Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D Part 1: That Evil Game!

by Victoria Jesswein published 2022/11/12 09:28:21 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:28:22-07:00
This is the first article in a series of three dealing with role playing games and the Christian perspective.


How many times have you heard it? You just meet someone new -- someone you really would like to get to know. You'd like to invite them into your group of friends. You try to make small talk and mention that you play role playing games.
"Role playing? Oh, you mean that evil game?"
It certainly doesn't only come from new -- or, at least potential -- friends. Maybe its your Aunt Eva or your Uncle Bert frowning whenever they find you reading a new module. Perhaps your Sunday School Teacher or Minister has, with glaring disapproval, lumped your favorite pastime of playing 'that game' with sinful drugs, liquor, smoking, rock-and-roll-back-masking-acid-brain-melting music, nuclear holocaust, swearing, promiscuity and a host of other evils which were designed to destroy your soul.
Now what I have just said either made you angry or laugh. Remember that; it tells you from which side you approach the of the issue of role playing games.
Also, don't get me wrong. Drugs are a stupid and destructive habit which is designed primarily to ruin your life while making the Drug Lords rich. Getting drunk may not be as bad as shooting drugs but it, too, will ruin your life. I also believe that there is something basically screwed up with the idea of pushing promiscuous sex at every turn in American films, books and advertising and then wondering blankly why their is such a large teenage pregnancy problem.
Moreover, what I just listed IS sinful. God didn't make up the rules of life's game just to mess you over. Sin is bad for you. To me, God is the best game designer and referee you can possibly imagine. I know that's true with all my heart.
I am a Christian, which means that I know Christ to be my Savior and my Redeemer. I believe in God and in Christ's Resurrection from the dead. I believe he has atoned for my sins ... and yours, too.
So, what am I doing writing articles about 'that evil game'?
The answer to that may be more complicated than you thought.


For a few years, I was a manager of movie theaters. I saw all kinds of movies go through my theater and, sadly, was required to watch every movie which played. Part of it was my duty to the community and part of it was the law.
I saw some very bad movies. Gut-wrenching violent affairs whose message was to solve your problems by killing others. Sleazy skin flicks filled with adolescent giggles whose message was that the thrill of the moment was all that mattered.
Movies are apparently bad.
I also saw some very good movies. 'Ordinary People' was a triumph of personal tragedy and how to cope with tragic loss. 'Empire of the Sun' was a powerful experience. Hey, I still get misty when the prince dances with Aurora in Disney's 'Sleeping Beauty.'
Movies are good?
The Medium or the Message?
The answer, of course, is that 'movies' are neither bad nor good ... they are just ... well, movies! In the parlance of the communication industry, it is the medium (like a channel on your television) over which a message (like a program on your T.V.) is communicated.
This same holds true with all other forms of communication. We would be better off not listening to some of the trashy music which has often passed for 'art' or 'rock'. Yet we are also enriched by other music ranging from 'classical' to 'rock'. Some programs on the T.V. bring new horizons to our view of the world. Some programs drag us down into the gutter and offer nothing in return.
Is T.V. then good or bad? Is music then good or bad?

It isn't What it is but What we do with it.

It seems obvious that it isn't the method of communication ... the medium ... that is either good or bad. Rather, it is what we do with the medium that is good or bad. You can use quarry stones to build a cathedral. You can use the same stones to build a prison.
Gary Gygax, on the infamous 60 Minutes treatment of role playing used the analogy of a chair. In effect, he said that he could use a chair either to sit on or to hit someone over the head with -- but that didn't mean we should ban chairs.
In effect, he was saying that, like movies, television, music, books and any other form of communication you can name, Dungeons & Dragons® is not 'evil' in and of itself. It is simply a medium of communication overwhich any number or types of ideas can be sent.


All of these are very logical answers to the questions of 'evil role playing games.' In fact, I am sure you have used many of these arguments with your Pastor, Bishop, mother/father and friends.
I bet they didn't listen.
The truth is that they may have been listening but they just weren't hearing you. Our biggest problem in the two sides of the role playing issue is that neither side has ever been able to hear what the other side is really saying.
Fortunately, by understanding the problem and how to deal with it, we can do something about bridging this gap.

