Why I Play Dungeons & Dragons, and So Should You (If You’re Into That)

Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Okay friends, it is time to talk about my favourite subject.

Despite the rise in nerd culture, Dungeons and Dragons still has a bit of lingering stigma. The problem is that many people do not understand it. When you ask non-nerds about it, often they’ll make references to teenagers running around in sewers dressed in wizard robes, or mumble something about demon summoning and satanic rituals (I mean, that sounds fun too, but it does not really have much to do with D&D—unless that is how you want to play, in which case: you do you, buddy).

Even nerds will sometimes shrug and say, “I’m not that kind of nerd.” It’s as if D&D players are some kind of off-brand super nerd: a lower rung in the nerd hierarchy that no one likes to acknowledge. However, if you like fantasy, storytelling, and hanging out with friends, I think you should give this game a chance.

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy improvisation game played with friends. You have a Dungeon Master (or DM)—yes it is silly, but the game does have its glorious roots in the 70s after all, so we need to get past this, guys—who acts as the storyteller and main author of the world. Think of it like a fantasy novel, but each player brings their own protagonist to the table, each with their own personalities and goals. Together, you weave a story as unique as the people playing the game.

Every group I have been a part of has had a completely different dynamic. You could play a character-heavy intrigue game full of alliances and betrayal, a heroic coming-of-age story, or even the rise of a villain. Alternatively, you can just battle monsters and collect loot, Diablo-style. Unlike video games, there are no “invisible walls” limiting what you can do; the narrative is purely based on the creativity of its players.

What makes D&D special is that it provides a framework in which to tell your story. Its core mechanic involves dice-rolling, where your character’s success or failure in a task depends on their skill—represented by bonuses or penalties added to the dice total—and on pure luck. This last part is what draws you into the game: the stakes are real, and every time you engage in combat, you are risking your character’s life along with all of the personal investment you have in their continuing story.

Putting your characters in “danger” can lead to the most creative and memorable experiences in the game. I’ve seen situations where, when the chips were down, a player in trouble has pulled out the most off-the-wall solutions and just rolled like a boss to pull it off. These moments can stay with you for years; I still look back fondly on many of my own close calls.

Dungeons and Dragons also provides a large range of pre-made settings and adventures, plug-and-play style:  if you are new to the game, the developers have your back. Many experienced DMs engage in what is affectionately called “home-brewing,” and create their own rules, maps, and other features customized to their players. So if you really want to play a gunslinger in a medieval fantasy setting, your DM can make that happen in a way that keeps the game balanced and enjoyable for everyone.

I really want to emphasize the social aspect here. Unlike playing an online game, D&D lets you sit around a table, along with some snacks and a case of beer (or whatever floats your boat). In short, you should play Dungeons and Dragons because it is fun.

Now that I have given you my spiel, those of you who are still reading may be asking, “So how do I get started?” What a great question! If you are not asking that, you do not have to read this next bit.

First of all, you need to find a group of like-minded individuals who are interested in playing. The best size for a group is around five people (including the DM), but you can play with as few as two and as many as you can fit in one room.

If you want to do some window-shopping before you commit, there are a few recommendations I can make. Critical Role on Geek and Sundry (also on Youtube) is a show where a bunch of “nerdy-ass voice actors” (their words, not mine) get together and record their D&D sessions for the world to enjoy. If you are into anime, cartoons, or video games, you may have heard of some of them: Matthew Mercer is the DM, and the players include Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, and Sam Riegel. Orion Acaba stayed on for the first twenty-five episodes before moving on to other projects, and there are several exciting guest stars that make an appearance throughout the series.

I cannot emphasize how amazing it has been to watch this show and its storyline develop. From a slightly glitchy first episode to the jaw-dropping latest episode (fifty-eight was a personal favourite—I may have cried a little), this show is definitely worth your time. Matt Mercer is a master storyteller. He’s the kind of DM I aspire to be, and he really demonstrates the heights of what a game can reach.

