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© 1998-2001 Dru
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RPGs and God: Are They Compatible?
I would like to know what you feel about role playing games and God.
My dad has always had a problem with D&D. My family and myself are
very religious, and I would like to know if you know of any way for me
to talk to my dad about gaming.
—email received 3/22/01
Several people have
told me that this question of RPGs and religion is long dead. "Nobody
cares anymore," they say. The big controversy was a sign of the times
in the '70s. It's over now.
Except clearly it isn't.
Some players are still having problems reconciling RPGs and religion.
So, what can a gamer
who wants to address these concerns do?
First, I'm going to
assume that most people who perceive a conflict between RPGs and religion
are Christian. Thus far no other religious group has ever told me that
it feels RPGs and religion may be incompatible. So I'm going to address
this question from a Christian point of view, acknowledging that nonChristian
religions might have different concerns and different solutions.
Second, I'm a Roman
Catholic of the Western post-Vatican II variety. I teach at a private
Lutheran university. I'm by no means a theologian. So the ideas I present
here are fairly commonsense, simple solutions to the problem, not backed
up by a lot of religious training or verse-by-verse argumentation. Some
of my suggestions might work well for you; some might not. None have the
backing of a religious leader behind it.
Third, I'm going to
assume that you're dealing with a concerned parent, friend, family member,
or clergyperson who has not already made up his or her mind that RPGs
are innately evil. That is, I'm going to assume that you're dealing with
a concerned but open-minded person willing to consider arguments in favor
of RPGs. If the person's mind is already made up, forget it—there's
little to nothing you can do.
Most Christian concerns
about RPGs seem to revolve around three issues: (1) the existence of pagan
deities that characters worship within the game; (2) the existence of
magic use within the game; and (3) the prevalance of violence within the
I am the Lord thy God: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me
(1) The existence of
pagan deities in some FRPGs concern some Christians who feel that playing
such an RPG might lead to actual worship of these deities. They fear violation
of the First Commandment, "I am the Lord thy God: Thou shalt have
no other gods before Me."
The first solution to
this concern is simply to play an RPG that does not have pagan deities
in it. Many modern thriller/conspiracy/spy RPGs avoid bringing in any
pantheon that isn't based in a real current-day religion, so it would
be easy to play a character who is Christian.
I recently did this
in a Deadlands game. Deadlands is a fantasy-type game set in the Old West,
postulating a release of evil and supernatural creatures in the Old West.
My character was Father Patrick Flanagan, an Irish Roman Catholic priest.
In preparing his character, I picked out appropriate quotes from the Bible
to use when driving back undead or scolding drunken cowboys, and I kept
several pages of prayers in my character folder in case he needed an appropriate
psalm or prayer during the game. I think one of the most interesting things
was being able to scold the other player characters whenever they'd let
rip with a "Goddammit!" during the game. It was the first time
I noticed how much swearing went on in the game ... and Father Flanagan
was suitably offended ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord,
thy God, in vain."). The other players became more sensitive to it,
A second solution is
for the GM running an FRPG containing pagan deities to include the Christian
God that characters could choose to worship, instead. This begs the question
to some extent, though, I realize—it, in effect, implies that there's
no difference between God and the pagan gods. This is not an answer most
devout Christians are going to be pleased with. There are two sub-solutions.
The first is for the characters to assume, as most Christians do, that
they have the right God, and all others are false gods. That, at least,
is historically accurate enough. The second is for the GM to simply state
that all good deities in the game are really manifestations of God under
some other name, and that powers from those deities flow from an all-powerful
and all-loving God. Similarly, all evil deities in the game are all really
manifestations of Satan under some other name.
A third solution is
to emphasize the difference between playing a character who believes in
a nonChristian god and actually believing in a nonChristian god. This
is just a game. When I play a character who worships a nonChristian god,
that has nothing to do with what I believe in, no more than I'd believe
I were male if I played a male character, or an elf if I played an elven
character. It's just make-believe. Nobody who is mentally balanced and
strong in self-identity and faith is going to slip into unChristian acts
simply because of a game.
