Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Roleplaying Games as Theological Analogy- Part 1: God the Good GM

Quite a long post today, since it requires a bit of an introduction.

One of my main hobbies is table-top roleplaying; mostly games in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons, although actually I don’t particularly favour D&D itself due to matters of personal taste in terms of the game rules.  I tend to prefer rather simpler rules systems, and have even written my own (which you can see here), purely for my own use.  I have created several entirely fictional universes, again just for myself, and partly for the pleasure of creating them.  I have no intention of trying to publish either the rules or the setting at any point.  I have no delusions about my chances of success in shoe-horning myself into an already saturated market.

Anyway, I tend to run more games than I play, and almost every rule set has as its most unshakeable tenet ‘The Games Master is Always Right’.  When you sit in front of a group of players, you are God.  You hold the laws of physics, the workings of a world, the past, present and future of every single living thing in that world, in the palm of your hand.  Now not even the most obsessive GM takes into account every sparrow that falls (although you could make a table, and then roll a set number of dice per day, based on regional weather, predator numbers, food availability and prevalence of disease…  No!  Madness that way lies!), but nonetheless, you are omnipotent.  Within the world that you have created and populated inside your imagination, and which you have permitted your players to enter, you are all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-seeing (at least in theory).

This is heady stuff, and for some running a roleplay game becomes a power trip, being able to do things to your players’ characters just because you can, to needlessly assert your authority.  Omnipotence does not always come with Omni-benevolence.

What this is all leading up to is an analogy with the Great GM in the Sky.  There seems to be some interesting food for thought here, and my google-fu has not presented me with anything similar, so I’m hopefully not rehashing something someone else has already thoroughly thrashed out.

Before I actually get started, I should probably just briefly cover something.  Back in the 80s and early 90s when roleplaying was extremely popular with teenagers, there was a huge public backlash against the games, primarily led by what we now call the Christian Right.  The fact that many roleplay games include magic, and often feature demons and devils, alongside the elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons, made some people extremely worried that these games were corrupting their youths with unholy and unhealthy ideas.  There were attempts to link D&D and similar games with Satanism and witchcraft, due to their ‘magical’ content, in the same way the Harry Potter books would be fifteen years later.  The American evangelist Jack Chick published his now-infamous Dark Dungeons comic strip, fanning the flames of hysteria.  It was all what can most politely be described as bunkum, and it gradually died away, but there are still some Christians out there who are extremely twitchy about RPGs.  Well I am a keen roleplayer, and I’m not now, nor have I ever been a Luciferian, Witch, Satanist or Demon Worshipper.  (Although I suppose that’s exactly what I would say if I was…)

Free Will and Railroading

RPGs work by the GM presenting a world, and a story within that world which the players interact with and take part in, in the roles of characters within that world, be it traditional mediaeval-style fantasy, science fiction, modern horror etc, etc.  Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, no plot ever survives contact with the players.  They might be meant to be travelling to the distant city to help fight off the invading army, but the nature of the game means that technically there’s nothing stopping them going off in the opposite direction. 

Some GMs will come up with increasingly contrived ways to prevent the players from straying from the plot.  This is frowned upon, and generally considered to be Bad GMing, and is referred to derogatorily as ‘railroading’.  The best GMs accept the unpredictability of the players, the fact that they (or their characters) may not fully understand the mission they’ve been assigned, and work with and around it, hopefully gently steering the game back in the right direction, but otherwise catering and compensating for the change of direction.

I know at least one person who when he GMs games will not allow player vs player conflicts.  Player characters are not allowed to fight or attack each other, even for good in-character reasons.  It is simply not permitted.  Presumably this is due to some prior bad experience, and if a player is just trying to ruin the game for everyone else, or is bringing a real-life grudge to the gaming table then it’s not unreasonable, but the nature of RPGs means that it may well be perfectly possible for 2 player characters to have very good reasons for fighting, maybe even to the death.  If that’s the case, then I personally would have no problem with them fighting it out.  It may not be the best thing for the player party or the plot, but ultimately it adds to the game, as long as it’s done in a good spirit.

By railroading your players, you are removing choice, negating free-will and usually reducing their enjoyment of the game.  Taken to extremes, you get to a point in which you are no longer running an RPG, you are just telling a story.  You have effectively nullified the point of the game, which is for your players to take on a role, and act within it.  You have become a GM in the Calvinist mould, in which your Sovereign Will is more important than the choices of your people.

Being brought up Methodist, I have a fairly heavily Arminian theology.  I believe that like a good GM, God allows us to make our own choices, make our own mistakes, even to ignore or potentially derail his plans for us.  But I also believe that like a good GM, He takes our waywardness into account, He goes along with it, He turns even our mistakes into good and steers us back on track, and as a result, the Game is richer and finer, and at the end, whatever shape that may take, we will have chosen to do what was right, not been forced into it by a narrow and inescapable story, written even before we were thought of.

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