Fantastic Beasts and…how I created them for my friends to slay…and then hid them from the world
I don’t often try to hide things from people. I, of course, have places in my life that I don’t often revisit, but I like to think that I’m a relatively open book and that, given enough opportunity for conversation, anyone can read at their leisure. As such, I think my friends and family, for the most part, are under the impression that they know me well.
However, there is one facet of my life, one rather big piece of me that I do actively keep on the down-low. Some of my friends know about it because they were there—some were even a part of it—but other than with those few, I don’t often talk about it. You could call it an event, though the word “experience” lends a bit more of its due gravitas. Whatever it is, it was important to me at the time, and I think it’s sort of a shame that I don’t talk about it more. So…here it goes.
For three solid years of my life, I was a Dungeon Master.
Some of you do not understand what that means so let me give some background information. A Dungeon Master is a person who plays Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons—or “D&D”—is, for all intents and purposes, a really (and I mean, like, really) intense board game that requires hours of preparation as well as a significant allotment of mental capacity, and can take anywhere from hours to weeks to play. It takes so much concentrated focus on set-up and gameplay that, in order to make the whole process more efficient, those who play usually form groups and keep certain roles within the groups: in a group of six people playing D&D, there will be five Player Characters—or PCs—and one Dungeon Master—or DM. Dungeon Master is arguably the most labor-intensive role of those.
D&D was created in 1974 under two essential influences: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth and war-gaming—games of military strategy. Boiling present-day D&D down to its very basic elements, the Player Characters comprise a party of adventurers who seek out and complete various quests on an entirely fictitious, most often fantasy-like landscape. Each player has their own character that they role-play in what amounts to a highly structured game of make believe. Each player makes up a back story for their character, spends in-game cash on improvements like armor and weaponry, and is kept accountable by the other players, the Dungeon Master, and even game mechanics, for staying “true” to their character’s personality, motivations, and abilities.
The Dungeon Master does not create one character. The Dungeon Master creates all the characters that the Player Characters interact with—interview for information, pay for goods and services, rescue from foul beasts, fight in the name of good (or, on some interesting occasions, evil). The Dungeon Master does not find a quest and attempt to complete it. The Dungeon Master creates the quest, sometimes out of nothing, and has to find some way to get the Player Characters to complete it. The Dungeon Master does not have a few slips of paper that tell her what skills and abilities she has. The Dungeon Master has what are called Handbooks—whole printed, published, and heavily vetted guides of what monsters have what abilities, what terrains have what visibilities, what treasures have what monetary value, etc.—that she then uses to create whole races of creatures, whole cultures, whole worlds for the Player Characters to mess around within.
So let me say it again.
For three solid years of my life, I was a Dungeon Master. While I was at Calvin, no less.
For a woman, for a Christian woman, for a 24-year-old Christian woman, making such an admission comes with a lot of apprehension. There is a lot of stigma attached to D&D, which makes it almost scary to talk about to anyone, for fear they might have some prejudice against it and turn that on me.
The Focus on the Family radio program Adventures in Odyssey has an episode entitled “Castles & Cauldrons,” which has a disclaimer at the beginning telling children that they should listen to it with their parents due to its frightening content. It portrays D&D—renamed presumably for reasons of copyright—as a gateway to witchcraft and Satanism. This sentiment is not unique to Focus on the Family, and so I fear that, if my religious friends find out that I played D&D and enjoyed it and wouldn’t mind getting back into it if given the opportunity, they will think that I am slowly slipping away from Jesus and into the clutches of the Devil.
Perhaps more well-known these days is the stereotype perpetuated by things like the show Big Bang Theory, that the sole demographic playing D&D is socially awkward man-children. Often this stereotype is taken even further to turn players into hygiene-phobic misogynists who live in, and never leave, their parents’ basements. To some, when I—a self-identified woman who has a job and more than a few friends—admit to association the D&D world, I am simultaneously admitting to association with such people. People with these stereotypes will either try to fit me them, or they will consider me an imposter, an embodiment of the “fake geek girl,” and proceed to quiz me on my knowledge of all of D&D’s many rules and traditions, in an effort to root out my falsehood.
Even if someone doesn’t think that D&D stands for “Demons & Death,” even if they don’t know enough about it to have assumptions about the unwashed men who play it, if I tried to explain that I used to spend 4+ hours a week, not including prep time, playing a board game, I’m still fairly certain I would get some backlash. 24-year-olds would be better served going to wine tastings and museums, or at the very least, going out every weekend and frequenting coffee shops. 24-year-olds should not spend such a large chunk of a Saturday holed up around a table, eating nachos and rolling for critical hits.
However, being a Dungeon Master helped develop many skills that I find to be important in my life and even in my career. Writing quests for my players is not completely dissimilar from writing lesson plans for students. Creating Non-Player Characters who interact with my party of adventurers helped me learn to create multi-dimensional and interesting characters for stories that I pursue as a writer.
Moreover, I have met and developed lasting and important relationships with many people by being a part of a D&D group. All four of the core members from my Calvin group are in my wedding party—one is my future husband. Many people I have met in other ways have perked up at hearing that I was a Dungeon Master and have fostered deeper friendships with me through the shared experience of D&D. Some people who have only ever heard of D&D, not played it themselves, understand the title of Dungeon Master to have some merit of both devotion and skill and have, believe it or not, considered it a positive piece of a first impression of me.
It is because of the opposition I’ve both faced and actively avoided, as well as the reality of the importance of D&D to my coming-of-age experience that I feel the need to get this beast of a confession off my chest. Stereotypes may be popular for a reason—I’ve met my fair share of man-children who should put down their handbooks and pick up a loofa, and I can see how D&D could have a spiritual element for some people—but stereotypes are also made to be broken. People say all the time that if you want someone to stop judging you, you should prove to them that you’re not what they think you are. So here I am. A 24-year-old, staunchly Christian, well educated, woman who teaches children, goes out on weekends, enjoys knitting, and has a couple dozen Pinterest boards. And loves Dungeons & Dragons.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.