There are a number of things I can thank my ex-boyfriend for—my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons is one of them. Another thing I can thank him for is cultivating my own creative ruthlessness. He’s absolutely brutal in killing off NPCs.
For those of you who aren’t massive freaking nerds, Dungeons & Dragons is basically a fantasy roleplaying game based on pen-and-paper character sheets and rolling dice to see if you can smack the bad guy. The most commonly-rolled die in D&D is the d20, which is a die with twenty sides. (What does the “d” stand for? It is unfortunately math-based terminology. D&D is the only kind of math you’ll catch me doing voluntarily.)
Some basic terms you should know:
- Session: Where the players and the DM sit down and play a game of D&D. The DM talks you through an adventure, and players roll dice to see how that adventure goes down. Bad rolls (low numbers) mean bad things happen, and good rolls (high numbers) mean good things happen, usually. In a fight, bad rolls mean you miss, and good rolls mean you hit.
- Campaign: A string of sessions all set in the same adventure. A campaign can last for a few months or even years. You usually finish a campaign because of a time constraint, or because the story is completed to everyone’s satisfaction.
- NPCs: Non-Player Characters, meaning characters the Dungeon Master (yes, that is what it’s called; DM for short) controls. You may recognize the terminology from video games. D&D is basically a video game without the visuals; it’s all conveyed through conversation.
- PCs, Characters, or Player Characters: the person a player creates to play in a campaign. It’s similar to taking a role in a theater production, except you build this character, their backstory, their appearance, their fighting style, and everything else, from the ground up. As a writer, character-making is one of my favorite parts about D&D.
- DM: The person who runs the game of D&D. There are a lot of responsibilities for a DM, including planning the adventure, wrangling the players into one room, and setting the tone for the story. Some DMs use premade adventures with premade characters and storylines. My ex was my DM, and D&D is how we met. (And yes—my parents made that as awkward as possible, as parents do.)
My escapist tendencies leak into D&D mostly in the form of character design. I get really into designing my characters—to the point where I got so attached to my first one, I decided to make my character in my next campaign her great-granddaughter. And then my character after that is my last character’s long-lost sister. You get the picture. I’m sentimental.
I escape through my characters. It started when I was a baby freshman with no clue what D&D was or how it worked. All of my characters have embodied something about myself that I want to improve or express. To be honest, it’s one of the most interesting ways I’ve gotten to know myself over the years.
- My first character Maia symbolized how I wanted others to see me: innocent but feisty, able to fend for herself, and affiliated with light and purity (she was a healer).
- My second character, Ivory, focused more on how I wished I could socialize and be seen by others. Ivory was sweet and kind to everyone, and very loved on all sides.
- My third character’s backstory tied a lot into my want for freedom from my parents and longing to explore the world, as well as my fascination with death. (Her name is Rue, and her father is a version of Terry Pratchett’s Death. I highly recommend Pratchett, by the way.)
It’s interesting to see how my priorities have changed since three years ago. I’m more focused on myself and my future now than how others see me, though it still factors in, to be sure.
The escapism continues when you actually get to play. Every session is an opportunity to step into the shoes of your character, to talk like them, act and react like them, and build relationships with the other PCs and NPCs. It’s a lot of fun to be courted by NPCs as a PC, which was my privilege as the DM’s romantic partner. It’s a nerdy sort of flirting you can’t quite capture outside of a session.
Have I mentioned my prior DM’s D&D brutality? I feel such a mix of fear as a player and evil joy as a creative thinking about it. I think I hear a highlights list calling my name.
- Gives an NPC we got overly-attached to Stage IV lung cancer and plays out a heartbreaking death scene in my third ever session.
- My aforementioned roommate played in this campaign as well, and her character’s motivation was to find her missing wife. That missing wife turns up halfway through the campaign as an undead banshee and almost kills us all.
- My roommate’s character dies to a giant spider at the end of that campaign.
- The big bad guy we defeated at the end of our first campaign was actually just depressed his wife died, and he was only a puppet for another Bigger Bad Guy, so we were sort of terrible people in the end.
- (This one was my bad too.) My first character Maia is politically assassinated, and this traumatizes all her loved ones and has devastating effect on one of the primary NPCs in our SECOND campaign.
- An entire city got teleported into the pits of Hell. Second campaign was a trip.
Plenty of people use D&D as a method of escapism, but not for the introspection or social aspect of being a character. In my experience, most boys who play focus more on the combat experience, which can be really fun and interesting! I don’t like math, which is what stands in my way there. D&D math can get really complicated, really fast. But hey, whatever floats your escapist boat.
I’ve been thinking about the “flow state” I referenced in my last article a lot. Next time, I’ll talk about mindless consumption as a form of escapism, and I think a huge percentage of young people will know what I’m talking about right away. See you next week!