I have been thinking on how to include Christian mythology (used in the sense of “sacred stories”, not in the sense of “false stories”). I have an extremely complicated relationship with Christianity, certainly, but I also want to treat people’s belief systems with respect. My thoughts very much do not turn in the direction of “Christian gaming” but rather how to incorporate bits of the lore of this specific faith tradition in role-playing games.
As with any sensitive topic, safety tools are a must. Discuss the themes with your group in advance and understand where people’s comfort zones end. No themes or aesthetics are more important than the people playing the game. I also do not intend to explore these ideas relative to other religions. My lane specifically is Christianity as seen through the lens of an American raised in an evangelical tradition.
Friends have pointed out to me how much Dungeons and Dragons draws on folklore specific to Judaism & Islam: golems and dybbuks, djinn and ghouls, etc., often twisted from their original usage to become “monsters”. Gygax straight up took the word phylactery from Judaism and made it something used for evil. Angels, devils, and demons, however, have roots in all the Abrahamic faiths. Some fiends’ names (personal or type) come directly from the folklore of these religions.
In my view, D&D does a piss-poor job of this, relative to what we see in literature. This shouldn’t be a surprise: the writers of that game feared the “Satanic panic” in the 1980s (and families like mine were a big part of the reason why). No edition of that game has ever handled references to real life cultures well: religion, ethnicity, race, etc. have all received poor treatment from Wizards of the Coast and its forerunners. (They claim they will improve. I remain skeptical, to put it mildly.)
Third-party publishers take more risks. Strongholds and Followers draws a little closer to angels as actually described in the Bible; flying thrones, collections of hands and mouths, et cetera. Lamentations of the Flame Princess (an OSR game with edgelord tendencies, especially in its published adventures) once used Thomas Aquinas as the basis for a monster, and has set other adventures among religious wars in Europe. I have also read campaign settings tackling things like Judea around the time of Jesus’ birth, to varying levels of quality. Krevborna, a Gothic setting focused on monster hunting, has the Church of Saintly Blood that indirectly is based on the Catholic Church (via the Healing Church in Bloodborne). Plenty of other examples exist.
Monster of the Week includes some references to Christian mythology in Tome of Mysteries. Specifically, though, they use “monsters” with their own twisted views of Bible stories (e.g. summoning zombies to turn them into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), but with a respectful distance to actual worship and denominations. The Divine playbook does not reference any particular religion; some of the move names may carry a whiff of the flavor of Christianity, but no more so than Paladins in D&D. At least one of the example monsters in the core book is a devil that takes a number of cues from how they are imagined in our society today (which in turn is based largely on Protestant views of the Devil).
As Monster of the Week tends to be about kicking monster ass, bringing in these creatures feels very natural. My current campaign references these topics; some of that comes from the players themselves, and some of that comes from the mysteries I write, though I certainly wouldn’t consider us to focus on it overly much. Artifacts and lore from Gnostic sects fit in well here.
You can do a lot just from Isaiah and Ezekiel and Revelation: they describe more creatures than just the ones commonly represented in popular culture. Everybody knows that 666 is “The Number of the Beast”, but the Beast themselves rarely make an appearance. Nor do the locust scorpions with human faces, nor Wormwood (a star that turns a third of the water on Earth bitter).
Christian mythology also refers to things like the lives of the saints, “Paradise Lost,” the works of C.S. Lewis, etc., not just stories in the Bible. To an extent, this includes King Arthur (he searched for the Holy Grail) and even J.R.R. Tolkien, though it seems D&D filtered out most of that even as it based so much of the game on his work. In general, outside of gaming, art of all sorts feeds into this, whether music, film, or painting. Religion influences how a society sees itself, whether or not members of that society also believe in that religion.
Call of Cthulhu tends to be about losing your mind when you understand reality. It already references ghouls (which come from Arabic folklore); including other mind-bending concepts and creatures would come naturally. The Holy Trinity as a concept could provide the pattern for some phenomenon with various creatures representing the same persona whilst still maintaining their own identity. What if somebody accidentally opened the gates to Tartarus and released fallen angels from their chains? Or what if some cult was seeking the means to do so?
Other games about treasure hunting (like Trophy Gold) could easily deal with the recovery of relics. In fact, the film The Nun would make a great incursion: exploring a convent to investigate the evil underneath it, or just unleashing that evil when mishandling the relics it contains.
Diablo (the computer RPG) does this to some extent by building on the lore of the Nephilim (“Nephalem”), presenting humans as the offspring of angels and demons. Much of the game lore centers on Tristram, home to a large cathedral that became a major center of worship (later corrupted by the demons themselves). While other games do something similar, this is the one I’ve spent hundreds of hours and quite a few dollars on.
I intend to continue to use these themes and the traditions I was raised in. Sometimes they help me process my own thoughts about religion and Christianity; other times, they just provide a well-understood aesthetic among players.
3 thoughts on “Christian Mythology in gaming”
“Gygax straight up took the word phylactery from Judaism and made it something used for evil.”
No, Gygax straight up took the word phylactery and used it for a cleric-only magic item, which liches happened to have as well (in flavor text only, with no mechanic effect). Some 30 years later, Wizards of the Coast reduced it to being an item only possessed by liches.