How I Used Dungeons & Dragons to Build My Creative Practice

Erin Rodgers is a… okay, forget this 3rd person stuff. *I* am a social, fun, go-getter who loves to connect others while connecting with them. But I wasn’t always this way.

I am hiding, making my body as small as I can as I cling to the side of a clammy cave. I feel ice-cold shots of panic shoot through my stomach. They push outwards until they fill my whole body. My throat is dry, and I know if I were to use my voice it would be thin and reedy.

The coldness of the rock behind my back makes me want to shudder, but I must remain completely still. It is the only way that I can escape the fire-breathing dragon waiting outside of the cave, ready to consume me whole.

My only hope is to gather my wits, summon my inner strength, put my shield out in front of me and sneak past the beast to freedom.

Boy, I sure hope I can escape my latest impossible predicament in my mysterious futuristic-but-also-medieval village. Or at least manage to put on real pants and leave the house in my real life in Toronto, Canada.

Hi! As you might have guessed, I am not actually a hero facing down dragons in a mythical world.

Though, from what I gather about the most recent season of Game of Thrones, that is also possibly kind of overrated.

Instead, I am just a regular old writer/performer and storytelling coach. Well, perhaps not regular. Much like the main character in a fantasy novel, I am one in a long line of people with a destiny. However, my destiny is not to save a village from dragons. It is instead to fight intense anxiety and depression but still write and create.

Honestly, compared to many other people I know I got off pretty lucky in the life complications department. However, mental health, specifically dealing with my fluctuating levels of anxiety and depression, took a major toll on my life throughout my twenties and a large part of my early thirties.

I was an awkward and uncomfortable young person who evolved into a more awkward and incredibly uncomfortable adult. Someone saying the wrong thing, or something I took to be the wrong thing, could be enough to send me spiralling for days.

I would not leave the house for anything but work and spend hours by myself watching hours of movies or reading books.  There’s no Under the Volcano about being addicted to avoidance. But although I wasn’t consuming substances, I was doing major damage to my personal relationships, creative life and mental health.   

Thankfully, eventually, I got help. I found medications that worked. Also, I don’t want to brag, but I went to a lot of therapy. Like a lot of therapy.

I also discovered the power of story.

The thing about spending what is likely years of my life escaping reality into the world of TV and movies is that I have become very aware of the way a good story can change your perspective. Through movies, TV and books, I’ve travelled the world, found and lost love, and saved the day.

When I was at my worst, I would imagine myself being rescued by the characters that I admired most in the fiction I had been devouring.

Years later, I would find myself at a table playing a role-playing game with some friends. One of my greatest secrets is that I mostly don’t like board games. I basically think they are a great way for friends to get into confusing fights over rules that no one should care about.

Because of this, for years I had avoided tabletop gaming all together lumping it in with screaming matches I had witnessed over games of Trivial Pursuit (the game with a warning right in its title).

However, role-playing games offered me an amazing strategy to deal with the anxiety I experience on a daily basis both as just a regular human person and as a person who does creative stuff for a living.

In games like Dungeons & Dragons, you create a persona. This persona has certain powers, certain abilities and very specific strengths and weaknesses based on rules of the die. Much like our own brains. 

When playing a tabletop game, I could be a character very much the opposite of my real-life personality. I could explore how it felt to be braver, stronger, wiser, etc. My friends and I were having magical adventures and creating stories as we went along.

I loved it.

In fact, I loved it so much I started wondering how am I how I could bring this sense of play and endless possibilities it into my own life. How could I turn myself into the brave and wise characters I had played in the game in my real life without moving far away and starting all over—or, God forbid, getting into CrossFit?

In Chris Hardwick’s book The Nerdist Way he described using Dungeon and Dragons character sheets to find your strengths and weaknesses and build on them. It was a great system, as I found that gamifying the elements of my personality made things feel less personal and embarrassing. What is the charisma of the Erin Rodgers character? What are her levels of wisdom? Who are her bonds with? What are her flaws and how do they affect gameplay, aka her life?

When I was able to look at myself more as a character like any other I had played, suddenly things that had humiliated me before — my inability to follow any kind of physical directions, my very occasional and completely unpredictable high level of dance ability — were merely aspects of my character that moved the story of me alone.

Getting it all down on paper — or, more accurately, character sheet — allowed me to take stock of what I liked and didn’t like. And made the things I didn’t like seem more possible to change.

But it was the next step that took things to the next level for me. I found role models (real, fictional, or historical) and broke their traits down too. What were the things I admired most about them? Which of their strengths did I wish I had? What did they have in common with each other? 

Throughout the process, I focused on depersonalizing the experience. I looked at these different figures — and myself — as a game designer or writer would. It wasn’t a matter of comparing myself to these other people and punishing myself for being “lesser than” (a common thing I do when feeling depressed). Now I saw that all of the characters, including those whom I deeply admired, had strengths and weaknesses.

In fact, mapping things out on paper made me realize personal strengths I had not realized I had and reminded me of past successes. This had the hidden benefit of giving me written “proof” of these successes, which I can now review when I have tough days.

The next step was to map out what I wanted my future story to sound like. What adventures I wanted to have and what success looks like to me, the person I had described on that character page.

I was also able to start creating specific challenges to work on the elements of my personality I didn’t like. Or things I had observed in other characters that I would like to improve on. Having visualized and written down on paper what I wanted my future to be, what story I was working towards, I had a much better idea of the specific skills that I needed to adapt.

My personal character sheet is a little different than the classic Dungeons & Dragons one. There is a space for non-perfectionist work ethic. To build that skill I set myself a goal of writing every single day even if it turned out to be terrible writing. By gamifying these changes as missions, everything felt less high stakes. Instead, these changes took on more of the air of fun I experienced sitting around a table with my friends, sharing a giant all of Cheetos as we created our fictional adventures.

Change is still slow, but as anyone who loves D&D knows, no game is ever going to go quickly. Adventure ebbs and flows, change builds, and a whole lot of it is based on a roll of the dice (and unfortunately, some built-in challenges and inequalities).

But now, my knowledge of myself and my journey is much more defined. So I work every day to do my best, keep my personal “character” wants and needs in mind, and move forward from adventure to adventure. I (mostly) no longer fantasize about a hero coming to rescue me. Instead, I am the main actor in my own adventure. Even when the adventure is just putting on pyjama pants and going to do my laundry.