Dungeons, Jesus and Dragons
A year or so ago a friend invited me to join his Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) group. I had played before, years and years ago when I was in high school, until I moved to another country and fell out of touch with the people I had played with. In the intervening years I had become a Christian. Though I remembered the game as perfectly harmless, I had heard that there had been some fuss in the Church regarding D&D, so I did some Googling.
What I found concerned me. Most of the articles I found that were written by Christians condemned D&D outright, with accusations of devilry and witchcraft. What upset me the most was that I knew that almost everything I was reading was simply and quite obviously not true!
We Christians have a bad enough rap already, and things like this really don't help. Vocal Christian responses to fiction such as D&D, Pokemon, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code are as destructive as they are predictable. How many people have been driven further from the Church because of the behaviour of people who condemn their favourite books, films and games out of ignorance or misplaced concern?
So here, in the interests of redressing the balance, is my take on the D&D debate. Read it if you want reassurance that not everyone in the Church thinks like Jack Chick. Read it if you're a Christian who is considering playing. Read it, please, if you've only heard the argument against D&D. Read it if you're a parent or a pastor of someone who plays, or if for any other reason it is of interest to you.
What is D&D?
Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game. A group of people meet together to tell a collaborative story: each of the players contributes the actions of one of the main characters; and another person, the Dungeon Master, provides the actions of minor characters and antagonists, as well as the story's setting and plot hooks. So that the story remains plausible there are a number of rules, which make up much of the text of the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Monster Manual and the other books published under the D&D banner. Many of these rules involve rolling dice to determine chance outcomes, for example whether a crossbow bolt hits its target.
Role-playing and Fantasy
Role-playing refers to the act of contributing the actions of one character in a fictional context, while those of other characters and the effect of the environment are supplied either by other players, or an external source such as the code of a computer game or words of a book.
William Schnobelen, a prominent Christian critic of D&D, raises concerns in his comprehensive article Should a Christian Play Dungeons and Dragons? that role-playing can cause changes in the attitudes of participants, citing the example of role-playing as a therapeutic technique for people with behavioural problems. In this situation the subject acts out a realistic scenario with a willing intention to change his thinking and actions. This is completely unlike the D&D scenario, in which a player identifies with his character only inasmuch as a sympathetic reader will identify with Dr Watson when reading a Sherlock Holmes story; and in which the scenario involves unrealistic elements such as fantasy magic and mythical monsters. He would have to be very mixed up indeed to confuse the fictional D&D character for his own identity.
However, it is true that such "mixed-up" people really are out there, and it could be argued, though it has never to my knowledge been proven beyond doubt (though I am prepared to be corrected on this point), that exposure to strong fantastic imagery such as that evoked by D&D can exacerbate the condition. If this is true (as the conservative argument would, for the sake of safety, require that we assume), does that mean that D&D should be banned for the sake of those unstable people?
In the absence of D&D, I'm afraid that such unstable people are likely only to be triggered by some other evocative influence. Concerned Christians simply cannot remove all such influences from culture. How can they, when the Church is putting so much energy into spreading the Bible, which is full of such imagery?
Schnobelen and other Christian critics take further issue with the fantasy setting of Dungeons and Dragons, because of the elements of magic that infuse the game. Schnobelen even claims that he has witnessed D&D writers showing up at real witches' meetings in order to make the magical system more realistic. If this is true, then they must have cut most of that material from the final product, because the magic used by player characters in D&D is about as alike to real occult practices as a time machine is to a bicycle.
In this respect D&D is very much akin to Harry Potter, which has also been the subject of a lot of conservative Christian criticism. Believe me: I am a D&D player, and I do not want to lure your children into an occult sect. Really I don't. Neither do my friends. Neither do the Wizards of the Coast. Neither does J K Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series). Neither did J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis or E Nesbitt. I promise. The magic in D&D, like most things in the fantasy genre, is a mash of traditions and ideas designed to inspire the imagination and to sell books; not to recruit witches.
Some Christians claim that exposure to Harry Potter and D&D leads to children developing an interest in real-life magic and witchcraft. If this is true, and I have seen no statistical evidence to support that this is the case, then I say: Let them be interested! Let them find out! I have friends who have come within a whisper of losing their faith because they were sheltered from the world as children, and when they finally encountered the real world complete with Evolution Theory, beer, bikinis and the Left Wing they discovered that most of the frightening things they had been told by their parents were false. The Theory of Evolution isn't stupid or unscientific: it makes plenty of sense. Beer isn't poisonous, and nor does it cause you to immediately lose your precious virginity or to abandon your belief in a loving God: it's actually quite a nice drink. Women in bikinis behave in much the same way as women in ordinary clothes. Unionists, Democrats, the Labour Party and environmentalists don't enjoy killing babies any more than you do. And most of the varied practices of real-life Occultists are a lot less interesting than turning pinches of bat guano into fireballs that do 5d6 damage to all creatures within a twenty-foot radius. It's terribly disappointing. And it's bad for our credibility when we try to convince people otherwise.
