This post is adapted from a paper I wrote for a Fan Studies class. I’m not typically a humanities scholar, so this paper was a stretch for me, but I think it’s interesting, nonetheless.
You can’t really buy a copy of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) like you can buy a copy of Risk or Dominion. There are rulebooks, premade monsters, and even official campaigns but none of those are D&D. Instead, they represent a framework of mechanics and ideas that a Dungeon Master (DM) might use to run the game. The DM is a unique player within a D&D group because they are the architect of the fictional universe the other players interact with through their own characters. In other words, the DM creates a fictional space, and other player make fictional characters that exist in that space. In my D&D group, I am the DM.
You might have noticed an apparent typo in the title of this essay. I assure you, it is purposeful and a reference to a David Bowie song of the same name from the album 1. Outside. 1. Outside is a concept album with a non-linear narrative and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” is a defiant breaking of the fourth wall to address the audience directly as (a character of) the writer of this story, watching it all fall apart. The use of punctuation in the title is itself, an act of architecture; and the song immediately name-checks two behemoths of architecture: Philip Johnson and Richard Rodgers. These two luminaries are evoked by the writer-character as objects of fandom and basises of comparison to his own work. Similarly, I am name-checking David Bowie. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Despite referencing a non-linear narrative, I intend to be straightforward in my writing. For now, I will turn back to D&D.
D&D is typically run as a series of sessions that all connect to a larger narrative. Each session is typically 3 or 4 hours long. For this particular group, we are playing our second campaign set in the same universe. As of writing, we have played 25 sessions: 19 in the first campaign, and 6 in the current campaign. To fully appreciate this (auto)ethnography, I will provide a lore primer below.
Civilization is spread across the known galaxy, yet there are no interstellar vessels. Each planet is connected to other planets by gate(s) built by an ancient civilization that vanished eons ago. Over time, two large factions arise: the Coterie and the Phrygian Wing. These two factions wrestle with ideological differences and failed trade negotiations that lead to generational wars. The campaign itself begins with the player’s characters (PCs) acting as representatives of either the Coterie or the Phrygian Wing to sign a peace treaty between the two factions and form a new government.
At the signing event, an unknown enemy army pours through previously inactive gates, killing or enslaving all present, including the PCs, and stopping the peace treaty from being formally signed. Neither the Coterie nor the Phrygian Wing are ready to fight this war and both suffer immense losses over the coming months. The PCs attempt to stop the invasion and learn that the invading force are the Tagmati, the forerunners that built the gates. They found themselves alone on their planet, so they built the gates to visit other worlds. Those worlds, too, were empty. Dissatisfied with this, they seeded life on several planets. Evolution being a long process, they attempted to speed it up so they could meet the new races – only to instead rip themselves out of time and come back to learn that the races they consider to be their children are engaged in a petty war. The Tagmati demand obedience from their children. The PCs confuse the leader of an extremist splinter group of Tagmati, Chaucer, as representative of all Tagmati. Chaucer is working to not only “bring them to heel” but also a backup plan in case the invasion fails. Chaucer is embittered against the gods that created the Tagmati and is working on gathering artifacts that will enable him to perform a ritual that will undo all existence – including the gods themselves.
Without going too far into it, the PCs try to do the right thing at every turn but often fail or set other problems in motion. This culminates with confronting Chaucer years later and incidentally bringing the last artifact Chaucer needs to him. Chaucer performs the ritual, but it doesn’t work as planned. Instead, it unleashes an ancient evil known as the Blackstar. The Blackstar possesses all of the PCs and a few non-player characters (NPCs), effectively ending the campaign.
The next campaign begins 286 years after the rise of the Blackstar in the same universe now ruled collectively by the Blackstar: ten different rulers, each with their own fealty of planet(s) to preside over. The Blackstar seem to have no goal other than maintaining their power – which is absolute. The players created new PCs that are setting out to destroy The Blackstar. So far, they’ve taken out one (The Laughing Gnome) and a few of the Blackstars’ lackeys, and are on the run. They are woefully unprepared to face any other Blackstar because the one they killed was by far the weakest and had the smallest fealty: one planet. What’s more, as of the conclusion of the last session they have: promised the souls of everyone living in a city to an death cult’s god in exchange for protection, nearly died of a curse, killed a Blackstar commander (The Ghoul), pleased a god (Aphbrodite, a member of the Brotheon of Gods) to lift the curse, found and killed a Blackstar imposter acting as a ruler of jungle village (ala Apocalypse Now), and then accidentally got themselves trapped in the Astral Plane (which, in this universe, is a featureless plane of Crystal Pepsi). All in all, it’s going well.
