The Handbook: What It’s Like to Roll to Disbelieve.

Hi! I’ve noticed an uptick in new folks lately and have gotten some emails asking me why I call my blog what I do, so I thought that today–the most chocolate-y day of the year, so to speak–was a good day to bring everyone up to speed. I haven’t written about it in a long time and I’ve learned a lot since then. So today I want to show you what “rolling to disbelieve is” and what it feels like to make your roll at last.

I had a GM once who used random objects when he didn't have a miniature that was the right size or whatever. One day we're fighting something and he gets out this gigantic stuffed six-sider and sets it down in front of our tiny little 1" minis. We were totally O.O (Dagny Mol, CC.)
I had a GM once who used random objects when he didn’t have a miniature that was the right size or whatever. One day we’re fighting something during a game and he gets out this gigantic stuffed six-sider that’s the size of a basketball and sets it down without a word in front of our tiny little 1″ minis. We were totally O.O (Dagny Mol, CC.)

I was Christian for the first half of my life, deconverting in my 20s a couple years after graduating from college. And oh boy was I Christian. My entire Christian “walk” (that’s Christianese for someone’s journey through the religion to, I suppose, enlightenment) seemed like one long search for this gauzy notion of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ that I was sure must exist out there somewhere.

Somewhere, if I searched hard enough, I’d find a group that was practicing the ideals of Jesus the way Christians everywhere should be, and I’d finally be okay. Looking back it’s both laughable and tearjerking to think of how anguished I was over the misery, dysfunction, and hypocrisy I saw around me, and of how hard I worked to find that group. I kept going from group to group trying to find the one that was doing Christianity right–and in the process, spiraled down into worse and worse groups and even almost ended up in Waco right around when that David Koresh stuff was going down (with a different and arguably even worse cult, though).

When I saw hypocrites, I chalked it up to them not knowing how to be TRUE CHRISTIANS™. When I saw misery, I decided that must mean that they were in a group that wasn’t following Jesus right. When I worried about going to Hell or missing the Rapture, I was sure that I would one day find the flavor of Christianity that would ease those fears. They were out there, and I just had to find them. Maybe they were waiting for me. Maybe they were trying to find me too. When we finally found each other, everything would be okay.

And in the same way, before I went to college I certainly knew that there were some very troubling passages in the Bible–places that seemed contradictory and promises that didn’t seem to be working out in reality. I was positive that the only problem here was that I hadn’t heard the right explanation for this stuff yet. I knew about the body of pseudoscience that my tribe was even then feverishly assembling, and though I knew some of our ideas were patently ridiculous, I figured it couldn’t all be that way. I didn’t yet understand that our tribe contained a huge number of baldfaced liars and snake-oil salespeople, all profiting off of the gullible and easily- and eagerly-deceived flocks.

Mine was purple.
Mine was purple, however and of course. Pair that with a challis skirt and hie thee to church!

Looking back, I can legitimately say I was totally and completely as Christian as it could humanly get–right down to the worrying lapses into “sin” that every Christian faces.

So yeah, I was totally Joyce in that webcomic. I mean, totally. I even had the million-megawatt smile and the sweater vests (though mine were the awesome, chunky ones that rocked the late-80s). If Dumbing of Age were a cartoon, I’m pretty sure we’d even share the same laugh that was compared by more than one person in my early-adulthood to the girl’s in Speed Racer.

Locked in the Illusion.

But nothing I believed was really true. Nothing I’d been taught about religion by a succession of well-meaning adults and authority figures from a succession of different Christian groups was actually reflective of reality.

When confronted with a contradiction to what I’d been taught, I had an entire arsenal of techniques at the ready that I could use to neutralize those worrying ideas and get them far away from me. I’m pretty sure that some of them got deployed without my ever even being aware of a threat to my faith. As Dolores Abernathy illustrates to perfect effect, it didn’t look like anything to me.

I was experiencing a phenomenon called motivated reasoning. That means that I was highly, highly motivated to come to a particular conclusion about the stuff I saw and experienced. In this case, I was very motivated to believe that Christianity’s various claims were true–both the supernatural claims (Jesus, Heaven/Hell, miracles, etc.) and the non-supernatural ones (Christians being better people than non-Christians; Christianity’s rules being best for all people whether they’re Christian or not; women don’t own their own bodies, etc.). That motivation fed into the conclusions I came to about the religion and about my peers in it.

