Dungeons & Dragons , the fantasy role-playing game that filled the afternoons of geeky teenagers throughout the 1980s, is still going strong. CNBC reported that D&D ‘had its biggest year ever’ in 2020, with sales of books and other game material growing by 33 per cent – a way of surviving lockdown? The company that publishes the books, Wizards of the Coast, claims that fifty million people have played D&D since its commercial debut in 1974. The game was created two years earlier when a Minnesota security guard, Dave Arneson, along with the Wisconsin underwriter Gary Gygax and some enterprising friends, turned rules for tabletop wargaming – simulations of, say, the Battle of Waterloo – into a system where players operated individual characters (player characters, or PCs) while a game master, or dungeon master, took charge of the story and the supporting parts (non-player characters, or NPCs) in a faux-medieval magic-powered world featuring orcs and trolls.
A steady seller for decades, D&D became more popular in the late 2010s, thanks to the rise of Actual Play podcasts and video series like Critical Role, which taught game mechanics through live recordings of people playing. A further boost came from Netflix’s Stranger Things, whose nerdy kids learn to fight real supernatural threats by rolling dice over graph paper to battle made-up ones.
The genius of D&D wasn’t just the way it let players wield halberds, turn into wolves or cast fireball spells, though players (especially young ones) can use it to do only those things if they want. It turned out to serve as a perfect bridge from statistics-oriented, win-or-lose simulations of complex combat (like many video games, or fantasy football) to character creation and story-oriented play (like acting, or novel writing). You set out to find the caves and slay the Balrog, and ten sessions later you’ve fallen in love with Samwise, but Pippin’s fallen in love with you. (D&D’s revival piggybacked on the film-based Tolkien revival too, though the Tolkien estate may not have loved it: the first D&D sets had characters called hobbits, but the makers changed the name to ‘halflings’ after a trademark challenge.) The first role-playing games (RPGs) and the first popular video games appeared at nearly the same time: symptoms, if you like, of an emerging nerd culture, pastimes and ways of life made by, for and about people who preferred graph paper, basements and imagined monsters to what we have been instructed to call the real world.
A lot of those people turned out to be trans. Tabletop role-playing games such as D&D (TTRPGs, for short) give players the chance to inhabit bodies and lives not their own. Unlike most video games, TTRPGs let us do so with friends, in real time, with no limits imposed by what a programmer may anticipate or what a designer can put onscreen. You can’t have a talking echidna in a video game unless the programmers have inserted it. But you can have one in any TTRPG, if the game master can confect monotreme-friendly rules. In the same way, you can have whatever body you like, any build and appearance, if the game master and the other players accept it. In particular, as the chemist and gamer Amy Proudman recently explained, ‘characters [are] chances to try out different ideals of gender.’ She’s written – and she’s far from alone – about how D&D helped her come out.
TTRPGs are spaces for experiments in alternate lives more generally. Their fictive domains come with rules: you might roll a pair of dice to see if your argument persuades an antagonist, and then roll again to see if your karate kick lands. You could call this suspension of disbelief. But a TTRPG isn’t a theatrical stage: even the longest production of Hamlet has a predefined middle and an end. Role-playing games can go on indefinitely.
Nor do they have to include dungeons, or dragons. Call of Cthulhu (introduced in 1981) simulates horror adventures à la H.P. Lovecraft. Champions (1981) lets players form teams of superheroes. (I played Champions every week in the late 1980s: two of our seven regulars, including me, have since come out as trans.) Apocalypse World (2010) adopts a dystopian setting like that of the Mad Max films. Creators have since adopted its dice-based rule set – simpler than the elaborate system of D&D – for other milieux, from Monsterhearts, a high-school romance-horror hybrid (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to Pasión de las Pasiones (think telenovelas) to Masks, designed by Brendan Conway in 2017. Player characters in Masks are teen superheroes, protecting a city, forming friendships and allegiances, and seeking a place among the grown-up heroes and baddies in a dangerous world: if ‘the game is about superheroes,’ Conway writes, it’s also ‘about the conflict between what you seem to be and what you actually are’.
