Lock up your hindbrain, it's Andy's Bucket-o-Memes
Roleplaying Games and the Devil

Death & Evil
Nasty Games?
The Evils of Magic
The Good Points
There is a lot of hot air gushed forth about how evil roleplaying games are. With so much misinformation around, I couldn't resist the urge to add my geyser to the general spouting, so here, in some depth, are my opinions on the matter.

It's a strange thing, but this idea that roleplaying is evil has somehow entered the cultural mythos (especially the more fundamental Christian one). While staying in a student house at University I had a housemate who was an Evangelical Christian and a very intelligent chemist (hi Dave!). Yet for some reason he still thought of roleplaying as "dodgy."

This was before he saw what it was all about. He never played - it didn't interest him - but as he watched us play, he realised that it wasn't dodgy at all. Not a baby was sacrificed, not a blasphemy shrieked. There was some pretty dark muttering when the coffee ran out, but that was all.

His decision that roleplaying was somehow unpleasant and immoral came before he had any exposure to it. In legal terms, a decision like that is known as pre judice - a decision before judgement has been made. Nowadays that's shortened to prejudice.

It's not nice to realise that you're prejudiced. You resist the idea (he did), deny it (he did) but eventually the truth comes out. Roleplaying is a harmless, silly social activity that's absolutely unthreatening.

Let's take a look at the objections:

Roleplaying games expose children to images of death and evil

There are really two issues here. The first is a real-world observation: There is plenty of evil out there already. Hiding our children from it will not help them - in fact, it will weaken them. How can we cope with something when we have been mollycoddled through our childhood?

The second issue is the nature of this exposure. In the same way as showing a child a gun and saying "war is good" can have a detrimental effect on that child, showing them a monster and saying "evil is good" can. I'd be a fool to deny that. But that's not what is going on. Most of the time, we're showing each other monsters and saying "evil is bad."

By playing through a complex scenario in which we discover how a bad guy turned bad, we can learn a lot about those weaknesses we all pretend not to have. Maybe we can even learn to avoid the same traps in the future.

But sometimes you do say "evil is good" - like that vampire game

Good point. Let's examine it. The game in question - Vampire: The Masquerade is quite a phenomenon in the gaming world. Initially it looks like it allows you to play the bad guys, and pushes that idea as cool.

It's not that shallow. The real reason for this game's success is it's startling depth.

What it is not is simply saying that being a vampire (an undeniably evil monster) is cool. Sure, you get the teeth and the leather jacket and the Harley, but these are trappings - nothing more or less than the armour or pointy hat you get in a fantasy game.

What Vampire is doing is presenting characters with a moral quandary from the start. They are compelled to act evilly, but they still retain their moral faculties and are still subject to the effects of their actions. So what this game does is move the conflict from an external one (character vs. monster) to an internal one (character vs. character's evil urges). Now, most roleplayers are teenagers - already full of internal conflict. This really strikes home. These stories have meaning to them. Victory here is empowering.

What about magic? "Thou shall not suffer a witch to live"

Okay, there are two ways we can look at this objection:

  1. It's not real magic. This is really, really important to remember, especially in live-action roleplaying where the distinction (to the outsider) between the game and the real world is not so clear.

    Roleplaying games take their magic from the magic that features in fairy-tales, myths and legends, where it is simply a storytelling tool. Most roleplaying games have pretty poor magic systems, very unlike any genuine occultism, and the main purposes of magic in these games are:

    • It's spectacular, making a mundane story more impressive. In other words, special effects.

    • It gives a game a fairytale, mythic feel.

    • It is a chance for one more player to have a speciality. Everyone likes to be the specialist. In many games, you have a specialist sneak-around-without-being-seen guy, a specialist tough guy, a medic, and very commonly a magic user.

    • It's an excuse for the referee to pull deus ex machina when his story falls apart. None of us are perfect, and sometimes we lose control of the plot. Magical characters allow us to manipulate the plot back into shape - a technique often called "cheesing".

    There are a couple of games which have tried to use a "realistic" magic system - most notably Nephilim. They poach the symbolism of the Qabalah and use lots of Latin terms to sound impressive and add richness to a fantasy milieu, but it's still just window-dressing. Of all the people I have ever met who have experimented in the occult, none of them has used the magic system from a roleplaying game because it is simply laughable. Believe me on this; I'm an occultist and a roleplayer: I know.

    Would you fly across the Atlantic in a toy plane?

  2. The other way to tackle this objection is to take a look at its source, the Bible. The quote, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" is from Exodus, 22:18, where it sits among a list of rules (called "judgements") given to Moses by God at the same time as the Ten Commandments. Unlike the Commandments, these judgements are numerous and some are quite complicated. Quite a lot of them are ignored or interpreted today.

    This particular judgement can be looked at in two ways, either strictly or by interpretation.

    If we look at the exact words of the passage, we really ought to look at the best literal translation and that, I'm afraid, is not the King James Version. King James I was obsessed with witchcraft (see his Demonologie if you don't believe me) and took such a fear of witches, that he changed:

    "Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner (one who poisons) to live."


