Late last year, I suddenly felt like I needed a break. Not a little one, either—I felt overwhelmed with responsibility for everything from taking care of my pets and family to texting friends to ask when everybody was available for our next D&D session.
All this happened alongside discussions in therapy about my intense need to be strong and capable and weather the world without asking for help. It’s a story I’d told myself and everybody else since I was a kid—that I was responsible for my own wellbeing and if I felt like I needed assistance, I was wrong and should just become stronger. You can imagine that, after 33 years, this story’s gotten a little old.
Around the time I decided to take a step back from responsibility (as far as I am capable of such a thing), I thought a lot about my tabletop characters, and how nice it is to play as well as GM. I thought about this series, and how I’ve wanted to write something for it since we first started it, but my characters don’t really give me any surprising strength or reveal some unfamiliar part of myself. They don’t make me feel empowered at all.
And I realized: of course they don’t. I have enough of that in real life. What they give me is a moment to be disempowered—to express my emotions as loudly and destructively as possible, to let other people take the reigns without resigning myself to uselessness, to be petty and neurotic and bratty. In these games about being the most powerful combatant ever to live, I’ve chosen to play one mess after another.
Ara was born from a brilliant concept: what if a half-orc had big arms because she was a baker?
I’d had the concept in my head for a while because I love a big-armed orc lady and because I like baked goods. I joined a Pathfinder game run by my friend and fellow Sidequest writer Cori, and we hashed out a fun (“fun”) little plot hook for her—one of the introductory enemies to the campaign used her as a scapegoat for his own smuggling operation, turning public opinion against her and burning down her bakery to boot.
Naturally, Ara was not pleased by this. But she’s a baker, not a fighter. What could she do with all that rage? Become a barbarian wielding a rolling pin as a greatclub, of course.
In these games about being the most powerful combatant ever to live, I’ve chosen to play one mess after another.
Because she’s accustomed to baking and not fighting, rage is something of a fugue state for Ara; she rages because she has to, because she has no appetite for violence and no talent for managing the anger inspired by corruption in her city. In this state, she hits things. She hits things with a ferocity that makes her sick when she comes out of rage. She doesn’t like the person she becomes, but she sees the necessity of it. Even now that her bakery is rebuilt and she’s recovering her reputation as a baker, she can’t leave behind the rage and the violence, not because she loves them, but because to do so would be to ignore the injustice that she knows she’s capable of stopping.
In this way, I’m not much like Ara, though I have been known to, without thinking, involve myself in a physical altercation if I feel like someone else is threatened. Nonetheless, playing as Ara lets me express the rage I feel about, say, a cleric charging an exorbitant fee for healthcare during an epidemic in a far more direct and antagonistic way than I would in real life. It’s freeing to be able to say, “I’m pissed off and I’m going to hit something about it.” In reality, I’d sit on my feelings, pick them apart, try to make them something I handle on my own so as not to inconvenience others.
Ara’s anger isn’t healthy. I don’t aspire to be someone who flies off the handle at the slightest provocation. I have, in fact, worked quite hard to quell the urge to lash out. But damn, it feels good to sometimes let that restraint go and be a slightly worse version of myself.
Hawthorne Odds was created out of necessity. I was running “The Thunderlock Barcrawl” out of Rolled and Told, a level one to three D&D adventure meant to introduce a new group of adventurers to the basic puzzle and enemy mechanics one might find in the average dungeon. Except my players kept dying. It being their first adventure, I didn’t want to punish them too harshly—I flubbed a roll here, let them find some health potions there—but still, every encounter proved too tough and I worried they wouldn’t make it through their first adventure without at least one character death. A good death can be narratively satisfying—a death at level one, with only the barest hint of a story, not so much.
Part of the problem was that they lacked a healer. Since everybody liked their characters and I didn’t want to ask someone to change halfway through a dungeon, I decided I’d play the healer myself. But this healer would have to be someone who wouldn’t be expected to take charge—as the DM, I had access to all the upcoming encounters, puzzle solutions, and so on. They’d need to be useful as a healer, but useless in every other role. A follower, not a leader.
Enter Hawthorne, a himbo cleric. His ability scores are just good enough to successfully heal, but not to solve any puzzles. He is perfectly content to hang out with his new friends and keep them alive. He has the spell “Hold Person” only because he mistakenly thought it was some kind of heal based on hugging. He is utterly, perfectly useless.
Because my players haven’t investigated much of his backstory, I can’t say too much about how he got into that dungeon or why he clings so much to this group of weirdos. But for me, the appeal is less about the amount of time I spent coming up with his powers and why he is the way he is and more about the fact that, as Hawthorne, I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to be clever or tricky. Hawthorne is completely guileless; he doesn’t cover up his emotions, he doesn’t have plans or ideas. He is simply content to hang out with his new friends without any reservations or concerns. His head is blissfully empty.
