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Seeking Solace in the Fantastical Adventures of Dungeons and Dragons

Contrary to popular belief, Dungeons and Dragons isn’t just a geeky hobby, to me, it's a form of “group therapy” that is slowly taking shape in Vietnam, bringing fun and memorable bonding moments to the tabletop.

Back in mid-August, life under Directive 16 as a recent graduate was a mix of fear, anxiety, and boredom for me. Everyone tried to endure the situation differently: maybe pick up a new hobby, learn a new craft, or try out new recipes. I did not expect myself to suddenly become immersed in the Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) scene in Vietnam, though it certainly helped abate the anxiety of living in a global pandemic.

Image by Wizard of the Coast via Kotaku.

It started with a typical video call with friends, something I had become accustomed to doing every night since the lockdown started; we chatted about random topics and sometimes streamed games. Tabletop gaming came up one night, as I learned that some of my friends were in the middle of preparing for their third playthrough of DnD — a game that I didn’t think would be available in Vietnam. I immediately asked to join, not knowing that I would get sucked into its wondrous world, something that I suspect will probably entertain me for years to come.

Dungeons & Dragons, a collaborative storytelling experience

To some communities outside of Vietnam, DnD is a classic game night staple enjoyed by many, young and old. But for those who are not familiar, especially here in Vietnam, this genre of board games is still a novel concept.

Image courtesy of Empire Capital Shop.

First introduced by American game publisher Tactical Studies Rules in 1974, the game was later acquired by Wizard of the Coast in 1997, and with numerous updates since, Dungeons & Dragons is now on its fifth edition. While not technically the first Tabletop Role-playing game (TRPG) in existence, it was the first of its kind to become a popular phenomenon among the geek community. The game went on to codify tropes and game mechanics that we now see in modern video games, TRPG, and the fantasy genre as a whole. When someone asks about the genre, DnD would be the first thing that comes to mind for many people, even for non-players.

DnD is not just a game, but also a collaborative storytelling experience. The game usually consists of four to six players controlling their characters through grand-scale adventure guided by the game’s Dungeon Master (DM), a game organizer who constructs every single detail that will happen through the game, and also narrates the player’s journey, guiding them towards their goal (or uncertain doom).

A vast array of dice and character sheets are needed for a DnD game. Photos by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

Each player fills in the character sheet prior to playing, writing down whom they want to be in the game. There are many options in terms of character customization, each with their own benefits and disadvantages, but two of the most major decisions participants will have to make are their characters’ race and class. As of this writing, there are 47 playable races and 13 different classes, each with a distinct playstyle that can be customized and specialized even further down the road.

Gameplay-wise, DnD is a journey of listening and reacting. The DM leads the story and describes everything that is happening around players, and role-plays as side characters, from lowly villagers giving players quests to the main antagonist of the campaign that players will have to defeat to win the game. Players will then react with an action based on story events. Some actions, particularly those that require a character’s skills and knowledge, will require either the DM or players to roll the dice, of which there are six types that are used across the game for a variety of purposes, differentiated by how many sides they have. A usual set of dice is composed of a D4, D6, D8, D12, D20 and a pair of D10 (a four-sided die, six-sided die, and so on).

Photo by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

Untethered from the rigidity of limited game design, creativity is the genre’s strongest point. Players are free to do anything they can imagine, and DMs will usually go with the flow and build up the overall plot as they go. Together, everyone contributes to an ever-developing story that can last for tens, if not hundreds of afternoons. This makes DnD, and the entire TRPG genre itself, stand out among others board games, many of which are designed to be fast-paced, quickly finished in a single session, and have a self-contained story prewritten by developers with little need for additional input from players.

Fantastic Dungeons and Dragons and where to find them

The modern-cafe-meets-tavern vibe of The Guild. Photo by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

Meet The Guild, one of the few board game cafes in Saigon that host DnD sessions on a weekly basis, aiming to provide a true DnD experience to veterans and newcomers alike.

Nami, one of The Guild’s founders, is herself an avid board game connoisseur. She is dedicated to promoting DnD alongside a healthy selection of other tabletop games to players of all ages. The cafe has a group of experienced DMs who often host one-shot and multishot game sessions throughout the week.

The Guild's fantasy-themed decorations. Photos by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

As the genre is still relatively new in the country, DMs at The Guild put a lot of effort into explaining the game’s mechanics to all newcomers. Usually, for newbies, there will be a short meeting called “session zero” that serves as an icebreaker for the group, as well as an introduction to the gameplay. As they play, more and more mechanics will slowly be introduced and players are encouraged to ask any questions they have, so they don’t feel the pressure to absorb everything before playing.

DnD in session. Photo courtesy of The Guild.

The Guild is still first and foremost a board game café. Besides DnD, there are also a variety of other tabletop games, from casual card games to complex tabletop wargames. Interestingly, despite sharing the same setting as table-top games, avid DnD players and tabletop enthusiasts are two different demographics.

Mentions of board games in Vietnam might evoke images of teenage or kid players, but the demographics of local DnD players might surprise you. Lý Hồ Tuấn Anh, a representative of Empire Capital Shop (ECS), one of the few official distributors in the country that sells DnD materials, says of his clientele: “From English-language teachers at centers to Vietnamese secondary students, many have contacted ECS asking about DnD. Interestingly, there are young parents looking for games they can use to both play and teach their kids.”

Adapting to the pandemic

Starting a campaign in the middle of a pandemic presents some physical challenges. It’s obvious that in-person meeting was impossible, so our group had to make do with digital tools.

