Where Following Jesus and Fighting Dragons Meet

Here on the Dungeon Master Pastor website my tagline is that this is “Where following Jesus and fighting dragons meet.” Fighting dragons at the Dungeons and Dragons table helps people to learn that the challenges are possible to overcome, but following Jesus is what helps me know that that’s not just a fantasy. Following Jesus has taught me that the challenges in our life are real, and that they can be overcome through faith.

Four years ago when my son was born he was diagnosed on the newborn screening with a disease called spinal muscular atrophy. It’s a devastating disease, one that treatments were just coming out for and were still experimental. In some ways the treatments my son received still are experimental and it remains unknown how long they will work to keep this disease at bay. SMA is a disease that that takes lives and threatened to take the life of my son.

In addition to that, in recent years a close family member of mine became overwhelmed by the stress of life and developed a severe bipolar disorder. Over the last few years, they have been hospitalized half a dozen times, up for months at a time.

It has been an extremely challenging time in my family’s life, but through my faith I know that it is also possible to overcome these challenges and get through this hard stuff. Not only that, but faith gives me an understanding that circumstances like these are not judgment. They are not a reason to lose hope. Instead, faith gives me the very hope I need to persevere and not lose myself in the midst of all this.

My faith in Jesus has really carried me through and shown me that yes, the real life dragons – those like disease and mental illness – you can overcome them. You can face the challenges and come out on the other side with your spirit and soul intact. And not only can you face them and endure them, but you can discover immense beauty and joy in life at the same time.

I have a theology of joy and a love for play. Often in the seriousness of everything that faces us in life, we can lose sight of freedom, joy, and fun. But the joy of Jesus shows me that yes, there is a way to hold onto the seriousness of the world’s problems, but also to do that without forgetting that we are ultimately liberated and set free through Christ from ever being defined by them.  

Pastor Rory Philstrom shares his love of D&D as Dragon+ offers this platform to thank him for his generous Extra Life charitable donation. (Reposted Dragon+ Article from 2019)

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.

Edan Philstrom – Level 1 Human

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 [2015]. 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.

DM Pastor Logo

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.

Inclusive Play

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.

Fighting Tiamat at the First Pastors & Dragons

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.

Angel of Imagination

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.

Community Action

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].

The Return-to-Town Travel Montage

I started up a new West Marches style campaign last night (in preparation for the Blest Marches Retreat) and one of the challenges I have had with this style of game is figuring out how to make the obligatory “return to town” at the end of the mission something significant enough to deserve the table time and quick enough to not take too much of it.

Last night, in the last 5-10 minutes of the session, I instituted a “return to town montage”. I was pleased with how it played out, and am excited to try it some more. Here are the rules for how to run your own travel montage.

  • Step 1: GM divides journey up into 3 legs: beginning, middle, end.
    • Each leg will have 2 phases, navigation and challenge.
  • Step 2: GM describes the general landscape and weather of the 1st leg of the journey and asks the party, “How do you get through it?”
    • Phase 1: The party navigates either by landmarks or direction & memory.
      • Navigating by landmarks – party describe the landmarks they use to return home.
      • Navigating by direction or memory – one of the party members makes a Wisdom (survival) check with a DC = most difficult navigation DC of the regions they pass through on this leg.
      • Resolution:
        • Successfully passing the navigation check or accurately navigating by landmarks reduces the final group check DC by 1, a success by 5 or more reduces the end DC by 2.
        • Failing the navigation check or inaccurately navigating by landmarks increases the final group check DC by 1, a fail by 5 or more increases the end DC by 2.
    • Phase 2: The party faces a challenge.
      • The GM chooses a player to describe a challenge the party faces on that leg of the journey.
      • Another player describes what their PC did to help the group overcome that challenge.
      • Resolution:
        • The GM calls for the resolving player to make a d20 test appropriate to their PCs solution to the challenge. The DC of the check = 10 + region difficulty.
        • Successfully passing the d20 test reduces the final group check DC by 1, a success by 5 or more reduces the end DC by 2.
        • Failing the d20 test increases the final group check DC by 1, a fail by 5 or more increases the end DC by 2.
  • Steps 3 & 4: Repeat step 2 for the middle and end legs of the journey home.
  • Step 5: The party arrives at their destination.
    • The GM calls for a group Constitution (Survival) check. The DC of the check = 12 + the # of regions passed through. Adjust the DC further up or down based on the success and failure of the journey home.
    • Resolution:
      • If < 50% pass, the group returns exhausted, dispirited, and grumpy
      • If 50% pass, the group returns home
      • If > 50% pass, the group returns home full of tales to tell, PCs all gain inspiration to begin their next mission.

