A Quest for Clean Air

by | Aug 24, 2022

D&D animal character poses next to 20-sided dice that drives the game. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

A slight drizzle patters against the concrete as seagulls swoop toward the Bay Bridge. Massive 20-sided dice rest on a wooden table, primed to be rolled. A group of costumed citizens gather in front of the Exploratorium, humming with theories about their imminent mission. Just moments before noon, the clouds shift to release bright rays of sunlight and the cool air stills — seeming to hold its breath — in anticipation of the adventure soon to begin.

Role-Playing as Climate Justice

On July 30th at the San Francisco Exploratorium, three teams of 10 to 15 adventurers, ranging from ages 9 to about 50, assembled to participate in a live action role-playing event unlike anything most had experienced before. The event, titled Death by a Thousand Breaths, was an environmental justice Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign organized and run by the climate education organization Mycelium Youth Network.

Starry wizard’s hat resting on a pile of colorful D&D costumes. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

Starry wizard’s hat resting on a pile of colorful D&D costumes. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

D&D games, called campaigns, lead brave — and often eccentrically outfitted — players on quests into fantastical worlds, where they make choices that alter the trajectory of the story. Their fate is swayed at times by the verdict of a 20-sided die that lets them cast spells and fight monsters if they roll the correct numbers. Typically, D&D takes place indoors using a board game, but live action role-play encourages players to interact with their physical surroundings and dramatize the fictional worlds that these characters inhabit. Inspired by Oakland and the city’s battles with air pollution, Death by a Thousand Breaths introduces players to Cerulean Port City, where a toxin-spewing, magical potion plant has recently moved in. The family-friendly game requires players to band together to find evidence of the plant’s negative environmental impacts then conspire to shut it down.

Players speak with a volunteer about taking down the potion plant. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

Though D&D isn’t a conventional avenue for exposing environmental injustices, Mycelium Youth Network finds that gaming makes climate activism tangible while uplifting youth voices and voices of people of color. To Lil Milagro Henriquez, the organization’s Executive Director, these campaigns are about empowering the players. Climate change presents a scary and overwhelming issue for many, yet tackling it through storytelling, Henriquez explains, “creates space for you to see yourself and your community as leaders in solving an issue.” Above all, Henriquez wants individuals of all ages to realize “how powerful they are” as change makers.

 Lil Milagro Henriquez speaks to players in the Exploratorium’s Bay Observatory. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

Lil Milagro Henriquez speaks to players in the Exploratorium’s Bay Observatory. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

And The Game Begins

The one-and-a-half hour live action game began with a group of about 15 adventurers mingling outside of the Exploratorium and meeting Dungeon Master Marcy Brown, their leader and guide throughout the campaign. The participants were a mixture of first-time role-players and seasoned D&D youth, each adorned as magical wizards, rangers, healers, druids, and even self-named heroes, including one “warrior-who-doesn’t-know-it-yet.” Each character had unique powers, such as the ability to create fog that freezes opponents or to summon a charismatic nature that lets a player sweet-talk their way out of danger.

Inside the Game

Answering the Call

The Dungeon Master (Brown), dressed in a flowered headpiece, shares a secret handshake. She then urges each player to take a deep breath in and to reflect — not just on how they breathe, but how they move through, interact with, and (in the case of spell-casting druids) control the air around them. And, more importantly, to consider why it’s essential that this air is clean. She then speaks the words players have been waiting to hear: “Thank you for answering our call of action.”

The Mission

As adventurers enter the imagined Cerulean Port City, their mission presents heavy stakes: find evidence that the newly constructed potion plant is the cause of air pollution in the city. To aid in their journey, adventurers encounter a utilities worker named Chips. She chronicles how diminishing air quality in the town leaves her working each day in the “smog and soot,” motivating the group into action through a hula hoop challenge.

The wise Honu also appears to bestow a few players with power-boosting jewels. Honu urges adventurers to work together and pronounces that they are “stronger when [they] are in community.”