Over the years, the modern DnD experience has become more accessible with virtual tabletop platforms like Owlbear Rodeo or Roll20, where players and DMs converse through Discord. There are many online tools to help with the gaming experience like a dice simulator, currency calculator, and more. Even our character sheets were made in spreadsheets with prebuilt formulae for stats calculation, streamlining the character creation process by a very wide margin. Of course, not everything has to be entirely digital, some of our members still enjoy rolling the physical dice themselves for a more authentic experience.

An online DnD session on Owlbear Rodeo. Image courtesy of Phạm Trung Hiếu.

What’s truly fun is how each participant’s personality contributes to the game’s atmosphere. Maybe you’re roleplaying as an elf who tries as much as he can to be a pacifist in a cruel, unforgiving world; or maybe your partner-in-crime is a total newbie, whose thirst for combat compels him to nudge every single decision towards violence. Maybe said partner-in-crime “accidentally” commits 3rd-degree murder during a bar brawl by throwing a chair too hard at some innocent drunkard, so now the party has to plan a rescue operation for the partner, now on death row. All of this might happen while everyone argues about moral philosophy with the pacifist elf, who’s now suggesting that the party leave him to his death, as atonement for his crime. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, our DM finds amusement in every bad decision we make, but that’s what makes DnD games a joy to play.

“I have met some DMs who have taken inspirations from Vietnamese history and woven them into the world or its characters. Many players also like to use Vietnamese names for their characters, even bringing ‘trà đá, mì tôm’ [iced tea, instant noodles] into the story,” Tuấn Anh, who runs the game shop, recalls.

Some illustrated player avatars of my Dnd group. Illustrations by polygon-draws on Tumblr.

In the middle of a lockdown that kept us all downhearted, weekly DnD sessions were one of the few rays of sunshine that I looked forward to during those tumultuous months. Even after a session ended, we reminisced about the game for days after on the group chat. The feeling is mutual for players at The Guild. “It’s not rare that members in a group will spend 1–2 hours after to talk about everything that has happened,” Nami shares. Something about the game’s collaborative, role-playing and bond-building nature was therapeutic for my mental health.

“It’s the freedom and the feeling of roleplay. There are no invisible walls to stop you from jumping over a fence, no NPCs [non-player characters] that you can’t talk to, or even rob or steal from. Anything that you can imagine, it can all happen in the world of DnD, here and now,” she adds.

The community in Vietnam

Board games as an entertainment medium enjoy great popularity in Vietnam. The community for DnD and its genre, on the other hand, is still nascent, with only a few defining moments in recent years. One of such was getting an official distributor in the form of Empire Capital Shop back in 2019. Still, the considerable barriers to entry have kept DnD from attaining the prevalence of games like The Werewolves of Millers Hollow (Ma Sói), Uno or Monopoly.

Board games create great opportunity to expand one's social circle and make new friends. Photos courtesy of The Guild.

The most major hurdle for many local newcomers is that the game demands a lot from players, not in a monetary sense, but knowledge. “The first phase of reading game lore, character creation, and stat allocation can be a challenge for some, because it takes a lot of time and there are many new keywords that they must learn,” Nami explains. “Besides, the game rules and the sheer amount of English are difficult for people who are just learning about DnD.”

To provide context, the Starter Set’s rulebook is about 32 pages long, written for players who want to do a quick game, while the Player’s Handbook — the “Bible” of DnD and the only thing players need to play seriously — has a staggering 320 pages. That’s not accounting for other extra materials that Wizard of The Coast has published throughout the years. Sadly, there’s no official effort to localize content for the Vietnamese market.

Image courtesy of Empire Capital Shop.

Another problem with DnD in Vietnam is finding friends to play with, a simple requirement that might be taxing for the socially anxious when the community is already limited in numbers. “DnD groups usually consist of people who are friends from the get-go, sometimes even the DM is a part of that circle too,” says Nami. “There aren’t many connections [in the community] and the only way people know is through words of mouth and some rare invites here and there.”

Despite the challenges, some members of the community are working hard to tear down these barriers, such as Trịnh Anh Vũ, a DM in Hanoi who is currently running one of the first Vietnamese DnD podcasts called “The Runaways.” He started the project in hopes of growing the local scene by connecting listeners and building an informative platform where people can get an impression of what DnD is from a Vietnamese storytelling perspective.

Photo courtesy of Empire Capital Shop.

“The Vietnamese DnD community is getting bigger, but not everyone has groups to play, and not everyone knows how to approach the game as a beginner,” Vũ tells me. It’s the sense of escapism that brought him to the adventures of DnD in the first place, so he wants to spread that spirit. “DnD is a game about imagination and creativity, so it’s very satisfying to play. Occasionally, people just want to escape from the negative vibes of reality and immerse themselves in their world with a bunch of friends.”

Photo courtesy of The Guild.

Only time can tell how popular DnD will become in Vietnam. But for now, most are content with playing and sharing their experience with friends on social media. Nami is planning to incorporate a new in-person event called “Adventure League” into The Guild — an “organized play” that streamlines the playing process by allowing players to quickly participate with other veterans and newbies through various short missions, without the need to create a new character, thus removing the difficult social barrier of the original board game. “I hope that this plan will succeed and DnD will become a household name in the board gaming scene,” Nami beams with excitement.

Parks & Rec is a series on the eclectic range of pastimes and recreational activities in Vietnam. From novel sports to old board games, these communities help connect members and enrich local urban life. If you have a cool hobby to share, let us know at [email protected]

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