The 7 Deadlies: Playing at the End of the World (Part 2)

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.

It was also a chance to play Ten Candles.

Ten Candles is a newer indie-RPG by Stephen Dewey in which the end of the world happens and the characters all die. Here’s the description from the website, where you can purchase the PDF for a very much worth-it $10:

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.

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The 7 Deadlies: on sin in role playing (Part 1)

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.

Additional Rules for the DUNGEON! Fantasy Board Game

And now for something completely different…

Not long ago I picked up the most recent iteration of the DUNGEON! board game. My wife and I played together and it was pretty fun. The rules are simple and straightforward. Roll the dice. Beat the monster. Take the stuff.

dungeon

But it has some rough edges. The four classes are imbalanced, or rather they’re balanced by moving the goal post. Rogues and Clerics need to gather 10,000 gp, Fighters need 20,000 gp, and Wizards 30,000 gp. It works, but it’s inelegant, and not as fun as the alternative. I mean, who wants to only face off against kobolds, dire rats, and giant bats when there are dragons and liches in the dungeon?

So I homebrewed some simple rules to equalize the classes. Now you can play a Rogue, Cleric, or Fighter and still have just as much of a chance of surviving those beastly sixth level baddies as the Wizard.

The DM Pastor’s DUNGEON! House Rules

All classes require the same amount of treasure to win the game: 30,000 gp. Alternatively, you can mutually agree upon a lower total for a shorter game.

Dungeon! Board Game

FIGHTER

  • You have three Action Points. (represented by three stones, chits, jewels, or whatever.)
    • You can use one action point per turn to make one additional attack against a monster. Make this attack before the Monster fights back.
    • You regain one spent Action Point whenever you roll doubles, but you can never have more than the three Action Points you started with.

ROGUE

  • You gain the ability to Sneak.
    • When entering a room or chamber, roll 1 die. If you roll a 3 to 6, you are Sneaking and the Monster does not see you.
    • Draw a Monster card (and a Treasure card if you are in a room). Do not show the Monster or Treasure card to other players. Put the card(s) in the first open number slot, but keep them face down. Put the matching Number token in the room or chamber.
    • If you fail your Sneak roll, the Monster sees you and attacks as normal.
  • While you are Sneaking, you gain three additional options in the encounter.
    • Steal – You can swap the room’s Treasure card or one of the dropped Treasures in the room (if there are any) with one of the Treasure cards from your stash. Your turn ends.
    • Sneak Attack – Attack the Monster with Advantage. Roll 2 dice twice and take the higher result.
    • Pass Through – If you have not moved your full 5 spaces, you can complete your movement by passing through the room without engaging.

CLERIC

  • Protection – Your proficiency in defense and the graces of your god protect you in battle. The results of a Monster’s attack are one step less severe than they would normally be.
    • Crushed! becomes Seriously Hurt.
    • Seriously Hurt becomes Hurt.
    • Hurt becomes Stunned.
    • Stunned becomes Miss!
  • Spellcasting – Your devotion grants you divine magical power. You prepare spells before the game begins. Roll 1 die and add 6 to the result. This is the number of Spells you have prepared. Use the same Spell cards as the Wizard. If there are multiple spell casters, take turns selecting 1 Spell card at a time. You can regain Spells following the same steps as the Wizard. Clerics can know two spells: Hold Monster and Lance of Faith.
    • Hold Monster (use the Teleport Spell card)
      • If you have enough movement left to enter a room or chamber, you may use this spell on a Monster inside. First, stop at the door of the room or in the space next to the chamber. Say that you’re casting Hold Monster. If the Monster is not already revealed, you must decide to cast the Spell before drawing a Monster card.
      • When cast, the Monster is paralyzed for 1 turn. Move into the room and make an attack, adding an additional +2 to your result. If you miss, the Monster cannot counterattack you this turn.
    • Lance of Faith (use the Lightning Bolt Spell card)
      • You attack with radiant energy! Use the same mechanics as the Wizard’s Lightning Bolt Spell to resolve the attack.

Finding Purpose in the Sandbox

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Thy Fates open their hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them”

~Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

My heroes are struggling to know what to do.

In the D&D world I’ve created, they are caught up in a giant tug of war. The former government of wizards is fighting the current government of warriors. Demons seem to be aiding the conflict in an effort to create more chaos. In the middle of it all, there are these adventurers, and they don’t know whose side they’re on. They’ve been recruited by both sides. They’ve made friendships and enemies on both sides. They’re not strong enough to overthrow everyone and start their own government, nor can they take on the evil demon orchestrating it all. They can’t even find seem to find the big bad.

