The 7 Deadlies: Playing at the End of the World (Part 2)

What’s the good in a game that brings out the worst in people?

What’s the point of telling stories about the end of the world?

This past summer I took the high school kids in my congregation on a service/learning trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It was a week long chance to build relationships with them and try to teach them something about community, accompaniment, faith, love, and servanthood.

It was also a chance to play Ten Candles.

Ten Candles is a newer indie-RPG by Stephen Dewey in which the end of the world happens and the characters all die. Here’s the description from the website, where you can purchase the PDF for a very much worth-it $10:

Ten Candles is a zero-prep tabletop storytelling game designed for one-shot 2-4 hour sessions of tragic horror. It was released in December 2015 and is best played with one GM and 3-5 players. It is played by the light of ten tea light candles which provide atmosphere, act as a countdown timer for the game, and allow you to literally burn your character sheet away as you play. Ten Candles is described as a “tragic horror” game rather than survival horror for one main reason: in Ten Candles there are no survivors. In the final scene of the game, when only one candle remains, all of the characters will die. In this, Ten Candles is not a game about “winning” or beating the monsters. Instead, it is a game about what happens in the dark, and about those who try to survive within it. It is a game about being pushed to the brink of madness and despair, searching for hope in a hopeless world, and trying to do something meaningful with your final few hours left.

My kids got super excited about playing this game. It was all they wanted to talk about, but when the Bible camp counselors caught wind of the game it was like the Satanic panic of the 1980s broke loose all over again. “What is this game?” they asked with a certain degree of fear. Why on earth would I want to play a game with the kids that’s about death? It didn’t help that the game had a pseudo-ritualistic bent to it, involving a dark room late at night with burning candles that are slowly extinguished. I imagined them wondering, “What prayers to the dark powers was this crazy pastor indoctrinating these kids with? What’s the point in a game that encourages and tempts the players to succumb to their darker sides?”

Ten Candles is like Dungeons & Dragons in that in an imagined world the players run free, sin flows a little more freely. The consequences of stealing or lying or running around with your pants off or even killing aren’t as big as they are in real life. But that’s precisely why games like these can be such a powerful tool for teaching, growth, and revelation.

I assuaged the fears of the counselors, and even got one of them to join us in playing. I ran a bigger game than recommended, and as the 11 of us gathered around the table late at night I introduced what was about to happen,

The game we are about to play is a tragedy. The sun has gone out, light is failing, and the one certainty is that death is coming for each of you. Like Romeo and Juliet, and like life itself, there’s no getting out of this alive. And yet hope remains. Each of you will be tested. Each will be tempted. Each will face desperate circumstances. The darkness in each of your characters will offer a temporary respite, but it’s up to you if you embrace that darkness or if you will die still holding onto what is good instead.

Like the book of Revelation, this game is an apocalypse. The world is ending and the truth is being revealed. What will it reveal about you?

The Bible is full of stories of the end of all things as we know it. Apocalyptic is a genre throughout the scriptures, one that Jesus himself uses on multiple occasions. The end of all things brings a freedom with it, a freedom from long-lasting consequences, a freedom from established social norms and cultural structures, a freedom that reveals the deep truth about all things. Who are you when no one is watching? Who are you when the mold of daily life is broken? Who are you when it matters most? Who are you at your deepest level of self? Who are you?

The blessing of role playing games is that they can give us a safe space to experiment and test and discover who we are. It’s a safe space in which we can face our deepest fears and temptations. In playing we can experience both what it’s like to give into our darker sides and what’s it’s like to overcome them, without facing the real life consequences of doing that experimentation with our own selves. The failed character who gives into a lingering drug addiction can be set down when the game is over. Giving into a lingering addiction in real life carries much graver consequences.

So what’s the good of a game that lessons the consequences of sin? It’s the ability to experiment and to learn.

Of course, role-playing in and of itself is just a tool. It can be used for purposes good and ill. The efficacy of the lessons learned depends in large part on the guidance of the Dungeon Master. But this tool is a powerful one. Playing at the end of the world can reveal the deepest and most profound truths of who we are.

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Imagine Better: Christians SHOULD Play D&D (Part 3)

To wrap up this little trio of posts (here’s Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to think about a little more than just the question, “Can I, as a Christian, play D&D?” I want to talk about, “As a Christian, should I play D&D?” I have a hunch that playing Dungeons & Dragons, and other role-playing games like it, can actually enhance a Christian’s ability to take part in God’s mission to the world.

