Magic in Role-Playing Games: A Moral Taboo?

“Magic is a matter of symbolism and intent.”  —Randall Garrett, Too Many Magicians

Most role-playing games (RPGs) include some kind of magic or occult phenomena as part of the game. This fact makes some people uncomfortable. Some Christians go so far as to insist that any activity—games, movies, whatever—including the portrayal of magic must be avoided in order to maintain a right relationship with God and to follow His moral guidance. On careful examination, however, the arguments used to support this stand are weak, both from a logical and Scriptural perspective.

There are two aspects to this controversy: 1) what is actually happening when magic appears in an RPG, and 2) what does Scripture have to say about this? In this essay I address the issue of fact rather than the application of Scripture—not because Scripture is less important, but because it is impossible to apply Scripture properly without knowing the factual truth about any situation barring direct divine inspiration, which lies outside the realm of the merely rational mind. The question of how the Bible applies to the situation, and how certain scriptures are often used incorrectly to attack role-playing games, is the subject of another essay.

First of all, the players are not performing magic, even when their characters are. Despite lurid novels and movies, players do not recite incantations and perform rituals during a game session. Sometimes certain phrases and props are used to add atmosphere and drama to a game, but even those gamers who believe in magic in the real world do not perform their rituals as part of the play. Most gamers are quite content with saying “My character throws a fireball at him,” with little or no attention paid to the details of how this is done by the character. This is no different in principle to any game of make-believe or exercise in imagination. Everyone knows that the events and characters described in the game are not real; almost everything that happens in the plot of the game involves things that the players themselves could not or would not ever do. Criticism of RPGs based on the idea that the players are casting real spells or worshipping false gods is hollow; even those gamers who are occultists in real life draw a sharp distinction between games and reality. Games are make-believe; reality is, well, real.

From what little I know about occult beliefs and practices, the magic in most RPGs is not the kind of “magic” one finds in the real world. Pagans, Wiccans, warlocks and the like are not about throwing fireballs or turning oneself invisible or transforming people into insects; they are primarily about secret knowledge and symbolism and nature-worship, and the powers they claim to possess are the sort of things that to outsiders look like coincidence or luck. In role-playing games, magic is a way characters can do things “far beyond the powers of mortal man” (to quote the old Superman TV show), which add to the fun and drama of the game. Most RPG magic has about as much to do with real world magic as The Phantom Menace has to do with the Apollo Program: both include spaceships and computers and heroism, but they are very different events. One is real and the other is fiction; one is a scientific expedition and the other is, at best, a symbolic exploration of morality and society. Both are rollicking good stories; both are vital parts of society in their own way, but few if any people doubt which is real and which is just a story.

The underlying principle in assessing the moral implications of role-playing games that include magic is this: RPGs are works of fiction, intended as entertainment. The events therein are not real, and no one involved sees them as real. What distinguishes RPGs from movies, novels, and board games is that everyone shares the responsibility of building the story, actively involving the imagination of every player in a way that no other recreation can duplicate. As works of fiction, RPGs should be held to the same moral standard as any other fiction. Does the presence of magic in a novel automatically make that novel harmful to one’s spirit? If so, one dare not read many works by C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald, Christian writers of remarkable insight and rich symbolism. If occultism in a movie offends, then one must avoid such classics as the Star Wars saga, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even The Ten Commandments.

Does this mean that we should not be at all concerned about magic in our games? Hardly. Just as the presentation and intent of books and movies should be carefully assessed, so should our games, especially those that involve the imagination and creativity as intimately as RPGs. Just like the inclusion of violence, the presentation and intent of occultism in RPGs can be obsessive and corrupting, or it can be symbolic, insightful, and an effective part of a good story.

The issues that must be addressed when assessing a role-playing game, like any work of imaginative fiction, are (to paraphrase the quote above) symbolism and intent. By “symbolism” I mean the actual presentation of magic—is there an unhealthy obsession with the details of magic rituals and beliefs, or is it simply a make-believe set of abilities within the stories? “Intent” is just that: the objective of the players as they weave their story using pencil, paper, dice and imagination. Is the intent of the players to learn about and practice occultism? Or is it to use well-known and powerful imagery as means to dramatise the events and characters of the story? Do any of the players show confusion between what is done in the game and what is possible and acceptable in real life? In short, to make a proper moral judgement about a role-playing game requires knowledge and understanding. It is not something that can be settled by sweeping pronouncements, prejudice and ignorance. Insight and clear thinking are needed to properly sort out what is good and useful from what is simply harmful; blanket judgements will only alienate people unnecessarily and exclude one from many enjoyable and enlightening experiences.

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