My great thanks to David for nominating me for an Inspiring Blogger Award! That was super-sweet and I sure do appreciate the nod. <3 to him, all those wonderful friends I’ve made through this blog already, and to the new folks coming in. A couple months ago when I took the plunge I’d never have imagined I’d reach and touch so many people in this short time. So let me explain a little to catch everybody up.
I approach religion from the standpoint of someone who’s designed a goodly number of religions for her games. It’s a lot of fun to design a pantheon that works and to come up with good reasons why religions do what they do. Apparently without realizing it I’ve strayed into game theory, a science that studies how people make strategic decisions with and against other people, but really, most GMs find themselves there as they consider how their carefully-laid plans can survive an encounter with the players (hint: they never do).
The other day a dear friend of mine texted me to announce that he’d finally tried his first tabletop game and loved it. For years I’d been pushing him to try tabletop because he’d been an old MUDding buddy from years back and I knew he’d enjoy the more intense, focused, personalized experience of a tabletop game. And as I’d also suspected he would, he immediately realized that he needed to get into GMing. There really are two types of tabletop gamers: those who are way into GMing, and those who are way into playing. There are a few switches, just like in BDSM, but usually folks pick a side and stick with it, so to speak.
Our conversation reminded me of why I call this blog “Roll to Disbelieve.”
Almost every game system that features spells or psionics involves an illusion spell or effect of some sort. Gamers all know what it’s like to think about stuff that most people never even stop to consider, for good or ill. I suspect that’s why illusion spells feature in so many systems–we know what it’s like to see stuff other people don’t see and we know how frustrating it is to try to explain what we see to people who aren’t in the least equipped to perceive what we do, much less to question anything.
The main features of illusion spells are these: first, the illusion usually masks something harmful or extremely beneficial, making those affected by it think that what they’re seeing is harmless or ignore it entirely. For example, the illusion might be masking a poison gas cloud hovering over a cave entrance, making the adventurers see only a pleasant, misty hot spring. Second, if not intended just to hide something like a doorway, the illusion will make the adventurers want to mess with it. They’ll want to go bathe in the hot spring, or pet the cute kitten, or walk up to the gorgeous trove of loot. Third, even if the adventurers express dubious apprehension of the illusion, nothing they do to test it or try to see past it will admit any flaws in the illusion. The kitten will mew and purr; the hot spring will feel warm and sound bubbly and babbling; the loot will sparkle and even make jangling noise if someone tosses something at it from a distance.
The only way to get past the illusion is through a roll to disbelieve, which in some GMs’ games is only offered as a chance if one of the players expresses doubt about the illusion’s veracity in the first place. The player rolls a die or dice, and if s/he rolls well enough, then the player’s character (or PC) sees through it–the PC can now suddenly see the poisonous gas, or the spike trap set in the floor where the “loot” sparkles, or the sabretooth lion roaring and pulling at its chain. Once the illusion is defeated, then nothing it does further will affect the PC who’s seen through it, and the PC will not be drawn back in.
But now the PC has to deal with his or her party still under the effects. Typically, the roll is difficult enough that only one or two of a party will succeed at disbelieving the illusion. And once the roll fails, typically the player won’t get another chance for a certain period of time (such one game day). Now what? How does someone tell the party about a horrible trap looming ahead when all they can see is the illusion? It can be hilarious to see the party in real life arguing about it around the table, with the players of characters still trapped laughing about how they know, they know that it’s a trap, but they can’t legally withdraw their character. Usually players take their entrapment pretty well, and getting the party out of trouble while still following the rules for the spell can be a fun afternoon.
So the idea of rolling to disbelieve is exactly how I feel about leaving religion behind. That’s how I perceive its threats and promises: as a spell masking its true intentions and workings–its real injustice and oppression, its dehumanization and marginalization of others, its misogyny and its brutality toward women, its narcissism and its egocentric leanings. I see religious leaders using their fake god(s) to control and direct others’ lives for their own benefit. I see way too many believers using that same fake god to grant them revenge one day and make them feel better about their awful lives now. I see good people, wonderful people, loving people, all laboring under illusions, trying their best to bash their brains out making it all make sense when it never did, and indeed never could–at least under the rules they think are true.
What, did you think it was just some wild coincidence that religious leaders’ answer to unwanted pregnancies is not to pursue policies that actually lower unwanted pregnancy rates but rather to use brute force to strong-arm women into acting like proper mythic 50s ladies by making unapproved forms of sex so terrifying and so horrifyingly risky that women might stop having so much of it? Did you imagine it was just some strange fluke that religion-heavy states and countries tend not to be bastions of individual freedom, education, liberty, and civil rights but rather hellholes of crime, misery, sickness, poverty, repression, intolerance, violence, and ignorance? No, these things aren’t coincidences or flukes of fate. They are the real and actual impact of religion on human society in the modern age. Religion is that toxic cloud of dank gas, but all we see is the hot springs, the bright and glittery “treasure” beckoning adventurers closer, the cute kitten gamboling at our feet and mewing for our attention.
So yes: I am the PC saying “ROLL AGAIN” to the party. I’m nobody special really, no theologian, no trained seminary graduate. I just got lucky, that’s all–I succeeded on a roll that I’d been trying to make for many years. If I hadn’t gotten lucky I’d probably still be there toiling beside all the others who labor in the service of the illusion-makers. Lots of people are questioning the illusion and at least getting the chance to roll, and the more of us who roll, the more of us succeed at those rolls. But the other players won’t know to roll unless they hear that it’s even possible to question the illusion.
One of the big props for the illusion is making its believers think all sorts of nonsense about non-believers. So we’re going to talk about fake sympathy next–namely, why such posturing is so pervasive in toxic Christianity, how exactly it props up the illusion, and why these assumptions further invalidate these Christians’ worldview.
The next game day starts soon: gather your gamebooks, sharpen your pencils, and get your dice ready.