The magic of Dungeons & Dragons

For this month’s theme, guest writer Sarah Ellis explores the much beloved Dungeon’s and Dragon’s game.


Gaming is a great way to escape into whatever world we choose. It can be an incredibly immersive and refreshing way to plug into a story and “unplug” from reality for a while, particularly with the recent advent of VR systems.

However, occasionally the truth of our lived reality can bleed into games for better or worse. Many computer based games are “heavy” on the heterosexual male vibe for instance, with female characters often being very much a backstory element or drawn to resemble a cross between Jessica rabbit and Zena warrior princess.

However, occasionally the truth of our lived reality can bleed into games for better or worse.

It’s a narrative that also occasionally seeps over into real world attitudes, I’m sure many many female gamers can attest to accusations of “you only like it cos your boyfriend/brother does”, or not being a “real” gamer (whatever they are). Of course, storyline driven games often feature creative content that has romantic leads pretty much sticking to a heterosexual narrative.

So, for women, and for any LGBTQ+ gamer, this can break the immersion from time to time but things are beginning to change a little.

Perhaps driven partly by social change and partly by gamers feedback themselves, the scene initially began to change from 2000’s with Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters like Willow, who was bisexual, all the way up to current day where we have large film company productions giving a nod via the star trek movie reboots with Captain Sulu and his husband, plus Overwatch from Blizzard has been confirmed to have a number of heroes that are LBGT characters, notably Tracer.

So film, PC and console wise things are changing – but what of the table-top scene? Overall, there is a huge range of cooperative and/or strategy games now on the market, from Time Stories, Xcom, Dead of Winter, and (one of the many Star Wars universe games)  X Wing; which has so many female pilots and main characters it’s ridiculously good on the “lore” angle. I’ve enjoyed playing them all. However, over the last eighteen months, I’ve gotten quite immersed in one particular  table-top computer-free game that many readers may know of.

Dungeons and Dragons is a pen, paper & dice based game that’s been around since the mid-seventies. A group of players choose races and class abilities for their characters who live in a magical world of witches, warlocks, goblins, elves, dwarves and dragonborn, amongst others. Like Bilbo Baggins in the The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, they set off on magical mysterious adventures. These follow either a prewritten campaign book or a home-brewed adventure plot. Crucially, this game is played as group with up to 5/6 others, with one player as the game master  (known as GM or DM). The DM is effectively the judge/creator of the world and runs the game from behind a screen, serving up all sorts of stuff for the other players to deal with.

The rule sets have undergone various revisions over the years but the most recent is fifth edition, commonly abbreviated to 5e. All the rules for which are set out in the player’s handbook, published by wizards of the coast who license the game. In essence the players all roll dice to determine success or failure of any actions their characters take and thus the story unfolds as a result.

The great thing about this game from an LGBTQ+ perspective is that within the races & classes you can play pretty much anything you wish. It’s a freeform gaming experience, very character driven and very much balanced between narrative and dice roll controlled combat encounters, where the team battles other monsters and challenges thought up by the DM. There are even many other online resources and books for this.

So you want be a Female Elven princess with a grudge? Check! Fancy playing a great big Goliath warrior with a soft spot for Gnomes? Check! How about a non-binary all powerful dragon based creature? Check! Or a singing bard with awfully good powers of persuasion and light fingers? Check!

So you want be a Female Elven princess with a grudge? Check!

The game progresses on a systems of levels. New characters start at level one and as they gain in experience and strength in the world they level up, eventually hitting level 20 where you can battle such things as gods and titans and still come out on top…

Take me for instance; I have an elven princess, who is part Rogue class and part Monk. This makes her basically like Neo from the Matrix (but with a much better hair style), and her backstory is one of rebellion against her position in society. It’s this backstory that is so freeing in D&D; you can do anything you like with it. However, keep in mind that the more loose the threads of the backstory are, the easier you make it for the DM to have more leeway in building your character into a world, integrating things that pop up randomly which makes it more fun.

This all makes for some wonderfully hilarious moments as you all sit around the table telling this communal story, that none of you really have total control over. For example, a player might decide to open a door, for which they have to roll a skill check. That means rolling a 20 sided dice. The higher the number the more successful they are. Obviously a really strong character (meaning one that has a high number on their character sheet that they add to any “strength” roll) can still roll a one on the dice, meaning the DM then has to improvise on the spot and come up with a spectacular and often funny fail. This could be “as you go to push the door you trip over the foot of your axe and fall forward, your chin hitting the door with dull thud, and it slowly creaks open as you lay on the floor with a headache…” The rest of the characters then react to this and the story moves on….

If you’d like to see how the game is played, I heartily recommend taking a look at some of the “GM tips” YouTube series by long time gamer Matt Mercer. Mercer, who has been DM’ing games for close to twenty years now, set up a game along with a few friends just for fun. They all happen to be voice over actors too, and for the last eighteen months the game has been streamed online via Twitch TV, with back episodes on YouTube. The show is called Critical Role, and follows the fortunes of Vex, Vax, Percy, Grogg, Scanlan, Keylith and Tibs, a band of adventurers collectively called Vox Machina as they each complete their own story arcs within the wider world narrative. There is also the web series Force Grey following a different band of adventurers but also DM’d by Mercer, which is a slightly shorter format to watch and can give you the overall idea if you’re new to the game.

On the subject of improvised funny character moments, once of the best moments occurred when the party have gone unexpectedly to purchase black powder (gun powder) from a local merchant for Percy, which led to Mercer having to create the character on the spot.

 

Apart from all the tomfoolery of the game itself, the very nature of D&D’s set up as a collaborative role play based on diverse skill sets and traits is refreshing. The very ethos of the game is “diversity, difference and shared commonality of purpose”. It’s great to get family and kids into as it teaches them the value of team working to solve problems in a way school lessons perhaps never could, and also fosters an appreciation of the talents of others in their group. By having different races in a fantasy world the players are obliged to put themselves into the shoes of others, and view things from a different perspective. Often people who played D&D as kids cite this as formative in their relations with real world questions of race, diversity and difference. Mercer in his games has created non player characters (like the loveable Victor) that are gay,  bisexual, and non-binary. These characters just inhabit the world as part of it. Sometimes LGBTQ+ identities comes up in narrative, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just there. The world at large certainly could do with a heavy dose of that type of awareness these days.

To highlight this further, since Critical Role began as a show, the community that has grown up around the game (known affectionately as “critters”) is massive. Many of the artworks have been done by fans, and guess what? Many are LGBTQ+ and/or have other challenges in life. 

D&D for me really celebrates diversity, has a low barber of entry and is incredibly flexible in what you wish to make it – it’s also hugely fun. So grab a few mates, read the books, get the snacks in and in the words of old Bilbo himself,

“…can’t stop now! I’m going on an adventure!”

 

Follow Sarah (@cycle_sol) on Twitter

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