Do not turn to mediums or wizards. (Leviticus 19:31)
(2) The existence of
magic in many RPGs also concerns some Christians. "There shall not
be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass
through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or
an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits,
or a wizard, or a necromancer." (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). Note that
this is a complex theological subject, and generally means that no magic
can come from any but God (miracles, though supernatural, are acceptable).
The first solution is,
again, to simply avoid any RPGs that contain magic. Many modern or historical
RPGs can be played without any magic content. Alternatively, in an RPG
that does contain magic, the concerned player may be able to simply avoid
playing a character who performs any spells.
The second solution
is to play characters whose powers clearly come from God. A few RPGs permit
this (such as Deadlands, mentioned above). In this case, anything supernatural
the character can accomplish is done only through God's will, which means
the player and the GM must be very clear on what God would or would not
permit. This in itself could be an interesting theological exercise.
The third solution is,
again, to emphasize that RPGs are make-believe. There is a world of difference
between sitting around a table with friends and lots of dice saying, "My
wizard casts an ESP spell" and actually practicing magick. Magick
often involves the worship of pagan deities or of Satan (the two religions
are not the same; Wiccans are traditionally peaceful and nonviolent in
their worship, whereas Satanists are traditionally self-centered and ruthless).
This would clearly be a concern for many Christians. But RPGs aren't about
that—"magic" is carried out by applying some rules in
a book and maybe some dice rolls, and that's that. No more mysterious
than turning a pawn into a king in chess. When I play a wizard in an RPG,
I don't assume I can really do magic, no more than when I was a kid and
pointed my index finger like a gun I thought it would really shoot bullets.
Thou shalt not kill
(3) The prevalance of
violence in RPGs is an issue I've already addressed in a previous article.
Christians are especially concerned with it because it violates the commandment
"Thou shalt not kill." In fact, characters could conceivably
violate more commandments than that by stealing (not too uncommon in RPGs,
especially treasure-hunting RPGs), committing adultery (fairly uncommon
in RPGs), bearing false witness (more common), etc.
The first thing to remember
here is that each player decides for him- or herself what his or her character
is going to do within the game. A devoutly religious player can easily
avoid having his or her character commit any of these sins. Killing is
not required in most RPGs, and a GM sensitive to players' needs can easily
tailor a game to be less violent if one of the players has strong moral
qualms about violent RPGs. There are a number of ways to subdue an enemy
that don't require taking life (e.g., stun guns, knock-out gas, nets,
bolas), and some enemies can simply be negotiated with without any need
for violence. It's all up to the GM.
A second issue is that
question of whether violence can be learned from an RPG and then used
in real life. The article on violence addresses that to some extent. What's
important to remember is that a person who has strong ties to a family
and/or a religion that provides clear moral and ethical guidelines for
behavior is not likely to confuse violence in RPGs (or TV or any other
form of media) with real life. The effect of RPGs is miniscule compared
to the effects of family, friends, and faith when it comes to affecting
a person's behavior.
Why RPGs are good
When arguing for RPGs,
it's important not only to discuss concerns but also benefits. RPGs demand
creativity, imagination, and an ability to solve puzzles and problems.
They require good reading and writing skills and the ability to understand
and apply rules. They require teamwork and social interaction. Many RPG
players are inspired to carry out their own historical, anthropological,
linguistic, or literary research to supplement a campaign or flesh out
a character. Most RPG players also read avidly in the genre within which
they play (fantasy, horror, science-fiction, superhero, etc.). As a college
professor in communication, I can vouch that the students who read the
most write the best—and this at a time when far too many of my students
don't have the faintest idea how to write a decent essay, much less a
convincing research paper.
My essay Why
Roleplay? summarizes these points. It was reprinted in a book called
Highs!: Over 150 Ways to Feel Really, Really Good ... Without Alcohol
or Other Drugs. I hope that shows that I'm not the only one who thinks
RPGs are a positive and prosocial way to spend time.
What should you do?
I've tried to outline
a few ways to ameliorate some of the concerns some Christians have about
RPGs. In addition, a Christian player who feels personally concerned about
these issues should be sure to weigh his or her conscience carefully,
pray for guidance, and talk to trusted religious mentors before making
originally written March 23, 2001
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