First, let’s talk about God’s mission. I reject an understanding of Christian mission whose primary goal is converting “non-believers” into “believers”. Instead I believe the Church’s mission is to represent the Reign of God, emphasizing verses like Matthew 10:7, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near,’” and Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Being a citizen of God’s Kingdom frees me to love, care, and advocate for the poor, sick, outcast, and oppressed. This is the second part of that definition of a Christian that I was talking about earlier, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all.”

I think playing Dungeons & Dragons enhances my capacity to love and care for my neighbor. Specifically, playing role-playing games like D&D helps me to better imagine my neighbor.

D&D is already being used by psychotherapists to teach the skill of empathy to autistic children.♠ But as recent events in our country have shown, we all need a lesson.

Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man (and coincidentally my wife’s high school classmate), was shot multiple times by a police officer while sitting in his car after being pulled over for a broken taillight. He was shot as he reached into his back pocket to get his driver’s license, because the officer imagined that he was reaching for a gun.

That officer, like many in the United States, had a horribly sick imagination about what black men were like. He could only weakly imagine this black man as the stereotype of black men: criminal, violent, a thug. It didn’t matter that Philando Castile didn’t have a criminal record. It didn’t matter that he worked at a public school where he memorized the names of all 500 kids and their respective food allergies. It didn’t matter who Philando actually was, because the officer’s anemic imagination pictured him as something else: a threat.

The day after Philando was killed, people gathered in Dallas, TX to protest. They were protesting the killing of Philando Castile and that of Alton Sterling and those of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and the long line of other Black people and people of color who have lost their lives – for no reason – at the hands of our criminal justice system. As those people marched, law enforcement was there with them, protecting their right to peaceably assemble.

Then Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old black man, decided that that protest would be a good opportunity. He used that opportunity to ambush the law enforcement, shooting to kill as many white police officers as he could. He killed five. He did this because his imagination was sick and he imagined that killing white police officers would help solve his problems. He lacked the complexity of imagination to see that those individuals were anything more to the world than the uniforms they were wearing and the color of their skin.

Our inability to imagine our neighbors with empathy and complexity stands in the way of reconciliation. We need to do better. We need to add complexity to our imaginations about who somebody might be or what somebody’s life might be like. It’s impossible for us to fully know all the people in this world, but it is possible for us to imagine the worlds myriad people with more empathy and with a complexity that goes beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

D&D exercises our imaginations. When we step into the shoes of a hero, the game challenges us to think and act according to personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws that aren’t necessarily our own. By playing at being somebody else, our capacity to imagine better those who are different from us improves. As the DM, I’m challenged to imagine how a whole hoard of creatures and people might act. This type of play actively challenges me to expand my mind and think about a wide variety of people and their motives and goals and values.

This past Sunday, I read the story of the Good Samaritan in my churches. I preached about how Jesus uses this story to get the lawyer (and us) to think about our neighbors with more complexity. Yes, the Samaritans might be the people with whom we don’t want to mix. Yes, the Samaritans just refused to offer hospitality to Jesus. But still Jesus uses a Samaritan to be the hero of his story, to be the shining example of the love for one’s neighbor.

When we play Dungeons & Dragons, we try to think about how dwarves, elves, humans, gnomes, half-orcs, and any number of the other host of races and creatures might get along and go about righting the world’s wrongs together. This play has the power to prepare us to imagine our own real world neighbors better. And at least for me, it gives me an example of how a people who are so different from one another might band together to make the world a better place.

I think we desperately need more of this sort of complex imagination, and I believe that D&D gives everyone, including Christians, a way to exercise that very thing.


♠ DR. Rafael Boccamazzo on D&D and Autism http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/dr-raffael-boccamazzo-dd-and-autism

Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26675155

PASTORS Can Play D&D! (Part 2)

There are some folks out there who say that you can’t be both a Christian and a player of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, or even enjoy the fantasy genre of entertainment. The basic argument is that D&D (and fantasy in general) is more than a game, but rather a real and dangerous meddling with occult beings.

Even though I really don’t agree with them, I took those concerns for face value in my previous post. I showed that Christ has the power to free us from our fear of demons (frees us from our fear of everything, really). I also reminded folks that D&D IS A HARMLESS GAME!

Now I want to take up the second concern that I raised. What is my responsibility as a pastor to my church members? As their pastor and teacher in the Christian faith, should I play D&D knowing that there might be some who look askance at this fantastic hobby? Or should I give up my Dungeon Mastering for the sake of those who feel that faith and fantasy ought not mix?

Let’s go back to the example I used last time, Paul’s advice on eating unclean food and food that has been offered to idols. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans both caution against eating this food publicly. He says, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat.”♠ In Corinthians he says, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”♣ In this sense, playing D&D is not worth offending potentially weak members of my congregation and causing them to stumble in their faith.