Rule 1: The DM is Always Right.
Part of writing an ethnography is explaining your connection with the studied group. In this case, I am a member of the group, but also in control of the reason the group meets. While it appears in the rulebooks in different ways over the years, the understood “Rule 1” of D&D is that the DM is always right. The DM may interpret or even disregard the rules at their discretion, including taking over a PC temporarily or even permanently. The DM could even create paradoxes and force the PCs to deal with it. The DM’s power is absolute. A cursory googling will give plenty of examples of DMs going too far. I’m sure, at moments, I’ve toed this line too.
Rule 0: Have fun.
Fortunately, there is a rule that supersedes all rules, and all subsequent rules are beholden to satisfy Rule 0: have fun. Despite the immense power that I wield as a DM, I wield it with a singular goal in mind, which is to have a good time together. Given the stability of the group I run, I like to think that I’m OK at this.
“This is a constitutional monarchy.”
If Rule 1 sounds a bit authoritarian, that’s because it is. D&D is not a democracy or even a republic. I like to tell my players that it is a constitutional monarchy: I am the absolute ruler but I am (hypothetically) bound by the rules, just as anyone else. But I also recognize that even if I’m not really bound by the rules, it’s in my best interest to abide by them – lest I am beheaded by an angry mob.
Fortunately, the people I play D&D with combined with my DM style rarely leads to friction of the bad kind. I think the closest we’ve ever come to it is I had my players briefly captured by metallic vines that they couldn’t escape from. This was necessary from a narrative standpoint, but in universe it didn’t make a ton of sense. Anything should be possible, even if improbable, in D&D. I got a few dirty glances from players as they learned that they were helpless in that moment. Those dirty glances were earned, but also worth it in the end with the narrative payoff. It seemed as if everyone had forgotten about it by session’s end, anyway.
Stating “friction of the bad kind” implies there is a friction of the good kind, and I would argue that there is. Tension is necessary for rewards to feel earned and palpable. As DM, part of my job is creating and nurturing that friction. I use my power to craft instances that pulls members of the party in different directions, forcing them to figure out how to work together, but also how to compromise. More plainly put, good friction is when characters are acting reasonably per their personalities and find that they disagree. Bad friction is when the players at the table work against each other. We don’t have that issue, fortunately.
“I jump off my wolf!” or: why I don’t play D&D with strangers
Though slightly outside of the main scope of this paper, I think it’s important to highlight an instance of myself as a D&D player that illustrates why I don’t play D&D with strangers and also what “bad friction” can look like. A few years ago, I attended a session of Pathfinder – effectively a variation on D&D but highly organized and hosted at game shops – where myself and two friends were paired with some strangers to play a session.
One player at the table embodied all of the negative stereotypes of a D&D player, so much so that he very well may have been straight out of Mazes & Monsters (more on that later!). He was playing a halfling ranger that had a pet wolf that he could ride. Rangers are typically thought of as skilled hunters, but also friends of animals. This particular ranger had bonded so thoroughly with this wolf that it was tamed. By this charitable description, you might think that this was a thoroughly nuanced and developed character. Not in the least. This player had scoured the rules and found a series of loopholes to exploit so he could have the most powerful character at the table. When in combat, he could control the wolf’s movement, hop off, do his own movement, and then even duck behind the wolf so the wolf takes damage instead of him. This doesn’t sound anything like a ranger and his tamed wolf to me.
This created bad friction at the table, too, because it ceased being fun for us. This player wasn’t playing the game in earnest, he wanted us to know how cool and powerful his character was. His fictional, pretend character in a game where we move tiny figures around a grid to talk about punching elves and orcs. D&D is absurd, and a player getting very serious about it is painful to watch. You can’t “win” D&D, the experience (and the XP) is the reward. I’ve since sworn off playing with strangers, and I’ve vowed that as a DM I would quickly squash that kind of thinking at my table.
Now that I am no longer ahead of myself, I have more to say about name-checking. The use of a David Bowie song title is pointed and purposeful. Not only is it a fitting title for what I’m doing as a DM, but referencing Bowie is something this whole campaign in about. I am a massive David Bowie fan. My earliest music-related memory is hearing “Space Oddity” on the radio and not understanding why he sounded so sad, given that he was an astronaut.
With Bowie’s sudden passing in early 2016, I have found myself still struggling to fully comprehend it. I am not actively sad about it. In fact, I’m more puzzled than anything. I’ve listened to just about every iota of music the man recorded at great length, but I still don’t quite “get it.” There seems to be something more there for me to grasp, but I can’t tell what it is. I still can’t.
