Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Am I a Grognard?

I have to admit that I have stumbled into what appears to me to be a magnificent era for RPGs. I have been off the radar, so to speak, for a number of years. My playing days went on hiatus for four years while I went back to school, and even before that I failed to jump onto the 3.0 bandwagon. Thus, until recently, I was completely unaware of the OGL and the veritable garden it has produced. For me, the most exciting (and unexpected) aspect of this flowering of the D&D system has been the advent of the retro-clones. God bless Don Proctor, Stuart Marshall, Matt Finch and all of the others who have so lovingly produced their visions of the game I played as a kid. The variety of choice we now have today for the game we love to play is incredible. I only hope that there is enough support and growth out there to support this lush field that I find myself in.

I have also stumbled across a term that I find fascinating — the grognard. It is a term, I must admit, that greatly appeals to me, and I wonder if I deserve the mantle. I played war games before I role played. I was heavily involved in miniature war games just prior to going back to school because I had no desire to play 3rd edition. I own the original edition Chainmail and have actually played it. However, my introduction to D&D was the Holmes edition, and I jumped onto the AD&D bandwagon long before I ever found the OD&D ruleset, which I do own, but never played. There are aspects of the 3.0 and 3.5 rulesets I do enjoy, intellectually. However, the next game I ever Referee (yes, Referee), I will insist on using Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, or OSRIC in that order of preference. Regardless of which edition I use, I will seriously consider stealing some of the mechanics used by Jason Vey's Spellcraft & Swordplay, especially his take on Vancian magic, as it is inspired by the magic system of Chainmail.

Does this make me a grognard? In a way, yes. However, behind the term "grognard" is a way of doing things and living a life that are the very things that years ago attracted me to Orthodox Christianity.

Orthodoxy has a deep respect for the past, for the wisdom of those who came before, and is loathe to change for the sake of change. However, it does take what has been given it and engages the culture around it to see how that encounter can transform the culture and enrich what has come before. If I may be so bold, this is exactly what the term grognard and the retro-clone movement are all about (or at least should be about). If this is so, I was a grognard in the way I live my everyday life, long before it became a term that describes my gaming inclinations. If this is so, I embrace the term whole-heartedly.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Here There Be Monsters

In discussing monsters, I feel it necessary to actually ask the question: What is a monster? Being an Orthodox Christian, to answer this question, I'd like to go to Scripture and one of the original languages of Scripture, Greek. Looking up the word "monster" in a Greek dictionary reveals the word teras. I never trust language dictionaries when only going from English to another language, so I went to my handy Liddel & Scott Greek-English Lexicon, which gives teras two definitions:

1) a sign, wonder, marvel
2) in a concrete sense, a monst

These two definitions are not unrelated. There are other words in Greek that denote signs, wonders, and marvels. The word teras, being related to the English word terror, indicates that the sign, wonder or marvel brings with it a sense of fear.

Teras is not used in the New Testament, but is found in Greek Translations of the Old Testament. It is used to denote the revelatory aspect of certain events — the event somehow reveals that God makes concrete decisions in the present, that He is in control, and these affect not only the present, but the future. In other words, they are frightening events that remind us that God is the master and creator of the universe, not us. I find this fascinating because of the ramifications it has on role-playing.

In my own experience, the most terrifying opponents in RPGs are humans. The reason for this two-fold. Firstly, having humans as the primary bad guys engenders fear and paranoia because they are not easily identifiable. Whereas an orc is easy to spot, an evil human can be anywhere and be anyone. The second, and more important for this discussion, is that they serve as mirrors — they reflect back at us what is worst in us.

In Orthodox Christian theology, this revelation of sin is understood to be a blessing. It allows us to take control of what is sinful in us, and repent — turn back towards God. This is an unending process that continues until we die and has been compared to purifying gold with fire.

For the purposes of D&D, monsters can be understood as the concrete consequences of sin. God, being creator of everything, including monsters, allows them to exist in order for us to come face-to-face with our own sins — to confront our own monsters and demons, as it were. This brings to life one of my favorite passages from the OT — Genesis 4:6-7 (NJB):

The Lord asked Cain, 'Why are you angry and downcast? If you are doing right, surely you ought to hold your head high! But if you are not doing right, Sin is crouching at the door hungry to get you. You can still master him.'