One might be tempted at this point to say that role-playing games and the like should be politely denied. Even Luther appears to agree that I should restrict my freedom for the sake of the weak, saying, “If you wish to use your freedom, do so in secret.”♥ Blogging about playing Dungeons & Dragons (and talking about it on podcasts) is hardly done in secret.

I can’t rest here though, for Luther also says something I understand to say that our freedom ought to be embraced and D&D should be played. In describing the plight of the weak in faith, Luther discusses the cause of their weakness. “It is not by their fault that they are weak, but by that of their pastors who have taken them captive with the snares of their traditions and have wickedly used these traditions as rods with which to beat them. They should have been delivered from these pastors by the teachings of faith and freedom.”♦

I worry that by only playing in secret, or by not playing at all, I would become one of these pastors who teaches the snares of tradition rather than faith and freedom. Sound teachers of the freedom of faith are needed. Scriptures also say, “There are also many rebellious people… they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach…. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith…. To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.”◊

It seems that the best pastoral option for me in this situation is to play D&D and use it as an opportunity to embolden the weaker members of my congregation and others in the Christian fold with a teaching of faith and freedom. In fact, if I glean anything from what Luther or Titus say about the responsibility of pastors and faith leaders, it’s that we absolutely should embrace this freedom and do so publicly! In this way I am able to both care for those with a weaker faith and also withstand any potentially stubborn members of my congregation who do not yet grasp the powers of faith and cling to the law and their own works.

 

What I hope for, more than anything, is that someone who is questioning might find my words here. What I hope for is that there would be more voices in the world that are talking and telling about how Christian faith and our daily life can and do mix. What I hope for is that someone who wants to play D&D, but has a religious or moral “authority” tell them they can’t or they shan’t, might find these words and find in them a sound argument for why a Christian can be a more faithful Christian by embracing role-playing games as the spiritually harmless fun that they are.

Now, I am convinced that not only are the reasons not to play D&D spiritually weak and theologically bankrupt, but also that THERE ARE A PLETHORA OF REASONS TO PLAY this amazing game. I believe it can enhance my participation in God’s mission in the world, help me a better Christian and a better pastor, and just teach me to be a better human being. But more on that… next time!


♠ Romans 14:20.

♣ 1 Corinthians 8:13.

♥ Martin Luther, Three Treatises, trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 313.

♦ Luther, 312.

◊ Titus 1:10-15.

Christians CAN Play D&D! (Part 1)

Jack Chick famously threw down the gauntlet in the fight between “Christianity” and Dungeons & Dragons with his cartoon tract Dark Dungeons.♣ Ever since, there has been a sometimes perceived and sometimes real cultural battle between people of faith and people of fantasy. Although in today’s world arguments like Chick’s are more lambasted than listened to, they still exist and still raise their ugly heads in far too many places. Even just yesterday, as I was sitting in the hospital lobby waiting to visit a parishioner, I found a stack of “Christian” pamphlets, including one that warned of the dangers of “Entertainment, Amusements, & Fun”.

The driving purpose of this entire blog is to provide a sound Christian witness for why such positions are spiritually weak and theologically bankrupt. It almost seems silly for me to write about something that seems so obvious. Why waste my time on debating such small and little listened to positions? But then I remember that stack of “Christian” pamphlets and I hear the voices of those who experience this conflict between faith and fantasy first-hand, perhaps through a religious leader or a parent, and I know that there needs to also be a voice of faith and reason to respond.

So, can a devout Christian play Dungeons & Dragons? What if that person is a pastor? The answer is OF COURSE! Dungeons & Dragons is a game after all, not a portal to the abyss nor a secret cult of devil-worship! But let’s break that obvious (at least to me) answer down, shall we?

Playing D&D as a pastor presents three different questions. First there is the question of whether, according to my Christian faith, it would be ontologically harmful for me to play D&D, or engage in fantasy role playing of any kind. Then there is the question of my responsibility as a pastor to my church members in this situation. Finally I must ask myself how playing or not playing D&D affects the efforts of my and my church’s mission to the world. In my view, the ideal response to the supposed “D&D problem” is one which must deliteralize role playing games, maintain pastoral integrity, and show how Dungeons & Dragons not only does not diminish my participation in God’s mission to the world but even has the potential to enhance it.

This post will be the first of three posts, addressing each of these three points in turn.

So what is Dungeons & Dragons from a Christian perspective? Would playing this game be ontologically harmful to me as a Christian, as Chick and others would like to suggest? Would I be worshipping an idol or engaging in some vile form of sorcery in the process?

