The Minstrel's Song: General Notes and Theological Groundings

Cover for The Minstrel's Song

I'm going to attempt to explain a reworked concept of role playing games.

Let me preface this by saying that:

  • I'm toying around with ideas; the best that I can offer now is unpolished and half-baked.
  • Explaining this in terms of extant role playing systems will be something like explaining non-verbal communication in terms of the logical reasoning of geometry.
  • If, by God's grace, I manage an explanation that is not too clumsy to understand, and lay out a system which is not too incomplete to use, it will still be very challenging and require much thought to play.

I have played AD&D extensively, and Star Wars a fair amount. In addition, I am marginally familiar with GURPS, Shadow Run , Amber, and a couple of home brewed systems. I am most familiar with AD&D as the grandfather (technically, basic D&D, but it doesn't matter for what I will be speaking of), and will speak of it as the basis.

I have enjoyed many hours of rich role play; I believe it to be immensely valuable. Not only is it enjoyable, but it develops and strengthens imagination, emotion, and reason. That alone is a needed flash of light at a time when imagination and reason are dying, and emotion is reduced to a tool to influence your choice of shampoo.

When I find problems in existing role playing games, therefore, I am not saying, "Role play is evil. Destroy it." Instead, I am saying, "Fix it. Heal it. Complete what is lacking, restore what is askew, remove what is baneful." The basic principle — a game master creates a world, players create characters, and they play out — is very good.

That being stated, there are two basic things that need a major overhaul.

  • Philosophical groundings.Gnosticism, which is perhaps the heresy plaguing Christendom, holds many things, including the following:

    The final measure and achievement is power. You, a member of the elite, will achieve the final end by making yourself more and more powerful, penetrating successive ranks until you become like a god.

    Good and evil are equal and opposite, balancing forces which together make a higher order unity.

    If this is beginning to sound uncomfortably familiar, it should. The philosophical groundings of AD&D are Gnostic. Another point of Gnosticism is a morality that is, to put it politely, revised. In AD&D, what are the four classes? Fighter. One whose training is in combat, and kills all the time. Thief. One whose training is in thievery. Mage. One whose training is in sorcery. Aah, but we have a relief in the cleric, right? No. Clerics are religious knights who take a vow never to shed blood — and then learn to use blunt weapons with a proficiency far beyond that of most professional soldiers. It is entirely possible for a character to lie, worship false gods, use magical talismans and cast magic spells, wade through blood — and be a hero.

    Now to contrast with Christian orthodoxy:

    Identity consists not in power or the deified Self, but in Christ. In Christ, after you humble yourself, God will lift you up, by his grace. He will forgive your sins, give you a place in the community of his saints, and call you his son. The Christian's identity is first of all in Christ (hence the term 'Christian'), and second of all in the Church; in that context he is the wonderful new creation.

    What then of power? It has no place in identity. Paul, at the end of his life, could have written, "I have written letters outlining the faith, planted churches, served as the Apostle to the Gentiles, cured the lame, raised the dead, and converted more people than Jesus Christ;" in short, "I achieved in power." Instead he wrote, "I have run the race; I have fought the good fight; I have kept the faith," in short, "I obeyed."

    Not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit. God has chosen the weak to shame the strong, the poor to shame the rich, the foolish to shame the wise. Look at the disciples Jesus chose — fishermen, a tax collector, one terrorist even! It was a very foolish choice, but it was divine foolishness. God's foolishness is wiser than man's wisdom, and that is why the Church that Christ started with these men is rocking the world.

    There is a place for the use of talent, but the talent is empowered by being given over to God and consecrated by him; anything else is but dust and ashes. And it is clear that God has no need of human power to accomplish anything.

    Good and evil are not equal forces; evil is an absence or a twisting of good. Satan cannot create; he can only mock. God creates worship; Satan mocks with idolatry. God creates sex; Satan mocks with adultery. God creates truth; Satan mocks with lies. Evil has no substance or creation of its own; it exists in terms of good, twisted, distorted, absent. Good exists on its own terms; it existed long before evil, and it will exist long after evil has no existence save torment in the lake of fire. But then why do good and evil fight? Evil fights good because it stands in rebellion against good. Good has its own purposes, and, because evil stands in the way, fights evil as an obstruction. It is not defined by this fight, and will not lose anything of itself when the last battle is over; in the New Jerusalem, we will see good in its truest and purest form.