However, I took this as an opportunity to just dive into my fandom and realize it in a totally different space. The Blackstar are all based on characters that David Bowie used throughout his career. Instead of forcing myself to confront the loss of these characters, I am asking my players to kill them for me. And because the player’s “old” characters are possessed by the Blackstar, they are killing (freeing?) characters they are close to as well. It’s all very Freudian. Or is it Jungian? Hard to say at this point.
A brief interlude about anonymity and my focus
I am not interested in identifying the players at my table. In fact, the focus of this ethnography is strictly in-universe. I will relate characters across campaigns, but I won’t discuss who plays these characters. Not only do I want my players to feel secure when they sit at my table, I also don’t want to muddy the waters. I will leave that to other scholars. Furthermore, this group is more important to me than the scholarly insights I might gain by pulling back the curtain more. Call it what you will (intellectually bankrupt!), that is my choice as a fan and academic to keep the barrier in place. I’m not alone, either: Henry Jenkins (2012), among others, does the same thing. While this decision may be upsetting, please understand that it is necessary for this paper to exist at all.
Unlike Jenkins, however, I do hope to interrogate myself as a DM more than one might typically expect from a Fan Studies autoethnography. Hills (2002) criticisms of shoddy ethnography commonplace to the field echo throughout this paper as I try to maintain some credibility as a scholar while simultaneously juggling being a fan.
At any rate, you need to know who populates this fictional universe that I created. Below you will find brief synopses of each of the current player characters. Each person at the table plays one character.
Quinn is a half-elf (the other half is human, but by convention merely called “half-elf”) barbarian scholar. She studies “The Incident:” namely, she studies the war and the events of the prior campaign. This is not a popular thing to study and her college got a lot of pressure from the local Blackstar authority to push her out of the academy. No dictator wants someone digging around in their history.
Quinn often finds herself at odds with the world: half-elves are generally considered the children of two worlds, but not wholly accepted in either. Furthermore, as a barbarian scholar, her physique intimidates the intelligentsia and her intellect intimidates the muscle. The constant struggle to find the truth and being thwarted at every turn wears on Quinn, but she appreciates the respect she gains from the fear she generates.
Early on in the campaign, Quinn had to face a prior colleague of hers at the university. He dealt to her the greatest insult he could: he did not even acknowledge that he had ever met her before. Ackman, her former colleague, was a potential candidate to be the head of the local government after the party disposed of the Blackstar. His condescending attitude and his stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge that they knew each other drove Quinn up a wall. Fortunately, Ackman leapt from his spire once confronted with evidence of his collusion with the Blackstar. Unfortunately, he grew sixty feet tall as he jumped and the party had to deal with a Huge Ackman. The fight ended with Ackman’s giant corpse demolishing the college. Quinn was finally free.
Quinn often finds herself being the voice of reason in the party. Her intelligence and her knowledge of the Blackstar surpasses most. The difficulty is, of course, when she get frustrated she goes into a blood rage. The barbarian in her takes hold. She can be fierce in battle, but she can be just as fierce in conversation.
In contrast with Quinn, Shtutz is a totally passive and quiet character. He has a repulsive, mealy-mouthed, stooge for any authority figure. Especially those that espouse fascist dogma. Shtutz, in all respects, seems to be the player’s attempt at understanding Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Shtutz will parrot anything he hears if it’s said in the right tone of voice. Unlike Spicer, he doesn’t work for an authoritarian regime, though. In a way, he’s playing Sean Spicer in reverse: Shtutz was a stooge but he’s slowly finding his way back to the Easter Bunny costume and in doing so regaining some humanity. (Yes, Sean Spicer was the Easter Bunny. See: O’Neal, 2017).
Chirp is Birdperson’s real name, but since his people don’t have a language, he can’t really tell anyone his name. Birdperson is a kenku. The kenku are an avian race that displeased the god that elevated them to sentience only to have that god take away their capacity to fly, and took their language too. Instead, Birdperson can mimic sounds he’s heard to form thoughts. Birdperson has also faced the most cruelty at the hands of my DM via terrible dice rolls. Notably, his heavy crossbow broke as he was loading it. The snapping mechanism mangled his lower torso and genitals. (In all fairness, he double crit-failed!)
