Friday, March 11, 2011

Mining Some Circa 1981 Gold

. . .many fantasy gamers see nothing wrong with a game-universe ruled by evil forces, or by a callous "Neutrality" barely distinguishable from evil, but let anyone suggest having an omnipotent good power, and they'll scream, "Blasphemy! That spoils GAME BALANCE!!!!

Is it my thesis that a D&D Campaign can assume the existence of an omnipotent God — in fact, the God of the Bible — without losing the quality of suspense, just as, in reality, the existence of that same God does not make life predictable or unchallenging on our "Prime Material Plane."

For those of you who follow this blog, you might mistake the above quote for something that I had written from one of my earlier posts; however, you would be mistaken. Rather, it is from an article that ze bulette of Dungeons and Digressions brought to my attention from the Oct/Nov 1981 issue of Judges Guild's Pegasus Magazine — Monotheism In Fantasy Games by Joseph R. Ravitts.

From my perspective, it is a fascinating piece of gaming history because it indicates that the seeds that eventually drove me away from playing D&D for many a year were already planted and bearing fruit in 1981. The fact that Ravitts is having to make many of the same arguments that I have in this blog (that monotheism is not only a legitimate choice in FRPGs, but is well supported by fantasy literature) demonstrates a trend within the hobby that may very well have contributed to that dark and ridiculous association of D&D with Satanism by the likes of Pulling, Schoebelen and Hickman. However, I think the most interesting aspect of this article (and what distinguishes it from my own writing) is that Ravitts feels the need to spend a lot of time arguing for a fantasy world where Jesus Christ is not one of many active deities.

Over the course of the last three decades, hobbyists have come to agree with Ravitts; however, the majority chose to rid their games of Christianity rather than pagan gods. Which, of course, is where I come in. I have endeavored to demonstrably find ways in which to go the other direction and play this game with a very strong Christian foundation. A foundation that was, at least in part, present in the early years of the hobby as evidenced by Ravitt's need to argue that Jesus Christ cannot coexist with the likes of Odin, Crom, Set, Cthulhu or Krishna as active deities that directly influence fantasy worlds through granting spells to clerics etc.

Here are (from my perspective) some of Ravitt's more instructive observations:

Jesus Christ had to warn His followers, "In this world you will have tribulation." Sam Gamgee, in The Return of the King had a vision of "light and high beauty forever beyond (Sauron's) reach," but this did not relieve him of the responsibility to fight against the immediate threat to his world.
Others will object that the stern moral authority of the Christian God puts too many limits on a character's freedom. But have you considered the restrictiveness of other cosmologies? The Eastern religions view man as the prisoner of Karma; in Greek mythology, gods and men were subject to Fate, and often brought on a predestined doom in the very act of trying to avoid it; and in Norse mythology, everything that a hero achieved or enjoyed was overshadowed by the inevitability of Ragnarok. The Judeo-Christian view, in contrast, dignifies mankind by asserting the our will is truly free, and our free choice is crucial to our eternal destiny (Genesis 4:7, Deuteronmy 30:11-14, Joshua 24:15, Matthew 23:37, James 1:13-14).

However, the true gem to be found in this article from the annuls of our hobby is Ravitt's description of his own campaign world. Citing the fact that C.S. Lewis had Aslan/Christ supply Narnia with human beings from earth rather than creating a whole separate human race, he imagines his own version of Middle-Earth where two or three hundred years after the fall of Sauron, God arranges for Christians from our world to be transplanted to Middle-Earth to preach the Gospel to the beings that inhabit it.

While I would not choose Middle-Earth myself, this approach has a tremendous amount of appeal. It plugs into a deep seeded trope within Pulp Sci Fi and offers a fabulous way to introduce all kinds of sci fi elements, as Ravitts himself points out:

Subsequent crossovers from our Earth brought in the English language — and whatever other elements of the real world I wanted to have appear in my game-world. (That's how you can get anachronistic items in your dungeon without spoiling the internal logic!)

This has caused me to have a very bad case of Gamer ADD because this has put an extremely cool twist on my proposed version of Greyhawk. Rather than use one of my Aslan-esque Christ analogues, I could actually use Christianity with the understanding that St. Cuthbert is one of those Christians brought from our world to preach the Gospel to the World of Greyhawk. Thus, whenever someone says, "That is St. Cuthbert's Church" it is understood that it is the place where you go to worship St. Cuthbert's God — Jesus Christ. It also gives me the freedom to introduce some of the more gonzo elements of the early hobby with impunity.

If you have access to Pegasus IV, I recommend reading Monotheism In Fantasy Games, if for nothing else than a fascinating look at the early years of the hobby.


Erin Smale said...

