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Battlefield of the mind

How students become warriors through Dungeons and Dragons

  • 10 min to read

The sun set on Missoula, and the basement study lounge of Craig Hall became a thick jungle ruin — a prime hideout for bandits and monsters. Our dungeon master placed a Bluetooth speaker on the table and started a playlist of ambient atmospheric sounds that were more or less in-theme for our quest.

If you are a fan of the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” you’ve seen Mike, Will, Lucas and Dustin play and reference the game, naming the Demogorgon after a monster in one of their campaigns. And even if you haven’t the slightest idea what “Stranger Things” is, chances are you’ve heard of Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D as most players refer to it. 

I was just beginning my first journey in what would pan out to be a six-hour escapade of cheesy improvisation and clueless spell-casting in a one-off style mission with five experienced D&D players. The time ticked precisely at midnight and the date on my phone shifted from Aug. 31 to Sept. 1. I glanced over at the man who helped me land my seat at the adventurers’ table.

I only exchanged text messages with Alan Ihms prior to our first adventuring session. In getting to know him, it seemed like the 21-year-old UM senior studying secondary education English would be knowledgeable enough to help a role-playing simpleton like me along with the story. The other participants: Daniel McKnew, our dungeon master and recent UM alumna; Shay Love, a UM senior and housing desk assistant, and Manon Barre and Ashley Hampton, who were also eager to help me jam my foot into whatever door I could.

Dungeons and Dragons is an immersive, player-based game, often referred to by players as a “battlefield of the mind,” first imagined by game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The pair shared a passion for wargaming, a genre of tabletop gaming that involves realistic simulations of battles. In 1973, Gygax and Arneson wrote their first drafts of what would soon become D&D, and the first edition of the role-playing game was published in 1974. Nerds all over the world rejoiced.

Here on campus, at least one person within earshot usually knows a fair bit about D&D. Ihms has already looked into starting a D&D club, but says that the player to Dungeon Master ratio at UM is vastly disproportionate. McKnew echoed Ihms, stating “there aren’t enough DMs to go around.” However, both players believe the game is in a resurgence and popularity is reaching new highs. During a drink and draw event at the Western Cider bar in Missoula, Ihms encountered around forty people of all ages and backgrounds designing maps and building characters for D&D campaigns. “There are a lot of people you don’t see who actively play D&D.”


Daniel McKnew, left, and Ashley Hampton, right, take a break from a chaotic battle around 4 a.m. in the basement study lounge of Craig Hall.

In 2014, on the 40th anniversary of the original release of D&D, the updated fifth edition of the game was published under the leadership of Mike Mearls, a fantasy writer and game developer. This is the most current edition of the game and the version I played with my new crew.

Ihms helped me build my character, guiding me through the daunting process of sifting through a dense player’s manual as I filled the boxes and lines of two sheets of paper that would inform my play style. 

The game begins with rolling a 20-sided die, called a d20, to determine the values of the six core attributes of each character: strength, dexterity, constitution, intuition, wisdom and charisma. You may be surprised to learn these attributes are not just arbitrary characteristics assigned by Gygax and Arneson. They fit somewhat neatly into the five traits of human personality, as defined in the Individual Differences field of psychology developed in the 1930s: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

These traits help define a person’s openness to new perspectives, determination, adherence to moral code, tendency to experience unwanted emotions, ability to compromise and need for attention from others. 

With my character locked in at 12 strength, 14 dexterity, 16 constitution, 17 intelligence, 14 wisdom and 13 charisma, I was ready to choose my class, race and other background elements. My finished product: high-moon elf of the Forgotten Realm named Barry Saelgir, who was once a guild artisan , but is now a bard.


There we sat: Love, whose character was named Roth; Barre, named Pom; Hampton, named Allerick but shortened to Lyric; Ihms, named Elregor; and myself, Barry, anticipating our first actions in this new world.


Ihms never played D&D in his younger years. Coming from Plains, Montana, a town with fewer than 1,200 residents, chances were slim he would find a group he could consistently play with.     

In high school, gaming experience was limited to Minecraft and other hit video games of the time. A friend suggested he give D&D a try, but Ihms never found the time to make it work. It was only when he came to UM, during his freshman year, that he had his first real encounter. 

Ihms described his first experience with D&D as less than ideal: a mix of sloppy dungeon masters, unimpressive playing styles and lackluster campaigns. It wasn’t until his sophomore year as a resident assistant in Knowles Hall that the game found him once again.