Power and Politics

As they travel across the Port City’s Pier, players interrogate a city politician. The Q&A session gives adventurers information on the legal obstacles the town faces: the politician admits that he was opposed to the potion plant’s construction, but City Hall’s overruling power and a lack of public knowledge about the dangers left him nearly powerless.

The Dungeon Master refuels the group’s optimism, stating that to make significant change in many cases, only 3.5% of the public needs to rise up and demand it. At this number, raised eyebrows and straightened spines ripple through the group.

Filtering Out Toxins

To protect adventurers as they continue to navigate the city, a couple of young explorers work with community member Flint to build air filters against airborne pollutants using a fan and screen. Then, the group braces for the next step in their adventure: infiltrating the potion plant.

Inside The Plant

Soon the adventurers — curious, apprehensive, and buzzing — make it inside of the potion plant (a disguised Bay Observatory) where they must find evidence proving that this factory is the source of the city’s air pollution. Here, an armored Dungeon Master (Henriquez) warns players that the floors are covered in toxic sludge that can disintegrate shoes and flesh. Traveling on circular rubber pads to avoid the sludge while dodging two robot guards, who send players back to the start if they are caught, adventurers tread cautiously. Players search for five paper documents of evidence before running out of time — or into trouble.

Rolling the Die

One wizard picks up a 20-sided die and rolls, crossing her fingers, and whoops as she scores high enough to stun the guards so the group can safely navigate past them. The robot guards (Mycelium volunteers) rest on the floor after they have been frozen and are unable to thwart the players.

Evidence in Hand

Finally, the adventurers locate the incriminating documents hidden throughout the exhibits. The Dungeon Master divulges that the evidence players found, which states that the potion plant is aware their operation causes pollution and harm to humans, is sourced verbatim from the language used in oil company documents. Proving that the plant is the cause of pollution isn’t the end, however: to defeat the plant, they still have to confront the conniving mastermind behind the potion company. With the evidence in hand, players carefully strategize as a team what actions to take to defeat him.

A Fight of Their Own

Each group of adventurers follows a unique approach to conquering the potion plants’ owner, who provides the plant with its power. Some enter gruesome battles with the boss, while others carry out a nonviolent charge through trickery and stealth. 

In one group, a player distracts the owner in their office, while another slips in and nabs the magical box that supplies the plant with its power. Once the box and owner are separated, the plant can no longer function. The negotiation is risky, yet all players prevail, demolishing the company at its source and freeing Cerulean Port City from the grips of its polluter.

An Adventurer Reflects

For Aya, a player who asked that only her first name be shared, Death by a Thousand Breaths was a refreshing deviation from the more common settings of environmental action: meetings, hearings, conference rooms. As a climate novelist and activist in the Movement for Black Lives, she relished the opportunity to instead prepare her pre-teen daughter for on-the-ground activism through play and imagination. Aya’s major takeaway from the campaign is that people need to work together to solve the climate crisis. Young people are leading this fight, she ventured, and older adults must learn from younger adults to shift their priorities. She believes it’s important that folx are playful and hopeful, just as the people that journeyed through this mission with her daughter were.

Flint, a volunteer, laughing with players before they enter the potion plant. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

A City Hopeful

Seeing participants rallied in homemade costumes and charging forward to save the illusory Cerulean Port City, I felt the tangible optimism, excitement, and even nervousness in the air. At the start of the game, a few eager players admitted that they “just didn’t want to mess up,” having never played D&D before. Yet this care for the success of their team ultimately propelled them toward a thrilling victory. The players’ conquests required creative problem-solving, stealthy investigation, and some intense battles, but their unwavering spirit reduced the adventure’s obstacles to temporary hiccups.

Flint, a volunteer, laughing with players before they enter the potion plant. Photo: Aiyana Washington.

Sign reading "Part 4: Where Stealth and Steel Win the Day" above an illustration of the 20-sided die and the game title, "Death by a Thousand Breaths"

These brave adventurers reminded me that we must band together —  all generations, abilities, and backgrounds — to protect our communities from environmental dangers, and from magical, air-polluting villains.

Photo: Aiyana Washington.