In 1974, a game emerged that would change the world: Dungeons & Dragons. Though originally an outgrowth of the even older wargame Chainmail, D&D took a new approach to tabletop games; the players acted as the heroes and adventurers of fantasy worlds, fighting monsters and gathering treasure. Though the early game had also served the purpose of fantasy action, D&D encouraged players to imagine themselves as their characters in a way games had not up to that point. Players began to examine the lives of people who, though fictional and fantastic, might also have viewpoints very similar to people player’s might meet in real life.
D&D asks players to imagine themselves in a fantasy world, as wizards, warriors, dwarves, and elves, but offers a great deal of freedom in portraying characters, especially as new iterations of the game (called editions) come out. In groups around the world, it’s common to find players who have created characters with different philosophical and religious beliefs, genders, ethnicities, and other facets of identity from their own. This leads to one of the most valuable treasures to be gained through play: empathy. Players making honest attempts to play believable characters different from themselves must understand their character’s convictions and behavior. A dedicated player may gain an understanding of why, for instance, despite being an atheist themselves, their character believes in a god or gods. By extension, the player comes to understand why other people of both reasonable and impressive mental acuity are also religious. Similarly, religious players may find that they understand the preferences of their atheistic characters. Players frequently choose to challenge themselves because D&D allows it, encouraging playing characters from the doubtful to the zealous.
But it is not only a player’s own character that builds this empathy. Dungeons & Dragons is a cooperative role-playing game and that means other players have their own characters, too, both other “player-characters” (PC) and the Dungeon Master’s (DM, the player who presents challenges to the other players) “non-player characters” (NPCs). Cooperation is encouraged, but role-playing minor conflicts in belief when the ground rules are set can provide a stronger understanding of two or more viewpoints. The game encourages the idea that people of different beliefs and backgrounds can come together for a shared goal, one the players work out at the table. Simply the act of playing together builds connections between players. It has also been argued that D&D in prisons could help rehabilitate convicts by creating an environment that surmounts race and gang-affiliation as a set of barriers and allows the players to experience the thoughts of people very different from themselves.
As Dungeons & Dragons allows the exploration of identities different from one’s own, it also gives the opportunity to examine of one’s own identity. Of course, the choice to play a character with a particular trait or set of traits doesn’t necessarily say anything about the player other than he or she has an interest in the idea of the character. However, for some, playing such a character offers a unique way to explore personal identity without feeling like they will be judged. Dungeons & Dragons has been much maligned in its past for the prevalence of largely white and/or male groups. Indeed, the insular nature of gaming groups after the moral panic surrounding the game in the 1980’s made it difficult for some to feel welcome. However, the growth of empathy the game provides has helped many players become more accepting. More than a few LGBT players today, for example, recount how they stuck with the hobby because so many players they met were more accepting than other peers. The game created the perfect place to explore identity for many of these non-conforming players. For such a player, one need look no further than the lead rules designer for the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, Jeremy Crawford.
Crawford, who identifies as queer, found D&D to be the perfect outlet to explore his identity. He isn’t the first or the last to find the game so open: the team behind the current edition encourages exploration directly in the rules. Being allowed to present yourself as anything or anyone gives players the freedom to express and explore themselves. Whatever conclusions a player draws from playing their character, the game allows a person to fully embrace a new identity and see what it means to them.
Dungeons & Dragons provides its players new ways of looking at the world by having them imagine what it’s like to be someone else, in a world with different rules and expectations. These worlds can be filled with people who think differently from you, but often parallel the real world. Players are challenged not just to fight orcs and kill dragons, but to think about what different people want and why.
There are a few ways to find or form groups in Flagstaff: firstly, always consider asking your friends if they’re interested. If you can get a hold of the books, you don’t need anyone to teach you. Alternately, NAU’s tabletop gaming club meets Fridays at 5 PM in HLC2403. The Geekery, at 1800 S Milton Rd #110-111, provides a twice a month D&D game, every other Saturday. And if meeting in person doesn’t work for you, there are dozens of communities online that can offer fun games for first timers. All you have to do is look. If you are looking for a new game to play when your friends come over, want to see through the eyes of a person who suffers under unjust social expectations or are looking for a way to explore yourself, you might want to try D&D.