JOURNAL EXCERPT: ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ Offers Musicians a Multiverse of Creativity
Rhett Miller with a Dragon Wyrmling figurine. (Photo courtesy of Rhett Miller)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is from our Winter 2020 print issue, “All Together Now.” You can read the whole story — and much more — in that issue, available here. And please consider supporting No Depression with a print or digital subscription for more roots music journalism, in print and online, all year long.
Stout of body and of spirit, mountain dwarf Kimathi Stormhollow is content with his life in the mines until he’s sent to investigate rumors of a dragon cult that might threaten his clan’s remote enclave. In his travels through dangerous lands and ravaged villages, Stormhollow finds that a group aiming to return a fearsome five-headed dragon to power does indeed exist, and is bent on overtaking anyone standing in their way. But he falls in with a hardy group of adventurers taking a stand against the evil sweeping across the land, and that’s where the real adventure begins.
Determining the fate of Kimathi Stormhollow are two things: the roll of a 20-sided die, and the decisions of Tom Morello and his friends seated around a table to play Dungeons & Dragons.
Morello, best known as guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, is one of millions of people worldwide who play the fantasy-themed tabletop role-playing game. Led by a Dungeon Master who narrates the action and leads the group, or party, through the campaign, players adopt the persona of a character — Morello’s mountain dwarf, for example — and move together through magical forests, icy caves, haunted castles, any setting the imagination can build.
At nearly every turn, players must decide on an action to take, and that’s where dice come in. Roll high enough relative to the situation or opponent’s statistics and the intended action succeeds. If the roll falls short, however, an arrow might miss its target, a trap might be overlooked, or a player might talk their way into trouble instead of out of it.
Many discover the game in their teen years, finding in it a few regularly scheduled hours of freedom, autonomy, and a chance to shape their identity however they please, free of judgment or real-world consequences. In recent years, however, some of those teen warriors, now adults, have returned to the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse, joining an influx of first-timers who have found a new cool cachet to the game thanks to pop culture placement in shows like Stranger Things, memes referencing the range of character alignments (chaotic evil, lawful good, etc.), and a hit web series on Twitch called Critical Role.
Among the returning players are musicians like Morello, who have reconnected with the game’s boundless creativity and offer of a few hours’ escape from a stressful real world. On tour buses and in green rooms, online or in person when they can grab time between travel and shows, musicians find a different way to work magic and tell stories through Dungeons & Dragons.
A Continued Adventure
Before he was in Rage Against the Machine, before guitar playing took over, Tom Morello was a kid playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends.
His first foray into the world of fantasy was through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books. Through those books, he recalls, “I was transported to this other world. And I didn’t want it to end when the story ended, and Dungeons & Dragons was a way to sort of continue adventuring.”
From age 15 until around 19 or 20, Morello immersed himself in stories involving orcs, elves, and other beings familiar to fantasy readers, battling a whole range of fearsome creatures within storylines that could match or even surpass Tolkien in complexity.
Before long he took the role of Dungeon Master for his friends, and opted to forgo the pre-written stories published for Dungeons & Dragons in favor of his own world-building within the D&D multiverse.
“I would create everything from absolute scratch,” Morello says, recalling whole villages with fully designed layouts and buildings, each populated by distinct, fully thought-out characters his game players might or might not encounter. “Between 15 and 20, I spent more time creating Dungeons & Dragons worlds than I’ve ever spent playing guitar in my entire life,” he adds with a laugh. “I was deeply immersed in the creating of these worlds. And also, one of the things that I differed with in the world of traditional fantasy role-playing, where it’s all about sort of kings and queens and knights, my games even then had sort of a social justice aspect. It was a little bit more like overthrowing the monarchy and sort of a Robin Hood element rather than the traditional ‘What can we do serve the king?’”
As often happens when the teen years give way to new passions and adult responsibilities, Morello left D&D behind, a break that lasted 32 years. He recently found his way back when he thought his elementary-aged kids might like to try it out, and he started a game for them and some of their friends.
“The neighborhood kids needed a Dungeon Master to start a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. One man raised his hand. #CommunityService,” he tweeted, along with a photo of some D&D reference books, handwritten character stats, and, of course, a set of polyhedral dice.
That tweet caught the attention of True Blood actor and Dungeons & Dragons superfan Joe Manganiello, and he invited Morello to join the long-running game he hosts from the basement of his Beverly Hills home. In time, Morello added some of his own friends to that party, which now includes actor Vince Vaughn, Game of Thrones co-creator D.B. Weiss, wrestler The Big Show, and several others who join when their work schedules permit.
