I became aware of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) at the same instant that I was made to believe that D&D was maybe not for me. In 2003, I was working in a coffee shop in a small North Carolina town. (College and I hadn’t gotten along, and I didn’t have anything close to a five-year plan.) The boys that sat in the back of the shop ordered nothing but water for hours and stopped talking only when I delivered it to them, giving me the distinct impression that, whatever secret conversations they were having, I wasn’t welcome. It took me weeks to even realize that what they were doing was playing D&D. I’m pretty sure they thought I’d make fun of them for it.
We’ve all heard the stories, seen the shows, and watched the movies where the “nerds” get beat up for their hobbies. Many (particularly men) cling to this experience like a trophy: If you weren’t persecuted in the ‘80s for your interest in Star Wars or D&D, you haven’t really suffered for love. Perhaps not. But D&D, at its very core, is a game you have to play with other people. It’s a game that requires the intimacy that comes with community. Simply put: you had to have at least one friend as “nerdy” as you to play.
Growing up as a self-ascribed “nerdy girl,” I often felt invisible and excluded for my interests (even from the nerdy guys around me), and was exceptionally lonely as a result. So I know how those boys in the coffee shop felt. I’d been a devoted Star Wars role-player in online chat rooms since I was 13. It wasn’t a hobby you shared with folks. It was something you hid.
Besides, neither the word “dungeons” nor “dragons” particularly lit me up. The game had a Heavy Metal magazine vibe to it—a publication I appreciate as an adult, but one that I suspect was not aimed to appeal to young women and girls. At the time, it seemed to me that D&D was almost certainly about wielding huge swords (meh), killing dragons (zzz), and carrying bare-breasted damsels over your shoulder (woof). I was fine with my story-driven Star Wars chat room dramas, thank you very much.
It was only years later, around 2010, that I saw Acquisitions Incorporated on the main stage at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. For the uninitiated, Acquisitions Incorporated is a D&D party that stars the creators of the Penny Arcade webcomic and whoever they can talk into sharing a stage with them while they play hilarious games of D&D. These five dorky, lovable dudes played D&D in front of a packed theater and brought the house down. Until then, I doubt anyone thought of this hobby as having entertainment value. In fact, until then, I didn’t realize what D&D actually was. It was stories. And I had to play it.
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Hearing about other people’s D&D games is like hearing about a dream they had: It sounds like complete nonsense to you, and you’re not sure why they’re telling you about it. I wasn’t going to put you through it, but my editor for this piece says I should, so picture it: A party of adventurers pauses at the edge of a cliff, taking a moment’s deserved rest, when suddenly the clicking of massive insect legs boils up over the precipice. Giant spiders! With a trademark holler (“cooOOOOokie crisp!”) my dwarf barbarian, Magsys Destinaxe, jumps into the fray. I roll a natural 20 on the die—a critical success. Magsys jumps on the back of a spider and rides it down the slope of the cliff, splitting it apart with her axe, until it slides gently to a halt safely at the bottom. (See what I mean? Dreadful.)
But talking about it further made me learn what D&D felt like. Since that first exposure in the coffee shop and later at Penny Arcade Expo, I have played hundreds of hours of D&D, both as a player and a dungeon master running the game. In 2017, Acquisition Incorporated invited me to be on their weekly streamed D&D show for several years, where I made some of the best friends of my life. I joined Wizards of the Coast, who have published the game since 1997, to become the first female game designer on D&D’s fifth edition. I’ve run games for all kinds of people, young and old, strangers and friends, old-timers and novices.
What I’ve found is that something mystical happens when you give yourself permission to play pretend. Being vulnerable and creative is a big part of it—you must trust and be trusted with what feels like subjective foolishness. But when you add these elements of collective imagination and improvisation, you create a strange alchemy that inscribes pathways in your brain, tangible as the memories of real life, even though it lives solely in the minds of a select few. Those pathways bond you in ways that no one else can understand. D&D and other tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) are being used across the world as a learning tool in classrooms and even as an effective form of therapy.
I started playing on the Acquisitions Incorporated weekly live-streamed show, The “C” Team, with four people I barely knew. As debilitating as it can be to play improvised pretend fantasy in front of a few other cooperating adults, it’s beyond overwhelming to do it in front of hundreds of onlookers. I was terrified. But what I didn’t expect is that the bond that typically extends to your table mates spread throughout a community of fans who witnessed the story alongside us. Our campaign was personalized in the imaginations of each individual who followed the show, adding to and bolstering the tapestry of storytelling before us.
Letting go of inhibitions about playing pretend is difficult. Letting people in is, perhaps, even more so. People might think we’re childish if we play pretend. They might make fun of us, or laugh out of our coffee shops. I do understand. But, you see, I have witnessed so much magic from people shaking off those inhibitions to weave stories together for themselves. And doesn’t that matter so much more?
Maybe magic can’t save us, but (unless it’s an evocation spell) it certainly can’t hurt.