The Apostle Paul deals with a very similar issue in 1 Corinthians 8. Paul writes about how a faithful Christian ought to treat food that has been offered to idols. This is food that was actually offered in sacrifice to pagan gods. And what does Paul say? Paul declares that eating food offered to idols is no offense against God or the Christian tradition. He writes, “Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’”♥ Paul maintains the uniqueness and the universality of God, and encounters no ontological conflict in eating food offered to idols.

Paul knows that ‘no idol in the world really exists’. Food offered to pagan gods is offered to nothing but a harmless fantasy. It’s just food. In the same way, engaging in fantasy role playing games like D&D is equally harmless to our spirits. Although we might speak of Bahamut, Tiamat, sorcery, and portals to the abyss, we also know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’. It’s all make believe. There isn’t an actual portal to the abyss. There are no actual devils and demons. As much as the literalists might like to claim otherwise, anybody with unclouded eyes and unclogged ears can see that it’s nothing but harmless fantasy.

The ontological harmlessness of playing D&D and other games like it is supported by Martin Luther in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian”. He writes, “First, with respect to kingship, every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, by virtue of a spiritual power, [he/she] is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do [him/her] any harm. As a matter of fact, all things are made subject to [him/her] and are compelled to serve [him/her] in obtaining salvation.”♠ In this proclamation Luther is saying that even the simple act of playing Dungeons & Dragons is compelled to serve the Christian in obtaining salvation. If D&D is played as an act of the faith of the Christian, knowing the act to be benign, then the faith of that Christian is increased as he/she discovers that indeed no personal spiritual harm has come to him/her.

I’ll leave you with this one final caveat. Let’s say a person with a literalistic faith, say Jack Chick, plays Dungeons & Dragons without this certainty of it being spiritually benign. If such a Christian plays D&D, then that Christian has sinned. Paul writes, “But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”♦ Playing D&D is a work, it’s something we do. If Mr. Chick trusts in the defining characteristic of his works over and against the defining power of faith, then he has sinned. Faith must be what defines the true Christian. For it is only through faith that we come to the experience of God’s abundant grace.

So have faith. Delve your dungeons and defeat your dragons. The only thing you risk in doing so is having an amazing adventure.

Next up: Can a responsible pastor enjoy the RPG pastime? Spoiler: YES!


♣ If you really want to see the ridiculousness, go to http://www.chick.com/READING/TRACTS/0046/0046_01.ASP.

♥ 1 Corinthians 8:4

♠ Martin Luther, Three Treatises, trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 289.

♦ Romans 14:23

Panic & the Truth.

dragon doorLately my news feed has been lighting up with a number of stories about the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons satanic panic. Geek & SundryThe New York Timescopycat articles, they all point out the irony of the fear a great number of religious leaders and concerned parents had about the game.

It turns out Dungeons & Dragons isn’t an entry point into a satanic cult after all, but rather just a  collaborative game you can play with your friends. It turns out Dungeons & Dragons is pretty great after all, inspiring creative minds, teaching math & social skills, and all sorts of other wonderful boons.

And here’s the thing, I’m eating this up. Well… most of it. I mean, who doesn’t love calling out religious moralists? Even Jesus did it. (I’m looking at you Pharisees.) People’s cheap scapegoating of Dungeons & Dragons, and continued scapegoating of new forms of entertainment and technology, is shown for what it is in these articles: avoidance of the real issues at the heart of human life.

But there’s a part of the story that I’m not on board with. The narrative in these stories is about how the religious tried to fight the secular, but in the end was bested and made to look the fool. Faith is made out to be something foolish, Christian faith in particular. In the 80s the moralists’ argument was that Dungeons & Dragons was more serious than a game. Today, this Christian moralism has been shown to be foolish – so how can Christianity be taken seriously? D&D was once (and if you believe the commenters on some of these articles, is still) made out to be a playful front for sinister activity. The counter argument is that Christianity is a serious front for simple minds. “You’re a facade!” “No, you’re a facade!”

As both a Pastor and a Dungeon Master, I find myself in the gap between these arguments – unrepresented. I take both things for what they are. D&D is a fun, creativity inducing game. Following Jesus is a calling of ultimate significance and meaning. Is it possible for me to live in the truth of each thing? Put another way, can an authentic follower of Jesus engage and enjoy secular culture? Can pastors play D&D?

For me and the other pastors in my D&D campaigns, the answer is a resounding “YES!” This blog is about that answer, and all of the other interesting questions a person runs into on the way to that answer. It should be a curious adventure into the deep truth of human experience that lies behind the shallow facades of the everyday.

The most curious thing about this adventure is that its entrance stands at the crossroads where fighting dragons and following Jesus meet.