Delilah is a on a quest to rid the land of slavery. She only indirectly cares about the Blackstar threat because of their implicit support of slavery. Delilah, by most measures, is a swashbuckling pirate and a former slave trader herself, until she realized that slaves are people too. Delilah is overly pragmatic and thus often a source of momentum for the party: no sense in making plans or talking once the threat has been identified.
Tingz is a Kobold (think “small lizard-person”) and the party think his name is Gnoz, not realizing that Kobold surnames are first. Furthermore, the party can’t tell that Tingz isn’t S’kritz. S’kritz is Tingz fraternal twin and joined the party for about 15 minutes before dying brutally. Fortunately, Tingz was following S’kritz and now has a reason to stick with the party: covertly getting revenge for his brother’s death.
There’s a strange little halfling in the group who may be a druid or may be a wizard. Regardless, he’s got three squirrel companions with him at all times, and is on an eternal quest to be the ruler of all squirrels everywhere. Squirrel wears armor made from leaves and moss, and favors strong drink and substances to enhance his experiences. He’s a bit of a wildcard, but the group often misses that he makes massive, if not subtle, contributions.
Batai is a remnant of the Tagmati war, and he carries the weight of that war on his shoulders. He has decided that it is his responsibility to undo the evils his people perpetrated, and the Blackstar are part of that equation. Batai is accompanied by Archimedes, his friend’s soul trapped in a technological construct, that serves as a sounding board for plans and occasional advice.
Writing a session
As the DM, I put in a lot more time into playing than anyone else at the table. But it’s a labor of love, and a fun way to have an outlet and an audience for my creative endeavors. Something that often surprises people when I talk to them about D&D is that I don’t particularly like fantasy. At a young age, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but that was pretty much it. Even then, I did not particularly enjoy them. The world building was astounding, but the writing was painfully bad.
D&D is an interesting space for me to occupy, then, because it explicitly designed to operate in a fantasy setting. My first D&D campaign (“Dresden II”) was a scifi adventure with lots of homebrew mechanics to account for technology instead of magic, as well as interstellar travel. I look back fondly on that campaign – you never forget your first – but it has become clear to me that I had bitten off more than I could chew with all of the homebrew mechanics. For the two campaigns I have been discussing here, I have held onto elements of scifi but ultimately landed on a sci-fantasy setting. This choice was made out of desire to make the game more approachable for myself, but also my players – several of whom had not played D&D before.
Preparing for a typical session takes a variable amount of time, and time that I don’t keep track of. My best guess is that I spend between 2 – 4 hours each week preparing for the session. This time is spent on brainstorming, writing, curating a playlist of music for the session, and maintaining our D&D Facebook group.
Brainstorming and writing happen in an interleaved fashion. Sometimes something from the last session will give me an idea for the next session, making my life easier. Other times, I find myself with an opportunity to do more or less as I please. Regardless of the initial impetus for the session, one thing I always work on first is the title of the session. I conceptualize each session as a chapter, and I share the chapter titles with the D&D group on Facebook prior to the session each week. The titles matter to me, because they help set a tone. Like a good song title, I hope for my chapter titles to give away some core truth of the chapter, but it only becomes obvious after playing the chapter. For example, a chapter was titled “The Janus Eternal Trust,” triply serving the purpose of being a backronym, a setup for a bad joke, and a clue. In this particular chapter, the adventurers are beguiled by a previously minor NPC named Bennie, who is now the unwilling leader of a cult of warforged, only to use the adventurers to be trapped by the cult so she could escape. Bennie’s duplicitous nature has served as plot points before, so it was only fitting to invoke the two-faced god of antiquity, Janus. Also, I got to work into the conversations between NPCs and PCs the phrase “Bennie and the JETs.” The plot of that chapter was more or less lifted directly from the classic Star Trek episode “I, Mudd,” for those of you playing along at home. All of this to say that chapter titles matter. What started out a desire to make a backronym for JET for make an Elton John reference became a particularly memorable session. My PCs still bring it up, and we played it about 4 months ago.
The title doesn’t necessarily come first, though. Sometimes the plot is sketched out first and the title is used to find a way to change the outline into something more interesting. Sometimes I find myself with an outline sketch of the chapter that is suitable but ultimately lacking in terms of flair or thoughtfulness. Ruminating on the themes and trying to find a connection to a title that is, itself, a reference can push me to make new connections I had not previously seen.
D&D as a series of political statements
When I write a session, I am engaging in making inherently political statements. Sometimes these statements are overtly political, such as confronting the PCs with the need to set up a government (see next section below). Other times it is a more subtle kind of politics. When I structure an chapter, I am making decisions about what belongs where and how. I am organizing a multidimensional space as I see fit. Inevitably these are value judgements. Sometimes they are purposefully provocative. Other times, they are unavoidable. Given my propensities for subtext and acting as an agent provocateur, sometimes these political statements push me to write and espouse things to nudge the players around, things I object to with the hope that they’ll object to it too.
