Announcing Pastors & Dragons 2019!

We’ve been hard at work recently getting the logistics in line for our next retreat and now we are excited to announce Pastors & Dragons: An Adventure of Spiritual Imagination!

In 2019 we’ve leveled up and will be enjoying a new retreat center with a ton of additional amenities. Manicured trails and gardens… a pool, sauna, and spa… and chef prepared meals…nothing rustic here! It’s also a lot closer to the Twin Cities metro area, making transportation even easier.

For 2019 there’s also a new addition to the retreat organizing crew – Pastor Ben Loven! Ben has been a great friend, is an awesome minister, and is an equally avid D&D player. He brings his own unique perspective on how Dungeons & Dragons and ministry intersect, and will be sharing a bit about it in posts here in the coming months. Welcome Ben!

My Firstborn Child

My firstborn child just celebrated his first month of life. A few days after his birth, my wife and I weren’t sure what that life would look like. In many ways we still don’t know.

My son Edan was born with a gap in his DNA. A very important gene called SMN1 is missing, giving him a rare genetic disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). A statewide newborn screening caught the anomaly, and five days after birth our doctor called us with the news. We had never heard of this disease before, yet both my wife and I were recessive carriers.

His little body doesn’t have what it needs to keep his motor neurons alive. A few years ago this would have meant that his expected life span would be somewhere shy of 20 years. 90% of people with SMA never walk and don’t live into adulthood, with 50-60% not expected to live past 2. Just a few years ago, our doctor’s advice would have been to cherish whatever time we had before Edan’s chest muscles would no longer have to power to make him breathe and he would die.

Today, because we live in one of only 6 states that are currently screening for this disease, getting this news means that as soon as possible after birth he was started on one of the most expensive drugs in the world. It’s being injected directly into his spine every 2 weeks via a spinal tap. It’s the first drug ever shown to be effective against SMA and was approved by the FDA less than 2 years ago.

Learning that your child has a rare genetic disease that you’ve never heard of before is an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. It takes your healthy child and turns him into a ticking time bomb of grief. Each day I have to wonder, “Will this be the day he starts to weaken? Will this be the day the medicine doesn’t work and his motor neurons begin to die?” Doubt and fear are constant companions, because while getting him treatment has shrunk them, they will never completely go away. Hopes and dreams for the future are arrested. The future becomes horrifyingly uncertain.

I had dreamed of doing so much with him. I had dreamed of camping, hiking, and playing football. Now it will be a miracle if my son even walks.

In my darker moments my mind dwells on these things. Thankfully those moments don’t seem to last. He’s still a crazy cute and awesome little newborn boy who keeps me on my toes and my mind on the present. “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself. Today’s troubles are enough for today.” When I’m present in the present, the weight of this trouble doesn’t seem so heavy, and I can see the multitude of hopes and dreams that have not been arrested by disease.

One such dream is my dream of introducing my son to the wonders of tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. This is one game that doesn’t depend on how mobile his body is, only how sharp his mind and how beautiful his imagination. I am thankful for a game that isn’t limited by physical ability. I’m thankful for a vehicle that invites him to imagine himself however he pleases, with or without disability and disease. I’m thankful for this game that gives him an arena where he will not be limited, perhaps the only such arena he will find in life.

It is a gift and a blessing.

A gifted custom onesie from the church lady who thought Dungeon Masters were Dragon Masters. Really, it’s awesome either way.

A Hard Left

Being a person of faith in Jesus Christ has given me a strong foundation in this difficult time, and believe it or not, I think being a Dungeon Master has too. I remember the first time my players really threw me for a loop. I had prepared a multi-layered mystery in the port town of Tarsis, complete with warring city factions and a graveyard that refused to keep its dead within its gates. I was already laying groundwork for the naval adventures that were going to come after that when the party of PCs surprised me by taking a hard left turn. They left the town as quickly as they had entered and struck off into the midst of a vast and unmapped forest.

In that moment I had to improvise. I had to set aside my plans for how things were going to go and be in the moment with my players. I had to listen to them and respond to them and help them discover what it was that they were looking for.