Masks is my game: it got me through quarantines. Every other Thursday I’m Remodel, a second-generation superhero with the power to reshape matter. She can turn anything (up to a certain size) into an inert, shiny, rubbery substance she shapes like clay. Remodel has just found out that she’s a clone: her mother created her in part as a weapon against a warlike undersea civilisation. Remodel loves attention, but (unlike her mom) she prefers solving problems without hurting people. She’d like to end the conflict with the sea dwellers, establish a reputation of her own, and maybe find a nice girl to date. She’s also got a sideline in ecoterrorism. Last session she collaborated with a glowing space alien (played by my pal Ali), and with her Stratlantean clone (an NPC), to wreck a coal-fired nuclear-waste-burning plant whose ocean-fouling energy fed a supervillain’s version of bitcoin.
I like playing Remodel not just because I get to act out fantasies of efficacy against climate change (though that’s true), or because I like storytelling (though that’s also true), or because our game master, Fiona, knows how to keep the story exciting (though that’s true too). Remodel is fun because in her boots (black, ankle-high) and costume (black, with stars and sparkles) I get to enjoy the high-stakes teen social life I didn’t have as a teen (when everyone thought I was a boy).
Remodel also lets me explore adult questions: can I be somebody’s friend and their team leader, or mentor, or role model at the same time? How do I know when somebody needs my help, and when they just want sympathy before they address a problem (a rogue satellite, a new syllabus, a pile of laundry) they can handle themselves? Remodel also wants to prove she matters above and beyond the talent that adults raised her to wield. Real-life child prodigies, kids who were ‘little professors’, can probably relate.
Allaround – the character I play for our monthly Friday night game – is super-agile and super-strong, good at leaping and tumbling. She used to be an elite gymnast; she got her powers after adults subjected her to experiments designed to make her a champion. She blames her coach (she no longer speaks to him). She doesn’t blame her parents, because she, Allaround, doesn’t know they were involved, although I, Stephanie, do. What will she do when she finds out? How will she handle the realisation that you can clobber individuals, or try to bring them before the law, but you can’t beat up an institution, like capitalism or the Olympics?
Last night Allaround and her team defeated a super-strong bank-robbing lady called Bludgeon. More important – in Allaround’s eyes – she asked her teammate Magefist to prom. Magefist is an awkward, recently transitioned trans girl. She gets her own superpowers from a magical gauntlet that lets her control a floating extra hand. Her story arc lets her player (Fiona again) imagine trans embodiment and transgender joy realistically, as something that comes at first tentatively, and always unevenly, and as something we want other people to share. Magefist may be happy to have a prom date, but she’s more excited about the sorcerous mysteries behind her gauntlet.
If Masks in particular, and TTRPGs in general, sound escapist to you, you’re not wrong. ‘Why should a man be scorned,’ Tolkien wrote, ‘if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?’ TTRPGs are Tolkien’s ‘other topics’ – and they are the conversation too. When people were housebound for so long, it’s no wonder they sought ways to escape without leaving their homes. As I write, my household is in quarantine again: my wife tested positive for Covid five days ago, and she’s been living in our upstairs bedroom since. I go in there regularly, bearing food and drink, masked, with the windows open. But my home base is the downstairs bedroom that’s also an office: the shelves hold stacks of poetry books, and the surface of my desk is mostly covered with the printed-out rules for Masks, fixed and made spill-proof with clear packing tape.
TTRPGs like D&D or Masks can set up classic psychodrama, allowing us to work out in a made-up setting what we hope to manage in real life. The game designer Robin Laws classifies stories, and moments within stories, as either procedural (characters try to accomplish a concrete end – capture the leopard, solve the murder) or dramatic (characters change one another through their interactions). A James Bond film is almost all procedural; Pride and Prejudice is mostly dramatic. Hamlet mixes the two. D&D and most of its offspring focus on the procedural; Masks stands out for the ways in which its rules encourage dramatic play instead. Where D&D characters have Strength and Dexterity, the attributes in Masks represent characters’ feelings and their sense of themselves: Saviour (how much they want to defend other people), Mundane (how much they relate to others as equals), Danger (how willing they are to throw, or take, a punch). Every dice roll is a chance to consider emotional dilemmas: how they arise, how to solve them, what to do if they get in the way during a stakeout or a siege – or a tumultuous work meeting.
