A local theatre recently put on a production of She Kills Monsters, a play about death, family, and Dungeons & Dragons. Our own Ryan made the puppets, and had played several different monsters.
In the play, Agnes Evans tries to get to know her deceased sister Tilly through the last D&D adventure that Tilly ever wrote. With one of Tilly’s friends running the module, she learns more than she bargained for about a sister she barely knew.
I went twice, including a trip with both my D&D groups, because nerds need to stick together, and there were some powerful feelings about adventure, about coming out, and about being seen in the way we tell stories. It’s also really funny, and they made a great playlist for it. Most interestingly is the way that it showcases D&D and roleplaying games, identifying some universal qualities that speak to frequent players and people who’ve never heard of the game before.
The Call to Adventure
It’s a little Joseph Campbell, but D&D is about the call to adventure. The call to depart from ordinary life to pursue the legendary, whether that’s saving villages, slaying dragons, or rescuing angels from ancient ruins. Most campaigns start with people being called away from their lives out of duty, danger, or divine intervention. In the play we see it as Agnes’s introduction to the adventurers, and to the basic concepts of the quest.
But it’s true on another level as well. As someone who GMs for a lot of new players, there’s a call to spend a few hours departing from regular life and indulging in fantasy. Sometimes that’s safe spaces for drama, sometimes it’s focused collaborative storytelling, and sometimes it’s straight up power fantasy. It invites us to create a space where we are braver and more powerful than we are, and where problems can be solved by sword and spell.
The Warrior’s Heart
At its heart, Dungeons & Dragons is about conflict. It’s about being confronted with danger and reacting to it. Every character is equipped with numerous abilities to handle combat and traps, with the assumption that those are what they’ll face. In D&D, everyone has the heart of a warrior. Stirred by conflict, characters learn to face it, and grow in strength because of it. Agnes faces conflict in the game and in herself, coming to terms with the things she never knew about Tilly, and with how she handles herself in a world of fantasy.
This is my favourite thing. When players embrace that the game isn’t about fearing conflict, but about facing it. When their agency is realized and they come into their own. They find their feet, and we see the departure from everyday life to fantasy. And sometimes back again.
The Stories You Can’t Tell
Sometimes D&D is about the stories you can’t tell anywhere else. It’s about getting out feelings and confusion and pain that you don’t know how to talk about any other way. Agnes learns about Tilly’s struggles with her sexuality, and with the pressures that puts on teenage life, because there wasn’t any space to talk about it outside of the game.
D&D can be a way to exorcise demons. Whether that’s giving people space to explore their darker sides, creating a safe atmosphere to have low-stakes versions of hard conversations, or creating and inhabiting fictions that are free from some of the systemic oppression of the real world. Everyone comes to the table with a story to tell.
It’s D&D, Not Therapy
A line so good they say it twice. At the end of the day, it’s not about closure. It’s not about family or falling in love or one of the ten million other things stories are about. It’s not about anything real. It’s a game. It’s one adventure after another. Agnes takes her heart and her story, her lessons and her courage, and goes on to face the day.
Mike Mearls, the Creative Director for Dungeons & Dragons, once described it on a panel as “The only game that gets more fun the more you play.” With any other game you master it, find the patterns, and solve for them. But D&D always changes. The stories change. The stakes change. And it’s easy to say the game changes, but at its best, it changes us too.
She Kills Monsters is a love letter to a game that helps people tell their own stories, and an invitation to to heed the call to adventure and awaken your warrior’s heart.
Also there’s a sick dragon fight.