The Minstrel's Song: Further Notes

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The Minstrel's Song:
Further Notes and Musings

A note on magic...

Most people reading this have probably noticed the absence of anything magic.

This absence is quite intentional, and of it I would like to say a couple of things.

First of all, magic is sin. It's that simple.

But, you may say, playing a character who uses magic does not mean that the player is tracing runes in the air, drawing chalk circles, and so on.

If you mean in the hands, granted. But there is something more to say.

One of the themes in the Sermon on the Mount is that purity belongs not only in the hands, but is to penetrate to the heart. Listen to how this precept is applied to sexual purity: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

That is to say, sin does not begin with the full act of sexual intercourse (outside of marriage); it is sinful to use the imagination to commit adultery in the heart — and a man who so much as casts one glance in lust has already done so.

The application to magic means that sin does not begin with chanting the words in a spellbook; it is wrong to use the imagination to use magic in the heart... and, just as lust does not begin after spending several minutes imagining every last instant and detail of foreplay and intercourse, pretending to use magic does not begin after imagining every last detail of casting a spell.

Role playing games provide a way to pretend, to use the imagination to become the great explorer who voyages into the unknown, the romantic bard whose tales spin beauty and wonder. Nobody wants to play a scullery maid or a cobbler who makes shoes day in and day out; a character who is played for enjoyment is someone whom it would be enjoyable to be. To play is to pretend; to have fun by playing a magical character is to have fun by committing the sin of sorcery in the heart. (The same also goes for violence, deceit, theievery, etc.)

The second thing to say is this: God creates. Satan only mocks. forming counterfeit substitutes.

Lust is not a wonderful creative flair which Satan came up with. Marriage, including sex, is God's good creation; it is sacred, so much so that the Song of Songs (a Hebrew superlative meaning the greatest and most beautiful of songs) is devoted to eroticism. Lust is a cheap substitute, a cold prickly where God intends warm fuzzies. It can only be appealing because of the goodness of sex.

If the analogy is extended to magic, several useful things can be drawn from the analysis.

The question, "Why do people derive pleasure from pretending to use magic?" has two answers which I can immediately see.

The first is "Power." Magical powers enable characters to do amazing things.

Power is certainly not innately evil — God is all-powerful, and the believer who walks in the Spirit grows in power — but Satan often twists it to do what it was never meant to; function as a substitute for love. Totalitarian dictators and despots are rarely described by psychologists as having spent childhood surrounded by warm and compassionate friends; they are rather described as having been picked on and bullied. Power has a place in life, but role play is not enhanced by making characters into demigods. The terms 'munchkin' and 'Monty Haul' do not describe a solid campaign. Perhaps a character is less powerful in some ways if he does not have a cloak which turns him invisible, but that does not make him a boring and pointless character.

The second, and in my estimation far more informative, answer to the question is, "Wonder."

In common speech and in literature, words such as 'magical' and 'enchanted' are used to describe things that are spectacular, awe inspiring, breathtaking.

God created people to be filled with wonder. Wonder fills pious living, and one of the many evils of looking to magic is that it has a grievous potential to blind people to the wonder God wants to fill them with.

There is wonder in little things that often go unnoticed; in the dance of a candle's flame and the feel of a gentle breeze. The created order — from the deep majesty of the starry vault, to the height of the mountains, to the depth of the oceans — is, as the human body, fearfully and wonderfully made.

There is also wonder in music, in art, in dance, in the form of ideas. It lies in personality, in the beauty of the human spirit. Finally, above and beyond these and many other things, is a source of wonder greater still.

The final and greatest source of wonder is God himself.

It is the motion of the Spirit which animates worship; indeed, Spirit-filled worship is probably the most wondrous element of human experience. It is the motion of the Spirit which enables men to speak in the tongues of men and angels; it is the motion of the Spirit which transported Philip from the Ethiopian eunuch to Azoth.

One need only read the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al to catch a little of this. Elijah summoned the four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba'al, and asked the people of Israel, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, worship him, but if Ba'al is God, worship him." He proposed a contest: each would have a bull to offer in sacrifice; the hundreds of prophets of Ba'al would ask Ba'al to send fire to their sacrifice, and Elijah would ask Yahweh to send fire to his sacrifice, and the one who answers with fire — he is God.

The prophets of Ba'al went about for hours dancing and gashing themselves, taunted by Elijah: "Surely Ba'al is god! Why don't you cry a little louder? He could be asleep, or traveling. Who knows? Maybe he's sitting on his porcelain throne."

After a while, it was Elijah's turn. He told the people, "I don't want to bore Yahweh. This is too easy." So, after preparing the sacrifice, he made the people thoroughly drench it in water, and drench it again, and then drench it again. Then he prayed, and fire came down from Heaven, consuming the bull, the wood, and all of the water.

It is not in magic, but in the Spirit — always faithful and never predictable — that the believer finds wonder.

