Friday, May 27, 2022

Roleplaying as a Refuge: UU Church Engages Youth Through Dungeons and Dragons During Pandemic

By Tracy Simmons

Photo of Dungeons and Dragons dice by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

A recent study from the Hartford Institute of Religion Research shows when churches pivoted to virtual worship during the pandemic, children’s and youth programming took one of the biggest hits. 

While many congregations were forced to cancel Sunday School, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka in Wayzata, Minnesota found a way to engage youth through fantasy and storytelling. 

“We figured the most engaging way to keep young people connected and try to make a positive out of it was delving into Dungeons and Dragons,” said Family Ministry Director Jennifer Swick, noting that the UU youth curriculum “Our Whole Lives” (OWL) was not available online at the time. 

In Fall of 2021, 16 students between sixth and ninth grades were broken into four groups and followed Dungeon Master and Story Crafter Topher Nelson — a member of the church — into an online roleplaying adventure. 

Devon Holm-Hansen, 15 (then 14), was one of the students who jumped at the chance to get involved. 

“D&D was always something that I was interested in and I like the people in my church group,” he said. 

In his game, he explained, the group started in an orphanage and had to find hidden magic to escape.  

Nelson said it’s a trope in D&D that all great heroes start as orphans, so that’s where the storyline began. 

Devon said he and his friends laughed a lot along the way, but also learned about friendship and unity. 

Devon’s sister, Rylee Holm-Hansen, 13 (12 during the game), was in a different group and recalls having to fight a dragon and other creatures.  

“We got to work together as a team,” she said. “We each had strengths and challenges to share.” 

Nelson said that was one of the goals. 

“More than anything, I hope that the youth were able to practice social interactions in a safe space and maybe get to feel what it’s like being someone else for a while,” he said, adding that compassion is one of the long-term benefits of role-playing games. 

He started playing D&D 41 years ago with his father and said it was the best gift his father ever gave him. Now Nelson plays the game with his own kids, 12 and 8. 

“I was an awkward kid growing up. Today they have names for what plagued me as a child: attention deficit, hyperactive disorder, Asperger syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, depression. But back in the 80s and 90s, kids like me were labeled as weird. Freaks. Retards. Spastics. I always knew something was different about me but I didn’t know why,” Nelson wrote in an introduction to the youth. “But with Dungeons and Dragons, it didn’t matter. When the world was too overwhelming, too much for me to face, I had this doorway, this amazing escape my father gave me to another world. Infinite worlds. Worlds where a person like me made sense. Worlds where a person like me was accepted. Worlds where a person like me could be a hero. Dungeons and Dragons was a refuge. Dungeons and Dragons saved my life.”  

During the height of the pandemic, when the world went virtual, he said D&D became his refuge. 

“It gave me a weekly structured way to connect with and check in with the people most important to me outside of my family. And when the reality of what we were living through became too much to handle, I was able to retreat to this world of adventure. Drawing maps and creating non-player characters (NPCs) and doing all of the planning so my friends can also escape for a little while was sometimes the only thing keeping me going,” he said. 

Nelson plays the game with other adults from the church and said it’s helped him build community. 

The game with the church youth has ended, but some students are playing it on their own or, like Devon, listening to a D&D podcast. 

Swick said the church youth have resumed the OWL curriculum and don’t have plans to start another D&D youth group, but said the game was, “A highlight and good thing that came out of the pandemic.”