Praise for Dungeon Master Pastor Retreats

This January, we’re launching our third retreat, Holy Rollers: Blest Marches. This experience will be similar to past experiences, but expanded in some exciting new ways. Hear what participants at our last Dungeon Master Pastor Retreat had to say about their experience:

“I loved diving deeper into how D&D can be used outside the gaming table.”

– 2019 Pastors & Dragons Retreat Participant

“The highlight for me was obviously the gaming, but the subjects in the learning sessions were on point. Also, I really liked how the groups switched up, so we played with everyone over the course of the week.”

-2019 Pastors & Dragons Retreat Participant

“The development of new personal relationships that were hopeful, supportive, and with a good chance of continuance was my favorite aspect. And, of course, the gaming.”

-2019 Pastors & Dragons Retreat Participant

“My highlight was being able to be myself. Also, the campaigns were brilliant.”

-2019 Pastors & Dragons Retreat Participant

“All the education sessions were well thought out and executed.”

-2019 Pastors & Dragons Retreat Participant

“The learning sessions! Great DMs who created a safe space! Playing with creative new friends!”

-2019 Pastors & Dragons Retreat Participant

“The best parts were the fellowship and the game session the final night. Yargle!”

-2019 Pastors & Dragons Retreat Participant

A Dungeon Master Pastor retreat is a chance to learn something new, develop new and lasting friendships in a restful retreat environment, and play some epic games of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a gaming convention but without the overwhelming crowds. It’s a learning experience built around play. It’s spirit-filled but not oppressively pious. There’s truly no other experience like it.

Join us this January for our next retreat – Holy Rollers: Blest Marches!

Announcing the Holy Rollers Dungeon Masters!

Holy Rollers: Blest Marches 2023 DMs

Our Dungeon Master team is assembled! Meet the DMs for Holy Rollers: Blest Marches, and don’t forget to register for this one-of-a-kind retreat experience. Earlybird pricing ends on October 31st!

The Dungeon Master Pastor – Rev. Rory Philstrom, Retreat Leader

This will be Rory’s third D&D retreat as Retreat Leader. He currently serves as Lead Pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Bloomington, MN, where he has founded a D&D Youth Group and developed a process for using the roleplaying game genre as a tool for Biblical learning and exploration. He’s also produced a resource called Biblical Verbal Components, which matches a unique Bible verse to each official spell in Dungeons & Dragons 5e (available on the DMs Guild). During the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd, Rory served as part of the Interfaith Movement Chaplain Corps, providing spiritual care at marches, protests, and relief efforts around the Twin Cities.

Outside of pastoring and dungeon mastering, Rory has been an SMA speaker both nationally and internationally, talking about life with his son, who was diagnosed at birth with Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

The Geekpreacher – Rev. Derek White

Derek, aka The Geekpreacher, leads a clergy cohort group titled D&D and Discipleship showing clergy (and others) in the East Ohio Conference United Methodist Church how to use a tabletop roleplaying game like D&D as a discipleship tool. As The Geekpreacher, he has spoken at and moderated panels on Faith & Gaming at various conventions. He has also led ecumenical worship services at GenCon, Origins, and serves annually as the official chaplain for Gary Con, a gaming convention in Lake Geneva, WI that honors the life of D&D co-creator, Gary Gygax.

When he’s not pastoring and chaplaining, Derek is busy making documentaries. He’s been involved in the production of multiple documentaries, the latest entitled The Satanic Panic and the Religious Battle for the Imagination which won the Best Gamer Film award at GenCon 2022.

Rev. Ben Loven

This will be Ben’s third D&D Retreat, and second as a DM. He currently serves as Senior Pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Rochester, MN. Pastor Ben loves to help God’s people imaginatively live into the mission that God gives through baptism. He moonlights as a Dungeon Master for pastors and their spouses, as well as members of his congregation.

Matt Spring

Matt co-founded Four Humors Theater in 2005, a local and touring theater company that creates original works. In 2012 he also helped co-found the Twin Cities Horror Festival, now an annual event. Since 2014 Matt has been working as a writer and consultant with Augsburg Fortress publishing house, creating materials for church youth education. When he’s not doing that, he’s parenting his two young kids and working gigs as a professional DM.