I have also recently started Acquisitions Inc., a podcast of Penny Arcade fame—being only six episodes in, I am a little late to the party, but it has been highly recommended and from what I have heard so far I feel comfortable passing it on to you. They play fourth-edition Dungeon and Dragons, which is slightly less streamlined and intuitive than the newer fifth-edition, but it is still great.

You will need some gaming dice to get started. The rulebooks can be pretty pricey, so if you are not sure you want to commit (and you live in Toronto), the Merril Collection at the Toronto Public Library at 239 College St. lets you peruse them for free. Look for the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook—that’s where everyone starts. There are a myriad of supplemental materials once you have gotten past that, so feel free to go wild!

If you are an aspiring DM, I recommend Matthew Colville’s Youtube series on how to run a game. He lays things out in a really accessible, straight-forward kind of way that I found really helpful when I started DM-ing (not too long ago, I might add).

And that is all she wrote! I hope this helps you.

Go forth, friends, and play!

Contributed by Eleanor Crook

The One Nerd to Rule Them All : Why The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Definitely Worth Your Time

Too rarely do we find a story that so unabashedly loves the speculative genres as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. As a jaded English Major about to enter the real world where one’s in-depth, twenty-page thesis on James Joyce’s Ulysses is only slightly less valuable than toilet paper, this book revives a tiny fragment of my cold, dead optimism. Why such high praise? Junot Diaz’s masterfully crafted novel about the trials and tribulations of an awkward, overweight GhettoNerd trying desperately to find love is so much more than a story about isolation. It spans lifetimes filled with tragedy and entire universes through its invocation of the great works of fiction: Lord of the Rings, Akira, Watchmen… I could go on. This is a story that could only be pulled off by the nerdliest of nerds.

So what, you ask, is the story about? Oscar Wao, née Oscar de Leon, is fat, black, and despised by everyone around him for his use of words like “orchidaceous” and “[wearing] his nerdliness like a jedi [wears] his lightsaber”. As a Dominican immigrant living on the worst streets of New Jersey in the seventies, he was hated by the white kids for his blackness and the Dominicans for being unable to get a girl if his life depended on it. By the time he was seven, he had exhausted all the game he was ever going to have, and his love life faded so completely into non-existence it was almost a superpower. Despite all odds, and the fukú americanus (the curse that has haunted his family for generations), Oscar is determined to become the Dominican Tolkien, and find the one woman who will make everything worthwhile.

The true genius of this novel lies in the blending of multiple narratives, perspectives, and timelines. See, this is not just Oscar’s story. His sister Lola, his mother Beli, and his best (read: only) friend Yunior are just some of the voices and stories that are heard. Diaz’s manic way of jumping from one voice or timeline to another allows the reader to view these lives from multiple perspectives, allowing for a deep sympathy with each incredible character. The narrative wit is razor sharp, and Diaz’s unique humor shines through each and every facet of the novel, from the footnotes to the jumps in perspective and narrative voice. For no additional charge, we also get the sassiest history lesson ever printed about the rise and fall of the Dominican dictator Trujillo, punctuated with references galore to comics, sci-fi and fantasy.

It’s a profoundly personal story, yet it also feels universal; as we follow Oscar stumbling through his awkward existence we get flashes of other lifetimes: his mother as a fierce adolescent finding love in the most disastrous of places; his sister’s punk-rock feminist rebellion; the fall of their ancestral house to the tyrannical Trujillos.

The blending of fiction and history is what is truly remarkable about this novel. Oscar’s devotion to the heroes in speculative fiction ultimately allows him to discover his own resolve and fight for love in the face of great injustice. This is also a book about the importance of reading and writing fiction, and how stories can carry the weight of a lifetime and a legacy. Oscar’s journey to find meaning in his lame, lonely existence is deeply beautiful. This novel shows us the power of love and let’s us recognize our own history in this incredibly resonant story as we witness the outbreak of nerd culture in our modern times.

For those of you who have not yet read this incredible novel, GO NOW. It’s a story that will restore your belief in the power of stories.

-contributed by Amy Wang