In a harshly lit Pomona College classroom on a warm Tuesday evening, three goblins and an excommunicated monk plot to overthrow a corrupt vampire mayor.
“Suddenly, you fall through the painting into an abandoned hallway,” says Julia Qin HM ’25, the “Dungeon Master” and a member of the 5C Dungeons and Dragons Club. She leads the game with narrative prowess, the kind of campfire or ghost story lull reminiscent of conspiratorial looks by a candlelit pub in a blizzard.
Qin’s campaign is meticulously plotted, from teenage ghosts who whiz by the players on broomsticks on the street, to the detailed teenage angst of a human the players find in the Haunted House. She gives away just enough, but not too much. A clue, but not a key. A nudge, but never a golden ticket. The rest is up to the players.
D&D is, at its core, a role-playing game. But instead of choosing a character, players create one. Each “campaign,” or continuing storyline, is unique, with three to six people meeting with pre-planned characters. Different “species” come with special talents and powers, such as Religion, Deception and Animal Handling.
“For me, a lot of fun comes with playing someone different than my normal personality,” Qin said. “… It’s kind of like theater: you’re trying out different roles. And so I might be someone more outgoing or someone who’s older or younger.”
Qin’s favorite character to date is a little more eccentric.
“Playing someone who might turn into a pigeon while drunk,” she said. “Completely silly, does not make sense, but that’s kind of the freedom D&D gives you.”
D&D allows players to explore a different gender, an opportunity Max Cui PO ’25 found surprisingly accessible. He played as a female-identifying tiefling.
“It feels a bit strange, but I wouldn’t say that ultimately it ended up affecting things too much,” Cui said. “After the initial weirdness wore off, it was just kind of normal.”
It is through this individuality that D&D expands on the two-dimensional game pieces of other games. Players must contend with each other’s differences and know when to act, when to listen or when to watch.
Yet D&D is a game that is often stigmatized.
“I think a major stereotype [of the D&D community] is the geeky nerd,” Qin said.
But the 5C community, built with geeky nerds, works to dismantle these stereotypes by celebrating them.
“I think it really depends on who you talk to in terms of what sort of perceptions you might get,” Qin said. “In my high school, [D&D] wasn’t really a thing, but I think part of it is the bias of Harvey Mudd … it’s a lot more normalized [here]. And so it seems like everyone’s heard of it.”
Another main stereotype is the preconception that players must have significant experience to participate.
“I definitely think it can be a little intimidating to get into,” said Barbara Norton PO ’25, a new player this year. “I had this misconception that you had to be really good and really experienced to join the D&D club at the 5Cs.”
But Norton insists that the game isn’t as impenetrable as it looks.
“It is complex but also at the same time is quite a bit easier than it looks, and it’s just a really great opportunity to have a lot of fun with some interesting people,” she said.
And for the social justice-motivated 5C community, the political parallels are fruitful.
“I think [games usually fall] into the classic trope of you’re some sort of rebel against some sort of government,” Qin said. “In general, I think the underdog story does really well in D&D.”
The 5C D&D club encourages new players to join, with campaigns set aside for beginners.
“My campaign is for beginners, and I’m with my friends who have also never played — and that makes it even more fun,” Norton said. “So I definitely recommend it to people, even if they don’t have any experience. I 100% recommend it.”