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    Blue die on a tabletop

    God and the Gamemaster

    The Community of Role-Playing Games

    Alexi Sargeant

    September 30, 2020
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    “Sometimes I think about praying for my character in the game, and instead I pray for child soldiers in the real world,” my wife said, explaining to me how a role-playing game has come to serve as an unusual spiritual aid. I was touched to learn that her investment in the fictional character she played inspired her to lift up the downtrodden in prayer. Her character, Sonia, was made into a child soldier – albeit a superpowered one – by a shadowy organization. A major arc in the game explored whether she can transcend the violence of her past to be more like the Dominican religious sister who befriended her. As gamemaster, I couldn’t be happier that this central question (“How do you heal from being used as a weapon?”) had prompted real-world meditation and supplication. It was another confirmation that our game was no mere pastime but a haven we had built with our friends to tell stories, forge bonds, and even explore big ideas.

    I have been telling stories and creating worlds since I was a small child, pacing the backyard and spinning superhero tales for my younger brothers, who often chimed in with questions and suggestions to shape the narrative. As I grew up I found ways to tell stories in theater and journalism, but nothing was quite like that thrilling give-and-take of those youthful collaborations. Nothing . . . till I started playing tabletop role-playing games.

    If you know of one role-playing game (RPG, for short), you probably know about Dungeons & Dragons (itself commonly abbreviated D&D), the trailblazing fantasy role-playing game invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. And you might guess the heyday of that game was in the 1980s, picturing nerdy kids gathered in basements to spin tales of wizards and fighters and rogues – scenes brought freshly to mind by nostalgia-inflected media properties like Netflix’s Stranger Things. But judging by number of players, amount of game books sold, or influence on mainstream culture, the heyday of D&D is actually right now.

    These games provide a place for communal storytelling in a world that is starved for that kind of fellowship.

    As the New York Times noted in 2019, business is booming for D&D: “2018 was the fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth for D&D, and its best sales year ever.” The article speculates that the rebirth of D&D stems from a mix of nostalgic appeal, official efforts to expand and diversify the game’s fanbase, and the proliferation of podcasts and online series in which people play the game for an audience. If my own experience is any guide, however, there’s also a more timeless factor in the RPG renaissance. These games provide a place for communal storytelling in a world that is starved for that kind of fellowship.

    People of faith should certainly exercise discernment when they engage with RPGs, just as with any media. There are games out there I would never play, due to blasphemous content or anti-religious themes. For many Christian gamers I know, however, playing D&D or other games represents an amateur, collaborative version of what J. R. R. Tolkien did in writing The Lord of the Rings: imaginatively exploring a fictional world with supernatural elements that heighten the moral drama of real life. And even Tolkien’s beloved fantasy began with an improvised story told to his children at bedtimes.

    My wife and I like nurturing community. We host book clubs, play readings and parties themed for the feasts of the liturgical year. However, it was running a role-playing game campaign – that is, a game that lasts more than one session – that created the most intense bond between us and a small group of friends. We few, we happy few, had a story to weave together, and thus came to feel a certain responsibility to our characters, to our shared fictional world, and to each other as players.

    This makes it sound like serious business. But in fact, what this meant was that we had four friends over twice monthly to share a homemade dinner and tell a superhero story like those I’d told with my brothers in the backyard. We played a game called Masks about a new generation of superheroes finding their way in the world. We got invested in our story. I drew art of our superheroes. One player dressed up as her character. We made custom T-shirts with in-jokes from the game.

    dice game on a table

    Image courtesy of the author

    How do RPGs create this kind of intense experience of communal fun? The appeal is three-pronged: the game as toy, the game as social event, and the game as spur for storytelling.

    That first prong is the basic fact that it is fun to roll dice or otherwise interact with capricious game components. D&D has made its polyhedral dice totemic, making the twenty-sided die a symbol of the hobby, and rolling a one or a twenty on that die synonymous with abject failure and fortuitous success, respectively. Indie games, those not part of the D&D juggernaut or one of its close imitators, sometimes experiment with alternate components, such as a tower of Jenga blocks. Whatever the hardware involved, the tactile aspect has a distinct charm in contrast to wholly virtual entertainment like video games. Masks involved rolling two six-sided dice and hoping to see a result higher than ten – unless you wanted to see your character get into extremely dramatic trouble, in which case you might root for a six or below!

    The second and third prongs are closely interrelated: RPGs offer grounds for people to gather socially and work together to tell a story. The game gives grown-ups permission to engage in pretend play, which can still be socially and emotionally enriching like it was when we were youngsters. Thanks to the particular players who were part of our Masks campaign, for instance, we used the lens of superhero storytelling to explore themes of the common good and of wounded people rising above the darkness of their pasts.

    We used the lens of superhero storytelling to explore themes of the common good and of wounded people rising above the darkness of their pasts.

    The goal is not so much to “win,” like in other tabletop games (chess, Monopoly, etc.) where you are scoring points or otherwise competing. Many role-playing games tell players that part of the agenda is to “play to find out what happens.” You play to be surprised by the story. Thanks to the input of fellow players, the randomness of the dice, and your own spur-of-the-moment contributions, it’s a story that won’t unfold in the way it might have if you were authoring it solo.