    And what of the teaching that great men are not bound by the "mere" constraints of traditional morality? I can only say that fulfilling the "mere" requirements of morality was a major part of the accomplishment of Jesus Christ, the greatest man who ever lived.

    A little leaven leavens the whole lump, which is why every thought must be taken captive to the Lordship of Christ. The system must be built from the beginning, not on heresy, but on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

  • Mathematical modeling.Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the grandfather of all role playing games, established a detailed mathematical model; the process of generating a character is set according to a system of rules, in a manner that can be accomplished by an algorithm; indeed, it has been accomplished in algorithms, and I have seen several computer programs capable of generating and describing everything but the personality. I might add that the First Edition Dungeon Master's Guide had an appendix which contained an algorithm to randomly determine non-player character personalities as well.

    Play follows in which players make choices according to an algorithmic set of rules, and dice rolls are used according to charts and rules to decide what happens of attempts to do this, that, and the other thing. This is the way that events' outcomes are usually determined, and, again, computer programs can do this quite effectively. This basic premise has been imitated in every RPG I know of; in this sense, AD&D still IS the de facto standard. Amber diceless role play made a big splash — by introducing an algorithmic set of rules which used player bids instead of dice to operate. The question asked of a new game system is not "How does it handle things? Does it use a mathematical model?", but "How exactly does its mathematical model operate?"

    I would like to draw this mode of thought into the light for a minute. First of all, I would like to draw attention to DikuMUDs and the various computer games such as The Eye of the Beholder, The Curse of the Azure Bonds, etc. They have all of the stats and THAC0s and ACs and damage ratings that anybody could possibly want. Yet they pale in comparison with true role play.

    The reason is that the heart of role play consists in what can not remotely be reduced to rules. It has something to do with an imaginative world, characters who are realistic, and a plot. To technically administer rules is easy; to have good role play requires experience and calls for thought. What author ever began to weave a tale by using charts, rules, and dice to determine that the main character would have a strength of 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, a 43% chance of successfully picking a lock, and could quickly tie any one of 21 different knots?

    "Christianity is not a statistical view of life."

    -G.K. Chesterton

    If we look to Scripture, we see that there is more rejoicing in Heaven over one filthy sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous men who do not need to repent. We see that a day and a thousand years are the same in the sight of the Lord. We see that many wealthy men made ostentatious and showy gifts out of their excess, and a poor widow dropped two pennies, all that she had to live on, and surpassed them all. I could go on for pages, but eloquence does not consist in a multitude of examples.One is required to conclude from these things that either God is an incompetent mathematician, or that the measure by which he sees the world is something greater than mathematics.

    Therefore, in establishing a system to play with, we should seek not so much to imitate mathematical models and computer programs, as something else: I would (loosely) propose children's games of make-believe and books.

Having stated what I believe is necessary, let me attempt to lay it out.

It begins with prayer. This is not a question of a waste of power, or annoying God by interrupting him with something trivial. He wants to be involved with the most intimate details of our lives. If we, who are evil, know how to give good things to those whom we care about, how much more will God, who is good, know how to give good things to his own children, for whom he did not spare his only Son? So let us begin by asking his blessing.

Father, bless us in this endeavor, bless it, and bless its fruit.

The divine name is Yahweh; "HE IS." God is spirit, profound, deep, eternal; a substance more real than even the physical; the Rock upon which rock stands. Beyond actions, beyond time, beyond even attributes such as power and wisdom, HE IS.

It is possible, especially in our culture, to be distracted of this, to let doing displace being and accident displace substance. The question of "Who are you?" has been usurped by "What do you do?" This is wrong. The proper place of doing is to point to being, and of accident to point to substance. When I fill out details, I will ask that you not only look at "What does this detail look like?", but "To what, beyond itself, does it point?"

We are created in the image of God; that is, in the image of the Creator. Thence comes our imagination and our power to create. And we hold the power to create in the image of his Creation.

History contains four events: the Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, and the Second Coming.