It’s a Dungeon Master’s worst nightmare. When I start a game session, I truly have no idea which direction the team is going to go. Talk about making it difficult to prepare!

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night there’s a line, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I assumed that the PCs in my game were born great. I didn’t worry about building them up, I figured that the nature of the game, the fantastic powers they would wield, and the epic tasks they would be able to pursue would take care of that.

Instead I focused on creating a world that feels alive and active. I’ve tried to create a world where the paths untaken turn into consequences down the road. I’ve tried to create a complex sandbox of a world where grey areas are abundant and where the black and white binary thinking of good and evil is complicated. I tried to create a great world for the great PCs to live in. To a large degree, I’ve succeeded.

And my poor adventurers don’t know what to do.

They lack purpose and direction.

Which has gotten me thinking about a very basic question, “How do we find purpose? What gives us direction?” As a pastor and as a dungeon master, part of my task is in helping people to find purpose, meaning, and direction. This is as true for my players and their characters as it is for my parishioners and their lives.

In my game, I could take the opposite approach. I could put my players’ characters on a track and railroad them into purpose with a non-optional direction. I could thrust greatness upon them. “You’re going to save the world whether you want to or not!” Yet, you don’t have to scratch that approach too deeply to find out how shallow and unsatisfying it truly is. There needs to be more.

So, without the railroad, where does one look for purpose and direction? How do you get the PCs to achieve greatness?

As a pastor, one of the places I look most often is Baptism.

The waters of baptism uncover all sorts of things. Those waters uncover our limits, our mistakes, our failings, our sins, our mortality. Those waters uncover a truth deeper than our sins – our identity as a beloved child of God. Those waters uncover a calling on our life, a purpose for which we were created. Namely that is, in my church’s liturgy, “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

In some ways, baptism comes with a greatness that is thrust upon you. The purpose of baptism is poured out upon you. You are immersed in that purpose. We find that purpose originating outside of us as the Word of God comes to us from beyond the boundaries of ourselves. It’s a purpose that we experience as coming from another direction too, from inside. Baptism uncovers the depths of who we are and who we were created to be.

Baptism uncovers the origins of purpose. They are both inside and outside ourselves

*******

When you become a pastor, one of the stories that you get used to telling is your “Call Story”. It’s the story of how you decided that you wanted to be a pastor. While each person’s story is somewhat different, they almost always contain the same two elements: the ‘inward call’ and the ‘outward call’.

The inward call is the part of the story where people consider their own dreams, desires, abilities, and enjoyments. It comes when you think or pray about who you are as a person and then ask the question, “And what does this person, who is me, want to do?”

My sandboxy Dungeons & Dragons has been pretty good at figuring out the inward call part. As my players created their characters, I asked about backstories. I pushed them to do some character work. They rolled their abilities. They know what they are good at, what they are bad at, and what they like or don’t like to do.

But like I said at the beginning, they still lack purpose and direction. My poor adventurers know who they are, they know that they are great, but they still don’t know what to do.

The inward call, by itself, is not enough. If someone shows up at seminary, thinking they will make a great pastor, but those around them have never affirmed that, then chances are that person will in fact not make a great pastor. Thinking you are great and being great are two very different things.

In the same way, the outward call by itself would also not be enough. Just because others think you are good at something, or even if you are actually good at something, doesn’t mean that you find enjoyment or fulfillment in doing it. I can thrust greatness upon my players, but without their participation in achieving that greatness it rings hollow. That’s why in the process of going through seminary, people are always being asked about both the inward call and the outward call.

And that, I realize, is where my little D&D campaign is falling short. While my heroes know who they are and what they can do, they have received very little affirmation from the NPCs in the game. They’ve been asked to do this or that: guard this caravan, investigate this stranger, free these prisoners. However, I’m realizing that these have been haphazard, and that in creating a complex world I’ve created a world where those primary voices of affirmation are lacking. My heroes have few close friends that they trust completely. They don’t know who to trust. And since they don’t know whose words to trust, they have been robbed of the one source of that outward calling.

To achieve greatness, the heroes need trusted affirmation. As a Dungeon Master, I need to make sure that there are NPCs that they can trust that can do the affirming. And while, as the DM, I can’t decide who the PCs are going to trust and who they are not going to trust, I can decide who to make trustworthy.

