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Dungeons & Dragons brought us closer when the world said to keep our distance

Joining a nerdy, diverse D&D group when I needed it most.
Two people talking via video call
Image: Maria/stock.adobe.com

Two years ago, I knew practically nothing about Dungeons & Dragons. My closest interactions came from casual references in stories like Ready Player One and Stranger Things. I wasn’t averse to playing or anything - I’ve practically been a nerd for as long as I can remember - I just didn’t know anyone who played and could bring me into the fold.

Or, rather, I didn’t know if I knew anyone who could. Because D&D always felt like a fringe, secret society to me. In order to become a player, it felt like you had to get invited by another player.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came, flipped the world upside down and forced us to retreat indoors.

D&D always felt like a fringe, secret society to me. In order to become a player, it felt like you had to get invited by another player.

Joining a Discord full of diverse, nerdy people became my saving grace. And being unexpectedly exposed to the magical world of D&D with those same people is one of my favourite accidents to date.

Social distancing saved more lives than we could ever begin to count. Especially during the early days of the pandemic when there were more questions than answers and vaccines were still months away from distribution. Yet one of the costs that came with it was isolation.

After a rough patch that included being laid off from my job, briefly taking a terrible one to replace it and ending a relationship, I needed people. But how was I supposed to find any when meeting them was virtually impossible?

I did what any other millennial raised in a world of screens and buttons would do - I went digital.

I’ve been involved with a website called Black Nerd Problems since shortly after it was founded in 2014 by William Evans and Omar Holmon. BNP has earned tens of thousands of followers and the respect of people in entertainment by covering pretty much anything you could fit under the “nerd” umbrella - and a lot of things you might not. It does so in a way that feels authentic to the experience of being a nerd and a person of colour - two groups that have historically been treated as “other” in most social settings.

This same spirit was translated when BNP decided to embrace the community it had amassed over the years by starting its own Discord server, so that members could connect with each other, play games, watch movies or even vent about their experiences in a space where they were no longer considered the “other”.

I was growing desperate to connect with people in a safe way, despite a lifetime of being an introvert.

One day, someone brought up the idea of playing Dungeons & Dragons online. It took a few minutes, but a number of us started to slowly admit that we’d always been interested - we just didn’t know the first thing about the game and were a little intimidated by it. (Of course, that’s also when I learned some of my closest friends on staff had been playing D&D for years and it just never came up somehow.)

Next thing you know, a bunch of us were in our first one-shot together tracking down smugglers in a forest with our first characters. This came at the perfect time when I was growing desperate to connect with people in a safe way, despite a lifetime of being an introvert.

D&D Beyond and other digital tools make playing D&D online over platforms like Discord fairly easy. Image: Keith Reid-Cleveland

That was in November of 2020. Now, just over a year later, the BNP Discord has an entire channel devoted to D&D called #RunDND - as a nod to the American rap group, Run-DMC - and has steadily grown.

I’m even part of a virtual ongoing campaign that’s stemmed from this first group, comprised completely of BIPOC from all parts of the US who each bring a wide array of perspectives and experiences to the table, along with their full selves.

We’ve had conversations that I’m not sure would’ve been received the same way if we were playing in a group full of players who don’t look like us.

And I do mean our full selves. We’ve had hilarious conversations that I’m not entirely sure would’ve been received the same way if we were playing in a group similar to what you’ll typically see at a table full of players who don’t look like us, save for one or two faces in the mix.

We named our private channel “#death-roll-records” after the West Coast record label. We’ve had in-game conversations about soul food, historically Black fraternities and sororities, and different ways of styling Black hair. Those are just some of the many deep-cut references that make our game feel like something totally new with a little familiarity added in for good measure.

The Black Nerd Problems D&D channel is named #RunDnD after the rap group Run-DMC, with a private channel inspired by record label Death Row Records. Image: Death Roll Records

Now, by no means am I arguing that we reinvented the wheel here. People have been interacting online for as long as there’s been an online, D&D content included. Even so, I am saying that we may have caught lightning in a bottle by collectively creating something that’s rare, if not wholly unique. Which is the whole point of playing D&D after all, right?

And it’s something that I hope other people can experience in some form or fashion, whether it be by joining us on our own adventures or finding a space where they can start their own.

We may have caught lightning in a bottle by collectively creating something that’s rare, if not wholly unique. Which is the whole point of playing D&D after all, right?

About a month ago, one of the BNP founders reached out on the staff Slack channel to ask if anyone knew of a space that was friendly to BIPOC D&D players. A small handful of us laughed because, little did he know, he helped indirectly create one. We told him about #runDnD and welcomed the friend he was asking on behalf of moments later.

In our latest attempt to expand the community, we just brought in a crop of brand new players a couple of weeks ago - my wonderfully nerdy girlfriend included - after they spent weeks obsessing over building their first characters. They were also in totally different parts of the country, and walked away wanting to enjoy even more of this game and culture they’d never interacted with just a few weeks earlier.

And I hope they’re just the latest of many groups to come.

About the Author

Keith Reid-Cleveland avatar

Keith Reid-Cleveland

Contributor

Keith is a writer and editor of many things with a huge focus on the different subgenres of nerd culture. You can find his latest work on Uproxx, Funimation and Black Nerd Problems, where he is also co-host of a weekly podcast. He's currently based on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois.

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