Devils, Pagan Gods and Polyhedrons


This presentation is an elaboration of a talk given in August last year at the Melbourne Unitarian Church on “Role Playing and Religion”. That particular presentation concentrated on the reaction of fundamentalist Christian organisations and individuals to such games. It also provided a convenient opportunity to explain to the congregation what some of their members and others were doing every Sunday after the service.

This presentation is different, insofar that it firstly concentrates on religious cultural relativism then and the development of moral reasoning and universalism in role-playing games and hopefully in discussion will be the opportunity to give some specific examples. The purpose of the presentation is to argue that role-playing games are an effective means of introducing young, and not-so-young people to different religious outlooks and in developing moral reasoning.

It is also necessary, given the audience, to provide the following introduction this cultural phenomenon.

What Are Role Playing Games?

In a role-playing game, commonly abbreviated as RPG, players assume the roles of characters and engage in collaborative story creation. Players determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Typically in a group of 4-8 players, all but one of the players conducts the role of a single character (a “player character”) whilst a games master or narrator moderates the game flow, rather like the chairperson of a meeting, and carries out other roles.

Most role-playing games are conducted like radio drama; only the spoken component is acted, and players step out of character to describe action and discuss game mechanics. During the course of a game, a player may adopt different modes for their character. Within the game system, the player uses the character is like a game piece, which interacts with the rules. As a simulation, the player is an actor, with character expressions and described actions in accord to their character traits. As a story, the player is an author contributing to the creation of a shared narrative.

The history of role playing games has been traced back to the Commedia dell'arte, an improvised theatre of the sixteenth century and the acting method of Viola Spolin of the the twentieth century. With closer ties the combination of interests in historical re-enactment groups, such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, fantasy fiction such as J.R.R. Tolkien and wargaming groups, eventually led to the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. In following decades literally hundreds of variants have been published leading to an estimated 40 million regular players worldwide in 2006.

In the 1980s religious-motivated opponents claimed it caused negative spiritual and psychological effects. Serious academic research has discredited these claims and research by the Swedish National Board discovered that role playing games were among the most popular leisure activity for youth in that country and subsequently provided funding for SVEROK, the national gamer's federation.

Role Playing Games and Religious Relativism

In reference to an organisation like the Sea of Faith network, it must be quite evident that in our modern and secular society, interest in religious matters, theology, metaphysics and the history of human spiritual expression are rather slight at best and tend to be in decline, particularly among young people. The reasons for this can be described as the continuing philosophical strength of agnosticism, secular political orientations and institutions, and the formal education system. Simply put, there is little appeal to youth in punitive assessment of their knowledge of religious doctrine.

What continues to be clear is that young people have continued their involvement in role playing games, even if the face-to-face versions are now supplemented by computer mediated systems such as the popular (as in, 6.5 million players popular) online role playing games like World Of Warcraft. Young people enjoy the social interaction that comes with role playing games, they enjoy the competition involved in testing game systems, they enjoy character immersion and they enjoy collaborative story creation. Because of these trivial facts, where role playing games includes matters of religious import they are more likely to be understood through the active participation.

By way of example, the Dungeons and Dragons “Legends and Lore” book provides descriptions of deities and demigods and brief notes on the religious practises of a number of “real world” religions from our pagan past including the American Indian pantheon, the Aztecs, the Celts, the Chinese, Egyptians, Greek, Indian, Japanese and Norse. DragonQuest, at least in its earlier editions, provided a complete listing of the personality and attributes of the devils featured in the Lesser Key of Solomon’s first chapter the Ars Goetia. Other supplements, such as GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) Religion provide a more abstract and theoretical approach; rather than describing specific religions it provides a manual for constructing religions including matters of cosmology, the role of deities, religious development, clerical investment, magic and miracles and example traditions.