Having my son get this diagnosis is a lot like being the Dungeon Master for a party that takes a hard left when everything you had planned was to the right. I’ve had to set aside my plans for how things were going to go. I’ve had to find ways to just be in the moment with him and my wife. As he continues to grow I will need to listen to him and respond to him and help him discover whatever it is that he is looking for in life. It might be different than what I had in mind.

The skills that you hone when you are playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons have proven valuable to me time and time again. There is so much more to this beautiful game than meets the eye.

Retreat Reflections

It’s been a minute since the Pastors & Dragons Retreat this past summer, but those August days of gaming and learning still stick with me. When I came back from the retreat we had something of an onslaught of funerals that dramatically increased my workload for over a month. Add to that preparing for and experiencing the birth of my first child (and all of our church’s fall programming), and you can see all the ways life and death can interrupt my writing here.

But there are still things to say.

The Pastors & Dragons retreat was a definite success! We had attendees from East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast converge in Minnesota for four days and three nights of gaming and learning together. It was a time of instant community and memories that I’ll enjoy for a long time. But don’t take my word for it – here’s some of what the participants had to say!

“Loved the improv games, they set a good stage of collaboration.”

“I loved the A.C.E. game. It was very good for energizing people and fostering collaboration.”

“I love exploring how our D&D characters reflect us in a variety of ways.”

“Overall it was an amazing value for the money. I would strongly consider doing it again.”

“I loved having some afternoon time to myself to rest and reflect and read.”

“Good for PCs and players!”

“Apocalypse is always fun to think about! Now I have a lot of new ideas!”

“Wished Tiamat to the Far Realm. 34/10 would do again.” 

“Awesome! A riot! Enjoyed the experience.” 

“As someone who usually has the DM role, it was a ton of fun for me to actually play. I also enjoyed interacting with all the different ministry people and building relationships with people who serve in different theological contexts.”

“Even though I didn’t volunteer, I appreciated the improv exercises. It got me thinking in different ways and was a nice way for us to start to gel as a group.” 

“The Noah adventure was on of my week highlights. I loved the adventure as a whole and I loved riding unicorns with NOAH! Amazing.”

“The Managing Group Dynamics session was very helpful for me.”

“Sharing in a variety of theological/denominational backgrounds was helpful to push me out of my ‘Lutheran comfort zone,’ aid me in continuing to think outside the box. Also, the variety of gameplay experience and new encounters was fun!”               

“The highlights were the gaming sessions (obviously). I was impressed with how well 12 people around a table could work.”                

“All the gaming sessions (+bonus free time games) were awesome.”           

“Highlights were playing with everyone. The small group sessions were amazing and so much fun. The large group games were beautiful chaos.” 

“The highlight was how D&D was a common language that brought us together. Plus it was a great group of loving people who felt like friends quickly.”             

“I had a great time DMing for the first time!”

“Meeting everyone and seeing what pastors’ lives are like. The games were really fun but connecting to people, laughing, and the comraderary and joy was really the best.”        

“Level 20 – INCREDIBLE”           

“Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful retreat! :)”                                                

“Thanks a million for running this. It was an absolutely amazing week.”                               

“Being able to think about my personality and see how I play that out in my characters was cool.”

“You couldn’t have picked a better location. Hiking was amazing here.”                                           

“The afternoon free time was absolutely necessary and appreciated! I hate going to continuing ed events where every single hour is programmed. We need time to decompress and do what we want to, even if that was playing more D&D!”

I personally learned a lot from leading this retreat. I echo many of the things said by others, but my main takeaway is that the gaming table is one of the last places of neutral ground where we can come together. This is especially on my mind after our most recent election day where it seems that we’ve seen evidence that our society is only becoming more and more polarized.

Attendees at the Pastors & Dragons Retreat came from across the spectrum of Christian experience and beyond, including non-Christians as well. Leaders from oftentimes antagonistic denominations came together to share and play. Bonds of friendship formed. Community happened.

All that I hear about these days is how divided we are as a people, but at the Pastors & Dragons Retreat we were one people united by our common love for this game that can do so much.

This was only the first Pastors & Dragons Retreat. We are already in the process of preparing for the next one – coming August 2019! You can find more information about our 2019 retreat and sign up by clicking the link below.

Looking ahead: 

Over the next few weeks I will be working on polishing and releasing the adventures that I ran from the retreat. Each explores a part of scripture or themes of faith in an inviting experiential way. I’m excited to share them with a broader community in the hopes of igniting imaginations for how Dungeons & Dragons can be a tool for ministry.

