Incorporating Christianity into Dungeons & Dragons

One of the questions I often get is, “How can I incorporate Christianity into my game?”

Including real-world religion in a fantasy RPG like Dungeons & Dragons has its own set of risks and rewards. For the moment though, I’m going to leave off going into those for future posts and instead get right down to practical suggestions.

First of all, there’s lots of ways to go about mixing Christianity (or any real-world religion) into your play. It’s not so much an on-off switch as it is a dial you can adjust to suit your own stylistic preferences. Here are four different settings for that dial.

Setting 1: In the Bible.

The first way to incorporate faith into your game would be to run a game directly inspired by the Bible. Have the players pick Bible characters to base their PCs on, put the PCs directly into the events of a major Bible story, or do both! You can either plop them right into a Bible story.

One of my favorite stories to play out is the Sons of Sceva from Acts 19. A bunch of stuffed-shirts getting in over their heads and getting possessed. Have the PCs just happen to be in Ephesus while that is going on, then play that out! What do they do with the possessed folks? Are they strong enough to defeat the demons?Mathieu_Elias_-_Les_Fils_de_Scéva_battus_par_le_Démon

There’s a lot of places in Scripture like this that make for good campaign hooks. And there’s lots of great people described in the Bible who would make really interesting characters to explore as a PC.

Setting 2: Out of the Bible

The second approach is a lot like the first, with just a minor change. In this approach, you still take inspiration for the characters or the adventure from Scripture, but then you reskin them and plop them into whatever D&D world you want.

For example, take the Gerasene demoniac from Mark 5. Now here’s a character rich with possibilities. A possessed strong-man hanging out in a graveyard has D&D encounter written all over it. You can put that graveyard wherever you want.

Another approach that’s similar to this is to change some other aspect of an otherwise clearly Biblical story. Maybe that small change needs to be fixed and the story set right to avoid some major trouble. For instance what if Goliath had been wearing a fancy helmet that covered his forehead and the boy’s sling stone just bounced off? Or what if there hadn’t been a ram in the bush when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac?

Setting 3: The Narnia Route – Strong Allegory

You could also go the Narnia route and play a game that’s strongly allegorical. I call it the Narnia route because this is how CS Lewis approached fantasy. You make the heroes and the enemies stand for something specific. The evil sorcereress isn’t just an evil sorcereress, but the very thinly veiled incarnations of the devil. The lion isn’t just a lion, but an obvious stand-in for Jesus.

You can play a lot with allegory. Take an evil, maybe one of the seven deadly sins for example, and make the enemies a physical representation of that vice. That hill giant isn’t just a hill giant, but the embodiment of gluttony, for example.

Setting 4: The Tolkien Route – ideals and themes

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The final way to think about how to incorporate Christianity into your game is to go the Tolkien route. This is what we see in The Lord of the Rings. The story happens in the fantasy setting, and the themes and ideals of the Christian faith are major players in the story, but religion as such is often left off-screen.

In this method you resist the temptation to go for direct Biblical allegory but see the ideals and themes of Christian faith as universal truths that are at play in any environment.

Repentance. Redemption. Love. Humility. Truth. Friendship. Kindness. Trust. Self-sacrifice. Endurance in the face of suffering. These ideals are some of those that color the faith of Jesus. Meaning, these are things not about Jesus, but the ways of living that Jesus valued and tried to teach to others.

On reskinning game mechanics:

Though the standard religious lore of Dungeons & Dragons involves a pantheon of various deities spread across a multiverse of fairly well-defined planes of existence, there’s not much in the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons that gets lost if you want to strip all that out. The game itself is lore-agnostic, and nothing is lost if the lore of your game looks a little different. The Dungeon Master’s Guide specifically gives you permission to tell your stories in whatever world you want, including with whatever conceptions of deity and supernatural forces you want.

Concerning player characters:

You can substitute almost anything for the “power source” of more fantastical and magical powers pretty simply. I’ve used lots of different versions of this in my games.

For example, in games that I’ve run that are set in the world of Biblical events, I’ve reskinned many of the D&D classes and made God the power source for everything. Different classes access God in different ways, with the various class flavors coming from how people emphasize different aspects of God. I emphasized these changes by reskinning some of the character classes with new names.

Here is the class list as I present it to my players for creating characters in a game world with a more Biblical lore.

  • High STRENGTH
    • Fighter – a trained warrior. A master of martial combat, skilled with a variety of weapons and armor.
    • Zealot (Barbarian) – an emotional warrior. A fierce warrior who fights with their emotions and can enter a battle rage.
    • Paladin – a holy warrior. A holy warrior bound to a sacred oath.
    • Ranger – a wilderness warrior who is a bruiser with a few special tricks. A warrior who uses martial prowess and natural forces to combat threats on the edges of civilization.
  • High DEXTERITY
    • Rogue – a daring and sly opponent. A scoundrel who uses stealth and trickery to overcome obstacles.
    • Fighter – a precision sharpshooter. A master of martial combat, skilled with a variety of weapons and armor.
    • Monk – a martial artist. A master of martial arts, harnessing the power of the body in pursuit of spiritual perfection.
    • Ranger – a wilderness warrior who is light on the feet with a few special tricks. A warrior who uses martial prowess and natural forces to combat threats on the edges of civilization.
  • High INTELLIGENCE
    • Scribe (Wizard) – accesses great power through academic study. A scholar who wields supernatural power that is capable of manipulating the structures of reality.
    • Artificer – accesses power through an understanding of the connections between the physical and the metaphysical. A master of unlocking hidden power in everyday objects, artificers are supreme inventors.
  • High WISDOM
    • Cleric – accesses great power through prayer to God. A priestly champion who wields divine force in service of a higher power.
    • Druid – accesses great power through becoming one with the natural world. A priest of the old faith, wielding the powers of nature—moonlight and plant growth, fire and lightning—and adopting animal forms.
  • High CHARISMA
    • Bard – accesses great power through personality and creativity
    • Paladin – accesses great power through willpower and spiritual disciplines. A holy warrior bound to a sacred oath.
    • Chosen (Sorcerer) – accesses great power through natural ability. A blessed individual who draws on inherent ability to do supernatural things.
    • Prophet (Warlock) – accesses great power through supernatural relationships and bargains. A charismatic agent of God who wields power through a supernatural agreement.

One last thing before I wrap this post up. I recently created a tool that will help you add a more Biblical flavor to your D&D games called Biblical Verbal Components. It’s a collection of Bible verses that you can use as the verbal components for any of the officially published spells in D&D 5th Edition. It has components for over 500 spells, which means over 1100 different Bible verses mapped to match the unique effects of each spell. It’s available over on the DMs Guild, and proceeds from the sale of Biblical Verbal Components will go to directly supporting those in need through our local Emergency Needs Fund.

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/311874/Biblical-Verbal-Components

A Spoonful of Sugar helps the Healing Potion Go Down

A few months ago, my family and I went to see a movie in the theater.

Growing up, going out to see a movie was a magical experience, for a few reasons:

  1. We didn’t go to see very many movies, so when we did it was a treat!
  2. Popcorn…slathered in butter…pure decadence…
  3. The enormous screen. These were the days before 55 inch 4K ultrahigh definition televisions were even a whisper of a shadow of a dream.

Now that I’m an adult, I sometimes go to more movies in a month than I went to see in an entire year as a child.

And I can buy movie-theater butter popcorn that I can pop in my microwave.

And I’m never more than a few clicks of my smart TV’s remote away from watching tons of movies on Netflix.

But when I went with my family to that theater a few months ago, I again had a magical movie experience. No, we weren’t seeing the latest Marvel superhero movie (although those do tend to be wicked awesome!), we saw a movie from a different Disney franchise.

It was…Mary Poppins Returns!

Seriously! Sometimes we say that something, “Made me feel like a child again,” but this movie didn’t just make me feel like a child again, I actually was a child again! I was a child again, mesmerized by the fantastical mixture of live action and animation that so captured my imagination when I saw the original Mary Poppins 30ish years ago.

