Austen Crowder

Paper and pencil RPG helped me "get" social conservatism

Filed By Austen Crowder | December 16, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living
Tags: Paper and pencil rpg, religious right, roleplaying, RPG, social conservative

As a self-proclaimed gamer girl, I get asked for recommendations all the time. Any genre, any game type, I have a favorite that's not usually on the radar; however, my absolute, all-time favorite recommendation is the paper-and-pencil RPG "Dogs in the Vineyard." From the narrativist gameplay, story-focused character generation, elegant conflict resolution system, and simple game-mastering formulae, the system just sings in all the right places. Its biggest accomplishment - and consequentially the subject of this little column - is that it takes the player out of their life, puts them into an different (and sometimes uncomfortable) body, and forces them to make a great story out of it. dogs.jpg

Yes, Dogs in the Vineyard is good enough to receive that level of praise and attention. I don't hand it out often.

DitV's greatest accomplishment, however, was helping me to "get" the social conservative movement. Sure, I'm not a fan of it, but until I played this game I didn't really understand what drove people to act they way they do towards our community. The reasoning is simple: it's our job as neighborly people and our government's job as leaders to keep others from making bad decisions. Where social progressives tend to see the village raising the idiot leader, the social conservatives see the idiot leader raising the village. Without the RPG, I would never have been able to understand how the social conservative world justifies this distinction.

An explanation of a game session comes after the jump:

DitV has players roleplaying as Watchdogs in the "Wild West that Never Was," working for a church built upon an analogue of the Mormon religion. A game session consists of going to a town, finding the sin that is causing anything from civil unrest to demonic sorcery, and correcting it using whatever means they feel are necessary. The game shouldn't really appeal to me - I'm a nonreligious person by nature, and prefer not to get into discussions of morality based on religion - but Dogs offers players the opportunity to experiment and explore the moral questions in an environment safe from serious ramifications. Characters do not fail so much as they grow from their experiences, and in doing so their players get a chance to explore our own prejudices and moral compasses.

We had a group of three Watchdogs in the game session: one repentant alcoholic, one Calvinist preacher, and me, a "nothing better to do" Watchdog who inherited the career from his father. We arrived at a small town somewhere in the dusty Western desert, where we were invited to dinner by the mayor of town. This is all par for the course, as Watchdogs are like the sheriffs of these frontier towns, the be-all and end-all of enforcement. There, we received a quick-and-dirty breakdown of the town's problems: the pastor had forbid the children of the town from dancing, and the children were sneaking off to dance with the local tribesmen and women. (Like I said, Old West that Never Was.)

The bulk of the adventure consisted of us talking to town members, gathering information, and discovering who was behind the youths' new "dance parties." For sake of brevity, we discovered that a dark priest was behind the parties, and the kids were to be human sacrifices for a ritual. This culminated in a good old-fashioned showdown of good and evil, spirits flying through the air, robed men brandishing hatchets, and flintlock pistols smoking. Cheerful, no, but oh-so-much fun to play through!

The real meat of the campaign, however, came after the climactic fight had ended. At that point, the game forced me out of my usual moral compass and into a mindset I hadn't experienced before. Back at town, we had to break terrible news: of the twelve children who left town that night, only six returned. To the town, the children were led into sin by this dancing issue, ultimately ending in their deaths. Fingers were pointed. Threats were leveled. Above this all, though, rang a single question:

"What do we do now?"

In that moment, with the game world on the table, I didn't react the way I thought I would. The real me would have simply said that kids needed the freedom to be who they wanted to be; if that meant dancing, so be it! As a Watchdog, however, being tied to the Holy Book of the game world's land, my train of thought went a different way. Dancing was fine, yes, but if not kept in check it could lead to children performing inappropriate and immoral acts. Keeping the town pure was more important than individual freedom. Without the tenets of the religion, and without strict moral guidelines in place, the tiny frontier town would collapse on itself.

This conclusion felt as natural as breathing in the shoes of a Watchdog.

We came to a compromise: the children would be allowed to dance, but only in ways and to songs that were specifically approved by the town leadership. We reasoned that this gave the elders a chance to impart their culture onto the next generation, keeping tradition alive, and helped the people of the town grow closer as a community. That was our role, after all, as a Watchdog of the church: keep the town pure, keep the people on track. Did the kids like it? Not really, though they were ready to follow our lead, seeing that we saved their lives. The needs of the town outweighed individual freedom.

Again, my reaction in the game situation was not how I would respond in real life. One of the magical things about the paper and pencil RPG is that, through structured storytelling, we can disconnect ourselves from our own preconceptions and take on the role of someone else. In that gaming session I was, for all intents and purposes, a religiously-oriented social conservative concerned with a town's safety from sin. Above all else, we maintained the need to protect people from their own wickedness at all costs.

I may fight against the religious right's real world policies, but in those two hours of gaming I got to be them. Then, thankfully, the game ended and my mind came back to home base, better for the trip.


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Jamie Rishel | December 16, 2009 7:39 PM

It's always a treat when something that should have been a bit of trivial good fun ends up teaching you a valuable life lesson.

There's something to be said of the fact that some of my most stalwart convictions were fostered by activities that most people told me were a waste of time.

An interesting idea, Austen. To me, this points up how important education is. If one believes that dark priests are going to sacrifice one's children, one will believe anything and do anything to save them. The forces of intolerance are out there convincing people of similar types of beliefs, and indoctrinating their children into the same. After the way the people have been hoodwinked by crazy zealots, I have a lot of compassion for them when they espouse these irrational beliefs

Indeed. Interesting side story: we didn't think we'd have to break the news to the town; usually, once the big fight is over things just sort of fall into place. Imagine our surprise with the GM said "No, we're not done yet. You have to tell the townspeople that you let six children die."

That's about the point that our Watchdog bravado turned into careful contemplation. Like I said, amazing system. ;)

I think a similar "education" -- in both directions -- would do us all a lot of good. Sometimes in the heat of the moment we forget that, more often than not, people are out to do a net social good.

battybattybats battybattybats | December 16, 2009 9:41 PM

RPGs are a great resource for exploring all sorts of things.

I gradually addressed the transphobia of some local gamers by including a transsexual character into a game. Gradually humanising them in their eyes and challenging their preconceptions.

One of the virtues of acting, and in my opinion a good RPG group involves acting, is that it puts you into the mind of another person, someone who is often very different from yourself. It encourages you (or forces you, if you are serious about it) to see the world differently. You have to embrace, however tentatively, different values and beliefs. I have found that it isn't unusual to wind up thinking, "I would never do this, but my character most certainly would."

Acting can be a lesson in tolerance and compassion. No one in the real world is evil. A person may sometimes do evil things and may hold evil beliefs. But all humans have some desire for good (e.g. love of friends or family or pets) and a desire to see the world better off (even if that desire is indifferent to suffering or is focused primarily on their personal well-being).

I think this is important for learning how to reach out to persons who disagree with us on LGBT issues. Its a matter of tapping into their desire for good, how they see it and why they should see it our way.

So when are you going to host a Bilerico gaming party in Indianapolis? I wonder how many people would show up?