Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Christianity and D&D

This is an essay that was written by my friend and KGS fan, Bill.

Among the Christian community, no game has created more negative response and borderline panic at the mere mention of its name than Dungeons and Dragons. Lumped together with Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, Heavy Metal music, and violent slasher films, D&D has been accused of converting players to Witchcraft, Satanism and suicide. Images of dragons, devils and monsters adorn the covers causing Christians to forgo the age old saying, never judge a book by its cover.

Before we begin, I’d like to share a little about me. I am 39 years old, a Christian, and have been an avid fan of Role-Playing games for over 23 years. I was born and raised Catholic, and converted to a more Protestant, Non-Denominational faith around 14-15 years old. I am married, no children, and attend church regularly.

In both the Catholic Church as well as the Non-Denominational churches, I was amazed at the level of faith parishioners display. Not in our Lord Jesus Christ, but in the sermons and speeches from priests, pastors, travelling ministers and youth leaders. When speaking on the evils of the world, including music videos, fashion, and various pop-cultures, their word was unquestioned. No research or statement was ever investigated, argued or counterpointed. It seemed much of the testimony was taken at face value.

With my formidable youth spent in the 80’s, I was exposed to the “satanic panic” of its day. So prevalent was this panic that various Christian leaders couldn’t even agree on what was safe for Christian youths to be exposed to. For example, Christian Rock was praised as a spiritually healthy alternative to its secular counterpart. Others felt that the very nature of rock n roll, even its harmonies and tempos, were inherently demonic. The Catholic Church tried to offset Halloween with All Saint’s Day while other Christian faiths flat out refuse any celebration on Hollow’s Eve.  With so many mixed messages, and lack of seeking personal knowledge of the subject matter, what was one to believe? When it came to D&D, I was confronted with story after story about the evils of this game. More akin to urban legends, my youth group peers and Pastors told tales of young men and women who sold their souls to the devil. There were stories about those who accepted our Lord as their personal savior, and flinging their game books into the fire, only to hear unearthly screams of torment. Ministers warned parents that the game required players to cast spells, summon demons, and carry a spell book. There were stories of those who used D&D to trap players into Satanism, and forcing them into bizarre acts of sexual perversion and human sacrifice. Was this all true? Was there a hidden satanic conspiracy right under our nose? Could our next door neighbors be Satanists? Many of these stories were hearsay. Some were actual testimony from former “victims” of Satanists. In their testimonies however, they also mention that they’ve experimented with drugs and alcohol. Yet this part of their testimony goes largely unaddressed. Nor does anyone question mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disease. When they refer to human sacrifice, they produce no evidence of missing children, court documents or arrest records. Yet somehow it’s simply understood that these events have gone on, and all they’ve done to escape the torment is walk away. Accept the Lord Jesus Christ and they can’t harm you anymore.

So I set out for myself to uncover the truth. I wanted to know who was playing these games, what was involved, and see for myself if the rumors were true. At this point, I already began playing other Role-Playing games, or RPGs, such as Marvel Superheroes and Battletech. The people I met at various gaming tables and college also played D&D. They seemed normal enough, despite one or two eccentricities, so I sat in for a few games.

Before I go any further into my experiences, I’d like to back up for a minute and shed some detail on D&D, its history, and what inspired role-playing games. Where did they come from? How did they evolve? There are many RPGs on the market today. Even the out-of-print games can be found on the internet. But D&D is unmistakably the first.  Published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR), and designed by Gary Gygax and David Arneson. The game was inspired from miniature wargames.  Where D&D differs is they replaced the idea of a military formation to assigning each player a specific character to play. This of course had peaked the interest of game enthusiasts who have yearned for a more strategic, versatile game than the traditional games like Monopoly. In many ways, D&D was a progression of the classic board game experience. Both games use dice and playing pieces. Both games encourage players to amass influence and wealth. But for Monopoly players looking for strategic game play, little was found in games of this type. Consider the playing pieces of Monopoly, a shoe, a race car, an iron, or an airplane. These pieces represented you, but other than their shape, they offered no tactical advantage. In Dungeons & Dragons, your character mattered. Each character had specific advantages and disadvantages. Players no longer competed against each other, but cooperated in order to beat the challenges presented by the Dungeon Master.  Like “the banker” in Monopoly, it is the Dungeon Master, or DM, who oversees the rules, maps out the playing area, and distributes awards. While the banker also gets the dual role of fellow player, the DM must remain as the impartial referee. Like Monopoly, players are encouraged to amass wealth and influence. The difference lies in the next game of Monopoly, players start from scratch. In D&D, players can revisit their previous character. Money allows them to purchase better weapons, armor and equipment.  Experience Points, XP, is awarded to each player to bank on their character. Upon reaching a pre-determined amount of XP, characters “level up.” This gives players the opportunity to increase the characters attributes, skills and abilities. This will allow them to face even greater challenges.

