Dragon+, the official digital magazine of Dungeons & Dragons, was recently shuttered. I'm reposting here an article in which I was featured from back in 2019. I've added updates to dates and names in [brackets].
In 2018 Dungeons & Dragons participated in its sixth consecutive year with the Extra Life charity, benefiting the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. With huge appreciation to our entire community, we raised over $200k—and as thanks to our generous donors, D&D Team members offered a series of rewards. These included Q&A discussions within Dragon+, which we are pleased to continue this issue with Rory Philstrom. We thank Rory for his support—and on behalf of the D&D Team, we look forward to taking part in Extra Life 2019! [Current D&D Extra Life Team Page]
I’ve donated to Extra Life in the past, but 2018 was even more meaningful because of the recent birth of my son, Edan. He was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease. Thankfully, it was caught on a newborn screening and we’ve been able to get some pretty amazing treatment from a local hospital, which is one of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals that Extra Life raises money for. I know from personal experience that these hospitals do lifesaving work. There’s more to gaming than just having fun—it can be a powerful way to bring people together to do real good in the world.
I first played Dungeons & Dragons in elementary school. One of my first forays was through the TSR RPG/board game Dragon Strike. Soon after that my grandmother gifted me the 1991 black box version of D&D, which was a great intro to the game as it included a card-by-card solo adventure that gradually taught me the rules as I escaped from Zanzer’s Dungeon. Between that and the cheesy Dragon Strike instructional video, I learned quickly. I probably played the D&D solo adventure a half-dozen times when I couldn’t convince my family or friends to join me, and I always had a blast.
I finally got something of a group together in Latchkey, a before-and-after school childcare program I attended. At that point I didn’t really have any conception of what a campaign was. At most, we strung two or three sessions together in a continuous story. I’d stuff one of those big game boxes in my backpack, set it up and then cajole whomever I could to play with me and we would get as far as we got in the 45 minutes or so of free time that we had.
As I got older, I never found a group of friends that was interested in playing so the game itself fell by the wayside, although I did have a well-thumbed Monster Manual, a growing collection of pewter miniatures and I read every Dragonlance book I could get my hands on. I always enjoyed D&D and had consistently been looking for a way to get back into it. Who knew it would come through the church?
Ministry of Gaming
I’m now a Lutheran minister and it was some of my fellow pastors who gave me a way back into playing D&D. We were hanging out at a church conference, discussing the McElroy brothers’ podcast The Adventure Zone. I had never heard of the podcast but some of them were following it pretty closely. I perked up when I heard the brothers were playing Dungeons & Dragons. One of my friends said, “We need to find someone who knows how to play this game. I want to play!” Sheepishly I answered, “I used to play. I could teach you.”
“Playing as a pastor is interesting. I’ve discovered a lot of crossover in the skills it takes to be a good Dungeon Master and in the skills it takes to be a good pastor.”-Pastor Rory Philstrom
That was three and half years ago . Since then I’ve been DMing for over a dozen of us playing in a campaign that has now had its final session. The game grew so big I had to split it into two groups! The two parties alternated weeks as I ran them through a conjoined storyline in a homebrew world. It was fun because the actions of one group impacted what was going on in the other story. For the final session I brought them all back together and we had a massive twelve-person game.
Playing as a pastor is interesting. I’ve discovered a lot of crossover in the skills it takes to be a good Dungeon Master and in the skills it takes to be a good pastor. Both are better when you have the ability to understand people’s stories in a deeper way. Expressing empathy is a huge part of faith and an important skill which everybody could afford to develop. Part of a pastor’s role is managing groups of people while also caring for that community—good Dungeon Masters also need to play that role of shepherd at the table, trying to make sure that the game functions and moves forward and also that everyone’s having a good experience. It’s an interesting overlap.
What’s also been interesting is interacting with the online community for D&D. When people find out I’m a pastor their response can be, “What are pastors doing playing this game?” Many people lived through a time when the game was demonized by Christian clergy so they think it is unusual to find us playing it. As a pastor who plays D&D I want to say, “It’s my game too! I’ve been playing it for a long time.” This game is for everybody, it doesn’t matter who you are.
I’ve never heard a negative response from my faith community. I talk openly about the game, use it as a teaching tool, and have recently started running the Adventurers League at my church. No-one asks, “What is our pastor doing playing D&D?” The most common response I get is, “Can I play?”
