Welcome to the Dungeon

While reality reigns all too often at Harvard, the underground world of Dungeons & Dragons takes on the territory of the imagination.


One team of undergrads mentally recharts the territory of a Harvard dorm

Dungeons & Dragons. The name invokes basements and chains, medieval turrets, and mythical creatures. It sounds like the type of thing social misfits with headgear and B.O. would play in their mothers’ basements. It is the name of “the game.”

Developed in the 1970s before the days of computers and Play Station, Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game. Real people develop characters and, under the direction of the Game Master(s), enact an adventure. They fight to save a princess from a tower; they defend their kingdom from the ogres; or, in a more modern plotline, they seek out the robots who have blocked the oil pipeline to their village.

There are no computer screens or props, no costumes or weaponry. The game is one of imagination. Once the game begins, a player is no longer himself; he is his character. What he says and does reflects not on the student who walks around Harvard’s campus, sleeps and eats in Pforzheimer, and concentrates in Computer Science. What takes place once the game is in session is part of another world—a world that exists only in the minds of the players.


It is a Friday night, and Elizabeth “Betsy” C. Isaacson ’12 of Mather House leads a game in Old Quincy. She and her real-life boyfriend Alessandro La Porta ’09 run this game together as Game Masters, co-writing the plotlines for the weekly gatherings of eight Harvard students and one alum.


Making Believe

Making Believe

Betsy generally speaks fast, too fast, almost. She fiddles with pens or anything nearby, really. But when Betsy is in character, she speaks slowly, pensively, with intent. She leans forward and scrunches her eyebrows together. What she says carries weight in the imaginary universe of Dungeons & Dragons, and the players in the game listen closely.

“You are walking out of the stadium, and the crowd is gathered at the exit, murmuring. Suddenly, a girl in tattered robes appears and says, ‘Do you really think, Sir Henry, that this is the proper way to win the tournament?’” Betsy kneels.

One player replies viciously, on behalf of the group: “What are you implying? Please leave.” Betsy is enacting Laura, the sister of Alina, who had just been assassinated. Sir Henry’s team is not responsible for Alina’s murder. Laura, as played by Betsy, however, thinks that it may be.

“Fine,” Betsy-as-Laura says, after another player convinces her that Sir Henry’s team was not responsible for her sister’s murder. “Will you come back to my tent with me?” Presumably, she seeks additional information from the team.

The moment is intense. Betsy is a convincing actress, as she quickly jumps into character when the game begins. But when she asks the team to come back to her tent, Nathaniel A.B. Jack ’09, a graduate who returns to campus for the Dungeons & Dragons game, bursts in with the utmost maturity: “Bom-chica-wow-wow!”

The spell is broken. The group laughs, cracks a few more jokes, and then returns to the game.


When playing the game, you are someone you are not. Tatyana “Tanya” V. Avilova ’13—a freshman player in the band—vanishes as soon as the session begins. Her blond hair grays; her flushed checks sprout a long beard, braided in an elaborate chain. Her height shrinks to a mere 4’ 3”. Her otherwise sweet voice becomes heavy and gruff.

Tanya selected her character, a Paladin Dwarf. She sketched his every detail into her notebook. She assigned his strength in diplomacy, endurance, and insight.

In the game, who your character is determines all. It determines who your friends are—in the virtual world, of course—what your strengths are, whether you worship a goddess or believe in the power of rationality, whether you fear water or heights, or embrace nature and its extremities.


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