Announcing the Holy Rollers Retreat!

Back in the beforetimes (2018 & 2019) a bunch of clergy and other faith leaders got together to play D&D and learn from one another about the intersections between role playing games, faith, and ministry. We called it “Pastors & Dragons”. I am beyond excited to announce the return of this retreat under the new name “Holy Rollers“!

Holy Rollers: Blest Marches – Jan 31-Feb 3, 2023 @ ARC Retreat Center. Register now for early bird prices! Includes meals, lodging, and materials for 3 days and nights of learning, gaming, and rest.

In the midst of this coming winter, clergy and people of faith will join together for an epic 3 days and nights learning, resting, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. With a mix of gaming, learning, and rest, this retreat will allow you to explore the connections between life, faith, and the world’s greatest roleplaying game.

Holy Rollers: Blest Marches will explore emergent gameplay through a West Marches style experience. Interspersed with the gaming will be time to learn and discuss the role of faith in our world and emergent ways of being church today.

The 2023 Holy Rollers Retreat will be held Jan 31 – Feb 3rd at the ARC Retreat Community, about an hour north of the Twin Cities. In a homelike atmosphere, ARC offers 90 acres of pristine wetlands and woodlands within a majestic white pine forest. Trails are available for walking, skiing, and snowshoeing, as is a labyrinth for walking meditation.


Each day will afford hours of Dungeons & Dragons play, with daily game sessions run by four seasoned DMs. The whole experience will be that of a collective West Marches campaign. This unique campaign structure will have some distinctive characteristics.

  • Play sessions, their frequency, and their length, will be determined individually by each party, within the time constraints of the retreat.
  • Players will form parties out of a player pool of up to 20 players.
  • The plot(s) will develop through emergent gameplay. That is, the players will decide where to go and what to do, venturing out to explore a vast and dangerous expanse of uncharted wilderness.

The West Marches were first devised by Ben Robbins around 2000 in a now-famous series of blog posts. Since then, there have been thousands of West Marches games run based off of Robbins’ original idea. The structure of our gaming will also be guided by Izirion’s Enchiridion of the West Marches, which further expounds and develops this unique style of gameplay.


Within each day, opportunities will be offered to go dig deeper into the role of the church in the gaming community (both the good and bad), as well as exploring emergent ways that people of faith are forming themselves for the work of God today. A highlight will be a screening of the GenCon-award-winning documentary The Satanic Panic and the Religious Battle for the Imagination and follow up conversation with the featured Pastor Derek White, aka The Geek Preacher.


The ARC Retreat Community offers a quiet place to slow down the pace of life, restore balance, and grow on your spiritual journey. Enjoy healthy and delicious meals prepared and served from the ARC kitchen. Cozy up by the fireplace or strap on snowshoes and explore the 90 acres of pristine wetlands and woodlands within a majestic white pine forest, located in Stanchfield, MN, about an hour north of the MSP Airport.

Retreat participants will have their choice of lodging.

Single or Double Room in the Lodge

  • 11 single rooms and 3 double rooms available
  • Guest rooms are private with shared bathrooms
  • Linens and towels are provided
  • Close to the action, most retreat activities will happen throughout the many spaces of the Lodge

The Hermitage:

  • a single-person dwelling in the woods
  • a bright, lofty room with a kitchenette and screened-in porch.
  • ideal for those desiring more solitude.
  • bay window faces through the trees toward Little Stanchfield Lake, which is visible in the winter.
  • heat and electricity
  • water is provided in jugs
  • Nearby outhouse, with showers and bathrooms in the Lodge also available for “hermit” use
Registration Costs: Double – $535/$585, Single or Hermit – $655/$715, Airport transportation $50

Register by October 31st for Early Bird rates!

Registration closes January 15th, or when we reach capacity.

The Holy Rollers Retreat affirms the sacredness of people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions. We affirm the sacredness of all those who have experienced exclusion because of race, ability, age, or culture. We affirm the sacredness of those who wrestle with addiction, physical or mental health, imprisonment, socio-economic circumstances, or anything that too often divides us. The leaders and DMs of the Holy Rollers Retreat are committed to welcoming and celebrating all people, and strive to make antiracist choices and work toward racial equity in all areas of our lives. All people, inclusive of age, race, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, family structure, ability or disability, are invited into the sacred space of this retreat not only as players and learners but also as storytellers, leaders, and people with vast experiences to share. 

