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

Welcome to the Dungeon

Plotting a different universe in their very own common rooms.
By Elyssa A. L. Spitzer

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.

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.

There are three primary aspects to character—race, character class, and alignment. Race is the choice among the dragonborn, dwarves, and Eladrin, among others. Character class determines whether a character is a cleric, fighter, ranger, or warlord. Alignment determines a character's moral compass, whether he is good or evil or someplace in between.

The game system of Dungeons & Dragons already has prefabricated character constructs. But each person adds his or her own touch, makes the character more what he or she wants the character to be.

Take Tanya’s character, for example. In the Dungeons & Dragons official player handbook, Paladins are described as “indomitable warriors who’ve pledged their powers to something greater than themselves.” They are in touch with religion and weaponry. So Tanya decided that her character, named Bjarngeir (Be-on-gear), would worship the goddess of plants.

Ian J. Storey ’12, a Quincy resident, is a Half-Orc Rogue name, a “sneaky stab you in the back pick locks type of guy,” according to Alessandro. Ian’s character is named Erran, pronounced like “Erin.”

Adam L. Swiatlowski ’12, or “Owen Renfield” as he is named in the game, is a human swordmage—a person who defends himself using magic that he channels through his sword. Adam’s house is, nearly eponymously, Adams.

John G. Marshall ’11, a Currier House resident and the oldest player in the game, chose to be a Deva Avenger, an immortal spirit created to serve the gods of good. To make his role more interesting—fighting for good is just too simple—John reflavored the Deva such that he is a human who has had an evil spirit ritually implanted in him. So though he is innately good, he is fighting an evil spirit that is now also part of himself. And because an Avenger is a holy fighter who smites evil in preemptive strikes, the Dungeons and Dragons version of the Bush Doctrine, John’s character is deeply conflicted internally. John showed up a game in a plaid shirt, eating a burrito. He’s tall and generally soft-spoken. In the game, he goes by Inigo.

Carl J. Engle-Laird ’12, a Quincy House resident planning to concentrate in English, is an Elf-wizard named Prometheus. Elf-wizards are wise creatures that “revere that natural world,” according to the D&D Player Handbook.

“You can’t really help but have your own character be part of the character you are in, I think,” Alessandro said. He and Betsy develop everyone’s characters, establish the intricate details about their past lives, but do not have their own roles. Instead they adopt mini-parts, necessary for the furthering of the plot.

Bella Wang ’12 of Mather House, plays a Human Cleric named Claire. She is pretty, in person and in character, true to her real-world name, and spends time fending off suitors, and saving her chastity.

Last is Nathaniel, who graduated last year as a statistics concentrator. He still lives in Cambridge and is looking for a job as a chef. He comes to the weekly meetings as an “NPC”—non-player character.

Basically, he makes cameo appearances in the plot when Betsey and Alessandro need another actor for a mini-plotline. In his first cameo, he played someone named Jonathan Finch who goes by Jonny Magic. As Alessandro describes Nathaniel’s character, he is “an arrogant bastard who is a wizard who works for the wizard guild.”


The game is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. in the evening, but really it won’t start until 6:30 p.m. or so. Alessandro arrives a few minutes before. Ian and Carl, fairly die-hard D&D enthusiasts, come soon after Alessandro. Tanya shows up last.

Alessandro—a super senior in Pforzheimer—and Betsy casually hold hands as they wait. The waiting, far from being dull or awkward, is jocular and full of anticipation. As people banter, Alessandro unfolds a square table and places it in the center of the room. East of the table is a small red couch—the type with no arms. North of the table is a futon covered with a sheet. Opposite the futon is the chair Betsy and Alessandro share—a fuzzy auborigine loveseat with arms of imposing breadth.