Pastors & Dragons: A D&D Retreat (2018)

Pastors & Dragons

In August of 2018, the Dungeon Master Pastor, Rev. Rory Philstrom, led other clergy and people of faith on a first-of-its-kind, 4-day, 3-night Dungeons & Dragons retreat. With a mixture of gaming, learning, and Sabbath rest, this retreat explored the connections between life, ministry, and the world’s greatest roleplaying game.

If you want to hear how it went – click here to read what the participants had to say.

The first retreat went so well that we’re doing it again! If you want to join us on our next Pastors & Dragons retreat click here. 

Pastors & Dragons: A D&D Retreat
Shire in the Woods, McGrath, Minnesota


This retreat was full!


Pastors & Dragons

ROLL INITIATIVE!

Each day afforded hours of Dungeons & Dragons play, with daily game sessions run by Rory, the Dungeon Master Pastor.

We engaged in a variety of play styles and explore all four tiers of play. People brought beloved PCs to the game or created new favorites. In addition, we explored the character creation process as modes of self-reflection and storytelling.

We also had opportunities for people to try their hands at the DM seat for the very first time, as we mined the art of Dungeon Mastering for lessons in how to lead a community, engage others, and foster a high invitation/high challenge environment.

GAIN EXPERIENCE.

Each day also featured time for plumbing the depths of the tabletop roleplaying genre for lessons in life, faith, and ministry.

Engagement topics included:

  • Creating Complex Imaginations and the Art of Empathetic Practice
  • Facing Personal Fears on the Fantasy Tabletop
  • Self-Reflection through the Player Character
  • The Purpose and Use of Apocalypse
  • Storytelling
  • Managing Group Dynamics
  • Fostering Collaborative Improvisation and Collective Exploration

TAKE A LONG REST.

At Shire in the Woods, the natural surroundings provided a rejuvenating backdrop to finally get the rest that is so hard to find in our day-to-day lives. Located 18 miles east of northern Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota, the retreat center is tucked away at the heart of the Solana State Forest and has the Soo Line South Trail running right alongside it.

Some relaxed with a good book indoors while others took a stroll in the surrounding woods. There was more gaming, a labyrinth, a nearby swimming hole, a rose garden, a labyrinth, a beaver pond, a frog and turtle pond, tree swings and hammocks.

There were many amazing options for some real life exploration and rest, and enough time in the schedule to take full advantage of it all.

THE OCTAGON

octagon-thumb-15
The Octagon was a unique structure and a great home base for our retreat.

The 7 Deadlies: Playing at the End of the World (Part 2)

What’s the good in a game that brings out the worst in people?

What’s the point of telling stories about the end of the world?

This past summer I took the high school kids in my congregation on a service/learning trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It was a week long chance to build relationships with them and try to teach them something about community, accompaniment, faith, love, and servanthood.

It was also a chance to play Ten Candles.

Ten Candles is a newer indie-RPG by Stephen Dewey in which the end of the world happens and the characters all die. Here’s the description from the website, where you can purchase the PDF for a very much worth-it $10:

Ten Candles is a zero-prep tabletop storytelling game designed for one-shot 2-4 hour sessions of tragic horror. It was released in December 2015 and is best played with one GM and 3-5 players. It is played by the light of ten tea light candles which provide atmosphere, act as a countdown timer for the game, and allow you to literally burn your character sheet away as you play. Ten Candles is described as a “tragic horror” game rather than survival horror for one main reason: in Ten Candles there are no survivors. In the final scene of the game, when only one candle remains, all of the characters will die. In this, Ten Candles is not a game about “winning” or beating the monsters. Instead, it is a game about what happens in the dark, and about those who try to survive within it. It is a game about being pushed to the brink of madness and despair, searching for hope in a hopeless world, and trying to do something meaningful with your final few hours left.

My kids got super excited about playing this game. It was all they wanted to talk about, but when the Bible camp counselors caught wind of the game it was like the Satanic panic of the 1980s broke loose all over again. “What is this game?” they asked with a certain degree of fear. Why on earth would I want to play a game with the kids that’s about death? It didn’t help that the game had a pseudo-ritualistic bent to it, involving a dark room late at night with burning candles that are slowly extinguished. I imagined them wondering, “What prayers to the dark powers was this crazy pastor indoctrinating these kids with? What’s the point in a game that encourages and tempts the players to succumb to their darker sides?”

