A song of faith and sexual fire: How roleplaying game religions work as moral tools

A screenshot from a video game depicting people sitting around a campfire, with a man off to one side and in the centre a purple cloaked woman carrying a glowing staff, with an enormous red dragon resting behind her.

Liera, my long-ago D&D Cleric of Lastai (centre), sitting around the fire, chatting with her friendly neighbourhood dragon.

When one grows up in a traditionalist household, which only ever admitted spirituality of the most reactionary and narrow sort, it is easy to see faith as a rusted chain keeping your head forcibly turned to the leaping shadows of Plato’s cave. My resentment at my Roman Catholic upbringing boiled over into unchecked rage against any and all people of faith, who I blamed for various and sundry ills—like Richard Dawkins, I saw in religion the “root of all evil.” For 18-year-old me, newly flush with age-of-majority status, I celebrated my newfound freedom by ditching the faith of my upbringing and ruthlessly scorning any people of faith as “ignorant” and “backward” people barring the way to true freedom.

People tend to be surprised when I say that it was roleplaying gaming that brought me back from the brink of prejudice and helped me make peace with faith.

In addition to being good for thinking in general, fantasy roleplaying games (RPGs) give us especially good tools of moral exploration by furnishing us with a rich diversity of religions that seem a thousand miles removed from the Abrahamic hegemony of our real world. For me, RPGs were where I learned that it was possible to construct a faith not premised on the misogynist, homophobic, and even racist assumptions that informed my father’s vision of Roman Catholicism (a version often validated in the pulpit and made manifest through a glaring lack of female clergy that I questioned long before I even knew what “feminism” was). Roleplaying gaming was what gave me the, to use Laverne Cox’s excellent term, “possibility models” that would inform how I could understand what it meant to be a woman of faith. 

My very first character, Zoe, was a Shieldmaiden of the goddess Mayaheine—a demi-deity who venerated protecting the weak and helpless; Zoe was also stranded in the midst of the Dungeons & Dragons: Planescape version of Hell, a demonic wasteland called The Abyss. Another was Liera, once a priestess of the sun god Pelor, who changed faiths after an abusive ex-husband banished her to the realm of Ysgard; undergoing a mid-life crisis and revelling in newfound freedom and community, she converted to the goddess Lastai, who governed sexual relations grounded in equity and love, and became a sexual guidance counsellor.

Setting aside the Tolkien-esque alphabet soup of names and places in the foregoing, these tales about women that I found myself weaving were stories about ways in which civic-minded women, struggling with profound personal issues, used their faiths to refract deeply held beliefs external to their deities dictates. Faith was not something they submitted to, but a vehicle chosen in full agency to actualize their morality and put their ideals into practice in often unforgiving environments.

Zoe had to be a Lawful Good defender of the weak and helpless in a realm overpopulated by demonic hordes, while Liera had to rebuild her life and her faith in a new, strange realm ripped from a Wagner epic. What I came to realize, as I spun these stories, was that this was not all that dissimilar from how (and why) real people practice faith every day. I came to remember that despite my father’s abusive prejudice, my mother was also Catholic, and her faith informed a decidedly feminist vision of herself and her society. I would never again be Catholic, and remain a withering critic of the Vatican to this day, but I relearned a respect for those who practiced the faith and regained sight of their humanity. I stopped dismissing them as “ignorant.”

RP RJ: Roleplaying Reproductive Justice

It is a fundamental moral truth that religious faith is not a prerequisite of a moral life. You can be a good person without being religious. But by dint of the mechanics of many fantasy pen-and-paper RPGs, religion often becomes one of the most interesting and lore-rich sites of moral reasoning in such games. Many religions are explicitly defined by their moral “alignment” (a Dungeons & Dragons mechanic that splits morality into 9 general fields along twin axes of Good and Evil, and Lawfulness and Chaos) and thus defining appropriate codes of conduct and ethical behavior takes on paramount importance.

This opens some very interesting doors. My old cleric of Lastai, Liera, was an unambiguously righteous woman—she just happened to enjoy talking about sex very openly around the town campfire. Yet that became essential to her expression of what “good” meant. She manifested her virtue not only through charitable works of the traditional sort, but also by counseling safe sex, helping gay townspeople come out, combating the stigma of slut-shaming, and condemning those who would repress or inhibit sexual expression in others. She even carried abortifacients (though she never had occasion to use them).

