As we continue to struggle with the pandemic and national divisions that seem too deep to reconcile, our work groups, teams, families, and friends are experiencing a staggering loss of community and connection. One of my favorite shows is The Expanse, and in a recent episode Amos Burton, a man raised in a hostile, abusive environment made an observation that was accurate, bleak, and hopeful, all at the same time.

“This boss I worked for, he called it The Churn. When the rules of the game change. When the jungle tears itself down and builds itself into something new.”

The book this scene came from was written well before COVID came ashore and domestic terrorists attacked the capital, but as is often the case, science fiction accurately predicted what kind of world might be shaped if we stop paying attention. It does feel like we’re living in the Churn and it’s the noun/verb I’ve adopted to describe a lot of what is happening in our country right now.  

I run a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for my son and his friends, and when the pandemic hit we had to stop getting together as a group. I was at a loss as to what to do, but knew that the weekly game was a needed break from the pressures the kids and parents were facing as education, work, and just about everything else had to be reinvented overnight.

The word play is sometimes used interchangeably with escape, but for me there is a subtle but important distinction between the two activities. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety since childhood, escape is normally a passive response to the Churn and doesn’t have the same renewing qualities play does. Sometimes unplugging completely and cutting off the endless tide of human tragedy by binge watching cartoons is a perfectly legitimate response, but I try to pay attention and apply the Stoic principle of moderation.

According to psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California, how adults play is “as unique to an individual as a fingerprint” and could mean collecting stamps, tossing a football, reading a book or climbing Mount Everest.

“What all play has in common,” Brown says, “is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.”

When I’m doing my job as Dungeon Master right, I’m immersing the players in an the action-packed story that catalyzes creative thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork.

I realized I needed to play as well, and while my role as a Dungeon Master is to create a compelling experience for the boys, the game also offers me an opportunity to take advantage of all the benefits play has to offer. Getting ready for the game each week requires a lot of preparation and managing teenage boys can be a challenge, but discontinuing our time together never felt like an option.

I’ve written about the importance of acting local when the Churn threatens to overwhelm us, so spent a couple of weeks reinventing how we would play D&D. I saw this effort as my small part in rebuilding the jungle and found a web platform that supports the online gameplay. I spent a maddening couple of weeks figuring out how to use it, but we’re up and running and have been able to maintain a continuity of experience and connection that in my mind is as important as masks and social distancing.

Last week the boys barely managed to get past a series of deadly traps and stop the evil Mage Zau Teken from taking possession of Dusk, the Glaive of the Revenant King. Zau planned to use the legendary weapon to martial an undead army and lay waste to the peaceful lands surrounding the dead elven city of Imfe Aiqua.

Sawyer’s character, a Kobold Bard named Meepo, was the first to puzzle-out that speaking the legendary weapon’s name was how to free it from the King’s Blood Well, and in doing so became King of Imfe Aiqua!

Meepo: Kobold Bard and newly crowned king of Imfe Aiqua

I created this for him as a reward for his inspired gameplay.

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