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SYFY WIRE Dungeons & Dragons

How Dungeons & Dragons helped me find peace

By Laura Dale

Growing up, thanks to pop culture references, I had an idea of what Dungeons & Dragons was long before I ever actually tried playing it for myself: groups of geeky boys sitting in basements fighting through fantasy worlds with the use of, primarily, their imaginations and a whole lot of dice. There were monsters that took hours to fight, strict rules about who could do what, and mazes set up deliberately to screw you over.

While the combat-heavy vision we were sold of Dungeons & Dragons may have been an accurate depiction of earlier versions of the game, I was ultimately introduced to playing D&D in my mid-20s with the release of its most recent version, the fifth edition.

The core of D&D has remained fairly constant over the decades. A player called the Dungeon Master (DM) crafts a story and plays all the non-player characters, while the rest of the group each make a single character with a bunch of numbers corresponding to how good they are at any particular skill. Players describe what they want to do, and when something with an uncertain outcome occurs, they roll a 20-sided die, add on their skill modifier, and the DM decides if the number is high enough to succeed (20 is amazing, 1 is so terrible you probably accidentally injure yourself).

However, fifth-edition D&D made a series of changes that de-emphasized combat and shifted the flow of the game to be much more about group, character-driven storytelling. It rewards finding creative solutions to problems outside of combat and leaves a lot more room for players to roleplay as their characters rather than simply fighting using their stats sheets.

Over the past three years, I’ve been playing D&D as part of a weekly group with new stories and characters every nine months or so. While I was never much of a creative storyteller growing up, fifth-edition D&D, played with a talented Dungeon Master, has given me the room and flexibility to insert parts of myself into the characters I play, and find real-world emotional growth by overcoming fictional encounters with goblins and trolls.

One of the first D&D characters I really got attached to playing was a half-human, half-demon rock musician named Veltari. Having been abandoned by both her parents for her half-demon status, she grew up on the streets busking to get by. She ended up working as a ruthless assassin for an evil count, with her sole focus on doing his bidding. She’d spent most of her life working for people who saw her as valuable, so long as she never did anything to oppose them, and never really seen any other way to live. While I’m not half demon, nor have I ever worked as an assassin for an evil vampire, the place where Veltari’s story really had a personal impact on me was when our DM forced my character to get introspective to progress the plot.

In real life, I was abandoned at a pretty young age by one of my biological parents. It wasn’t a conscious choice for me to mirror this aspect in my character, but that’s the way character creation often ends up. Our DM, Austin, basically made Veltari come face to face with a vision of her younger self, who had just been abandoned by her parents and was blaming herself for it.

I ended up having adult Veltari reassure her younger self that it wasn’t her fault, and promise to always look after her and keep her safe. I had Veltari promise to her younger self that she would never be alone, because the adult she would become would be there to watch over her. Young Veltari painted a dandelion on her older self’s arm, a beautiful flower often classed as a weed. Veltari got it seared into her skin to ensure she wouldn’t forget the encounter.

As you can imagine, when there’s a personal connection between you and your character, working through the character’s emotional baggage can end up being incredibly cathartic. I can only thank my DM Austin for handling the scene so well; it really helped me to roleplay through and handle old feelings about something very real in my life. As someone who had spent many years feeling like I somehow caused my biological father to leave at a young age, that improvised scene with my DM really helped me to put a lot of those feelings behind myself. It was tough, I had a bit of a cry, but it was one of our campaign’s most moving moments because it was rooted in something real.

A little while after the campaign ended, I got that dandelion tattoo on my arm, much as my character had done.

Frank Westerly was a character played in a slightly more futuristic campaign. He was basically a wizard who used trading cards as his spell-casting focus. Imagine a middle-aged man who used to be a top-ranking Magic the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh player and uses his cards to cast spells. Down on his luck, and in severe debt from his trading-card-booster-pack-purchasing addiction, he got sucked into a life of crime and ultimately pulled into trying to dismantle capitalism, all while trying to make enough money that he could get custody of his kids back.

While there were undoubtedly narrative aspects of the character that meant a great deal to me, the most difficult part of the character, at least initially, was playing him with a deliberately low and gruff voice that felt appropriate.

As a trans woman who went through a testosterone-based first puberty, my voice was once upon a time very very low. I’ve spent probably the last decade working on bringing its pitch up, varying the cadence, and bringing my voice into a more naturally feminine range. But, with a little bit of thought, those deep gruff notes are still down there. In my day-to-day life, hiding the masculine parts of my vocal range is really important for my safety and for getting gendered correctly. Playing Frank, a male character in our campaign, was one of the first times I seriously committed to having fun playing around with vocal ranges I am usually too scared to try.

I think the fact that I was playing an exaggerated character in a setting where the other players all knew my name, my pronouns, and my gender identity, as well as the fact I was able to return to my feminine range for out-of-character conversations, really gave me room to experiment in a safe space with voices that I would never have had the confidence to try otherwise.

Captain Melbeck was a space hippo. She was the somewhat accidental captain of HMS Snallygaster, a crew of adventurers who dealt with criminals and threats on a for-hire basis. The crew was a bit discordant at the start of the adventure, with Liamoira lacking the forceful nature needed to keep a crew with differing morals in line. Additionally, she had the power to occasionally re-roll dice, essentially circumventing catastrophe, but only a limited number of times per adventure.

Captain Melbeck was constantly panicked about people not liking her, her family of beloved crew members leaving her or falling apart, and things going badly without her being able to stop them. The anxiety for the character, and as a player, was very real, and it ended up necessitating conversations with the players outside of game time to properly meditate.

I’m the kind of person who really struggles to accept help in real life, and I often blame myself for things that have no way of being my fault. It’s just the kind of person I am. That aspect of myself really came across in my character, and it caused some real in-character party conflict.

How did we solve the situation? By talking it through as a group of characters. Captain Malbeck took on a second-in-command, releasing some of the burden of responsibility, and opened up about her anxieties. It brought the crew together, and I think it brought us together as a group of players sat around the table.

I know that since then, I’ve been a lot better about accepting help from others. I owe a lot of that to playing a drunk space hippo who just wanted to smooch a living sword motorcycle lesbian.

After months as a half-demon rock star who needs to feel less abandonment guilt, a Magic the Gathering wizard dad with a gruff voice, and a drunk space hippo who isn’t good at accepting help and spreading the responsibility, it’s hard not to take lessons learned from those stories and bring them back into the world outside of those characters.

I am glad to have a little bit of Veltari, Frank, and Liamoira with me today.