As time went on other RPGs came out on the market. Games offered more depth of character, classes and an overall more enjoyable experience. It became less of a quasi-boardgame and more like interactive storytelling. But at its core they still involve the stand bys of gaining XP, amassing influence and increasing skills and abilities. D&D itself has gone under many revisions and even different publishers, such as the company Wizards of the Coast.

So now I begin attending gaming sessions involving D&D. Naturally, I am a bit apprehensive having been fed all these true stories about the game and stereotyping the kind of people who play them. In my 23 years of gaming, playing in my home and the homes of others, having played at college campuses, various gaming conventions, and even a corner booth late night at Denny’s, I have never encountered any of these truths. I never saw goblets of wine, black candles, pagan medallions or players adorned in black cloaks at any table (except once at a table other than our own at Denny’s. But if you go to Denny’s late at night, you never know what you’re going to see). I would now like to address a few of the more popular myths about D&D, and give you, the reader, a first hand, informed answer to these myths.
Myth: Dungeons & Dragons is morally inept. It encourages wanton killing by rewarding players with treasure and power.

Fact:  Not true. An important part of each character is determining his or her alignment. This comes in three categories; Good, Neutral, Evil. Good is, of course, good. Characters of good alignment behave in ways that are considered fair, just and honorable. They don’t steal, rape, pillage or plunder. They have an ethical code that they adhere to. Those of neutral alignment still have an ethical code, but aren’t afraid to bend the rules. Like Robin Hood, they may steal, but the ends justify the means. They still don’t outright break the law, nor do they engage in the more immoral acts. Think of the “bad boy good guy” archetype. Think of on screen characters like Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Good people, but somewhat roguish.  Those of evil alignment are, well, evil. They are morally deficient, selfish, and have no respect for life. The default stance in playing D&D is that players play characters of good or neutral alignment. Even the published adventures assume the players are of those alignments as the stories and challenges contained within are for player characters, PCs, to fight evilIt is possible to play evil characters, if the DM allows it. However, experienced DMs simply don’t allow it. They say it’s too unbalancing, and games quickly devolve into childish playing. Not fair to a DM who spent hours designing the story and maps for players to just run amuck and apply no strategy to it. Evil alignment is a necessary component for DMs who are creating specific characters to have them challenge the players. Sure, the D&D Monster Manual has write-ups on zombies for example, complete with gaming statistics. But who is the zombie Master? Is it an evil sorcerer? An undead barbarian with a magical amulet? That’s for the DM to know and the players to find out.

Myth: Dungeons & Dragons would have players casting spells and performing witchcraft.

Fact: Not true.  The character casts spells, the player does not.  Here is a following example of magic being used at a typical gaming table.

Brandon, Susan, and Anthony are playing a wizard, fighter, and thief respectively. As they investigate an abandoned keep on their search for the kidnapped princess they learn the keep is not as abandoned as they thought. Failing his attempt to check for traps, Anthony’s character accidentally sets off a trap incapacitating him. Susan’s fighter is attacked by a troll who gets a surprise attack and knocks her unconscious. It is Brandon’s turn to go.

Bandon: “I’m going to cast a fireball at the troll.”
DM: “Ok, your DC is a 15.” (this means Difficulty Challenge rating, and Brandon needs to score a value of 15 or higher on a 20-sided die to successfully hit the troll)
Brandon picks up the die and rolls a 12. He consults his character sheet. He has a +4 to his attack, giving a total value of 16, a success.
DM: “Ok, you hit. Roll your damage.”
Brandon again checks his character sheet, considering his level and skill in casting magic, he rolls 3 10-sided dice. 3+9+4, a total of 16. The DM checks his stats and sees this troll has only 14 hit points.
DM: “Ok, a flaming ball fires from your wand and impacts the troll with such force it knocks him off his feet. The smoke and fire quickly consume him.”
Brandon is now free to race up to the others and attempt to heal them.

