How Dungeons & Dragons Helped Me Escape a Cult - Nerdist
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How Dungeons & Dragons Helped Me Escape a Cult

A country girl moves into a dorm… This isn’t a YA novel, or a TTRPG campaign, or a horror movie. She isn’t an Ordinary High School StudentThis is how I learned to be a real person, and how Dungeons & Dragons helped.

I am 17 in my first semester, my birthday three months behind me. I’ve only had homeschooling. My hair, uncut for 13 years, reaches somewhere between my knees and my calves. I’ve only been allowed to wear pants for a little over a year.

I grew up in a cult, but at that moment, I had no context to know this. Our situation was similar to the Duggar family, but even more insular. Five years later, when I try to watch their first show, I have to turn it off. I didn’t realize until years later that I was close to an anxiety attack. My parents were part of the Quiverfull movement. I spent the first 17 years of life serving as a surrogate parent to my siblings, preparing to be a “helpmeet” to my future husband. College is a path to earning my keep until I find him and become a stay-at-home mom.

When I move into the dorms, I leave a life where everything was decided for me. I step into a hypothetical adulthood I have no idea how to navigate. I’ve been told what to wear, what to say, what to think, who I am, for my entire life. And now there’s just me. Whoever she is.

Forming the Party
A wizard on the cover of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition cover
TSR, Inc.
On a cool fall Saturday during my freshman year, I bike back to campus after waitressing. My new friends are going to teach me to play Dungeons & DragonsI know my parents and most Evangelicals feel that D&D is a gateway to sin, at best. At worst, it’s a path to demonic possession and eternal damnation. Honestly, that’s part of the appeal.

I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and science fiction. Most of my childhood punishments were because I read “inappropriate” books. The best thing about college, even better than controlling my own schedule and life, is not having to hide the things I love. 

I find Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition overwhelming and deeply confusing. So many choices go into creating a character, and no one tells me which ones are right. What class should I play? And what equipment will I need? How do I allocate my stat points without making myself vulnerable to damage? And the struggle doesn’t end with character creation. I don’t know how to make choices that move the game forward, so my character takes a bath in a stream instead of investigating the plot hook. I remember the bath, not the other details, because I’m the butt of “friendly” jokes about it for years.

It’s a rocky start. Sitting in a battered dorm common room, I can’t know these hours are the first of many, the first steps on a path to finding myself. The first pencil marks on my personal character sheet.

Adventure Awaits
Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Players Handbook cover

Wizards of the Coast

I never get comfortable with 2nd Edition (don’t talk to me about THAC0). But 3rd Edition, released shortly after that first session, is my gateway system. With every character, I become more confident in my choices. I fill in more of my character sheet. What if I play a melee fighter instead of someone who attacks at range? Do I like being a big, muscled tank? A small, inconspicuous (but still deadly) rogue?

Then I buy my own dice, brightly colored shapes that I like better than the drab monochrome I borrowed from my (almost exclusively male) friends. I discover my own priorities and practicalities, not those of my friends. Campaigns of varying complexity let me practice analysis, problem-solving, and unusual solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my childhood programming toward self-denial and service, I develop a lifelong preference for healer classes. But I do it on my own terms, while protecting myself.

The learning doesn’t stop with D&D. Mage: The Ascension and other World of Darkness systems give me a chance to practice making choices when the rules aren’t as rigid. Their settings feel closer to actual life. Traditions, Werewolf Tribes, and Vampire Bloodlines character classes all help me learn a little more about myself. Kind of like a wider-ranging personality test.

I explore a love of sensuality and abandon through the Cult of Ecstasy, play a Verbena to rediscover connection with nature. The Sons of Ether let me be the inventor mechanic that, as a girl, I was told I couldn’t be. As a Virtual Adept, I lean into my knowledge of current technology to imagine a more magical future. All of them teach me what my upbringing, my programming hid from me.  I can make choices; I can mistakes, and learn to fix them, without destroying everything.

I can be imperfect. And I get to choose.

Leveling Up
An elf in World of Warcraft

Blizzard

Marriage seems like another step, another moment of growing away from my childhood. My new husband is nothing like my father, and our early married life is much like college. We play Dungeons & Dragons and watch nerdy movies with friends. Then we start playing World of Warcraft. Even when I quit grad school, undiagnosed anxiety and ADHD finally catching up with me, it seems that not much has changed. The adventures are still there.

I don’t realize I’ve taken on almost sole responsibility for planning and making meals, laundry, and cleaning. That along with working full-time hours. When my husband’s anxiety leads to him quitting grad school, I support him, emotionally and financially, as he tries and quits jobs. Helping him find a job he can keep goes on my to do list, part of my everyday campaign objectives. Prioritize. Strategize. Problem-solve. I graduate, get a job. Move us to another state, help him find jobs. I do what I was taught a wife does. 

And after our children are born, I do what a mother does. Whatever needs to be done—for everyone else.

The End?
Dice with dandelion seeds inside

Cozy Gamer Shop (Photo: Kelly Knox)

I don’t know when or where my next game will be, but the dice are ready for me. A reminder, and a promise. This character sheet, this campaign, are the ones I’m writing, eyes open. I know who I am, and I get to choose.

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