Dungeons & Dragons Healed My Grown-Up Heart By Making Me Feel Like the Kid I Never Got to Be

Feature image via Dice Critters

A few months ago, a half-elf in tattered armor, equipped with two dull short swords and one ornate dagger, went charging into a stone corridor trapped with whirling steel blades and chomping stone pillars. Her adventuring party, all of whom she’d just met, was forced to rush in after her, lest they be trapped outside the cave where they sought the treasure of the fish people, on account of the stone door began closing as soon as the half-elf blitzed in. The adventurers took turns getting knocked out, dashing back and forth to pick up their unconscious compatriots, scrambling forward, and getting bonked on the head or slashed in the knees and falling flattened again. When the exhausted troop finally made it through the 80-foot long nightmare den, Toven, the skilled and surly high-elf wizard who’d managed to skirt past the fear rune, grabbed the half-elf and said, “Don’t ever do that again!”

The half-elf grinned and apologized, but wasn’t sorry.

The half-elf was me.

Only a few weeks before that, during my very first tabletop roleplaying adventure, my wood elf ranger casually picked up what was a very clearly a very cursed bell; rang it; and sprouted a pair of donkey ears — and that’s when I became hooked on Dungeons & Dragons.

I’m a reformed perfectionist. Okay, fine — I just heard my therapist’s eyebrow pop up from across the island of Manhattan — I’m a perfectionist in the very early stages of identifying the causes of my perfectionism and working to untangle them. I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m also a person who takes on way, way, way too much responsibility for everyone and everything in my line of sight and in my periphery; refusing to ask for help, to delegate, or even to just say, “Hey, actually, no, that’s your thing; you carry it.” I’m hyper-aware of every emotion of every person and animal around me, an empath you might say. And listen, it’s not bad that I want to do things well. It’s not bad to want to use my power, strength, and privilege in the world to ease the burdens of other people. It’s not bad that I can sense other people’s pain or that I instinctively know how to comfort them. But when you add those personality traits together and factor in a kid who never got to be a kid, who was forced to parent a parent, who grew up being punished for trying to set boundaries or say no, it’s a recipe for a catastrophically anxious life.

No one ever believed me when I said I didn’t play D&D. Three of my lifelong favorite things are fantasy stories, video games, and hanging out with other nerds. But the D&D Player’s Handbook is an 11-inch by 9-inch tome, containing 300 pages full of math and magic rules and dense histories of every kind of elf or dwarf of dragonborn you can imagine. Appendixes describing the myriad ways a person can be incapacitated, lists of deities and explanations of their theologies, a chart to tell you what’s in your pocket, a diagram of the PLANES OF EXISTENCE. And then there are the dice. Seven of them, one of them with 20 entire sides, that tell you, through various combinations of rolls, whether or not you hit that rat when you hacked at it with your sword, how hard you hit the rat, and whether or not the rat poisoned you when it bit you when you tried to dart away.

I’ve watched my best friends fall in love with Critical Role. I’ve watched my sister start collecting dice like a hobby. I’ve read essays and tweets and newsletters and listened to real-life conversations between people I love talking about how D&D helped them explore their sexuality and gender and desires in transformative ways they’d never expected when they first sat down with a character sheet to build a femme halfling bard or a bisexual gnome rogue or a bucth orc paladin. All of it seemed so fun, but I always had work to do; I couldn’t carve out a whole day to play a game. And anyway, I wasn’t going to be good at it, and my inability to be good at it was going to get everyone playing with me mauled to death by a pack of frost trolls.

Not very long ago, during one of the most stressful weeks of my life, my therapist demanded that I take a weekend off. Demanded it! And it just so happened that my friends were putting together a D&D one-shot. And it just so happened that it was being DM-ed by my pal Austen, who had been trying to get me to join one of their games for years. And it just so happened that Austen said the one thing to me that could actually convince me to play: You can’t be bad at it.

That wasn’t exactly true. I needed a lot of help. (Seven dice, okay??) But by the time my adventuring group had left the pub to visit the monastery for geographical information and do recon on the wizard’s house that contained the vase we needed to steal, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was lost in my character. Lost in the story. I mostly just watched and offered the rope and gold in my pockets and attacked when I had to. But after we knocked out the wizard and tied him up and stuffed him in a closet and ransacked his house and arrived in the room with those cursed bells, I didn’t do what Heather Hogan would do. I didn’t tell everyone to stay behind me, to not worry because I had it under control. I didn’t analyze the body language and facial expressions and breathing patterns of everyone in my group to determine what they were feeling, or take their feelings on and make them my feelings, or try to fix what was causing them stress. I didn’t try to solve the puzzle by myself. I didn’t try to solve the puzzle at all.

I walked into the obviously trapped room and scooped up the obviously hexed bell and clanged it. Valerie shook her head. Meg laughed. Toven, the skilled and surly high elf wizard, rolled her eyes. Somebody at the table snapped a picture of me as Austen described my morphing donkey ears. I look like a little kid on Christmas morning. I couldn’t have told you, before that moment, the last time I did something, even in a game, without weighing the opportunity-cost to everyone around me, just because it looked like fun.

My wood elf ranger is dressed like Dimitri from Anastasi, my second soft butch fashion icon (after Marty McFly). She won’t kill someone if she can just knock them out. She let a kobold ride around on her shoulders the whole time she was exploring the Sunless Citadel. She tried to cast Animal Friendship on an evil frog. That’s all me. But she doesn’t try to solve riddles or lead the way into or out of danger or take responsibility for finding or counting or distributing loot. She doesn’t check for traps. She hangs back and lets other people make decisions and decide how to deal with the consequences. She drinks potions that might kill her and opens doors into rooms that are absolutely haunted. She’s reckless and innocent and has never experienced a moment of anxiety in her life.

