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.
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“!
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.
TAKE A LONG REST.
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.
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.
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.
There are some folks out there who say that you can’t be both a Christian and a player of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, or even enjoy the fantasy genre of entertainment. The basic argument is that D&D (and fantasy in general) is more than a game, but rather a real and dangerous meddling with occult beings.
Now I want to take up the second concern that I raised. What is my responsibility as a pastor to my church members? As their pastor and teacher in the Christian faith, should I play D&D knowing that there might be some who look askance at this fantastic hobby? Or should I give up my Dungeon Mastering for the sake of those who feel that faith and fantasy ought not mix?
Let’s go back to the example I used last time, Paul’s advice on eating unclean food and food that has been offered to idols. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans both caution against eating this food publicly. He says, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat.”♠ In Corinthians he says, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”♣ In this sense, playing D&D is not worth offending potentially weak members of my congregation and causing them to stumble in their faith.
One might be tempted at this point to say that role-playing games and the like should be politely denied. Even Luther appears to agree that I should restrict my freedom for the sake of the weak, saying, “If you wish to use your freedom, do so in secret.”♥ Blogging about playing Dungeons & Dragons (and talking about it on podcasts) is hardly done in secret.
I can’t rest here though, for Luther also says something I understand to say that our freedom ought to be embraced and D&D should be played. In describing the plight of the weak in faith, Luther discusses the cause of their weakness. “It is not by their fault that they are weak, but by that of their pastors who have taken them captive with the snares of their traditions and have wickedly used these traditions as rods with which to beat them. They should have been delivered from these pastors by the teachings of faith and freedom.”♦
I worry that by only playing in secret, or by not playing at all, I would become one of these pastors who teaches the snares of tradition rather than faith and freedom. Sound teachers of the freedom of faith are needed. Scriptures also say, “There are also many rebellious people…they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach…. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith….To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.”◊
It seems that the best pastoral option for me in this situation is to play D&D and use it as an opportunity to embolden the weaker members of my congregation and others in the Christian fold with a teaching of faith and freedom. In fact, if I glean anything from what Luther or Titus say about the responsibility of pastors and faith leaders, it’s that we absolutely should embrace this freedom and do so publicly! In this way I am able to both care for those with a weaker faith and also withstand any potentially stubborn members of my congregation who do not yet grasp the powers of faith and cling to the law and their own works.
What I hope for, more than anything, is that someone who is questioning might find my words here. What I hope for is that there would be more voices in the world that are talking and telling about how Christian faith and our daily life can and do mix. What I hope for is that someone who wants to play D&D, but has a religious or moral “authority” tell them they can’t or they shan’t, might find these words and find in them a sound argument for why a Christian can be a more faithful Christian by embracing role-playing games as the spiritually harmless fun that they are.
Now, I am convinced that not only are the reasons not to play D&D spiritually weak and theologically bankrupt, but also that THERE ARE A PLETHORA OF REASONS TO PLAY this amazing game. I believe it can enhance my participation in God’s mission in the world, help me a better Christian and a better pastor, and just teach me to be a better human being. But more on that… next time!
♠ Romans 14:20.
♣ 1 Corinthians 8:13.
♥ Martin Luther, Three Treatises, trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 313.
Jack Chick famously threw down the gauntlet in the fight between “Christianity” and Dungeons & Dragons with his cartoon tract Dark Dungeons.♣ Ever since, there has been a sometimes perceived and sometimes real cultural battle between people of faith and people of fantasy. Although in today’s world arguments like Chick’s are more lambasted than listened to, they still exist and still raise their ugly heads in far too many places. Even just yesterday, as I was sitting in the hospital lobby waiting to visit a parishioner, I found a stack of “Christian” pamphlets, including one that warned of the dangers of “Entertainment, Amusements, & Fun”.
The driving purpose of this entire blog is to provide a sound Christian witness for why such positions are spiritually weak and theologically bankrupt. It almost seems silly for me to write about something that seems so obvious. Why waste my time on debating such small and little listened to positions? But then I remember that stack of “Christian” pamphlets and I hear the voices of those who experience this conflict between faith and fantasy first-hand, perhaps through a religious leader or a parent, and I know that there needs to also be a voice of faith and reason to respond.
So, can a devout Christian play Dungeons & Dragons? What if that person is a pastor? The answer is OF COURSE! Dungeons & Dragons is a game after all, not a portal to the abyss nor a secret cult of devil-worship! But let’s break that obvious (at least to me) answer down, shall we?
Playing D&D as a pastor presents three different questions. First there is the question of whether, according to my Christian faith, it would be ontologically harmful for me to play D&D, or engage in fantasy role playing of any kind. Then there is the question of my responsibility as a pastor to my church members in this situation. Finally I must ask myself how playing or not playing D&D affects the efforts of my and my church’s mission to the world. In my view, the ideal response to the supposed “D&D problem” is one which must deliteralize role playing games, maintain pastoral integrity, and show how Dungeons & Dragons not only does not diminish my participation in God’s mission to the world but even has the potential to enhance it.
This post will be the first of three posts, addressing each of these three points in turn.
So what is Dungeons & Dragons from a Christian perspective? Would playing this game be ontologically harmful to me as a Christian, as Chick and others would like to suggest? Would I be worshipping an idol or engaging in some vile form of sorcery in the process?
The Apostle Paul deals with a very similar issue in 1 Corinthians 8. Paul writes about how a faithful Christian ought to treat food that has been offered to idols. This is food that was actually offered in sacrifice to pagan gods. And what does Paul say? Paul declares that eating food offered to idols is no offense against God or the Christian tradition. He writes, “Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’”♥ Paul maintains the uniqueness and the universality of God, and encounters no ontological conflict in eating food offered to idols.
Paul knows that ‘no idol in the world really exists’. Food offered to pagan gods is offered to nothing but a harmless fantasy. It’s just food. In the same way, engaging in fantasy role playing games like D&D is equally harmless to our spirits. Although we might speak of Bahamut, Tiamat, sorcery, and portals to the abyss, we also know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’. It’s all make believe. There isn’t an actual portal to the abyss. There are no actual devils and demons. As much as the literalists might like to claim otherwise, anybody with unclouded eyes and unclogged ears can see that it’s nothing but harmless fantasy.
The ontological harmlessness of playing D&D and other games like it is supported by Martin Luther in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian”. He writes, “First, with respect to kingship, every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, by virtue of a spiritual power, [he/she] is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do [him/her] any harm. As a matter of fact, all things are made subject to [him/her] and are compelled to serve [him/her] in obtaining salvation.”♠ In this proclamation Luther is saying that even the simple act of playing Dungeons & Dragons is compelled to serve the Christian in obtaining salvation. If D&D is played as an act of the faith of the Christian, knowing the act to be benign, then the faith of that Christian is increased as he/she discovers that indeed no personal spiritual harm has come to him/her.
I’ll leave you with this one final caveat. Let’s say a person with a literalistic faith, say Jack Chick, plays Dungeons & Dragons without this certainty of it being spiritually benign. If such a Christian plays D&D, then that Christian has sinned. Paul writes, “But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”♦ Playing D&D is a work, it’s something we do. If Mr. Chick trusts in the defining characteristic of his works over and against the defining power of faith, then he has sinned. Faith must be what defines the true Christian. For it is only through faith that we come to the experience of God’s abundant grace.
So have faith. Delve your dungeons and defeat your dragons. The only thing you risk in doing so is having an amazing adventure.