    In the classic setup, used by D&D and many other games, most players control a protagonist character, with the gamemaster portraying the surrounding world, the supporting cast, and the foes and obstacles the main characters face. What the characters do in the game depends on the genre of story: stealing treasure from underground ruins in D&D, or teaming up to fight supervillains in Masks. If a longer campaign unfolds, characters might pursue larger goals, like investigating the conspiracy that gave them their superpowers. Certain gaming philosophies hold that the gamemaster should be in charge of these plot arcs, but I prefer collaborating with my fellow players to find out what interests them in the game world – I may be the gamemaster, but I’m not a god, even of this fictional world. It’s more fun to make room for everyone at the table to offer surprises.

    Masks makes particular parts of world-building inherently cooperative. Players pick an archetype for their characters based on superhero media (the Protégé, the Delinquent, the Beacon, the Bull, etc.), and each archetype asks certain backstory questions that help the players shape the game universe. For example, the Outsider, an alien hero, gets to help define his home-world alongside the gamemaster. What are its wonders, its terrors, and its failings? In our game, the Outsider’s player used this part of the story to explore the idea of the common good: his character came from a world of alien artificial intelligences that share a tacit global common good, and found it both disconcerting and thrilling that earthlings have no such collective understanding. That player was a college friend of mine, and we discussed his character’s backstory over beers at a bar. I was delighted by the techno-philosophical space he wanted to explore. As gamemaster, I could use this as a hook for storytelling, introducing earthbound characters with particular perspectives on life in society (from Catholic religious sisters to revolutionary robot separatists) as well as an even more naïve alien to whom the Outsider had to explain Earth’s common good or lack thereof.

    Playing the game together turned us into a little society of our own. These were the people who gathered every few weeks, shared meals with us, brought over beer (sometimes whole rolling suitcases full of it), and partook in the ups and downs of our lives. They were some of the first to learn about our pregnancies and our multiple miscarriages, and they offered hugs and prayers throughout our struggles. They also shared our joy during the healthy pregnancy that heralded our daughter Beatrice’s birth. We knew each of the players before the game started, but they wouldn’t necessarily have been the people we turned to in such intimate moments, were it not that they’d become our collaborators and comrades in this campaign.

    Of course, other regular commitments (a knitting circle, for example) could bring about something like this community – but there’s a particular bond forged in telling a story together. We aren’t merely crafting something together, we’re becoming (to steal a term from Tolkien) sub-creators of an imagined world.

    As nerd culture becomes mainstream culture, observers of many stripes face a temptation to be reflexively cynical. Old-time D&D players, for example, sometimes write as if their hobby is being invaded by posers, who didn’t earn the right to play these games by being teased and bullied for their nerdy interests as children. Similarly, I could imagine serious-minded readers dismissing role-playing gaming as irredeemably childish, a throwback affectation at best. I’d ask both these groups to consider: could it be that RPGs are one manifestation of a common human need? Do we have need for creativity mingled with camaraderie, for regular face-to-face contact with people who share with us a secret language of private lore, perhaps even a whole imagined world?

    Do we have need for creativity mingled with camaraderie, for regular face-to-face contact with people who share with us a secret language of private lore, perhaps even a whole imagined world?

    As I’ve dabbled in the design of role-playing games, I’ve tried to place moral and spiritual themes at the heart of my work. I’m designing a game called Autumn Triduum in which players take on the roles of religious sisters confronting the forces of darkness from All Hallows’ Eve to All Souls’ Day. Spiritual works of mercy like instructing the ignorant and comforting the afflicted are defined moves players can make in the game. And I’ve put out a short game called The Great Soul Train Robbery about desperados stealing from the train to hell. The game’s mechanics put the desperados at more and more risk of damnation themselves if they habituate themselves to brutality and baseness rather than following their nobler aspirations. Sessions of The Great Soul Train Robbery have often mingled pulpy Western action and meditations about sin and redemption.

    The in-person-ness of role-playing games – the fact that their archetypical form is a group of players gathered round a physical table to talk, laugh, and roll dice together – remains their strongest appeal. Though the internet has done a lot to promote the hobby, many who become intrigued by exposure to gaming online don’t feel they’ve gotten a full RPG experience till they sit down at a table and play out an adventure with some collaborators. One distinctive feature of RPGs, then, is that the creators of an individual story are also its primary audience. The RPG designer’s job is to provide players with tools to say original things that will entertain – and perhaps even move – their friends. By building a fictional world together, we can build up communities in the real world.

    My mother is an avid listener to the D&D podcast Critical Role, which features voice actors playing the game for a huge online audience. One recent Christmas I got my younger brother a D&D book he’d been yearning for. I listened in on him explaining the rules of the game to my mother and sister, initiating them into mysteries of character classes, stats, die size (Mom had played the game before, in college, during its first heyday, but all of us need refreshers sometimes). Mom rolled up a character and was happy with her Dexterity score: “Eighteen! That’s not bad at all for a Sorcerer!”

    The next day we pulled a game together with friends and family. My brother was gamemaster, his new book propped in front of him. My sister played a Ranger so that she could have an animal companion. (Another Christmas had gone by without her receiving a real-life puppy.) Missing a miniature figure for my Cleric character, we plucked an angel ornament from the tree. I couldn’t help but picture Victorian Christmas revelers, gathered round a hearth to spin stories for hours, a bright point in the darkest time of the year. Perhaps with these games we haven’t so much invented something novel as taken a winding road back to something elementary.

    Contributed By Alexi Sargeant

    Alexi Sargeant is a theater director and culture critic who writes from New York City.

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