However, there was one thing that jumped out at me about this movie, one thing that I consciously realized that I probably wouldn’t have if I had watched this as a child. I realized that Mary Poppins was helping the Banks children process complex emotions about grief and greed through their imaginations.

I think that we adults often forget this. Kids do it all the time, playing with legos, playing with dolls, playing with pieces of paper that are actually racecar spaceships that can transform into lions.

Our imaginations are incredible tools to help us work through the ‘stuff’ in our lives. And this is one of the huge gifts of playing Dungeons and Dragons. It is a game of imagination, and not just our individual imaginations, but our communal imagination as a group comes together to create and inhabit whole new worlds. These are worlds where the fantastical is ordinary, where a well-timed joke can be as effective as the mightiest swing of a warhammer, and where players have the chance to live into a new reality.

I’m looking forward to our upcoming Pastors and Dragons: An Adventure of Spiritual Imagination retreat, where we will have the opportunity to exercise our communal imaginations for the sake of ourselves, our ministry settings, and the world. Who know what dreams and visions may come from this experience? When imagination is involved, the sky’s the limit! (Well, maybe the Elemental Plane of Air is the limit…or would it be the Ethereal Plane?…the Astral Plane?…)

Announcing the 2019 Pastors & Dragons Curriculum!

We’ve been hard at work honing and preparing some really amazing learning sessions for this year’s Pastors & Dragons continuing education retreat. Each session will dial in on a particular aspect of the correlations between adventure, imagination, and spirit.

Self-Reflection through the Player Character

We’ll engage in the character creation process while asking, “How do we bring ourselves to the characters we imagine?” Whether as a reflection, an exaggeration, or challenge to grow, the characters we play on the tabletop are an opportunity to reflect on who we are, what we fear, and who we want to become.

Adventurers, Assemble!

In D&D you join a party of adventurers to explore fantastic and often dangerous locations. But what happens when you take that method of collective exploration and apply it elsewhere? We’ll engage our imaginations in collectively exploring the foundational stories of our faiths and our lives.

From DM Prep to Ministry Preparedness

What are some best practices for preparing to run a D&D adventure? What can the prep work we do for tabletop adventures teach us as we do the prep work for ministry? Whether it’s pastoral care, small group leadership, meeting facilitation, or presiding at worship – a bit of the right kind of prep can really pay off in a great experience for everyone.

More than Meets the Eye

How can Dungeons & Dragons strengthen our empathy muscles? We’ll open our eyes to the complexities of our real life stories. Then we’ll spend some time practicing using stories to help us enter into the experiences of others.

Fandoms: A Model for the Future Church

How can fandom help us better embody God’s unfolding story? Geek communities provide a fascinating new lens for how we can understand our faith communities. Cultures of imagination meet cultures of spirit and share a lot more than might be expected.

Read more about Pastors & Dragons: An Adventure of Spiritual Imagination and register to attend the best church/nerd retreat around.

Power Sources

In Dungeons & Dragons the characters wield enormous power. That’s part of the fun of the game: trying to blow stuff up with an arcane fireball, healing a wounded party member with a divine prayer, tapping into your primal passions with a barbaric rage, or becoming one with the night with an out of this world stealth roll. Each class, even most subclasses, find their abilities flavored by what sort of power they access and how they access it.

ClassPower Sources
Barbarian Ancestors, Reckless Abandon, Anger, Storms, Beast Spirits, Religious Fervor
BardFashion, Weapon Flourishes, Stories, Bravery, Music, Secrets
ClericGods of Magic, Life, Death, Creation, The Grave, Knowledge, Light, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, and War
DruidThe Natural World
FighterPhysical Strength & Skill
MonkInner Strength, The Four Elements, Shadows, Sunlight
PaladinA Personal Code and Devotion
RangerMastery of Relationships with Beasts for Friendship or Destruction
RogueDisregard of the Rules, Knowledge of the Weaknesses of Others
SorcererInborn Power from Divinity, Dragons, Shadows, Storms, or Chaos
WarlockPact with Someone or Something Powerful
WizardKnowledge, Study, and Understanding

These are just broad brushstrokes of the different sorts of power that can be wielded by Player Characters in D&D. They flavor the roleplay of the game and flavor the mechanics. A great way to change how a character is played is to just think about where they get their power and how they access that power. It’s also a great way to homebrew new class options, just take a standard class and change the traditional power source. How about a Druid that draws power through their relationship with machines? Or a Barbarian who rages for the sake of justice for the oppressed? Or a Warlock who makes a pact with their subconscious? Or a Cleric who serves the god of wealth?