Another further example of note is the fantasy world of Glorantha which features in the acclaimed role playing games RuneQuest and HeroQuest. Glorantha is deliberately mythic; a flat earth, where iron is the bones of deceased Gods and magical crystals are coagulated droplets of their blood. It is a place where runes of symbolic power have powerful magical effects; and where cults are described as according to their history, nature, organisation and membership requirements. In RuneQuest, the magic of shamans is gained through communication and control of spirits, divine magic through prayer and the sacrifice of one’s soul to the Gods, and sorcery through careful study of ancient grimoires.

Role Playing Games and Moral Universalism

It would be incorrect to assume that role-playing games simply provide an entertaining read of different religions in history or a theoretical summary of the key features of different religions. These are also games of character immersion and authorship where the players actively participate in story creation. In doing so, it is inevitably that the most important element of the standard literary model from a moral sense – theme – comes into play.

In RuneQuest, using the mythic mode of consciousness as a simulation device, behaviour norms correlate to personified runic expressions in the same manner as noted by anthropologists for decades; the boundaries of the true, the good and the beautiful are conceptually confused and combined. “Darkness” to a troll, for example, is positive physical, moral and an aesthetic expression to which the opposite rune, Light, represents all that is untrue, evil and ugly. In the Arthurian game Pendragon, specific personality traits define moral alignment, so Christian knights (for example) would emphasise Chaste, Modest, Forgiving, Merciful, and Temperate.

In a similar fashion the game Swordbearer incorporated the four humours of Hippocrates; the phlegmatic, the melancholic, the sanguine, and the choleric. Not only were the humours associated with disposition but also the four elements and even the four seasons. They also had associations with organs, disposition, Aristotle's types of happiness, and the mythical beasts in Paracelsus. Although displaced as a science in 1858 by cellular pathology, humours are still used metaphorically by psychologists such Adicke (world views), Spranger (values), Kretchmer (character), Fromm (orientations), Myers (cognitive functions) and Keirsey (temperament).

In GURPS a normative and relativistic approach is taken; social advantage and disadvantages are defined from the concordance or deviation of a character from expected behaviour. In comparison, using the nihilistic and materialist mythos of twentieth century horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, the Call of Cthuhlu has no means of defining moral alignment or development at all. Instead it has a Sanity score; unfortunately the more you know, the less sane you become.

A variation from moral codes being based on game setting is the alignment system in Dungeons and Dragons, which appealing to the players as an audience rather than a realistic simulation of the conventions of the middle ages. In the basic version of the rules, marketing to those in early adolescence, an appeal is made to the conventional level of moral reasoning, to use the language of Kohlberg; that is, obedience to laws, dictums, conventions and fulfilling social roles is equated with ‘the good’ or Lawful behaviour, whereas selfishness and punishment avoidance is equated with ‘the wrong’ or Chaotic behaviour. However, in the advanced version of the rules, marketing to those who are somewhat older, post-conventional moral reasoning is introduced allowing for principled rejections (or acceptance) of social norms and laws. One can become ‘chaotic’ and ‘good’ in the advanced system, a moral alignment not available in the basic rules.


Role playing games provide an entertaining opportunity to engage in educate oneself through character immersion and hermeneutics, a means of learning well recognised since Piaget as being of the “accommodation” mode rather than “assimilation” (e.g., rote-learning). The descriptive detail provided in many games and the supplements is certainly of reasonably quality as far as popular literature goes, and actively invites participants in such games to discover more about the setting and applicable modes of consciousness in collaborative story which they are creating.

Whilst the settings can include problems universal to the human condition, particular to cultures and even temporal location – near-future role playing games are particularly important in this regard they also can include thematic considerations where moral propositions may be explored and the consequences noted.

It is these two aspects, the historical and the thematic, which are probably most important to an organisation like the Sea of Faith network. A non-creedal, liberal and modern approach to religious matters, which includes organisations like the network or Unitarianism, requires a degree of cultural relativism and understanding of the detail, perceptive norms, and mode of consciousness as well as a commitment to moral universalism (as opposed to the Scylla and Charybdis of moral absolutism and relativism). These are the lessons that that one can learn just as readily from small discussion and research groups to those who participate in the collaborative story telling of role playing games.

Presentation to the Sea of Faith Network in Australia, Melbourne, August 17, 2006