The word for "sin" in the Hebrew denotes a demon or a monster waiting to devour. This is a marvelous image of our life-long struggle with sin.

Also related to this image is the monastic tradition of Orthodox Christianity. In the Hebrew mind, the desert or wilderness was where demons lived. Thus, monastics would wonder into the deserts and wilderness in order to take on the demons in their own territory — to be that expeditionary force to tame the wilds for the rest of us.

This image, of course, brings to mind the traditional dungeon crawl and hex crawl of old-school D&D. It also reinforces the idea that PCs are that part of civilization whose calling is to go out into the wilderness to confront the demons and monsters in their own territory. In doing so, we are confronted by our own sin and are afforded an opportunity to turn back towards God.

Let me give you a concrete example. One of my all-time favorite pulp authors is H.P. Lovecraft and my favorite monsters in D&D are those that pay homage to Lovecraft's dark vision. For me, these grotesque, hungry, consuming, terrifying creatures and their call represent what awaits creation without God. At the heart of Lovecraft is this sense of inevitable decay, madness and destruction from beyond. At the heart of Orthodox theology is the belief that God created everything from nothing. Without God, all of creation will return to nothing. Lovecraft's call of Cthulu is a personification of this reality. Thus, in terms of D&D, an adventure where PCs enter into a dungeon controlled by Cthulu-inspired monsters is a concrete expression of our own struggle against the nothingness that awaits us if we do not have God to sustain us into eternity.

In other words, these are teras — they are frightening events that reveal to us God and that without Him, we are doomed to the creeping nothing embodied by Lovecraft's horrific visions.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Guy Named Nestorius

Recently, James Maliszewiski wrote a nice piece on how Christianity was implicit in early D&D. What I found fascinating was not the implicit Christianity (D&D did come out of a Medieval European combat simulator, afterall), but was this:

Gary Gygax . . . explained that he felt it unseemly to include anything too explicitly Christian in a mere game, even if he assumed a kind of quasi-Christian or crypto-Christian underpinning for the whole thing.

In my experience, Gygax is fairly representative of the gaming community — that to explicitly include God in the equation is uncomfortable, odd, or downright blasphemous. I find it ironic (and not a little telling) that this discomfort has contributed to a trajectory that has led to polytheism being explicitly expressed in the game system. That gamers have no problem with various iterations of pagan gods, but hesitate to include the Christian God because D&D is a game, suggests that gamers implicitly understand pagan gods are fictitious whereas the Christian God is very real.

As an Orthodox Christian, this phenomenon reminds me very much of a guy named Nestorius. The word "dogma" in modern America has a lot of baggage, and is seen by many to be a bad word. However, Orthodoxy has long understood that belief systems have consequences — they result in behavior. This behavior, in turn, reveals what we really believe.

During the 5th century, Nestor was a priest whose teachings attempted

to rationally explain and understand the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as the man Jesus Christ. Nestorianism teaches that the human and divine essences of Christ are separate and that there are two persons, the man Jesus Christ and the divine Logos, which dwelt in the man. Thus, Nestorians reject such terminology as "God suffered" or "God was crucified", because they believe that the man Jesus Christ suffered. Likewise, they reject the term Theotokos (Giver of birth to God) for the Virgin Mary, using instead the term Christotokos (giver of birth to Christ) or Anthropotokos (giver of birth to a man). —

This is in contrast to the Orthodox understanding that Christ is perfect God and perfect man; that the divinity and humanity in Christ are two natures in one person; and that these two natures do not change, are not confused with one another, cannot be divided into isolated categories, nor be separated in terms of area or function.

These different understandings of Christ result in different kinds of behavior. Nestorianism results in the compartmentalization of life — one's work life is cut off from one's home life which is cut off from one's recreational life which is cut of from one's religious life. This results in a kind of schizophrenia, where one becomes a different person for every aspect of their life. I actually know of a guy who politically claims to be a communist, who religiously claims to be Christian, and economically is a ruthless, exploitive capitalist. This schizophrenia allows us to justify destructive behaviors, because we believe that the behavior of one aspect of our lives does not affect the others. This, of course, is an illusion.