All this before I even knew what phrases like “sex positive” or “reproductive justice” meant. I might even go so far as to argue that this exploratory play predisposed me to taking on those ideals in my own life years later.

The cover of Chronicle of the Righteous, colourful fantasy art depicting a fiery winged angel slaying a demon, essentially.What is equally interesting is that these insurgent readings of fantasy faith, and the extensive moral math one must perform in order to roleplay such faiths well, are steadily becoming institutionalized in the games themselves.

A peerless example of this is to be found in Amber Scott’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game supplemental book Chronicle of the Righteous, which lavishly details the Pathfinder universe equivalent of Heaven and its myriad inhabitants. Cosmic good and celestial paragons of virtue are elaborated upon at length here, and how they are described is absolutely fascinating.

You may recall Amber Scott as the author of a Pathfinder game I praised in last week’s column. I soon learned that she’s a fan of Feministing and was happy to talk with me at length about roleplaying religion, thinking through the concept of “goodness,” and her favorite empyreal lords from Chronicle of the Righteous.

“I like thinking up ‘cool good,’” she told me. “It’s easier, I think, to write cool evil because you get to play with taboos and forbidden things. Good too often seems like a stick-in-the-mud, a boring necessity that gives evil its naughty zing. But I like playing good characters, I like coming up with strong good beings, and [Chronicle of the Righteous] gave me the opportunity to do that.”

The ‘cool good’ she came up with is a testament to what roleplaying can do. The heart of the book is an extensive listing of the celestial plane’s leading demi-deities (known as “empyreal lords,” irrespective of gender), each of which could command a dedicated following of worshippers and secret societies.

Take Lymnieris, one of my favourite empyreals in the book. His domain? Sex work. “I don’t see a lot of sex-positive fantasy work out there,” said Scott, “I enjoyed writing a sex-centric empyreal lord who respected all kinds of consensual sexuality.” Lymnieris, as Scott wrote him, is charged with protecting and aiding sex workers, lending assistance to those who love their work, as well as delivering those from sex work who were coerced into the profession. “When I worked on Lymnieris, I really wanted to show that he valued independent decisions about sexuality. If you want to choose to be sexually active, great! If you want to choose to not be sexually active, great! If you want to choose to be a sex worker, great! Lymnieris’ stance is against enforced sexual roles, be they anti or pro,” she told me.

This is, without doubt, a worthwhile idea to get young gamers thinking about.

The silence around sex and sexuality in our society, especially the wall of quietude that confronts youth, has had disastrous consequences. Providing people with a way to productively and openly talk about healthy sexual practices is certainly one cheerfully salubrious way roleplaying games might be used. Instead of promoting mystifications and obfuscations about sex that repeat the same tired myths, we can actually get people to play with ideas about consent, choice, agency, and bodily autonomy – and unlike “role playing” at, say, sensitivity training, this is actually fun.

Pilgrimage of a Gendered Self

Scott’s Chronicle of the Righteous is an elegant, thought-provoking circumambulation around the concept of virtue that gives us goodness in myriad guises, from Dammerich the empyreal lord who governs death—who, in Scott’s words, “showed that good can be fucking scary,”—to Bharnarol, the elephantine inventor and empyreal lord of creativity, to Zohls the empyreal lord of truth and logical investigation who unfurls her parchment wings to impress mortals.

In addition to the simple but important communication of gendered diversity and freedom, these characterizations are fertile ground for thinking, in much the same way that Tarot cards help one assess one’s own consciousness in a new light. There’s no magic involvedjust the simple act of distancing and reorienting one’s thoughts through exotic imagery and imagination may unearth insights that remain buried when more mundane thoughts occupy one’s mind.

It was how my relationship to real world religion was productively challenged and altered, after all. But it can also act as a lens through which people might be moved to reassess their relationship to other institutions and classes of people–like, say, trans people.

My favorite of the demi-deities from Chronicle is, by a hairsbreadth, Arshea. Essentially, Arshea is a genderqueer empyreal lord of freedom, The Spirit of Abandon, who manifests a soaring vision of individual liberty by modeling the malleability of gender. In an interview, Pathfinder designer and editor Wes Schneider said Arshea emerged, in part, from a question at a convention about including transgender characters, and argued that such inclusion was, “not for me, that’s not for some mythical GLBTQ agenda, that’s because a gamer at a convention told me she’d like to see a character she could relate to in our games. She wanted someone like her to slay monsters, cast magic, and be a hero. No problem. I can do that. After all, that’s what Pathfinder is all about.” In the same interview, he also promised more trans characters–which has certainly happened, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of writers like Scott.