Being a Christian, a pastor, and someone who loves Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve tried to “speak” to that space. I blog at DungeonMasterPastor.com about the overlap between life, D&D and the ministry. I have tried to explain how this game can help us think more deeply about not just the characters we play, but about our own character and the way we live in our own stories. The blog has been a great outlet for those thoughts. It’s really my way of trying to demystify both the Christian community for D&D players that might not have a lot of interaction with it, and demystify the D&D community for Christians who might otherwise be denied a true interaction with it. I try and speak to the promise that each of those parts have, and show how they can engage with one another, as both of those communities have something to offer each other. It’s been a fun and interesting topic to explore.
Pastors & Dragons
The group of pastors who play weekly were originally all based in Western North Dakota. In that region you’re spread out and it’s tough to find people to hang out with, let alone play a game. Using Roll20 we were able to play our weekly game online. Since then we’ve all mostly moved out of North Dakota and are living elsewhere: I’m now in Minnesota, while others have found themselves in Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Ohio.
There was still a desire to play in person because there’s a different kind of magic when you are face-to-face around a table. So in 2018 I organized our first summer retreat so a bunch of us could get together and play. Not everyone from our group could make it though, and I thought, “What if I open this up and see if other people are interested?” From there it morphed into a D&D continuing education retreat for ministers and it went so well that we’re doing it again this year. [The retreat continues still, now called Holy Rollers!]
Thirteen of us came together in 2018, culminating with a final adventure around a huge table where everybody was playing 20th level characters. With a large group at that level I didn’t think even throwing a tarrasque at them would be a significant enough challenge. They were so powerful I had them face Tiamat and had to add a couple extra heads, so it was a seven-headed version instead of five!
The two extra heads were a shadow dragon head with its necrotic breath weapon and a sea dragon head (from Tome of Beasts) with its tidal breath weapon. In ancient near eastern mythos the classic enemy is the sea dragon, representing chaos. The Babylonian creation myth involves the hero/storm god Marduk slaying that dragon and turning its dead body into the creation. That dragon’s name… was Tiamat.
Spinning a Tale
One of the things I’ve learned in all this is that playing Dungeons & Dragons is a really great way to help people access the stories and characters from scripture. I’ve used it as a tool in this way in my middle-school Confirmation classes. It really helps to grab the students’ attention and engage their imaginations.
To start, everyone picks a person from the portion of The Bible we are studying and rolls them up as a D&D character. Then I throw them all together in a party, drop them into a particular biblical story, and turn it into a little adventure. D&D is something that has been fun to work with because you’re teaching kids and adults in an interactive way.
There are certain classic spiritual methods that are usually practiced alone—such as the Ignatian exercises in the Catholic tradition—which use a mix of meditation, prayer, and imaginative contemplation to help people deepen their spirituality. The exercise is to take a passage of scripture and use your imagination to place yourself within it, walking around and interacting with the people. Roleplaying games offer a way to take this solo practice and do it collectively, which has the potential to provide a richer experience. Participating in this as a community, you also learn to listen to, support, and understand one another. Imagination is one of God’s gifts to us, and it’s great to exercise that gift using play.
Gaming is a neat way to bring people together and build community, for no other purpose than simply hanging out and paying attention to the relationships you’re building around the table. When you can bring people together for an even greater good, as Extra Life has been able to do by helping people raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, it turns into an even more powerful thing.
Playing D&D can help you grow as a person as your imagination becomes more engaged and complex, and you’re able to hold new things in mind. How we imagine impacts how we act in the world because when we don’t know something, our imaginations fill in the gaps. We can plug those gaps with simple stereotypes, clichés, and prejudices—or we can open ourselves up to new possibilities and wonder.
Right now the world needs a more complex imagination about how we perceive one another as people. It’s important to be able to look at everyone in the world and see people with unique backstories, abilities and powers—there are no cardboard NPCs. There’s real joy in finding out these stories about one another. Being curious about each other and being willing to share in one another’s stories is one of the first steps in loving one another.
Pastor Rory Philstrom runs the Pastors & Dragons Retreat [now the Holy Rollers Retreat] for clergy and people of faith and the second annual event takes place at the Mount Olivet Conference Center in Farmington, MN on August 6-9, 2019. [Our next retreat will be at ARC Retreat Center in Minnesota on Jan 31-Feb 3, 2023.] He lives in Minnesota with his wife Carolyn (who is also a pastor) and his son Edan [and now also our daughter Josephine].