, with people. Relationships are more important than content. In Corinthians 7:20, Paul says “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.” I was in gaming when He called me back, therefore it’s God’s will whether I stay in gaming or move elsewhere, and who am I to argue with my Lord? I’ve gamed, off and on, for nearly thirty years now. If that long experience has taught me anything, it’s that common interests lead to comradeship, and comradeship to friendship, and friendship to love, and love is the gateway to Jesus Christ.
So where does this leave the reconciliation between gaming and non-gaming Christians? I think most Christian gamers understand the objections of non-gaming Christians. Some of the contents of RPGs also bother us. However, please know that we’re not interested in wallowing in occult corruption, but we want to experience fellowship, using the divine gift of imagination given to us by God as a starting point. We have no interest in participating in the real occult, or in providing worship to imaginary gods, or in performing acts of gruesome violence or committing suicide. We are compelled not by darkness, but by the symbols of God that can be found in the mythology of the imagination. Though they may be hidden within the thorny briar of myth, we see them clearly, and we are drawn to them. Though the enemy tries to drown them out with the tumult of worldly noise, they speak to us with the voice of our Shepherd, the Storyteller, the Speaker of parables. How can we resist that voice?
Have faith that we are not being deceived, that with God’s grace we will be mindful of whatever dangerous path that has been set before us, and not stumble. If you cannot find that faith in your hearts, then pray for us, pray for our protection and God’s guidance, and let the matter rest in His will, against whose immeasurable power the forces of the occult are nothing but a crude, pale mockery. In that faith, you will find the unity to which we are all commanded, and come beside us to remind us of our work. For the most part, we’re only gaming for fun, and that’s how we perceive the pastime, much like your favorite activities. However, anyone who comes alongside unbelievers has (whether they realize it or not) a mission, thus we are dice bag missionaries, working on largely foreign soil. In this task, we need all the help we can get.
No, this article isn’t about dungeons or caves. It’s about a design lesson that I only learned as an adult. As a kid, I skimmed through the Dungeon Masters Guide and the Monster Manuals countless times, planning adventures or just perusing all of the intriguing stuff within. Though this wasn’t playing, it was still magic. I think the sheer number of choices in those books led me to litter each of my adventures with a wide variety of monsters and magical treasures. There were so many interesting choices, and I wanted to use them all (or at least a LOT of them).
Even those mildly interested in mythology can recognize the various cultures from which many stock fantasy monsters derive. From the Greeks, our fantasy games get their centaurs, chimeras, dryads, gorgons, griffons, harpies, hippogriffs, hydras, lamias, medusas, minotaurs, nymphs, pegasi, sphinx, titans, tritons, and others. From the Arabs, we get efreet, djinni, marids, and ghouls. Northern Europeans gave us bugbears, bogles, dwarves, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, trolls, and others. You get the idea. In my younger years, I mixed and matched these monsters without a second thought, dropping them into my various adventures. Most were a glorious mish-mosh of foul creatures. When making an adventure, I probably based my monster selection as much on novelty (those that my players had not yet encountered) as on a suitable environment (heat-loving creatures near volcanoes, cold-loving creatures in frozen tundra, etc.). I can admit that I gave no thought at all to atmosphere or mood. Monsters existed so PCs could kill them (or occasionally negotiate with them). They were stat packages with important tactical differences. The chief villains in most of my early adventures might as well have been the ‘United Nations of Monsters’.