In our lives as people, we need to be inwardly asking and outwardly listening if we are going to flourish and experience the fullness of life. There are two questions. The question of inward call is, “Who do I say that I am?” The question of outward call is,  “What do those whom I trust tell me about myself, and what do they ask of me?”

Hopefully with a bit more of the outward call, my heroes will find their purpose, and finally they will find some purpose in the sandbox.

Life & Death on the Tabletop

Although I have been Dungeon Mastering just as much as ever,

But because there has been a big change-up in my pastoring, and lately I’ve been doing more than ever,

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from this little corner of the web, the DUNGEON MASTER PASTOR.

But I’ve been thinking lately… about life and death.

In Dungeons & Dragons, life and death is dealt with almost haphazardly. The game is built off of dealing death to horrible monsters and evil humanoids. To advance in the game, characters must learn to kill. The deaths of others bring life and flourishing (in the form of experience points) to the PC. And every now and then, a player character will fail in their death dealing and be dealt death themselves.

As a pastor, I often deal with death. It comprises a much larger part of my job than I realized when I first dreamed of going into the ministry. I am often called to be with people in the final days and even the final moments of their lives. Then I am called again to help their families begin to grieve and try to understand what this death means in their lives.

Sometimes a death, depending on its circumstances, will highlight a particular aspect of a person’s life. Sometimes it will reveal some significance that had been previously hidden. Sometimes a death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, sometimes a death is the culmination of a long and drawn out process. Death can be unjust. Death can be welcomed. Death is always grieved, no matter the individual.

In my church, we’ve had a wave of funerals recently that I’m still in the middle of. (There are few things that can tire a pastor out as much as back to back to back to back funerals.)

In my D&D game, we’ve just had our second major PC death. The first character death came in the depths of the Taboo Temple on the Isle of Dread, where an elderly & overweight monk met his demise in the kopru mud pits. The second came as the brave and upright fighter challenged the son of a demon lord and lost, surrounded by an inescapable gauntlet of the  demon’s followers. (DM Disclaimer: It was his idea to pick a fight in those circumstances, not mine.)

As I think about life and death, I find there’s a lot in common between the deaths of my players’ characters and the deaths of my parishioners. They each highlighted something special about the characters, they added a layer of meaning that was more difficult to discern before.

My task as a preacher is to speak a word of meaning and purpose into the foggy loss of grief. It is to speak the resurrection, when the cross is presently felt.

My task as a dungeon master is much the same. When one of my players’ characters dies, that death should ring with significance. I figure that there’s enough unearned suffering in the real world that in the fantasy world I build as a Dungeon Master I want death to mean something. Maybe that significance is to highlight the bravery of the fighter as they face down the demon unafraid of the consequences. Or maybe that significance is that the bumbling and ill-fortuned character finally bumbles too far into ill-fortune.

As a DM, this means that sometimes I don’t let the dice stand as I roll them. I will blunt the edge of a more meaningless demise in favor of a better one later on. Maybe that means an NPC ally rushes in at those final moments and stabilizes a dying character. Maybe it means that the monster suddenly has a few fewer hit points when I realize that the heroes won’t last another round.

As a DM, making death meaningful for the PCs also means that I need to strive to make the other deaths in the game meaningful. When the PCs lay waste to a maurading band of lizard folk, those deaths should mean something (both for the rescued villagers and also for the larger colony of lizard folk that band hailed from). The death of a major villain should reverberate throughout the ranks of that villain’s followers, and perhaps inspire the villain’s apprentice or rival to avenge that death. A monster’s death might reveal a hidden fact about the life of that creature that the characters discover as they are looting the body. All this is just another way to say that the actions of the PCs should affect and reverberate in the fictional world, perhaps especially so when that action is dealing death.

Making death on the tabletop into a meaningful experience is as much a part of the Dungeon Master’s task as making death in real life meaningful is a part of the task of a pastor. Death is an opportunity to tell another part of the story, whether that’s the story of a player character or the story of a person’s life and God’s love and the kingdom of heaven.

The alternative, often realized, is devolving into a raging bunch of murderhobos.

 

Imagine Better: Christians SHOULD Play D&D (Part 3)

To wrap up this little trio of posts (here’s Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to think about a little more than just the question, “Can I, as a Christian, play D&D?” I want to talk about, “As a Christian, should I play D&D?” I have a hunch that playing Dungeons & Dragons, and other role-playing games like it, can actually enhance a Christian’s ability to take part in God’s mission to the world.

