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.
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.
It’s been just over a month since I put up the rules to Diamonds & Dragons, a dungeon crawling card game that my wife and I have gotten into playing.
We still really love the game, for the simplicity, the surprise, and the light layer of story that makes for an interesting card game to play when we have a spare 10 minutes.
When I first posted the rules, we mainly played with one person as a dealer and the other as the adventuring party. But since I’ve been working on a way for us both to play, and I’m happy to say that I’ve found something pretty good.
Here are the updated rules for Diamonds & Dragons, with the additional rules for playing with 2 players. It’s a great little game and I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!
I’m working on refining the ruleset for better use with Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. In the meantime, here’s an extra page that can help you start to adapt this game for TTRPGS.
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.
Ancestors, Reckless Abandon, Anger, Storms, Beast Spirits, Religious Fervor
Gods of Magic, Life, Death, Creation, The Grave, Knowledge, Light, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, and War
The Natural World
Physical Strength & Skill
Inner Strength, The Four Elements, Shadows, Sunlight
A Personal Code and Devotion
Mastery of Relationships with Beasts for Friendship or Destruction
Disregard of the Rules, Knowledge of the Weaknesses of Others
Inborn Power from Divinity, Dragons, Shadows, Storms, or Chaos
Pact with Someone or Something Powerful
Knowledge, 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.
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.
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.
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?
In the last few months I’ve started playing a great little game with my wife that we call Diamonds & Dragons. It’s a roguelike solitaire card game where you try to escape a dungeon full of monsters. Along the way you find weapons, drink potions, and kill monsters. The best part of all is that it’s played with a standard 54-card deck of playing cards, Jokers included.
I was looking for a game like this after I heard Sersa Victory talking on the podcast Tabletop Babble about a minigame they developed for escaping megadungeons after the party has delved deeply. Sure, the GM could handwave the whole thing and you’re out, but where’s the fun or the challenge in that? Wouldn’t monsters fill in behind the party? The other option would be to slog back through all the rooms you just went through, but that’s a long slog. What Victory developed was a simple minigame using a deck of cards, where the cards represented the rooms in the dungeon between wherever the players were and the exit.
The only problem? Those rules aren’t written down anywhere. I asked.
So I went on a bit of a wild unicorn chase to see if I couldn’t find something that would approximate this megadungeon minigame that I had imagined in my mind. It would need to be simple, straightforward, quick, and challenging but rewarding for skilled players.
After a bit of looking I foundBattle of Cards on the Android app store. By Alexander Petcoglo, Battle of Cards plays just how I imagined this minigame should. Petcoglo developed it as an altered version of the games Scoundrel, designed by Zach Gabe and Kurt Bieg, and Donsol, designed by John Eternal and developed by Hundred Rabbits. My wife and I tweaked it to play with a physical deck of cards rather than an app, and Diamonds & Dragons was born.
Diamonds & Dragons is our new favorite game to play together. I play the Dealer for her while she breastfeeds our newborn son. We’ve been playing non-stop for three months now and the game is still just as good.
I’ve compiled our rules for Diamonds & Dragons, along with a sample game to teach you how to play. There’s also rules for turning it into that sought after megadungeon minigame that I went looking for months ago.
Check it out and let me know what you think. It might just be your new favorite game.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Pastors & Dragons: A D&D Retreat Shire in the Woods, McGrath, Minnesota
This retreat was full!
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.
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
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 was a unique structure and a great home base for our retreat.
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.
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.
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.