Posts Tagged ‘Dungeons and Dragons’

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

April 17, 2013

            In all of this, I have been assuming relatively well-functioning players, those who know the difference between the Primary and Secondary Worlds and know that the Secondary can only be a vacation destination, not a permanent address.  I have also tacitly assumed that the players tended towards “good.”  Increasingly, that is not always the case.  It is impossible to directly compare the moral alignments of player characters of the earliest days of gaming to today’s heroes; however, it is possible to draw a rough but useful equivalent.  In the earliest versions of Dungeons and Dragons, some magic items had moral alignments.  These alignments were randomly determined according to percentages assigned in the rulebooks.  In effect, this established the moral balance of the world in any campaign using the Dungeons and Dragons books (barring Dungeonmaster interference with the dice).  Intelligent magic swords were 55% likely to be some sort of Good, and only 15% likely to be Evil.  Robes of the Arch Mage were 45% likely to be Good, and 25% likely to be evil.[1]  Any player would quickly get the message that the world (or at least the treasure tables) favored Good players.  In the case of the most popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft, we don’t have to speculate as much or rely simply on moral biases in the rules to suggest the likelihood of evil characters; we have a census.[2]  According to the 2010 World of Warcraft census of player-characters level 10 or above, 51% are Alliance and 49% are Horde out of 6,014,846  total.[3]  To be fair, though, the official descriptions of the various Horde races seem to transform them from the ruthless killers of the original Warcraft games to a collection of races at least as much victims of brutality as they are its authors. 

            In Dungeons and Dragons the Evil party was usually a variation on the norm.  Truly evil characters cannot trust each other, and in a face-to-face roleplaying group you can rarely have players who cannot trust each other.  Even if they were pirates (a viable option in the early days of Traveler, for instance), they had to at least have honor among thieves.  Insofar as the characters are evil, there seems to be some unique dynamics in play.  First, sometimes the characters are evil in the eyes of some but not to the players.  My limited experience with Vampire:  The Masquerade suggested that the players were more Goth superheroes, trying to control their monstrous sides to enable them to fight the truly evil beasties of the universe who really did want to destroy the world.  The current WoW web site describes the Horde races in similar terms; the true evil, the Burning Legion, is enemy to Human and Orc alike.  In fact, the history of the Horde races is a collection of stories of good peoples corrupted by evils and temptations of various sorts, now trying to redeem themselves.

            More generally, it seems that playing evil characters has a cathartic function, much as Aristotle describes in his Poetics.  Players find an outlet for their desire to rebel against society, their lot in life and so on, in a Secondary World where the social consequences are not so great; once they have blown off steam they are able to go back out into the Primary World.  From the perspective of these theories, however, the choice to play truly evil, destructive characters would seem far more problematic.  Philosophy may have difficulty defining “evil” or “good,” but generally Fantasy has little trouble:  “evil” wishes to destroy the world or at least to enslave and torture other sentient beings, while “good” seeks to help and support life in general, and sentient life in particular.  To be truly evil is to side with what is harmful to the world in general, and other persons in particular; it is to be sadistic, nihilistic, treacherous and anti-life.  From the perspective of Campbell’s theory, this seems impossible; the monomyth is an expression of hope and oneness with the universe, with overcoming the destruction.  In the mythologies of the world, there are gods and goddesses that seem “evil,” but generally they have some sort of benevolent purpose.  The perfect example of this is Kali.  To the British, Kali was the goddess of the Thuggee, a ruthless cult of brigands and stranglers.  This is how Kali has been depicted by Hollywood as well.  There seems no sane reason for anyone to worship a fanged demon wielding a sword and wearing human skulls.  However, in Hindu mythology, Kali is a more complicated figure:  the mother who destroys her young, but also protects and saves.[4]  She may appear terrifying and evil, but the deeper understanding is that the cosmos itself gives and takes, gives birth and takes back in death again.  To embrace the truth and the paradox of Kali, as Hindu mystics such as Ramakrishna have, is to embrace the whole of reality, light and dark alike, knowing that both are necessary parts of existence. 

To be continued….

