In a world quaking under the effects of climate change, political turmoil, and a raging pandemic, the appeal of fantasy has never been stronger. As the news cycle regurgitates its bleak portents of the day, people are flocking to fiction in droves, hoping for a brief respite before they return to tackle their real-world demons. They are, in short, looking for an escape—and they’re finding it in one of most resilient bulwarks of nerd culture—Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
D&D was designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, and is now the property of US-based games publisher Wizards of the Coast. Regularly referenced in popular culture—most prominently in TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things,—the game has gently filtered into public consciousness across the English-speaking world, and now, a new generation of Indian gamers are creating their own home-grown fandom.
In essence, Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in collective imagination. A Dungeon Master or DM sets the stage, describing a fantasy world that the players can then explore through their created fictional characters. Orcs and elves, druids and assassins, and the occasional dungeon or dragon, populate the imagined landscape. The DM proposes quests, creates battle scenarios and facilitates the overarching narrative, typically known as a “campaign.”
Mumbai-based Samir Alam, 33, began playing D&D with a group of friends in December 2016. The group would convene at a café every weekend—“any café that would tolerate us,” he says. “Once, we happened to bump into another group of people who were also playing D&D. We realised this is a silent community that is in homes and cafes independently—and it was a cue for us to think about creating a broader network.”
In late 2017, Alam and his friends Likla Lal, Ankit Dayal and Sean D’Souza founded India’s first D&D community, “Panic Not!” The collective (which has no affiliation of Wizards of the Coast) hosts D&D sessions every weekend, and before the covid-19 lockdown, would try to host a big event once a month. “We would have maybe 100 people, all playing one single collective game spread across 20 tables,” Alam explains, “It’s a unique experience where the choices you’re making on your own table have consequences on somebody seated on the floor above you.”
In addition to its four co-founders, “Panic Not!” now has about half a dozen volunteers, and has had a direct impact on hundreds of players since its inception. During the lockdown, “Panic Not!” transitioned their weekend games to video chat and simultaneously saw an upsurge in a new demographic of members: the mid-teens. “Their parents reached out to us saying, ‘Schools are weird, online classes aren’t helping, and my kids are going off the walls,’” Alam laughs, “They needed something to keep them engaged, and this sounded like a healthy exercise.”
Seasoned table-top players also found that digital D&D offered them a rare sense of respite during lockdown. “D&D allowed you to connect with people in a way where you weren’t discussing how the numbers were rising, or what you did that day,” says Aneree Parekh, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, researcher and D&D player. “You were still with people, but it was recreational, and you felt like you could explore the world at least through your mind.” Interestingly, the environment of a D&D game is similar to that offered by group psychotherapy or psychodrama, and mental health organisations, such as US-based Game to Grow and The Bodhana Group, use the game as a tool for therapeutic treatment.
Even outside of a regulated psychotherapy environment, D&D creates a safe space for people who share a love of fantasy and a penchant for play-acting, and nurtures their nascent creativity. Being a DM gave Varun Poojara, 27, the confidence to explore writing, which is something he previously thought he was “not creative enough” to do. In his free time, he creates his own worlds, plots out new campaigns and designs fantasy maps on the website inkarnate.com. “I always wanted to write a book, and I thought this is a great way to get into it,” he says, “As a DM, you’re creating a plot out of your players’ inane ideas, so session by session you can slowly start fleshing out the world.”
Similarly, the platform offered by “Panic Not!” extends far beyond gameplay. Members create maps and character avatars, one member has taken to crafting artisanal dice sets, and others design and create 3D-printed character models. All merchandising proceeds go towards organising “Panic Not!” events, which remain free. The collective is also working on translating the game into regional Indian languages, to facilitate more diverse engagement.
While the lockdown has slowed down a lot of “Panic Not!” initiatives, their impact is strong as ever, with new players increasingly drawn to the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Veteran players are mindful of the responsibility they bear towards the fandom. “There is the one cardinal rule that every DM will tell you,” says Poojara, “Do whatever you want, just don’t ruin the game for somebody else.” Alam concurs. “Everyone is so welcoming, and the whole gamer competitiveness strips away because you just want to broaden the community,” he says. “It is always interesting to see what people come up with, and it is amazing to watch somebody discover something new about themselves.”