The D-I-Y joy of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’

What sets D&D apart from many games is that the goal of the game isn’t to win. What the game intends is for you to hang out with friends, create stories with them, and have fun.

CONQUEST. All photos by Jay Ganzon/Rappler

Naruto runs. When I think about my childhood, I think about Naruto runs. 

I remember bowing down, swinging my arms back, and running like the wind – in school, through the mall, exiting Sunday Mass (sorry, mom).

Fandom shaped by childhood: cartoons, comic books, video games. More often than not, consuming these would leave me in a nerd hangover. This entails bouts of me imagining myself as part of the worlds I’ve just seen.

While in the shower, I would swing my arm as if I had a power ring like the Green Lantern. When no one’s looking, I’d re-enact the opening scenes of Avatar: The Last Airbender. And yes, I’d do Naruto runs.

When I played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, I was reminded of how I used to do Naruto runs.

D&D 101

Dungeons & Dragons is one of those things that, by all means, should be my interest but isn’t. It deals with fantasy worlds, the kind closer to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. It has a vast, sprawling mythos. It’s also a role-playing game – though played in real-life with actual people rather than the type I’m more accustomed to on my PlayStation. 

But even if I knew all these, I still didn’t have enough interest to try D&D. I found it too complicated, too exhausting, something too big to enjoy in bite-sizes. I’d soon be proven wrong.

To give you an idea of how extensive and time-consuming D&D can be, one game can easily take you 4 or 6 hours of your time.

Popular in the 1980’s – and infamously linked back then to “Satanic panic” in the West – Dungeons and Dragons has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Primarily, because 1) D&D has been heavily featured in pop culture with shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones and 2) Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D, in 2014, released a 5th edition of the game which streamlined the rules and balanced its dense mythology and audience accessibility. 

By definition, D&D is a “tabletop role-playing fantasy game.” The “tabletop” there means it’s all analog; you have a pen and paper, dice, and some accessories (strictly optional). You play it with a bunch of friends, and, in your collective imagination, you all pretend to be heroes on a quest.

MINIATURES. D&D players can use miniatures to represent their heroes.

During the game, one of you gets to be the “Dungeon Master.” The DM (as they’re called) is the quest’s chief storyteller. He or she can come up with their own story or use one of those readily campaigns available at bookstores and hobby shops. 



As Vox described it, past the lore, the mechanics of D&D are relatively simple. It’s 1) Describe, where the DM describes what’s happening, 2) Decide, where each player decides what to do during their turn, and 3) Roll, where the throw of a 20-sided dice dictates the success of one’s decision – where one means complete failure and 20 means total success.

What sets D&D apart from many games is that the goal of the game isn’t to win. You aren’t competing, you are playing with each other. What the game intends is for you to hang out with friends, create stories with them, and have fun.

My first quest

The first time I played D&D was at a big event called “ConQuest.” It was organized by The League of Extraordinary Bestfriends, a group of local D&D aficionados who’ve been working the past years to make D&D more accessible in the Philippines. They’ve been organizing events where both beginner and the more advanced players can play together.

During “ConQuest,” they were debuting D&D’s latest campaign (which many during the event have yet to try), a Mad Man: Fury Road-esque campaign called “Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus.”

As I was a beginner, my first step was to create a character. What’s enjoyable about creating characters for D&D (and maybe I speak for D&D as a whole as well) is the freedom. 

When you are creating, you aren’t bound by the presets you’d encounter in video games nor the dexterity you need in sketching. Yes, you have to pick species, occupations, and moralities, but these are the basics. Where you go from there, your words are your brush, your imagination, your canvas.

But for me, devoid of imagination that day, I just wanted to imitate Geralt of Rivia – the protagonist of The Witcher series (and the soon to be Netflix adaptation this December). I also just named my character Tristain. (Got that from googling “old form of Tristan,” of course.)

Playing D&D feels like a cross between the storytelling of a choose-your-adventure book and the unpredictability of Cards Against Humanity where the options, for lack of a better term, are optional. You can go as off-kilter as you’d like, and nobody is there to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong. 

During our campaign – in which a huge chunk involved us escaping D&D’s version of Hell – I got to be a hero, disguised as a demon, who was tasked to win the favor of a demon queen.

MAD MAGGIE. The night hag warlord of Avernus.

Of course, I threw a funny voice. I said I was a little old lady into politics (whose name I think I’ve already forgotten or have I?). And when asked what’s the evilest thing I’ve done, I simply said, “rice taxes.” This gained me the most gold and bonus points for inspiration that round.

Another time, as I was “saving” a village from flying bat-winged head monsters, I casually asked my dungeon master if I could pluck one of the injured elderly from the village and sacrifice them as a distraction. He gave me a confused look, my young college-aged teammates screamed in shock, and I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. 

(Just kidding, I would have gotten away with it if only those creatures weren’t vampires who regenerated from the blood of the innocent. )

The freedom of D&D is something you couldn’t even get from balls-to-the-wall open-world video games like Grand Theft Auto. It might be cheating to say that “with D&D, there are no limits,” as imagination is the game’s only platform. But, with D&D, your imagination is your platform.

The D&D appeal

They say, just like how anime drove me to do Naruto runs, and just like how comics led me to imagine myself with Green Lantern’s ring – they basically say this is true for all forms of storytelling) – the secret to D&D lies in our brains. Specifically, our mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons, in a nutshell, are responsible for why we feel stories. They are why we feel like we’re enacting an action ourselves or are going through the experience of a story when we are merely seeing or hearing about it. (Think of how when someone tells you about the meal they just had, your mouth starts watering. Or how when you hear a friend’s meet-cute, you too feel kilig.)

So in D&D, when at the center of the game are people telling each other stories filled with thrill, mystery, comedy, and chaos, you are literally creating a communal euphoria. Each person is helping build a broader experience, creating a mirror neuron network for people to bounce triggers off one another.

But personally, I didn’t even need to know the science to appreciate what the D&D experience brings people. (So why bring up mirror neurons? Maybe because it was cool?!).

To me, D&D is escapism in its purest form. Growing up, I let my imagination run wild as I hoped one day, I’d also be a “chosen one.” That one day, an alien ring would select me as its bearer or that I’d get to control the four elements and save the world.

Now that I’m older, I realize that we all don’t become the chosen ones nor even the protagonists of a good story. If we’re lucky, we might get to be bystander #3 or #4 in one of the books of history. But for many of us, we just end up existing.

Don’t get me wrong, the escapism D&D provides isn’t a soma or an opiate to blind us from the realities of the world. No. Instead, it’s a chance to live out our fantasies, even for a few hours. And, we consciously choose it for that ephemeral thrill.

In the world of D&D, everyone can be a chosen one. You get to dress up, act like you are climbing an orc’s back, deliver lines like a charming rogue, and speak in funny voices without fear of judgment, without being asked to act like an adult.

And the best part is, in this world, you are not alone. Whether it’s because of mirror neurons or whatever it is, playing D&D and being alone will never be possible.

In a world where we often feel like we don’t have choices, D&D gives you control. It’s D-I-Y joy, but it’s not just yourself, you have others there to support you. –

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