The role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has finally been making its way into the larger culture in a salutary way. While any number of fantasy universes drawing inspiration from the game have been depicted, to the extent they touch on the experience of role-playing itself they tend to lean heavily on in-jokes or camp. As a result, even when they are good, the larger relevance is more limited. She Kills Monsters escapes that trap, as did two episodes of Community and an element within an episode of IT Crowd before it. Iâd affirm positive reviews from Michael Poandl of DC Metro Arts and Peter Marks of the Washington Post that the play does a good job of sticking to its emotional core in a way that transcends any particular fandom. Critically, the play avoids wallowing in either nerd self-pity or triumphalism. It is true that âsome rudimentary knowledge of D&Dâ would help, but frankly if you lack it and are curious at all, this is a great way to explore it. If anything, a lack of knowledge of 1990s culture might prove more challenging than a lack of familiarity with role-playing games.
Questing to better know the sister she lost
She Kills Monsters (written by Qui Nguyen, directed by Randy Baker) focuses on two sisters, Agnes (Maggie Evans) and Tilly (Rebecca Hausman), separated by about ten years and by Tillyâs death, a tragic accident described in the prologue. Agnes is explicitly quite an average person and teacher at the high school Tilly and her friends attended while Tilly is described as that uncommon jewel for the time of a female player and dungeon master, not to mention one of extraordinary ability. Agnes finds a module that Tilly wrote and goes to seek out someone to run it with. She finds Chuck (Robert Pike), a one time compatriot of Tillyâs whose skill at running the game is only somewhat undercut by his mild lechery and difficulty describing his platonic relationship with an older woman.
The staging is clever, bringing in the excitement of fantasy conflict (chorography by Casey Kaleba) while staying grounded in the emotions of the players. The set itself is fantastic, various real world and fantasy locations rest at the edges while the core is a game world map with hexagons of various elevations standing in for terrain. While in a sense, Chuck portrays all the non-player characters, in actuality each role has its own actor, or troop member in the case of the monsters. However, he still has sidebars with the characters, interacts with other people in Agnesâs life, and sometimes intercedes to explain a role playing choice, noting that there is some improvisation involved when defending Lilthâs (Emily Kester) line that violence makes her hot. The underdressed demon queen Lilith is one of the party written into the module, along with dark elf Kaliope (Tori Boutin) who has a Vulcanâs relationship to emotions, and slacker king of the underworld Orcus (Lous E. Davis) who is one of several reliable sources of comedy in the proceedings. Tilly herself has a self-insert character in her module, Tillius, the powerful and storied paladin and driving force behind the quest.
A surprisingly plausible campaign
Any role-playing gamers in the audience by now may have noticed that the module Tilly wrote violates any number of rules of good adventure writing by making the player character a sidekick to her favorite heroes. However, bad design can be good drama and this module was probably only intended for Agnes anyways. More important, Agnes increasingly drives the action as the story gets further along and she has to confront Tillyâs demons and her own. It should also come as no surprise that game mechanics donât feature that much in the play - a key battle is resolved in an entirely improvised manner - but to me it all felt quite authentic. This is the story of a player who despite her newness was entirely willing to buy in and a skilled dungeon master collaborating with an author to give her the sometimes harsh story she needed.
Iâd endorse this without reservation for role playing game fans, their curious friends and family, and anyone just curious. While the tale is heavy at times, the comedy also helps carry it through. This certainly wonât be starting a new subgenre; the setup is ingenious but also very specific to this tale. Instead, it addresses one particular part of the human condition: how games can both help us escape reality and how they can help us face it.
Image credit: Promotional photos from Rorschach Theater Company.