Playing Dungeons and Dragons in Texas during the ’80’s and ’90’s was basically a subversive act. The reason? Fundamentalist Christians actively stepped in and persecuted you for it. It was their sincere belief that a thing that had demons, devils, and dragons in it had to be from Satan. Satan, they reasoned, used a game like that to poison the imaginations of innocent children and turn them to the Dark Side of the Force. Or, rather, the Devil’s side of religion. They were terrified of subtle corruption of the mind, believing that certain patterns of words and ideas could turn goodness into evil. In other words, their religion advocated living in a bubble of non-association with certain words and ideas in order to superstitiously inoculate themselves against badness. They were, of course, not entirely wrong.
Kids playing the game will often develop the desire to play the Dark Side, to be an evil character, to commit evil acts and murder without the hindrance of conscience. That is the reason I wouldn’t let my own kids even consider playing Grand Theft Auto or similar murder, rape, and pillage sort of video games. It is, in fact, possible to desensitize yourself to violence and immoral behavior, and I have serious philosophical doubts whenever anyone tries to tell me that that can be a good thing. My Dungeons and Dragons games always contained a rarely spoken understanding that if you chose to play an evil character you were going to lose everything, because any adventure is solved and overcome by combating evil and siding with the forces of goodness. Paladins with their magical swords of ultimate sugary goodness are always stronger than evil wizards with their wimpy bat familiars and potions in the end.
But leaving out demons and devils was never truly an option. If you never face decisions between good and evil during playtime, what hope do you have of avoiding a life-altering mistake later in life when faced with evil for real. If you are going to make an evil choice, say for instance, committing an act of murder, isn’t it better to learn the consequences of such an act when the murder was killing an imaginary rival wizard for a magic staff you coveted than if you committed that murder in a fit of passion in real life? The fact that the rival wizard’s spirit takes up residence in the staff and finds a way to punish you every time you use it for the remainder of your adventuring life in the game may teach you something you can use when faced with the opportunity to steal for profit and get away with it to make a better decision about what to do.
In the Tomb of Death adventure that the three demons illustrated in this post came from, the only solution was to find the weakness in the demon team. Estellia had been ill treated by the other two and deeply resented it. She resented it enough to tell the adventurers’ thief about the brass demon bottle that could be used to magically imprison the demons and then force them to do the bottle owner’s bidding. Viscarus had been using it to control the other two, so only his soul truly needed to be captured. The demon-hearts of the other two were already inside. That story taught several lessons. Manipulative evil can bite you in the neck even if you are the one wielding it. (If only Trump and his cronies had learned that about their own brass demon bottle.)
Evil people don’t see themselves as evil. Often they only see themselves as victims. And it is true in real life that there is goodness in even the most heartlessly evil people. You can find it, appeal to it, and possibly even reach the goodness in their hearts necessary to change them for the better.
I truly believe that those kids who over the years played my story-telling games were better, stronger, and more inherently good because they played my games and learned my lessons. I believe it is true even though there may have occasionally been demons and devils in the stories. And if I believe it strongly enough, it must be true. Isn’t that how faith is supposed to work?