    "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

    The Latin malafica (sorceress, witch) replaced the former venefica (poisoner), and when the King James Version was published, one of the first uses of this little "sleight of pen" was to justify the hunting down of alleged "witches".

    In fact there are episodes where the Bible has no problem with witches - the most famous being the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament Book of Samuel:

    The army of the Philistines has camped up and is threatening to wipe out the Israelites. Saul, in desperate need of counsel from a magician of some sort, is regretting having driven out of Israel all the wizards...

    1 Samuel, 28:5 And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled.

    1 Samuel, 28:6 And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.

    1 Samuel, 28:7 Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor.

    1 Samuel, 28:8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee.

    1 Samuel, 28:9 And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?

    1 Samuel, 28:10 And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.

    Saul sticks to his word, but it doesn't matter, because he loses the Kingdom of Israel not to the Philistines, but to his servant, David. So you see that even way back then the Judgements were being interpreted quite liberally, when the need arose.

Roleplayers turn into psycho-murderers

A recent spate of kiddie-killings in the USA has promoted this opinion, which once again fails to take into account the facts about either roleplaying or child murderers.

Fact: There are a lot of roleplayers in the world, and almost all of them are non-murderers.

Fact: The mental state of many murderers is such that they are unable to determine fantasy from reality.

This unbalanced mental state is brought about by repeated, sustained mental abuse - not a once-a-week gaming session at Billy's house. And the fantasy world in which a murderer lives is really not relevant to their crimes - it could be the gothic-punk world of Vampire, the bloody battlefields of Warhammer, or equally likely a movie, book, the imagined private life of a movie star, or even a twisted variant of the church they attend. More likely than all of these is that it is something almost entirely created by the sufferer.

A fair analogy might be that of a super-saturated solution. To make such a solution you first add a huge amount of a salt to hot water, stirring constantly. This is analogous to the years of abuse, mental turmoil, and suffering that the child undergoes without opportunity to vent. Then you cool the solution, so that it now holds more salt in solution that it should be able to. The child's mind is now at breaking-point. They become sullen, withdrawn, perhaps turning to alcohol or drugs or developing an obsession with knives or guns. Now we add the seed crystal. Anything will do, because as soon as it hits the solution, the dissolved salt begins to form around it. It takes the shape of the seed as a template and grows into a fantastic crystal garden - or prison - in a very short space of time. The child is trapped inside, locked into a fantasy world with only a violent, possibly fatal, means of escape. The nature of the seed crystal determines only the outward appearance of the prison; the fact of the prison's appearance was decided long ago, before the seed ever got involved.

Roleplaying promotes Satanism

Now we come to the crux of the matter. It doesn't. Period. In fact, most games don't even use Satan as a character - because most games operate within a fantasy pantheon or an agnostic world, and even those that do use the Christian mythos consider the Devil to be far too powerful to make for an interesting story.

(There's one that does feature Satan - it's called In Nomine and the player-characters are angels working for the archangels of Heaven!)

What roleplaying does is encourage players to put themselves in unusual moral or ethical situations, sometimes with no easy way out. It does address issues such as death and the nature of evil. It does use storytelling techniques such as magic and ancient or made-up gods to direct players' actions.

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in any roleplaying game, that suggests or recommends that anyone should alter their real-world beliefs in any way, or that anything in the game is real.

Now that we've addressed the usual objections, let's list the good points in roleplaying's favour:

Co-operative vs. competitive play

The style of play in RPGs is unlike most other games. Rather than being pitted against one another, players co-operate in order to achieve their goals. Players learn to co-operate, to trust, and to team up. Ego-players (the one-man hero band) often find themselves learning this quite abruptly as their character makes a heroically dumb move and suffers the consequences.

Emotional and intellectual maturity

Stories which cover moral grey areas encourage emotional maturity. Players are routinely offered up situations which make them think, and are often punished if they act without thought. They learn to weigh situations up on their merits, rather than acting in a manner prescribed by dogma.

(To be fair, there is a trade-off here. Roleplayers often form close groups and don't mingle with the rest of the world as much as they should. Anoraks are just the visible sign)

Fantasy Release - Catharsis

We all need to relax, to let off steam. Otherwise the pressures of everyday life build up and eventually can cause emotional and mental problems. Roleplaying allows release in three important ways:

  1. A roleplaying session is, at its simplest, an evening or afternoon spent in the company of friends, with no great objectives other than to have fun. Cookies are optional.

  2. By immersing yourself in a character, you can temporarily dissociate yourself from your own problems. Your character might be facing death in a pit of wolves, but hey, you're not.

  3. Most roleplaying games feature characters who are vastly superior to you and me in some way. Some are stronger, prettier, quicker. Some can do things you can't, like archery, programming, swordplay. Some can do things that nobody can do - live forever, fly, become invisible. Playing a super-powered character is immensely releasing.

The low rate of suicide among roleplayers

All this sociable fun is probably why the suicide rate among roleplayers is noticeably lower than among the general population. Sure, now and then roleplayers kill themselves too, but not as often as "normal" folks.

So there's my case. I hope that I have helped to dispel some myths, break down some prejudices. I welcome comment - from both sides of the fence - on what I have said. Roleplaying is a harmless social activity that, if anything, is good for the people involved.