I’ve read a great many fantasy stories that feature characters wrestling with religion, faith, and their place in the universe. But, despite really enjoying that quest for meaning, I’ve played in few roleplaying games that feature a similar arc. Which might reveal two key ways in which roleplaying isn’t just telling stories.
Yesterday, a fellow roleplayer shared this video by Complex Games Apologist with me. It’s worth a view if you have 20 mins. For those who don’t (or don’t have it now), his basic point is that the “priest” archetype in roleplaying games rarely has the metaphysical complexity or political baggage that priests, true believers, and so forth have in the real world.
This set me thinking about religious/moral character arcs in general in roleplaying games. As my wife can testify, I will happily spend a morning researching real world mythologies and philosophies to better portray a character’s religious convictions and conflicts. However, even in games that specifically have rules for multiple moralities, such as White Wolf’s World of Darkness, I seldom play out a quest for meaning anywhere near as complex and detailed as those in some fantasy novels.
Perhaps because of two factors that shape the way roleplaying games handle player action:
Asymmetric fictionalisation: in almost all roleplaying games, the character is not a representation of the player. The character has a variety of advantages and disadvantages that are abstracted to whatever mechanics the game uses (e.g. roll under your character’s sword on two six-sided dice to hit the enemy). However, while the entire character is fictional, the degree of clear division from the player often differs in certain areas. For example, no one expects a player to be any good at swordfighting and tactics to play a barbarian warlord, but social situations often (tacitly or overtly) rely on the player’s ability to say something roughly suitable; thus, no one is judged for their lack of actual experience driving their enemy before them and hearing the lamentation of their accountants, but people are judged for playing a political character when they aren’t supremely devious or charismatic in real life. This imperfect separation between player-worth and character-worth primes players to judge and feel judged in that most highly charged areas: the question of whether one is a good/worthy/honourable person. After seeing a few games crash because someone took a challenge to a character’s morals the wrong way, it’s easy to just not feature the deep questions of faith and morality.
The Long Dark Party of the Soul: While a typical roleplaying party might appear similar to a fantasy novel with a group of stalwart protagonists, there is a key difference: each player is there to play their character rather than be passive audience to all of them. The questions of existence, the self-doubts and epiphanies of more than Sunday-morning religion, are very personal questions not ones that can usually be answered more easily by having a companion backstab them while you act as a distraction. The complexity of faith in a fantasy novel works because the other characters can’t get bored or feel cheated if they don’t appear on the page for a considerable period. After seeing a few games unravel because one player was claiming the spotlight, it’s easy just not to feature topics that rarely result in a shared spotlight.
Thus, even if we want to play out a nuanced struggle with faith, it only really works if all the players are both able to keep the separation between real-world and fictional morals strict, and want to play a game where they spend significant time watching someone else wrestle with their own soul.