There is a secret that only a select few may understand. For decades, those who do have gathered in dimly-lit rooms, huddled together for hours as they play out their wildest fantasies. But today, the secret is becoming downright common knowledge. Your friends, co-workers, even family members have probably already admitted it to you: they play Dungeons and Dragons.
“People are just out there, they’re like, yeah, we play D&D, who cares,” explained Phil Naumann, a guitarist for the indie rock band Sybris. “We used to call it The Secret,” he says, but now it’s “sort of a thing that people do.”
Naumann was sitting around with his fellow bandmates, waiting for their show to start later in the night. Nearby was a table loaded with chips, cheese puffs, and all the other supplies that are the universal sign of a gaming night. They had gathered at the Co-Prosperity Sphere for the fourth annual “Level Eater” event—a night of free food, free beer, and fantasy art, all inspired by Dungeons and Dragons.
While the band lounged on the upper floor, a crowd of people wandered the gallery. The works included riffs on pop culture, wild and highly sexual paintings that played with the boundaries of the grotesque, and beautifully up-front cheesiness, like the exceptionally gory battle scene titled “Axe Body Spray.” An adorably scruffy black dog trotted through the crowd, begging for fried chicken.
Sybris was going to play songs based on the fantasy board game that night, while the Three Floyds brewery filled up glasses of its special-edition, one-night-only “dwarven ale.” After the show, of course, they planned to invite everyone in the Sphere to join in on a giant game of D&D led by dungeon master Chad Troutman. Two members, Phil Naumann and bassist Shawn Todgurski, play the game each week with Troutman; he was the bouncer at a bar they played in. By sheer coincidence, a few employees from Three Floyds all go to Troutman’s D&D session each week as well—a sign of how the game can knit communities together from different groups all over Chicago.
The band, which has been around for ten years, isn’t specifically D&D themed. In 2006 they were asked to join a D&D compilation album which never made it off the ground; the result of that was the song “Critically in Love,” where vocalist Angela Mullenhour mourns: “I need some elven wine…I am a party of one!” After a lot of “drunk scheming,” the band came up with a three-song vinyl record.
“Phil and I play D&D a lot; we thought it would be funny to make a D&D (album),” said Todgurski. “Now we have to own it.”
The band doesn’t think there’s any special overlap between the music community and the D&D community. “No more than there is with, like, accounting and, I don’t know, baristas,” said Naumann. However, they do admit that there is an element of escapism in both games and music; just being in a band is a fantasy that they get to play out every night they’re on stage.
“I think the whole idea of trying to be in a band and make it, having it consume your life and you want another life—it’s an escape,” said Mullenhour, taking a drag from her cigarette. “So I suppose that’s kind of fantastical.”
Everyone in the band has a day job: three of them work in bars or restaurants, while Todgurski is a mental health counselor. He agreed with Mullenhour that being in a band is a form of roleplay.
“For forty-five minutes [while I’m on stage] it’s like, I’m the bass guy,” he said. “The next day I go back to my job cleaning up crazy people’s pee. But for that forty-five minutes…” He paused to think of the words. “I’m something that I’m not. Or that I am.”
“We lived in the fantasy world for real for about a year,” said Mullenhour, referring to the days when the band members thought they could make it as full-time musicians. They’re back in the real world now, but they still play music, a form of rock and roll that the band members described as “loud,” “pretty,” “not angry,” “joyous,” and “heart on our sleeve.” It’s a fantasy ritual, and the game is as well.
For Troutman, the Dungeon Master who administers the game and makes up the plot that the role-players follow, D&D has actually helped his career. He writes short stories and novels, and even when they’re not fantasy-themed, having to come up with an original plot every week “makes me keep my chops, keep sharp writing this stuff.”
He used to be embarrassed if his gamers discussed their adventures out loud at the bar where he works. “It’s the type of thing that’s automatically a qualifier about you, once you tell somebody,” he explained. “You may have been the guy who cured polio….however, once they know you play D&D, you’re the D&D guy that cured polio.”
Nowadays, while the game isn’t necessarily more popular, it is more accepted. The internet has made it easier for different groups to find each other. Television shows like “Community” and “Freaks and Geeks” have used D&D as a central plot point, and celebrities like Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, and Stephen Colbert have all professed their love for the game—and, contrary to the popular belief that playing D&D is a form of birth control, even porn stars are into it to. Adult film entertainers Kimberly Kane, Zak Sabbath, Mandy Morbid, and Satine Phoenix released a reality web series in 2010 about their weekly D&D adventures. The name? “I’d Hit It With My Axe.”
The appeal of D&D is, in the end, universal: “It’s an escape from my fucking miserable life,” said Todgurski. “That’s what it’s always been.”