Set in 1995, She Kills Monsters practically smells of Lip Smackers and Mr. Sketch Markers, and the opening words of the narrator forbid you from forgetting the era: “In a time before Facebook, World of Warcraft, and Massive Multiplayer Online RPG’s, there once existed simply a game.” Dungeons & Dragons reigns as the supreme level of nerd-dom in fair Ohio where we lay our scene. The narrator continues with self-aware flippancy as they introduce us to “one of the rarest types of geeks,” who leads this particular session of the game. While Dungeon Masters (DMs for short, they are the game runners in Dungeons & Dragons) are a rare and fantastic subset of the human race; the rarity of this particular DM is that she is “without fear, prejudice, or a penis.” While being a piece so entrenched in 90s culture, and revolving around a considerably niche game, She Kills Monsters is a powerful testament to why we are drawn to storytelling.
While I am not a child of the 90s, I am a massive fan/semi-avid player of Dungeons & Dragons. And a female player at that. When I first picked up She Kills Monsters, I was expecting an unapologetically geeky comedy. I got so much more. The brilliance of this play is that it manages to capture what draws so many people to Dungeons & Dragons without, I think, alienating the people who have never played. The stigma surrounding D&D (though it is far from as intense as it may have been in the past) is that is is an incredibly odd thing that belongs only to outcasts. To quote Justin McElroy, a member of the popular tabletop game podcast The Adventure Zone, “I think for a lot of people Dungeons & Dragons was the last bastion of nerd-dom; the nerdiest thing you could do...And it was like, the failsafe, like, emergency, ‘well, at least I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons.’”
So it’s the nerds and outcasts who have been playing this game from the beginning. And for a lot of people, I can see why that wouldn’t make sense. The game isn’t appealing to everyone. And even if so, if you’re already a nerd and/or an outcast, why add such an embarrassing game to your list of hobbies? It sure doesn’t make sense to Agnes, the main character of the play, when she starts playing. But she continues on because the game is all she has in terms of learning more about her sister, Tilly, who died a year before. Despite the dice rolls and weird creatures, Agnes discovers the complexity of Tilly and Tilly’s friends. Through all of the nerdiness, Agnes experiences the stories and struggles of different people. And, in my experience at least, that’s what draws a lot of people to the game. At its core, Dungeons & Dragons is collaborative storytelling.
Qui Nguyen, the playwright, tells a fantastic story of one of the many reasons we are drawn to storytelling: to exist beyond ourselves and our circumstances. In the game, Agnes meets Tilly’s crew. Tilly herself is transformed into a kickass paladin named Tillius who vanquishes dark forces with ease. Lillith, a freely sexual demon queen, is later revealed to be the player character of Lilly, who was Tilly’s girlfriend and is still closeted. The third member of the party is Kaliope, “with her natural Elvin agility, athleticism, and ass-kicking abilities.” When Agnes meets the player behind Kaliope, it is revealed that Kelly (Kaliope) has cerebral palsy and uses crutches when she walks.
When Agnes asks her sister why this group plays Dungeons & Dragons, Tilly/Tillius says, “Because it’s awesome.” But she continues, “In some small teeny capacity, it might have a little to do with wish fulfillment. Kelly gets to walk without crutches, Ronnie [another player] gets to be super strong…” Nguyen represents the allure of escapism clearly in the players of this campaign. But storytelling is more than escapism; Nguyen makes this clear in the final conversation between the two sisters after the final boss fight.
Tilly asks Agnes if she had fun because “that’s the point in all this.” A necessity of a good story is that it is enjoyable, and when Agnes affirms that she did enjoy the game, Tilly turns to leave. Agnes stops her, not ready to say her final goodbye. Tilly’s response to this fear captures one of our greatest motivations behind storytelling: “But this story remains. And isn’t that all life is - a collection of stories? This is one of mine…” Other members of the party chime in and continue the explanation, “...and not just some story that I experienced like a party or a dance or an event, but something I dreamt -” “Something far more important than happenstance. This story came from my soul and by breathing life into it, who knows?” “Maybe a bit of my soul gets the chance to breathe for a moment once again.”
(Photo by Joan Marcus)