Role-playing games (RPGs), whether online or in person, have become a staple of popular culture: Since 2016, the number of players for 5th-edition Dungeons & Dragons has spiked every year so that 50 million players can be counted worldwide. The demand for such games in this culture has escalated to a staggering degree. They are not going away anytime soon. But are they good for us?
A recent article by Russell Moore in Christianity Today (July 21, 2022) claims that “Fantasy Role-Playing Is Hurting America” due to the escapism it fosters in terms of withdrawal from local community involvement and distrust of government. Finding the cubicle environs of their workaday lives less than soul-stirring, many people turn to online games where they find the epic deeds of paganistic alter-egos more gratifying:
It turns out actual fantasy role-playing—whether it be Dungeons & Dragons in a treehouse years ago or multiplayer video games on a screen now—is, for most people, harmless fun. But maybe the church elders [during the ’80s “satanic panic”] had a point; maybe there’s another form of fantasy role-playing that might be occultic and pagan in the truest sense of those words. Paganism, after all, demands the sort of significance that is heroic, in which one’s virtues of strength and power are celebrated in story and song . . . . but the quest for an imagined heroism is even stronger now—and often much, much darker.
Moore, who says he “never played D&D,” argues that many U.S. gamers, disillusioned not only with their mundane jobs but with our nation’s economy and governing institutions, are ripe for propagandistic manipulation—that such people were allegedly galvanized by media mogul Steve Bannon, according to an Atlantic article by Jennifer Senior, to act out their desires for personal glory not only on screens but in the U.S. Capitol on January, 6, 2021.
Taking this as a caution, Moore concludes that RPGs can lead Christians toward a syncretistic faith that substitutes a “grand narrative” of past grandeur and dubious heroism for the real-life call to ordinary acts of charity we ought to be doing.
I agree that any pastime can be indulged in to the point of neglecting one’s civic, church, and family responsibilities. But on the other hand, there is something very healthy about turning off the news and getting off the couch or phone to create collaborative stories and to solve hypothetical problems together, face to face around a table. If the average American can do little to effect change in our current political gridlock, where opinions of national scope leave us divided, D&D at least can be a working out of our faith locally, as we host co-workers and neighbors, breaking bread while facing down our own demons.
As I approach the age of 50, like many others in my generation, I have been inspired by the Netflix series Stranger Things, and its cast of lovable and loyal nerds, to dust off my old Gygax manuals and vintage TSR modules and miniatures that have lain dormant for at least two decades and “really do it this time,” actually plunge in and run a D&D campaign.
During the pandemic, it became especially important to connect with others around a shared interest, and why not a medievalistic world of sword and sorcery? Today the hobby is going from geek chic to mainstream, even lauded as a tool of therapy that helps those with social anxiety to sally forth and conquer fears with trusted comrades.
I daresay that today’s RPGs are a table-top form of Interactive Fiction, a unique literary genre—akin to ancient riddles and oral poetic traditions—in which the GM (game master) takes the role of a versatile narrator (part tour guide, part raconteur, part referee) like in the computer text-adventure Zork, presenting players with a stable but treacherous landscape to traverse, posing problems to solve and adjudicating the results when they take risks or engage in combat.
In my own gaming groups, a typical D&D session will see us reciting poetry, playing favorite songs, telling corny jokes, or staging scenes of high drama, verbally sparring in character with each other.
When I was a kid, my parents complained about people who played D&D on Saturday nights into the wee hours and then skipped church on Sunday. Their admonitions along these lines have resonated with me ever since and actually kept me on the fringes of the RPG community. I collected books, dice, modules, and minis but rarely ever played, because I could see how enthralling this alternate world could become: with all of the worldbuilding and curating of PCs’ lives, stats, and backstories, this hobby can easily swallow too much of one’s time.
I do think this enthralling aspect of the game is one that dungeon masters especially need to guard against. Not only can it encroach upon one’s time with family or church or personal devotions, but it can even backfire on one’s gaming group. Players rarely care as much about the fabricated world as the GM does—he only waxes eloquent on its ancient dynastic intrigues, its flora and fauna and esoteric calendars of the Realm to the annoyance of a dwindling gaming table. Such obsessiveness is self-defeating. GMs seeking more optimal use of time and a healthy relation of game preparation to work, personal fitness, family, and church obligations should look at Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep, by Phil Vecchione.
There is also a legitimate concern about whether this type of game–one that involves killing monsters and bad guys—can promote healthy “in-game” choices. I have seen this issue raised many times on internet forums and Facebook groups, and the consensus among players seems to be that a character’s “moral alignment” is skewed toward evil or chaos if they take life for reasons other than guarding against threats from marauders, monsters, and other creatures who would consume or sell human life cheaply. Wise players will try to reason with adversaries or negotiate first.