Some of you may be thinking, Isn’t diversity good? Isn’t variety the spice of life and all that? Though diversity can be great, I suggest that the frequent (even constant) blending of so many monsters and treasures can actually rob an adventure of some flavor, much as blending six flavors of ice cream dilutes the flavor of each. Read more
Many years ago, when we were just learning to play D&D Third Edition, our weekly gaming group spent over a year exploring the Temple of Elemental Evil. What started out as a brief tutorial in a new game system never ended, and a year later several players grew bored and frustrated. Though I joined the group a few months after they began, when the PCs were already at 6th-level, I soon had a 9th-level fighter. Moreover, this fighter had a laundry list of magical items and equipment, though where he kept any of that stuff was beyond me. When my mind began to rebel against such senselessness, some players just shrugged, while others told me that the ‘campaign’ was only a tutorial so it didn’t matter. Well, after more time passed, one exasperated player finally said aloud that the campaign lacked any hint of realism, but rather than blame the DM, he instead took the high road and suggested that the group start, you know, role-playing. Now that we had most of the mechanics down, perhaps we should either start over or start playing the characters like real people. He pointed out that the PCs had been exploring the seemingly endless underground site for close to two weeks in a row (in game) without ever stopping to rest, to eat, to drink, or to sleep. Unfortunately, the players largely ignored his objections as trivial. The game dragged on for a few more months, but it eventually imploded because there was zero interest left. While that two-year campaign was torturous in many ways, we had a lot of laughs and also learned to play D&D Third Edition. More importantly, I learned something fundamental that later helped me as a DM: tough choices make for a good game. The reverse is also true, of course: a lack of tough choices often makes for a poor game.
Though this concept of tough choices could be the title of an entire series of articles, I wish to limit myself here to just three annoying practices that I have witnessed countless times. Though I hardly expect that everyone has had the same experiences, some of you, especially those that have played for a while, can probably attest to seeing a few of these. Perhaps you do these things yourself and even defend the practices. No matter. This isn’t about right and wrong or about assigning blame. I simply suggest that these practices actually detract from a good rpg game session (at least one in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons). If these practices are common in your game, you may not even realize that your game is hindered. I suggest trying a few changes. After a few sessions, you may notice that your game has changed a bit, and you may like it.
I have watched PC archers loose one or two arrows per round at their monstrous foes, doing so in six, eight, or ten encounters in a row, yet somehow they never run short on arrows. When is the last time that you heard a player say, “Guys, I’m down to two arrows”? Maybe your playing history is different than mine, but I honestly can’t recall a player saying that. Some characters purchase arrows during character creation and then go for months or years without every buying more. Talk about getting your money’s worth!
If someone objects, a player might argue that keeping track of such minutia is boring. “This is a game about adventure, not book-keeping!” a player once told me. Two other players that I remember seemed more bothered by the loss of coin than the effort of tracking arrows. One wonders why someone like that would buy a weapon that requires ammunition. Who knows? However, when pressed, at least one said, “I can’t afford to keep buying arrows. The prices in this village are inflated.” By the way, he was not wrong.
Many years ago, my friends and I sent our PCs deep underground, venturing for days without ever giving a thought to our supply of torches or oil. I remember fighting many creatures in that place and eventually getting out alive with plenty of treasure. I don’t ever recall running low on light sources. More recently, I have seen a party of about ten PCs in a long file, winding its way through a narrow tunnel. When the PCs in the lead, carrying the only light source, ran forward to scout ahead, the DM told the PCs in the back of the party that they were now in the dark. An annoyed player grumbled, “We have torches, ya know.” To that the DM flatly asked, “Did you light them before the fighter in the front ran off with the lantern?” Annoyed and a bit incredulous, the player responded with, “We would have when we saw him move away.” This sort of play makes me bury my head in my hands. Yet, we did have fun, and we did so without worrying too much about light sources.
My opening anecdote already touched on how a group could completely ignore the importance of food and water, let alone rest. It was silly, and again a few players seemed annoyed at the suggestion that we start tracking such things. Yet, we had some fun. As a kid, I remember playing in Tracy and Laura Hickman’s desert-themed adventure called Pharaoh. It is still one of my favorites, but I laugh now at our silliness because I recall that food and water were never concerns during that adventure or during the two sequels. One could certainly argue that we had a blast without ever giving a thought to food or water, and that is true.
IGNORING CARRYING CAPACITY
I submit that bags of holding and portable holes are perhaps the most useless magical items in the entire Dungeon Master’s Guide. Do I dislike the idea of those items? Certainly not! In fact, they’re great. My issue is that so many players and DMs completely ignore realistic limitations on what a person can carry that those items become pointless. A player might moan, “But the encumbrance system in AD&D First Edition is awful!” I couldn’t agree more. It may have improved in later editions, but I haven’t met a single player that has liked any system for carrying capacity.