Ten Candles is like Dungeons & Dragons in that in an imagined world the players run free, sin flows a little more freely. The consequences of stealing or lying or running around with your pants off or even killing aren’t as big as they are in real life. But that’s precisely why games like these can be such a powerful tool for teaching, growth, and revelation.

I assuaged the fears of the counselors, and even got one of them to join us in playing. I ran a bigger game than recommended, and as the 11 of us gathered around the table late at night I introduced what was about to happen,

The game we are about to play is a tragedy. The sun has gone out, light is failing, and the one certainty is that death is coming for each of you. Like Romeo and Juliet, and like life itself, there’s no getting out of this alive. And yet hope remains. Each of you will be tested. Each will be tempted. Each will face desperate circumstances. The darkness in each of your characters will offer a temporary respite, but it’s up to you if you embrace that darkness or if you will die still holding onto what is good instead.

Like the book of Revelation, this game is an apocalypse. The world is ending and the truth is being revealed. What will it reveal about you?

The Bible is full of stories of the end of all things as we know it. Apocalyptic is a genre throughout the scriptures, one that Jesus himself uses on multiple occasions. The end of all things brings a freedom with it, a freedom from long-lasting consequences, a freedom from established social norms and cultural structures, a freedom that reveals the deep truth about all things. Who are you when no one is watching? Who are you when the mold of daily life is broken? Who are you when it matters most? Who are you at your deepest level of self? Who are you?

The blessing of role playing games is that they can give us a safe space to experiment and test and discover who we are. It’s a safe space in which we can face our deepest fears and temptations. In playing we can experience both what it’s like to give into our darker sides and what’s it’s like to overcome them, without facing the real life consequences of doing that experimentation with our own selves. The failed character who gives into a lingering drug addiction can be set down when the game is over. Giving into a lingering addiction in real life carries much graver consequences.

So what’s the good of a game that lessons the consequences of sin? It’s the ability to experiment and to learn.

Of course, role-playing in and of itself is just a tool. It can be used for purposes good and ill. The efficacy of the lessons learned depends in large part on the guidance of the Dungeon Master. But this tool is a powerful one. Playing at the end of the world can reveal the deepest and most profound truths of who we are.

The 7 Deadlies: on sin in role playing (Part 1)

I’m not sure what happens when you first started playing a role playing game like D&D (or what will happen when you do), but I can tell you what happened at our first game – Chaos.

My players realized they were in a fantasy world and everything about their behavior changed. One fellow started running around without his clothes on, another also removed his clothes and turned invisible as soon as possible.  Others were driven by a simple minded greed for gold. Some got overly sexual. Some played characters with horrible tempers. Others were compulsive liars and charlatans. Others got away with murder whenever possible…

…and these were the supposed “heroes” of the story.

In my faith tradition, one of the basic tenets is that at their core people suck. Human beings are horrible. Men and women are cruel and sinful. “All have fallen short of the glory off God.”

It seems like a pretty bleak situation doesn’t it? If you were to judge humanity by what happens in those first moments of a truly open RPG, where there is a sense of real liberty and the consequences haven’t set in yet and people feel totally free, you might come to the same conclusion. People are self-serving and sinful creatures.

And yet, in spite of this very low anthropology I would describe my faith as an optimistic one. Sin controls, but Grace reigns.

I have seen enough real life horrors in my work as a pastor that I believe that humanity isn’t able to not screw it all up. It’s a theological truth called “non posse non picare”  If we accomplish anything good it happens because of God, and definitely not because of the “basic goodness of people”. As a DM I’ve seen people when things get basic, and it ain’t pretty.

Wrath. Pride. Envy. Avarice. Gluttony. Lust. Sloth. These are the classic 7 deadly sins. If you follow the teachings of the enneagram, the ancient Christian tradition of the desert fathers, then add two more sins to the list: Deceit and Fear. These vices form the shadow side of every person to ever exist. Sin is basic. That’s why the church calls it “original”.

So what good is playing a game that has the ability from the get-go to bring out the worst in people?

