Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Summer 2011 Vol. 106 No. 3 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Gods & Monsters

As creative manager for the fantasy role-playing game D&D, James Wyatt ’90 is the Master Dungeon Master

James Wyatt ’90 was a preacher at two Methodist churches in Ohio when he realized the signal on his clerical calling might be weakening.

The first indication was a sermon he wrote that was more hobby than holy. He called the sermon "God as dungeon master," dungeon master being the person who guides the play of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

"I was preaching about God telling Abraham to pick up and move out and leave home, and how God deals with a recalcitrant person who doesn’t want to do what he’s told," Wyatt recalls. "Like a good dungeon master, God is dealing with strong-willed players but has to turn the story in the direction that God wants it to go in, anyway."

Another indication came when Wyatt observed the audience response to some of his sermons, including the dungeon master one.

"I had folks in my congregation, one or two of them, who would just sit there with their arms folded and shake their head when I preached every morning."

Wyatt, who says he has "very thin skin" and doesn’t deal well with conflict, was frustrated with the job and stung by the reception from his flock. He found comfort in the fantasy world of the complex role-playing game that he first began playing in sixth grade. D&D, as it’s often called, involves the development of characters and story lines, which can become ever more elaborate. Wyatt enjoyed building the stories and began submitting his play-tested game scenarios—intended to give players ideas for plots, adversaries, quests, and even character dialogue—to the two magazines devoted to the game at the time (creatively named Dungeon and Dragon). The first was published in Dragon in 1997.

After freelancing articles for the magazines for four years, he applied for and won a job as a designer with Wizards of the Coast (WotC), the company that publishes D&D. Over the course of the next eight years, he moved up into more senior positions. He has since written a number of novels for WotC and coauthored the Fourth Edition Dungeon Masters Guide, the defining text for game play.

Wyatt is now creative manager for the entire game, for which he oversees a multiverse of storylines that appear not only in the role-playing guidebooks, but in D&D novels, comic books, miniatures, and computer games. It’s estimated that the game has reached 20 million players in its 37-year existence, and sold more than $1 billion worth of books and merchandise.

In high school, Wyatt devoured pop philosophy and theology books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Siddhartha, and he played the lead in a community theater production of Godspell the summer before college. This informal, self-created curriculum led him into Oberlin’s religion department.

As part of his study, Wyatt spent a winter term in Thailand, interviewing students at Chiang Mai University about the role of Buddhism in their lives, a project that left him plenty of time for personal discovery. "I spent a lot of time visiting Buddhist monasteries and reading the Bible and had a lot of what I think of as sort of low-grade mystical experiences," Wyatt says.

Those experiences built to a climax one day when, while sitting on a lonesome park bench, his mind was filled with the song "Turn Back, O Man," a song from Godspell based on an old Anglican hymn, accompanied by "an anticipatory experience of the future fulfillment of God’s promises." He enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary and earned a master of divinity degree.

"I think it is actually a fairly common phenomenon among converts later in life to assume that the only way to respond to that conversion experience is to make it a profession. So pretty much from day one of being a Christian I was thinking about ministry, and that was probably my number-one mistake."

Though it’s not a typical career trajectory to go from preaching the tenets of Christianity to choreographing storylines peopled with wraiths, ogres, and hobgoblins, Wyatt doesn’t believe they are as different as they first appear. Both involve epic struggles between good and evil and an inclination to ponder the motives of supernatural beings.

"More and more, I’m coming to an understanding of fantasy as an intrinsically theological genre," Wyatt says. People’s interest in heroes and monsters, he believes, is "about power," or rather the lack thereof.

"Often we can feel so powerless in the world, especially in the face of injustice and evil. Being able to embody those forces, or externalize them from ourselves as monsters, and then deal with that in a very concrete and powerful way is fulfilling and, I think, healthy."

Josh Spiro ’09 is a sometimes freelance writer living in Brooklyn.