More recently, my gaming group was exploring an old castle. I watched a fellow player run his seven-foot-tall, female, half-orc barbarian-cleric in her characteristic style. She has a penchant for bull-rushing enemies, dropkicking them, or tackling them. As a side note, I love that she does this for flavor, though some other players dutifully remind the player that the PC could deal more damage with standard moves and attacks (yawn). Anyway, twice or thrice in one recent session, the half-orc delivered a tackle that would have made Jack Lambert proud. After rolling around on the ground several times with her opponents, she then pulled out a javelin and hurled it at a new foe. I could not help myself and asked, “Where did she have this javelin all this time?” Without missing a beat, the player responded, “Tied to her back.” Ok. I laughed inside, for having fought full-contact, mock battles in medieval armor for more years than I want to admit, I can tell you that carrying just an extra longsword can be positively unwieldy when you’re in the grind of a melee. Carrying a long weapon on your back, not to mention rolling around with one on your back, is absurd. I laughed inside but said nothing. The half-orc missed with the javelin, but what did she do the very next round? “I try with another javelin,” announced the player. “Where did you get that one?” asked the DM. You know the answer, right? “It was tied to her back. I had two,” he said with a straight face.
IGNORING AN ITEM’S LOCATION
I have no funny anecdote for this, but several times in the last few months, my fellow players have become disgruntled while their characters were in the middle of combat. It may have been a wounded character that wanted to drink a healing potion. It may have been a character that wanted to read a scroll. It may have been a character that wanted to make the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail with oil and rags. In each case, the DM informed the player that it would take at least one round to accomplish the task. In each case, the player grumbled. Again, I put my head in my hands. Of course, the DM was correct. Indeed, in the AD&D game that I run, I would have required a minimum of one round to do such things, and in AD&D a round equals one minute. In these instances, we are playing D&D Edition 3.5, and the players were annoyed that they lost one round, which is only six seconds! Few of the players can roll their dice in six seconds, yet they expect their character to back away from combat, take off the mysterious backpack (that holds everything and never gets in the way), throw it on the ground, rifle through it, retrieve the desired item, and then use it in six seconds.
“I don’t want to miss my turn,” a player might object. He might even continue, “It takes at least ten minutes in between rounds—on a good day—and I don’t want to wait ten minutes before I can actually do something!” I admit that there is logic there, and of course one can sympathize with not wanting to miss out. I think of my eight-year-old when she doesn’t want to go to bed because she doesn’t want to miss anything.
SO WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM?
I just laid out three common practices, but in each case, I seemed to admit that the game continued, we usually had fun, and some of the players’ complaints were at least partially justified. So what’s the problem then?
Dungeons & Dragons, as initially envisioned, is a game of exploration and treasure hunting. In this game, player-characters, after carefully selecting their equipment, explore dark, dangerous, and sometimes remote locations in search of treasure, confronting any monsters that threaten them along the way. Exploration is a fundamental part of the game. Removing that, by and large, leaves mainly combat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if that is all that you want, why not just play a gladiatorial game with alien races? That could be fun, but the experience would be radically different from the initial vision of D&D. Some may object to the idea of clinging to a decades-old vision just for the sake of orthodoxy, and that would be a sound point. Yet, I submit that anyone making that argument has not given Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson enough credit. Their initial vision of the game took into account a very basic precept: tough choices make for good games. Consider the following ridiculous example:
Your DM allows your party to have the entirety of the equipment list in the Players Handbook, spread out between the various PCs. He doesn’t care how you manage to carry it all. Furthermore, he does not let the incredible burden that you now carry inhibit your ability to gather as much treasure as you want. This is every player’s dream, right? Even better, when the PCs realize that they need a particular item, even in the midst of a battle, the DM does not force the PCs to spend several rounds rummaging through their colossal hoard of possessions. Instead, a PC can find the item instantly and carry on without losing even one round of action. For the moment, let’s put aside the objection that this breaks radically from the initial vision for the game. Let’s ignore that this would break radically from the exciting and legendary literature on which the game in based (the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, the adventure tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber, the Lord of the Rings saga by J.R.R. Tolkien, or the various legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). Let’s dismiss the fact that this would make the game much more akin to Pokemon with medieval trappings. I submit that more important is that the game would be BORING. Logistics force players to make tough choices, which in turn creates tension. Tension is what keeps a movie audience on the edge of its collective seat at the movies. Tension is what makes you keep flipping the pages of a book when you are an hour past your bedtime. Tension is what makes many role-playing sessions dramatic and memorable. Eliminating these for the sake of convenience actually does more harm than good to the experience. Consider another silly example:
Imagine playing a game of Monopoly with some friends, some of which have never played before. In this example, all of the players love the game (or at least the idea of it, though if they are over the age of eight, I question their sanity). The game begins normally, but as it progresses, half of the players get increasingly annoyed with having to pay rent, having to pay fines to get out of jail, or having to pay random fees like a luxury tax. Another player even grows tired of collecting rent and collecting money when he passes Go. Thus, several players advocate for doing away with the use of money in the game, as they find it trivial.