I’ll answer that question with another question, what good is there in telling stories about the end of the world? What is the purpose of the apocalypse?

Post your answer in the comments. As for me,  I’ll give my answer… next time.

Additional Rules for the DUNGEON! Fantasy Board Game

And now for something completely different…

Not long ago I picked up the most recent iteration of the DUNGEON! board game. My wife and I played together and it was pretty fun. The rules are simple and straightforward. Roll the dice. Beat the monster. Take the stuff.

dungeon

But it has some rough edges. The four classes are imbalanced, or rather they’re balanced by moving the goal post. Rogues and Clerics need to gather 10,000 gp, Fighters need 20,000 gp, and Wizards 30,000 gp. It works, but it’s inelegant, and not as fun as the alternative. I mean, who wants to only face off against kobolds, dire rats, and giant bats when there are dragons and liches in the dungeon?

So I homebrewed some simple rules to equalize the classes. Now you can play a Rogue, Cleric, or Fighter and still have just as much of a chance of surviving those beastly sixth level baddies as the Wizard.

The DM Pastor’s DUNGEON! House Rules

All classes require the same amount of treasure to win the game: 30,000 gp. Alternatively, you can mutually agree upon a lower total for a shorter game.

Dungeon! Board Game

FIGHTER

  • You have three Action Points. (represented by three stones, chits, jewels, or whatever.)
    • You can use one action point per turn to make one additional attack against a monster. Make this attack before the Monster fights back.
    • You regain one spent Action Point whenever you roll doubles, but you can never have more than the three Action Points you started with.

ROGUE

  • You gain the ability to Sneak.
    • When entering a room or chamber, roll 1 die. If you roll a 3 to 6, you are Sneaking and the Monster does not see you.
    • Draw a Monster card (and a Treasure card if you are in a room). Do not show the Monster or Treasure card to other players. Put the card(s) in the first open number slot, but keep them face down. Put the matching Number token in the room or chamber.
    • If you fail your Sneak roll, the Monster sees you and attacks as normal.
  • While you are Sneaking, you gain three additional options in the encounter.
    • Steal – You can swap the room’s Treasure card or one of the dropped Treasures in the room (if there are any) with one of the Treasure cards from your stash. Your turn ends.
    • Sneak Attack – Attack the Monster with Advantage. Roll 2 dice twice and take the higher result.
    • Pass Through – If you have not moved your full 5 spaces, you can complete your movement by passing through the room without engaging.

CLERIC

  • Protection – Your proficiency in defense and the graces of your god protect you in battle. The results of a Monster’s attack are one step less severe than they would normally be.
    • Crushed! becomes Seriously Hurt.
    • Seriously Hurt becomes Hurt.
    • Hurt becomes Stunned.
    • Stunned becomes Miss!
  • Spellcasting – Your devotion grants you divine magical power. You prepare spells before the game begins. Roll 1 die and add 6 to the result. This is the number of Spells you have prepared. Use the same Spell cards as the Wizard. If there are multiple spell casters, take turns selecting 1 Spell card at a time. You can regain Spells following the same steps as the Wizard. Clerics can know two spells: Hold Monster and Lance of Faith.
    • Hold Monster (use the Teleport Spell card)
      • If you have enough movement left to enter a room or chamber, you may use this spell on a Monster inside. First, stop at the door of the room or in the space next to the chamber. Say that you’re casting Hold Monster. If the Monster is not already revealed, you must decide to cast the Spell before drawing a Monster card.
      • When cast, the Monster is paralyzed for 1 turn. Move into the room and make an attack, adding an additional +2 to your result. If you miss, the Monster cannot counterattack you this turn.
    • Lance of Faith (use the Lightning Bolt Spell card)
      • You attack with radiant energy! Use the same mechanics as the Wizard’s Lightning Bolt Spell to resolve the attack.

Finding Purpose in the Sandbox

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Thy Fates open their hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them”

~Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

My heroes are struggling to know what to do.

In the D&D world I’ve created, they are caught up in a giant tug of war. The former government of wizards is fighting the current government of warriors. Demons seem to be aiding the conflict in an effort to create more chaos. In the middle of it all, there are these adventurers, and they don’t know whose side they’re on. They’ve been recruited by both sides. They’ve made friendships and enemies on both sides. They’re not strong enough to overthrow everyone and start their own government, nor can they take on the evil demon orchestrating it all. They can’t even find seem to find the big bad.

