Ethan Kowalchuk, a student at Ontario Tech University, is working with Toronto’s new animal rights centre to challenge violence in entertainment.

Kowalchuk’s parents, Kelly Kerr and Ray Kowalchuk, are organizers of Wishbone Animal Rights Lab, a new animal rights centre in Toronto. Like many young Canadians, Kowalchuk is vegan — a lifestyle choice that researchers have found can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In an effort to encourage people to consider veganism, Kowalchuk is developing a series of campaigns for the game Dungeons and Dragons.

“I don't think that an in-your-face approach is the way to approach activism,” Kowalchuk said. “I think there's more effective ways, and I think games are a very effective way.”

Part of his decision to abstain from eating meat, Kowalchuk said, is its global warming effect. Livestock farming is responsible for about 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Kowalchuk is one of the first activists that Wishbone Animal Rights Lab has supported. As of March 9, the centre at 600 Bay St. offers a free recording studio, a kitchen set and an organizing space to animal rights activists. It also offers equipment, like megaphones and loudspeakers.

“There's really no lack of talent and ideas in the animal rights movement,” Sue Spahr, a co-owner of the lab, said. “We want to bridge that gap between people wanting to do activism and then actually doing it.”

For Kowalchuk, the centre provided a community. Kowalchuk said even before opening, Wishbone Animal Rights Lab connected him with people who wanted to play his campaigns. He said he also wants to use the centre’s free space to host sessions of his game and lessons for people who want to learn how to play.

Kowalchuk’s “vegan Dungeons and Dragons” games are storylines that fit into the pre-existing world of the game. Some quests offer storylines that can be solved without fictional lethal violence. Others, Kowalchuk said, will have players complete fictional animal rights campaigns, like freeing several captured mythic beasts, in what Kowalchuk calls “role-playing the revolution.”

Spahr said she hopes her animal rights centre can help creators in Toronto make more vegan art and entertainment.

Ethan Kowalchuk is developing “vegan” campaigns for the game Dungeons and Dragons because he wants to challenge entertainment’s inclination towards violence.

“Art and creativity and repetition are really highly effective in breaking through and influencing society's acceptance of new ideas,” Spahr said. “We would love to see veganism be the new normal, so it's important that we give vegans and animal activists the edge over their non-vegan counterparts.”

Media can convince Canadians to reduce their meat consumption, according to research from Dalhousie University. Nearly a quarter of Canadians who considered eating less beef were influenced by media that demonstrated alternatives, the study found, and almost half were concerned about cattle’s contribution to climate change.

Kowalchuk said he hopes to have completed his game by May.

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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I've been playing since 1984, part of the attraction of the game is being a hero and vanquishing evil, orcs, dragons, giants, wizards, vampires, and the like, that is the basis of the story, going on a fantasy adventure that you create with your friends following a plot created and sometimes improvised by the Dungeon Master. No conflict is no story. Good luck to him.

You can have plenty of conflict without violence, although I'd have to say when the stakes get high, the chance of violence being part of the picture is going to be significant.

But D&D in specific is not well suited to low-violence campaigns. To have fun without a lot of violence, your characters need to have other aptitudes (and indeed, so does the opposition). D&D with its class system, its spell selection mainly dedicated to combat, and its very limited approach to non-combat skills, makes it hard to really rock a lower-combat campaign. For that kind of thing you're better off with point/skill based systems, like GURPS or maybe Hero System. They give you a lot more flexibility in how you approach things.

Personally, I've never run a zero-violence campaign; for any given adventure or plot sequence, it's very likely there will be a fight somewhere along the line. But there may be quite a bit of investigation and politicking before that point.