Communities of D&D players have popped up across Iowa City and the UI campus, using the fantasy roleplay game as an outlet for creativity and expression.
There’s a certain charm that comes with the idea of transporting to a fantasy land filled with caverns and caves, monsters and madness, and — of course — dungeons and dragons.
While physical transportation between worlds may be impossible, groups across the globe use words to paint their own fictitious lands through the fantasy roleplay game called Dungeons & Dragons, also known as D&D.
As a school with a prominent creative writing program, the University of Iowa is home to many D&D players. With writing and storytelling at the forefront of the experience, the development of characters and storylines allows creators to practice and hone their abilities.
The game’s original edition, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, came out in 1974. Since the initial release, a variety of amendments to the rulebooks have been published, consistently drawing fans back to the popular storytelling game.
D&D is typically led by a single person dubbed the “Dungeon Master.” Other players portray fictional characters that form the adventuring party. It’s the Dungeon Master’s role to facilitate the story, and with dice rolling to add an element of luck and surprise, the party must maneuver their way through whatever trials and tribulations come their way.
Communities of players have popped up across Iowa City, from the Fortuna Board Game Cafe that formerly hosted games, to the current UI Tabletop Gaming Organization that hosts D&D sessions.
Owain Weinert, a UI second-year student majoring in English and creative writing, said he first played D&D at 12 years old. He found himself diving deeper into the fantasy world six years later during the start of the pandemic.
“For me, it’s an exercise in collaborative storytelling,” Weinert said. “I think the closest you’d get in more traditional media would be something like an improv group.”
While Weinert has found individuals who play D&D, he said he has struggled to find a consistent group to play with on campus. Whether it be work schedules or class commitments, he has found the campaigns he starts tend to fizzle out.
That, however, does not stop him from talking about D&D with his peers.
“I’m a creative writing major, so essentially everyone in my creative writing classes goes, ‘You know, I play D&D a ton,’” Weinert said. “I think there’s a lot of people who want to play D&D more but haven’t found a unifying community element yet.”
Weinert has played as both the Dungeon Master and as a member of various campaigns, and he said each role has its own merits. As a storyteller, he finds the role of Dungeon Master more time-consuming, but it allows for more freedom to concoct a convoluted and enriching story.
From fighters to monks, Weinert has embodied numerous lives that are drastically different from his own. He said his own personal favorite is dubbed “The Overlord,” which is a non-playable character in a campaign that Weinert is a Dungeon Master for.
David Gaunt, a UI fourth-year student, is also a Dungeon Master for a group of peers that he connected with during his freshman year.
“I enjoy telling stories, and D&D is the best way for me to tell stories —and with friends,” Gaunt said. “I get to be social because it can be difficult for me to find places to socialize with people.”
Gaunt said he prefers being a Dungeon Master to being a player, even if he does appreciate aspects of both roles. He said he puts three to five hours of writing and preparation work into each session, with the end goal of maximizing the fun for himself and his players.
“I get to watch people sometimes make stupid decisions,” Gaunt said. “It’s fun facilitating other people having fun and getting to create my own world.”
Campaigns and D&D communities are not a new trend at the UI. Levi Patterson, a recent UI graduate who majored in math and statistics, previously played on campus with fellow students.
Some who play D&D thrive on the creative elements — like Weinert — but Patterson said he was drawn to the numbers involved.
“I’m a math nerd, and I love numbers,” Patterson said. “I get to do a lot of little addition when I play D&D, and then on top of that, I think it’s really just a great way to build relationships with people.”
Patterson tumbled into the world of D&D accidentally. On his way home from school during his sophomore year of high school, he was stopped by a classmate who invited Patterson to join the D&D club.
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While Patterson does enjoy the mathematical elements, the ability to express himself through the game is his favorite part.
“I like the freedom of being a member of the campaign,” Patterson said. “Just being able to show up on time for the meeting and being able to just be a character, let loose, and have fun.”
Over the past few years, the general perception of D&D has shifted. Since the release of the Netflix original TV show “Stranger Things,” Patterson said the roleplaying game has been more widely recognized and accepted. Real-play podcasts and shows have also been on the rise over the past several years, from the web series titled “Critical Role” to CollegeHumor’s “Dimension 20.”
“I think, especially over the pandemic, there have been a lot of shifting tones toward the positive,” Patterson said.
Despite the knowledge around D&D increasing, Weinert said interested people are often hesitant to start. Weinert said he always encourages anyone curious to give playing a try, even if it seems like there is a steep learning curve.
“People get intimidated around D&D because it’s a lot of different things at once,” Weinert said. “It’s math, it’s acting, its storytelling, it’s character creation. With practice, you’ll get a lot better at it, and it gets a lot more fun.”
Marandah Mangra-Dutcher and Kate Perez contributed to this report.