To help explain this, I must elucidate on a part of my fandom. I am a huge Robert Heinlein fan. I have read just shy of all of his novels (Podkayne of Mars is sitting expectantly on my bookshelf), and I find that this is something he does too. Most famously, I would argue, is Starship Troopers (1997). The novel follows a character deeply embedded in an authoritarian meritocracy society, waging a war against an alien species. To the casual reader, it may appear as if Heinlein himself endorses these views, given that his characters think and act within this system, and uphold it. I sometimes think I am in the minority of Henlein fans that thoroughly loves Verhoeven’s 1997 movie adaptation because it seems to understand the story more than most people give it credit for. Verhoeven, in all of his Verhoeveness glory, pushes the message of the book to the extreme to make it obviously absurd. Heinlein was pushing our buttons, tasking us to confront something and to be continually mortified by it so we could reject it.
Case study: sometimes it’s the dumbest thing said that makes the point for you, or: “the natives always say bwana”
I have tried to pull the same stunt as Heinlein at times, and to mixed success. (It’s almost as if I am not of the same writing caliber as one of the greatests minds in science fiction.) In a story arch where PCs found themselves trapped in a series of illusions, one of them was meant to be a sort of early 1950s B movie version of The Most Dangerous Game (Connell, 1924), replete with bad accents, a Russian aggressor, a damsel in distress, a tokenized “country of Africa”-type assistant to the strong-jawed white male lead. The PCs find themselves waking up from a strange dream-like sequence in the middle of a jungle, plopped down in only to immediately meet all of the main characters of this story.
This chapter is the second in a three-part arc where players find themselves embedded in B movie-esque renditions of hackneyed stories. I kept upping the gonzo factor because I wanted them to start questioning their surroundings, but they seemed to more or less accept what was happening around them as real. Falling into a trance, being overcome by a sedating white light only to wake up in a strange place? No problem, it seems!
The first time I did this was the previous chapter, and I doubted I would get away with it but it seemed like a good gag. But no, they played right along to my surprise. To push them more and more to doubt their reality, one of the angles I used was an increased racial insensitivity. However, it was not done in an in-universe fashion. Instead, the insensitivities were born out in, to me, painfully obvious real-world racial issues. The black characters were subservient cultured savages. The white characters were the heroes. The black characters died first. The white characters got the girl in the end, and so on. But this still didn’t work, so I relied on an old B movie cliche: the black characters were now wearing grass skirts and had tiny bones piercing their septums, and they would always say “bwana.” Bwana means boss or master in Swahili. To me, this was the most reductionist and cruel thing I could do: the only vestigial instance of a “real” culture was used to hail the white saviors.
I must have done something wrong here, though, because my players found it funny and odd. There were concerned looks at the table at these cruelly racist undertones, but they never questioned it outright. Or if they did, it didn’t seem to influence their characters much at all. It is possible that while the reality was becoming more and more objectionable, they felt powerless to change it. Even in the end when I went full Verhoeven, it did not work. The final chapter using this technique, I put them in a painful kung fu B movie, that was explicitly an uninformed westerner’s attempt at making a kung fu film setting. Finally, I had to lay my hand on the table and show it to them: they were being tested by a powerful lich – basically a Q neé Star Trek character – to push their sense of reality, to see what they were capable of and what they would tolerate.
Case study: Power Vacuum
We find our adventurers in the city of Sedna, capital of Ankora. They have just worked together to defeat The Laughing Gnome, a Blackstar, in combat. Upon The Laughing Gnome’s defeat, the party learns that The Laughing Gnome is actually “Beef Peef,” a character from the Tagmati war campaign, augmented with cybernetics to have a full 4 limbs. Beef Peef got his name because he was the one-eared elvish head of a man named Peef attached to a large, hairy, muscular human leg (Beef). This is a major realization for the players at the table: their old characters may be alive as other Blackstar. This is also a major realization for the PCs: the adventurers that (per popular understanding) aided the Tagmati in unleashing the Blackstar are the Blackstar. This has long been speculated, but never known for a fact.
After defeating the Blackstar, the party was planning on simply leaving. However, some of the locals convinced them that walking away now would surely doom the city to be ruled by other Blackstar or really anyone else seeking power. Instead, the locals argued, the party should help them set up a new government. The party was invited to lead the government directly, but they summarily declined. Instead, they tracked down four leads of notable locals that may be fit for the job.