If I lost those beliefs, I knew–or at least thought I knew–that a cascade of horrible, ghastly, terrible things would happen to me. I’d lose both my god’s protection and that of my tribe. I’d go to Hell for sure. I’d be mocked by those who’d refused my proselytization earlier. I’d descend into the foulest sin and end my days hopeless and alone. I didn’t suspect at the time that I’d also lose my entire network of friends and also my marriage, being that I was naive enough to believe that my friends and husband loved me, not the Christianity in me, but really, I don’t think that added fear would have added all that much to what I suspected I’d be  dealing with if I deconverted.

Worst of all, though, I’d lose the underpinning of my life. I grew up Christian and immersed in the religion’s various rituals. My sense of morality was based on the religious ideals I’d learned. My sense of community was distinctly a religious one (as it is for many Christians today, with the regaining of that framework of a very religious polity forming the backbone of their efforts to “make America great again”).

If you’ve heard of confirmation bias, that plays into motivated reasoning. So does cognitive dissonance. At the end of the day, all of that stuff played into my deep desire to live in the illusion that I’d accepted as true.

Make Your Roll.

In my misspent youth and adulthood, I picked up the hobby of tabletop gaming. You’ve likely heard of it–Dungeons & Dragons is one example, but there are dozens if not hundreds more. In tabletop gaming, one person devises the game that the other people will play through, sorta like how a screenwriter devises the general script for a movie; this one person is usually called the Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM, which is my favored term), while the other people running through that game are the players. They make and pretend to be characters (called player characters, or PCs) in that game.

The GM describes to these players, sometimes with the aid of maps or drawings, a scenario, and they decide what their PCs would do in that situation. Often those decisions are radically at odds with how they themselves would behave. As you can imagine, that’s the exact reason that many Christians oppose tabletop gaming–and the exact reason that so many people, Christian and non-, enjoy it.

After each player makes their decision, they roll dice to figure out what happened. They don’t just get to say “I walk up to the chest and pick the lock and get the loot out of it.” The GM tells them what dice to roll and what they need to roll to succeed (usually–not always). Some systems only use one type of dice–like six-sided ones, like you see in Yahtzee and gambling, or ten-siders or 20-siders or even 100-siders (Biff had one, but his mom’s keeshond ate it and after she’d somehow successfully passed it in a pooping incident I’m glad I missed, it just didn’t roll the same ever again). There might be one die involved or dozens. (The earliest versions of D&D even involved “chits,” or little numbered cardboard squares, which were used in ways I can’t even remember anymore to determine outcomes. Other ways involve apps, thrown coins, even drawing cards out of a Tarot or regular poker deck. Online roleplaying games of course have their own ways of making the equivalent of rolling dice, with some systems actually allowing players to issue typed commands to show the entire “room” what the results of their rolls are.)

The rolled result is then modified by a number of means, being either improved or subtracted-from based on the character’s statistics (stats), skills, and slaps/bennies, and then the GM tells the player what that final result means for the scene. (A “bennie” is a benefit–such as Sharp Eyes or Can Hold Her Liquor; a “slap” is the opposite: Unobservant or Lightweight.) The GM has final call on all outcomes, but is expected to work within the dice rolls.

Some rolls are really awful, to the point of being botches, or critical failures. Others are critical successes (or “crits”). A botch might be described as “you not only miss on that swing, but you bury your sword in the tree next to you.” A crit might sound like “you not only hit the dragon, but you get him square in the chest and kill him in one shot.” And then there’s everything in between.

I know this might sound kind of kludgy or ponderous to a non-gamer, but an experienced GM who knows their way about their game system’s charts can usually make this process move along very quickly. Also, sometimes an outcome is so no-brainer that rolls aren’t even made.

Rolling dice is part of the entire process of roleplaying in most systems, and the results are sacrosanct to most players. Fudging or cheating on a roll is just about the worst thing a player can do short of shitting on the gaming table–which in certain groups and contexts might actually be fun, now that I think about it, while fudging rolls would never be okay. Dice rolls are what make gaming feel so exciting; the really awesome and outrageous (or cringeworthily horrible) rolls get talked about for years afterward.

So I still feel a fluttering in my chest and get that sharp intake of breath when I hear the magic words:

Roll for initiative.

Perception check.

Roll to disbelieve.

Something Ain’t Right Here.

