Sunday, July 21, 2019

On Being a Referee and a Christian

In my extended absence from writing anything on my blog, I recently got this comment from David B. and it deserves its own post:
Greetings Father. I don't know exactly where to post this but I had question for you regarding the cosmological portion of your universe. I'm running a West Marches game type since last year and, I'll be honest, I stole your three main divinity when I read about them (Frumos, Arta and Tizan). I think it's great.

I'm playing with friends used to D&D and such so it's all good. But I was wondering about the long-term: my wife and I will have children, and I want to use D&D as a game and an educational tool. What would be the thing to do regarding the world and the cosmology of it ?

Pseudo-historical RPG set in Christian kingdom/mpire ? Analogical/allegorical like yours ? Or straight up remote to create a form of mythopoesis like Tolkien ?

Which one do you think has more value ? The goal is not to teach the creed through the game, that I understand very well, but mostly to make sure that the background imagination landscape, so to speak, it cohesive with the whole of education. What do you think ?

Thank you.
First of all, thank you for letting me know that you have implemented one of my various attempts at a metaphorical trinitarian cosmology. Not only do I think it’s awesome, it makes me really happy that it’s being used in actual game play by someone not me. Again, thank you!

To get to your question, let’s compare the Bible, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. All three take different approaches to infusing God and Christianity into their stories. All three tell terrific yarns. All three plant the seeds of Christian values. So the answer really isn’t about which approach works best. Rather, in context of playing an RPG, what is going to be the most fun for you and your players, because fun games get played. The longer a game gets played, the more you and your players get to wrestle with God at the gaming table.

Personally, I find that players like the approach you and I generally use at the table — we use a metaphor for the Trinity and as a stand-in for the Christian Church. This makes the fantasy world approachable. Not only is it familiar (it feels a lot like institutions we already have in the real world), but it is alien enough that we aren’t obligated to engage in a real-world kind of way. Devout Christians can explore characters that make choices they would be reluctant to if we were actually invoking the name of Christ. Secularists and atheists can explore religious characters because they don’t feel obligated to reject Christ and His Church as they do in their own life.

Once players bypass their own real world prejudices, it gives everyone the freedom to explore the moral landscape of human experience with little of the real world consequences. To make this work, you as the Referee need to consistently offer your players the freedom to do what they want, but be firm with the consequences of those choices. The only time I Refereed an actual TPK was when the first level thief decided to try out his Pick Pocket skills and got caught. Then the rest of the party decided to try and fight their way out of the situation. That group of players was a lot more cautious about following the laws while in town after that.

The other thing that makes campaigns like this interesting is offering moral dilemmas — situations that have no right answer. Introduce NPCs like the Operative from Serenitypeople who know they are monsters doing monstrous things for the greater good. Which is worse, allowing these NPCs to be monsters or allowing the greater evil they are keeping at bay to have one less obstacle to getting their tentacles into Civilization?

In this way, you allow players to embrace the image and likeness of God and to wrestle with God. Freedom and consequence, when done consistently and well, will go a long way to making your game fun and something people will want to come back to. Moral dilemmas will also not only be fun, but will be chewed on for years to come.

I hope that helps.


Scott Anderson said...

Father Dave, we have the same instinct when it comes to portraying God at the table. I have devised a clumsy analog for those real-world religions which are common in the West along with a lot of virtues and vices each focuses on.

As it turns out there are six sects and all worship the same God.

However I have not yet started the campaign which will present this cosmogony. I would very much like to hear about your Trinitarian cosmogony. Where can I find it?

FrDave said...

I've written on this several times. I think these will probably be the most useful:

David B. said...

Thank you for the answer Father ! It was my sentiment as well. In any cases, I will be reporting on the campaign here ( If I ever have more musing on the subject, I will integrate them and also link back to this post.

Matt P said...

I know this is an older post, but I was listening to a podcast discussing ecumenism between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, which quoted Chrystosom's Paschal homily, which I then had to look up and read in full due to how amazing it was, which then reminded me of your blog for some reason...

In any case, I just wanted to stop by and say God Bless, and I'd aspire to someday Referee my games (and seamlessly weave in Christian themes without making the game worse as we Christians often do when we try to meld our faith with our cultural practices) as you describe here.

FrDave said...

Thanks Matt. As an Orthodox Christian, I am privileged to read St. John Chrysostom's Homily every Pascha/Easter. It is so good, we've made it a liturgical act every year and every year it says everything we need to know about the Resurrection. It's
that awesome.