DISCOVERING HER INNER ELF
How a Dungeons & Dragons newbie unearthed a brave new world of female empowerment
“My sword has no holy oil,” I noted. “There’s no point stabbing her ghost. Perhaps I should smash her skeleton?”
Emmanuelle’s patience was commendable. “Whatever you decide,” she said, “how about saying it in character, as Enna would?”
Who was Enna? A half-elf musician, equally deft with a lute or crossbow, and gifted with a silver tongue that devastates foes. With her reputation for both Vicious Mockery and Bardic Inspiration, how might Enna announce her decision to smash a skeleton?
“There once was a corpse from Nantucket …” I ventured.
I was a Dungeons & Dragons newbie when I showed up to Roll for Dameage, a night of D&D for women. The entire adventure was to take place over three hours, as opposed to the months-long campaigns fought by more obsessive fans. I worried there’d be an exhaustive lesson on how to roll the various multi-sided dice used to calculate each character’s statistics, but when Emmanuelle, our dungeon master (“DM” if you’re cool or a total nerd), outlined the rules, they were surprisingly straightforward: 1.
Be kind to each other.
Be a team player and help the story along.
If you are uncomfortable with anything, point to the “X” card and we’ll change the subject.
Stay in character.
Along with Enna at my table were a barbarian ranger; a halforc paladin, or holy-warrior, who served Tyr, the god of vengeance, sacrifice and martyrdom; a halfling monk who also served Tyr; and a drow rogue/thief from the underworld. It was a lot to keep track of.
I’d always thought of D&D as a male-dominated fantasy game relegated to basements across North America. Growing up in the 1980s, I witnessed its emergence into mainstream culture and its less-than-welcoming reception. The media featured stories about brainwashed young men whose adventures in capes and swords inevitably ended in tragedy. But like most ’80s crises, D&D eventually sank beneath public consciousness, replaced by death-stampedes caused by Cabbage Patch Kids.
This constituted my D&D knowledge until a recent visit from my 21-year-old nephew, Jacob. A fantasy writer who identifies as a creative introvert, his discovery of D&D a year ago had blasted his life wide open. Granted, as a young male who loves fantasy and actually lives in a basement, he wasn’t challenging my long-held stereotypes, but he did say something that caught my attention: “It’s like collective storytelling and problem solving. The more imaginative you are, the better it is for everyone. I wish you understood, because honestly, it changed my life.”
There you have it. D&D mattered to Jacob, and he mattered to me, and that’s how a middle-aged woman found herself Googling “Dungeons & Dragons games in Toronto” while thinking “Is this even a thing?”
By Tyr, was it ever. Pages of search results appeared: groups looking for members; YouTube channels showing people playing; and upcoming games offered online or in venues throughout the city. I found D&D games in every major Canadian city through sites like Meetup and D&D Adventurers League. A Reddit thread revealed someone in Halifax setting up a beginners’ group for women because she was “nervous to suck at it around a bunch of dudes who have been playing since they were teenagers.” This, I realized, was my conundrum exactly. I discovered Roll for Dameage, an event by Toronto Dungeons & Dragons Meetup with an assurance that they loved teaching newbies “in a no-stress and judgment-free environment.”
A week later, I was surrounded by 20 other women in a backroom at Storm Crow Manor, a fantasy and sci-fi destination. Along with our Level 1 table, there were Level 3 and Level 5 groups. It was a full house.
Organizer Mark Chandler, who started the group in 2018, confirmed that this was pretty much standard for their events. “In the first week we had 50 or 60 members without any advertising. We were flabbergasted. Today there’s over 1,700. Every event we announce sells out. We can’t really keep up with demand.”
He acknowledged that shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things were drivers of D&D’s current popularity, along with a resurgence of board games in general. Additionally, the game itself underwent a substantial transformation in 2014.
“For the first time we saw characters of colour, characters that were gender fluid and women wearing actual armour, not just boob armour,” said Chandler.
The idea for Roll for Dameage came out of a desire for as much inclusivity as possible, which perhaps helps explain the diversity of ages and cultural groups at the event the night of my attendance. There was little that would draw attention to this gathering, apart from some of the conversations:
“Oh, man, I should have gone into a barbaric rage.”
“Look, if my grandmother was an infamous necromancer, my mom never told me about it.”
“There is NO WAY we are putting the bracelet back on that corpse!”
At the end of the evening, a successful quest under our belts, we bade our farewells. It occurred to me that I didn’t know the real names of the women, nor where they worked, where they were from, or if they had kids. Instead, we laughed together, came up with all sorts of outrageous ideas and, not to brag, saved an entire kingdom. I learned a thing or two about Tana the Barbarian, things you might not normally know when meeting someone for the first time. And I also learned something about myself, which I’ll let Enna, the half-elf Bard, describe:
You’re never too old to try being bold, to venture to lands not for you.
You might be surprised to open your eyes and suspend a judgment or two.
But let’s not get sappy, I’d rather get scrappy and I know just the women who’ll do,
Grab your sword and some dice, forget about nice, and spend a night with the half-elf in you.