First, let’s talk about God’s mission. I reject an understanding of Christian mission whose primary goal is converting “non-believers” into “believers”. Instead I believe the Church’s mission is to represent the Reign of God, emphasizing verses like Matthew 10:7, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near,’” and Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Being a citizen of God’s Kingdom frees me to love, care, and advocate for the poor, sick, outcast, and oppressed. This is the second part of that definition of a Christian that I was talking about earlier, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all.”

I think playing Dungeons & Dragons enhances my capacity to love and care for my neighbor. Specifically, playing role-playing games like D&D helps me to better imagine my neighbor.

D&D is already being used by psychotherapists to teach the skill of empathy to autistic children.♠ But as recent events in our country have shown, we all need a lesson.

Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man (and coincidentally my wife’s high school classmate), was shot multiple times by a police officer while sitting in his car after being pulled over for a broken taillight. He was shot as he reached into his back pocket to get his driver’s license, because the officer imagined that he was reaching for a gun.

That officer, like many in the United States, had a horribly sick imagination about what black men were like. He could only weakly imagine this black man as the stereotype of black men: criminal, violent, a thug. It didn’t matter that Philando Castile didn’t have a criminal record. It didn’t matter that he worked at a public school where he memorized the names of all 500 kids and their respective food allergies. It didn’t matter who Philando actually was, because the officer’s anemic imagination pictured him as something else: a threat.

The day after Philando was killed, people gathered in Dallas, TX to protest. They were protesting the killing of Philando Castile and that of Alton Sterling and those of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and the long line of other Black people and people of color who have lost their lives – for no reason – at the hands of our criminal justice system. As those people marched, law enforcement was there with them, protecting their right to peaceably assemble.

Then Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old black man, decided that that protest would be a good opportunity. He used that opportunity to ambush the law enforcement, shooting to kill as many white police officers as he could. He killed five. He did this because his imagination was sick and he imagined that killing white police officers would help solve his problems. He lacked the complexity of imagination to see that those individuals were anything more to the world than the uniforms they were wearing and the color of their skin.

Our inability to imagine our neighbors with empathy and complexity stands in the way of reconciliation. We need to do better. We need to add complexity to our imaginations about who somebody might be or what somebody’s life might be like. It’s impossible for us to fully know all the people in this world, but it is possible for us to imagine the worlds myriad people with more empathy and with a complexity that goes beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

D&D exercises our imaginations. When we step into the shoes of a hero, the game challenges us to think and act according to personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws that aren’t necessarily our own. By playing at being somebody else, our capacity to imagine better those who are different from us improves. As the DM, I’m challenged to imagine how a whole hoard of creatures and people might act. This type of play actively challenges me to expand my mind and think about a wide variety of people and their motives and goals and values.

This past Sunday, I read the story of the Good Samaritan in my churches. I preached about how Jesus uses this story to get the lawyer (and us) to think about our neighbors with more complexity. Yes, the Samaritans might be the people with whom we don’t want to mix. Yes, the Samaritans just refused to offer hospitality to Jesus. But still Jesus uses a Samaritan to be the hero of his story, to be the shining example of the love for one’s neighbor.

When we play Dungeons & Dragons, we try to think about how dwarves, elves, humans, gnomes, half-orcs, and any number of the other host of races and creatures might get along and go about righting the world’s wrongs together. This play has the power to prepare us to imagine our own real world neighbors better. And at least for me, it gives me an example of how a people who are so different from one another might band together to make the world a better place.

I think we desperately need more of this sort of complex imagination, and I believe that D&D gives everyone, including Christians, a way to exercise that very thing.


♠ DR. Rafael Boccamazzo on D&D and Autism http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/dr-raffael-boccamazzo-dd-and-autism

Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26675155

PASTORS Can Play D&D! (Part 2)

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.

Even though I really don’t agree with them, I took those concerns for face value in my previous post. I showed that Christ has the power to free us from our fear of demons (frees us from our fear of everything, really). I also reminded folks that D&D IS A HARMLESS GAME!

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.

♦ Luther, 312.

◊ Titus 1:10-15.

Christians CAN Play D&D! (Part 1)

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.

Next up: Can a responsible pastor enjoy the RPG pastime? Spoiler: YES!


