Temptation is something we entertain as we fall into its grasp, but in the setting of a role playing game, it can also be quite entertaining to explore as a concept. I’ve been a fan of exploring the nature of temptation in my game settings and setting interesting and complicated choices into my games. I’ve written about it before in a previous blog and I think it poses an interesting challenge for players to wrestle with that is outside of the normal “hit a monster until it dies” challenge and provokes not only the character’s engagement, but the player as they determine where their personal lines and boundaries stand. It’s also something that has come up in my own life more recently. I’m doing a devotional reading through a collection of selected readings from various Christian writers over the millenia. It’s a fascinating read and the most recent one came from Thomas á Kempis’s work The Imitation of Christ and was specific about what temptation is, the role it plays, and how to fight against it. As I read, I was struck by how true it is in my life, but also in the fiction and games I enjoy.
Kempis, an Augustinian monk who lived in the turn of the 14th-15th century, writes that temptation is actually useful in our growth and development. He states that,
“Temptations can be useful to us even though they seem to cause us nothing but pain. They are useful because they can make us humble, they can cleanse us, and they can teach us. All of the saints passed through times of temptation and tribulation, and they used them to make progress in the spiritual life. Those who did not deal with temptations successfully fell to the wayside.”
He goes on later to say that,
“Temptation reveals our instability and our lack of trust in God; temptations reveal who we are. This is why we must pay attention to them.”
He goes on to speak about facing temptation and what it takes and requires to stand against it, but I was so struck by the defining and refining power of temptation in both my life, which I have found to be exceptionally true in my own life. My own fears are often drawn into light by the things that appeal to me and call out to me even when I don’t want them to and in a sense, temptation has helped me to know myself on a deeper level that is often buried and I wouldn’t otherwise get to know about myself.
Temptation is a great fit for the fantasy adventure genre. Dire whispers of dark power asking a terrible cost and promising the necessity or justification of succumbing to temptation regularly pops up in great fiction. The premise of temptation is what fuels the darkness of the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings. The idea that this tiny thing could provide the answer that each character is looking to, but at a potentially terrible cost. Watching Frodo descend into madness as he deals with the ramifications of that temptation is very compelling and many can easily see themselves in Boromir’s position as he slowly succumbed to the power of the One Ring, justifying his choices as he weighed the benefit against the cost and convincing himself of his own righteousness in the end. Temptation can lead to some really interesting choices and in games, the siren call of power at a cost is a normal theme.
In my games, magic users and rogues seem to the ones who get tied up in these questions of temptation. Is a rogue willing to take the low road of their class when it comes to sinister contacts and base or brutish robbery or will a magic user make deals that endanger their being for forgotten secrets or powers? Those are interesting questions and ones that I’ve used to great effect in my games. My newest question is, can a divine character be made more interesting by the temptation they have to fight against and prevail over to achieve all that they are capable of? Kempis stated that all saints walk through and face their temptation lest they fall by the wayside. Could a divine character have a particular temptation to stand against and define their winnowing process by which they are made stronger and stand above the rest? It’s s subtle piece of background that can not only say a lot about what a character cares about, but give a game master a great deal of direction and freedom to play with and challenge that particular character. It’s like a giant sign that says, “THIS IS SOMETHING THAT MATTERS AND IS INTERESTING TO ME, PLEASE POKE AT IT!” As someone running a game, I’d love to be handed that piece of character development.
Can you picture a cleric whose temptation is lustful gluttony? Or a paladin who struggles with pride? Or an avenger whose commitment to justice borders on wrathful vengeance? Or an invoker who is tempted by the rich accouterments of his religious upbringing that borders on greed? I can see many ways that overcoming these foibles would produce a much higher quality of hero than one just wandering along adventuring. As flaws, values, and quirks enter into the scenario of creating more interesting characters, I’ll be interested to see how the things that tempt us also enter the equation to bait those juicy adventure hooks and drive some really interesting stories home, especially as we overcome the base elements of our desires and aspire to greatness in our games.