Concerned Christians might also object that D&D features unscrupulous character classes like the Rogue. Although the founders of the game took inspiration from tales of thieves like Conan the Barbarian, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and even the burglar Bilbo Baggins, we can allow players, just like readers of fiction, to try on various worldviews and experience consequences of the rogue life. Playing it out may be even more impactful than reading about it. But D&D can also be about Chivalry, or even about exposing false gods like in Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series.
C. S. Lewis’s chapter “The Meanings of ‘Fantasy’” in his book Experiment in Criticism distinguishes the genre of faerie stories (fantasy) from egoistic castle-building tales that merely flatter the reader. RPGs can be used just like the books Lewis is describing. Any book, if we try hard enough, can be a springboard for narcissistic daydreaming. Some books seem to be expressly written for that purpose, and little else. So it is with games. Some of them can be used selfishly, just to project ourselves into the role of enviable heroes who always come out on top. But there are just as many D&D adventures—whether published or “home-brewed”—that confront players with moral dilemmas, harsh trials, or journeys where comfort is hard to find. Such scenarios challenge players to look beyond their own self-interest and even make great personal sacrifices.
Players are free to put themselves ahead of others and be chaotic instead of altruistic or empathetic. But in fantasy realms, as well as the table where players socially construct them, selfish choices have consequences: a player who constantly picks the pockets of teammates or, say, lets them do the heavy lifting in combat, will learn the hard way. Not only do characters in the game world suffer, but fellow players grow so annoyed that the freeloader may not be invited back.
When my D&D groups gather, there are a number of rules we follow that keep our time together fun and engaging. These are a set of “best practices” that I have compiled from YouTube gurus like Professor DM. Here are just a few takeaways from D&D that are great for practicing healthy social interaction and are cross-transferable skills for life (adulting):
- GMs should be gracious hosts, cultivating a series of fun challenges for all.
- Players should support the team: Arrive early to set up, stay late to clean up.
- Help the GM run the kind of game they have prepared for each session:
- Take notes, stay off your phone, know your role, be creative.
- Take turns around the table, so that all get a say; don’t hog the floor.
- Respect the GM’s rulings. Don’t argue about rules or stall the game flipping through manuals. Save critiques for afterward, one on one or by text.
Moore is right to caution us about giving our hearts either to our jobs or to our leisure time, and to remind us that only what is done for Christ will matter. However, I think his article leaves out how the gospel ought to be embodied in everything our hands find to do, whether we are sitting in a pew on Sunday, sitting in a cubicle at our daily jobs, or sitting on a couch with friends to unwind on the weekend. We must do it all to the glory of God. And as long as humans seek any sort of recreation, then even those things in our downtime ought to be done redemptively.
The way Moore characterizes pagan worldviews as celebrating the halcyon days of yore may be correct up to a point, but Christian poets, authors, and philosophers have often used those storehouses of stirring imagery and legend not to revel in paganism itself, but to point beyond those tropes to something even the pagans seemed to be groping in the darkness to find—something beyond this world and its pain. Like the allegory of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, D&D has inspired my walk with Christ through harrowing hell, as it were, in chain mail. Similarly, St. Paul wants me to picture myself dressing up in the war gear of a Roman soldier: “Put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11).
When Moore writes that “Our culture of fantasy role-playing is leading us to some perilous places,” I fear some of his readers will take him to mean that the human imagination is dangerous and ought to be avoided. If the adventure modules I’m writing fail to draw audiences to rehearsals of virtue and spiritual growth, it won’t be because I relied too much upon my imagination; it will be through not exercising my imagination quite nearly enough. If we do not nurture the imaginations of our youth, then someone else will. Secular writers are already filling their minds as our kids play games hour upon hour. Last year, I could hardly find a student in my Honors Composition class or among the new English majors who did not already have a D&D campaign going.
Tolkien writes that works of Faerie can be done badly. They can be Faerie of a debased kind. It is possible that I might be influenced more by the shifting sands of my surrounding culture than I am by those eternal qualities that we sometimes glimpse in the trappings of medieval fantasy. We must be guided by God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and the counsel of our pastors and church families. We must let colleagues and friends and those outside our gaming circle look at our materials to check that they are glorifying to God.
We take social risks when we act out these roles of elf, dwarf, thief, fighter, cleric, and mage—characters who are typically “outsiders” in the eyes of villagers where there is less bureaucracy—and puzzle out whom to trust or serve, confronting the perennial question, “And who is my neighbor?” When you must rescue the daughter of a blacksmith who yesterday refused you service, D&D gives you practice in being a good neighbor. I would thus argue that the Fantasy RPG, as an “emergent” form of storytelling, is not inherently an egoistic castle-building enterprise, but rather a unique literary genre that brings diverse people together and provides them opportunities to set aside their own agendas for the greater good of a community.