Dungeons & Dragons & Doxology: A Theology of Role-Playing Games

Jaclyn S. Parrish

My friend regularly accuses me of worshipping Satan.

Every time I Instagram about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), my phone erupts with a barrage of sarcasm: “Hey, I didn’t know Baptists did demonic rituals. Does your pastor know you’re summoning Satan? Enjoy perdition, ya heathen.”

He’s joking, but our banter is a lighthearted echo of accusations that have been earnestly levelled and believed among some Christians since the first tabletop role-playing game (RPG) was released in 1974. Yet D&D shows no signs of slowing down, even racking up its best sales ever in 2018. Tabletop RPGs are a present and growing fact in Western culture. Christians should take the time to understand them before embracing or rejecting them wholesale.

In tabletop RPGs, two groups work together to create a story: the gamemaster and the players. Each player controls a character in a fictional world, while the gamemaster controls that world, describing the results of the players’ decisions and voicing the characters they meet. The outcome of the players’ choices is decided through a system of dice rolls, which lend the game elements of suspense and strategy.

In D&D, the original tabletop RPG, the imaginary environment is a fantasy world, complete with unicorns, magicians, hags, and owlbears. Shadowrun, on the other hand, takes place in a cyberpunk future, while Vampire: The Masquerade is set in a world of Gothic horror. Wherever their tales are set, tabletop RPGs function as a narrative medium. Yet the experience is like nothing else in all of storytelling.

Most stories are created and related at different times. J.K. Rowling writes, and the results are read months, even years, afterward. But in tabletop RPGs like D&D, the story is “written” and “read” simultaneously. Actions and dialogue become canon as soon as the players declare them. Like improvisational jazz, creation and relation collapse into a single, exhilarating moment.

At the same time, the functions of author, character, actor, and audience collapse into a single role: the player. In a play, for instance, a character takes shape in the mind of a playwright, who condenses their personality into a script, which is then recited by an actress, who in turn is observed by an audience. Not so in RPGs.

The experience is like nothing else in all of storytelling.

When I play D&D, I transform into Adaneth the half-elf ranger. But I also remain Jaclyn the author, crafting my character’s dialogue and decisions. Moreover, I become both an actress for and a member of a live audience, as I watch my fellow players perform their own roles. I am writer and reader, performer and viewer, half-elf and human, all at once. I experience in a single moment the whole of the narrative experience, and I do so in community.

As such, tabletop RPGs allow for co-authorship on an unprecedented level. The gamemaster crafts the setting and the players steer their characters through it. The story emerges from the choices and interactions of these player-authors. The rogue may choose to pick a pocket, the cleric may choose to scold him, and the fighter may choose to knock their heads together in exasperation, and yet the final narrative arc belongs to all of them. When we understand tabletop RPGs as a narrative medium, we are on far better footing to engage them as Christians.

Narrative has the power to communicate truths that are larger than facts. King David could not see his own depravity until Nathan opened his eyes with the tale of the poor man’s lamb. Likewise, the rich young ruler misunderstood righteousness until Jesus revealed it with the story of the Good Samaritan. Both men became acquainted with truth through the magic of fiction.

However, narrative is not a redemptive practice for the reader alone. For when we use language to craft, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “an image of what reality may well be like at some more central region,” we join the creative process which began in Genesis. We become what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creators,” divinely fashioned to fill the earth with the image of God’s glory and the world with the news of his gospel. Stories, be they built with a pen or a set of dice, empower us to reveal that which is most real and most beautiful.

And through tabletop RPGs, we enter into that creative process with particular, visceral force. Because the player is, in the same moment, both writer and reader, and because the moment of writing and reading are one in the same, we experience the entire sub-creative process at full power, all at once. And because tabletop RPGs are so inescapably cooperative, we shape the minds of our fellow sub-creators even as we are shaped by them, caught up in the echoing strains of reciprocal and responsive creativity, which characterizes the Trinity itself.

While playing D&D recently, my character made the risky choice of asking the party to follow her back to her homeland to fight the undead plague that drove her south. In that moment, I was the proud half-elf ranger, humbly asking my friends to risk death for my sake. But I was also the co-author, asking my fellow creatives to trust a narrative choice that could drive our carefully crafted tale into a horrific ending. I wanted to move my backstory forward, but I couldn’t do it on my own—I was dependent upon them for the movement of the narrative. I was forced to both ask for help and assert my own needs, both of which terrify me in real life. And when they responded to my vulnerability with their unflinching support, they not only validated me as a fellow author, but affirmed me as their friend. In that moment, I was powerfully reminded of my very real need for a community willing to bear my burdens as I bear theirs. What’s more, I was reminded that I have access to just such a community in the body of Christ.

Now even Tolkien himself acknowledged that “[f]antasy can, of course, [...] be put to evil uses. [...] But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true?” The existence of porn does not negate the value of film, nor should the misuse of tabletop RPGs force Christians to swear them off entirely. As in books, music, movies, poetry, and life itself, the stories we tell at our gaming tables will only be as good and as true and as beautiful as we choose to make them.

Topics: Games