As the DM, this is practical—I can’t comfortably roleplay a character like Ara while also running the game. As a player, and as a person, this is a relief. I have set no expectations for myself, and nobody has expectations of me. If my players need a little nudge in the right direction, perhaps Hawthorne will, through a misunderstanding, make an observation that leads them toward the next objective. But more often than not, he is there to look pretty and heal people, and that is enough. What a relief it is to not strive to be good. Hawthorne doesn’t need to impress anybody—a lesson I would love to take into my real life.
To give me a break from DMing, the players of my group run short adventures between arcs of the longer one. The first of those adventures, a pirate ghost ship caper, was my first opportunity to really play a D&D character since college. I had a few concepts kicking around in my mind, but it was Abhi Arora, the bratty, flirty runaway prince, who felt right.
I just thought it would be fun to play out of my comfort zone. If I, Melissa, had ability scores, my highest would not be charisma; I’m good at communicating, not so much at flirting or being intimidating. But what a fun challenge! What a lark!
Except Abhi, runaway third son of a duke, didn’t spend much of his first adventure—one where he was whisked away to the pirate afterlife with a gang of people who only moments before had been interrogating him about the contents of his many fancy suitcases—being charismatic. I expected him to be a charming dipshit. In practice, Abhi is more like “oops! all neuroses!”
That, at least, is something I can identify with. It’s not surprising that a spoiled prince would turn into a quivering mess on his first adventure, which involved not only ghosts but (gasp!) filthy ghost rats and being shoved into sewer water. It was surprising how quickly the desperation I’d written into his backstory came to light.
Unlike me, Abhi has never doubted for a moment that he’s anything less than fascinating. His sense of self-consciousness comes not from a lack of self-esteem, but rather from being surrounded by talented, driven people and being just… sorta good at music and flirting. When faced with something that he can’t impress by playing a little tune at it or batting his (long and beautiful) eyelashes, Abhi won’t stop talking about it. He doesn’t care who he drags into an anxiety spiral with him, because his every material need has been catered to. Nobody’s ever told him he’s uninteresting or that his needs don’t matter.
Confronted with the concept of death for the first time in his life—Abhi wondered if he might already be dead, since he was hanging out in the pirate afterlife—he did not become stoic and resolute. He knocked on everyone’s bedroom doors as they were trying to sleep, begging for some reassurance that he was alive. He didn’t get it, and in fact dragged at least one other PC into his existential crisis with him.
I’m an anxious person. You could figure that out within three minutes of meeting me. But rarely do I want to trouble anybody else with my problems—I know I have anxiety, and I know that many (uh, most) of my fears are irrational. If I suspected I might be dead, I would keep that feeling to myself and tell people that I’m anxious for an unspecified reason.
Abhi doesn’t have those hangups. I don’t want to be like Abhi, who doesn’t hesitate to voice his frustrations because he’s used to having other people fix things for him. He’s never had to be strong. Maybe that’s something he’ll learn as I play him more, but for now he’s a cowardly little weakling who can’t keep his mouth shut about being wet and cold and dirty. While I certainly don’t envy his circumstances, I might, just a little, wish I had the assuredness to talk about my feelings and fears without assuming I’m being a burden by doing so.
Abhi—all of these characters, really—are indulgences. Sometimes they’re indulgences in my most destructive desires, the ones I keep a tight lid on. Sometimes they’re an indulgence in being another person for a while—a person who isn’t bogged down by the need to be perceived as capable or strong.
Mechanically, D&D (and Pathfinder, though I know significantly less about running that one) is a game about accruing power to fight increasingly large and harrowing enemies. Min-maxing, or optimizing your character to cast stronger spells and hit harder, is expected and arguably encouraged. You’re playing a power fantasy in which you grow appreciably stronger and never backslide.
But for me, a person who overburdens herself as a lifestyle (and with an affinity for playing D&D against the grain), it’s more fun to create characters who aren’t very good at things, whose emotions and impulses get them into trouble. Pretending I’m strong and capable of anything is what I do all day; for me, the (dis)empowerment fantasy is indulging in pettiness, brattiness, helplessness. Maybe someday my characters will grow out of their sometimes infuriating habits, but for now, they’re a pleasant escape from the story I’ve told myself my entire life. Even if I don’t want to become any of these people—even Hawthorne, who is a Good Boy but who almost died after being dared to eat murderous cheese dip—there is something to be said for letting myself speak my negative feelings aloud or just entirely relinquish responsibility. I don’t want to be them, but maybe playing at being a bit worse is a good way to make myself a bit better.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.