by Elizabeth Saubestre
pic creds: Kotaku (https://www.kotaku.com.au/)
It feels strange to attempt to sit down and write a piece on my love affair with the tabletop roleplaying genre and the media that surrounds it. It’s not something that I necessarily boast about in my day-to-day life, and yet it’s not something that I hide, per say. There’s something that feels too nerdy about it, too different from who I try to present myself as in professional and academic settings. And yet, I have enamel pins that reveal my hobby to the world when I wear my favorite denim jacket, as well as several free stickers on my laptop that I’ve gathered from various dice companies after spending too much money on sparkly, polyhedral pieces of resin.
So it goes.
In my time spent playing the game, I’ve been fascinated to see that Dungeons and Dragons, formerly synonymous with nerdy white teenage boys in the eighties playing in their mother’s basements and the Satanic Panic, has become something of a mainstream hobby. Shows like Critical Role, a cultural juggernaut in its own right, pull in upwards of a half of a million views on YouTube as fans around the world tune into the hijinks and devastation that comes with what is essentially a gorgeously narrated improv game of chance. Most everyone I’ve casually mentioned the game to has either mentioned that they’ve played it and loved it, or that they’re interested in playing but have assumed they’re alone in this (hey, guess what, you’re not!). And doesn’t it make perfect sense for such a game to be so popular right now?
Doesn’t the promise of a world where the monsters can be taken down by an elf, a fish-person, a token human, and several bisexual tieflings banding together sound like a beautiful escape? Don’t you want a world where you can work through loosely veiled issues that you’ve projected onto a wizard, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to be adopted in-game by one of your best friends simply because you think it would be funny? Would you just love to create some chaos and know that there will be no real-world consequences? Congratulations, you may just be interested in a TTRPG!
It seems perfectly logical that the game (in all its forms) has become so popular that I’ve had family members send me articles from the New York Times detailing this unexpected rise in popularity, or that it has finally become unsurprising to hear somebody express interest in this pastime that previously seemed so secretive and foreign. This has only been furthered by the pandemic we’ve found ourselves in; though I can’t hang out on the beach, in a library, or in a dining establishment in real life without a virus lurking over my shoulder, that’s not only plausible but an expectation to do all these activities within a fantasy world. And, of course, if it’s not enough to just be able to hang out with my friends for several hours (safely socially distanced within the confines of our respective Google Hangouts boxes), than it certainly is enough to put yourself in somebody else’s headspace and feel their feelings for a couple of hours. I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve let myself cry in the past few months, and two of those were the full-bodied, shaking sobs that came with the discovery that one character was still alive and the threat of another one dying. There seems to be no emotional catharsis like being someone else for a while.
Even when there was no game to be played, there’s been such an onslaught of DnD related materials that it’s still entirely plausible to indulge in the escapism content without having to reach out to any other human beings. After months of playing the “I’ll get to it later” game with CollegeHumor’s (yes, that CollegeHumor) live-play show Dimension 20, I was finally able to sit down and watch three seasons (interspersed with the then-airing weekly episodes of their most recent season, of a Game of Thrones-esque world of political intrigue inhabited entirely with food people and, appropriately, puns). To put it simplistically, it was shocking just how much comfort these shows brought me as I watched a group of friends explore themes of growing up, of finding family, and of anti-capitalism thinking. I took such simple joy from being able to watch what I recognized as a sort of parallel universe version of my own friends in which we have an audience and a production budget as they play through these vast universes.
So, in this, the twenty-first century, where escapism content and para-social relationships are all the rage, why not spend a few hours watching a group of friends traipse around a fantasy world? It seems so perfectly designed for this time that we’ve found ourselves in. Sit for hours and hours at a time (with episodes ranging anything from one-and-a-half hours to a hefty four) and watch as a group drags you through a tale that, yes, is as much about running gags and getting into mischief as it is fighting malevolent deities. More importantly, however, is the fact that at its core, Dungeons & Dragons media and games are about the notion that a group of friends can come together and, through idealism and force of will, change the world. The games seem to lend themselves so well to the idea that “friendship can change the world”, and it’s beautiful. It’s not fair to dismiss every individual game, every story, as ending with that moral, wrapped up around it like a pretty bow, but the idea of a group of strangers banding together against a greater evil and getting to learn about themselves and others as a result of it so perfectly encompasses the best games I’ve witnessed. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the found family trope, who knows?
The idea of escapism content isn’t always a good one. There are times that you can’t look away, can’t escape, and it’s important to make sure that you know when it’s time to leave fantasy behind and fight for things that are real because, unfortunately, it isn’t quite as easy as vanquishing a dragon or even taming one as a pet. But it seems impossible to not draw a bit of a connection between this fantastical, escapist uprising that we’ve witnessed over the past few years and the general dreary and traumatic nature of our day-to-day lives.
So, reader, if you’ve made it this far, I implore you to maybe see if you too will become somebody who has invested way too many hours into a hobby that you previously dismissed as nerdy. Take it from me, it may just surprise you, or it may not be your thing, and hey, to each their own! If you end up walking away from these 1,100 words and end up with a character you desperately want to talk about, my name is very distinctive and easy to look up in the Berkeley email system.