This is the way the world ends: thoughts on Gehenna

I read an interesting roleplaying book a while back, and for some time I’ve been meaning to talk about it here.
The book is Gehenna, the final sourcebook published for the Vampire: The Masquerade game line. Gehenna is the end of the road for Vampire and its elaborate setting; after many years of publishing Vampire books, White Wolf (the publisher) decided to end the game line and setting by publishing an end-of-the-world sourcebook which would detail ways to roleplay the End Times in a manner fitting Vampire‘s themes.
Gehenna is that book; it includes four different scenarios for ending the world (as well as some general advice on tailoring Vampire‘s End Times to fit your game). One of those four scenarios, titled “Wormwood,” struck me as particularly interesting, so I’ll discuss it briefly.
[Warning: major spoilers follow.]
First, a quick primer for those not familiar with Vampire: in it, you create and take on the role of a modern-day vampire. As a vampire, you are an inheritor of God’s curse on the Biblical character Cain. You are part of a hidden (from mortals) society of undead who are constantly scheming and trying to acquire power over both their fellow vampires and the mortal world. Most games involve backbiting politics as the characters try to survive and thrive in this predatory world of vampire politics. There is a strong apocalyptic tone to the game; in the Vampire world, the signs of the End are everywhere, and when it finally comes, legend holds that a handful of ancient vampire gods will rise from their slumber and destroy everything. That’s the abbreviated version, at least.
“Wormwood” proceeds something like this: one day, God sends a killing cloud that envelops the world and simply kills off every vampire on the planet in a matter of hours or days. The only survivors are a handful of vampires (including, of course, the players’ characters), who are specifically spared by God in a “Noah’s Ark” sort of situation. These vampires are placed in a church that they cannot leave (because of the killing cloud outside), and have a short period of time in which to prove themselves worthy of being spared from God’s wrath. For several days, the vampires are subjected to a series of difficult moral tests and choices; at the end of their allotted time, the surviving vampires are judged by God and either destroyed (if they succumb to their bestial nature) or spared and restored to mortality (if they demonstrate that they can overcome their predatory nature).
That’s the story in a nutshell. This scenario really appeals to be on a narrative basis for several different reasons.
For one, I think it’s the perfect horrific ending to inflict on a society of arrogant, uber-powerful undead predators: in the end, vampires just… die, and are forgotten. The vampires have spent dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of years seeking power and pulling the strings of their human puppets from the shadows, secure in their supernatural superiority to mortal man; and in the end, they’re just wiped away almost nonchalantly, in a matter of days. For all their raging against God and all their arrogance, for all the supernatural power they have accrued over the centuries, they don’t even get to go out in a blaze of glory; nobody even knows they ever existed. What a thematically fitting end—tossed aside by God, reduced to utter insignificance. That’s a good horror story, in my opinion, and Vampire purports to be a game of horror.
The second reason this tale interests me is the way it depicts God. In “Wormwood,” the true nature of God is finally revealed, and it stands in stark contrast to what we’ve been led to believe about Him. Vampires, descendants of the Biblical character Cain, have long attributed cruelty and arbitrary vindictiveness to God, seeing Him as the source of their vampiric curse and portraying Cain’s sin as a praiseworthy act, rather than a vile one. In “Wormwood,” however, God turns out to be loving, kind, and patient—nothing at all like the vicious and uncaring deity so hated by the vampire community. God is shown to be a merciful God who has waited for millenia for vampires to repent and accept grace and forgiveness. It is the vampires’ own pride, not God’s malice, which has kept them from divine grace; all this time, all they needed to do was humble themselves and repent. In “Wormwood,” time has finally run out, but even then, God gives a chosen few the chance to be spared the richly-deserved judgment that lays waste to the vampire world.
Why is this so interesting to me? Well, for one, it’s practically bursting with substantive Christian themes and ideas. It’s not quite a truly Christian message—in the end, the chosen vampires are saved because of their own good deeds—but it’s far, far closer to a genuine Christian roleplaying scenario then most other games I’ve read (including, I’m afraid, most specifically Christian roleplaying games). I’m not saying that one needs to completely “Christianize” the scenario in order to fully appreciate it, but for those looking for such things, it features a lot of opportunities to explore, in the roleplaying medium, topics like sin and grace.
Unlike just about every other religious-minded roleplaying game ever written, “Wormwood” portrays an actual, no-strings-attached, loving God. When a Judeo-Christian-esque God is portrayed in roleplaying games, He is almost always portrayed as having what you could call a “lawful jerk” personality: He’s usually good and righteous, but in a callous might-makes-right fashion. He smites evil in a scorched-earth manner, with no room for genuine grace or mercy. This is true even in games that attempt to portray God in a somewhat positive light; even most “Christian RPGs” seem to think that “onward Christian soldier” is the only Biblical model for behavior.
And so, I find it fascinating that (of all things) a Vampire scenario hits so much closer to the target than do decades’ worth of other religion-focused games. It’s not perfect, and I’m not saying it’s a “Christian game,” whatever that is. But the God of “Wormwood” bears more than a passing resemblance to the Christian God of the Bible, and I, for one, am happy to see it.

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3 thoughts on “This is the way the world ends: thoughts on Gehenna

  1. Topher

    Gospelcom’s servers used to all be named for cities in the ancient middle-east (probably still are). When we got a new NT server once, we had to come up with a name for it. Gehenna was my suggestion. It didn’t get that. 🙂

  2. mattesonweb

    I think the issue with current Christian RPG’s is the lack of “real-world Christianity”. Christian player-characters should be allowed to have a ‘free will’ but should be held responsible for un-Christian behavior. And as such, reap consequences that the Bible mentions in the form of game penalties or other disadvantages. The game itself needs to take the ‘morality’ out of the hands of the GM and make it part of the rules.
    In the Domain Christian Sci-Fi RPG I am developing with friends (you know who you are ;-)), we have included a ‘code-of-conduct’, ‘rules of engagement’ and a Faith/Sin scale which handles such moral issues. The game will allow you to do what ever you feel like (matching our real-world ‘free will’ given us by God), but we are also held accountable to these actions (as the Bible states) and as such will reap consequences of those actions (again, as the Bible states). We’ve tried hard to get these ‘consequences’ to match with what we read in the Bible. We call this ‘absolute morality gaming’
    For example, killing a defenseless foe in cold-blood and without any provication is considered ‘sin’. Doing this 3 or more times during the character’s life will cause that character to earn a Sin Point. With that Sin point come game consequences (such as prayers being hindered, the ability to heal up from damage, etc…). At 9 sin points, things get very messy for the character: you are frail (CON -7), your prayers are ineffective, you cannot heal naturally from damage or other effects, any Spiritual Powers you may have are so hard to manifest, that even if they do manifest, they are only 1/2 as effective, etc…. And this follows everything we read in the Bible regarding sin in a Christian’s life. It does not seperate us from the love of God, but does hinder us from walking closer to Him and becoming effective for the Kingdom.
    It boggles my mind that a Christian deep in un-repentant sin should think that by ignoring their sin they can expect anything from God.
    In contrast the game offers the sinful character the ability to repent and remove sin points (just as when we repent, God is faithful to forgive us of our sins).
    Anyhoo, I don’t know if Andy will allow this to be posted as I think I am off subject……..so, I’ll quite rambling…. 😉
    -j

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