Mormon Dungeons and Dragons writer Tracy Hickman writes: "To most people, Cult and Occult are the same thing. The words sound a great deal alike. There just seems to be something wrong with how it sounds. The press, knowing a bit more about the English language than those who read or listen to them, did not help matters any when they began reporting on the "Dungeons & Dragons Cult" or the "Fantasy Cult" in role playing."[ref]
I am not sure which edition of the Webster dictionary he was looking at when he wrote that it defines "cult" as "a. a great devotion to a person, idea, or thing exp such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad: b. a usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure." The current Webster lists that definition last in a list of five, the other four relating to religion or belief, so maybe a semantic shift has occurred. Hickman is correct, though: the non-religious, morally neutral definition is the only one that can be applied to D&D. Players do not conduct any religious veneration. The game does not contain any religious matter which is supposed to relate to anything in the real world.
The whole game is played in a fictional context. Yes, fictional deities are mentioned and named in the rulebooks, but players are no more expected to believe in them as they are in Frodo Baggins or the giant talking green phallus in Doctor Who. The deities, the magic and the characters are introduced in the same fictional context as centaurs, trolls and levitating eyeballs.
This is such a simple concept that I can only conclude that Christian commentators who have read the rulebooks, yet still equate D&D with cults and false religions, are being wilfully stupid. Perhaps their concerns about the other perceived dangers of D&D motivate them to talk up a controversy. If this is so they do themselves and other Christians - not to mention the Lord whom they serve - a terrible disservice. Appearing not to be able to tell fact from obvious fiction is a brilliant way of looking like a tragic idiot. The rest of us get tarred with that brush.
Here's where it gets really nasty. William Schnobelen's first article on Dungeons and Dragons features "A D&D 'Hall of Shame,'" listing no less than eleven cases of real-life suicide and other violent behaviour committed by young D&D players. Similar lists were published by other critics, including one Pat Pulling, a mother who blamed D&D for the death of her own son. These lists were soon referred to as "Trophy Lists" by opponents, including writer Michael Stackpole who had published an investigation into her claims. Accusations of cruelty and lack of compassion flew both ways.
Stackpole's investigation is referred to as The Pulling Report , and it concluded that examples linking D&D with suicidal behaviour were tenuous, inflated or simply false. Consequently it provoked a furious response from Schnobelen in Should a Christian Play Dungeons and Dragons? Sadly for Schnobelen, he commits as many investigative errors himself as he accuses Stackpole of in his own rebuttals - not least in confusing the coincidence of a D&D player committing suicide with causation. The whole thing eventually died down in a mire of name-calling and vested interests, and it does the same again every time it flares up.
Alignment and Morality
The characters in Dungeons and Dragons - the fictional characters in Dungeons and Dragons - have an aspect called "Alignment". This alignment places them on two scales: one on a continuum between "good" and "evil", the other between "lawful" and "chaotic". The first scale is simple enough: is the character compassionate and respectful of life, or motivated by a desire to inflict suffering? The second concerns how a character conducts his or her good, evil or neutral lives: do they follow the laws of the land or are they free spirits?
This offends our Mr Schnobelen, who quotes a Player's Handbook definition of a lawful evil character:
A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard to whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty and order, but not about freedom, dignity or life.
Schnobelen calls this "a mish-mash of moral ambiguity". Does this mean that Mr Schnobelen equates law-keeping with good morality and law-breaking with evil? If so, this seems a very strange opinion for a man to have, when that man also claims to follow an Israelite teacher who systematically broke just about every petty, unjust or cruel law in Jewish canon. I realise I may be making a straw man of Schnobelen here, but I'm afraid I cannot understand his objection any other way.
Sex and Violence
A game of make-believe such as Dungeons and Dragons contains whatever the participants bring to it. In the same way that a group of people with a blank piece of paper might write a story incorporating sex, violence or other concepts which may be inappropriate, it is also possible that they may involve these things when telling a collaborative story aloud. The D&D rulebooks supply rules for conducting combat as well as some less-than-moral practices such as lying, stealing and lock picking. However, I have not yet seen a D&D rulebook which mentions sex in any context beyond the simple concept of gender.
It is important to remember that D&D is a game where people tell a fictional story about made-up characters. The characters may do questionable things as part of the story, but there is no suggestion that the players are doing these things themselves; they're just sitting around telling a story. The rulebooks consequently do not go into detail of how to swing a sword at a man in order to do him the most damage, nor how to pick a certain type of lock. Such information would be irrelevant. Instead, the books simply supply a dice roll which models the character's chance of success at performing such an action.
Because the game is played by a group of human beings who are sharing a story, the consequences of characters' actions can be fully explored. All of the players I have encountered demand and expect genuine interaction between their characters and the world in which they live. If they want to tell a story where characters go around towns killing people, stealing what they like and destroying property then they can expect life to become difficult and unpleasant for these characters.