Atop the center table, now stable and in place, Alessandro unfurls an off-white grid placemat-ish thing, slightly larger than a chessboard. The placemat-ish thing is a map; it is a battlefield; it is a tent; it is whatever the Game Masters choose to make it with their dry erase markers. Indeed, if the real people are actors, playing their elves and orcs with convincing intensity, the placemat-ish thing is the stage. Over the course of the game it will serve as proxy for the characters. In fight scenes, rather than swinging real clubs at each other, the miniature cake that represents a character will be pushed forward two squares and knock the symbol for the attacked character to the right a few squares. The placemat-ish thing serves as the surrogate. It diffuses the tension. It allows for violence and war to ravage the group, while the real people stand around and laugh about the Oathblades they swing at each other.


Stereotypes hold that Dungeons & Dragons is played by dweeby computer kids with poor social skills. Supposedly, most players are male. As with most stereotypes, some of this is grounded in truth.

Ian and Carl need haircuts. Nathaniel wore a striped sweater the first week I watched the game; he wore the same sweater the second week. The humor of the group is hilarious to them but likely wouldn’t be so funny to others. (I didn’t laugh as hard as they did.)

“It’s more science kids than English kids,” says John T. Bestoso ’10, who is taking Applied Math 206, Engineering Science 154, Computer Science 141, and History of Science 100 this semester. John, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association (HRSFA) isn’t playing in Betsy and Alessandro’s game, but has played the game before, including on campus. “A couple years back, everyone [who played] was a math major. I don’t know why.”

But there are those who defy the stereotype. John Marshall is concentrating in Philosophy and contemplating a switch to English. And of the nine players in the room, a full third are female.

Alessandro acted in his high school plays, ran the 100 meter in high school track, ballroom danced at Harvard for three years, and is an all-around jolly guy whose chest hair protrudes from his open collar. Every time I have seen him, he has had a goofy, genuine smile. He says that there is no Dungeons & Dragons “type.” John agrees that there is no type, as do others. That said, I doubt there is much crossover between final clubs and the HRSFA e-mail list, which has upwards of 300 students on it.

HRSFA hosts all sorts of games and events. They have weekly meetings for kids who are into Magic cards, anime, Heroes, or even squirrel fishing. Dungeons & Dragons is just one facet of the fantasy gaming world.

But Dungeons & Dragons has a feel different from Magic Cards or Pokemon, according to those who play. In Magic Cards and many other fantasy games, there is no role-playing aspect. Yes, the player has strategy and fantasy, and what you are doing takes place in a realm other than the tabletop at which the player actually sits. But there are cards to guide you, and far less imagination is involved.

The major identifying feature of those who play Dungeons & Dragons, Alessandro says, is their “willingness to suspend disbelief.” To play best, one must be good as visualization, at making things that exist only in the mind become real. Because the game is so involved, so versatile, imagination is key. “You like to dig your fingers into a world and understand it,” Alessandro says of people who tend to play the game. But in terms of introverts and extroverts, players say there is no solid rule.


To counter these creative forces, to give direction to the wild imagination necessary for the game, Dungeons & Dragons has intensely detailed rules. Though parts of the game are conceptually simple—a person ascribes himself a character and acts as that character while going on a virtual adventure—the rules for how that adventure unfolds, what each character is allowed to do or say, and what each character knows about the plot is deeply complex. Indeed, the rules are so detailed that there are volumes of books explaining how to play.

The game is divided into two types of interactions—combat encounters and noncombat encounters. In noncombat encounters, characters talk, they politic, they determine where they should head for their next adventure.

Betsy leads the noncombat encounters. She thinks they are more fun. Alessandro leads the combat encounters, a whole other breed of play.

When in the midst of noncombat encounters, the players sit in their places. Tanya delicately eats her HUDS bagged lunch and folds the Saran wrap before putting it beside her on the couch. Carefully, she unscrews the top of her stainless steal thermos and pours hot water into the lid of the thermos, which serves the double function of a cup. Noncombat is generally relaxed, where dialogue is heavy, strategic, and goofy.

Betsy bounces around and enacts the drama that unfolds, miming stepping into a carriage, happily playing the sister of the assassinated competitor.