The party invited all four to dinner: a prominent craftsman, a popular tavern owner (and allegedly a priestess for one of the outlawed gods), the just and compassionate warden of the Laughing Gnome’s prison, and a scholar. Ackman, the scholar, was generally disinterested in the proceedings and implied that he was not interested in holding office. The craftsman was interested and certainly had the charisma to lead, but he was a bit too interested in the power. The warden was fair but just, and one of the few people able to temper The Laughing Gnome’s propensities for random cruelty. She ran a prison, but it was a lawful, safe, and just place. Lastly, the tavern owner was a certainly popular enough, but she lacked any fundamental understanding of governance.
With the dinner party not really revealing enough relevant information about the candidates, the party held additional interviews with the candidates. Notably, a now deceased PC, Obi, attempted to kill the Warden out of principle: she was a Blackstar capitulator despite her reputation for doing good. Obi was also working to his own end and wanted to be able to indirectly control this government. Unfortunately, he botched the attempt and ended up dying himself as he killed the Warden. Because he was acting alone, no one ever understood exactly what happened between the Warden and Obi. This was also the first PC to die during this campaign.
Player death is a tricky thing to navigate as the DM. I need to make the world dangerous enough to provide a real sense of tension and risk, but I also don’t want to make it in such a way that it kills PCs in ways that don’t serve some greater purpose. At the same time, I do not have control over dice rolls and things that are typically mundane can quickly turn terrifying. In the case of Obi, he was fighting an unarmed civilian. Unfortunately, he critical failed a couple rolls. This leaves me in a further tricky spot: do I pull my punches to keep the PC alive? If I do, that removes the sense of danger from the world and provides a safety net. If I don’t, a PC dies and it serves nothing. In this case, I decided to not pull my punches since the player might learn from this experience if I kill his character. He split off from the party, started combat, and acted irrationally. In fact, this deserves being shared for posterity. I present it below:
Obi: [to the Warden, in an attempt to distract her] I’m here to tell you that we suspect someone is trying to kill you!
The Warden believes him due to his excellent Deception roll, panics, and starts packing her things. Obi surreptitiously slips poison into her drink.
Obi: Good! Now finish your tea and we’ll get you to a safe place.
Obi rolls very poorly on this Persuasion check, and is unable to shake the previously instilled panic in the Warden. Instead of backing down or seeking another route, Obi threatens her and demands she drink her tea. He rolls poorly on this Intimidation check, and instead she draws her weapon and makes quick work of him. As she attempts to leave, she trips on the steps and falls and breaks her neck. Later, it is discovered that someone planted a magical rock in the steps that causes people to trip.
In this instance, it seemed reasonable to kill this PC, even if I hadn’t planned on it. Players need to learn their actions have consequences, and also stick together. There are few impositions from outside the game world that I put on my players, but one of them is stick together in dangerous situations. Obi struck out on his own and then escalated a situation needlessly. He paid for it with his life.
After the mess with Obi, the other candidates were still turning up dead. When the party went to check on, then confront Ackman, he leapt from the window in his spire office, seemingly committing suicide. Instead of splatting on the ground, he grew 60 feet tall. Unfortunately for all involved, his clothing did not work like the Incredible Hulk’s and thus the party had to battle a paunchy, middle-aged, nude giant. I did this for puerile humors’ sake, but I learned I need to be careful with that.
Part of playing D&D is figuring out how to creatively utilize your environment. My players are kind of notoriously bad at this, and it lulled me into a false sense of security. One of the very first actions a PC took was Quinn throwing one of her hand axes at Huge Ackman’s testicles, rupturing the scrotum and exposing the dangling testes. (Of course, moments later Birdperson suffered his disfiguring accident.) The rest of the combat primarily centered on characters trying to exploit and find other possible weak points. All in all, this is a favorable approach to combat on a conceptual level. I now know that I need to be careful when I, ah, expose a weakness.
Following the end of this debacle, Ackman’s enormous corpse collapsed onto the spire of the college, symbolically freeing Quinn from her frustrations and anger about her past. Since that event, Quinn has struggled to figure out who she is and why. Hatred and anger fueled her for so long; and once the external forces that she hung her rage upon dissolved, she had no idea why the feelings persisted. Quinn’s solution to her problems was still useful, but it didn’t actually solve anything. The other players, since the battle with Huge Ackman, have gained a sense of power and ability. It the first time that, as a group, they solved a problem together and decided to think outside the box. Furthermore, they learned that Huge Ackman was a Blackstar agent when they found a fushigi ball and a note amidst his remains, promising him great power.
