My first Dungeons & Dragons character was a 6’3” tall, 300-something-pound black dragonborn cleric named Alina. Her childhood nickname was “Mender” and when our campaign began, she had just come into adulthood and was on a year-long pilgrimage away from her clan to decide if she wanted to commit herself to hermitage or if she wanted to leave behind her people and live amongst others. She made new friends by offering them “calming herb” and despite the fact that she literally spat acid, she was terrible in combat; her strength modifier was -1, which was comical because of how big she was. She swung her quarterstaff like a baseball bat and missed her target almost every time.
I love Alina. I didn’t love how battle-focused our campaign was, or how much of each session was spent crunching numbers to determine who won a fight. I enjoyed the group dynamics of our campaign, but I wanted more from the story, and I didn’t know how to communicate that. I don’t think I even realized that this was what I wanted at the time; I just knew that after each session, though I’d feel a sense of accomplishment for leveling up, only a handful of moments really stuck with me until we played again. When the campaign fizzled out, it was partially because I decided that D&D wasn’t for me.
Since then, I’ve gotten heavily involved in an Apocalypse World campaign, which is (literally and figuratively) a whole different world. My partner runs that game and we play every other week with two of our friends. All of us identify as lesbians and all of us are as invested in the fighting as we are in the kissing. There’s very little math involved in our sessions and as we grow more comfortable with the characters and the story, it’s becoming a Real Adventure.
My partner keeps insisting that I should give D&D another shot; they’ve even asked if I would consider being a Dungeon Master, though I’ve always balked at the suggestion because it seems like so much pressure.
Then we went to Flame Con, and everything changed.
Among the many incredible panels at Flame Con 2018 was “Dungeons & Dragons & Queers & Comics,” moderated by Kate Sheridan. Vita Ayala, Noelle Stevenson, Molly Ostertag, Emily Cheeseman, Barbara Perez Marquez, and Little Corvus participated on the panel and the room was packed; I sat between my partner and a friend I’ve known online for years but only met in person for the first time at the con. The energy in the room was, in a word, palpable. It was exciting to hear some of our favorite creators talking about their OCs and why they love tabletop roleplay games, especially D&D.
Somewhere between Stevenson discussing her first character, a “chaotic evil disaster baby” tiefling warlock, and declaring her love for Misty Step, something clicked into place in my head. When Ayala told Stevenson that her character sounded “stressful,” when Marquez told the audience that after just a few months of campaigning, she realized she wanted to “be in charge,” when Cheeseman talked about how the latest installation of D&D 5E, allows for more character- and story-based games than just numbers- or combat-based ones, I heard a whirring in my head that slowly grew louder.
When the panel ended, I turned to my partner and said, “I want to play D&D like that.”
Their whole face lit up; for over a year, they’ve been playing D&D, building OCs, and working with me to develop an Apocalypse World character that isn’t one-dimensional. I’m a journalist, not a fiction writer; building characters isn’t my strong suit and it never has been.
I am, however, very into the concept of world-building. I love exploring scenery, including cultural norms and ideologies as they are represented in a story. I’m fascinated by high fantasy that’s well-structured and takes into account the vastness of the world where it takes place. Series like The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Temeraire, and the Tamora Pierce books spark my interest because they are so completely immersive. Although I have my fair share of issues with Harry Potter, I grew up with the books and I gobble up every bit of fanfiction that I can when I’m in a mood to sit in that world. I enjoy world-building because it allows me to set the scene. If I don’t understand the nuances of a setting, I don’t feel comfortable reporting on what happens within it.
That panel at Flame Con made me realize that Dungeons & Dragons absolutely has the capacity and the history to be the kind of chewy, immersive storytelling that I crave. My first-ever campaign was incredibly crunchy, too battle-focused and very mathy, but that doesn’t mean that my next campaign has to be that way. If I’m running the show, I make the rules. When Marquez said it took her just a few months of playing DND to realize she wanted to DM, that whirring in my head went haywire. As a dungeon master, the rules would be mostly up to me. As noted by several of the panelists, the hard-and-fast guidelines for telling stories through tabletop roleplay games are just that: guidelines. The fun is in playing, which includes keeping on your toes so the game doesn’t lose interest for your players.
When I sat in that panel room and felt the passion exuding from the panelists and from the audience, I remembered why D&D piqued my interest in the first place. And although we went to another panel right after, then trekked through the city for food before heading back to our AirBNB, that feeling didn’t leave me.
I thought about D&D all night, to the point that I had a dream about Alina running through an ancient forest with her friends. It felt like I’d been hit over the head in the best way possible; I couldn’t believe how deep the itch went. The next night, while we were still on vacation, I created a Pinterest board and a title for the campaign. I started thinking about NPCs. And immediately upon coming home, my partner made me a DM binder. I bought supplies to organize it and reserved a copy of the player’s manual from the library (because I’m so bad at working with PDFs).
Apparently, when Ayala was a kid, they found a TTRPG manual that they read cover-to-cover, thinking it was just a regular book. It taught them a lot about world-building, something that they’ve since used in campaigns as well as in their professional work. As someone who used to read science-for-kids books cover-to-cover, while taking notes, this approach appealed to me, even if Ayala presented it as a funny anecdote. I enjoy reading and researching; sliding into a DM role offers me the ability to do that across a broad spectrum of characters, as created by the players in my campaign, as well as the world that I’m building for them to play in.
Going into a brand-new campaign as a first-time DM is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. I keep remembering things the panelists said at Flame Con (Ostertag discovered she could make friends through offering to DM campaigns; Stevenson is playing a new character who’s “trying to be good” in her latest campaign; each of the panelists explored identity through D&D) and welling up with the feeling of warmth and acceptance and safety that I had for the entire weekend, surrounded by other LGBTQ fans and creators. Every time, I get another inkling of an idea for the campaign and every time, I think about how my partner’s face lit up when I said I wanted to run the game.
I didn’t expect to walk away from Flame Con feeling like my whole world had been flipped upside down, but I did. And I’m ready for the change.
Samantha Puc is the co-creator and editor-in-chief of Fatventure Mag, as well as a freelance essayist and culture critic whose work has been featured on Bustle, The Mary Sue, Rogues Portal, and elsewhere. Samantha lives in Rhode Island with her spouse and cats. She likes Shakespeare, space babes, bikes, and dismantling the patriarchy. For more, follow her on Twitter.