A resident on his floor approached Ihms one afternoon to voice some concerns about his roommate. He hadn’t seen much of him the past several days and was worried. Ihms checked in with the roommate to discover him making plans for a D&D campaign he would attempt to put on with some of his friends. Hours of the student’s time had been swallowed up in the Knowles Hall basement study lounge, slaving away at quest-building and character-designing. Ihms spoke with the student for a moment before deciding to help the campaign get up and running.

Most RAs have a weekly tradition, something to bring the floor together to relax and make new friends. Many other RAs watch a Netflix series or do face masks with their residents. Ihms had a game night, which became Dungeons and Dragons night after speaking with the dungeon master living on his floor. 

The new weekly tradition was a hit and, soon enough, six to eight players were regularly joining Ihms and the DM in the study lounge to battle together against monsters, bandits and dangerous villains. This campaign would end up persisting into the second semester of the school year, with many of the original adventurers still in the crew.


Dungeons and Dragons players discuss the actions of Shay Love, who jumped his character to the bottom of a well during a campaign session.

During this campaign, Ihms described himself as “coming out of his shell.” He found that D&D allowed him to think about himself in the third person, analyzing his psyche and personality from a different point of view. Throughout that year, Ihms began taking on the guise of a protector in his role-playing characters. He attributes this to aspects of his own personality and self-image coming through these alter egos.

One of the characters Ihms took on that year was a praetorian paladin, a protector-type player who stands a little taller and beefier than his foes. 

“It was like a fantasy embodiment of what I was as an RA,” Ihms said. 

This allowed him to show his new residents who he was as someone who they could turn to for guidance and, if need be, protection. 

And it isn’t uncommon for players to build their characters using their own life experiences.

In one particular session of the same year-long campaign Ihms helped jump-start, Daniel McKnew created a companion animal for himself in the image of a female German shepherd he’d lost in his real life. McKnew named the companion Lupa. In the midst of a desolate tundra, thick with snow and permafrost, a scenario unfolded that would become emotionally difficult for the entire crew. 


Dragon miniatures sit on Daniel McKnew's coffee table in his basement apartment. As a dungeon master, McKnew’s duties include painting miniatures for battle sequences in campaigns.

After a battle with a massive monster, a decision would have to be made. Would McKnew save his own companion from death or save Ihms’ companion animal? In an act of selflessness, Mcknew sacrificed his own companion to save Ihms’. A moment of silence fell over the scene. The group decided to bury the fatally wounded animal, digging 20 or so feet into the fictitious permafrost.

McKnew thinks that experience was important in solidifying his role in the campaign, adding to the overall immersion and fun that he would have to finish the story.

“I just figured, why not?” McKnew said about adding Lupa into the game. “I love animal companions, so I wanted my character to have one.”

In these respects, psychologists are starting to look at the therapeutic benefits of role-playing games. A therapy group based out of Seattle, Washington, called Wheelhouse Workshop, is currently using D&D as a model for exploring action consequences in an environment with no potential for physical harm. According to the gaming website Kotaku, the group believes there are strong correlations between “player’s internal lives and escapist fantasies.”

I rolled a perception check shortly into the start of the quest. Skill checks are performed throughout the game, using pure chance as a determiner for an individual’s success at a particular action. With a solid roll, I was able to discover otherwise hidden knowledge about a well that would lead us to the conclusion that some jungle ruins were, in fact, inhabited by something.

The group, after squabbling for a few moments, moved toward a temple-like structure at the northern end of the ruin. There, we would encounter Lizardfolk, an enemy type that can be talked down, reasoned with, intimidated or slaughtered. After Elregor insulted the creatures by kicking a bucket full of refuse off a cliff, the decision seemed to be made for us.

The combat of D&D plays out very slowly, with players making their movements in suspended time. A battle that lasts only one minute of game time may take up to an hour of real-time. Each player has a turn to move, cast or attack, and perform bonus actions. Along with this, players usually exchange jokes and potential strategies for teamwork.

Here, in battle, I was finally able to flex my creative muscles and tie together various spells and movements. My proudest moment of the encounter was using a cantrip spell to summon an ethereal hand that de-pantsed the leader of the Lizardfolk, embarrassing him and sending him running into the jungle. Honestly, I had never felt more badass than in that moment.


Shay Love, a University of Montana senior and UM Housing desk assistant, makes notations on his character sheet during a campaign session.