Finally, the group found a way to help the people of Sedna. Not only did they upset the balance of power, they overthrew the Blackstar rule, averted a Blackstar agent from seizing power, and laid the groundwork for Sedna to be self-governed. Following the events of The Laughing Gnome and Huge Ackman, Sedna was laid seige by a retaliatory Blackstar force lead by a Blackstar commander known as The Ghoul. But that’s another story.
Mazes & Monsters: capitalizing on a moral panic
D&D has been subject to surprisingly little scholarship it seems, at least in the field of psychology. However, Carter and Lester (1998) find, much to the surprise of popular culture expectations, that male D&D players seem to be totally similar to non-players in regards to rates of depression, suicidal ideation, psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism. Though not from the field of fan studies, this certainly speaks to the field and how popular culture expectations can be quite wrong about fans and fandoms, and provides a more quantitative and defendable approach to demonstrating that fandom should not be automatically pathologized.
The experimental design was simple: 20 D&D players (60% of which were undergraduates) and 20 unselected undergraduates both responded to the same questionnaires to provide data on their mental health. The means of the scores from each group were compared and found to be statistically identical. While the reported findings are limited in the kinds of statistics that were reported – notably that frequentist tests such as the ones employed here cannot “prove” that two groups are not different – it is an accepted practice of the field at the time to report these kinds of statistical analyses and not others.
Carter and Lester’s study does have limitations, however: the study only utilized self-reported measures or indexes derived from self-reported data. As such, there is a possibility for respondents replying in a way they think they should respond as opposed to how they actually feel. Regardless, this data is an interesting rejection of the fears of D&D being a place for the weirdos and outcasts. Or, if they still are weirdos and outcasts, they aren’t experiencing direly poor mental health.
This study is ultimately a response to fears of the religious right that D&D is a breeding ground for satanism or the occult, much like Harry Potter has been accused of the same. (It doesn’t look good when magic is a possibility for more than just the big guy in the sky.) This fear was so pronounced and such a part of popular culture, it even was the plot for a movie.
Mazes & Monsters (hereafter M&M, 1982) is a made-for-TV movie that unabashedly cashes in on the moral panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. Robbie (played by Tom Hanks in his first starring role!) and his friends play the non-trademark infringing game “Mazes & Monsters.” Robbie inexplicably thinks he is his character in real life after his friends decide to go LARPing because D&D isn’t nerdy enough. The movie intimates in some vague and thoroughly insulting way that Robbie suffers from some kind of mental illness. I’m not interested in talking about that portion of the film here, mostly because it is so poorly done that I can’t give it the thrashing it deserves without taking a total left turn. Instead, I want to focus on all the hackneyed ways the movie tries to sell the moral panic. Bear with me, because I intend to compare and contrast this movie with my D&D group.
The movie begins with a close-up shot of a police siren flashing and blaring in the night, only to reveal emergency responders, a bespectacled intrepid reporter, and a detective in a trench coat (a bold triple-trope blend of Hardboiled Detective, Inspector Javert, and Inspector Lestrade). They’re bemoaning a game of M&M gone awry, and imply a dead body was found in a cave. In other words, we see authority figures and upstanding citizens trying to save, protect, and inform the world about the happenings and the dangers of M&M. The intrepid reporter stares right into the camera, and thus the audience, to describe M&M as a fantasy game where the goal is to make as much money as possible without dying. It is then established that this is a game that mere children are playing!
Cut to three vignettes set six months in the past of attractive, well-off, beautiful, straight, white teens and their home lives. Kate comes from a broken home, and doesn’t ever want to get married. Instead, she wants to be a writer! Daniel is underperforming by going to a lesser known school when he should be going to MIT “for computers.” This conversation plays out with a shockingly on-the-nose sitcom family: the worried mother, the stern father wearing a conservative cardigan. JJ is the eccentric one because he likes to wear different hats. A boy genius, only 16 years old and he’s a sophomore in college. These kids have everything going for them, and they’re the kinds of kids that every parent should want, with just the right kind of flaws to make them real but not scary.
Then we meet Robbie, as he sits looking sullen in the back of an expensive car as his father admonishes him for getting kicked out of his previous school because of “those games!” The mother chastises the father for being too harsh, and he says she’s been drinking too much. The sensible, caring father is undermined at every turn by the deviant mother, and their poor son is the real victim – so implies the movie.
