Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. iii)

Perhaps so many RPG scenarios resemble Campbell’s monomyth because of his ubiquitous influence on the fantasy industry; or perhaps it is because it really is as universal as he says.  Either way, this general pattern is embedded in most of the RPG sessions I’ve played in and in the games themselves, to some degree.  To some extent, of course, any adventure has to begin with “a hero ventures forth…”  The hero must encounter hostile forces and win a decisive victory.  Many games do not include the “fabulous” in the narrow sense.  Sword-and-sorcery games are fabulous, of course, and space opera really is even if the fabulous elements are described as super-science rather than magic.  But what about Western campaigns, or spies, or noir/pulp detective games?  What about The Sims, where players simply pretended to be different 21st  Century people?  The answer would be that not all role-playing is a monomyth because not all is necessarily a quest.   But where there is a task to be performed, a goal to be attained, and there is a sense of character development and progressive empowerment through the striving towards and achievement of the goal, the monomyth pattern appears.  In the original RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, the monomyth was embedded in the game itself.  Characters joined together to seek treasure and kill monsters.  As they did so, they improved in their abilities by quantifiable steps or “levels.”  They might have a purpose, a great evil to thwart or village to save, but they just as often simply went into “the dungeon” to fight monsters and gain levels.  However, as they got stronger, the monsters got tougher too; even if it was not their intention, they wound up bestowing boons on their fellow men (or dwarves or elves or whatever) simply by removing so much evil from the world.

However, it turned out that simply killing beasties and getting rich makes a boring game.[1]  Therefore, a narrative structure was introduced, and with that the monomyth emerges full-blown.  It was consummated with the final “level.”  Eventually, the character was such a high level that there was little sense in playing; but by then you had a fighter who could kill Asmodeus in single combat or a wizard who could level a mountain with a word.  In short, the character was godlike, and there was no more fitting retirement than to settle down as either a god-king ruling over other mortals (and maybe immortals) in the material world, or to transcend the material completely and retire to Valhalla or Olympus to hobnob with one’s fellow deities.

From the Campbellian or Jungian point of view, it matters little whether or not anyone in the game realizes that what they are doing has spiritual significance.  What matters is that they are focusing intently and creatively on potent symbols from humanity’s collective unconscious.  Together the players are taking on tasks and quests, entering into a shared dream where they symbolically confront and (hopefully) overcome a variety of existential and psychological threats, to eventually overcome the limits of morality itself, becoming one with whatever divine power exists in that dream world.  It does not matter whether or not they realize they are reenacting the monomyth, any more than it matters in the monomyth whether or not the hero intentionally sets out on a quest or blunders into the Other World.

To be continued…..

[1] As a Kierkegaardian aside, this is basically the message of Either/Or.  In the first part, Kierkegaard presents the life of the self-centered hedonist or esthete, the person who lives for no higher purpose; this life is shown to disintegrate into disconnected, meaningless episodes and to finally be empty.  This emptiness is experienced as boredom, “the root of all evil,” which the esthete fears the most and can never escape.  Only when the individual comes to see his or her life as a task and chooses to seek and express higher values does life become meaningful.  To put it in gaming terms, you need a story, a quest, so that all this striving feels like it means something.

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