“Wes and I talked a lot about Arshea’s importance in Golarion’s cosmology and also the importance of designing an empyreal lord who transcended gender norms,” said Scott about designing the demi-deity, describing them as “appealing and memorable,” which I certainly can’t dispute.

Consider this description of Arshea’s devotees from the book:

“Worshippers of Arshea believe that one’s gender and role in society are not tied to one’s physical form. Arshea’s faithful often dress and behave as members of the opposite sex (or another defined gender role in societies with multiple roles) for months, years or even decades, believing that such experimentation is the best way to overcome repression and understand true freedom. After their self-stylised pilgrimage of the self is complete, these devotees chose the gender identities they decide best suits them.”

I truly wish I had this inspiration during my formative years as a roleplaying gamer, but I am quite contented by the fact that someone else certainly will now.

A tall, proud looking silver-armoured woman wielding a sword and shield, with a bow strapped to her back. She is dark skinned with a cornrow hairstyle and wears a determined look on her face.

Seelah, the iconic Paladin of the Pathfinder series, used to represent the class in most of the game’s artwork. (Artwork by Wayne Reynolds).

Possibilities

It does sometimes strike people as strange when I make a pitch for games like this as political or moral tools. To be sure, I have never advocated abstinence from the gritty, very consequential work of real-world politics. But the tools we use, both to think about our views, and elaborate on why we think as we do are important for the same reason that classical Greek philosophical dialogues (a form of RP if ever there was one) retain an enchanting relevance.

“Possibility models” are lifelines for those whose vision of a better world is trapped behind the broad backs of powerful others. Roleplaying was not just a game for me; it was a way I snuck moral and gendered experimentation under my father’s radar for many years, in an effort to become the kind of virtuous person he would have tried to beat out of me. Nowadays he more or less accepts me as I am, but that had a lot to do with the fact that I chose to be what I saw in RPGs—and if I didn’t see her, I made her. Roleplaying as specifically religious characters gave me the healthy moral debates and discourse I needed to socialize myself into an ethical universe that was something more than “because God said so.” After all, religious diversity is often the undoing of religious dogma. Seeing other possible moral canopies, however fictitious, made me realize that, contrary to the assertions of my conservative family and congregation in my youth, there was more than one way to be virtuous.

The world can change, and it can change for the better. I have my D&D days to thank for that lesson.

If you are interested in following Amber Scott’s work, you can check out her Facebook page.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross rolled a 20 the day she got to write for Feministing.

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    I love these last two articles you’ve written on the portrayal of race and gender in gaming culture. The fantasy genre doesn’t get the credit it deserves as one of the most progressive forms of art in portraying how people of different cultures and backgrounds can manage to accept each other and learn to get along. One set of books which really touches on these themes (and is quite similar to the Shadowrun series you mentioned earlier) is the Connor Grey books, which takes the the perspective of various magical races living together in an crime-ridden but close knit ghetto isolated by their paranoid human neighbors. There’s a certain innate appeal to the colorfulness of a world where the main protagonist can drink coffee with a gay druid prostitute and a nine foot troll is their bartender and nobody bats an eye about it.

    Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the morally black and white “good/evil” dichotomy in Dungeons and Dragons-esque games- it just seems to be a cop-out for justifying the mass murder of entire species without even attempting to rationalize their way of life or compromise peacefully with them in any shape or form. It’s way too easy to slaughter orcs or dark elves on an adventure when you can reduce them to a simple moral archetype like “lawful evil” rather than acknowledge them as actual people with different points of view. There’s nothing wrong with pounding the heads in of bandits or zombies every now and then, but if an entire adventure is formulated around embodying a specific set of moral codes I’d much rather have the inevitable conflicts require some personal growth on the part of the main character rather than just beating the crap out of everyone they come into contact with.

    I am glad that were getting more variety in playable characters in fantasy games now rather than the generic Aragorn-lookalikes which are unfortunately still way too common. I think there needs to be a fine balance though between making race and gender and other personal traits have some significance to the experience of playing a character while still giving the player enough agency to decide how they’re going to respond to various events. It’s frustrating playing a game like Skyrim, for instance, choosing a marginalized race like the Khaajit and discovering that the player character is treated exactly the same as every other race in game because the developers didn’t bother to write different dialogue. If these traits are absolutely meaningless outside of a character portrait I just don’t feel like they amount to much.

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