Updated Rules for 5e Mass Combat

A while back I posted my Lord of Hosts Battlesystem, which provides a straightforward way to scale up the D&D 5e experience to a full mass combat scenario. Recently I created some art for it and got it formatted into a pdf, which you can find over at The DMs Guild. The price is set to be pay-what-you-want, so there’s no reason not to go check them out!

While the standard combat rules of Dungeons & Dragons can handle fights of up to a few dozen, they struggle to adequately handle true mass combat.

The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem builds on the standard combat rules to model larger scale battles, from dozens to hundreds to thousands, while still enabling individual adventurers to lead an army’s charge against an enemy regiment, rally dispirited soldiers to rejoin the fray, or defeat powerful enemy creatures.

Most mass combat rules operate by creating a separate game system that sits on top of the standard 5e mechanics and often only work on a narrow scale, BUT NOT THIS ONE! The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem can upscale your combat without making it feel like you’ve suddenly started playing an entirely different game, AND IT CAN DO IT TO ANY SCALE! 

These easy-to-run and easy-to-learn rules help your PCs turn the tide of battle by offering them a small handful of bonus action options, all covered on a single page that makes a simple reference at the table. The rest of the Battlesystem runs on a simple base mechanic and a new use for the DMG’s guidance for Theater of the Mind fights to add considerations for the full range of character and creature abilities. So let your armies clash with The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem!

Check out the preview below:

Cypher System 1 Page Cheat Sheet

Last fall I took this Pastors & Dragons project to Gamehole Con. While I was there I ran a bunch of Cypher System adventures that I developed which I called “Adventures of Biblical Proportions”. I have found that the Cypher System provides a much more flexible base for Biblically based games than the more common D&D 5e system. With Cypher the genre of the stories you tell is much more malleable, making it extremely simple to run everything from historical no-magic, supernatural myth, high fantasy, modern, sci-fi, or any mix of genres you can think of.

My main issue with running Cypher, in spite of its simplicity, is that the rulebook is a bit all over the place. The Cypher System Rulebook has a ton of sidebars and cross-references, but I still found it pretty difficult to grok. Something about how it is organized feels really chaotic, and there are little bits of rules hiding all over the place.

In order to understand how to run the game, I began putting a sheet together that had all the necessary rules bits on 1 page. I was inspired by The Alexandrian’s Numenera focused cheat sheet, and wanted something similar but for just the general Cypher System. Last Fall, I polished up that page so I could easily use it to explain the game to new players. I think it turned out pretty well, so here it is for the world to use as well. I hope you like it!

This one-page cheat sheet explains all the basic Cypher System mechanics I’ve found to be necessary for actual play.

Joy in the Darkness

It’s no secret that the world is a difficult place to grow up in. In my weekly gatherings with our Confirmation students, these astute middle-schoolers would raise questions about the events of the world and the grim realities of society. Racism, sexism, bullying, gun violence, school shootings, violence against those who identify as LGBTQIA, climate change, divorce, the list goes on. Yes, the world is a difficult place, and we might be deluded into thinking that the best response to a difficult world is to get dreadfully serious, when the best response is actually joy.

Know to find joy in the darkness is wise 

So go the words of Brandi Carlile’s song “Stay Gentle”, and there is a deep and wise truth in them. Playful joy keeps us alive and keeps life worth living. Deep joy keeps us able to hope even in the most dire of circumstances. Imaginative joy opens our eyes to ways the world may yet be. Laughing joy can rid us of the bondage of all the concerns of life that threaten to weigh us down.

One of my great joys has been in playing the game Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games like it. In the game I get to tell stories with friends about exploring fantastic locations, solving problems, and overcoming great adversity. I’ve had the joy of playing with kids, fellow pastors, friends, and complete strangers. These games have the potential to unlock the imagination, and the joy therein, in a way few others ever could.

That’s why this summer I am trying out a new thing in my ministry and will be hosting a new Dungeons & Dragons youth group for middle and high school students. This 7-week campaign will go up against the forces of tyranny on a fantastic and fun-filled adventure. There will be hijinks and laughter as we bond around the table and create stories to remember.
Each session will begin with the most important thing at the table, the people. After a short time of community building, we’ll take off into the world of adventure. Each session will end with us debriefing the session and talking about bringing the heroic spirit into our daily lives.

