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News / Life / Clark County Life

Once feared by parents, Dungeons & Dragons is ‘incredibly inclusive’ as it turns 50 years old

D&D celebrates human capacity for imagination, collaboration and connection, say spokesperson for the Clark County Historical Museum

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 11, 2024, 6:03am
9 Photos
Travis Haslem of Battle Ground shows players a printout of the land they're traveling through while playing a Dungeons & Dragons spinoff at Dice Age Games in Vancouver.
Travis Haslem of Battle Ground shows players a printout of the land they're traveling through while playing a Dungeons & Dragons spinoff at Dice Age Games in Vancouver. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Over the past few decades, community builders have bemoaned the loss of organized American togetherness as team, club and congregation membership has dwindled. From Sunday morning church services to Thursday night bowling leagues, people just don’t assemble in friendly groups like they used to — or so goes the theory outlined by sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 bestseller, “Bowling Alone.”

But April Pereira, spokesperson for the Clark County Historical Museum, is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a community-building campaign that’s easy to overlook but strong as a sword of steel: Dungeons & Dragons.

Pereira will discuss the radical inclusiveness of D&D April 18 during a “History on Tap” program at downtown Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre. Pereira is a lifelong student of community dynamics who earned a master’s degree in community and regional planning from the University of Oregon,

“Dungeons & Dragons is more than a game,” Pereira said. “It’s a celebration of the human capacity for imagination, collaboration and connection.”

IF YOU GO

What: History on Tap featuring April Pereira presenting “Roll 20: D&D and the Power of Community Storytelling”

When: 7 p.m. April 18

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver

Tickets: $5

On the web:www.kigginstheatre.com, www.aprilpereira.com

D&D is a tabletop role-playing game launched in 1974 by geeks raised on strategy gaming and “The Lord of The Rings.” The game blends elements of high fantasy and quasi-theatrical improvisation as players develop characters and embark on adventures that can run as long as players want.

A single session of a few hours is short, Pereira said. Campaigns that last weeks, months or even years are not uncommon.

Overseeing every campaign is a dungeon master, or DM, whose role is like movie director: maintaining the imaginary world players are moving through and making external choices that affect their progress.

As in real life, some of those external factors are left to chance. If you’re casting a spell or attacking an opponent — or perhaps getting flamed to a cinder by a dragon — your DM may instruct you to determine your fate by rolling dice.

Mystical and magical

Pereira’s childhood in a close-knit Azorian community in Massachusetts sensitized her to matters of community early in life, she said. The Azores are nine islands off the coast of Portugal.

“It felt like the 10th Azorian island,” she said. “It’s a very community-oriented culture.”

Pereira’s awareness of community sharpened when she lost it at age 10. Her family relocated to the West Coast and moved frequently. But, along the way, the father of a new friend demonstrated how to build a community that’s more of a “chosen family,” she said.

Her friend’s dad was passionate about his own version of a regular poker club, she said, but the pastime that absorbed him and his buddies turned out to be far more tantalizing to Pereira and friends than plain old playing cards.

“What was this mystical, magical thing he was doing? It was D&D,” Pereira said.

Pereira and friends dove in, joining the game’s explosion in popularity in the 1990s. What had started as a dry tabletop exercise reliant on imagination, elaborate manuals (of magical spells, creatures and game rules) and graph paper (to sketch maps of unknown landscapes) evolved into a commercial product line of game boards, mini figures, elaborate dice (from four-sided to 20-sided) and other equipment. You could spend a lot of money on D&D if you wanted to, Pereira said.

Naturally, online versions became available too. Complex games like “Pokemon” and “Magic: The Gathering” weren’t far behind. At Pereira’s high school, she said, the school computer lab was constantly crowded with gamers.

Face to face

Divisions and disputes tend to evaporate when grown-ups give themselves permission to play and have fun like children, Pereira said.

“It’s hard to be mean when you’re sitting across the table from someone and you’re on a quest together,” she said. “You develop these bonds.”

Those bonds can grow long and strong as life happens and players who meet regularly share their real selves as well as their fantasy ones.

Pereira said when she was 13 years old, a D&D friend was killed in tragic gun accident. It was a terrible shock to the group, which really didn’t know how to process it until they turned back to Dungeons & Dragons.

“We used the game,” Pereira said. “It helped us breathe. It helped us grieve. We held our own fancy Viking funeral.”

Since then, Pereira has been involved in numerous, overlapping D&D groups that have played important roles in the players’ real lives. One time, a group intervened to help a battered spouse escape their abuser, she said. When one player couldn’t afford groceries, others brought food.

“When something happens, this is a community that comes together to help make you whole again,” she said.

Self and story

Communal storytelling is the core of D&D, as players and dungeon masters put their all into imaginary characters pursuing fantasy adventures.

In D&D, she said, you can be exactly who you’ve always wanted to be or who you really are on the inside. It’s no surprise that people who enjoy or even yearn for different realities — everyone from thespians to sexual minorities — feel drawn to the freedom of imagination and magic, she said.

“D&D is incredibly inclusive,” Pereira said. “It’s a game that permits you to act out your best self.”

Or, maybe, your worst self. Just for the fun of it, Pereira mused, a player could decide they’re going to act out the purest evil.

Online discussion shows a variety of opinions about just how “progressive” and welcoming to all D&D really is. Across the game’s history, whole classes of creatures have been characterized in one-dimensional ways. Orcs are evil, period. Elves are haughty. Dwarves are suspicious and vindictive.

“ ‘Race’ has always been a problem in D&D,” Pereira said.

In recent years some gamers and game makers have rejected that word in favor of ‘species.’ ” Today, there’s more room in D&D for individuals to behave in individual ways, she said.

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Pereira has been playing D&D with the same group of people off and on for decades. Meanwhile, she’s also DMing for her teenage son and his friends.

“What I love best about D&D is that it’s so expansive,” Pereira said. “But the core of it is always the same: It’s storytelling. It’s math. It’s critical thinking. It’s learning how to live life.”

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