How Dungeons and Dragons got me through 2020

An adventure tabletop game can be surprisingly therapeutic

ILLUSTRATION: Tiffany Chan / The Peak

Written by: Alex Masse, Staff Writer

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is no stranger to popular culture, especially following a renaissance of sorts in the 2010s. Shows like Stranger Things referenced it eagerly, and actual play series like The Adventure Zone and Critical Role brought the tabletop game to new heights, with a graphic novel adaptation of the former topping the New York Times best seller list. 

I dabbled a bit in the game back then, but quickly found myself overwhelmed by the amount of actions possible. It’s more or less fantasy improv with a bit of math: you play a character you create, and just about every action has some sort of number work involved, including casting a spell, swinging a weapon, and even just persuading someone to hear your side of a story. Games are run by a Dungeon Master (DM), who creates worlds and plots and characters for players to interact with. 

I also had a hard time escaping reality and fully immersing myself in embodying a fictional being. I love writing and fantasy, but the idea of improvised storytelling in someone else’s world stressed me out. I was scared of being awkward, missing a social clue, or accidentally breaking the rules. 

Besides that, I was a high school senior doing my best to get by and D&D was quickly overshadowed by homework and band practice. I gave it another try in university, but I was even busier. Before long, I was resigned to never finishing a game in my life. I was too busy, and also just too much of a nervous wreck. 

But then the COVID-19 pandemic began and all of a sudden, everyone had more free time than they knew what to do with. 

With the pandemic raging on, one of my friends suggested we pull up an old campaign and play a couple of times to get our minds off all of the chaos outside. With all my plans cancelled, I figured, “Why not?” I dusted off my old player character (for the curious: Ritza Miller, a tiefling fighter who likes baking and throwing axes at things) and dove in.

For the uninitiated, although D&D is technically a tabletop game, there are plenty of ways to play it online. I’ve used a combination of platforms but my go-to options are Roll20 and DNDBeyond, and we usually set up a group call as well. Thanks to sites like these, we can make characters, maps, and all kinds of other things. 

Truth be told, D&D has done me a lot of good in these strange, stressful times. There’s a lot of merit to playing pretend with your closest friends. 

For starters, D&D keeps your brain busy. Playing in character, you’re constantly improvising everything from conversations to combat. You’re also making rolls, adding or subtracting modifiers, and keeping track of your health. There’s a reason you fill out character sheets: there’s so much you can do. 

Besides that, the tabletop is an inherently social experience — one that’s all but guaranteed to get you out of your shell. You interact with your DM and your fellow players, both in and out of character, and teamwork is key, whether you’re fighting an evil demon lord or trying to solve a murder mystery. 

Additionally, storytelling gets you to think not only creatively but sometimes, philosophically. When a game runs on for a while, you have the chance to ponder your character’s motivations, backstories, and overall arcs. It makes you think about yourself and others. 

But just as important, D&D can be a whole lot of fun. Some of the best laughs I’ve had were with my friends at the (metaphorical) table, whether it was a bad pun or a terrible dice roll. 

Between all the laughter and tears, it’s one hell of a bonding experience. When you spend a few hours every week engaging in collaborative storytelling with others, it’s hard not to become close. When you’re as lonely as many of us have been during the pandemic, it can be a great escape. In the face of COVID-19, the idea of defeating vampires or collecting powerful spell books becomes less daunting.

I’m not the only one who feels like this. To drive the point home, I asked some friends I’ve played with to share their own stories. 

“D&D has helped me immensely,” said my friend Nixie. “It’s helped me grow as a storyteller, [and] I DM multiple games right now, each with a different feeling and players. D&D has helped me become close with some of the closest friends I have, and it continues to help me grow close with new people.” 

My friend Aeron, who’s been playing pretty much all his life, adds another key reason D&D is so valuable: at the end of the day, it’s for the love of it. 

“I would say [what] is most important to me about D&D is that I have no urge to commodify it,” he told me. “I [usually] feel the urge to be good at things, to create finished products that I can show to other people in a polished, complete, final form. I don’t feel that pressure playing D&D with my friends. The stories we tell are more creative than that, and they don’t all have perfect endings, because we are the arbiters who decide when we feel closure.”

Years of playing also brought forth plenty of charming anecdotes. Nixie told me about a character of hers, Marshpepper, who could only speak in repeating what she heard, yet was also the smartest in the group. 

“I had to, as a player, figure out how to talk to the people around me in a whole new way,” Nixie said, “And it helped me grow closer to not only the characters, but the players themselves!” 

Aeron, meanwhile, spun a tale about how a one-off mention of an abandoned laser tag place became a whole interaction completely on a whim, because his players wanted to play a few rounds. 

“I improvised a minigame, and at the end, I rewarded them with a clue to that episode’s mystery to try and advance the plot,” he explained. “It was meant to be a throwaway comment. I should have known better, honestly.”

Even SFU knows about the benefits with SFU Health & Counselling offering “Dungeons and Worry Dragons.”

“Tabletop role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons) can increase confidence, creativity, and problem solving skills – all while having fun playing as powerful adventurers in a fantasy world,” reads the webpage. 

It’s no real surprise to me that D&D has the new popularity it does, especially with the ability to play from home. 

“D&D may seem hard to get into at first, but finding the right group who lets you vibe in the right ways can do wonders for confidence around storytelling and roleplaying,” said Nixie. “It really will change how you connect with your friends.” 

It’s a sentiment you see in players everywhere.

“You really don’t need to know anything about the lore to play D&D, so don’t let the idea of greasy, gatekeeping gamers keep you away from playing,” Aeron said. “It’s fun to learn, but it’s also fun to come up with your own canon entirely. It’s your world to reinvent as you chose!” 

And in times like this, who doesn’t want to be immersed in a world where you can go on  adventures with your friends?