[1] Stuart Marshall, final author and editor in chief, OSRIC:  Old School Reference and Index Compliation; 2008 (  As a former 16th Level Mage, I’ll pass on speculating why the writers thought Fighters were 10% more likely to be Good than were us spell-casters. 

[2] WoW Census, 10 June 2010 ( accessed February 18, 2013


[4] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 114-16

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

March 6, 2013

The “Religion and Popular Culture” group for The American Academy of Religion has issued a paper call for “Games and theories of gaming of all types” for the 2013 meeting in Baltimore.  This got me thinking again about the connections and convergences between religion and role-playing games, two subjects I have been intimately interested in since the 1970’s.  I started writing my thoughts down, and I’m still at it.  I’ve submitted a proposal, but this draft is way over the reading time limit, so at this point I’m just writing for my own amusement.  I’ll be posting it here in installments; I hope you enjoy it, and I thank you in advance for any comments that prove useful, stimulating, and/or encouraging.

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



            The topic for this session is, “games and theories of gaming.”  My first thought when I hear “gaming” is RPGs.  When I began gaming, Dungeons and Dragons was just a few years old, and the first hardcover edition of the rules had yet to be issued.  There were two aspects of the relationship between “religion” and “gaming” in those days:  the fact that “cleric” was a character class, and the fact that many religious leaders and others were “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons.”  In the first case, back in the day, there was one role-playing game and, effectively, only two religions.  If you were a “good” cleric, you learned spells to heal, bless, and gained the power to repel the undead; if you were an “evil” cleric you learned to harm, curse and command the undead.  Aside from those differences in the spell lists and powers, all clerics were basically the same:  all used blunt weapons ostensibly because “shedding blood” was forbidden (unless your cleric was “evil” and was offering a sacrifice), all were allowed chainmail armor, and so on.  Supposedly these had religious reasons; but really, the only point was to differentiate clerics from fighters by reserving the best armor and weapons for the spell-less, and from wizards by reserving the best spells for the unarmored mages.  That is, it had a game-balance function that was justified in-game with a religiously-based reason.  The assumption, however, was that all religion was basically feudal European Catholicism, more or less, at least if it was “good,” so all class restrictions, all spells and powers and so on could be justified in terms borrowed from an unsophisticated Christianity; and if evil, then the religion was some sort of mirror image and thus still borrowing its terms from a superficial view of religion based on stereotypes of the medieval Church.

That is to say, when the gaming hobby began, religion was caricatured more than it was depicted.  A real religion was flattened, made to fit gaming conventions, and applied.  And the “real religion” likewise caricatured gaming.  Once cards and dice were the Devil’s playthings; in the 1970’s fundamentalist Christians who had long since made their peace with Pinochle and Monopoly saw Satanic plots in the pages of a rulebook and the spinning of a twenty-sider.  Much has already been written about the evils of Dungeons and Dragons, and about the paranoia and fallacious reasoning of those hunting that alleged evil.

What interests me more is the irony of the whole situation.  It seems quite obvious that a group of miniatures wargamers would not have begun adapting the rules of Chainmail by scaling down the rules for mass combat to individuals and introducing fantastic elements like magic and monsters were it not for the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories.  And Tolkien was a devout Catholic, who wrote out of a religious sensibility.  It is reasonable to say then that role-playing games grew out of Christianity; they are “Christian games” in much the same way that the U. S. A. is a “Christian nation.”  Three years after the publication of Dungeons and Dragons, 1977, a new role-playing game appeared on the market:  Traveller.  This time, the game was based not on fantasy but on science fiction, a genre more often associated with agnosticism and atheism.   However, 1977 also saw the release of Star Wars, a film based largely on the work of noted mythologist Joseph Campbell.  Through the 1980’s the gaming industry spawned dozens of role-playing games, with movies influencing games and vice-versa, and always with the original genetic inheritance of Tolkien and the continuing inspiration of Campbell.  And on one point in particular these two writers agree:  that fantasy writing of all sorts is inherently a religious exercise.  They disagree, however, as to just what that exercise is.

To be continued…..