This is part two of our series called “Chaotic Good: A Christian Guide to Dungeons, Dragons, and Tabletop RPGs,” in which writer Jaclyn Parrish examines the mechanics and ethos of D&D and other tabletop RPGs, providing a rationale for why and how Christians can enjoy RPGs as not only a morally neutral, but actively redemptive pastime. Part one focused on the basics of D&D and what makes it unique in the gaming world. In this second part, she examines how D&D stands out as a completely unique storytelling medium.
If you remember playing make-believe as a kid, you can learn to play Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). After all, As Vox Media’s Carlos Maza explains, all the game requires is for “you and your friends [to] sit around a table and pretend to be heroes going on an epic adventure together.” D&D is indeed a place to fight monsters, get loot, earn points, and level up—but all these activities happen within the framework of a story, which you and your friends write together.Fantasy has the unique ability to help us see reality with greater clarity and appreciation by allowing us to view it from a different angle than we are used to.
The setting of Dungeons & Dragons is a quintessential fantasy world, not only populated by druids and dryads but also a pantheon of gods, both wicked and benevolent, as well as a demonic hierarchy. Other tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs), such as Call of Cthulhu and Numenera, take place in worlds we might call horror or science fiction, but as scholar Sarah Lynne Bowman points out, given that “any shift in the conception of reality is, in a sense, a fantasy,” all tabletop role-playing games are, in that same sense, fantasy role-playing games. This is the exact point which has been a sticking point for many Christians—the idea of psychologically inhabiting a setting with lore that seems to be inconsistent with the Christian worldview. Is it okay, many Christians have asked, to make a game of pretending to follow a pagan god? To communicate with demonic beings? To practice magic and sorcery?
This is a serious concern and one that must be addressed, and it is most effectively addressed in the clear light of D&D’s nature as a unique story-telling medium within the fantasy genre. The fantasy genre, after all, is only a danger when it is used for ends other than its intended purpose. For instance, C. S. Lewis’s Aslan is an analogous Christ figure, whereas Lathander is the neutral good god of birth and renewal in the world of D&D. However it would be a theological mistake to incorporate either of them in one’s quiet prayer time—that’s not their purpose. They’re both fictional beings whose proper function within the fantasy genre is to open the eyes and awaken the affections toward that which is most real and most beautiful in the world.
Make-Believe Makes Us Better
Like plucking a diamond from its setting and twirling it about in the light, fantasy has the unique ability to help us see reality with greater clarity and appreciation by allowing us to view it from a different angle than we are used to. The story of Frodo and the One Ring, for instance, reveals infinitely more about the nature of perseverance than does the phrase, “Don’t give up.” Moreover, The Lord of the Rings series does far more to awaken our desire to persevere than does the command, “Work hard.” The truth is accurately communicated through both the statement and the story, but, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “the story does what no theorem can quite do. It may not be ‘like real life’ in the superficial sense: but it sets before us an image of what reality may well be like at some more central region.”
Fantasy, as a practice, has the power to draw the heart and mind toward that which is not just more important, but more real. Fantasy teaches us to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, seems to believe that the “unseen” things of the universe, such as courage, morality, and God himself, are more “real” in the sense that they are more lasting and more valuable than the “seen” things, such as income, power, and social status. Love, by this logic, is “more real” than the stock exchange, and God is “more real” than tomorrow’s Twitter feed. Centuries before stocks and bonds were traded, love was freely given, and aeons after the last tweets have echoed into silence, God will still speak.
Thus, fantasy is not merely healthy, but essential in our fallen world, where, as G.K. Chesterton says, “we have all forgotten what we really are.” We so easily forget that the NASDAQ and the hashtag aren’t what truly matters in life, and “all that we call spirit and art . . . only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.” When we describe fantasy as “escapism,” therefore, we should be careful that we are not, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “confusing […] the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” Fantasy does not lure us into delusion—it breaks us out of delusion. It reminds us that friendship and courage are more real than pay stubs and report cards. It reassures us that kindness and faith are more beautiful than diplomas and promotions.
Of course, even Tolkien himself acknowledged that “fantasy can, of course, […] be put to evil uses. […] But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true?” The existence of Fifty Shades of Grey does not negate the value of Les Misérables, for although they are both novels, they make drastically different use of the same medium. Tabletop RPGs, like novels, are a narrative medium, a place to tell stories. Author Daniel Mackay defines them as “an episodic and participatory story-creation system that includes a set of quantified rules that assist a group of players and a gamemaster in determining how their fictional characters’ spontaneous interactions are resolved.” In other words, tabletop RPGs are not simply or only story-creation systems, but they are at least that. And like all such systems, the stories they are used to create will only be as beautiful and true as the participants choose to make them. The experience of making stories within this particular medium, however, is entirely unique in several ways.
