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  • Matthew Emerson

Playing a Character Builds Character


The D20, practically a religious symbol in Nerdom.

While I am often described as an old soul, I am definitely grateful for being born during this time. Thanks to the explosion of popularity Stranger Things has garnered, the topic I am about to suggest seems a little less awful. I'm talking about Dungeons & Dragons.


I've been a nerd my whole life, I admit it. Ascending the final steps of nerd culture was not hard for me, given I was already an avid World of Warcraft player. I roleplayed for several years in WoW, and it was an experience I deeply enjoyed; but it wasn't until college that I encountered Dungeons & Dragons. Unhealthy snacks, ambiance music played through a cheap bluetooth speaker, and great friends. My first campaign still holds a photographic quality in my memory.


Today, after playing D&D for a few years (sometimes as a dungeonmaster) and also writing my own rudimentary role-playing system, I want to share an interesting psychological perspective. After all, that's what Dan pays me the big bucks for (he doesn't, by the way). It's this: D&D offers all of us a chance at an extraordinary life.


I am slowly becoming a fan of the ordinary. A wise mentor of mine has taught me that it is God's preferred method of operation, so I suppose I can grow to love it, but our hearts cry out for the odd and epic. In D&D, when all the parts work just right, you really are transported to another world, if only for a brief time. Our present cares are washed away. Suddenly you are the hero. You fight to save your city, your nation, your world. You make the big choices, and you feel the consequences. This fictional world becomes more than a pastime. It becomes a parallel reality, one you have the power to influence--probably in a way very different from your nine-to-five job.


And that's a good thing. Allowing ourselves to be plucked from our ordinary reality and thrown into a world of magic, heroism, and myth permits us to consider the deeper parts of our own character. When the thick film of cynicism this world washes us with is wiped away, and you are a stary-eyed adventurer in a world unknown again. You get to feel the joy of discovery as you enter a big city for the first time or are faced with new and challenging decisions. Sometimes, you even choose wisely.

Here there be Dragons...

Of course the stakes aren't real, but does it matter? There are consequences. Characters you create can die due to a bad choice, or a bad dice roll. Isn't that how real life seems sometimes? It's in these scenarios we see where we are at, deep inside. When stuck between a rock and a hard place, how do I behave? Do I cling to my ideals and make the hard choice, sticking my neck out for those I care about, or do I take the easy way out, and think only of myself?


Not only does D&D show us where our character is at, but it also opens up for us a way to practice building it up where it is faulty (St. Thomas Aquinas is facepalming in heaven over me suggesting practicing virtue through D&D, but modern problems require modern solutions). Over a campaign your character grows and develops. They pick up quirks, develop relationships, and earn scars. They fail and they succeed. They aren't all that different from the player, and they shouldn't be. After all, they are just another expression of our psyche. In another life, at a different time, but stemming from the same mind.


So if you haven't played D&D before, I highly recommend it to you. Find some friends who play, or maybe hop on Roll20 and meet some strangers on the internet (if so, use appropriate caution). If you already play, I invite you to consider the memories you've made.


And if you're new, well, who knows? Maybe you'll end up cherishing this game as much as I do.