♣ If you really want to see the ridiculousness, go to http://www.chick.com/READING/TRACTS/0046/0046_01.ASP.

♥ 1 Corinthians 8:4

♠ Martin Luther, Three Treatises, trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 289.

♦ Romans 14:23

The Epic Life of a Disciple

In my last post I talked about Lasting Direction, Higher Purpose, Real Risk, Unexpected Reward. These four marks help to identify an epic life. (“The 4 Marks of an Epic Life”) As the “Dungeon Master Pastor” it should come as no surprise that I channel this into my life of faith.

For me, epic living is what following Jesus is all about. The life of a disciple has all four marks. Each one can be seen in the Bible in places where Jesus talks about what following him will be like.

Direction: The disciple’s lasting direction is the direction of the eternal Jesus. 

Matthew 4:18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Purpose: The disciple’s higher purpose is fulfill the great commission of Jesus.

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Risk: The disciple, like Jesus, risks the real threat of the cross in following Jesus.

Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 

Reward: The disciple, like Jesus, is rewarded a gift so unexpected it’s terrifying – resurrection from death. 

Mark 16:6 But the young man said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

I feel like these are the most basic of things in the Christian faith, and yet more often than not we Christians lead lives that could hardly be called “epic”. The promise of comfort and safety often seem to trump any the higher purpose of the Gospel. People live in predictable patterns taking predictable risks for predictable rewards.

Epic living comes from doing more than the predictable. It comes from truly following Jesus, striving to live the purposeful life of a disciple, risking safety and comfort, only to be surprised when the Kingdom of God suddenly shows up, as if out of nowhere.

Following Jesus makes for one epic life.

 

The 4 Marks of an Epic Life

One of the things I love about D&D is that it gives players an opportunity to be epic. Sometimes life can be mundane and meaningless, but epic life… that’s a horse of a different color. What’s different about life when it’s lived epically, you ask? Here are my 4 marks of an epic life:

1. Epic living has lasting direction. There is movement and progression. An epic life doesn’t stand still. I mean, imagine playing a role playing game where you just sat there. It’s not much fun is it? Furthermore, this direction is one that lasts. It’s possible to live a frantic life pulled in many directions, different every day, but that’s hardly epic. It’s more just plain exhausting.

2. Epic living has higher purpose. An epic life participates in something greater than itself. In Dungeons & Dragons player characters are often caught up quests and circumstances that go beyond themselves: slaying a nasty marauding dragon to save the town, restoring the worship of a lost God, fighting in a massive war to protect the homeland from an invading army.

3. Epic living has real risks. An epic life forgoes safety and comfort for the sake of direction and purpose. In D&D your character Gina the Fighter is much more likely to survive to a ripe old age if she doesn’t venture into the lair of the big nasty giant. The game isn’t very fun for the players or the DM if the characters just bulldoze their way through every monster. Their decisions should have consequences. If they make bad decisions, the risk that their character would die has to be real.

4. Epic living has unexpected rewards.  An epic life is rewarded in unforeseen ways. A life’s purpose might include the seeking of a certain reward: say Gina the Fighter has the purpose of acquiring wealth, which leads her to take the risk of entering the giant’s lair in search of his hoard of gold. But having striven for that purpose, Gina also wins an unexpected reward: she returns to the village where she’s surprised by the villagers who now praise her as GINA THE GIANT SLAYER and elect her mayor of the village. She might also find that through this experience she has new unexpected courage to face even larger foes.

Direction, Purpose, Risk, Reward. These four marks help to identify an epic life.

Now there are many different ways that an epic life might be pursued. The direction, purpose, risk, and reward for one person is likely going to look very different from that of another. But there are equally many ways to retreat from epic living. In my experience, comfort and safety often seem to trump any sense of a higher purpose. We live in predictable patterns taking predictable risks for predictable rewards. Maybe that sort of life works for some people, but for me that sounds like the downright doldrums.

D&D is being used today to teach people all sorts of things. Some teachers incorporate it into their classroom to help kids learn math. Some psychologists use it to help teach social skills and empathy to autistic children. Others have found that playing D&D helps people to unlock their creativity and improvisational skills. I think this game can be used to teach us to recognize and to live a more epic life.

There are a lot of people out there who talk about using a role playing game in this sort of a way. One of the best for me was Dan Harmon when he was interviewed on the Dungeons & Dragons podcast.

This is a game where we can really wrestle with the tension between who we are and who we want to be.