It’s a Dungeon Master’s worst nightmare. When I start a game session, I truly have no idea which direction the team is going to go. Talk about making it difficult to prepare!

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night there’s a line, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I assumed that the PCs in my game were born great. I didn’t worry about building them up, I figured that the nature of the game, the fantastic powers they would wield, and the epic tasks they would be able to pursue would take care of that.

Instead I focused on creating a world that feels alive and active. I’ve tried to create a world where the paths untaken turn into consequences down the road. I’ve tried to create a complex sandbox of a world where grey areas are abundant and where the black and white binary thinking of good and evil is complicated. I tried to create a great world for the great PCs to live in. To a large degree, I’ve succeeded.

And my poor adventurers don’t know what to do.

They lack purpose and direction.

Which has gotten me thinking about a very basic question, “How do we find purpose? What gives us direction?” As a pastor and as a dungeon master, part of my task is in helping people to find purpose, meaning, and direction. This is as true for my players and their characters as it is for my parishioners and their lives.

In my game, I could take the opposite approach. I could put my players’ characters on a track and railroad them into purpose with a non-optional direction. I could thrust greatness upon them. “You’re going to save the world whether you want to or not!” Yet, you don’t have to scratch that approach too deeply to find out how shallow and unsatisfying it truly is. There needs to be more.

So, without the railroad, where does one look for purpose and direction? How do you get the PCs to achieve greatness?

As a pastor, one of the places I look most often is Baptism.

The waters of baptism uncover all sorts of things. Those waters uncover your limits, your mistakes, your failings, your sins, your mortality. Those waters uncover a truth deeper than your sins – your identity as a beloved child of God. Those waters uncover a calling on your life, a purpose for which you were created. That purpose is, in my church’s liturgy, “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

In some ways, baptism comes with a greatness that is thrust upon you. The purpose of baptism is poured out upon you. You are immersed in that purpose. You find that purpose originating outside of you as the Word of God comes to you from beyond the boundaries of yourself. It’s a purpose that we experience as coming from another direction too, from inside. Baptism uncovers the depths of who you and I are and who you and I were created to be.

Baptism uncovers the origins of purpose. They are both inside and outside ourselves

*******

When you become a pastor, one of the stories that you get used to telling is your “Call Story”. It’s the story of how you decided that you wanted to be a pastor. While each person’s story is somewhat different, they almost always contain the same two elements: the ‘inward call’ and the ‘outward call’.

The inward call is the part of the story where people consider their own dreams, desires, abilities, and enjoyments. It comes when you think or pray about who you are as a person and then ask the question, “And what does this person, who is me, want to do?”

My sandboxy Dungeons & Dragons has been pretty good at figuring out the inward call part. As my players created their characters, I asked about backstories. I pushed them to do some character work. They rolled their abilities. They know what they are good at, what they are bad at, and what they like or don’t like to do.

But like I said at the beginning, they still lack purpose and direction. My poor adventurers know who they are, they know that they are great, but they still don’t know what to do.

The inward call, by itself, is not enough. If someone shows up at seminary, thinking they will make a great pastor, but those around them have never affirmed that, then chances are that person will in fact not make a great pastor. Thinking you are great and being great are two very different things.

In the same way, the outward call by itself would also not be enough. Just because others think you are good at something, or even if you are actually good at something, doesn’t mean that you find enjoyment or fulfillment in doing it. I can thrust greatness upon my players, but without their participation in achieving that greatness it rings hollow. That’s why in the process of going through seminary, people are always being asked about both the inward call and the outward call.

And that, I realize, is where my little D&D campaign is falling short. While my heroes know who they are and what they can do, they have received very little affirmation from the NPCs in the game. They’ve been asked to do this or that: guard this caravan, investigate this stranger, free these prisoners. However, I’m realizing that these have been haphazard, and that in creating a complex world I’ve created a world where those primary voices of affirmation are lacking. My heroes have few close friends that they trust completely. They don’t know who to trust. And since they don’t know whose words to trust, they have been robbed of the one source of that outward calling.

