Up until very recently, I had never played Dungeons & Dragons or any tabletop role playing games.
Part of this was that until my mid-twenties, I believed games like this were a real gateway to the occult and to demonic powers.
A Hellmouth, if you will.
Oh, yes—that went for shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Bewitched, Ghostbusters, The Craft… even Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Simply watching a positive portrayal of witchcraft or the occult was an insidious threat to our Christian faith. We were like heavenly soldiers adrift behind enemy lines, like Frodo and Sam in Mordor. Unless we spent time every day reading the Bible and praying, and watched and read only Bible-based media, the constant inundation of worldly temptations would lead us astray into the grip of the Devil!
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:2-3 (ESV)
I’m not even kidding. That’s what we believed.
I had a good friend in high school, Jennie Purino, who was really into RPGs. (And vampires.) At age 15, having been brought up to believe that all that stuff was literally evil, this was a real brain teaser. From how she described and talked about it, it didn’t seem particularly dangerous or threatening. And as far as I knew, she didn’t worship Satan. (I think her family was nominally Catholic.) It actually sounded like fun… which, to my then Christianity-saturated brain, sounded exactly how Satan would lure people in.
So over the past few years I’ve been getting caught up on things that were previously verboten for me. Everything from music to games, to television shows, graphic novels, movies, card games… and now role playing games. My housemates are long-time D&D players, so they’ve been trying for a while to get me into it. And while I no longer think it’s evil, I was a little resistant. My understanding of games like D&D was that they attracted nerdy math freaks who could keep track of all the rules involved in game play. I pictured tons of calculations, and memorizing arcane amounts of information about races, monsters, spells, weapons, combat, and so on.
To be honest, I have a huge chip on my shoulder about anything math or science-related. I struggled to learn even basic math, like algebra and geometry, and science was equally daunting. Chemistry was fun though. But that meant that I chose to focus on the humanities, especially on literature and music, and wrote science and math off as being for people who were logical, and “smart,” and who probably fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. (Irony.)
Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God:
I had this prejudice that doing well at science was somehow an admission that you didn’t have the complexity of mind or subtlety of character to take on the humanities. Science was for people who couldn’t handle ambiguity and needed black and white answers, people who couldn’t get in touch with their feelings and had nothing left to think about.
Then a few weeks ago, I was invited to play Pathfinder, a game system similar to Dungeons and Dragons (and, as I recently learned, is backwards-compatible with D&D 3.5), but set in a different universe and setting. My friend Ben is running this game, which is the first chapter in a much longer campaign called Rise of the Runelords. Earlier this year I played a card-based version of this game, so the setting and the world itself was fairly familiar to me, but this was the first time I’d be building a character and rolling for stats.
Look at me, using phrases like “rolling for stats.”
The past few weeks have been spent researching and building this character—in this case, a half-elf bard named Casevar. I wrote out a fairly lengthy detailed biography for him, and this was the basis for a lot of the skills, abilities, and classes I chose to assign. It was actually a lot like the experiences I’ve had building a character in theater—you can do almost anything, within the confines of the play and the world the playwright has set, but you have to be able to justify those choices.
For example, one of the skills was Linguistics, which allowed me to choose an additional language that Casevar knows. For this instance, I chose Gnomish. When Ben asked me how on earth Casevar would know that language, I could point back to his biography where one of his close childhood friends was a Gnome named Mikkkaer. (Told you. Detailed.) It works in the context of his history.
What I’m learning is that the rules and the nuances of RPGs are almost secondary to what seems to be its more primary aim—collaborative storytelling. Mechanics are necessary, but are more the tools for storytelling than an end. It allows for people to experience a different reality through a collective imaginative effort, and maybe for a few hours to be someone else. It draws on narrative and mythic elements that have shaped human cultures and civilizations for thousands of years, and that still continue to speak to us today.
There are also an increasing number of studies suggesting that RPGs help in the development of critical thinking, creativity, and compassion, and can be useful in the treatment of conditions like bi-polar, depression, and even autism-spectrum disorder.
So I’m looking at this as an opportunity to not only broaden my horizons but to also step outside my comfort zone and try on different personalities and personas as I build and shape my own post-Christian identity. Perhaps in this way I can overcome some of the demons that have been keeping me locked up in my own head, and from moving ahead with my life.
Not to mention that it’s also fun.