It is true that the D&D books contain rules for evil characters and immoral deeds. Such rules are necessary in order to allow for conflict in the story being told. What would the story of Cinderella have been without the wicked stepmother? What would Star Wars have been without Darth Vader and the Emperor? What would The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe have been without the White Witch? Not only would the stories, without antagonists, be extremely boring, but also devoid of any moral value.
It would be remiss of me not to mention here The Book of Vile Darkness. This is a D&D rulebook which contains extra rules for evil characters, primarily to supply Dungeon Masters with creative villains for the player characters to encounter and defeat. Many of the concepts in the book are quite horrible and unsuitable for younger players. Some of the illustrations are also inappropriate for children. For these reasons the book is published with a clear notice on the front cover advising that it is for mature readers only.
Demons and Hitler
Christian gamer M J Young points out, quite correctly, that if the monsters described as "devils" and "demons" in the Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks had instead been named "orthnips" and "ognogs", there would have been fewer complaints. The fact remains, though, that they weren't.
Dungeons and Dragons is a secular game published by a secular publisher. In the tradition of the Fantasy genre, ideas were borrowed from a great variety of mythologies, including Greek, Roman, Christian, Muslim and countless other influences. To the writers, the word "demon" is no more significant than the word "medusa". Demons are treated as a fictional piece of mythology, and are very effective as such because of the absolute evil that they represent.
Again, it's this simple concept that critics either fail or pretend to fail to understand: Fictional creatures within a fictional context. Read over all of the source books and you'll see that no player is expected to believe in demons or worship them any more than they are expected to believe in fairies or talking candlesticks.
Another accusation levelled at D&D is that the early sourcebooks contain material in praise of Adolph Hitler, thus corrupting young minds. Here's the controversial passage: it's the First Edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide explaining the meaning of a high charisma score:
True charisma is a combination of physical appearance, persuasiveness, and personal magnetism. True charisma becomes evident when one considers such historical examples of Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolph Hitler. Obviously, these individuals did not have a score of 18 on physical beauty, so it is quite possible to assume that scores over 18 are possible, for any one of these historical personalities would have had a higher charisma score - there can be no question that these individuals were 18's - if they would have had attractiveness as well as commanding personal magnetism and superb persuasiveness.
To paraphrase: If Hitler were a D&D character, he would have had a very high Charisma score, despite the fact that he was not at all good looking. Had he been handsome, he might have had an even higher Charisma score. That's not praising Hitler; that's using him as an example of someone who was charismatic and ugly.
Much of the world of Dungeons and Dragons is modelled as things which may or may not happen, depending on random chance. What actually happens in the story is decided by rolling dice to generate random numbers. Sometimes 6-sided dice are rolled, and a number of other, less familiar types of dice are also used.
Some Christians would warn us that by assuming that dice genuinely provide this element of randomness, we are challenging the sovereignty of God. In a truly random event, only God can control the outcome. Thus, they would say, every time we throw a die we are invoking God to make a decision for us.
Perhaps this is the case in a truly random situation, but, fortunately perhaps, there are very few such situations. Take the case of rolling a die, for instance: if you could accurately model the shape of the die, the position, force and spin with which it left the caster's hand; the friction effect of the table on the various surfaces of the die; and all of the irregularities in the shapes of the die and the table; then you could accurately predict which side of it would be facing up when it came to a rest. For God to interfere with this would be a divinely miraculous event; and these events happen infrequently by definition. I argue that dice rolling is more about complex mechanics than about consulting the cosmos.
I suppose there will always be people who would say that a demon inhabits every die, every sourcebook and every little figurine used in a D&D game. Well, if I am mistaken and that really is the case, then I am comforted to think that I have about a hundred demons trapped in a cardboard box on my bottom shelf, affecting me only through a fictional story once a week. If we add up the collections of all D&D players worldwide, then we can account for perhaps two hundred million demons, all imprisoned in boxes, bags and pencil cases. I don't know what the Earth population of demons is, but that must be a pretty significant fraction of them.
It's such a shame that people with so much energy to do good waste their lives chasing harmless pursuits like Dungeons and Dragons. Can you imagine the state of the world if every hour, every dollar and every word that Christians have used trying to prevent people from playing D&D, or reading Harry Potter books, or watching Pokemon on TV had been spent ministering to people who needed it? OK, maybe I'm spending time on D&D that I might otherwise be using to a better end, but it's no worse than spending an evening in front of the television. It's better than that, because at least I'm talking to my friends.
What really upsets me about this debate is that some people seem to be deliberately disingenuous about this: understanding the difference between fiction and reality, they pretend that they don't understand in order to support their anti-D&D arguments. At least I hope that's what they're doing, because otherwise they really would be as stupid as they look. Guys, please stop it. It's dishonest and you're giving the rest of us a really bad name. People have a hard enough time already believing the Christian message, and if you're going to give folks the impression that Christians can't tell what's real from what's not, then you're making it even harder for us to be taken seriously.