They say confessions are good for the soul but bad for the reputation. In any case, here’s mine: once a week, a group gathers at my house to play games. Sometimes we play Codenames or card games, but most of the time we play the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
There’s an engineer playing a gnome tinkerer, a fellow academic playing a monk (think Shaolin, not St. Benedict), a PhD student playing a druid, and an IT professional playing a barbarian. We’re all fully employed, all happily married, and all Christians.The beauty of the game is the simplicity with which one can evoke a scene, and the freedom given to the players to creatively interact.
More than half of us grew up in houses where playing D&D was forbidden. Many of us still keep our hobby on the down low. Writing publicly that I play D&D will not play well with some of my Facebook friends. It will do nothing good for my teaching career in Christian higher ed. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that Dungeons & Dragons, first published in 1974, came to national prominence through a series of high profile cases, those of James Egbert III and Irving Pulling II, that made the game a household name for all the wrong reasons. A popular game in the very niche tabletop gaming world, the moral panic these cases incited both popularized the game and cemented its reputation. Now, I imagine that most of the people reading this article don’t need an apologetic for D&D, but the suspicion is still real, especially in Christian circles. I’ve heard a pastor at a very large, hip, megachurch warn people against playing. I worked for a campus ministry that told some of its employees to disband their group or change games. I know of at least one Christian magazine that can’t talk about the possible benefits of this RPG without getting outcry from its supporters. The suspicion of D&D may not be all that widespread anymore, but it’s still real. This article is mainly for anyone who still has to defend the game.
Basics and Background
Before talking about the cases that made D&D famous and nefarious, it might help the reader who has never rolled the twenty-sided die for me to describe the game. The essence of D&D is this: players control a single character of a certain class (e.g., a wizard, fighter, cleric, or rogue) who respond to situations described by the dungeon master (DM), who also adjudicates the rules. For example:
DM: You stand in front of a locked door on the side of a mountain. A vast, fetid pond stretches out behind you.
Wizard: I cast the spell “Knock” to unlock the door.
DM: The door remains closed. However, Elvish writing appears above the door. It reads, “Speak, friend, and enter.”
The beauty of the game is the simplicity with which one can evoke a scene, and the freedom given to the players to creatively interact. There’s no programming language controlling the environment and the characters, just the imagination of the group interacting with a shared narrative. Sometimes, however, the success or failure of an action needs to be decided by the rules. Here the dice come into play.
The imaginative world of D&D is roughly consistent with the fantasy tradition embraced by Christian writers like Lewis and Tolkien. It allows greater freedom than the constrained worlds of fiction, but the imaginative world is not entirely different…
Wizard: I try to recall all the Elvish passwords I know.
DM: OK, this is going to require a history check. Roll the d20 and add your history skill bonus.
Wizard: I got a 10.
DM: That’s not great. You recall many passwords, but none that do the trick.
Rogue: I’m getting bored. I throw a rock in the pond.
DM: The water ripples from the stone, then from something else moving beneath the surface. Everyone roll for initiative.
D&D grew out of historical wargaming. Its major innovation was switching the focus from controlling an army to controlling a single character. Creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson originally conceived of the game much like the wargames from which it evolved. Gameplay was primarily strategic, surviving the traps and monsters of the dungeon to collect gold and level up. Though this kind of play has remained central to the game, some have argued to its detriment, the storytelling possibilities of the game soon became apparent to the company and the creators. Single encounters grew into ongoing “campaigns” (using wargaming terminology) where characters battled alongside one another for many sessions. Some campaigns have been known to stretch for years, even decades.
Throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, D&D’s popularity rose within the niche gaming world. Of course, being the world’s biggest role-playing game is a bit like being the world’s biggest gnat, an accomplishment that doesn’t mean much to the wider world. This relative obscurity would soon become a major issue for D&D, as it was about to become a household name without becoming a household game. Suspicious people who had never played the game or had any experience with it would become D&D’s greatest enemy.
Mazes and Moral Panics
In 1979, a sixteen-year-old Michigan State University student named James Egbert III disappeared for more than a month. His concerned parents hired a famous private investigator named William Dear to help find him. Dear was known for his unconventional methods and showmanship, and, finding some D&D books in Egbert’s room, surmised that the intelligent young man had gone down into the steam tunnels under the university to act out his dungeon-crawling fantasy in real life. The story gained national attention, especially as the manhunt stretched out.