One more note on magic:

There are certain elements of magic which seem to recurrently appear in Christian-designed fantasy role playing games.

I am referring in particular to magic in which the Bible or some book of liturgy becomes a spellbook, and verses/prayers/quotations become runes, incantations, etc.

If I may provide an analogy...

Creating a pornographic film is wrong.

Creating a pornographic film which has as its characters the characters of the Gospel (ergo, where it is Jesus, his disciples, Mary Magdala, the prostitutes and tax collectors whom Jesus said were entering the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of the Pharisees and so on who have an orgy, instead of random 20th century people having an orgy), is still wrong.

What is wrong with the latter mentioned pornographic film is not that it contains characters from the Gospel. What is wrong is that it is a pornographic film. Using Gospel characters within the context of a pornographic film does not make everything OK. The context of a pornographic film is wrong, even if the characters who appear in it are perfectly fine.

Now, to extend the analogy to gaming...

It is wrong to play a character who spends time studying dusty spellbooks, from which he learns a magical incantation which, once per day, will cause a fireball to explode in the midst of the enemy, or enable him to fly, or create a magical shield about him.

That stated, let me quote the LightRaider Net fanzine, for the Christian DragonRaid game, (c) 1996 Jill Oviatt ( and Charlie Banders (

An important WordRune that I think goes hand in hand with #55 Purge Evil WordRune (covered in issue #5) is #49, No Sweat WordRune.NIV Romans 8:31b "If God is for us, who can be against us?"

This simple and easily memorized scripture (especially if you know the D+K song) is good by itself, but also a good balance to #55. Whereas #55 helps with the offensive strategy of the LightRaider, #49 helps with the defensive side of a battle. The No Sweat WordRune will allow you to raise your LightRaiders 'Shield of Faith rating by 3 for the duration of one encounter'. This Wordrune may only be used once per day so use it wisely.

Even in an allegorical situation... This is still magical. It does not involve prayer which rests on faith and which God grants, but memorization, recitation, words which bear power in and of themselves, and in terms of description and game mechanical effects is indistinguishable from a wizard's spell in Dungeons and Dragons.

Prayer is powerful, and memorization of Scripture is good. But the essence of prayer does not stem from the words in which it is spoken: when Jesus gave a model prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, he chastened people who babble because they believe they will be heard for the many words, and reminded his disciples that their Heavenly Father knew what they needed before they began to ask. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus which place was the true place to worship, on this mountain or on that mountain, Jesus answered that the true place to worship was in Spirit and in truth. Does one do justice to these teachings of Jesus by saying that specific words spoken in prayer have a power in and of themselves, residing the words, that would not be found in any other words? No. The New Testament teaching is that the power resides in the prayer and in the faith of the believer, to which God responds as a loving father, which is anything but governed by mechanistic rules as given in such games.

This kind of thing is, just like taking characters from the Gospel and incorporating them into a pornographic film, taking words from Scripture and incorporating them into a system of magic.

This is not how God works and answers prayer.

A note on stories (note: this falls into the category of half-baked musings and suggestions rather than moral compulsions, and I may well be speaking of the impossible)

There was one professor of music who said of worship song that, rather than thinking "Here is the song on paper; we start it at time X and finish it at time Y", it might be better to think of one neverending song that always has been and always will be rising in the presence of the Eternal; people who sing step, for a while, into this song.

My story is like a thread being woven into a great tapestry; beautiful in and of itself, it is being led into contact with other threads, and slowly woven into a magnificent whole. It is not the Story before which there was no world; it is a story which is rather included in a beauty it could never attain on its own. It is not really that God is a part of what I am doing, so much as that I am a part of what God is doing.

Something of this might be brought into play; rather than one party in the world which acts upon a static situation (and in which other events occasionally happen as needed as plot devices for the story of the one party), there might be a Copernican revolution to the point where the world is full of interconnected stories which are parts of the one great Story; the characters and the party are dancing the great Dance.

I'm not entirely sure how to implement this — I'm netter at designing worlds than telling stories; my mind is more shaped around what is, than what happens — but the following seem to be at least promising:

  • Just try. In the absence of detailed instructions, simply attempting and keeping it in mind may do a lot.
  • Russian author solution. Chez les e'crivains russes, characters, plots, and subplots abound. It may be a lot of work/a headache for the game master, and having several round, many flat, and numerous functionary non-player characters may be a feat not to be attempted by non-Russians, but at least a little hint of this might add a bit of color.
  • Multiple parties/numerous characters. This is probably the most promising, and the most capable of generating a nightmare. There are a couple of things that I've observed as tendencies in existing game play:
    • The shortage is of game masters, not players. If there is a reasonable way for a game master to deal with more than one party (2-7 characters), it's probably worth exploring.
    • The basic unit of play is either the whole party, or one player (solo).In real life, I enjoy time spent with a group of friends and time spent in solitude — and, very much, time spent in a smaller group, and, especially, time spent alone with one person.

