One of the things that never scares me as a Dungeon Master is whether or not I’ll be able to challenge my players.
A lot of people worry about this. As a DM you don’t want the game to be too easy and of no consequence. You also don’t want it to be an adversarial and impossible grind that punishes player characters just for existing. You need to find just the right balance of challenge.
I’ve got lots of little tricks that I’ve learned along the way, but the one that has been the most freeing for me has been this little rule: “Your character only stays dead if you want them to.”
I unabashedly embrace resurrection in my games. I always provide a way back from the dead, and one that doesn’t take up too much table time, though it might provide an opportunity for other characters to make a sacrifice for their fallen ally. In a current campaign one player made a deal with an evil NPC to raise their comrade from the dead, while another had an opportunity to offer up one of their own bones for the sake of a resurrection.
Embracing resurrection in your TTRPG also teaches an important faith lesson: Death is not the end of our story. God overcame death, so that we could do the same. Death need not be feared.
Without being afraid of killing the PCs at my table, I embrace things like putting monsters in front of players that hit like a dump truck and knock them out, rolling dice in the open and letting them fall where they lie, putting giant mobs of monsters in front of them, making them figure out how to actually overcome difficult challenges or even come back from the dead.
I’ve knocked out and killed plenty of characters in my games, but there’s always that rule “Your character only stays dead if you want them to.” This rule has created deep and meaningful story moments as the players get the opportunity to role play with grief and loss, emotions that we often shun. It’s beneficial for us to experience these grittier emotions, especially if we can do so in a relatively safe way. A bit of grit is a good thing. The grit gives our stories and our lives definition.
Character death also has a game mechanics benefit. It gives players an opportunity to respec their PCs, or say goodbye and build a whole new character if they like. I find that a lot of times they’re ready for some kind of change. It’s an opportunity for the player to consider their character and if their story is complete just yet.
And if you TPK the party of heroes? Well it’s the same rule. They stay dead only if the players want them to. Mostly a TPK is just an opportunity to up the stakes a bit. Fail forward and raise them up in a hairy situation with an opportunity to overcome defeat.
You can’t learn to rise if you never get the chance to fall.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.