In combat encounters, however, the players stand. No one tells them to, and they do not do so in unison. But after a few moments of being in combat, all players are on their feet, peering down on the placemat-ish thing, excitedly rolling their dice and seeing how strong their attacks are.

Generally, a session of the game lasts for two or three hours. Unlike a game of Monopoly or Scrabble which last for a few hours in its entirety, a game of Dungeons & Dragons can last for years. Years. The game that Betsy and Alessandro lead began in September; they anticipate that it will continue for another year or two. “We have a long story to tell,” says Alessandro. So in selecting players for the game—more wanted to play than Betsy and Alessandro wanted to be in the group—Alessandro and Betsy looked to choose freshmen and sophomores so that they will be on campus for the entire duration of the game.

Alessandro, although a super-senior, says he is pretty set for a job in Cambridge once he graduates with a concentration in computer science at the close of this semester. Some people leave a session early, but they only do so if they have a legitimate conflict. Most stay the whole time; this is their Friday night fun. They players are not in costume. They wear what they were wearing during the day. There are many pairs of sneakers in the room, but not the athletic type. More the skater-boy type.

The pace of the game is slow. That is not to say dull—it certainly isn’t—but time moves differently while in session. If reality is the pace of a city, Dungeons & Dragons is the pace of somewhere rural and southern.

One reason the game moves at the somewhat halting pace that it does is that every move, every action, every piece of knowledge gained, is determined by rolling a die. Aside from the spontaneity that results when nine people sit together in a room, the game has the added dimension of chance. There are four-sided dice, six-sided dice, eight-sided dice, 10-sided dice, 12-sided dice, and 20-sided dice. All are rolled in different circumstances, and all are determinative.

Not much is necessary for playing D&D other than people and creativity. The dice, however, are absolutely essential to the game. Similar to real life, much is contingent on chance.


Though the Game Masters determine plot, the game is not a pre-determined script. “Let’s be serious,” Alessandro says. “We’re students. We don’t have time at all to come up with a plan.” He said it offhandedly as he was about to start running a session.

But the truth is, he and Betsy plan quite a bit. The banter and exact style of delivery may be unscripted, but the events, the encounters, the twists in plot—all of that is preplanned. The world of the Friday night game is the mythical Kingdom of Jynaria. Jynaria is peaceful, gourd shaped, and populated by dwarves to the north and humans to the south.

A salt-water sea, named Sea of Twin, rests at the intersection of the top and bottom portions of the gourd. The dwarves live in wooded, verdant forests to the north but do not need the lumber of their forests because they are born with magic forces that permit them to grow food and make torches, etc. without disrupting nature.

Thus, the humans to the south, who do need the lumber to do what the dwarves do with their powers, have established a peaceful trade relationship with them. Guarded by twin deities who together are a force for physical and mental purity, Jynaria is quite stable.

Jynaria was born in Betsy and Alessandro’s minds. They didn’t find Jynaria on a map, come across it in an old book, hear about it from a friend. It is purely theirs and purely mythical. The game begins at a tournament. The characters, sitting on the couches of Old Quincy, are assembled by a knight named Sir Henry to fight. The Queen of Jynaria is holding the tournament in order to find the kingdom’s strongest team. The team will be bestowed with the honor of exploring the Lands of Faerie. According to lore, there is great treasure in the Lands of Faerie, and the queen wants to find it for Jynaria.

However, the last time a group of explorers sought treasure for Jynaria—an exploration that takes place in Jynaria’s history, before the start of Betsy and Alessandro’s game—the explorers, including members of the royal family, died on the journey. So this time, the queen wants to find the strongest people in the land. The Game Masters direct the game, determine what obstacles the group will run into, decide which story arcs to put in play in a specific session and which to deemphasize.

According to Alessandro, two levels of planning go into the game—the macro and the micro; what will be done in a specific session, and how the events of that specific session fit into the overall movement of the game.

“On one level it’s save this village from bandits, and on another it is save the world—aliens are attacking!” Alessandro said.

