Monday, October 27, 2014

Ancient Faith at the Gaming Table


Fellow RPGBA blogger ST Wild wrote a while back about the difference between fantasy games and modern or more 'real world' games. In summary (read the post here), in more modern/realistic games it is harder to feel OK with killing NPCs, especially human NPCs. Should not there be another way to resolve conflicts?

Now, I've not read or played the games that ST references (World of Darkness, Call of Cthulu) but I understand the conflict ST is describing. 

I've played fantasy, sci-fi, and modern games, and killed NPCs in all of them. Most of the time, my rationale was, as Arnie says in the film True Lies: "but they were all bad". Does that make it all OK?  No, honestly it doesn't. 

Not all of the PCs I’ve played over the years were specifically Christian, and in lots of games, especially in my younger days, the question of a PC's faith or lack thereof didn’t come up. Now that I’m older, and as I have begun introducing my kids to role playing games, it behooves me to give some serious thought to the question: how should a Christian approach the violence often present in RPGs? 

Please understand that I do NOT believe that Traveller or any role playing game (no, not even that one) are evil in and of themselves. They are just rules and descriptions of imaginary places. If there is evil there, it is because we took it there ourselves. 

If this is all imaginary what does it matter? 

It matters because I, as a Christian, am the one doing the imagining. My PC’s actions are in some sense an extension of me. The game world does not exist in reality, but the game does – as a social/intellectual/imaginative activity I choose to be involved in.  Even if my PC is not a Christian, I am. My behavior, even when directing the actions of my imaginary alter ego, should reflect that reality.

What I’m saying is that as an Orthodox Christian, whether my PC is religious or not, I should avoid gratuitous use of violence in play and be mindful of my own attitude going into the game, recognizing that the NPCs in the game universe are a type of humanity which I encounter in the real world. My faith precludes in-game immorality. My PC’s actions may not be sinful, as they are imaginary, but imagination as the “thoughts of my heart” reflects the temptations I can face in real life.

So first of all, I don’t play evil characters. When I say evil, I don’t mean just PCs who kill random NPCs and kick puppies.  I mean all criminally motivated selfish PCs. The imaginary quality of the game can be a serious temptation to let out all kinds of petty, selfish behavior - cheating, stealing, cruelty and abuse of power (especially in games where PCs can accumulate enormous personal power through spells, weapons or technology). A PC with just a pistol still holds power over the unarmed NPC. 

Whether a PC is specifically a Christian or not, I try to play my characters as people with a Christian moral framework. I want to be one of the good guys. There’s trying to earn a living and do the right thing, and then there’s being selfish and unconcerned with the fallout of one’s behavior.

Second, if one of my players (especially my kids) demonstrates a tendency to play a character in an evil way, we are going to have a discussion about the motivation for this style of play. The PC is an imaginary construct, one step removed from the player, but the PC still reflects the attitudes and beliefs of the player. Maybe there are real life issues or temptations that are being expressed through the PC. Let’s get that worked out in the real world. At the moment all of my players are family or friends from church, so we can have those discussions fairly easily. I'm not your confessor or spiritual father, but I can suggest you go talk with him. Within my TU, don’t be surprised if your PC’s Chaotic Evil behavior starts having in-game repercussions like making enemies and gaining a negative reputation and having the agents of the Law on your trail.

Third, I try to design adventures that focus on problem solving and being the Big Heroes. I don’t write adventures that require the PCs to be criminals, and prefer not to run those kinds of games either. My Amber Zone Reviews have repeatedly brought up my dislike for crime scenarios. However, let’s be honest; being the hero won’t always get you flowers and a parade. Sometimes it costs a lot to do the right thing. A real hero just deals with it, whatever happens.That's what makes them the heroes.

Fourth, Many of my adventures use robots as antagonists; A Hostile Takeover is a good example of this. While there will be cases where the PCs (mine or my players’) will choose to resort to deadly force against living foes, these should be unusual. I encourage my players to be creative in solving their PCs’ problems. I've talked elsewhere about the use of the Reactions table and emphasizing role-playing, incorporating the PC's skills and experiences. There can be lots of dramatic tension in a confrontation where the PCs are trying to keep a gun fight from starting.

I can’t portray or illustrate the spiritual impact on a PC of sinful acts, that’s not what Traveller is or does. It’s an adventure game, the rules don’t cover a character’s spiritual life. I will use in-game characters to bring these issues up; in a game I ran, when one PC impulsively shot an animal from an air/raft while on a scouting mission, an NPC in the party upbraided the PC for the needless killing. I left it at that, but the point was not lost on the player. The Church is present in my TU, so religious NPCs will be speaking to the PCs about the spiritual dimension of their lives. See my post on Fr. Meffodi for an example.

It is better to strive for peace than revel in war. It is better to be creative and to outwit opponents rather than to destroy them. Even Sun Tzu said the acme of excellence was to win without fighting. It is better to work for order and creation than to cause destruction and disorder. I must consider how much my attitudes in real life are expressed in my role-playing. How much does having my PCs engage in violence inform my willingness to do so in real life?  Perhaps there is too much of a sense of ordinariness about violence, a casualness that says ‘oh well’ rather than ‘a tragedy has occurred’.  Human death is a tragedy; we were not created to die. By accepting/normalizing behavior in a game setting, I can be led to accepting & normalizing that behavior in the real world. I want to have my PCs be heroes, risking themselves for the good of others, because here in the real world, “greater love has no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends”.

Lord, have mercy.

So what can I do?
One of the wonderful things about Traveller is that it is not dependent upon fighting as the PC’s central activity. There is a galaxy’s worth of adventures in the OTU or my TU that do not involve fighting, or at least do not revolve around fighting. A few ideas that come to mind are:
·         Exploration of new worlds
·         Merchant campaigns in Trade
·         Rescue both in the wilderness, in space or in the city
·         Colonization in difficult locations
·         Disaster recovery
·         Salvage
·         Mystery/detective jobs
·         Smuggling/infiltrating hostile areas to aid the oppressed
·         Spy missions (just not the assassination kind)

Not to mention that there are several non-lethal weapons available in Classic Traveller: stun carbines and tranq rounds for your snub pistol, plus all of the non-lethal grenades I’ve incorporated.There's always good old fisticuffs as well. 

In summary, my faith is part of the structure of my TU, not something layered on top of it. I will accept a certain amount of imagined violence in the game, because it is part of the game, and because sometimes opponents will not listen to reason or moral admonition. Risking a PC's life and fortune in pursuit of a good cause reminds us that virtue is hard, but worth it. Pursuing a virtuous life in the game can be a moral reminder to help the pursuit of virtue in real life. 

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