What Makes D&D Unique
TTRPGs collapse the roles of author, character, actor, and audience into one.
Like actors immersing themselves in a role, players experience a phenomenon known as “bleed,” with “emotions, thoughts, relationships, and physical states spilling over between in-game and out-of-game,” as Bowman and fellow scholar Andreas Lieberoth point out. Unlike traditional performers, however, these players are embodying characters which they themselves are creating. This allows each of them to experience the story not only as actor and character, but also as author. Moreover, as Mackay notes, there is a complete “lack of performer-spectator division” in tabletop RPGs. In other words, players both observe the story being created and participate in its creation, allowing everyone at the table to assume the role of both author and audience.The stories tabletop RPGs are used to create will only be as beautiful and true as the participants choose to make them.
TTRPGs collapse two separate processes—creation and relation—into a single moment.
The story is “written” (the players create it) and “read” (the players watch it being created) simultaneously, in the improvised dialogue and decisions of the players. In this respect, TTRPGs have much in common with ergodic literature—a category of literature in which “the reader must actively make decisions in order to generate and/or read the text,” according to David Jara and Evan Turner in their essay, “Literary Studies and Role-Playing Games.” The Choose Your Own Adventure series would be an example of ergodic literature. But while the text of a Choose Your Own Adventure story already exists between the covers of a book, the “text” of a tabletop RPG is “emergent” and “ephemeral,” consisting of “verbal, gestural, and aural” displays by the players which “are only temporarily available in gameplay.”
To put it more plainly, the story being told in a TTRPG is generated collaboratively and on the fly by the DM and the players and, in its fullest form, exists only in the temporary space of the conversation at the gaming table and in the minds of the participants. So while the content of a D&D game might resemble a fantasy novel, the process of “writing” and “reading” that content is far more like improvisational jazz than written literature. As Mackay points out, “a recording of a role-playing game performance is not a recording of the aesthetic object.” Watching or listening to a recording of a D&D session is much like reading the sheet music of a jazz improv session—the content is related, but the immersive, visceral experience is lost in transcription.
TTRPGs provide an opportunity for co-creation on a level that no other medium provides.
Each gaming session is a creative partnership between the game designer and the players. Thus, Jara and Turner say, “RPGs can generally be seen as being multi-authorial.” But that partnership is even more powerfully present around the table itself, since no one person—not even the DM—has full control over the story. The power is shared by everyone participating. In tabletop RPGs, players can experience the rush of being a creator, a character, an audience, and an actor in a story taking shape in real time, and they experience that hybrid thrill in community. Each player comes to the table needing something different from the game: a good laugh after a hard day, a solid victory after a disappointing semester, a cathartic cry over a beautiful story. And over time, if everyone is willing to do the necessary work, the game itself becomes a place to both give and receive the best of what stories can offer. For this reason, “the bonds built between fellow gamers are indeed unique.”
In the words of the team at Vox Media, “D&D is a game about the people you play with. A game where everyone agrees to bring their weirdness and creativity to the table […] to help build a world that belongs to all of you, a world shaped by your triumphs, your defeats, your personality quirks, and your stupid inside jokes.” Tabletop RPGs are, in short, an opportunity to unleash the power of fantasy in the creative company of our fellow humans, to experience together what author Ursula K. Le Guin calls “a primary, vivid […] intenser reality where joy, tragedy, and morality exist.” D&D lets us join hands and make a break for a better world.
“Dungeons and Dragons, explained,” by Vox Media
The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, by Sarah Lynne Bowman
Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, by C.S. Lewis
• “On Stories”
Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
“On Fairy Stories,” by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, by Daniel Mackay
Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, edited by José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding
• “Psychology and Role-Playing Games,” by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Andreas Lieberoth
• “Literary Studies and Role-Playing Games,” by David Jara and Evan Turner
“The Gygax Effect,” by Michael Witwer
The Language of the Night, by Ursula K. Le Guin
• “Escape Routes”
This article was adapted from “Chaotic Good: A Christian Guide to Dungeons, Dragons, and Tabletop Roleplaying Games,” a symposium presentation at Dallas Baptist University, Fall 2018.