D&D & RPGs: Swarthmore’s hidden nerd culture

Photo by Z.L. Zhou
Photo by Z.L. Zhou
Photo by Z.L. Zhou

Earlier this semester, Psi Phi hosted its twice-yearly Cookies and Characters event, where dungeon masters — or game masters, as some prefer it — put on their robes and wizard hats and throw character sheets at everyone gathered. “Now you’re a dwarf! You’re a dwarf! Everyone’s a dwarf!” Then, they play whatever oneshot that DM, GM has thought up: “You’re all dwarves and we all live underground. You need water, or you’re gonna die. Bradley here is God; go.”

Cookies and Characters is by far the most visible outward sign on campus of our vibrant and, by all accounts, rather extensive tabletop role-playing game culture, although not many people attend or are even aware of its existence. I’ve played some RPGs in the past — OK, I’ve played a lot — but coming to Swat, I was left with no clue as to who was a player on campus. So how did people get into this community, and what’s it like?

I asked Mollie Wild ’17, who I met in the Psi Phi library, a bookshelf-lined room filled with chairs in Parrish Basement.

“I started playing playing tabletop RPGs when I came here,” said Wild. “It started with Cookies and Characters and I loved it. Then a friend of mine started a Pokémon Pathfinder campaign, so I joined that.”

So was that it? Was it easy as going to C&C? I asked Jacob Collard ’15, who I met in Sci Commons.

“I started playing RPGs with my brother in middle school,” said Collard, “but my first RPG experience at Swarthmore was with Cookies and Characters.”

“Cookies and Characters is extremely popular,” confirmed Ian Garrison ’18, who I talked to in Shane Lounge as he lounged. “There were fourteen players at the one this semester.”

Well, crap.

For the non RPGers out there, there might be some misconception of what it means to play a tabletop RPG. For one, you don’t have to love soda. “I think people tend to hear Dungeons & Dragons and think of nerds in a basement, neckbeards drinking Mountain Dew,” said Wild. “But that’s not true.” Although the basement part sometimes is. Rather, she explained, RPG players today, especially at Swarthmore, are a diverse group of people who love stories of all kinds. D&D, for its fifth edition, explicitly said in the rulebook that characters don’t need to conform to any binary and don’t need to be a copy of you.

“If you want to play [a game], it’s not too difficult to find one that fits what you want,” confirmed Collard, who was the DM at C&C this semester and one of the more prolific DMs on campus. He noted that there are, off the top of his head, at least two Call of Cthulhu games, an Eberron game, two Pathfinder games, and one mashup modern d20 game, plus whatever else he couldn’t think of — horror, fantasy, and modern fiction, all with different focuses.

Talking about one of his current campaigns, Collard told me that he was most interested in interpersonal, player character-player character relationships: “It’s like vicarious life- and relationship-building; it’s collaborative … you not only get opposing viewpoints in the characters, but those opposing and or complementary viewpoints are also related with the viewpoints of the players.”

Of course, if you don’t want that, there are plenty of other options. Out of the games currently active, a few are much more hack-n-slash than others.

“Combat is a vital part of the setting. At its core, D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff. It is very much an action game,” said Garrison, who’s currently running one such campaign.

But what about character development, that most highbrow of literary accomplishments? I asked. “It is fantasy,” said Garrison. “You’re not playing D&D to play Star Trek, you’re playing it to play Star Wars.” He continued, “I play pretty simplistic. The bad guys are going to be bad. I’ve sometimes had [the PCs] working for questionable regimes and such but the bad guys are just so openly bad. Ideally, you use combat to advance the story … I do try to avoid, however, pure combat, because to be a pure combat-oriented game, you need a cleric, a wizard, and a fighter … it gets boring to just clean out dungeon after dungeon of the monster of the week.”

Escapism, in other words. A way to do something different with your time instead of the Modern Algebra problem set. “But there’s more to it than that!” Wild disagreed. “There’s also problem solving, it’s inspiration [for art], it’s getting to know people, see different sides of people, show different sides of yourself.”

For Wild, RPGs serve as a way to express herself in ways that don’t make sense in the quotidian Swarthmore context. She tries to play characters that are similar to her, but not too similar — “Self-inserts,” she scoffed, “get boring really fast.” Instead, she prefers to play characters with drastically different perceptions of the world in an attempt to explore different parts of her personality. “I try to tend away from characters that I feel no connection to,” Wild said, “but I do try to play characters that I might disagree with.” It’s like deciding to play a religious character if you as a player are avowedly not.

Garrison somewhat disagreed. For him, RPGs should be about heroism, about being able to “grab the supreme leader of North Korea and punch his teeth down his throat” and save the day.  “Heroes [and PCs] should go in not expecting a reward but for the personal satisfaction,” he said, “because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to give experience points for sociopathic actions.” He agreed, however, that “if you have one character who’s the foil, that’s useful in some situations and that reminds the other players that they need to stay suitably heroic.”

To some extent, Collard also agreed with Wild. He said that people do play characters with different viewpoints different than their own, and that can, of course, be really interesting and fruitful. “But,” he said, “perhaps their motivation might be to fit into the game world. Because they feel it fits with the themes of the game.” In other words, a religious character might be religious because it only makes sense to be in fantasy medieval Europe.

I pressed on this, asking why someone would decide to play a game where they were uncomfortable with elements of their character. What could possibly be the point of that? After a moment’s thought, Collard conceded that despite whatever reservations a PC might hold, RPGs are self-selecting, so to whatever degree, players do decide that what they get is what they want. Wild, for her part, had no complaints.

“[My experience] has definitely been very, very positive. It can be exhausting, but overall it’s a lot of fun, it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours. I would like to join another campaign but I don’t know if I have the opportunity,” she said.

Wild clarified that, although it’s not difficult to hear about campaigns in progress, it can be hard to find one that’s looking for new players. “You know how there’s a Drama Board, with plays and audition times?” she asked, expressing some frustration. “I think it’d be really nice if there were a tabletop board where you could show what campaigns were going on and were open and looking for players, and you could sign up for that.”

In her ideal world, RPG playing would be a more overt part of campus culture, and more people outside outside of Psi Phi would be RPGers — “I want to open it up to the entire campus … I like that we run oneshots and I wish that we could get more organized, but I think we should be advertising better. I would like for there to be games with no Psi Phi members at all. I think we definitely have a visibility problem,” she said.

“I worry that people who see us playing feel intimidated or don’t understand what’s going on so they don’t want to come over and join in or feel like they can’t,” Wild concluded, “And I think advertising could help with that.”

For their parts, Garrison and Collard both disagreed. “I don’t think Swarthmore needs an RPG club,” said Collard, agreeing that there’s not a lot of advertisement for this rather quiet community but disagreeing on the need for change. For his preferred style of play, he said, he would prefer it if things stayed the same. “I prefer it the way it is currently; it’s personal.”

“You just go to Psi Phi and ask if somebody’s doing a campaign,” said Garrison, “if you’re interested in something, somebody’s into it. And that’s part of why I love this place.”

Regardless, all three agreed that a problem that the RPG community faced was not enough DMs, especially given how crucial C&C has been in getting people to join the hobby. “In my freshman year,” Collard said, “there were three DMs, so when you went, you just played whatever was interesting. This past semester, it was just me and fourteen players, which is a lot.”

“Anyone who’s interested [in starting RPGs] might have a hard time of it now, at the end of the semester,” said Wild, “but it’s still possible.”

If anyone interested, she advises you to ask around for a DM willing to run a oneshot, to try it out. If nothing pans out, keep an eye out for next semester’s C&C — the community here is sure to keep chugging along until then.


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