Dear, who possessed a creative talent that might have made him a very good DM, propagated what would become a major theme in early D&D criticism: Egbert has become so absorbed in the game that he lost touch with reality. “In some instances when a person plays the game [D&D] you actually leave your body and go out of your mind,” Dear told the press. A month later, Egbert was found alive in Louisiana, not in the steam tunnels, having failed at a suicide attempt. That Egbert was two years younger than the average college student, socially isolated, using drugs, and struggling with his sexuality (all understandable reasons for suicidal desires) was lost to the more exciting story that incepted itself into the public mind. The story grew so popular that a book, and later a film starring a young Tom Hanks, was loosely based on the story. In Mazes & Monsters (CBS, 1982), the blurred reality theme reinforced the notion that D&D is bad for psychological health. In the movie, Hanks’s character loses touch with reality altogether, believing himself to be his character, and trying to “fly” off of the Twin Towers before being saved by his gaming group. There’s no significant evidence to back up the notion that D&D disconnects people from reality, but the story persists.Though D&D has not been shown to correlate to occult activity, Leithart and Grant make the more sensible case that fictional interaction with occult spells, summoning demons, and making pacts with devils is “expressly forbidden” by Scripture.
A second major theme, and the one that likely concerns Christians, is the idea that D&D is a gateway to occult activity. When Irving Pulling II killed himself in 1982, his mother found D&D books among his things and discovered that her son had been playing the game without her knowledge. Much like William Dear, Patricia Pulling drew the conclusion, without evidence, that the game’s occult elements led to Satanic activity. She founded a group dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of the game, B.A.D.D. (Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons) and wrote a book called The Devil’s Web (Vital Issues Press, 1989). The two themes coincided in what is surely to be the most widely read criticism of D&D, the Jack Chick tract Dark Dungeons, which tells the story of a young girl drawn into satanic activity, who overly identifies with her character, and then hangs herself (the perfect trifecta of parental worries). Though Pulling’s and Chick’s condemnations of D&D are a hodgepodge of exaggerated claims and systematic misinterpretation of the game, more grounded voices weighed in against it as well.
Theologian Peter Leithart co-wrote an early cautionary pamphlet, making the case that D&D’s inclusion of devils, black magic, and occult imagery made it unacceptable for faithful Christians. Though D&D has not been shown to correlate to occult activity, Leithart and Grant make the more sensible case that fictional interaction with occult spells, summoning demons, and making pacts with devils is “expressly forbidden” by Scripture. Here I have more sympathy with this concern. These are the things I dislike about D&D as well. What is a Christian to think? What does Jerusalem have to do with the Forgotten Realms? Most of the remainder of this article is directed to this more biblically grounded concern.
Dungeon Mastering and Discernment
Despite the potency of these early worries about the game, Dungeons & Dragons is bigger than ever. New volumes for the game’s fifth edition frequently top the New York Times Best Sellers list. Schools are starting D&D clubs. Live streaming on Twitch teaches the game to players who have never darkened the door of their FLGS (“friendly local [board] gaming store,” to the uninitiated). Hundreds of actual-play podcasts and Dungeon Master (DM) advice shows clutter iTunes. The popular Twitch show Critical Role, which features players and a DM who are professional actors, gathered more than 100,000 viewers for its most recent season premier. Their videos have millions of views on YouTube. And Christians, now in a different cultural moment, no longer taking the old cautionary stance toward culture, are jumping in. My colleagues with teenage children are asking me about the game. Their kids want to play, and they want advice.
Though I often find “whataboutism” an unhelpful response, a bit of this is warranted here. Christians, by and large, have accepted that magic-heavy works such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia all can be consumed as a part of a well-balanced entertainment diet—not to mention video games and card games that trade in standard fantasy tropes. Even conservative organizations like the Christian Research Journal have commended Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering with a dose of discernment. Many Christian parents allow their children to play video games with spellcasting. Very often these games, like Skyrim, allow the player to decide how virtuously the player will act. Open-world video games offer a freedom to make good-or-bad decisions while still progressing well toward in-game goals. If D&D is ruled out on account of its magic, then it’s reasonable to press for a bit more consistency.[D&D] games rise and fall with the people at the table. The gameplay is defined by the rules and the dice, but the world is yours for the making.