In the first session of Betsy and Alessandro’s game—the two to emphasize that it is a game they share and direct together, in combination, with joint consultation and effort—the players met each other in character, entered the queen’s contest, and won the first round of the tournament.

Their opponents were “really likable and cool” and at the close of the game, they had all come to like the captain of the opposing team—a girl named Alina. But as they accepted their victory over the other team, Alina was assassinated. Sir Henry’s players did not know by whom she had been killed.

The second session began at the stadium prior to the team’s second round match. Alina’s sister Laura angrily accused Sir Henry’s team of assassinating her sister, and a member of the other team provided them with information.

The team processed the information and, as they left for their next match, were attacked by a demon. As a result of the attack Sir Henry’s team missed their second match and were nearly disqualified from the tournament.

But a very prominent wizard —Jonny Rocket, a patron of another competing team—got them back into the tournament and expected favors for his good deed. Among these favors were a date with Claire, the cleric, and transferring Adam’s character, Owen Renfield, a human swordmage, to fight on his team.

At end of the last session they left in a carriage to get information from an unknown party about the assassination. When they got out of the carriage Promethius was captured. Now they are fighting through the wizard’s guild to try to save him from his mysterious captor. The players are aware of only some of the happenings.

Behind all of the events are motivations that the players are not yet aware of and may not understand. Alessandro says all of the things that have happened so far are things that he and Betsy had planned. This is not to say that the individual characters don’t have agency; they absolutely do. “The things that get improvised are the details that make the world come alive.”


Developing the plot is not at all a methodical affair. Though each Game Master has his or her own way of coming up with the next events, Alessandro and Betsy say they tried to do their best to incorporate ideas from the players into the plot and the fantastical world.

Tanya the dwarf and Ian the orc, for example, both come from a western continent where there is a giant desert. The orcs are angry and firey and reside in the desert; the dwarfs, on the other hand, live in the dry, shady mountains and think that exposure to the sun will kill them. Because of their phobia of the sun, dwarves revere plants and the plant goddess because these living systems have the ability to live in the sun.

Though that logic may sound nuts to us, it makes sense—if you’re a dwarf. Tanya presented the above idea to Alessandro and Betsy while talking with them about her character over the summer—planning for the game has been in the works for months—and Alessandro and Betsy loved the idea. So they developed a socioeconomic logic based upon it. In their expansion of the idea, dwarves and orcs have a tenuous trade relationship in which the orcs produce “agriculture and kickass,” while the dwarves produce metal goods, according to Alessandro.

But the orcs and humans are fighting, and the dwarves are selling weapons to both sides of the battle. “This arms race is creating tensions between the orcs and the dwarves, who once were peaceful, and among the humans, who are sending propaganda back across the ocean against orcs,” Alessandro explained. If real nationalities replaced orcs and dwarves—as in the Cuban missile crisis, for example—the plot seems far less outlandish.


If video games can be isolationist, played alone with the company of just a computer screen and animated characters, Dungeons & Dragons is far from it. To those who congregate in Old Quincy every Friday night, it is quite social.

Around the Harvard campus, around the world, people get together to spend time with friends. Some drink while doing it, some watch football, some paint their nails together, some go for runs in groups, others just sit and chat. What they do in the group context is almost irrelevant, the important thing is that they are with their friends.

The group in Old Quincy, and any Dungeons & Dragons gaming group, is the same. Playing the game, though fun in itself, is also a form of socializing. The group clearly has fun together; their sense of humor is the same. They like to pun off the game rules, mock each other’s absurd character names—Tanya’s Bjarngeir is a group favorite—and speak really loudly to emphasize their points.

They are a tad awkward. But when they are all together in a room, me sitting to the side with my notebook, it is I who feel outside the loop. World of Warcraft is an online fantasy game. “For individuals who play World of Warcraft, there is a real sense of community, they get a real sense of connections,” says Sadie H. Cole, a Harvard psychology graduate student who researches social anxiety and internet gaming. “For people who might be shy, that community is really important to them, especially if they are not seeking that out in real life.”