We’re still taking registrations, so if you’re a middle or high school student in the Twin Cities, Minnesota area and are looking to make friends and sharpen your spirit and your imagination, join us and be a hero this summer!

Review: An Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible

On Epiphany of this year (January 6th) the folks at the freshly minted Red Panda Publishing began their Kickstarter campaign to bring their “Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible” to life. That campaign is just about to wrap up, with less than 2 days left to back the project. And on all accounts it’s been successful thus far, with over 1000 backers and raising enough to unlock every single stretch goal.

This project takes the history and cultures of the Ancient Near East, the words of the Bible, and more legendary aspects of the Christian faith, and mixes them together to offer a new setting for D&D 5e adventures. The developers at Red Panda Publishing were kind enough to reach out to me and share a preview copy of their product, which included 138 pages of the module. That’s what I’m reviewing here.

Mixing real world religion and TTRPGs is a risky business. This is not a project that will appeal to everyone. Real world faith resists simplification and gamification. It’s simply too complex to get completely right. However, I have also experienced the richness and the fun that can come from drawing inspiration for your tabletop adventures from the Bible. In my opinion, to succeed at it takes both devotional sincerity and enough tongue-in-cheek willingness to wink at the whole endeavor and just have a bit of fun. From my experience with the material and the folks at Red Panda Publishing I think this project does just that. The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible appears to be a thoughtful and sincere project coming from people who care about both matters of faith and having fun at the table.

An inclusivist worldview.

One of the first questions I had when looking at AGttB was how they would handle representing other faiths within the world of the project. As a pastor/theologian/person of faith, I think one of the most interesting aspects of worldbuilding in any D&D setting is deciding what to do about deities. The section on “Gods of Your World” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is ripe with different examples, from the loose pluralistic pantheon that is most common to an exclusivist monotheism to a world without gods that is powered by the force of ones philosophies.

This is a real world question too, one that scholars and people of faith debate about all the time. How do you intellectually comprehend the vast diversity of human religious experience? Generally the different approaches to this question fall into a trichotomy: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. If we think of diety as a mountain summit and a faith tradition as a mountain trail, exclusivism would tend to believe that there is one “correct” mountain and one “correct” trail, and that other trails lead to incorrect or false mountaintops. Pluralism would tend to posit that there are multiple “true” mountains and many true pathways up those mountains. Inclusivism would say that there’s one mountain, and that the many different paths are actually all pathways up the same mountain, and perhaps one of those pathways is the clearest route to the top. AGttB more or less takes that inclusivist approach. When various religions are encountered, they are generally understood to be worshipping the same God as Jesus is revealing, even if the practitioners of those religions might say otherwise.

About the Content

The writers provide a lot of background. With using real world locations, there is a lot of background to give. They use it to paint a rich picture of the 1st Century Ancient Near East. Sometimes that background started reading more like a history book than an adventure module, but that was mainly in the introductory chapter. I think their goal is to provide enough information so that Dungeon Masters don’t have to look elsewhere to feel like they are running a well-researched quasi-historical campaign. The locations are fleshed out. The number of NPCs is vast. There is a lot of stuff to see and do.

Though there is a lot of research that has gone into this, the writers have used some imaginative liberty in a few different places. Some of the geography is adapted (for instance, the first main city of Media is an adapted version of the historical city of Ecbatana, but moved 1000 miles to the south). Some of the locations draw more from legend than from history (like the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark). All in all, I was impressed by the vastness of what was provided. There are a lot of places to go and explore, and I can see having a lot of fun with it at the table. With locations galore, The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible really shines as a setting book.

The adventure plays as a follow-up to the Epiphany story of the Magi visiting baby Jesus. The adventurers are tasked with going to find the missing Magi and help fight back some encroaching evil. The villains are personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, and each is digging into a different area of the map and extending their influence into the populace. NPCs include the Magi and a number of people from the New Testament and some of the apocryphal books of the Bible, like Tobit. And yes, Jesus makes an appearance or two.

The campaign hits quick and hard. In a departure from the standard 5e D&D design mentality, the adventuring day in this campaign is usually going to consist of a lot of exploration and social interaction and one very difficult fight, rather than the 6-8 encounters that the DMG suggests. I could see this posing a challenge to less experienced Dungeon Masters. I can also see how this allows for a much faster level progression that normal D&D campaigns usually experience, and could support the players gaining a level after each session.