In contrast, the Orthodox understanding of Christ leads us towards a holistic understanding of the human person, where everything we do affects every aspect of our lives. Thus, Gygax's notion that including Christianity in a mere game is unseemly makes little sense to my Orthodox mind. My belief in Christ must necessarily inform my role playing. One of the reasons I feel more comfortable with older versions of D&D is that the game system, by implicitly assuming Christianity, makes this possible. As we have increasingly put D&D into a box, trying to isolate it from this aspect of its heritage by systemically requiring polytheism, the more schizophrenic it has become.

We have been given the illusion of freedom — more choices for creating characters, creating monsters, creating magic items, etc. However, since all of these creative processes have been systematized, we are far from free of doing things in our own unique way. If we don't follow certain paths, we've thrown the game out of balance and/or broken the game. I cannot speak for 4e, as I have not actually read or played the game. However, judging from the reactions of many people about the game, its affinity to video games and for reducing every aspect of the game to a formula does not bode well for a systemic support of freedom and creativity.

From my own Orthodox perspective, this does not surprise me. God is ultimately free. He has made us in His image and likeness, thus giving us freedom. When we freely choose to bring Christ into every aspect of our lives, we experience His freedom. When we freely choose to deny him from any aspect of our lives, we step into the illusory world of sin and darkness. We imagine that we are free, but we are limited by our passions, our sins, and our fallen nature.

This is the very reason I freely choose to embrace the Christian roots of the game of D&D, and carry it through into my own gaming experience.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Whys and Wherefores

Back in in my 70s childhood, I was given the Holmes Boxed set of D&D. This singular event set me on a course of events that has very largely made me who I am. Let me be very upfront. I am a devout Orthodox Christian. Having played D&D and RPGs of every stripe, throughout the last 4 decades (!), I am acutely aware that D&D and Christianty have a history. I vividly remember going through the list of 10 warning signs that your child might be a Satanist with my friends. We laughed ourselves silly, because we wouldn't have touched a Satanist cult with a 10 foot pole, and yet qualified for 8 or 9 of the warning signs, not the least of which was playing D&D. However, it must be acknowledged that a lot of the pulp fiction that inspired D&D is at best unconcerned with religion and at worst has a polythesitic bent. This bent was not explicit in OD&D (as a matter of fact, Christianity was implicit as James Maliszewski has recently pointed out), but it did make its way into the game over time. Starting with AD&D 2nd Edition, the game I love systemically supported, and even required a polythesitic world view. This has only gotten worse over time. As an Orthodox Christian, it is something that I lament and have been increasingly uncomfortable with.

This discomfort, however, is tempered by the reality that D&D is one of the reasons I am an Orthodox Christian in the first place. The game sparked in me a fascination in medieval European history that had me jumping at the chance to study in Russia, Estonia and Hungary. It was while wandering the streets of Moscow that I first ecountered Orthodoxy. It was while searching out a medieval castle in southern Hungary that I felt the shockwaves of bombs dropping during the Yugoslavian civil war. These bomb shattered me, in ways that I am still recovering from. It has been my faith that has allowed me to start putting the pieces back together. This trajectory proves a point made by Alexander Schmemann:

In the Christian worldview, matter is never neutral. If it is not "referred to God," i.e. viewed and used as a means of communion with Him, of life in Him, it becomes the very bearer and locus of the demonic. — Of Water & the Spirit, pg. 48.

D&D is not by nature evil. In my life, it has been a great blessing. I allowed it to point me towards God. Through D&D Christ came into my life, and that has been huge. Whether or not something is good or evil depends on how we use it.

Thus we come to the reason for this blog. I fully realize that when the words "Dungeons and Dragons" are mentioned, a lot of Christians cringe. I also know that the same is true of many RPGers who hear the word "Christianity." I hope to stand firmly with one foot in the world of D&D and another in the world of my faith and thus reduce the number of cringes in both worlds. I still love D&D. I still love the culture, the people, the game. And I am a Christian. So, I will muse on how Christianity informs my view of D&D, how I play it and how the two can affect each other in a positive way. Enjoy.