Make a Holiness Check! Tabletop RPGs and the Faith

Garrett writes on Table-Top RPGs, Imagination, and Moral and Spiritual Development.

A while back I came across a Reddit post by a user with the wonderful online moniker ‘Stirfriar’. Introducing himself as a Franciscan Friar, he went on to describe the many amazing experiences he and his brothers in the friary had while playing tabletop role-playing games in their leisure time.

These aren’t the RPGs one might think of – videogames like Fallout or Skyrim. Rather, these are more like elaborate boardgames – though not necessarily requiring a board. Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular example of such games, but there are many other examples. The basic setup is that a group of players come together, each controlling a single character. One player is designated the ‘Game Master’, and they are in charge of coming up with a story that involves the players, controlling any other characters in the game. There is a game mechanic for deciding the outcomes of player actions, – usually rolling dice – but I’ve seen playing cards used as well, and these successes and failures move the story a long.

I found this post delightful, not least because I love RPGs myself. I’ve only ever had the privilege of running one game, for my sister and some members of my Catholic campus community, but it was an amazing experience and I’d love to repeat it. Alas, Singaporeans are such busy people. But what I found interesting was this comment made by the Friar:

Sadly necessary addendum: In case there are any Christian readers who might be scandalized to know that friars game: we have fun. It’s a human need. You like us Franciscans because we’re happy people. It’s inexpensive entertainment, it brings us together, and I could write a whole treatise on why role-playing games can contribute powerfully to ethical formation. And no, playing the game didn’t cause us to get possessed by demons. No matter how hard we tried. 😉

The comment about being possessed by demons refers to the belief among certain fundamentalist Christian groups that these sorts of games make one susceptible to demonic influences or otherwise corrupting behaviors. Apart from the need to find a convenient scapegoat to pin the evils of society on, I also think that this stems from a fundamental distrust of the imagination when it comes to matters of faith. But in writing this article, I hope to add a bit to the Brother’s conviction that RPGs can be a useful tool in moral or ethical formation.

Firstly, I’d like to address the topic of imagination as a whole. Our imaginations are powerful things, and of course, they can sometimes be avenues or occasions for sin, especially when we are exposed to certain dodgy materials. However, the imagination is also an inalienable part of ourselves, and used correctly, can bring us closer to God. For example, the “Ignatian Contemplation” method of prayer is built around placing oneself inside a scene from the Gospels, engaging the five senses and trusting God to speak through this very act of imagining.

J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic and the father of modern fantasy, saw the imagination as another way we are made in the likeness of God. In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien argues that our desire to create imaginary worlds comes from the fact that we are made in the image of a Creator. We become, in effect, “sub-creators” and done properly, this can give glory to God, reflecting and transmitting the beauty of His creation. Likewise, a game like Dungeons and Dragons which engages the creativity of players can be a healthy way of having good, clean fun, provided that proper ground rules and expectations are set.

In a collection of essays titled Dungeon & Dragons and Philosophy, Robert A. Delfino and Jerome C. Hillock argue that Saint Thomas Aquinas would have approved of role-playing games, by citing Aquinas’ stance that “art, when done properly, is an imitation of God’s creative activity and is therefore, good.”, and that “God specifically intended for humans to be co-creators with him”. Of course, as mentioned earlier, there are responsibilities that come with producing such art:

“Aquinas argues that art should be used in a morally responsible way. Had he played D&D, Aquinas never would have played a chaotic evil character. And we’re pretty sure if Aquinas were a [Game Master], his campaigns would have been about the triumph of good over evil. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some people will play D&D in a morally objectionable way. Would that be enough, for Aquinas, to justify banning the game? We think not. Aquinas addressed a very similar question about art when he said “But in the case of an art the products of which may be employed by man either for a good or for an evil use, such as swords, arrows and the like, the practice of such an art is not sinful.”

I would also argue that playing role-playing games engages the ‘moral imagination’ of the players. Moral imagination can be defined as “a uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow humanity as moral beings and as persons, not as objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.” or “envisioning the full range of possibilities in a particular situation in order to solve an ethical challenge”. The core concept of RPGs involves around four or more different characters, each uniquely belonging to someone, coming together to achieve a certain common objective. The game I ran involved a Maori warrior, a Witch, a Greek Oracle and a lady Pirate coming together to find an ancient Chinese manuscript. By the end of the game, the players were discussing how best they could work together to cover each other’s shortcomings and asking each other about their character’s backstories. I like to think they recognized the capacity in each other to create and gained an appreciation for each other at the end.

There is also the opportunity to explore and discover more about ourselves through playing such games. When we create, we put a little of ourselves into said creation as well. Playing role-playing games allows us a safe space to explore concepts like heroism, achievement, drama and to experience the consequences of such choices as well. Perhaps it can even be used to explore matters of faith as well. There is a Japanese role-playing game called Ryuutama which revolves around on traveling to far-off places. I’ve always felt it could be used to create a pilgrimage adventure a la The Canterbury Tales.

But of course, the main reason you should play role-playing games is that they are fun. The positive benefits of playing will come out of a natural consequence of a group of people having fun together and bonding over snacks and stories. As for myself, I don’t know when I’ll get to run or play in another game, but God willing, it’ll be soon!

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Author: christcenteredconversations

Engage. Empower. Enliven.

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