And that’s only what a TTRPG does for its players. Two Sunday mornings a month I’m the game master in yet a third game of Masks. It’s a game about ways to be queer, ways to negotiate found families and birth families, conflicts between what Mom and Dad thought you were and who you are now. Makeshift, who can alter the laws of physics, fled to Earth from another dimension where greedy adults fight over her inheritance. Dodger has been raised to take the place of a stealthy, wealthy, Batman-like adult hero: he’s figuring out what masculinity means, and how much (if any) of it is for him. Terre Noire, whose costume and codename pay homage to the Négritude literary movement, fought for the wrong side in a Caribbean revolution; now she defends the vulnerable in an attempt to make up for her misdeeds.
Like most of the players, most of the characters in the game are trans: they’re figuring themselves out. I’m learning pacing, and scheduling, and real-life time management (until recently we had one player in Germany and two in different US time zones). As I create and manage the NPCs, the bodily threats and the door-slamming moments of farce, I have to think about what each player wants from their PC, and about what the PCs want for themselves. (Players want complications; characters want a vacation.) I try to think – as a writer of a serial comic book or a TV show would – about keeping up the suspense from session to session, and also about satisfying the players each time.
And I don’t have to – indeed I can’t – do it alone. ‘It’s the group that tells the story,’ the game designer Monte Cook writes in Your Best Game Ever. ‘All the players are storytellers too.’ TTRPGs are like improvisational theatre, built on each participant’s ability to listen to the rest, to say, in classic improv fashion: ‘Yes, and …’ (There’s even a book called Improv for Gamers.) ‘Playing Masks is having a conversation,’ Conway, the game’s creator, has written: it’s pretending together, consistently. TTRPG participants – unlike improv actors – build a world that can last beyond one performance. The actors are also the audience, and there’s a producer-director who plays a dozen roles. ‘Your character is the star of their own story,’ Cook says, ‘but you’re an important supporting character in the stories of every other.’ And the game master supports them all.
Becoming a skilled participant in tabletop role-playing games involves being a welcome participant in other people’s stories. ‘Role-playing,’ as Cook puts it, ‘is fundamentally a social pastime.’ For many of us there can be a learning curve: the pretend space of TTRPGs has allowed any number of socially awkward or (as we now say) neuroatypical people to pick up, practise and solidify social skills we might not otherwise comfortably acquire.
You can’t win a game of Masks in any conventional sense. Nor can you ‘win’ D&D, and you certainly can’t defeat the other players. Instead, you ‘win’ if everybody else is having fun: if you all want to continue adventures together in a collaborative fictive world. Once you learn to see a TTRPG through the lens its rules provide, you may start seeing real life in terms the game offers you. If you’re always trying too hard to help other people, but you have trouble relating to them as equals, you might have (in Masks terms) a +2 Saviour but a -2 Mundane. If you can’t help wanting to stand out and show other people what makes you special, you might have a +3 Freak; if you’re risk-averse, a -1 Danger. A colleague who’s trying to separate himself from his charismatic professional mentor is, in Masks terms, a Protégé. One who struggles primarily with work-life balance, with a dual identity (online and offline, or at the office and in the kitchen), is a Janus (like Spider-Man).
Masks seems especially good at creating stats and roles that help me describe the real world. But this way of bleeding through the page may be an aspect of TTRPGs in general. You can do it with D&D: are you a Cleric (a healer, a caregiver) or a Bard (a performer who lives for an audience) or a Paladin (fighting for your idea of the good, and more than a little self-righteous)? You can apply TTRPG terms and models to classic stories too. In the week when Remodel and her friends shut down the coal plant, I taught a class on King Lear. Halfway through we realised that the play, too, could be read as a TTRPG: each major character has a goal, and a talent, and a way to exercise that talent, as well as a weakness that other characters can exploit.
Eighteenth-century audiences notoriously preferred a rewrite of Lear that gave Cordelia a happy ending. Nobody now (so far as I know) prefers Nahum Tate’s version to Shakespeare’s, but the rewrite says something about the original. What if we tried making other rewrites today? Which characters could be PCs? Regan and Goneril, Edmund and Edgar and Gloucester, and Cordelia/the Fool (especially if the part is doubled). Each player explains what their character chooses to do, as we take turns, using stats for Madness and Confidence, Perception and Honesty, and we roll dice to see who can deceive or undeceive family and rivals … What if we actually played Lear as a TTRPG? Next week, when I teach the class again, we may find out.