Hmmmm. Are they wrong? Should they be able to do whatever they wish with their game? Isn’t the most important thing that they are having fun? Well… no, yes, and yes. However, the real question is this: why would those people that wish to get rid of money play Monopoly in the first place? When asked, one might tell you that he loves rolling dice and just likes to see if he can move fastest around the board. Another might say that she likes seeing if she can avoid going to jail and can instead land on Free Parking, Broadway, or Park Place. These are not ‘wrong,’ of course, but the game without money certainly isn’t Monopoly. Anyone that truly loves the game, as is, and sits down to play in a game without money is in for a big disappointment. If they are new to the game entirely, they might not complain, for they have no idea what they are missing. That is my point though. They would be missing much of what brings tension to the game—much of what forces players into tough decisions. As this is a key ingredient of any challenging and memorable game, they are missing out.
Before I continue, a quick request: Please don’t write me to tell me that ‘having fun is what it’s all about.’ I already know that. If you think that I’m trying to stop anyone from playing their games as they wish, you haven’t read this carefully. I am suggesting that, if players have come to ignore logistics and other hints of realism in their games, they may be missing out. They may not even know that they are missing out. I merely suggest that they try reintroducing some logistics, as they may change the game for the better. How to do this, you ask? I think that players can certainly do their part, but I think that DMs must take the lead here. DMs can design their adventures in such a way that logistics can make or break the party’s chances for success. That’s the key. Consider the possibilities below.
DESIGNING ADVENTURES WITH LOGISTICS IN MIND When it comes to ammunition, keep track. A character that is heavily invested in a bow, for example, will only have so many shots. The game changes for him when he runs out of ammo. That should not mean that the fun is over. Far from it! This new challenge requires that PC to be more creative and more careful, at least until he can find more arrows. Great memories often result when characters face terrible danger when already disadvantaged. Moreover, such a situation allows the DM to place arrows as meaningful treasure. In a game in which even magical arrows can seem a bit hum-drum, the player can find satisfaction in finding two quivers of mundane arrows. This is how you keep the game fresh and avoid the slippery slope that leads to Monty Haul campaigns.
As a history nerd and a movie nerd, I cannot help but think of several movies in which a lack of ammunition plays an important role. I’ll offer here just one example. The 1979 movie Zulu Dawn is based on the true tale of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, in which several thousand Zulu warriors attacked an invading British expeditionary force in what is now South Africa. The supremacy of modern industrial warfare is on full display during much of the battle, as the British soldiers, armed with Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles, just mow down the onrushing Zulu warriors. Yet, a beleaguered British soldier, nervously eyeing the Zulu lines, mutters, “but bullets run out, and those bloody spears don’t!” As the British fire volley after volley, the tension becomes palpable, and when the movie shows a diligent British quartermaster, handing out ammunition one small box at a time to a line of desperate soldiers, you want to jump through the screen and smack him. For a moment, try to imagine that movie (or the battle itself) if the British had endless ammunition. Yawn.