A difference that is often pointed out is that role-playing games offer a more immersive engagement with, say, spellcasting, than a card game. Though here the difference is more in degree than in kind. D&D requires no “casting” of spells in any sense beyond the merely mechanical. Your wizard may cast fireballs, but there’s no actual ritual involved or connection to real-world arcana for the player. You spend a spell slot and deploy a fiery sphere that does 8d6 damage. Simply put, players are not required to dabble in the occult. The imaginative world of D&D is roughly consistent with the fantasy tradition embraced by Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. It allows greater freedom than the constrained worlds of fiction, but the imaginative world is not entirely different: good and evil forces contend against one another. Fantastic beasts and magical spells can be employed for good or ill. Some may steer clear out of a sense of their own vulnerability to the occult, and others may object to the fantasy elements of the game. (Lewis and Tolkien, of course, still have concerned critics.) But weakness on the part of some doesn’t cancel out the freedom enjoyed by others with good conscience. Perhaps Paul’s words in Romans 14:3 might be adapted to fit here. The “one who does not [play] must not judge the one who does.”
The more relevant concern, and one that guides our group, is the game’s allowance of players to play as evil characters (whether of the lawful, neutral, or chaotic variety), and to explore dark character options. A viable player class (and a mechanically good one) is a fiend-pact warlock, where your character’s power comes from a dark pact with a devil or demon. This is an option in the main manual for players, the Player’s Handbook, 5th Edition. I dislike this option. No one in my games is allowed to play with this subclass. But it’s there. It’s in the rulebook.
To be clear, I don’t hate devilish options because I think that there’s no place for imaginative play with misaligned morals. Monopoly encourages players to actively drive other players out of business by slowly crushing them with real estate control. Risk does much the same with world domination. I’ve run one-shots where the players are all villains (knowing, of course, that my players have the maturity not to disrupt the game or disturb their fellow players). The reason I dislike the more sinister character options is because I think they tend to erode the imaginative integrity of the role-play. Why, after all, would a fiendish warlock really get along with nobly motivated heroes? The edgy character choices tend to attract players looking for more complexity in their character, but rarely follow through on the implications that naturally follow. This is, I admit, largely a matter of taste. That, and it’s precisely the darker elements of the game (which players know can easily be avoided) that continue to give the game a bad rap among its skeptics.“Cultural change will only happen when something new displaces, to some extent, existing culture in a very tangible way…. So if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new…” -Andy Crouch, Culture Making
These dark elements, coupled with D&D’s default mythology (a polytheistic universe that’s a dog’s breakfast of invented deities, figures lightly adapted from Greek and Norse mythology, and devils often cribbed from Dante or Milton) sets the standard game in a chaotic free-for-all moral universe that bears little resemblance to the Christian worldview. Though all the published adventures for the fifth edition assume that the players are pursuing basically laudable goals (e.g., stopping the evil cultists from raising the many-headed dragon Tiamat; killing the evil vampire, etc.) most campaigns are “homebrewed,” meaning the DM has lots of leeway to set goals for the players and restructure the world.
Here is where D&D shines as creative entertainment, and where it may spark the most worries. There’s nothing stopping players from playing as greedy thugs (“murderhobos” in D&D jargon). There’s nothing stopping a DM from making the goal of the campaign to enthrone some terrible devil. However, abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not cancel out good use). Games rise and fall with the people at the table. The gameplay is defined by the rules and the dice, but the world is yours for the making. D&D is one of the most adaptable games on the market. This is why people love it. As indicated in the Player’s Handbook, gameplay is defined by a simple cycle of description, character choice, and results (often determined by a roll of the dice). The limits of the game are defined by the collective imagination of the group. If the flaws in the game are not intrinsic, how can we collectively imagine a better game?
Options and Opportunities
If the first response to D&D was defined largely by condemnation and caution, let me suggest another option: creativity. Andy Crouch’s Culture Making describes an ongoing shift in evangelical stances toward culture. We have moved (broadly speaking) from a position of caution, to copying culture, to consuming culture. Crouch, however, points out that real culture change is rarely affected by these stances. The only way to change culture is to create: “Cultural change will only happen when something new displaces, to some extent, existing culture in a very tangible way…. So if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal.”
Before we can talk about how to creatively interact with D&D, though, it’s important to look at why it’s so popular.