I named my wood elf Antsi because that’s how I felt when I was building her, before I ever sat down at a table with my friends to play D&D, before I rang that silly bell.

Antsi recently became a level three ranger, which means she can get better at fighting big enemies or she can get an animal companion. I asked, at the end of our last game, if an animal companion can die. Our DM said yes. Hannah and Meg and Valerie and Smita and Nic exchanged nervous glances. Probably because they don’t need another living thing to worry about healing in battle and they know I would leave them all to die to save an imaginary bear. But also probably because they don’t want me to be sad if my imaginary bear gets eaten by a werewolf.

And I guess that’s the thing about D&D, isn’t it? That you get to spend seven hours at a table with people who love you for exactly who you are, and who let you pretend, for just a little while, to be someone else entirely.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 890 articles for us.

29 Comments

    • I play with my wife, our BFF, and their partner(who is our DM) and our sessions are some of the most fun I have ever had.

      My wife’s Barbarian is a 5’ slut, our friend is a Warlock who loves art and making jewelry, and I have a Dragonborn Bard who is a virgin.

      All our characters are non-binary in a beautifully crafted world where no one cares about gender and we can just be the adventurers we always wanted to be!!

  1. Listen you may dart into danger and ring cursed bells but you don’t get knocked unconscious nearly as much as I do.

    I love the way you talk about D&D and I love how much you love it. I love watching you play and learn and grow and get excited and remember your hunter’s mark and LAUGH. I love how much we all make each other laugh and don’t take anything too seriously.

    Thank you for letting me be part of your D&D journey, and for letting us all read your beautiful words about it. <3

  2. Yess!! This is so good!
    I just recently started playing after longing to forever. I tried like 12 years ago with a group of people who were total jerks about it. Now I have a lovely group of queers that I couldn’t be happier to play with! D&D has helped me so much with my depression. I am totally letting myself be the kid I didn’t get to be, and creating community I’ve been craving.

  3. Heather, I’m so glad you finally let go of the poop stick and tried gaming! This reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in a very long time – back in middle school, in ’88-89, I started an officially recognized school RPG club. We had a responsible adult (the art teacher) and everything. It was a chaotic mess of little kids screaming and we never managed to finish a game. I still love to play when I can though!

  4. Heather this is so pure!!!

    I love D&D and role-playing games, it’s like all the parts about “playing pretend” I liked with none of worry that people are going to judge you. And I love how much queer people love D&D.

    I would recommend you check out an RP game called Monster of the Week, all the classes are modeled after tropes like The Chosen One and The Librarian. Very Buffy, Supernatural, etc. My friends and I had a good game going with that where we REALLY got to have some character hijinks because MotW has less mechanics/dice rolls than D&D.

  5. DnD is the healthiest form of escapism I have ever had the pleasure to indulge in. I honestly put a weekly session on the exact same level of importance as a therapy session for my mental heath.

    This piece makes my heart happy.

    • But also, SEVEN HOURS?! I’m jealous. I’ve only had one (admittedly epic) session go that long. Every other sesh I’ve played over the last several years has averaged around 4 hours. Y’all are beasts!

  6. I have a Ranger 6/Druid 2 whose name in Irish Gaelic means “all the cookies.” They have a spirit familiar named Wiggles who generally prefers to appear as a weasel, and an animal companion who’s a sort of reptilian lizard-bird thing who told us all to call her Pretty Bird and who stays with us because she believes that we worship her.

    I’m also making a Dragonborn bard for a Halloween one-shot, whose poetry is utterly, epically amazing in the original Draconic, but when it gets translated into Common comes out as limericks and other doggerel. I think I’m going to pick my spells based on how awful a poem I can compose for each… (You still up for this, @snowfell?)

  7. I love this piece, and DnD in general, and that so many of my fellow queers play DnD! Right now I’m several months into a game (we do like three hours at a time, not a marathon seven, so it takes longer) where I’m playing a Genasi (a kind of elemental not in the Players Handbook) sorcerer. I’m genderqueer and androgynous and only wear silk and am kind of a pretentious asshole, and all of it is SO CATHARTIC to burn off steam from my Masters of Social Work program.

  8. Heather — Just wanted to say like hurrah hurrah! Last year (after finishing my zine on perfectionism?!) and withstanding the break up with my thought-she-was-gonna-be life partner, I was asked to teach a Dungeons and Dragons elective at school. It completely changed my life — the playfulness that grown-ups often never get to have, the ways we can work through our real life stuff or totally NOT do that, character creation, all of it. Reading your story gives me so much gratitude and appreciation that you found D&D.

  9. This is so lovely, Heather! I was pulled into playing DnD last year by some friends & was surprised by how much I enjoyed it (I’ve always been more of a reading/crafting/languages type of nerd than a role-playing/video games one). I also really loved the aspect of being free to not have to take care of everyone around me. I haven’t played since moving to my current city though, and this makes me want to try it again!

  10. I am the complete opposite of you. I am always yelling at my group that their plans are dumb and no maybe we shouldn’t take a jump down into a glowing green magical hole that’s 30ft down? I guess I need to chill a little bit more. My character is more chill than me. I need to let her out.

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