The Cult and the Occult: The closed society of role playing:

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 & Dragons1 Cult" or the "Fantasy Cult" in role playing.
In a very real sense, role playing became as popular as it did because it was a cult -- in the traditional sense of the word. According to Websters, a 'cult' is "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." This means that the people who were part of the 'D&D Cult' were a part of a small, closed and internally select group with common interests in an intellectual idea.
That does NOT mean, however, that the Role playing Cult is OCCULT. These are two very like sounding words with very unlike meanings. Websters defines 'occult' in three ways. "1. to hide from sight 2. not revealed: SECRET 3. matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural agencies or some secret knowledge of them -- used with the". While the word more accurately means 'hidden or obscure' it has come to mean in a more traditional sense, the practice of witchcraft or sorcery.
The difference between the words is blurred further when we start speaking of Fantasy Cults. Traditional epic fantasy uses a roughly medieval setting. Such a setting includes wizards and witches, magic and spiritualism. All of these aspects are now associated with the Occult and, as such, are easily branded as Evil, Satanic and Spiritually Dangerous.
Occultism IS Evil, Satanic and Spiritually Dangerous. The practice of witchcraft is debilitating to the soul and ultimately destructive. Occultism is NOT a harmless game .... it is a very real 'religion' which derives its power from darkness.
The Fantasy Role Playing cult is not occult -- but it could be abused. An adventure can be designed to teach everything from Christianity to Zoroastroism. To outsiders looking in, however, we appear to turn our backs on their good intentions toward something they perceive as dark and wrong.

Insiders and Outsiders: Hard looking in, hard to reach out.

Cults are almost by definition closed societies. It is part of the fun of the hobby. When you tell someone that your 'eighth-level MU got his THACO boosted to 6' it is something of a secret challenge to them. If they understand you even marginally, then they are one of those people who have played the game and are therefore 'one of you.' If all you get is a blank stare then the person you have addressed is not part of the 'D&D cult' and therefore 'not one of you.'
It is this very cult system which has, I believe, worked to make role playing such a large hobby. Anyone who read through the 'Dungeon Masters Guide' (a laborious task) had knowledge and understanding of a game which his peers did not. Those who ran the games demonstrated this superior knowledge and were, in varying degrees, looked up to by others in the 'cult.' This elitism bound us all together and made us strong as a group.
However, this very closeness ... and 'closedness' ... has generated great problems for us in communication with others.
The greatest barrier to understanding ... whether that be outsiders trying to understand role playing games or insiders trying to help outsiders understand ... is our own cultism. Our close-knit society of gamers made role playing grow into an international phenomenon. We then circled the wagons when we perceived outsiders beginning to attack our hobby.
It is time we reached out to those who do not understand this game we play. To do so, however, will require some important work on our part. We must learn how to change our own channels so that we can both hear and be heard by others.


Several years ago, Dungeons & Dragons generated a lot of concern in a school district near my home. A teacher had been using the game with his gifted students and a woman in the town decided that the schools were, therefore, teaching Satanic rituals to children.
At the school board meeting, one fellow who was associated with TSR stood and, in the course of trying to explain how harmless D&D was asked if anyone in the audience would mind having a spell cast on them. His intent, of course, was to show that 'spells' in the game are just imaginary effects.
A woman stood up and walked boldly to the front of the hall. I really must admire her courage considering that she was sure she was facing very real and very evil powers.
The TSR representative stood and threw some dice. Looking down at the result, he said, "Oh, the spell didn't work."
In a loud voice, clear as her faith, this dear woman said, "Of course it didn't work! I (am filled with) the Holy Ghost!"
These two people were not communicating!
Apples and Oranges: Hearing without Listening
"Why were you so late getting home?"
"Well, there was this guy who has blown his tire by the side of the road and I just stopped to ..."
"You knew that I needed that car for my appointment! You're irresponsible, boy! You must think all I have to do is sit around and wait for you all day."
"Dad, they guy was in real trouble ..."
"Why can't you be more considerate of me and your mother?
"Dad, you just don't understand ..."
The boy is right: Dad doesn't understand. In fact, the way this conversation is going, they might as well not even be talking to each other. Neither of them is hearing what the other has to say even though they are face to face.
They are talking on different channels. They boy is trying to answer is father's question logically -- trying to tell his dad why it is he is late getting home. Dad, on the other hand is asking an emotional question -- he's mad and wants some emotional satisfaction for all the anger he is feeling. What Dad really wants is an apology and, perhaps, some sense that his son feels guilty for having wronged his father.
Both of these characters are trying to compare apples (the boys logic) and oranges (the fathers feelings). They are not the same thing and often are the primary source for dispute.

The heart or the head?: Emotion vs. reason

When emotion is present in one side of a conversation, you might as well toss logic out the window. People who feel emotional about an issue simply will not hear logical arguments.
Let's replay the previous conversation in a more relevant mode:
"Have you been playing that game again?"
"Dad, there really isn't anything wrong with it -- it's just a game."
"Role Playing games are the devil's work! It's rotting your brain!"
"Nothing bad ever happens, Dad, it's all just make believe ..."
"It's witchcraft, boy! You'll loose your soul in those dark arts! Never mind me! What about your mother?!"
Again, we have apples vs. oranges: The boy is trying to reason with his father with logic. His Dad, on the other hand, is sincerely worried about his son -- an emotional issue for him -- and doesn't want his boy hurt.