One of the problems I have seen in this design is that there are a number of places where the heroes get sidelined while angels or Jesus take the spotlight. The designers have opened up a Discord channel for backers and are hoping to use that community to provide some playtesting and editing, so some of that may change, and I’m hoping it does. That’s one of the real challenges with a project like this that puts the heroes into a setting with so much history, sometimes it feels like the real plot is going on elsewhere. The designers (and the DMs who will be running this adventure) need to remember that this story, if it’s going to work at the table, needs to be a story about the characters of the players who are there. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to this product, it happens anytime an adventure is set in an established setting with other powerful NPCs running around. Sometimes the book seems to get it right, othertimes not so much.

This brings me to the biggest potential “problem” of this book. They fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’ – but only slightly less well-known is this: ‘Never stat up Jesus!’ The designers have promised to provide stats for the Son of Man/Son of God, stats that were not included in the preview they provided me. What was provided was the Challenge Rating, Jesus of Nazareth clocks in at a CR 9, but goes up to CR 30 in his ‘Risen” form. I’m worried about how these stats will be used at the table. In Dungeons & Dragons, if something is given stats that usually means situations will inevitably arise where the players and DMs will find a way to kill it (just ask all the villagers of Hommlet). I anticipate we’ll see a lot of stories about irreverant D&D tables celebrating that they “killed God” as soon as this adventure is released. I would rather the designers leave the God stats for the Risen Christ out of the game entirely. We don’t need megalord Jesus. As for that CR 9 stat block? I’m really hoping for something like an NPC version of the Way of Tranquility Monk from Unearthed Arcana. And I think CR 9 is probably too high. If I were designing it, I would probably just adjust some ability scores and tack on some special abilities to the commoner stat block and call it a day.

Most of the art for the Adventurer’s Guide to the BIble is on order, but there is enough out there that the style can generally be seen. The layout artists have done a great job organizing the pages and giving the book a very polished look. The character art strikes a slightly cartoony feel, in line with things like The Action Bible.

The cover image shows an elf, dwarf, fighter, and a cloaked rogue/cleric. It’s a classic D&D party, with all the classic D&D problems. Everyone is male and they all show white skin tones. It’s really an unfortunate image. Inside the art is better, with a great deal more diversity depicted and a lot fewer dwarves, elves, and people in anachronistic armor. There’s still too many caucasian people depicted for a book that’s supposed to be set in the Middle East.

The maps are sufficient and full color. The city maps draw on historical layouts from archaeological dig sites. They’re not up to the level of map that you would find in an offical WotC hardcover adventure, but they are usable and better than a lot of maps I’ve seen in official Adventurer’s league modules.

The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible adds some game content as far as character options, unique monsters, magic items, and spells. There’s a lot here, and they try to cover a really wide design space. Unfortunately, they don’t always hit the mark. In the spells and monsters I saw, I wasn’t always clear why they chose not to use material already in the 5e SRD. Do we really need a different stat block for a guard or a noble? Giving them the same name as already existing monsters in D&D adds to the confusion. And do we need a spell called Exorcism when we’ve already got Dispel Evil and Good, which does the same thing?

There are a lot of player options, and a lot more that have been unlocked thanks to the kickstarter reaching stretch goals. The ones I saw were not all that exciting though. Their design was usually a bit clunky and not up to the quality of already published 5e options. The same goes for the new subclass options. The versions I saw were pretty clunky, with abilities that tended to be way overpowered. My favorite was probably the Bard: College of Psalms, which had a potentially interesting mechanic. I’m hoping the rough edges get worn off before final publication, but from what I’ve seen so far there’s not a lot I would use as-is at any table I would run.

My Final Opinion

All in all, my final opinion is this: The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible is a labor of love and a huge undertaking by a team of just four people, led by Ben Maerzke. The content is largely written. From what I’ve seen this is a project that tries to balance both devotional sincerity and a fun experience at the table. They really want to get this right, and are using a private discord server for bakers to continue the editing process, with an eye towards religious, cultural, and racial sensitivity. It will be a hard project to get completely right, but from what I’ve seen I think the team has more hits than misses. Ultimately it’s got enough promise that I chose to be a backer. Maybe you will too.