Either you play D&D, or you want to play D&D, or your child plays, or your child wants to play.
Everyone’s into D&D these days. Just look at Stranger Things.
I’m going to tell one extremely geeky D&D story. It’s my hope this story, as intricate and granular as it may be, can offer those new to the genre as well as those steeped in the genre some insights not only into table-top role-playing culture, but also some echoes for progressive Christian faith as well.
So here we go.
Two weeks ago R.A. Salvatore (bestselling novelist and author of the Drizzt Do’Urden novels–the bestselling D&D novel franchise ever) retweeted the post of his dungeon master. Here’s the tweet:
A bit of explanation for the uninitiated. R. A. Salvatore is THE D&D novelist. For proof, simply go to Barnes & Noble and take a look at the shelf-space devoted to him.
Salvatore plays D&D, he doesn’t just write novels in the universe. And this post is by his DM. A DM is a dungeon master. In table-top role-playing games, typically each player plays one character (a player character, or PC), and one person is the DM. They create the world and setting in which the players play, and moderates the rules and the game.
In this case, Salvatore’s DM took a game he had written for his table and turned it into an actual “module,” a story and dungeon you can play for yourself after purchasing it from the DM’s Guild, basically a source (curated by Wizards of the Coast, the owner’s of the D&D franchise) for all things Dungeon Master’s might need to run campaigns and sessions.
I received a comp copy for a review. I decided to review it here on my Patheos blog, at least in part to expose readers to a hobby to which I devote a considerable amount of time recreationally.
My D&D Origin Story
Many if not most people of my generation have a D&D story. Somehow we got interested in the game (for me, it was buying a copy of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons at the Waldenbooks at the mall in 1981). I lived on a farm, nobody I knew played D&D, so mostly I just bored one of my best friends telling him all about the game over the phone.
I didn’t get a chance to play in a group until college. My freshman year, I played a bit of Shadowrun with friends, but things got really busy and I dropped it from my priorities. I also had an RA who told me one night while I was reading a Drizzt Do’Urden novel that “garbage in, garbage out,” and I think I probably drank a bit of the anti-RPG Koolaid.
I’ve since gotten to a different place theologically and religiously around RPGs, obviously, but it’s hard to over-state how much the “Christian” campaign against DnD back in that era impacted all of us who wanted to role-play.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I finally got back into D&D through another role-playing game, Numenera. Different rule system, far future setting where technology is indistinguishable from magic. I started playing online via a platform called Roll20. This was while my kids were still little, so I would play late at night after all were in bed.
Now the kids are older, and they themselves have gotten into DnD. I have a steady adult group I play with once a night Friday nights. We’re actually using the new Shadowrun 6th edition rules right now.
But I have two other gaming groups, one with a group of sixth graders, another with a group of 8th graders, and at least right now all of these games are in the Dungeons & Dragons universe (Faerun, to be exact, although the sixth graders started in Eberron).
For the uninitiated, D&D exists in a multi-verse, so you can play with the same rules but in different “worlds.” Many of these are like “real” worlds with magic… Eberron, Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Faerun, Ravnica… but there are also many “planes” of existence, like the abyssal plane where demons dwell, the celestial plane where angels dwell, elemental planes, and so forth.
This is one aspect of role-playing I love. Not only do you get to create a character, as if you were acting in a play. You also get to create the world in which the characters play. You get to build worlds.
The Review of the Vile Crypt of the Reawakened SisterhoodI downloaded the module from the DM Guild and printed it out. I prefer to have it in paper so I can refer to pages more quickly. Also, there are maps, and hieroglyphs to translate, so it’s more immersive for all involved to work with paper.
This particular dungeon is a classic “dungeon crawl.” There’s not a lot of espionage, or court drama. It’s not an open-sandbox or maker space where players can work in a freeform way. It is a dungeon, pure and simple, and the goal is to get in, achieve your goal, and get out, most likely killing as many monsters as possible while not dying along the way.
Those of us who have grown up with D&D still have the most nostalgia for these classic dungeon crawls. Probably most of us spent hours drawing dungeons on graph paper from quite early, and may still do to this day.
The trick with a dungeon is to design it in such a way so the party is challenged, they can’t just waltz in and get the treasure, but also not so absolutely difficult that they simply die right away when they enter.
In this particular dungeon, the author has done an incredible job creating boundaries and gates that make it a challenge to enter. This makes the dungeon feel a lot like a good video game. At first, you fight some easy battles, solve a couple of simple puzzles. But then things get increasingly harrowing, and you have to buff your skills and abilities in order to survive.
Also, it’s a dungeon full of undead things. There’s not much that causes moral confusion. It’s not like you have to ask yourself with the undead, “I don’t know, am I terrible person if I kill this zombie?”
Our group is two sessions in. Each session has taken 3.5 hours, and I think we probably have that much time again necessary to complete the dungeon. It remains to be seen how the party will engage the “boss battle” and whether they’ll succeed.
And Now An Attempt To Connect to Progressive Christianity
For one, it’s worth knowing there is a massive and active community of people playing RPGs basically everywhere today. New books in the Dungeons & Dragons franchise regularly go to the top of the best-seller list, and a lot of Kickstarter projects (like the Immersive Battle Maps I use in our sessions) raise millions of dollars from backers.
Almost all of these gamers, at least those over 30 or so, remember back when there was an entire Christian industry attempting to discredit role-playing as “demonic.” You can still find this kind of movement today, with some conservative Christian groups attempting to remove Harry Potter novels from public school libraries because they’re supposedly “occult.”
Although many of these Christians may be too closed-minded to reconsider, and some gamers are perhaps too negatively affected to ever consider Christian community again, nevertheless Christians and Christian leaders overtly engaged in gaming and part of gaming communities can make a difference.
I know from personal experience that gaming as a pastor has meant parents of kids, people from communities sometimes alienated from religious faith (like members of the trans community, as just one example) find a certain level of relief and promise in simply meeting a pastor who games.
But more broadly speaking, I believe there’s a real synergy between RPGs and the work of theology. I know for myself reading a rulebook and reading a work of systematic theology engages the same parts of the brain for me.
Not only that, but the capacity to imagine world, the capacity to believe in that which is beyond or outside the known, has been championed by many of our greatest Christian novelists. Think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay On Faerie Stories, the work of C.S. Lewis, or more recently J.K. Rowling, who although she created a world that didn’t overtly forward Christianity, had as an underlying source and motif Christian values and worldview.
To such a degree there’s even whole podcasts engaging the Harry Potter novels as sacred texts.
Finally, it should be noted that, in a very basic sense, Christianity relies on an entire community to imagine a shared world together. That’s literally what church is. You need to have that shared imagination to actually play the game. You may not roll dice, and the rulebook is different, but that sense of joy you get when you realize everyone around the table wants to play the same game with you, because they all love it?