This may be at first seem an odd topic, but one I think is very important.
Many older RPG players (happens to us all) remember the “satanic panic.”
I myself have never faced any real oppressions from religion for my love of playing RPGs. I myself am a Latin Mass loving Catholic and my mother and father are Catholic as well. In middle school they bought me my copy of “The Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Game” (the new-player quick start at the time) and soon came to have The Player’s Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Recently when I tried to get some of my fellow Church friends into RPGs I was not successful. One person did inquire about moral matters concerning the game. A bunch of them came to my house one time but in general I was not able to light “the spark.”
And now for a very qualified statement: In most tabletop RPG groups, from what I can gleam from what players share about their lives, from the occasional jabs they take at religion, or how they depict religion in their characters, I suspect I am probably one of the most religious (that does NOT mean the most morally good) and one of the most traditional in my moral outlooks of anyone there. Granted I have played RPGs mostly in California and Cincinnati, perhaps people who live in other parts of the country have had different experiences. Nonetheless, in my experience, Christians at the RPG table are rare.
It makes literally no sense for Christians to not love fantasy RPGs. Christianity itself has contributed much to the fantasy genre.
JRR Tolkien is on the record saying that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” C.S. Lewis, (converted to Christianity, but not Catholicism, in part by Tolkien himself) gave us the Chronicles of Narnia serious. And the contributions start even earlier than that.
(Trigger warning for references to narratives containing sexual violence and/or sexually motivated violence)
I have been reading the medieval legends of King Arthur recently. In Malroy’s Le Morte D’Arthur (SPOILER ALERT: Arthur dies) Arthur :
- Is crowned by the Pope (Le Morte was written before the schism with the Church of England)
- Receives instruction from a papal bull (legal document / order) to not do something very stupid (I am hiding spoilers here). Had Arthur followed the Pope’s (or frankly a long list of other people’s) wise council his Kingdom would not have fallen.
- Has Knights who go on quests for Christian artifacts
- Has Knights that regularly hear Mass
- Has a Kingdom full of wise Hermits (again, advice that should have been followed . . .)
(Note if a book is over 500 years old, the restriction on spoilers is over)
Le Morte d’Arthur is, however imperfect, a Christian parable about sin. (Granted, largely due to the authors Malory quotes more than Malroy himself.) Arthur is born in a violent sin driven by lust and he will fall due to violent sin and lust. King Uther, willing to trade peace for lust and violence is, unsurprisingly, not able to keep the Kingdom united very long. King David, in scripture, also commits violence and adultery, a choice that leads to disaster for those involved and in the kingdom generally. In addition to the sexual violence (not handled very well by Malroy), both David and Uther arrange to have the husbands killed.
As for Uther, though Merlin aids his crime, Merlin asks for the young Arthur not to be raised by him, and after separating Arthur from the King more or less stands by as the Kingdom falls. Merlin comes off more interested in “the Kingdom” than the individual lives impacted, a blindness Malory seems to share. Nonetheless Merin has the foresight, probably from both his gifts and his estimation of the King’s character, to see that Uther’s realm won’t last long.
Arthur, unlike his father, is able to unite Britain – but there are cracks in the Most Christian King’s realm.
Arthur himself keeps the council of Merlin the Prophet who, it is hinted, is the son of the Devil himself (ah, I am nostalgic for the days Christians could tell stories about Christian kings hanging out with the Devil’s kid without causing a panic).
Merlin, while wise in a secular sense, at times reflects his father’s mentality:
Then King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies; for Merlin told King Arthur that he that should destroy him should be born on May-day, wherefore he sent for them all, upon pain of death; and so there were found many lords’ sons, and all were sent unto the king, and so was Mordred sent by King Lot’s wife, and all were put in a ship to the sea, and some were four weeks old, and some less. And so by fortune the ship drave unto a castle, and was all to-riven, and destroyed the most part, save that Mordred was cast up, and a good man found him, and nourished him till he was fourteen year old, and then he brought him to the court, as it rehearseth afterward, toward the end of the Death of Arthur. So many lords and barons of this realm were displeased, for their children were so lost, and many put the wite on Merlin more than on Arthur; so what for dread and for love, they held their peace.The Project Gutenberg eBook of Le Morte D’Arthur, Volume I (of II), by Thomas Malory
Compare this to the actions of King Herod:
Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. But when Herod was dead, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph in Egypt, Saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel. For they are dead that sought the life of the child.Douay-Rheims Bible, Matthew Chapter 2 (drbo.org)
Malory’s King Arthur is simultaneously Jesus Christ and King Herod, both saint and sinner as real people are.
Lancelot, King Arthur’s greatest Knight is told on the Grail Quest:
“Of earthly knights you are the most remarkable, both for your virtues and your sins, and you, above all other knights, should give thanks to God for the gifts with which He has endowed you.”Keith Baine’s abridgment of L’Morte D’ Arthur. (emphasis added)
And of course the final chapters. Lies, infidelity, knights wanting vengeance for fallen comrades, failure to forgive to the point of violence. One of the themes of Genesis is the “spreading of sin.” Adam and Eve commit their sin, Cain kills Abel . . . and then sin grows and grows and grows. In Le Morte d’Arthur, one sin, leads to one death, and that one death eventually leads to the kingdom’s fall.
Malory’s Arthur and Knights are simultaneously loved by the reader and lamented by the reader for Arthur’s end was completely avoidable. Nonetheless all is not lost. Arthur dies and yet is “King Once, King to Come.” Hmmm. I feel that motif has been used somewhere.
And Back to RPGs
Recently, to my happy surprise, I met an RPG player at my Church’s young adult group discussion on chastity (unlike Arthur’s knights, this is something she sees and stands up for as a virtue). She is in not one but two campaigns and active in her faith as well.
Fantasy can, and is, a way to inspire people to holiness, reflect on our sins and reinvigorate ourselves for the spiritual combat. I am not unaware of the contributions of non-Christians to the fantasy genre, to King Arthur or to modern RPGs. But I hope those Christians who still eye D&D with suspicion or feel that, even if it is not “amoral”, that it is “not for them” will come to explore the ever-growing world of fantasy. Some object to “pagan” elements, but loving what is “pagan”, while being steadfast in monotheism is not foreign to the Christian imagination. The Divine Comedy is a self-insert fan-fic of Dante meeting Virgil, a summery of the Catholic faith in poetry and the world’s most epic dungeon crawl.
In Arthur, in Middle-Earth, in Narnia, in the “path to heaven that runs through hell”, we see adventurers, quests for rare artifacts, clerics, “boss-fights”, critical hits, worldbuilding, prophecies, tieflings (even if not called that), paladins, wizards and, in the end, sin, grace, Faith, Hope and love. Fantasy can connect to faith, and fantasy needs the Christian imagination.
Come in, my fellow Christian brothers and sisters, this is your genre, your game too.
Long live Christ the King!