What? Where’s the chanting? Where’s Brandon reciting some incantation? Doesn’t Brandon have to apply a drop of his own blood to the character sheet every time he casts magic? Does he consult a grimoire or something? Sorry to burst your bubble, but no. The example above is the extent to which one casts magic in an RPG.

Myth: It encourages paganism by having players worship false gods and deities.

Fact: Not True. In order to both add diversity among players of similar classes, as well as creating a moral guideline for players adhering to their alignment, characters are assumed to follow the edicts of their particular faith. While some like the fighter, thief and wizard may pay lip service to such a deity, others like the Cleric and Paladin are expected to be devout followers. Again, their characters are, not the players. This is merely a game mechanic giving players a frame of reference in how to have their players behave. Some may require a character to tirelessly seek out and destroy evil without question. Another may require a character to respect nature. Another question this myth raises is can Jesus exist in D&D? The answer is, of course, yes. Ultimately it is a fantasy world, and a DM is encouraged to be as creative as possible. With some effort, he can inject the One True God, and his son, into a D&D world. However, consider this; does Jesus belong in a fantasy world? God may be in all things, but a world that is not planet Earth? How would he address the many races of D&D. If Man is made in Gods image, are the Elves, Dwarves and Halflings inferior and unable to attain a state of grace? Would Jesus have enacted the same sequence of events on that world that he did in ours? Would he come from a virgin birth, became skilled in carpentry, performed miracles, have been betrayed, crucified, died for our sins and resurrect 3 days later? Such a series of events would have to take place in order to illicit the same set of values and beliefs that form Christianity here on Earth. Yet if we were to assume that Jesus does in fact hop from planet to planet reliving the same series of events, then it devalues what he did for us. We, as human beings become less significant if Jesus didn’t die for our sins and our sins only, but rather was reenacting a play he performed thousands of times. This all leads to the next myth…

Myth: This game is absent of Jesus Christ, Christian values, and detracts from his worship.

Fact: Mostly True. This leads to a fundamental argument in Christianity. Does anything that does not directly praise and acknowledge Jesus Christ a distraction from our focus, and ergo a sin? Extreme fundamentalism might suggest that merely watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond is sinful, for it distracts one from focusing on God for 30 minutes. Myself, I am not a fundamentalist. I do however have a set of ethics and morals I feel are in line with God’s word, I also acknowledge I am not perfect, just as I was designed to be. Therefore, I will indulge in activities and events that, while maybe not in the glorification of God, does not go against his commandments. For example, I may go to a football game and cheer my team for an hour, but I won’t attend a strip club. With that said, I liken this argument to the timeless classic of The Wizard of Oz. It has many similarities to D&D. Both are set in a fantasy world. Both have magic and sorcery. Both have a cast of non-humans. Both have witches. Heck, Wizard of Oz even goes so far as to suggest the existence of “good witches.” Nowhere in the film do they acknowledge God or Jesus. So the question remains, is this movie a gateway to Satanism? Does it promote pagan ideology? And what about Christian values? Doesn’t Dorothy ultimately learn the value of home and family? Are these not values Christians share? This is a personal question that Christians face daily. If Wizard of Oz is too distracting and threatens your faith, than D&D probably isn’t for you. However, if your faith is strong enough, D&D can be enjoyed at the same level as Oz. As long as things are kept in perspective, there is no harm.

To all my Christian brothers and sisters, I hope that this essay has helped shed some light. I certainly am not looking to convert you, but whatever your opinion on D&D is, if you have read this, than I am comfortable knowing that your opinion is at least an informed one. I also acknowledge that it would be hypocritical of me to ask you to take my testimony at face value while denouncing the others. So I encourage you to take this, like that of the opposition, with a grain of salt. Look into it yourself. Do your own research, blend your reason and your faith and arrive at a conclusion that is yours, and not merely adopting someone else’s.

God bless, and good gaming to ya.

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