Roleplaying the Bible: are you allowed to do that?

On Saturdays I’ve normally been posting something about gaming, normally Dungeons & Dragons. I was planning to post something today on the taboo of the Abrahamic god/s in D&D, but I’ve been a bit sick and exhausted for the last week. I thought I’d repost something I originally wrote in 2015 on a similar topic. (Hopefully I can look at the problems with including Abrahamic religion next week.)

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Before I started playing Dungeons and Dragons this year, the only experience of roleplaying was a freeform roleplaying game run by Marcus Curnow in the lead to the G20 meetings in Melbourne in 2006. I was involved with a group of Christians who were planning a three-day vigil at the barricades. As part of the preparation Marcus led us through a roleplaying game where some of us were Jesus’ disciples, planning to blockade the Temple with Jesus, and others were priests and guards in the Temple seeking to uphold the status quo.
Earlier this year I came across Testament, which is a Biblical roleplaying setting designed to be compatible with the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. What I really like about Testament is that because it is not designed specifically by or for people of any particular faith, the setting hasn’t been censored or sanitised for fit with a particular theology. The setting presumes that the gods and monsters of the other civilisations surrounding Israel are real, just as the Biblical text often does. The setting also doesn’t limit the players to choosing or creating good characters, as games developed by Christians often seem to.
I haven’t yet had a go at running a Testament game (I’ve mostly been learning to run 5th Edition D&D anyway) but last week I had a go at running a very simple freeform Biblical role-play. To begin with I just gave each of my five participants a basic character description, which said a bit about their character’s background as well as nominating a faction their character was aligned with. I’m not sure that I would match every character up with a faction in future, but for this role-play I used five factions, which were:

Pharisees – believe in adapting the Torah and making it accessible for the people of the land, so that they will know how to follow it properly, through the synagogues. They believe the Kingdom of God will be brought about if all the people follow the Torah strictly. Happy to join in revolts against the Romans and their Jewish allies.

Zealots – are working to overthrow the Romans and their collaborators through violence. They will assassinate Jews who collaborate with the Romans. They want to retake Jerusalem through force.

Sadducees – do everything they can to work with the Romans, and are willing to cooperate with them so that their people and faith are not wiped out. They are willing to adapt their faith in order to get along with the Romans and maintain the Temple.

Essenes – the Essenes distance themselves from the rest of Israelite society and believe they will create a parallel society that obeys the Torah properly, and that this will bring about the Kingdom of God. Egalitarians – everyone in their communities is considered equal. They will engage in apocalyptic preaching rather than physical violence.

People of the Land (am ha-aretz) – resenting the Romans, but politically ambivalent

When I handed out the character descriptions I explained that two of them might be familiar characters, but that they might not be instantly recognisable. One was Yohanan (who Western Christians know as John the Baptist) and the other was the construction worker Yeshua (who Western Christians know as Jesus). I asked everyone to draw what they thought their character might look like, so that we could use the images as miniatures.
The scenario was based on the first few verses of Mark’s gospel (Jesus’ baptism and temptation) and I mostly used it as an opportunity to encourage the participants to wonder more about what might have been going on for the characters on the story. These are some of the questions and ideas that I think we were able to explore by roleplaying the story:

  • reasons that different characters might be going down to the Jordan River to be baptised by Yohanan
  • how the location might influence what the characters might be expecting – the Jordan River is where Joshua led the people of Israel into the land before driving out the original occupants
  • how people may have responded if they heard the voice of God naming a man called Yeshua (a variation of Joshua) as his son, in the same location where another Joshua lead the people into the land before driving out their enemies. Would everyone (including Yeshua) have expected that this would mean driving out the Romans?
  • how Yeshua would respond if God’s Spirit drove him out into the desert to be tempted, instead of back into Israel to fight the Romans. Would Yeshua be wondering if this was really God’s Spirit?

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