      If the characters have a strictly professional relationship — I'll keep track of where we are, deal with organization, and talk with the locals; you'll take care of food and other supplies; Jim will work on puzzles and jury-rigging something to do the trick when we're up against a brick wall, etc. — then that may be feasible. Indeed, working together to solve a puzzle is a quite enjoyable experience. I think, however, that rich role play should have friendship as well, which will work out to personal relationships more complex than individual/group.

    I think that email may be able to bear *some* of the load. Letters from one character to another/others (cc'd to the game master) are a substantial tool for character development and role play. They can carry some interpersonal conversations very well, and are wonderful, to speak in a timewise manner: each player sends his character's words when he is free, and the additional strain on the game master is negligible.

    This should not supplant the traditional mode of play. Face to face interaction, the general social environment, munchies and something to drink — this is an enjoyable atmosphere, and a part of why the game is enjoyable.

A note on puzzles...

"It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out."

Proverbs 25:2

After role play, an orientation towards puzzles should be an important constituent of enjoyable play. There is a certain pleasure that comes of a challenge mastered, and that pleasure is particularly sweet when it comes from the mastery of a puzzle. (The balance which should constitute play, as I envision it, would consist of role play, exploration, wonder (motion of the Spirit and detail in the world), and problem solving)

The following are suggested examples of puzzles:

Riddles: These could be posed by a gatekeeper as a requisite to crossing a bridge etc.; alternately, a door could have a riddle engraved on it, the answer to which would tell where the key may be found, or what button to press, or...

Logic puzzles: See Raymond Smullyan, _The_Lady_or_the_Tiger?;_ a good library, in that section, should have other books with other appropriate puzzles.

Mazes: twisty passages, secret doors...

Cryptogram: On this point, I would issue a strong warning, from personal nbobi experience, that the objective is *not* to protect information, but to es"Ni provide a puzzle which can be solved in a reasonable amount of time. er"nt Ergo, simple and relatively easy: substitution ciphers, something where eeytl the direction is reversed and the vowels are deleted, a creative ntofe rearrangement where "Ninety nine bottles of beer" becomes the contents of the square to the right, a text where the first letter of each word spells out the message, etc. It is very easy to make something which is too hard and frustrating to the players, but care and moderation should make something enjoyable.

Word game: Give a text with one rather bizarre feature — a void to perceive, or an odd pattern — which, when noticed, will be helpful to the party.

Strategy games: Something simple, but different. Examples of such games may be found among mathematical puzzle books in a library.

Spatial/three dimensional puzzles: Sokoban, various disassembly/reassembly puzzles which may be found in shops, Towers of Hanoi... if these can not be acquired, it's not the end of the world, but they should add something.

Guess the rules: A very simple strategy game, with a (non-optimal) algorithm to play against... but the rules are not initially given, beyond a yes/no answer to the question of, "Is this legal?"

Tesselation puzzles: Fit the pieces in place and/or assemble to make a certain form.

(Explicit) mathematical problems: If there's a good way to put them in play, math contest problems of the sort that can be found in books are a lot of fun to solve.

Charles Baudelaire, in "La Morale du Joujou", made some very interesting observations about children's play and toys... the most notable was that children, when they play with toys, are not really playing with toys.

There are some, to be sure, that, in all of their flash and snazzle, leave nothing to the imagination... but many, perhaps most children's toys as played with mean a manner of play that uses toys as a springboard to play with imagination.

He commented, with a degree of sadness, that many adults who attend theater do not realize that it is possible to faithfully play Shakespeare with a very simple stage and costume setup. I think that something similar is to be seen in our culture's intolerance of puppetry as a serious adult form of drama; only trivia that is small enough to relegate to children may be permitted to leave pieces to be filled in in the viewer's mind. Hollywood in its present form spends who knows how many million dollars (probably enough to feed and clothe a small third world country) per movie on special effects and computer graphics. The result leaves nothing to the imagination but the plot.

Role playing games are, in a sense, a manner of play which does not directly fall prey to this tendency. Play sometimes involves the use of miniatures, many game books have vivid pictures, and game masters normally generate maps, but the general nature of play finds it entirely feasible to play in a space that exists within the imagination.

I would suggest, however, that this takes a second order form as comes to technical rules and game models. Bad players attempt to use game mechanics as a substitute for playing properly, and proper play — though characters may have attributes and skills to tell the game master what die roll is necessary to successfully swat a mosquito — does not really consist of it. Just as children use their toys but do not really play with them, good players use game rules but do not really play with them. To role play a believable and rounded character is too complex to reduce to dice and charts.

The one point where it is disanalogous, is strategic complexity. Complex and well-designed rule systems facilitate a high level of mathematical problem solving; I would describe the problem solving side of fantasy and science fiction battles as the intersection between mathematics and military strategy.

I think, however, that that challenge can come into through play through proper choice of puzzles.

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