Interesting "twist" at the end - I really like the concept. Now I need to think about where I want to go with this - thanks for the inspiration.

Theodric the Obscure said...

I've gamed in both monotheistic and polytheistic settings, and can testify that monotheism can make for a great setting. I feel that it works best, however, when it is an organic part of the whole, so that it provides that "inner self-consistency" of a subcreation, in Tolkien's terms.

Thanks for this taste of the article. It's funny that your post came up the same time as this one:


Lasgunpacker said...

Very interesting, although personaly I have some trouble with "real" religion in a fantasy world where gods interact directly with followers. Otherwise, you run the risk of suggesting that in this game world at least, there is equivilance between, say Odin worship, and the worship of Christ.

Perhaps such a setting, with transfered Christians, works better when gods do not directly interact, where clerics/paladins are just a player roleplay choice for fighters, rather than the more typical blessed magic users.

Also Greek Heroes and fate... original DM railroading? ;)

FrDave said...

Ironically, my first forays into creating a monotheistic fantasy setting for D&D started from my limited understanding of Zoroastarianism; however, I eventually abandoned the idea. I'll let C.S. Lewis explain:

...the moment you say [that good = what we ought to prefer], you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers [of Good and Evil]: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the Powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two Powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard is farther back and higher up than either of them and He will be the real God.

FrDave said...


The key to having Christianity (or a Psuedo-Christianity) as part of a D&D world is to make divine magic exclusive to Christian-derived classes (clerics, paladins, etc.). All other "clerics" that worship the pagan deities would use arcane magic, and thus be magic users by another name. Thus, where ever there is pagan magic, it can be explained away as a trick rather than divine intervention creating a clear delineation Odin,for example, and Christ.

Alex Osias said...

Father Dave, I thoroughly enjoyed this post, as well as your regular posts on saints.

Have you ever looked at the Fading Suns RPG?

Roger G-S said...

The problem is AD&D, with its official pronouncements on the nature of reality and the multiverse. I much prefer a campaign where who is really running the show is a matter of faith and contention for the players. And the truth won't be fully known until the players dare quest for the knowledge of reality itself - perhaps the ultimate treasure.

I haven't read the article you allude to, but it seems that some of the objections would be with the DM starting out telling players "Hey, God and Jesus are in charge here." Instead of "You were raised in the faith where God and Jesus ..." I posted a while back about player morality doing much of the work of alignment. If your players are Christian, too, they will bring their own faith to the table, if you give them room for it.

The image of missionaries knocking on hobbit-hole doors, though, made my day.

THOMAS said...

Interesting post. Seems very unworkable. I'd rather stick to monotheism being part of the cosmology ala Tolkien. Having an Aslan-like figure to make spiritual points is good too. But actually importing Christianity into Fantasy seems to blur an important line. The whole point of Fantasy is that it is not simply fictitious but mythical. We don't want to imply that Jesus is part of mythology. Jesus should be Lord in our creative imaginings, yes. But having types and shadows is as far as we should go in Fantasy. Maybe I'm wrong.

FrDave said...

Thanks for the kind words. Though I am a big sci fi fan, most of my sci fi gaming has been in the form of war gaming, not role playing. So, Fading Suns has not yet been on my radar.

I agree. My impression of Ravitts' article was that he was speaking in terms of his philosophy of imagining and creating fantasy worlds, not in the way he actually played the game. Therefore there is plenty of room for the kind of play you and I prefer.

I appreciate your concern, and for many years I shared it; however, I have come to appreciate the practical implications of Christ as the God-Man. When Christ became incarnate, He did not leave out any aspect of our humanity. As St. Gregory the Theologian admonished, that which was not assumed [by Christ of our human nature/experience], is not not saved. Christ came to save all of us fully. Therefore, it is perfectly natural and acceptable to include Him in our hobby.

Anonymous said...

My C&S campaign uses a monotheistic theology with a "good vs. evil" motif. I have not imported Christianity into it, but came up with my own religious back story which borrows from it, and includes "neutral" nature spirits. However there is only one supreme being/god.
In my game all the races other than the original one I call the Maegen are imported from somewhere else, usually as servants of the Maegen and eventually rebelled and broke away on their own. It also explains why my human's religion includes so many Christian elements and has a Catholic organizational system to it.
Personally, I've never been happy with the polytheistic systems which tended to be morally neutral. Good and evil tend to be subjective concepts in such a setting. Whose to say that killing a bunch of Orcs in a dungeon would be a good thing. I'm sure the village the Orcs came from might have a different view of who committed the evil act.

Theodric the Obscure said...

I'll have to take a look back at Mere Christianity. I wonder if you've seen what Beedo's been writing about religion in his Gothic Greyhawk?