Dungeons and Dragons and the Theology of Free Will

May 24, 2012


For those of you who are not familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, it’s basically a game of structured make-believe and cooperative storytelling, called a roleplaying game, which is usually played by a group of friends gathered around a dinner table talking, reading or taking notes, and occasionally rolling dice.

The following clip from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons episode of Community, is not only hilarious, but a fairly accurate depiction of how the game basically works:

I highly recommend watching the whole episode, which can be found on Hulu Plus, iTunes, or Amazon.

In D&D, each player has complete freedom to have her character attempt any action they can imagine. It is then up to the Dungeon Master, or DM, to determine the result. Usually the DM will do so in accordance with the rules of the game, making calculations using dice and the character’s stats to decide whether the action is successful. But the DM is in no way required to obey these rules if she should see fit to alter or break them. As far as the game world is concerned, the DM is a “god”.

What makes D&D really special though, is the storytelling. The DM and players are working together to tell a story. A good DM can tell an engaging story in an entertaining way. But what separates a merely good DM from a truly great one is incorporating the character’s actions and decisions into the overall narrative—making the character’s choices truly matter. Because D&D is a game played by humans on both sides, it allows for more freedom and creativity than any pre-written story—book, film, or video game—can offer.

Free Will

In fact, I believe free will in our universe works not that differently than in D&D. I subscribe to a libertarian view of free will—I believe that God in his omnipotence has chosen to bestow each of us with truly free will—the ability to try to do whatever we choose. Obviously, we couldn’t succeed at everything we try to do, as our free will would collide with that of others—two opponents can’t both win at a single game of chess. On the other hand, we couldn’t fail at everything we try to do, or the illusion of free will would quickly be broken, just as it is in D&D when the DM attempts to force the players down a predetermined path.

Like any good DM, God has an overall plan for where the story will go—the eventual restoration of creation to a right relationship with him (and itself). But he has given us the opportunity to be active participants in filling in the details of that story, because when God created us in his image, he gave us the ability and the desire to create like him.

Of course, God could accomplish his purpose with or without us. But one of many crazy things we Christians actually believe is that God has chosen to entrust part of his mission to us. This is bound to be a messy process—he could certainly do it much more effectively if he were to do it himself. But because of his great love for us, like a father letting his daughter push the shopping cart around, he has invited us to become his coworkers in the redemption of all creation. Because he is the greatest storyteller ever, the characters in his story are not simply scripted characters, but people with free will that are able to make choices as they see fit. To his great glory, like a great DM, he is able to work with us and to get us, albeit at times kicking and struggling, to work with him in accomplishing his great artistic vision:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

[Rev. 21:1-5a]