I think it’s not too hard to see why tabletop role-playing games are on the rise among adults and teenagers. The collaborative, highly social activity of role-playing brings people face-to-face. The narrative demands of an ongoing campaign create cultural space for regular gatherings, dispelling social isolation and pausing (albeit briefly) our attachment to digital entertainment. There’s lots of appointment viewing on television now, but nothing that requires humans to gather together. It’s possible to game online for hours without talking to another soul. But tabletop games both require and enable social interaction. Tabletop gaming has often been a refuge for the socially isolated. The playful-yet-structured environment of games eases some of the difficulties in social life. This is one reason why nerds love it. But social isolation isn’t just a problem for nerds. It’s everywhere. Nearly every person I know struggles with finding meaningful time to connect with others. D&D is the most popular tabletop role-playing game in the world, and seems to have a special magic to summon friends together. For adults with busy lives (or teenagers with gaming consoles), this is no small feat. The culture moment seems to need D&D, or something like it.The narrative demands of an ongoing campaign create cultural space for regular gatherings, dispelling social isolation and pausing (albeit briefly) our attachment to digital entertainment.
There’s also an additional benefit. TTRPGs are among the most creative forms of entertainment. Good movies and books draw people who love storytelling, but the creativity all moves in one direction: from the screen or page toward us. Games offer interactivity, sometimes in ways that can create unique artistic experiences, but still ones that take place largely within the bounds of the designed world. TTRPGs allow the players to collaborate with each other and the game master to create a shared story that never could have existed without the particular talents at the table. In this sense, D&D can feel closer to improv comedy or old-school commedia dell’arte. Though most players aren’t comedians, the game often is funnier than expected. My players aren’t writers, but they have a hand in creating moments and stories that we remember and talk about. As J. R. R. Tolkien was always keen to point out, humans reflect the nature of our creator when we create our own little worlds. For one night a week, my group gets to exercise a creative muscle that is rarely used in our normal lives. We get to create something together. It might not be anything grander than a botched spy operation or a tense prison escape, but it’s our story. We told it together.
Returning now to Andy Crouch’s pronouncement that the only way to change culture is to create culture, allow me to offer a few suggestions for people who are concerned about some of the potential problems in D&D. Again, at the pain of exposing the nerdiest and most vulnerable aspects of my social life, my group threw out the default pantheon, replacing it with Tolkien’s mythically tinged monotheistic cosmology. Whole books have been written praising Tolkien’s moral universe where little people take a stand against powerful spiritual evils. My game offers the players an immersive story where the players do the same, in our own way. This is all entertainment, of course. But it’s not pure escapism. C. S. Lewis, in On Three Ways of Writing for Children, calms fears that fairy stories will detach readers from important realities:
There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to…the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book.
The health and vitality of the best fantasy can be found at the gaming table, with a little care.As J. R. R. Tolkien was always keen to point out, humans reflect the nature of our creator when we create our own little worlds. For one night a week, my group gets to exercise a creative muscle that is rarely used in our normal lives.
There’s also a lot of power in the hands of the DM to set expectations for the players. My players have noble goals, struggle with moral quandaries, and make brave sacrifices. There are no necromancers (except villains), no pacts with devils, and no murderhobo-ism. It was easier to set this expectation than it is to schedule a night where we’re all free to play. We changed the game through creativity. The prescription for “flawed culture” is not no culture but better culture.
However, since I suspect that many folks still have lingering concerns about the game, allow me to plug some alternative role-playing games that might ease some of these concerns. Though D&D is the most famous example, and the most frequently played RPG, there are many other options. Adventures in Middle-earth is a licensed setting for Dungeons and Dragons, 5th edition. Set explicitly in Tolkien’s fantasy world, the setting provides clear moral guidelines. Characters choose virtues to associate with their character and have to avoid corruption. As stated in the Player’s Handbook for this setting, “All Player-heroes are assumed to be heroes—perhaps reluctant, perhaps ill-favoured and foul-looking, perhaps suspicious or haughty, but heroes all the same. Heroes try to do good, but must contend with their own fears and failings.” Committing “misdeeds” causes a character to take “corruption,” which may lead to their character’s ruin. The inclusion of this mechanic, again, seems like a way of creatively hacking the default D&D mechanics to tailor the game to Christian taste.
Children might enjoy a simplified version of the game called Hero Kids (which leaves out many of the darker elements). There’s a Princess Bride RPG for fans of family-friendly swashbuckling romance. For those who want to steer clear of spellcasting, RPGs such as The End of the World allow players to fight alien invasions, sentient robots, or zombies. Lovers of Star Wars can enjoy Star Wars: Age of Rebellion and Star Wars: Force and Destiny, popular RPG offerings that use Lucas’s light-and-dark force mythology.
Though, again, RPGs are fundamentally mutable. The game, like The Old Republic, rises and falls with the morality of the key players.