In the Creation, God filled his universe with infinite order and beauty and color. In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis said, "God does not create two blades of grass alike, let alone two angels, two saints, or two nations." Light is the presence of all color; black is the absence of color. If there is light, then there will be red and yellow and magenta and silver and polka-dot green. The body of Christ lives and breathes, not as four thousand, nine hundred and twenty two left thumbnails, but as a unity of variety. If the world is to be ordered and beautiful to point to God, then color is not simply permissible but mandatory.

Unless the characters are to be wayfarers, wandering over the face of the earth (in which case there will be many places and cultures for the game master to exhibit), there should be a culture, a nation, a land set for the characters to live in.

What is the nature of the spiritual life there? Do the people live in community, loving each other? Do they look after each other's needs, present in time of weakness, and holding each other accountable? Do they spend time in silence, stillness, meditation, looking inside themselves? Do look — at souls, at birds, at shining stars — and both enjoy their beauty and stand in awe of the Creator whom they reflect? Do they worship in spirit and in truth? What points of sound doctrine do they emphasize? What virtues shine forth? How does the Spirit move among them?

What is the culture like? What is their music? Is it solemn and stately, telling of the great and majestic King? Is it vivid and lively, telling of the Lord of the Dance? Is it soft and still, telling of the Eternal? What is the life of the mind like? Is the thought logical or symbolic? What of imagination? What emotions flow forth? Do the people learn to be ancient, gentle, and wise, speaking the words of a sage? Do they learn to be like little children, dancing without end and staring in wonder of the beauty of Creation? What kind of art do they have? What senses do they focus on — sight, to see and behold; hearing, to listen to music, words, and silence, to hear birds chirping and the voice of a friend; smell, of flowers, food, and people; taste, to savor meat and bread and wine; touch, to feel water and stone and cloth and the soft warmth of human skin?

What is the land like? Is it lush forest, filled with warm rains? Is it arid desert? Is it cool and misty? Is it flat, or hilly, or mountainous? Are villages near or far apart? Is there a body of water nearby? What plants and animals are around? How much does the weather change? What special natural features are there?

In thinking about questions such as these, and perhaps others which have not come to mind, it should be possible to get a beginning picture of what the world will be like.

Creation was not the only event; there was the Fall, and its twistedness. The very way in which man was created as the holy image of God is the very means used by evil as instruments of wickedness. Created with the power to love, we hate. Created with the need for worship, we whore after idols. Created as sexual creatures, we commit adultery. Created with a tongue to bless the Lord and Father, we curse men, made in God's image. Created with a mind to know the truth, we embrace lies. Created with hands to build up, we kill.

The characters, therefore, are fallen and will walk the dust of a fallen world. The next questions will give shape to that as well:

What moral sins, vices, and heresies are there? Are the people split into ten thousand factions, each one bickering and claiming, "We know the truth?" Have the people turned their back on God as irrelevant to their lives? Do they chase after money? Are they shallow? Are their friendships trivial? Do they throw the mind and scorn wisdom? Do they worship the mind as supreme above God, pursuing religion within a context of reason? Are they self-righteous prudes, tithing mint, dill, and cummin, and neglecting justice, mercy, and faith? Do they pray for their neighbor one day in seven and prey upon him the other six? Do they pursue a false wisdom which scorns the body and objects of sense, which "God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth?" Do they know nothing beyond the physical? Are they proud, lecherous, manipulative, hateful, duplicitous? Do they cut others down with the tongue? Do they lie, cheat, steal? Do they dishonor their elders? Do they crush the weak? Do they commit adultery? Do they kill in their worship of power? What good things do they neglect?

When man had turned away from God and forfeited everything, God paid for redemption at the price of his Son. The Word became flesh, and walked among us. Now, we know Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.

Are the people willing to confess their sins — all of their sins — as sin, and repent of them, in order to receive forgiveness? Are they willing to open themselves to the motion of the Holy Spirit, and be filled with his mighty power? Do they take up daily the Cross, to come and die? Do they know his passion, his agony, his suffering? Have they given him everything?

What color does the new light shine in them? What fruit and gifts? How do they live in the freedom that Christ has given them?