Not all players of Dungeons & Dragons are shy. Alessandro isn’t, nor is Betsy. But some of the others, outside of the Dungeons & Dragons game session, very well may be. Nor are all players weird. But the stereotype of the game holds that they are, and the stereotype in some cases actually interferes with players lives external to Dungeons & Dragons. Alessandro’s friends don’t care that he plays.

To them it is either a fun, cool thing that he plays, or it is a kind of weird thing that he is into but they chalk it up to Alessandro being Alessandro, and they don’t tease him about it. However, another Dungeons & Dragons player, who wished to remain anonymous, is scared of what his friends would think if they knew he played.

“I’m not sure how they would feel about it actually,” he said. “It’s just considered geeky in the extreme. And I think that at some point there used to be cults based around it...They’d probably—I don’t really know. I think they would think it was a waste of time.”


The idea of role play is not so foreign to our cultural consciousness. We all love movies and plays, in which actors assume roles, the more completely and convincingly the better. We play doctor and house as kids. My sister was never ridiculed for having imaginary friends, named Tuna and Salmon, who interrupted family dinner on occasion by knocking on the front door—a sound only she heard.

At that age of development, in adolescence, imagination is a good thing. It is seen as creativity, experimentation. When Alessandro was younger, he says he was quite the daydreamer. “I was running around with a lot of imagination and needed something to do with it.” He never had imaginary friends or played with Magic cards, but from the age of four he created stories in his mind. But for some reason, role play is something we are expected to grow out of. “There is this idea that you shouldn’t play fantasy games after adolescence,” Cole said.

But she also said that she didn’t know from where that stigma stems. Not only is role playing a part of our every day lives—“I’m not the same person at home that I am when I see patient, when I teach”—but “wanting something different or more than what your actual life can offer” can be healthy. Dungeons & Dragons gives its players just that opportunity. “At a very base level, for those who play,” Alessandro says of the game, “it is just an extrapolation of playing pretend when you’re six.”

Playing Dungeons & Dragons is much like improvisational acting. “This person you are pretending to be—what is their body language, how do they talk, do they have an accent? What is their emotional make up?” Alessandro asks. “All of these considerations are exactly the same as considerations you would have if you were acting in a play.”

An additional appeal of role play is that people have the ability to assume powers that they never could have in reality. “Awesome is the word really,” John says of entering a fantasy world. “It’s not like I purposefully go to a science fiction and fantasy stuff in an effort at escapism like I think some people do.

But maybe an element of that happens anyway just because it is so clearly more exciting [than life].”


Right now, the players in the Quincy dorm room are upper teens, lower twenties, still in school (other than Nathaniel) still answering calls from their parents on Friday nights (Alessandro’s mom called in the middle of the second session), and are still young in many respects.

But to the players, the game has nothing to do with age or maturity level or station in life. The game is something that they say they will continue forever. Not far from the Yard, there is a world of people who are doing just that.

Afer getting off the T from Harvard Square, I asked a Cambridge Police Officer for directions to Pandemonium, Central Square’s gaming hub. “Hook a left past the 7-Eleven. You going to play Dungeons & Dragons or something?” I responded no, that I was going to write about it.

“You didn’t really look like a Pandemonium type of girl.” In the store’s basement, the stereotype of the Dungeons & Dragons player comes to life. The age of the average player looks to be over thirty, and he is probably someone you would not want to sit next to on the subway.

There is something slightly off-putting about the group, dressed for the most part in black shirts, faded from few too many washes but not washed recently enough. But these men say they see no reason ever to stop playing the game. Max LeBlanc, a balding, chubby, friendly man with glasses and a checkered shirt in the basement of Pandemonium, described the game as a way to see friends.

“It’s story telling,” he said. “It’s a kind of Odyssey.” It fulfills “the primal aspect of people—everybody just likes telling stories.” Alessandro expressed a similar sentiment. “It is always new, challenging,” he says. “Humanity has had oral tradition forever. This is but one manifestation of that.” And after all, “that’s what it’s about,” said Alessandro with a smile. “Making shit up.”