Our crew captured a Lizardfolk and attempted to reason with it. Here, the DM has a near-infinite amount of flexibility, creating a narrative through actions and communications between creatures and players. I tried sending a mental message to the creature, but it seemed to not understand. Unfortunately, none of us could speak lizard, so we released the creature and it fled.

The DM’s main role is making sure adventurers stay on track to complete the quest while facilitating their actions. The DM also performs the other half of combat, rolling for the opponents. McKnew would sometimes “fudge a roll,” lying about the number on the d20 if it advanced the story in interesting ways.

“Coming up with ways to keep combat fresh and exciting is difficult,” McKnew said, “But taking different combinations of monsters that might sound weird together and throwing them at players is interesting.”

McKnew enjoys the freedom that comes with being a DM. He can create any number of paths for an adventurer to journey on, and this, he says, is one of the finest things about D&D. McKnew enjoys watching other DMs create scenarios for their players because it gives him more inspiration for how he might want to tell his next story.

“Honestly, anyone who loves stories can be a dungeon master,” McKnew said. “Some of the best sessions I’ve played as a character, our DM came to us and said ‘Dude, I totally improved the whole thing.’”

Not only does D&D allow for creativity in player action, but it allows for creativity in how the game is constructed. A good DM can foster real social bonding in a group of players. McKnew believes the DM can even instill real confidence in players that lasts beyond the end of the session. Ihms echoes this as well. 

During Ihms’ first campaign, a ferocious group of Orc raiders captured his character’s love interest. Ihms’ response was to challenge the leader of the Orcs to a duel. The DM allowed the confrontation to play out to where Ihms was nearly dead at the hands of the leader.

“But right at the last moment, I was able to do the telling blow,” Ihms said. He returned from the clutches of death to defeat a powerful enemy.

“It was this awe-inspiring moment. To come out of it as a victor and move on, being able to connect that last piece of the story was important.” Ihms feels that moments like these can carry players forward in facing challenges in their real lives with a positive attitude as if the only option is to succeed.

After defeating the Lizardfolk, we made our way up a ramp to a second stone terrace. On our way up, I discovered a bag filled with playing cards and two magical rings. Atop the ramp, a large stone monolith caught the attention of the group. I was more curious to see what these playing cards were all about. I asked to flip them over. There was a loud gasp from every adventurer. Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing and they knew something I didn’t. 

Being a novice, I found it somewhat difficult to orient myself in the lore of the scenario. The cards I held were cards that, when flipped, would summon various monsters for us to fight. The others had encountered these cards before in a previous session. However, with a successful skill check, I was informed they were only cards of illusion and nothing in the deck was real. The group shared a few words and Roth made a joke that nearly caused me to choke. 

We brushed off the cards and continued forward, past the monolith. There was a relaxed air among the group. We were all comfortable with one another. Pretending we were something other than ourselves allowed us to take more risks in conversation, in social interaction and in not fearing our potential for failure. The group approached an arena-like construction. This would be the location of our final battle.


A taller, meaner, magical creature stood near the back of the hexagonal room. Roth was eager to begin the battle, but the others were wary. I followed the intuitions of the others. Suddenly, however, an invisible being standing very near to us burst into view and began hacking away at Elregor. Pom made an evasive maneuver and teleported behind the larger being in the back of the room. What happened next was a blur. Players rolled all sorts of dice across the table, frantically marked on their papers, and asked the DM about saving throws and distances. Unfortunately, I lost track of the battle almost immediately and was of little use to my fellow adventurers.

An hour passed, and despite my best efforts, I was still lost. Two of our crew had been wounded severely, and one had completely died. A monster snake, over 75-feet long, had crawled out of a precarious hole in the floor. I was being strangled by this serpent and my partners weren’t making any real progress in defeating the creature. It seemed like the end. 

In a miraculous turn of events, I was freed from the snake’s constriction and cast a spell that paralyzed the monster. We took turns wailing at it with everything we had until Roth made a fatal strike, slicing the head clean off the thing. Our battle was over, and so was our quest.

I pulled out my phone. The time was 6:02 a.m. We had been playing for six hours. 

D&D allows people to connect with themselves and with others. As someone who had never played the game and knew little about how it functioned, I found it easier than I expected to pick up. I even made some new friends in the process.

The role-playing experience draws from our personalities and subconscious. We weave our fantasies of ourselves and others into our characters. But doing this can be healthy. It can be therapeutic, immersing ourselves into fantasy and taking a break from the everyday hustle of college life. The world needs more time for games, not less.

Story and photos by Hunter Wiggins

Design and illustration by Lindsey Sewell