Naturally, these four teens meet as we follow them back to college for the fall semester. Robbie is immediately ousted by Kate as an M&M player. She rounds up Daniel and JJ and announces, “Meet Robbie, he’s a level 9!” They briefly discuss the abilities of being a level 9, such as creating your own scenarios and gaining powers. Here, the discussion of M&M sounds much more like Scientology and less like a pen-and-paper role playing game.
Poor Robbie is pressured by the teens that don’t know they’re giving a heroin junkie an armful into playing with them. All goes well at first – they play a couple times a week in a room overstuffed with occult imagery. Kate and Robbie fall in love. The semester is going well until Robbie recounts the tale of his brother’s disappearance and how it still haunts him. JJ finds out about Kate and Robbie’s relationship then announces to himself that he’s going to commit suicide and what would be the best way to do it. Why, the forbidden caves near campus, of course!
But he doesn’t. Instead, he convinces the group to LARP their M&M in the caves. While LARPing, Robbie has a hallucination that he is being attacked by a monster. Thus begins the end of Robbie and the beginning of Robbie-as-a-clumsily-named-fantasy-cleric-archetype. He can’t separate himself from the fantasy. As a holy man, he must be celibate so he dumps Kate and instead focuses on school (the horror!), all the while he continues to dream of his runaway brother. Eventually, his dreams lead him to travel to New York City (explicitly without money or his wallet).
After Robbie goes missing, the Triple-Trope Detective comes back into the story and we see the beginning of the film again. Turns out there is no body in the caves. But the detective is grilling the kids, who all refuse to admit to playing M&M, let alone playing with Robbie. After some grousing and moralizing, the Triple-Trope Detective leaves the kids alone and announces that they have no leads on Robbie’s location. The movie goes on and, gosh, I don’t want to spoil it too much but Robbie never escapes his fantasy and the other three do and go on to be happy perfect white adults. Robbie is seemingly doomed to live at home with his parents in this fantasy, medicated and under the care of a shrink. Robbie is gone, and only his character remains.
Mazes & Monsters & Dungeons & Dragons
Maybe none of us have reached Level 9 yet, but I have to say that M&M is not particularly representative of my experiences with D&D. D&D is a space for the marginalized, the queer, and the oddballs. Though previous editions have fallen prey to mindless sexism, D&D now stands as a largely inclusive, broad, and welcoming space for people to wrestle with ideas like race, class, culture, and identity. D&D explicitly tasks players with choosing a race, class, culture, and identity and then interacting with a diverse yet often cold world. Bigotry of all kinds is commonplace in D&D worlds, and players must often figure out ways to work with, around, or dismantle these systems to attain their goals.
Going back to Quinn, the half-elf barbarian scholar: Quinn’s juxtapositions within her identity often puts her at odds with the world. Half-elves are often seen as a fantasy-form of mulatto, and a barbarian scholar is almost an oxymoron. Quinn must constantly push against normative notions and systems of oppression to simply be. I don’t know what the resolution will be for Quinn or her self-identified anger issues, but I would be willing to bet that she will always confront those systems head on to try and change them.
Now this seems odd, in a way. Players purposefully design and play as characters that have suffered and will continue to suffer. As the DM, I am very much directly responsible for enacting these terrible things and putting them upon my players. When described like this, it sounds hellish and frustrating. And while it can be frustrating, it’s pointedly so. Players need to see their characters struggle so they can feel the successes, too.
I don’t know for sure, because I can’t ask them directly without giving it away, but the players are there to fix this broken world that I create. And it’s soothing for me, as the DM, to see this too. I often project my fears and anxieties of the real world into the D&D campaign. It gives me hope when I see a small, ragtag bunch of adventurers fix those problems. You don’t need therapy after playing D&D like Robbie did after playing M&M, D&D is therapy.
Carter, R., & Lester, D. (1998). Personalities of players of Dungeons and Dragons. Psychological reports, 82(1), 182-182.
Connell, R. E. (1924). The most dangerous game.
Jenkins, H. (2012). Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. Routledge.
Hills, M. (2002). Fan cultures. Psychology Press.
O’Neal, S. (2017, March 02). Sean Spicer’s tragic fall from grace as White House Easter Bunny. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from http://www.avclub.com/article/sean-spicers-tragic-fall-grace-white-house-easter–251358
Stern, S. H. (Director). (1982). Mazes & Monsters [Motion picture]. 905 Entertainment.
Verhoeven, P. (Director), & Davison, J. (Producer). (1997). Starship Troopers [Motion picture].