Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saintly Saturday: St. Macarius the Great of Egypt

Today is the feast of St. Macarius the Great of Egypt. He lived during the 4th century when monasticism flowered and was a disciple St. Anthony the Great — who many Christians hold up to be the father of monasticism. There are extant fifty homilies attributed to him.

As with many of the desert fathers, St. Macarius focuses on the internal struggles that are central in a Christian lifestyle. As such, he lays bare one of the primary challenges that Christianity poses to RPGs, especially the kill the monster and take the loot kind of games such as D&D. Historically, the ideal Christian hero is the contemplative who spends most of their life in prayer, dealing with the internal struggles that St. Macarius writes about. This does not lend itself well to the kind of adventures that one expects when playing an RPG.

Thus, from a strictly simulationtionist point of view, doing a Christian RPG or playing an RPG to simulate a Christian campaign world is nigh impossible; however, Scripture and the writings of the Fathers are full of allegory, simile and metaphor, which gives us RPGers a bit of wiggle room. For example, take a look at this meditation on the relationship between the soul and sin by St. Macarius:
The precious vessel of the soul is of great depth, as it says in a certain place, He seeks out the deep, and the heart (Sirach 42:18). When man swerved from the commandment, and came under sentence of wrath, sin took him for her subject; and being herself like a great deep of bitterness in subtlety and depth, she entered within and possession of the rages of the soul even to the deepest inner chambers of it. In such fashion, as this let us liken the soul and sin when mixed with it, as if there should be a great big tree with many branches and it has roots in the deepest parts of the earth. So the sin which had come in, taking possession of the ranges of the deepest chambers of the soul, came to be customary and to have the first say, growing up with each man from infancy, and going up and down with him, and instructing him evil things. — Homily 41
If we take St. Macarius’ description of the internal struggle of the Christian and make it external using the very words that he uses we end up with the megadungeon.

The Greek word for “deep” in Sirach 42:18 is actually “abyss” and has the connotation of being bottomless (signifying that there are always going to be new levels of the megadungeon to explore). Sin has infected the deepest chambers of the earth — where monsters are sin personified. The megadungeon, as suggested by the image of a tree whose branches reach down into the soul, is itself a living thing that grows, changes and actively works against those who are trying to cleanse the dungeon of sin (monsters). The deeper one goes, the harder the megadungeon tries to repel invaders (the monsters get bigger HD the deeper the dungeon level).

This is very suggestive of what I mused about when exploring a Homlesian vision of the Dungeon and of Philotomy’s Mythic Underground (which sadly appears to be offline). It also strongly supports the idea that the megadungeon is always going to be an underground wilderness that is always filled with monsters — in a fallen world, sin will always be pervasive (this, BTW runs counter to the way I have run my games where PCs are capable of recovering sections of dungeons).

Treasure, therefore, becomes the mechanism by which a character’s progression toward their potential is measured. The gold, jewels and magic found within the megadungeon is akin to finding the inborn beauty that is the human soul. In other words, the recovery that I normally allow to play out as PCs cleansing a section of dungeon and making it safe, occurs not in the dungeon but the characters themselves. This treasure, in turn, is used to buy better equipment (to better the chances against greater and greater sin) and ultimately to build a stronghold where others come to improve themselves under the tutelage of one who has fulfilled their potential. Again, the recovery of the world from sin is measured in persons rather than geography.

As someone who grew up assuming the naturalism of Gygax and Arneson (and who, frankly, still uses it on a regular basis), I find this vision of the dungeon fascinating. The campaigns that would naturally arise from these non-naturalistic assumptions would be far more abstract or specifically game-oriented. Cities exist, not due to political reasons, but because of their proximity to dungeon entrances. In a world where G+ is emerging as a primary way for a lot of people to play, one could imagine a city of portals that lead to a variety of “dungeon worlds” where the rules of the universe change slightly (as reflected by the whims and quirks of different DMs/GMs/Labyrinth Lords/Referees). Expeditions are organized by inhabitants of the City of Portals (aka FLAILSNAILS?) into one or more of these dungeon worlds as game sessions arise and are played, all the while trying to fulfill their own potential by seeking out the externalized depths of the soul and rooting out the externalized sin that infects it.


Dave said...

Blown away yet again by your thoughts on gaming and Christianity.

If only we could send you back to 1975 to team up with Gygax and Arneson... writings such as this would have gone a long way to derailing the whole "AD&D teaches Satanism" bullshit that kept so many away from the game starting in the late 70s!

AndreasDavour said...

Indeed! That would have been a very interesting alternative history.

The idea of the dungeon delve as a mythic journey and purging, of a psyche infected by sin is very compelling.