Christian Theology According to St. Gygax
How Dungeons & Dragons and Other RPGs Explain the Trinity
Perhaps the greatest Mystery of the Christian faith is the Trinity: God is three persons distinct from each other but identical in essence. It’s easy to say that — it’s far harder to understand what it actually means. Some critics of Christianity claim its meaningless, incomprehensible - incoherent.
For a long time, I agreed with that criticism.
Though they baptized me in the Greek Orthodox faith, neither my father nor mother were active in the faith. We went to church annually — at best — and I had no formal education in theology. If you’d asked me as a teenager, I’ve had called myself a Christian, but I didn’t actually have the slightest idea what it meant. Something to do with Aslan? As such I was easy prey for atheist materialism, which I adopted in despair at age 20 when my father passed and steadfastly maintained until my mid-30s. So I cannot claim to have been a lifelong Christian.
I can, however, claim to be a lifelong player of role-playing games (RPGs). I played my first session of Dungeons & Dragons in 1980 at age 5 with my older brothers and have played continuously since then. For the past 10 years, I’ve designed them professionally. I’ve long felt there is something sublime about the role-playing game experience, akin to the feeling that J.R.R. Tolkien describes as “secondary creation.” So perhaps it is fitting that I came to some modest understanding of the Trinity through the lens of RPGs.
Here, then, is the Trinity as understood by analogy to role-playing games. If you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, ACKS, Shadowrun, or any other RPG, this analogy will all make sense. If you haven’t, you’ll have to take it on… faith. Either way, read on:
We know God created the universe ex nihilo — from nothing. God is thus a worldbuilder and setting creator. Our universe is his Geyhawk, his Dark Sun.
We know that the universe that God created is a "cosmos," an ordered universe of intelligible natural law. God is thus a game designer. The cosmos is governed by rules. The players can learn those rules and act accordingly.
We know that God sustains all of creation by his Word, and that his Word is law. God is thus the gamemaster (GM) of the game he created, actively participating at every moment to maintain it.
Finally, we know (from the Gospel of John) that the Word is God. God didn't write down his game rules. The rules are not separate from God. They don’t exist in a book; they exist in his mind. His game is run using word of mouth. So God is simultaneously the game designer, game master, and the game rules.
As it happens, God is an amazing gamemaster, and his games are really immersive. They're so immersive that his players frequently forget they're in the game. That's a problem! Why, you ask?
Because this campaign isn't even God's best campaign! Good players get invited to an even better game. (People disagree about what happens to the bad players - maybe they have to play a shitty 4E campaign set in the Abyss, maybe they just don't get invited into another campaign at all.)
Early on in the campaign, God used in-game oracles, spells, miracles, and so on to remind the players that this is just one temporary campaign and that if their character dies, that's not the end of the player. But it didn't work.
Therefore God decided he needed to send a GM NPC into the game. In Biblical terms, the Word became incarnate. In RPG terms, God created a non-player character in the game world, with all of the ability scores, hit points, and other stats that entails. (Presumably he had 18s in all stats.) This character, Jesus, was a Man , but was also at the same time, God and the Word; that is, he was a character, who was also the game designer, who was also the rule book, who was also narrating the game. This isn't hard to grasp; every GM has run a GM NPC in a house-ruled home campaign.
After entering the campaign world, Jesus founded a party with 12 players in the game. He let them know he was God, and began to give them quests. (Like most players, Jesus’s party members didn't write any actual play reports at the time. Later, some of their henchmen tried to get it all down but there was some inconsistency in their reports.) In the course of their quests, fighting demons and doing good deeds, Jesus and his henchmen encountered another adventuring party. This group of players, the Pharisees, didn't believe Jesus was actually the GM's NPC. "Yeah, sure, you're the GM. Har har." Remember, most of these guys were so immersed in the game they'd forgotten there was such a thing as a GM.
Now, God could have, at any time, exercised the powers available to him as a character, gamemaster, or even game designer to destroy his enemies. As a powerful character in the game, he could have dropped 9th level meteor swarm as an at-will power. As gamemaster, he could have simply reached across the game table and torn up their character sheets. As world builder, he could have simply deleted the Pharisee's characters from the canon. All of these options and more were available to him. But instead God allowed the Pharisees to play it out in the game. Those events we call the Crucifixion. God let his character, Jesus, get captured, tortured, and killed. He sat there and watched as Jesus lost his hit points, failed his saving throws, and heard the players make fun of him. Some of his own party members left the party for a while. It sucked. But then, three game days later, God (in his capacity as gamemaster) brought Jesus (his GM NPC) back to life and the Christian faith was begun.
Admittedly, all analogies are imperfect; and there are many holes in the one above. Nevertheless, I think it a good one. It fits so well that it actually explains other aspects of theology outside of the Trinity, such as the afterlife, miracles (God as gamemaster can override God as game designer), and more.
One aspect of the analogy I especially like is that it explains how the Christian view of God is different from the Deistic view of God. In RPG terms, the Deistic God is a worldbuilder and game designer but he is not a gamemaster. Perhaps the game the Deistic God creates is like a videogame — it runs without the active involvement of its creator. Conversely, the Christian God is worldbuilder, game designer, and gamemaster. The cosmos doesn’t just run itself. The Christian God is actively sustaining the cosmos ever moment of its existence, in the same way that a gamemaster sustains an RPG campaign.
On that note, I need to prep for my own RPG campaign. Being a gamemaster takes a lot of time and labor. It’s more than a hobby — it’s a calling. But since God is a gamemaster, it’s a holy calling.