To achieve greatness, the heroes need trusted affirmation. As a Dungeon Master, I need to make sure that there are NPCs that they can trust that can do the affirming. And while, as the DM, I can’t decide who the PCs are going to trust and who they are not going to trust, I can decide who to make trustworthy.

In our lives as people, you and I need to be both inwardly asking and outwardly listening to some questions that form our stories. The answers to those questions will begin to lead you to a place where you are going to flourish and experience the fullness of life. There are two questions. The question of inward call is, “Who do I say that I am?” The question of outward call is,  “What do those whom I trust tell me about myself, and what do they ask of me?”

Hopefully with a bit more of the outward call, my heroes will find their purpose, and finally they will find some purpose in the sandbox.

Life & Death on the Tabletop

Although I have been Dungeon Mastering just as much as ever,

But because there has been a big change-up in my pastoring, and lately I’ve been doing more than ever,

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from this little corner of the web, the DUNGEON MASTER PASTOR.

But I’ve been thinking lately… about life and death.

In Dungeons & Dragons, life and death is dealt with almost haphazardly. The game is built off of dealing death to horrible monsters and evil humanoids. To advance in the game, characters must learn to kill. The deaths of others bring life and flourishing (in the form of experience points) to the PC. And every now and then, a player character will fail in their death dealing and be dealt death themselves.

As a pastor, I often deal with death. It comprises a much larger part of my job than I realized when I first dreamed of going into the ministry. I am often called to be with people in the final days and even the final moments of their lives. Then I am called again to help their families begin to grieve and try to understand what this death means in their lives.

Sometimes a death, depending on its circumstances, will highlight a particular aspect of a person’s life. Sometimes it will reveal some significance that had been previously hidden. Sometimes a death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, sometimes a death is the culmination of a long and drawn out process. Death can be unjust. Death can be welcomed. Death is always grieved, no matter the individual.

In my church, we’ve had a wave of funerals recently that I’m still in the middle of. (There are few things that can tire a pastor out as much as back to back to back to back funerals.)

In my D&D game, we’ve just had our second major PC death. The first character death came in the depths of the Taboo Temple on the Isle of Dread, where an elderly & overweight monk met his demise in the kopru mud pits. The second came as the brave and upright fighter challenged the son of a demon lord and lost, surrounded by an inescapable gauntlet of the  demon’s followers. (DM Disclaimer: It was his idea to pick a fight in those circumstances, not mine.)

As I think about life and death, I find there’s a lot in common between the deaths of my players’ characters and the deaths of my parishioners. They each highlighted something special about the characters, they added a layer of meaning that was more difficult to discern before.

My task as a preacher is to speak a word of meaning and purpose into the foggy loss of grief. It is to speak the resurrection, when the cross is presently felt.

My task as a dungeon master is much the same. When one of my players’ characters dies, that death should ring with significance. I figure that there’s enough unearned suffering in the real world that in the fantasy world I build as a Dungeon Master I want death to mean something. Maybe that significance is to highlight the bravery of the fighter as they face down the demon unafraid of the consequences. Or maybe that significance is that the bumbling and ill-fortuned character finally bumbles too far into ill-fortune.

As a DM, this means that sometimes I don’t let the dice stand as I roll them. I will blunt the edge of a more meaningless demise in favor of a better one later on. Maybe that means an NPC ally rushes in at those final moments and stabilizes a dying character. Maybe it means that the monster suddenly has a few fewer hit points when I realize that the heroes won’t last another round.

As a DM, making death meaningful for the PCs also means that I need to strive to make the other deaths in the game meaningful. When the PCs lay waste to a maurading band of lizard folk, those deaths should mean something (both for the rescued villagers and also for the larger colony of lizard folk that band hailed from). The death of a major villain should reverberate throughout the ranks of that villain’s followers, and perhaps inspire the villain’s apprentice or rival to avenge that death. A monster’s death might reveal a hidden fact about the life of that creature that the characters discover as they are looting the body. All this is just another way to say that the actions of the PCs should affect and reverberate in the fictional world, perhaps especially so when that action is dealing death.

Making death on the tabletop into a meaningful experience is as much a part of the Dungeon Master’s task as making death in real life meaningful is a part of the task of a pastor. Death is an opportunity to tell another part of the story, whether that’s the story of a player character or the story of a person’s life and God’s love and the kingdom of heaven.