Now, I think, would also best be answered the questions of,

What is their history? Have the people been peaceful or violent? Have they changed or stayed the same? Have the changes been for better or for worse, or both? What are their traditions? What do they commemorate? What are their customs? Have they interacted with other nations abroad, or stayed within their own borders? What other cultures have influenced them? What influences have they brought? Where does their language come from?

After all has passed will come the final end: the Second Coming. The old order of things shall pass away. God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more evil, no more crying, no more pain. The saints will enter into joy and life eternal.

This has not yet come to pass, but it still has a mark on the present. One of the great themes of Christian thought is the Kingdom of Heaven — "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven." Bringing Heaven down to earth is expressed by one relief worker who said, "I'm going back to Hell, to plant some flowers." Worship is a piece of Heaven, brought to earth. The prime citizenship of the believer is the Kingdom of Heaven rather than any worldly kingdom; "in the world, but not of it." Believers carry little pieces of Heaven with and about them.

Do the believers carry with them a sense of timelessness? Do they witness to the world with what the world has never seen? Do they escape entrapment by material possessions, enjoying them but sharing generously? Do they sow a spark of joy? Do they meditate on the blessed hope of the resurrection? If this is the light that they shine, with what color do they radiate?

After the game world is designed, the players should spend a time — perhaps an hour or two — with the game master. In this time, the players will learn of the world, and the game master will help with any incomplete areas of character development. This should not become a haggling over power.

In a game which revolves around power and struggles for it, it is important that there be a balance of power. Here, that should not necessarily be the case. In A Wrinkle in Time, of many characters — a boy genius with second sight, scientists of worldwide renown, mighty and majestic angels — it is a stubborn and impatient ten year old girl who rescues Charles from the power of IT; the weak and foolish chosen to do what the strong and wise could not. The game should not be about power, and if either game master or player focuses on it, something is wrong.

Here, then, are some questions to use in the formation of a character:

Who is he? Does Jesus sit enthroned in his heart? How does he try to imitate Christ? How does he see the world? Where do his loyalty and his love lie? How does he use his talents? What virtues does he embody? Is he temperate, controlled, balanced? What vices does he still hold on to? What sins does he struggle with? What does he search for in other people? How deep are his friendships? How deep is he? How strongly does he embody the qualities he holds? What community is he a part of? What is his family, his liege, his birthplace? What inhabits his thoughts? How does he embody what is truly masculine (she embody what is truly feminine)? What fruit does he let the Spirit work in his life? What is his name?

What is his story? What interests, goals, and desires does he have? What does he cherish? What special twist does he put on things? How does he pray? What is his role in the Church? What does he create? Of what would his friends look and say, "That is him?" What is his story? What (if any) visions has he had [this question is more the focus of the DM than the player]? If he were an animal, what animal would he be, and why? What are his hobbies? What is his favorite story? What does he like to present to other people? What is he afraid of other people knowing about him? What memories does he cherish? How old is he? How has he changed over the years? How has he remained the same? What are his loyalties? Who lies closest to his heart? Who does he exist in relationship to? What communities is he a member of? How does he spend his time? What are his hopes and dreams?

Only then,

What is he naturally gifted at? What skills has he developped? What would traditional game systems attribute to him? What gifts has he received in the Spirit [again, this question is more for the DM]? Prophecy? Faith? Wisdom? Knowledge? Healing? Miraculous powers? Leadership? What are his weaknesses? Does he have any handicaps? What can and can't he do?

What does he look like? What is his manner?

After the world is created and the characters are established — not as isolated islands, but in relation to their culture and each other (Brother and sister? Friends from childhood? Father and son? Mentor and student? Reconciled enemies?) can play begin.

The game master, as an authority, is to exhibit Christ's model of authority: not an iron fist or a lording of power, but "he who would be great must be a servant, and he who would be first must be a slave," just as the rabbi who washed his disciples' feet. The game master holds the most power and has the final say; he is therefore the most bound to humility and service.

The play itself should consist of that which is wholesome: the playing out of personas, the exploration of a world, the spiritual warfare against the invisible forces of darkness, the participation in the great dance. The game master can do special things — shape the plot, send dreams and visions, people and events — but the world is created not only by the game master but also by the players, by the richness of their dialogue and the miniature world they create among themselves. In this manner good books may be taken as a model, and, after all things, prayer. This, I believe, will make it work.

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