If tracking ammunition seems like added work that you, as the DM, do not want to do, ask the players to help. I do not mean simply asking players to mind their ammunition. In a group of great players, they will do this naturally, but if your group needs a little more accountability, try this instead. Fill out an index card, listing each missile-using PC and his or her ammo. Keep the card in the center of the table. Whenever someone looses an arrow or bolt, ask him to cross it off the card. You may need to remind players a few times, but after a while, it should become habit. This ammo card goes to the DM between sessions. Not only will there be an accounting of ammunition, but every player that uses missiles will notice when the group as a whole is running low on ammo. This may urge players to have their PCs start looking for more ammo, and if nothing else, it makes several players aware that their limited resources are dwindling. This adds tension. The ranger that has weapon specialization in a bow, a +2 magical bow, and only a few +2 magical arrows left will start to squirm, knowing that soon he will have to draw his non-magical longsword, with which he has no bonuses at all. For such a character, the next battle will be tense. Will they be able to prevail before he runs out of ammunition? If not, he’ll have to make do with his longsword, and that will be memorable! Even advancing down an empty tunnel becomes tense because the player will be anticipating the next combat at any moment. Does the party hear a noise coming from down the tunnel? While this may generate tension in any circumstance, it would now generate even more because of limited resources.
When it comes to food and water, keep track. This is admittedly more difficult to use, at least at face value, because most editions do not clearly state that you lose hit points or strength points whenever you miss meals or fail to drink enough water. When game mechanics ignore something, you can be certain that players will too. I am convinced that if the game mechanics did not have rules on drowning, many players would expect and demand that their characters be able to walk for days underwater without ill effect. Rules encourage or discourage behavior. It’s simple. Though the game often lacks rules on food and water, I suggest that you do what most early DMs were entirely expected to do: make up a simple mechanic. If a character is in a desert without shade or water, perhaps he loses a strength point every hour (if you are feeling strict) or every day (if you are feeling generous). Instead of strength, perhaps the PC loses one hit point every hour. There is no right mechanic. Just make up whatever seems sensible. Is this being cruel? Not at all! The goal is not to kill the PCs. The goal is to make the PCs aware that they will not survive for long in a desert without shade or water (imagine that).
If tracking food and water (not to mention strength points and hit points) seems like a lot of work, don’t worry. It need not be complicated. You need not calculate how many ounces each waterskin holds or research the exact hydration needs of the human body in certain conditions. Keep it simple if you wish, but clearly give the PCs a reason to carry and to keep track of water. If you wish to be grossly generous, perhaps each PC on your typical wilderness trek must consume at least one skin of water per day. If they do not, they lose strength or hit points. That certainly isn’t complicated, but it does provide complications for the group. Will they go off the trail to search for water? Will they drink from the stagnant pond that they come upon next (risking sickness and throat leeches)? Will they push on and risk dehydration, fatigue, and collapse? Remember—story complications (like dwindling resources) lead to tough choices, which create tension and make for a memorable game.
One small side note on the above: I tend to favor loss of hit points instead of strength points for two reasons. First, most players instinctively get that hit points mean life. Without them, it’s “Game over, man!” (quoting the late, great Bill Paxton in Aliens). Players may be less aware of the danger of lost strength points. The second reason that I favor hit point loss has to do with mechanics. In AD&D (First and Second Editions), a loss of strength only affects a PC if he initially had extremely high strength or if his strength drops to an extremely low score. That means that strength loss poses little threat. In contrast, in Third Edition and in later editions, a PC’s strength score does indeed affect most characters and in many ways (attacks, skills, etc.). This seems good, until you realize that it requires you to do many mathematical adjustments up and down the character sheet, which slows play and takes the focus off of the story. Hit point loss, on the other hand, has little to no effect on other mechanics (regardless of edition) so there is no delay or distraction.
When it comes to light sources, keep track. While the need for food and water is obvious, it may not seem urgent. After all, you can live without food for weeks and can survive without water for about three days in temperate conditions. In contrast, the need for ammunition can seem immediate and pressing when in a dangerous dungeon, abandoned temple, ruined castle, etc. Yet, even running out of ammo pales in comparison to losing the gift of sight. Of course, darkness is a staple in horror movies, and for good reason. Even some action movies make limited use of the effect. We find a poor example in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right after the Nazis seal Indiana Jones and Marion in an underground chamber. As Indy tries to figure a way out, Marion fends off snakes and yells, “Indy the torch is going out!” If the torch had died, they would have been trapped underground in pitch darkness with hundreds of snakes. This is a poor example only because the condition does not last long enough for the audience to feel anxious. Indy sends a giant statue crashing through a wall and discovers a way out. If he hadn’t, though, the movie would be much darker (bad pun—not intended). The same is true with the classic movie Jaws (which is really a horror movie, but the second half of the film seems much like an adventure movie). Toward the end, after the characters spend hours excitedly hunting the shark, water damage to the boat causes the lights to go out. In that instant, despite all that you’ve seen to that point, the mood changes. This too is only a mediocre example because there is still some light outside. Imagine the movie if that had occurred in the middle of the night. Terrifying.