Playing D&D as an adult is different from playing as a kid in a lot of ways. Most of the people in Manganiello’s game, like Morello, had played as kids but took a few decades off to establish careers and start families. But Morello says that returning to it with richer life experiences adds to the magic.
“Now they’re bringing all of their intellectual gifts and their artistic, acting abilities,” he says of his fellow adventurers, “[and] there’s a level of financial freedom to make the dungeons and whatnot in a way that we only dreamed of when we were kids.”
A Cultural Phenomenon
By the time Decemberists multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk first tried Dungeons & Dragons, just a few years after Morello did, the game had turned into a very big deal.
“It was a cultural phenomenon — there was a cartoon on television,” he recalls. “It was everywhere, at least in the suburban purview.”
Despite feeling he was the target demographic (he likens himself to the young friends on Stranger Things: “I was exactly that age. I was exactly that kid,” he says with a laugh), he and his friends found the game too complex in those days, and they didn’t stick with it for long.
As the game found its legs and legions of players, Dungeons & Dragons publishers — Gary Gygax’s company Tactical Studies Rules until 1997, and then current owner Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro — made updates to the rule books and some game mechanics. Funk tried sporadically in college and adulthood to get back into it, but it wasn’t until D&D’s fifth edition, launched in 2014 with the aim of streamlining gameplay and making the game more accessible to beginners and casual players, that he found a good fit. Now, he says, “I’m playing more than I’ve ever played,” with two ongoing campaigns, one that includes his Decemberists bandmate Colin Meloy.
The collaborative spirit and open world of Dungeons & Dragons appeal to Funk’s creative side, and playing through a campaign feels a lot like another creative outlet he’s familiar with.
“There’s a lot of moments when you jump in and make it your own, be creative with other people — it’s like being in a band,” he says. “There are these give-and-go moments where you get to step forward and do something, and then you have to know when to step back and let somebody else do something and keep this thing moving forward.”
Suddenly There Is Something
As a teenager in Dallas, Texas, Rhett Miller, now the frontman for Old 97’s, saw a lot his peers on track for a life that didn’t hold much appeal for him.
“You can be the golf-playing son of a Dallas businessman and you’re fast-tracked toward the life of a being in a fraternity and then eventually taking over some gas business. … I didn’t understand that world, I never connected with that track,” Miller says.
But he found kindred spirits in what he calls the “artsy nerds,” many of whom played role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.
“That kind of world-building lends itself to so much laughter and camaraderie,” he explains, “because it’s all about ‘Well, this is what I like,’ and ‘Oh, well now I’m going to make fun of what you like,’ and together we’re going to build this really sweet, funny, hilarious world.”
For Miller and his friends, that world took shape in a Dallas rec room, usually on Fridays from the time school let out until 4 a.m. or so. As an adult, his D&D sessions are more frequently on Zoom, and rarely do they turn into all-nighters. Most of the friends he plays with are dads, he says, and include some of his same co-adventurers from high school as well as Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea and writer Owen King, son of Stephen King. Lately he’s been making plans to nurture a new generation of players, namely his 16-year-old son (who Miller says “has roasted me mercilessly for years about my role-playing gaming”) and his son’s girlfriend, who has expressed an interest in the game.
Miller is also responsible for roping members of Turnpike Troubadours into D&D when he ran a game for them during a tour together in 2017. That campaign, just a few sessions with pre-generated characters that let the newcomers jump right in and work together to clear out a dragon that had taken up residence in a mage’s tower, reminded Miller of what he loves about both music and D&D in the first place.
“The thing that drew me to music was the collaborative element,” he explains, “the idea that we support each other, we are all in this because we love music and we love making music and the idea of creation — there is nothing and then suddenly there is something. To me, that was really reminiscent of the thing that drew me in to Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a collaborative storytelling game, and that’s what music is. It’s ‘We’re telling a story together.’ ‘We are coming together to make something that didn’t exist before and we’re building a world and …it gets to be as stupid and as funny and as scary as we want.’”
Creating Something Together
There are plenty of parallels between role-playing in a game and playing a part, literally and figuratively, in a band.
“The most obvious thing they have in common is it’s a collaborative, creative endeavor with people who often find themselves together from diverse backgrounds, and you’ve got to find a way to make it work both in the party setting, as your characters, and in the human setting, the people sitting around the table,” Morello says.
A successful D&D party, like a successful band, tends to be open to a wide range of ideas from its members and able to compromise its way through disagreements to reach a common goal.
In both settings, “there’s a lot of diplomacy that has to happen,” Funk says. As you go, you gain experience in getting along with people and creating something together, and the key is “learning when to step back and learning when to step forward.”
Read the full version of this story — and lots of other great reads — in our Winter 2020 journal, available for purchase in print and digitally. Click the cover image below for a table of contents and ordering info: