In my four years of teaching theology at Wheaton College, one of my most memorable meetings was with a student wanting to know how best to defend Dungeons & Dragons to skeptical relatives.
Students ask me all kinds of things during my office-hours appointments, but this was a first. I was aware of D&D’s role in the satanic panic of the 1980s, but I assumed most suspicion toward the game had disappeared now that cooler heads and more informed minds had prevailed.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Dungeons & Dragons is the oldest commercially available fantasy role-playing game. Now in its fifth edition, D&D has been around since 1974 when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published their first set of rules.
Though it’s been played for almost half a century, we’ve witnessed something of a revival in recent years, spurred by the success of Stranger Things, D&D web series like Critical Role, and the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also a whole field of interdisciplinary scholarly research on role-playing games (RPGs) of all kinds.
I started playing D&D a few years ago, motivated largely by a desire to connect with my adolescent son. Eventually, our whole family joined in the fun.
The first lockdown of the pandemic soon turned our family’s occasional dabbling into a weekly commitment. As I’ve written elsewhere, my family has survived the pandemic by both praying together and playing together—D&D has become for us what soccer or tae kwon do might be for others.
I’ve spent most of the past couple years serving as the game’s facilitator or narrator—referred to as a dungeon master—but I have also played in a few short-lived campaigns as one of the player-characters: a human wizard, dwarf cleric, or rogue elf.
Now that more people know our family plays D&D, I regularly receive messages from acquaintances asking whether the game is demonic. I tell them happily the answer is no.
Can playing fantasy role-playing games lead to sub-Christian views and practices? Sure. Can it lead to the suppression of virtue and cultivation of vice? Of course. But so can playing football, Monopoly, golf, electric guitar, or cribbage.
Any game, sport, or hobby can contribute toward becoming a more selfish, immoral, and faithless person—so much depends on the people you play with, the way you play, and your shared goals in playing.
So, what exactly is D&D? It’s a cooperative storytelling game set in fantasy worlds. A dungeon master (DM) creates a fantasy realm—from his or her imagination, prewritten materials, or a combination of the two.
Then, multiple players create player-characters (PCs) who traverse the fantasy world, interacting with its locations, creatures, and peoples (a.k.a., nonplayer characters or NPCs). As they proceed, PCs learn and grow, gaining skills, increasing abilities, and adding magical items and treasure to their holdings.
Together, everyone at the table weaves a unique story (called a campaign) that can take anywhere from four hours to multiple years to tell.
As a pastor-theologian, I have thought a great deal about this game. It’s not the theology inside the fantasy worlds that interests me. Rather, I find the practice of playing D&D—and its theological and ethical dimensions—far more interesting.
I’ve concluded that not only is D&D not demonic, but it is also potentially formative for good in many ways.
Most Christians can appreciate the fantasy aspect of D&D. They know of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle, and they understand that fantasy literature can be a unique vehicle for wonder, virtue, and faith.
Fantasy is inherently eschatological because it assumes from the start that the world as it currently exists is not necessarily the world as it must be. It allows us to explore ultimate questions about what is good, true, and beautiful through an alternate reality.
Like theology, fantasy role-playing involves constructing a world of shared meaning with shared sources. In the case of D&D, it’s a world assembled by the DM and PCs—an imaginary realm not necessarily bound to the real-world status quo. Nothing is taken for granted as frontiers are crossed and cultural norms transgressed.
But depending on your temperament and social location, this can sound like really good news or really bad news! Admittedly, it’s a risky thing to open yourself to another way of being in the world—and that is precisely what D&D requires of you.
The game brings up questions like “What is it like to live as this kind of person within this story with these limits? Why does this person act in this way under these circumstances?” Such questions can undermine assumptions and destabilize frameworks. Still, learning to see the world through the eyes of another is also crucial to the formation of compassion and empathy.
As you play alongside other characters, you become more practiced in skills like communication, boundary setting, problem solving, conflict resolution, and more—all of which I’ve witnessed grow in myself and my own children over the past couple years. And each of these skills is a crucial aspect of learning to be human beings and faithful members of the body of Christ.
Role-playing also requires improvisation, which might be the scariest and most exhilarating part of D&D for me. In any given circumstance, players are forced to ask themselves, What are the options available to me in this story, and what are the potential consequences? What does faithfulness to my character’s story, motivations, and convictions look like in this moment?
Daily Christian living involves such improvisation.
Yes, the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). And yet, while there are some straightforward commands—the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”—the Bible is not a blueprint or step-by-step manual for contemporary life.
Instead, Christians are guided by the Holy Spirit in improvising their lives as best they can in present circumstances—seeking to do so faithfully in light of Scripture, Christian tradition, and the wisdom of their community.
But like real life, D&D role-playing never happens in a vacuum. The storytelling is cooperative: You are imagining and enacting a new reality with other human beings.
Everyone at the table has a voice, talents, and interests that must be implemented into the narrative in a way that holds true to the characters and the world. All play is overseen by the DM, whose role as creator and ultimate authority often leads players to joke that “the DM is god.”
But to be clear, even a gaming god needs willing followers or else there’s no story and no game. A compelling story requires committed players willing to work together to accomplish its goals.
Because role-playing is cooperative, you may set your mind on one course of action but find your efforts thwarted by the actions of another. And then you must decide, Will I stay committed to these people and this story? Or will I bail and leave the table?
Moreover, like theology, D&D storytelling is inescapably contextual. There’s no getting around the fact that players bring to the table their own biases and weaknesses, and these inevitably influence how the campaign proceeds.
Even in fantasy role-playing, we remain embodied creatures shaped by our embodied experiences in the world. This is what it means to be human.
Finally, something must be said about dice rolling. Despite the fantasy setting, D&D characters and storylines have limits. Sometimes you’re able to leap Indiana Jones–style from a bridge onto a speeding cart; sometimes you break your leg in the fall and watch the cart speed away in a cloud of dust.
The dice, as interpreted by the DM, determine whether attempts will succeed or fail, and one must accept the consequences and respond accordingly. In-game characters never really know why things happen the way they do. If the DM is god, then the dice is fate.
But here’s where an important distinction from Christian faith emerges.
Yes, life can seem arbitrary—our actions succeed and fail sometimes without clear explanation. Our best attempts at faithful improvisation can make a wreck of things. And our fallen world means we are beset by challenges outside our individual control: car wrecks, collapsing bridges, brain cancer, and tsunamis.
But God is not arbitrary. What we may experience as a random roll of the dice is, in fact, under the purview of God’s good and gracious providence. This is what Christians confess even when we do not feel it and cannot rationally make sense of it.
Like any game, D&D has its limits and potential pitfalls—but the same is true of team sports and other hobbies. There’s nothing inherently more virtuous about games that involve inflated balls and potential head injuries.
I hope my former student was eventually able to win over his family. And I hope my fellow Christians will consider giving D&D a try. As one game among many other games, D&D offers Christians much that is good and character building, both as human beings living in the world and as members of Christ’s body.
It also happens to be a lot of fun—something that is too often in short supply these days.
Emily Hunter McGowin is assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families and a forthcoming book on the season of Christmas (InterVarsity Press).