I think many DMs can use darkness to better effect in their games. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time that the party had no light source at all or was in danger of losing it for more than a few moments? I imagine that most DMs require the party to light a torch or lantern, but as time passes, can the characters simply light another torch or refill the oil lantern? Put differently, has the party really had to contend with being in a dangerous or hostile environment in compete blackness? If not, consider a few possibilities on how to bring about these conditions or how to use darkness once you have it.
First, keep track of torches or flasks of oil the same way that you track ammunition. An index card will do just fine. In fact, you can even put this light-related information on the back of the ammunition card suggested above.
Second, design your dungeon (ruin, temple, etc.) with an area that makes it difficult for PCs to bring torches through. A narrow underground tunnel may have a fierce draft that blows out just about any flame. Though you may know that the draft only exists in a limited area, the PCs should not know that. Will they turn back, will they push on while blind, or will they innovate and find another solution? Tough choices make for good games. In addition to drafts, you could use water as a barrier between two areas. This too is common in movies (even if light is not the focus). Consider The 13th Warrior, at the end of which the characters, trapped underground with monsters closing in, try to escape by swimming through an underwater tunnel in the hopes that they will find their way out (talk about desperation—would you do that?). Another silly example that comes to mind is in Conan the Destroyer, when they enter the wizard’s castle to get a magical key. Yes, the movie was terrible (I know), but my point is that the only way in was beneath the water. In your game, perhaps the only known way to access a certain cavern is by swimming underwater. Do the PCs push forward? If so, they will be without light at least temporarily. Will they manage to keep the torch dry so they can light it on the other side? If not, how would they see? Do they decide not to swim underwater and turn back instead? Do they seek another, perhaps longer or more dangerous route? Tough choices make for good games.
In addition to making it tough to maintain their light sources, consider how to use darkness effectively if they fail. For starters, remember the notion that the greatest fear is that of the unknown. While we often repeat this saying today as a way of implying that we actually have nothing to fear, in our games there may be very good reasons to fear the dark. Let’s start with terrain hazards. Pits (man-made or natural), crevasses, chasms, and crumbling ledges are common underground, and each could lead to serious injury or death.
Continuing with this idea of the unknown, consider how the DM can use darkness to make monsters more frightening. Though the PCs may not be able to see, a crafty DM might add tension by allowing PCs to hear creatures around them, to smell creatures around them, or even worse, to feel creatures around them. That hissing, slimy thing that just bumped into the character in the rear of the party may be terrifying and powerful or it may have one hit die. The players will not know (and will often assume the worst).
If it eventually comes to combat, a good DM will realize that fighting monsters should be exponentially more difficult, if not impossible, without any light. PCs suffer hefty penalties to both their attacks and their AC, and they may lack the ability to direct missile fire at enemies. A generous DM may allow a PC to fire blindly and have a tiny chance of success—though there should be an equal chance that the PC might hit a companion. PCs would also be unable to read from magical scrolls. They might not be able to cast certain spells if they cannot see or cannot find their spell components. A thief or rogue cannot use his backstab ability on a foe that he cannot locate. Even the ever reliable and inerrant magic missile requires a clear target. Furthermore, intelligent creatures that can see in the dark will use every advantage. They may strike from a distance. They may strike a PC and back away from the dumbfounded target. Why stand in a line and wait to be hit? More than anything, they would make every attempt to stop a PC from relighting a torch or lantern. In short, fighting in darkness should be terrifying and desperate. Realize too that your game can improve even if a battle in the dark never occurs. It is the threat of such a battle—the fear of such a battle—that can make a session more tense and memorable. Even better, if the PCs ever have such a battle, you can guarantee thereafter that tensions will rise whenever light sources start to run low.
