I worked Thursday nights at my university’s learning center from 4 to 8 pm. The room was designed in such a way that anyone had a bird’s eye view of everything that was going on in the basement’s common lounge. I had the perfect setup to stare at a group of six friends and their weekly Dungeons & Dragons’ sessions. I couldn’t hear them and they couldn’t see me. Was I being super creepy? Most definitely, but I couldn’t help myself: I would just stare at them with this mixture of intense jealousy and fascination. This was the only way I saw myself participating in something like D&D: silently, and from very far away.
It’s not breaking news that Dungeons & Dragons is coming back in a big way: it seems as though every semi-successful improv group or gaggle of voice actors is starting their own D&D Let’s Play channel, streaming their sessions online for people to watch. Dungeons & Dragons has turned from confusing and niche into something of a hugely popular spectator sport. It probably would’ve been hard to imagine back in the ’80s (when D&D was called basement-dwelling satanist propaganda) that it would make the transition to online entertainment. The internet and the role it has played in building fandom has helped give rise to the vocalization of this desire for indulgent, escapist spaces.
At the time, that’s what scared me off of Dungeons & Dragons the most. Never mind the intensive rules and the rich lore — it was the sheer, unadulterated enthusiasm that seemed required to participate. Everything about Dungeons & Dragons is a labor in passion: you and your group must meet in person (or over video call if not everyone is in one place), putting aside four hours in the week that by some miracle manages to work for everyone, and each person has to be fully invested in this shared fictional world.
Fandom is embarrassing. It just is. Your love and devotion are on display for everyone to see, and to people not in the loop you look weird. With the rise in fandom’s visibility has come the rise of “cringe culture,” a phrase that has become popular in internet spaces as a way to shame a show or a fandom for behaving childishly or dorkily. “Cringe culture” as a phrase has often been used pretty carelessly: it can be used by fans to attack critics who lobby valid criticisms against a creator or media, but it can also be used by the general public to “shame” a work of media or a fandom (often made up predominantly of marginalized groups).
When I was 13, I wholeheartedly loved everything. I wrote fanfiction for just about every TV show, movie, book I’d ever even mildly enjoyed, and while I wouldn’t put my actual name in my username, it was right there in my bio, tying my identity to the things I loved and had written. I mostly participated in fandoms with large amounts of like-minded teen girls for shows like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, and Buffy. The communities I participated in were less about what we watched and more about how these shows gave us what we lacked: comfort, creativity, and for a lot of fans, a reason to live.
But I was deeply depressed in real life. I hated just about everything about myself, and because of this I hated being seen by other people: I never talked in class, I wore clothes that practically swallowed me whole, I shared nothing with the friends I did have. I loved being hidden. So having these fan spaces became my everything. I could be unapologetic, loud, and adoring, even while I felt that so many other entities in my life — from magazines to random strangers to friends and family — punished me for doing so.
“Cringe culture” as a phrase didn’t exist yet, but fear of it fueled me even then: I never told people in real life what shows I watched or what books I read out of fear it would seem embarrassing or it would reveal how sad I was. I hated how vulnerable being a fan of something made you to everyone else. So I gradually removed all my fanfiction, deleted all of my accounts. I made myself entirely anonymous on the internet, just like I did in real life. I saw my own passion for storytelling as shameful, as a borderline unhealthy coping mechanism for my depression.
As I grew up I buried my enjoyment of anything underneath a deep layer of irony: I loved “bad” TV, stuff I could laugh at, out of this deep fear that I would somehow revert to my overly vulnerable 13-year-old self.
So for a year in college, I stared at the people playing below me. Then I spent a study-abroad semester in China.
My time abroad felt weirdly detached from my actual life; it was terrifying and liberating. In one of my first moves as a newly minted impulsive college student, I was dragged by my friend to the school’s board game club under the guise of a joke. The club met Tuesdays and Fridays: Tuesdays were for regular board games and Friday was Dungeons & Dragons night. In an unfamiliar place, the people at the club were strangely comforting. The club wasn’t for academic credit or somewhere for people to posture; it was just a board game club for people who simply liked board games.