In considering the power sources of the characters in our RPGs, I think our eyes have the potential to be opened to real life sources of power, ability, and strength. The world abounds with power. We are surrounded by it every day. Power comes from a lot of different places, and it is used for a lot of different purposes. Where we draw power and how we use power have a lot of impact on how we live our lives and the effect we have on the lives of others around us. Clarifying the sources of power that we use in our lies and identifying both our pathways to them and how we use them can be helpful for personal growth and for avoiding some major pitfalls.

Recently, as I was engaging in my own personal study, I ran across descriptions of some real life power sources for a life of faith and devotion to God. The descriptions came from the writings of Simeon the New Theologian who was alive and doing his thing exactly 1000 years ago. Simeon talks about three paths by which a soul can be lifted. Each path is a different way of paying attention and a different way of accessing spiritual power.

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Super Gut!

The first way I call the Way of the Gut. The bowels are the ancient seat of human emotion and passion. When the ancient Greeks and Hebrews got fired up about something, or were so touched by something that it had an immediate emotional impact on them, they had a gut reaction. When they were moved by something, they were literally saying they were having a bowel movement.  No matter where you think of emotion having a home in your body, accessing power from the passions is something we see a lot. People get spun up into an emotional fervor and then all of that energy and power is directed towards something. At best, that something is directing the power of affection and emotion and love towards God. At worst? Well, wars have been fought over less.

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Mind Spike?

The second way is the Way of the Mind. The mind, as you might expect, is the place for rational conscious thought. Power in the Way of the Mind comes from analyzing, studying, examining, learning, and understanding. As a way of lifting the soul, the rational mind can delve into the mysteries of God and faith and develop systems and structures of understanding. This is the power we see wielded by theologians and religious scholars. Of course, the power of the mind can also be applied towards all manner of things.

The Sacred Heart

Then there’s the third way, the Way of the Heart. Here’s where Simeon the New Theologian sees the most profound pathway to spiritual power. The heart here isn’t the emotional organ that we commonly think of it as today (that role was already covered by the gut). Instead, the heart here is understood as a spiritual organ. It’s the location of our spirits perhaps, the location of our unconscious subconscious selves. It’s where all of our secret prejudices lie (that’s what Jesus says anyway in Matthew 15:19). It’s also where we love. I don’t mean the flighty sort of love that’s idealized in Rom-Coms, but the deep real love that’s about realizing that lover and beloved are parts of the same whole. The Way of the Heart is accessed through contemplation, and being open to God in a mystical way. It is truly a still more excellent way.

These three pathways are just a few real life resources for human power and ability. Each has a home within the body, each could be understood as a sort of “inner power”, each can be seen as a pathway to accessing the spiritual power of God (who is the source of anything and everything that is truly power),and yet each is very very different. I haven’t even touched on how power comes from sources beyond our bodies, but it most certainly does. Although, if you’re out of touch with your own power it’s doubtful how well or how fruitfully you can access sources of power beyond yourself. Without being able to access inner power, interactions with outside powers like wealth, fame, technology, and even relationships with others are more likely to turn demonic (in that they control you and reduce your capacity to live more fully into yourself) or idolatrous (in that they require sacrifices of yourself without granting much at all in return).

Great power isn’t something that just exists inside the world of a tabletop RPG. Each person has the capacity to wield enormous power to affect and alter the course of the world. As Galadriel says in the movies, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” How we access and use that power can change the way our stories (in game and real life) are told?

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.

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.