Darkness brings one last side-benefit. In the Stygian darkness, even relatively weak creatures (like goblins) can be terrifying, provided that the DM runs them properly. This is another way to keep the game fresh without having to resort to increasingly powerful creatures to the keep the PCs engaged.
When it comes to carrying capacity, keep track. In the games that I run, I am a stickler with this, but not as you might suspect. The encumbrance rules in AD&D First Edition were indeed awful. They measured weight in gold pieces, each equal to a one-tenth of a pound. Moreover, each item had an encumbrance value, representing not only its weight, but also its bulkiness. Your strength and your armor type indicated how much you could carry and fast you could move. It was logical (sort of), but unplayable. In Second Edition, things improved some. They started measuring things in pounds, and they did away with encumbrance points. This was certainly better, but still a bit clunky for my tastes. In Third Edition, much remained the same, though they simplified the five categories (unencumbered, light, etc.) to just three (light load, medium load, and heavy load). While this is manageable, I opt to use an even simpler way.
As DM, you need not use a Byzantine system to track carrying capacity. I simply ask each player to note on their character sheet where each item is on the PC’s body. Some find it easier to draw a stick figure diagram, showing me where each item is. Before we start, I ask each player to give me a sixty-second rundown. Reason is our only guide. Usually, players are very practical, and I recognize that the PCs are sometimes stronger than the players that run them. Yet, I insist on common sense. A few months ago, when a player told me that he had a spear strapped to his back, I marched into my garage, produced a nine-foot spear, and offered to strap it to his back while he ran around my front yard. He declined. Sometimes we just need a visual as a reality check. When dealing with a simple list on paper, it is sometimes too easy to keeping adding stuff.
When it comes to retrieving items, use common sense. If you ask each player to note where each of his items is located (as suggested above), then this becomes easy. Before we go any further, remember that editions matter here. In AD&D (First and Second Editions) the combat round is one-minute long, while Third Edition and those that followed use a six-second round. Keep that in mind as you use common sense. My rule of thumb is that if a character has an item within his grasp and does not need to look for it, he can usually grab it in one round or less (though using it may take longer). If a disagreement arises, I just ask a player to walk me through the steps that his PC would need to take. Through experience, I have noticed that disagreements usually begin when a player starts with a vague statement like, “I reach in my pack, grab my flask of oil, light it, and throw it at the monster.” Rather than being argumentative or authoritarian, I usually just ask him to clarify each step for me. My favorite phrase here is “I just want to make sure that I understand you correctly.” This is often followed by something like this: “You have a shield in your left hand and a battleaxe in your right. You have one troll in front of you and one to your right. You now want to withdraw from combat—how far by the way? Ok. You want to withdraw 25’. Then you want to drop your axe and shield. Then you want to shrug off the leather pack that was on your back. How many items do you have in there? Sixteen? You want to rummage through those and grab a flask of oil, a rag, and the tinderbox. You then want to open the flask of oil and stuff the end of the rag into the flask, put down the flask, open the tinderbox, remove a piece of charcloth, wad up a bunch of tinder, grab the flint and steel, hurriedly make sparks until one hits the charcloth, blow on it until it flames, throw the tinder on top, blow on it again, use that flame to light the rag, get up, and then throw flask at the monster? Ok. How long do you think that would reasonably take? Usually the conversation never gets into the weeds because just calling attention to the many steps involved helps the player to realize that it would take longer than he imagined. Sometimes a player responds with, “Forget it. I’ll just attack again.” But more times than not, a player will say, “OK. I’ll do that as fast as I can. If it takes two rounds to prepare the oil, so be it.” I want to stress this point: As DM, I don’t want to stop PCs from doing certain things. Quite the opposite! I just want players to be clear on how long it would reasonably take. I have found that the more we discuss this stuff, the more reasonable their desired actions become. They don’t stop doing fun things; they just realize that it may take them a round or so to pull off their cool idea. In the end, they get to choose. Does the PC continue fighting a losing battle against trolls, trying to save his companions from injury and death? Does he call for the whole party to retreat? Does he withdraw from the battle, leaving his friends even more vulnerable for a few moments, while he tries to put together a weapon that might turn the tide? Tough choices make for good games.
