mental health

Dungeons & Dragons Helped Me Slay Personal Demons

The game revived by 'Stranger Things' and 80s nostalgia enabled me to tackle mental health issues and make new friends as an adult.

by Cameron Williams
23 October 2017, 12:46am

Art by Ashley Goodall

As a teenager, I thought the blues were just part of growing up. In my twenties, I thought they were part of adjusting to a career and figuring everything out. In my thirties, I've been a wreck. Depression is like having a lion loose in your head at all times: it's always going to be roaring around but you have to learn to tame it. Easier said than done, but there's an incredible clarity that comes with learning how to endure the daily storm of dark thoughts.

It's hard to go it alone, though. "You need to take more risks to make friends," I was told this year by my head doctor. A big part of our conversation revolved around the fact that I'd never had any friends who really knew me. I'm great at blending in and bending my personality into something relatable. But faking it is hard, especially when you're hiding a big depression golem.

Making friends in 2017 is hard. Sure, there's social media, but the leap from posts and messages to hanging out on a regular basis is tricky. Joining a book club wasn't all that appealing, so I decided to take my doctor's advice and go out on a limb. Roll a twenty sided dice. I was going to play Dungeons & Dragons—otherwise known as "D&D".

D&D is a fantasy tabletop role playing game that first appeared on the market in 1974. Back then, it was a set of three instructional booklets that taught people that outlined an adventure taking place in the minds of players. Players create characters, all with individual strengths and weaknesses, who inhabit the world and go on a quest together. A Dungeon Master acts as chief storyteller and referee guiding everyone through the game. Everything is decided with the dice. Fire an arrow at a troll, and the dice will tell you if it hit or not.

Given there's nothing more depressing than playing one of the world's nerdiest games on your own, the priority was finding some local D&D groups. In the 80s, Christian organisations complained the game was a gateway for getting teenagers into the occult and human sacrifices. The moral panic was unjustified, but it sat in the back of my mind as a reminder of using common sense when meeting strangers. Also, as far as human sacrifices go I'm like offering a hot dog to Satan.

Wary of turning up at some weird outer suburban house, I turned to Facebook and found a group that was starting a new adventure at a games store in central Melbourne. I showed up and was blown away by how packed the store was. Role-playing, it seems, is big business. There were five of us and we made double introductions, first the person and then the character they would be playing and their backstory. It's surreal getting to know people this way; one player delivered his monologue completely in character with a voice he had picked for how their character would sound. It was heartfelt, and emphasised the theatrical side of the game: there's more to D&D than rolling dice and fighting. The Dungeon Master had also prepared maps and figurines for us to use to figure out distances and locations better. None of this is a requirement to play the game but the extra details enhanced the experience. I wanted to buy our Dungeon Master all the beers.

The group was made up of humans, elves, gnomes and dragonborn (aka lizard people) and our first quest was to deliver a cart full of supplies to a nearby village. Unfortunately, we were ambushed by goblins. I took an arrow in the chest and passed out. I panicked thinking I was going to die during the first game, but a fellow player used their skills to heal me. They didn't have to, but they did. Already, it was endearing to experience the kindness of strangers in a fantasy world.

It was also cool to see players try to approach the game with different mindsets. During the quest I bonded with the gnome the most because we had a shared hatred of goblins, which made it easier to indulge in lots of stabbing. The cleric always tried to negotiate first, and acted as the moral compass of the group when it came to senseless killing. The dragonborn character was on his first quest and his only prior experience was reading about adventures in comic books, so he treated the quest as a coming-of-age journey predicated on self-discovery. I did not expect that kind of nuance so early on.

At the peak of its popularity in the 80s, they were selling close to a million copies of D&D kits per year in toy stores. I remember playing D&D as a kid: I was raised by Gen Xers and exposed to everything they liked. I recall sitting in on a game and having to stand up in order to look over giant two-litre bottles of Coca Cola and stacks of Pizza Hut boxes. D&D waned in popularity with the rise of video games, but it's experiencing a revival now. Why?

In one way, the D&D comeback is similar to the return of vinyl. The appeal is having something physical to hold in your hands. Sure, most of D&D takes place in the mind, but throwing dice reminds me of unsheathing a record from its sleeve. A little free publicity helps, too, with the game featured prominently in Netflix's Stranger Things, exposing it to a generation that wasn't born when it was popular.

But the major draw of D&D, I think, is the people. I began my quest looking for a way to meet folks and tackle my depression. I'm not betting on the group I'm playing with to become lifelong mates, but the experience matches the brief I was given by my head doctor to get myself out there. It's easy to become isolated in a digital world. We can make connections with people online, but the internet should just be the tool to facilitate IRL friendship.

People are being drawn to D&D once again because it's a chance to live in the moment. When playing, you have to listen. Phones get put away, and you can unplug for a few hours. I got a chance to create and collaborate with people. None of this will be a surprise to long term players, but the social aspect is one of the best kept secrets of D&D. A final surprise came when it was revealed that one of the group is an illustrator. He took notes during the first session and drew a personalised sketch for each character. It's unexpected creative details like this that make the whole thing worth it.

D&D keeps giving back in ways that I never expected. Each week I look around the packed room where we play and am glad I took the risk.

Follow Cameron on Twitter