In gaming as in real life, sometimes something is just too good to be true. You’re in a desert, but see a luscious, glittering oasis right up ahead. Or you’re hopelessly lost in a dungeon, but see a shaft of light cast by a tunnel that leads right up to the surface. Or you’re in a castle and behold a room full of gold and gemstones.

Or you think that you have this magical friend that nobody else can see but you who does nice things for you, truly loves you despite all your flaws, listens to you whenever you want to talk, protects you from any and all danger, breaks the very laws of physics for you if need be, and is making a beautiful castle for you to live in after you leave this world for an even better one.

Yeah, like that kind of “too good to be true.”

That’s what we call an illusion. Sometimes the illusion is a deliberate spell cast by a wizard, and sometimes it’s just part of the magic contained within a deeply magical place. Sometimes illusions come of drinking potions or tripping a trap. Sometimes a character just exudes illusions or can make them happen on a whim. Most gaming systems have lots of ways of getting an illusion into an adventure. And illusions, by their very nature, are very difficult to detect–much less to break out of. The more motivated someone is to see the illusion, the more difficult it is.

Someone outside of the illusion or who isn’t as motivated to see it or accept it probably thinks the person who does see and accept it looks pretty silly in a lot of ways. But the risks go far past simply looking silly. Locked in an illusion, a person might walk right up to a dragon without a weapon in hand, or step off of a cliff thinking there’s solid footing below. They might sell their family’s only cow for a handful of beans, or see a humble handful of dirt as a fortune in diamonds.

And nothing onlookers say can dissuade the sufferer or make them see the real truth before their eyes. That’s the really insidious part of illusions. If you’re surrounded by a lot of people who really believe the illusion, or it’s been in place for a long time, it’s even harder to break free. If it’s something you desperately want (or that you think your PC wants), it’s harder yet.

So that roll to disbelieve is really important. Sometimes you get lucky and crit your way out of the whole shebang, but if you have a generous GM you might roll well enough to maybe get a flicker that something ain’t right. It’s on you to notice, perhaps, or maybe you, the player, already suspect and that roll gives you the ammunition you need to roleplay your way out of belief. (It’s definitely something I’ve done for players when I think it’ll make an entertaining story.)

Most of us roll repeatedly. Looking back, I can remember many times when I made–and failed–my roll to disbelieve before I finally succeeded. I skirted right up to the very edge of truth and then skittered and windmilled away from that edge, and I did it many times before I finally stepped into it–

And found that I wasn’t falling, but flying.

I wasn’t lost, but found.

The Scales Fall.

In most game systems, once you succeed at your roll, you’re one-and-done. Suddenly you have to totally reevaluate your plans and work around an obstacle you might not even have seen up until then. You suddenly see that the oasis doesn’t exist. The glittering gems are just dirt. The shaft of light isn’t there. There’s a goddamned dragon right in front of you.

There’s no magic invisible friend who loves you and does stuff for you and is making a castle in the sky for you to live in after you die.

When you realize that, all sorts of things start falling into place.

Yes, of course that’s why prayer doesn’t do anything.

Yes, of course that’s why there are so many contradictions in the Bible that must be explained away.

Yes, of course that’s why so many Christians are hypocrites.

Yes, of course that’s why none of Christianity’s rules seem to actually result in greater happiness, harmony, or safety for those practicing them.

Yes, of course that’s why there is no visible sign whatsoever, no measurable way, no perceptible reason to think anything in Christianity is real.

Yes, of course that’s why the more hardcore a Christian group is, the more abuse and dysfunction one finds in that group.

Yes, of course that’s why.

Everything makes sense for the first time in forever.

The mere idea of wasting time trying to corral all those contradictions and obvious signs of failure just seems so exhausting all of a sudden. And you’re astonished that you ever were fooled–or that you ever wasted that time and exhausted yourself that way. Now the question is whether or not you can live openly in that truth or if you have to hide what you know and what you’ve seen for a while, and if so, for how long. That’s a tough one, and every one of the people who make their roll have to answer that question for their own situation. And there’s another task ahead of you: forgiving yourself and being kind to yourself for having been fooled for so long. That one isn’t always easy either.

But there is work to be done.

Your companions on the adventure still see the illusion.

(So you go make a blog.)

Be well, friends.

And… if you remember the second you finally made your roll, I bet a lot of folks besides me would love to hear about it.


Obviously, I’m simplifying a lot. Roleplaying systems are even less monolithic than religions are, though most RPGs are certainly are more coherent, cohesive, and morally acceptable than most religions ever could be.

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