If you have not used logistics in your games (for whatever reason), consider dabbling with some of the above ideas in your upcoming sessions. I think you may need to try them for more than a single session, as enough time must pass for supplies to dwindle. Yet have no fear. The ideas are easy to implement, and they force PCs to make tough choices. This adds tension, which players will remember, regardless of what their characters choose to do. Freaked out, frustrated, and anxious players may even thank you afterwards for the wonderful experience. As DMs, we indeed have a weird job.
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 RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins, for September 2020.
This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Invisible Coins on July 27, 2001. It is only slightly edited for republication here.
You’ve probably heard the line about our strange and beautiful relationship—in which I’m beautiful, and you’re… well, I’ll assume you’ve heard it. My relationship with Multiverser creator E. R. Jones was, from the beginning, strange on both sides. There were many things about us that appeared similar (to the point that we were mistaken for brothers, and sometimes still people aren’t certain which of us the bearded dark-haired bespectacled faces in artist Jim Denaxas’ sketches depict). But the more we got to know each other, the more it appeared that we did many of the same things for very different reasons.
He wore a beard because shaving was inconvenient. I wore one because I didn’t like the feel of the sweat and oils on my face after shaving.
We both put ice in our coffee. I did it because I’m not very patient about beverages, and would certainly burn myself on it before it cooled. He, on the other hand, preferred his coffee cold, a throwback to his army days when that’s the only way he could get it. (And he was the cook.)
We were both highly respected for our skills at running Dungeons & Dragons, both of us having begun some time in 1980. My reputation was that I was closer to the book rules than just about anyone else. He, on the other hand, built his entire game on that phrase in the preface, “the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game,” regarding the rest of the system optional. We learned much from each other in the process of playing together, but our games were never the same, perhaps in some sense not even remotely similar.
And both of us had the habit of periodically tossing an invisible coin into the air and catching it, slapping it on our wrists ostensibly to see whether it was heads or tails, when someone asked a question which required thought. Read more
For the first time, I left the evening of D&D feeling accomplished. This time, things seemed to click. The DM drew us further into our character development, and I felt more connected to the character I had essentially created as a joke, as well as a game that was still extremely foreign to me. My character now breathed. There was a specificity to the spells that he cast that resonated with me in a way they wouldn’t have if the DM would’ve continued to explain every attack and action for us. He had stopped holding our hands and telling our stories, to allow us to start cultivating our own facets to the overarching narrative. I cast fire bolt from my right arm, and it wells up from my chest, down through my veins, boiling hot, welling up on my pointer finger until it propels toward its target.
Simple, I know. Rudimentary, even. Yet, allowing me to describe my attacks has enriched what was, up to this point, a difficult play style to get into. After the DM handed the reins over to the players to think quicker and to be more decisive, the game comes across much more alive. It’s as if we’re racing a clock that doesn’t keep time, but does push the passing of time and the narrative forward. Once we took too long deliberating over our next move and, all of the sudden, incredibly jerky kobolds start chucking rocks at our heads. As *plonk* annoying *bump* as *boof* being pelted by rocks is, it is equally refreshing to feel the narrative being pushed, to have that sense of urgency and purpose. Time didn’t stand still, there is no pause button, and I deeply appreciated that!
In part 1 of this series on single-session adventures, Michael gave the broad strokes of adventure design, from the desired playstyle to decisions on system and settings. Now we move into more specific adventure construction advice.
George Lucas explained that when making his original three Star Wars movies, he wanted three very different environments in each film. This practice conveys to the viewer three very different moods in a single movie (in just a few hours), and it also lends a slightly epic feel to the story. In the original Star Wars, we have the barren desert of Tatooine, then the cold and colorless interior of the Death Star, and finally the black vacuum of space as the rebel ships try to destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gave us the frozen wastes of Hoth, the humid swamps of Dagobah, and the ethereal cloud city of Bespin. In Return of the Jedi, we start in the lifeless desert of Tatooine, move to the lush forest moon of Endor, and end inside the colorless reconstructed Death Star. Gary Gygax, consciously or not, used the same approach in G1: Against the Giants. The PCs first infiltrate the timber-framed steading of the hill giant chief, then invade the glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, and conclude in the volcanic halls of the fire giant king. Read more