The alternative, often realized, is devolving into a raging bunch of murderhobos.

 

Imagine Better: Christians SHOULD Play D&D (Part 3)

To wrap up this little trio of posts (here’s Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to think about a little more than just the question, “Can I, as a Christian, play D&D?” I want to talk about, “As a Christian, should I play D&D?” I have a hunch that playing Dungeons & Dragons, and other role-playing games like it, can actually enhance a Christian’s ability to take part in God’s mission to the world.

First, let’s talk about God’s mission. I reject an understanding of Christian mission whose primary goal is converting “non-believers” into “believers”. Instead I believe the Church’s mission is to represent the Reign of God, emphasizing verses like Matthew 10:7, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near,’” and Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Being a citizen of God’s Kingdom frees me to love, care, and advocate for the poor, sick, outcast, and oppressed. This is the second part of that definition of a Christian that I was talking about earlier, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all.”

I think playing Dungeons & Dragons enhances my capacity to love and care for my neighbor. Specifically, playing role-playing games like D&D helps me to better imagine my neighbor.

D&D is already being used by psychotherapists to teach the skill of empathy to autistic children.♠ But as recent events in our country have shown, we all need a lesson.

Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man (and coincidentally my wife’s high school classmate), was shot multiple times by a police officer while sitting in his car after being pulled over for a broken taillight. He was shot as he reached into his back pocket to get his driver’s license, because the officer imagined that he was reaching for a gun.

That officer, like many in the United States, had a horribly sick imagination about what black men were like. He could only weakly imagine this black man as the stereotype of black men: criminal, violent, a thug. It didn’t matter that Philando Castile didn’t have a criminal record. It didn’t matter that he worked at a public school where he memorized the names of all 500 kids and their respective food allergies. It didn’t matter who Philando actually was, because the officer’s anemic imagination pictured him as something else: a threat.

The day after Philando was killed, people gathered in Dallas, TX to protest. They were protesting the killing of Philando Castile and that of Alton Sterling and those of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and the long line of other Black people and people of color who have lost their lives – for no reason – at the hands of our criminal justice system. As those people marched, law enforcement was there with them, protecting their right to peaceably assemble.

Then Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old black man, decided that that protest would be a good opportunity. He used that opportunity to ambush the law enforcement, shooting to kill as many white police officers as he could. He killed five. He did this because his imagination was sick and he imagined that killing white police officers would help solve his problems. He lacked the complexity of imagination to see that those individuals were anything more to the world than the uniforms they were wearing and the color of their skin.

Our inability to imagine our neighbors with empathy and complexity stands in the way of reconciliation. We need to do better. We need to add complexity to our imaginations about who somebody might be or what somebody’s life might be like. It’s impossible for us to fully know all the people in this world, but it is possible for us to imagine the worlds myriad people with more empathy and with a complexity that goes beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

D&D exercises our imaginations. When we step into the shoes of a hero, the game challenges us to think and act according to personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws that aren’t necessarily our own. By playing at being somebody else, our capacity to imagine better those who are different from us improves. As the DM, I’m challenged to imagine how a whole hoard of creatures and people might act. This type of play actively challenges me to expand my mind and think about a wide variety of people and their motives and goals and values.

This past Sunday, I read the story of the Good Samaritan in my churches. I preached about how Jesus uses this story to get the lawyer (and us) to think about our neighbors with more complexity. Yes, the Samaritans might be the people with whom we don’t want to mix. Yes, the Samaritans just refused to offer hospitality to Jesus. But still Jesus uses a Samaritan to be the hero of his story, to be the shining example of the love for one’s neighbor.

When we play Dungeons & Dragons, we try to think about how dwarves, elves, humans, gnomes, half-orcs, and any number of the other host of races and creatures might get along and go about righting the world’s wrongs together. This play has the power to prepare us to imagine our own real world neighbors better. And at least for me, it gives me an example of how a people who are so different from one another might band together to make the world a better place.

I think we desperately need more of this sort of complex imagination, and I believe that D&D gives everyone, including Christians, a way to exercise that very thing.


♠ DR. Rafael Boccamazzo on D&D and Autism http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/dr-raffael-boccamazzo-dd-and-autism

Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26675155