So despite having known these people for all of two hours (during which I said maybe three words to any of the club members), I somehow trusted them enough to get kind of excited for Friday nights. I signed up to be a player in a long campaign over the course of the semester.
In order to participate, I needed my own set of dice. The Dungeon Master (the person who runs the game) pointed me toward China’s infamous online marketplace, Taobao. You can buy just about anything from Taobao: One friend bought a $20 prom dress; another bought a desk for less than 50 bucks. And so I bought my first pair of Dungeons & Dragons dice for 8 yuan, or about $1.16.
For the uninitiated: Dungeons & Dragons is based a lot around group storytelling. In order for an individual player to participate in the story, the success of their actions is determined by various dice rolls. The lowest you can roll is a 1, which signifies total failure; the highest is a 20, which means complete success.
At the start of my first game I stayed entirely passive, deferring to the rest of the party to decide what plan of action was appropriate. I felt unreasonably nervous at the prospect of having any of my actions affecting anything tangible in any way. I wondered why, as someone who tried the first 18 years of their life to stay as invisible as possible, I thought I could succeed at a game that was meant for people who were comfortable in how loud they were.
I could’ve easily just coasted through my first session without doing much of anything except that the DM, who either sensed how nervous I was or just needed someone to target, singled me out with a choice: a group of bandits approaches you with weapons raised. What do you do?
With my first-ever roll, I tried to persuade the thieves to put their weapons down. I rolled a 17, which meant they lowered their crossbows.
Since the party didn’t immediately ostracize me for daring to make a choice in the game, I gained a little more confidence in rolling for simple actions: fighting enemies, talking to shopkeepers.
The thing was, I kept getting high rolls, like 16, 17, and 18, and so I easily succeeded in whatever I wanted to do. The more I had to roll, the more I was willing to try more and more impulsive stuff — I felt the party watching me, watching as I laughed when I succeeded at something stupid, watching as I started to do funny voices when I had to impersonate a guard, and I didn’t feel scared at all.
It wasn’t until the game was nearing its end, when I made yet another ridiculously high roll, that the DM finally said: “Wait, Jessica, do you have loaded dice?”
Having now played with and owned a number of different dice, I know that it should’ve been easy to tell: The die in question was slightly weighted and when I rolled it would bounce on the desk in a predictable pattern, almost as if it was cut in a certain way to ensure it fell on a high number. While a 20-sided die is a little harder to balance compared to a normal six-sided one, to any experienced player the controlled way my dice rolled should’ve been immediately obvious.
It wasn’t the DM’s fault for not noticing earlier; it was her first game as DM. And that was what was so wonderful about the group: It was a bunch of clueless newbies who were all just excited to play. Here we were, with our colorful dice, our geeky maps and boards, in a classroom in which there were floor-to-ceiling windows facing the hallway, and we would cheer when players rolled well and laugh uproariously loud when someone rolled badly.
My group just laughed along when they realized what had happened. The DM gave me a new pair of dice that let me roll a number below 16, and we continued.
I didn’t even have it in me to be embarrassed, because by the end of the game, and in the many after that, I got so used to throwing caution, thinking, and esteem to the wind. I would do dorky voices for my characters. I would invent elaborate backstories and work with these people — at first awkward strangers, then great friends — to pull off elaborate heists.
When I was 13 I loved and hated so passionately in both directions that they became mixed up into each other. Even now, I can’t look back on the stuff I wrote or liked when I was a teenager because it just reminds me how sad I was. For a long time I thought my enthusiasm for things meant I would draw hatred from somewhere: from the internet, from the people around me, or from deep within myself.
Although I’ve been a part of many D&D sessions since then, I still look back on the first campaign I ever played. I’ve owned at least five different sets of dice since then, but I still unconsciously feel the weight of that first pair in my hand, reminding me of the good I can create.
Jessica Xing is a writer based in NYC, with bylines at Electric Literature and EGMNOW.