Truth or illusion?: Reality vs. appearance

The truth of things is often judged by its appearance. When I was in High School, a Camero body with oversized tires and racing stripes was more important than the fact that the engine was undersized and out of tune. We would polish our cars but never quite get around to fixing the brakes.
The fact is that we all judge by appearances and our fantasy games will be judged in the same way.
Let's face it, if you create a make-believe magical language for the casting of spells and go about the house all day muttering strange incantations, your mother is probably going to call the exorcist. Never mind that your words are meaningless. Never mind that your game referee finds them mostly a bother. Mom will be convinced that you are being drawn into the clutches of Satan.
If you invite your minister over to watch one of your games and he enters a room lit only by candles and filled with incense you KNOW how he is going to react. For that matter, you also know what mood you have just set for your players and it may not be the best.
If you are going to succeed in communicating what your game really is like, then you had best avoid even the appearance of evil.
Telling requires listening
Before you begin talking it is most important that you start by listening -- really listening! It's rather like tuning a radio before you start transmitting. Before you can communicate, you must understand on what channel the other person is speaking and doing their own listening.
An easy technique you can use to understand where the other person is at mentally is called Reflective Listening. This is a way of repeating back to the other person what they just said -- in different words and phrased as a question. It just takes a little practice.
Here's a non-reflective conversations:
"I'm mad at you you!
"I haven't done anything!"
Sound familiar? Both these people will probably come to blows shortly. Let's try it with reflective listening."
"I'm mad at you you."
"Why are you mad at me?"
"Because you didn't come by last weekend?"
"I guess last weekend was pretty important to you, huh?"
"You know it. We were supposed to go hiking!"
Now, at least the listener has learned not only that their friend is emotionally upset but also WHY they are upset. Grovelling apologies and flowers may now be in order.

Opening the channels

You can open the channels with your friends, parents, ministers or anyone else with whom you find yourself in conflict by just starting on the right channel. By countering emotion with emotion (or logic with logic) you will find your conversations bearing a good deal more fruit.
Let's try the role playing conversation one more time. Dad, as usual, starts it off but now we will apply active or reflective listening and try tuning in to his emotional frequency.
"Have you been playing that game again?"
"Dad, you seem to be really worried about this, aren't you?"
"Of course, boy! That stuff will rot your brain!"
"Dad, thanks for worrying about me but there are a lot of good things about the game that I really enjoy."
"Nothing evil will ever make you happy, son."
"I know that, Dad. That's why I wouldn't want to do anything that was evil or bad. I certainly wouldn't want to hurt you. I feel good when I play these games but I know you're worried about it. Would you come and watch us play for a while -- just for half an hour? It would mean a lot to me and maybe you would understand what we're up to when we play."
"I don't know, son."
"It would really make me feel better if you did."
Not only has the boy listened and understood his father's concerns, but has now gotten his father to come and watch a game played. The boy has included his Dad in what he is doing -- something which Dad probably wanted all along.
You can do the same with your own parents. I'm not saying that it will happen the first time out nor that it will be quite as simple as it is shown here. What I can say is that these techniques will work given patience and time.
By the way, these communication techniques also work for other things in your life which are a lot more important than the games you play. If you have trouble getting along with others over anything ... give these a try.


Once you learn how to choose the right channel you will find that others will listen to you. Once you invite them into your circle they will find that there is 'nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on.'
The hard part then comes on your own shoulders: showing them a game that is moral and just. As we have said, role playing games are just tools with which you can create anything -- good or bad. After you have gone to all the trouble of talking to your concerned friends and inviting them to just observe one of your games, you must ask yourself: what is it they will see when they come and watch? Is your adventure a morality-based scenario with clear concepts of good and evil? Is it graphically violent? Does it portray evil as inviting or good as powerless?
When you finally get to show your adventure to skeptics, will they just find their own fear confirmed?

Next time, in the second part of this series, I'll give you a specific example of what you might say to those who have questions concerning the moral issue of Role Playing Games. The third part of this series will then explain what place morality has in your games. I think you may be surprised at what you have been missing.
In the meanwhile, remember that your role playing game will only reflect what you put into it. Your game can forward the concepts of lies or truth ... it is entirely up to you.

1Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Dragonlance and TSR are trademarks of TSR, Incorporated and are used here without their permission.
Ethics in Fantasy, Part I: That Evil Game? / Copyright 1988 by Tracy Raye Hickman

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