Dungeons and Dragons - is it just some nerdy shit, or something more?
Words: Liam Hansen (he/they) | Illustration: Yi Jong (she/they)
The first time I heard of Dungeons and Dragons as a kid was when it popped up on TV - god knows what we were watching. A young Liam, still wide-eyed and hopeful, looked over to their parents, curious as to why they were laughing. “Wow, is D&D still a thing?” asked Mum, and Dad responded “Even I wasn’t nerdy enough for that!” My father, a man who in his spare time constructs original Lego models so elaborate they’re actually cool, was making fun of another subculture for being lame. I didn’t even know that was possible. My impression of D&D has always been overshadowed by that memory. Was it an angel trying to stop me from getting bullied? If so, it didn’t work, so fuck them. I’ve spent my life observing this subculture, impressed by how committed everyone is. I’m a bespectacled dweeb who has spent a substantial portion of their life playing Skyrim and consuming other fantasy shit. I’m also a wannabe speculative fiction writer and former theatre kid. So, surely I’d love D&D. I reckon it’s time to answer the question: What the fuck is going on with Dungeons and Dragons?
There are a lot of predecessors to Dungeons and Dragons, like chess and...other variants of chess. Recreational war games came into fashion during the 19th century and began to involve roleplaying. More and more, people would take portions of history and change them up, because regular American history is boring and racist. Fantasy made its way in, eventually spawning the behemoth that is Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. This was the first of its kind to become commercially available, steadily acquiring a large enough following to stand out on its own. The game influenced enough designers to see the medium flourish in various worlds of sci-fi and fantasy, allowing young folks to create new stories, characters and worlds. I’d say a fair amount of speculative fiction released in the past thirty years draws inspiration from D&D.
Trigger Warning: This next paragraph contains mentions of suicide. Pretty cooked for an article about Dungeons and Dragons, right?
Cool cool, that quick history lesson was neat (thanks Wikipedia!). But here’s where things get crazy. After gaining this widespread appeal, several years of moral panic ensued. In the latest season of Stranger Things, the 'hellfire club', who play Dungeons and Dragons, are blamed for a number of disappearances. The jocks then convince the whole town to hunt them down. It sounds crazy, but that actually happened back in 1979, but with fewer tentacles and more angry mums. It all started when a 16-year-old Michigan State University student (who happened to enjoy D&D) went missing, leaving behind a suicide note. They were found, but ended their life the next year. A frenzy began across the United States, with the media starting constructive conversations about youth mental health. Except of course they didn’t. Instead, they blamed the suicide on a game about dragons. This spurred half a decade of people freaking the fuck out about D&D. The mother of another kid whose suicide was blamed on the game said it encouraged witchcraft, voodoo, assassination, homosexuality, barbarism, demon summoning and necromantics. Sounds like she’s just describing a fun night out!
The mother eventually founded BADD - Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (which is a pretty underwhelming name, but okay). This media campaign argued that the game stopped kids from understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. Whilst various studies disproved any link between Dungeons and Dragons and suicide (obviously), the popularity of gaming consoles likely helped calm people down by bringing the fantasy genre into pop culture.
Contrary to popular belief, D&D players are not exclusively angry teenage boys. After chatting to several members of the community, I found that they’re actually quite a lovely bunch of people. My relatively mundane quest to understand the game led me to Cakes n Ladders, a board game cafe in Eden Terrace. Upon walking into the space, you’re greeted with shelves upon shelves of colourful boxes, each bursting at the seams with new worlds and stories. They even have Connect Four! Board game cafes are fantastic areas to hang out with friends, play games across genres, and enjoy a cosy atmosphere that welcomes casual players and dedicated fans alike. Despite this, it wasn’t particularly surprising to see Cakes n Ladders quiet on a weeknight. Chatting to the cafe owner, James McFadgen, I learned that they’ve struggled during the pandemic - which is sad, but not unexpected, given what the hospo industry has gone through these past couple years. However, they’ve managed to keep a solid customer base and they're still really busy on weekends, event nights and during holiday periods. While I was there, James went out of his way to help another group pick out a game, explain the rules and provide assistance wherever needed. It was a lovely environment and one that I’ll definitely be returning to. During a game of D&D, you may hear emanating prepubescent yodels of "Oh shit, we need to fireball it!" or, "I need to roll a 13 or higher!"
Despite the players' frustrations, these screams are often the sign of a fantastic 'dungeon master', who knows how to create suspense amongst their peers. The role of a dungeon master can be very nuanced and it’s largely dictated by shot-in-the-dark decision making, says Madison - the dungeon master for Cakes n Ladders fortnightly ‘Rainbow Roleplay’ sessions. Their job is to control the game, roll the dice, tell the story, and generally keep everyone happy and enjoying themselves. “I’ve only been doing it for a few months, but it’s been really rewarding!” she said. Pretty much everything in the game is improvised, apart from specific adventures, which are often planned in advance. Madison said this was great for when a new player joins: “I can make it more of a ‘we succeeded!’ thing instead of ‘I am the wrath of god, and I will destroy all of you’ - That probably wouldn’t be a great first experience.” Your experience can vary greatly from game to game, depending on who’s dungeon master and the campaign itself. The only real uniting aspect between games is the fact that you play roles on a tabletop and there's a dungeon master who runs the show.
Madison started Rainbow Roleplay as she felt there needed to be a dedicated space for queer folks to enjoy D&D. She wanted a game that was centred around understanding, diversity and inclusivity. D&D can be dominated with a competitive and occasionally isolating atmosphere, which is why some people find it difficult to enter the community as a newcomer. “It’s exaggerated in media, but the trope of cis straight white male players is definitely prevalent,” said Madison. Rainbow Roleplay provides a space for people outside of that. Its ultimate goal is to allow people to explore different identities and labels in a welcoming and lovely environment. Madison describes her own experience: “It’s been really nice to be able to explore aspects of myself and understand myself better.” Within the games, Madison discourages any combat between players. “I don’t think it should be a big part of it. Preferably dialogue and non- violence can resolve any issues within the party.” There isn't exactly a shortage of combat-heavy D&D campaigns, so players won’t be missing out on much. She has also put systems in place so players feel as comfortable as possible. She’ll begin every game with a kōrero to explain that everyone has the right to enjoy themselves and avoid any harm or discomfort. There are moments where she, as the dungeon master, will intentionally fade to black on a sequence - “I don’t know if you know of the trope of the Bard character class being very active, uhhh... in the realm of sex. I’ve heard numerous horror stories online. Yes, this is a fantasy game, but not that kind of fantasy.”
What amazes me about D&D is just the sheer amount of dedication people have. It can take hours of prep work and steep investments - even just playing requires ample amounts of commitment to your game, your friends and your time. Madison casually mentioned that she had completed year-long campaigns, and that completely new terms have now become part of her regular vocabulary.
I barely got to touch on ‘homebrew’ (content created by the players and dungeon masters, e.g. original characters and campaigns), independently released games and the absolutely insane custom-made dice people sculpt. You don’t need to take part in these things to enjoy tabletop gaming, but it makes it way more fun. No other hobby community takes that level of care and commitment in the name of social connection with others. “The TTRPG community today is much bigger and more prevalent than it was even just a decade ago,” Madison said. The internet has allowed a new generation of fantasy fans to enjoy the games, connect with others from across the world thanks to online campaigns, and discover more about themselves than they can in any other environment. So, go on my fellow nerdy queer folk. Let’s all convene and unite over the fact that dragons are fucking sick.