Hope you’re having a super November so far (and a productive, non-stressful one for any of you wrimos out there!).
Today, I wanted to take a little time to talk about something that’s been on my mind for a while.
See, I love collaborative storytelling. Be it ballroom dancing, theatre, music, writing, or telling a story orally, communicating with other human beings for the purpose of communicating with other human beings is an amazing thing to do. I have some experience with it in all of the above forms, but something I’ve wanted to play with more for a while is role-playing games (henceforth RPGs). The most common example is Dungeons & Dragons, but there are countless other systems out there, some of which I have played, some of which I have not. I also frequently listen to “real play” podcasts, or podcasts that simply record people playing RPGs (yes, nerdy, I know).
But there are also a few things I’ve noticed about these games that have been starting to catch my attention, and so I wanted to take some time to explore them, not in a way that condemns, hopefully, but that draws to light some truths I see, with a hopeful look to what could lie ahead.
So, since most of the people who regularly read this blog are Christian, let’s get something out of the way right up front. Do I think Dungeons & Dragons (or similar games) are inherently demonic? No. If I thought that way, I wouldn’t listen to them/be wanting to play.
That being said, do I think the stories we tell and where/how we sink our time can draw out or feed the darkness in or around us, putting us into mental, emotional, or spiritual places that are unhealthy, if not dangerous or even ultimately fatal? Yes. Absolutely. Believe me, I’ve seen it and been there many a time myself. Do I likewise find that the very structure of these games sometimes makes it easier to go to those places or create characters with those leanings? Yes.
You need to watch over your heart, including what you put into your mind, the patterns you form, and the topics and ideas on which you put your mental and emotional focus. This is true whether you are a Christian or not, and choosing to be reckless with those things can have very real and tangible results in our “real” day to day lives. It’s a lesson I’ve learned many times and have even been relearning myself just within the last couple days. If you can’t play with a clean conscience, don’t.
Which brings me to point one: A lot of these stories focus on darkness. Because of the subject matter (or language) that is covered, I often find it hard to listen for long periods of time, and sometimes can’t even listen at all. I’ve often skipped arcs or episodes in a series I really like because of the light hand taken towards things that should be treated more carefully (or in some cases, not at all). And that’s a tremendous shame, because done well, this is a beautiful art form.
Which brings me to the counter-offer to this first issue: Use it to tell stories of light.
RPGs are amazing because they offer such opportunity for depth, the chance to really dig down and sort out in abbreviated time ideas, theories, or worldviews that would normally take years to sort through. And when done well, when the dungeon master (narrator, henceforth DM) really works with the players, developing their backstories and characters, that potential for depth only grows.
And that doesn’t mean we all play paladins (knight-like characters who all live by a strict moral code under the service of a light-based diety, for those who aren’t of the nerdy variety) or that nobody ever gets hurt, of course. Characters need time and challenge to grow and sometimes knowing how to pick a lock is a useful skill. But it does mean telling a story that names good as good and evil as evil, celebrating and encouraging the former and calling out and challenging the latter.
I’ve mentioned this idea here before, I think, so let’s move on.
The second thing I wish for RPGs comes out the last pretty easily, that being a desire for things to be more real. I don’t mean this in the sense of having to dress up or have props or even to have to be a good actor (though those things can be fun). What I mean is, I want there to be consequences.
Some systems have this built in a little, usually as some sort of “corruption point” system. Other DMs incorporate it into the story somewhat (Rodrigo Lopez from Critical Hit being a prime example), but even those can come up a little short, in no small part because of how most of these systems are structured.
A lot of the more main-stream RPGs focus a lot of attention on battle mechanics. And with good reason. If you’re out trying to save the world, odds are you’re going to run into some baddies.
But what I find really interesting is that by and large, most of the characters, even healers, take the vast amount of pain and death they inflict on others with almost no negative consequence, either in story or as a character.
I was struck most recently by this when a group of heroes on one of the podcasts I listen to, on having a bad day, took out all of their frustration on local, small-time crooks, killing almost all of them. Were the baddies looting the destroyed shop of one of their friends? Yes. Did the desperate townsfolk turned bandits (looting to stay alive after their town was just destroyed) deserve to be chopped in half from navel to nose by the protagonists? No.
And this is not an uncommon theme. Over the top violence, debauchery, and more are often featured. Which again, in some cases, is realistic. In others, cartoonish and expected. And I’m not even saying it shouldn’t be there, but I wish sometimes it had consequences. I’ll give an example. In That Hideous Strength, the third in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, there’s a character that continually allies himself with evil. And in the end, even when he wants to change his mind, it ends up consuming him in one of the most eerie depictions of spiritual consequences I’ve ever seen.
Why? Because choices become habits, and the habits we choose matter.
Now, I’ll admit that mechanically speaking, I can’t think of a way to enforce this with in-game rules, and a lot of those details are lightened for the sake of expediency (the same way magical healing potions and spells exist for when you get your leg nearly chewed off by a dragon and want to get back into the fight), but it would be nice to see it taken into consideration. After all, even understanding you’re taking down a herd of minions for the greater good, the taking of life should take a toll, and as the stories we tell do shape us in our real lives, taking the topic of killing so lightly does give me pause, that caution growing the more awake I become to just how evil evil really is, current political and social climate aside.
Finally, I would love to see these stories mean something. I understand it’s fun to get together and goof off and pretend to be someone else with your friends for a couple hours, and I equally understand that for most people, the point is just to have fun, not to dive deep and discover something about themselves or our world. The easy argument of course would be that I’m taking this too seriously.
But the question I would put to them is: why not?
Because of the depth available to them, why not put forth that extra effort and learn something? Explore a topic, enforce good, test a theory? So many RPG stories are based off of basic repeating plots. Rescue so and so, collect the artifacts, find the treasure, clear the dungeon. There’s nothing wrong with any of those of course, but they do feel a little, well, tired. Why not try for something more? Why not dig a little deeper?
Anyway, this post is already exceptionally long, so I’ll wind down here, but it is something fun to think about. And since I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who are way farther down the RPG path than I am, I’d also like to open the floor. I’m sure there are tons of indie systems I don’t know about that already tackle some of these issues, or DM workarounds to take them on yourself. If you have any experience with either, please let me know in the comments below!
Edit 11/9/2018: Also, please note that I still think there’s a time and a place for just the fun chaotic play style too. Sometimes it’s just fun to play Jackie Chan and stop a horde of ninjas.
So, what about you? Do you have any RPG experience? Any good leads on where I could find more information or series/gamers you’d like to share? Let me know below, and if you’d like to see more of me in your feeds, feel free to follow me here on the blog or using the social media links below!