If you’re on the internet, chances are you’ve been hearing about Dungeons & Dragons. The game has a prominent starring role in Netflix’s Stranger Things, and an entire genre of actual-play podcasts and streams like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone and Friends At The Table are thriving, with more and more people eager to gather round and play. With almost half of my week dedicated to either playing or leading games, and as I explore online communities, I’ve now seen D&D become a tool of self-expression for people underrepresented in mainstream media. Just search on Tumblr and Twitter and you’ll find countless characters of every different kind of identity, and while I’ve played with groups of fellow women and LGBT folks, I’ve found a place where we can weave stories together, filled to the brim with characters that reflect our identities and beliefs in a game with endless choices and creativity.
In effect, it’s the ultimate form of escapism. A dungeon master (or DM) – the person who manages the session and navigates the story – and their players completely control their own world, allowing them to enter a playground where the only bullies are goblins or mindflayers. As opposed to media like books, movies and video games, tabletop RPGs are a personal collaborative effort, with fluid environments and characters that can change at a moment’s notice to be completely customized to players’ choices. While there are rules, they’re meant to be bent and changed, allowing for a game with limitless possibilities.
It’s no surprise that underrepresented groups have latched onto a form of media that allows us to take control of our own stories. While some mainstream media has tried to be more inclusive, there have been a lot of stumbles and obstacles that haven’t even been touched yet. For someone like me, it’s hard to fit into the mold of someone else’s fantasy where fat, bisexual women apparently don’t exist. But because I’m surrounded by friends who are accepting — and as tired of the patriarchal and heteronormative world as much as I am — my creativity isn’t stifled by any sort of social intolerances that would stop me from populating my entire campaign with various kinds of fat, bisexual women. I haven’t (yet) because that may become tedious from a storytelling standpoint, but almost every character that I’ve put into our world is some sort of LGBT individual.
I’ve found D&D to be a therapeutic part of my daily life. Joining up with friends to play out different conflicts, puzzles, and stories in a safe space where we accept each other’s identities is like cleansing myself of the weariness that comes from existing in our current world. In fact, there are practices that use tabletop RPGs as a form of therapy, like the Wheelhouse Workshop and the Bodhana Group. While roleplaying has been utilized by therapists for years as a way to communicate with patients, role-playing games allow patients to escape reality and face problems with the force of fun.
We’re not only allowed to have our identities seen and accepted but celebrated. Our pride is not burdened by the pressure of having to hide, or explain, or comfort those who don’t understand us.
The Bodhana Group says that part of why RPGs are an effective therapy is because they “…create a space in which the safety of the game world allows for a person to experience consequences. The boon is that within that safety of the game world, real world effects do not discourage experimentation. This is not much different from the safe space and trust between a counselor or therapist or during a group session.” And while playing D&D with your friends isn’t a substitution for professional counseling, it sure feels nice to know that you can play in a space that allows you to make mistakes and take actions without fear of persecution over your identity.
For example, in the first session of a campaign that I currently DM, I forgot that I had introduced my players to a husband and wife for a quest. Between sessions, I had created two husbands, but my players playfully scolded me for forgetting such a detail. Instead of redoing everything, I knew I could go with the flow, and create a polyamorous trio of bisexual elders. This wasn’t questioned by my players at all, and in fact, made them want to hang out with the characters even more to learn their story.
When I put down the DM mantle and start playing, I can embody a character that contains the strengths I wish I had, and the weaknesses I feel too embarrassed to talk about openly. I don’t drink, and I’m too shy to flirt openly with strangers, so I hardly ever go to bars. But in one campaign, I play Raina, a loud, confident bounty hunter that is always looking for the local bar to buy drinks for the ladies. There are no side-eyes from my fellow players or DM about my character’s sexual orientation, no comments or awkward silences from my fellow players.
This DM in particular has joked that in order to make us care about a character, all he has to do is make them either a woman, or gay. And by god, he’s right! Every time we’re introduced to a lesbian character we audibly cheer with glee, because it’s so rare in the media we’ve consumed our entire lives. We’re not only allowed to have our identities seen and accepted but celebrated. Our pride is not burdened by the pressure of having to hide, or explain, or comfort those who don’t understand us. We’re alive, we’re together, and we’re creating our own safe space filled with love and laughter (and dragons). We’re taking control of the narrative, one dice roll at a time.