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Chris Pine as Edgin the bard, playing his lute to an audience of suspicious guards in Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures

Free me

I have a Dungeons & Dragons curse. You won’t find it in the Player’s Handbook or on any list of spells, and yet it’s demonstrably real. Gather round, listeners, and hear my woeful tale. (I have a lute now. I’m plucking it. It’s too late; the tavern door is locked behind you.)

I want to play the dumbest character in my D&D party, but no matter what I do, I wind up as the party’s boss.

Ignorance is bliss

Performer Zac Oyama strikes a gormless pose with one finger on his lips in a screenshot from Dimension 20’s Fantasy High: Junior Year.
Image: Dropout

There is a sublime joy in playing a complete numbskull, and I wish to experience it. Maybe the best I’ve seen it done is Dimension 20’s Zac Oyama, whose character list is a taster’s menu of different blockheads, including a teenage barbarian who keeps whiffing his Insight checks; a devoted firefighter with more abs than brain cells; and a space parasite still figuring out how human mouths work.

That’s not to say that Oyama never plays a smartie — his Puss in Boots might be my favorite performance in Dimension 20’s Neverafter season. But Oyama’s characters are defined by his comedic strengths and his background as an improviser. He’s never the most loquacious guy on a given show, but any Dropout fan knows Oyama’s silence is only in service of when he breaks it, inevitably to offer the funniest thing to say at the best possible moment. The denseness of his characters belies how smart you have to be to make playing dumb on purpose into entertainment.

I look at Oyama’s characters, and I think: God, I wish that were me.

I want to play a giant lug of a woman. Someone with an impractically large weapon. Someone who says funny things without realizing it, makes bad decisions, and tries to survive the consequences. And this is very important: I want to be dumb as a box of rocks. When my character approaches any situation requiring even a modicum of mental acuity — whether of the Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma varieties — I want the rest of the players to whisper, “Oh no.” But, like, gleefully.

Let me try another way of getting at what I’m going for: You know that one henchman whose job it is, when Batman bursts through a skylight, to yell, “It’s da Bat!”? To yell this as if it were not Batman’s successful aim, in crashing through a skylight, to alert all to his presence? To yell it as if there could be any other person who just smashed loudly through several panes of glass while dressed as a bat? To yell this in complete surprise, as if, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, this was not something that happens five times every night in Gotham City? Nevertheless, he persisted. He yelled, “It’s da Bat!”

I want to play that, but for the good guys.

And yet I am forever denied

Minsc, the thick-headed barbarian of the Baldur’s Gate franchise, in a screenshot from Baldur’s Gate 3.
Image: Larian Studios

Across the entire history of my tabletop life, due to one thing or another, I wind up being the person who simply must be on the ball at all times.

I’m a bit of a unicorn in personal D&D histories: My very first session turned into a four-year campaign, netting me a rank of level 24 way back in 3rd edition. By our final encounter, I was a knightly-armored paladin hero famed for the righteousness of my berserker anger, astride my unicorn best friend, himself decked out in glowing, magical barding. I was a leader of legends, a position earned through loyalty, compassion, and forthrightness, and I loved it.

It took me years after college to find a new gaming group that really stuck. My first time out, I tried a Bard, and found that my high Charisma again made me the character that everyone in the room turned to during role-play. Seeking a little variety, the next time I was invited to join a campaign in progress, I decided to try for the exact opposite of my Chaotic Good Half-Elf crusader.

I built a true Neutral Githzerai monk, and felt prepped and ready to play the quiet newcomer to an already close-knit group of adventurers. Not the character that actually talked to the NPCs, not the one who so often made the call on when we went from talking to fighting.

This, however, would turn out to be my first encounter with a “herding cats” gaming group. I had a blast, but as everyone’s quirks in personality and play styles shook out, I still often found myself at the forefront of digging into the mystery of our adventure.

When we closed that campaign and started another, I got serious about not playing a face character again. I built a dwarf barbarian and deliberately dumped her Charisma and Intelligence. This time, we were doing post-apocalyptic fantasy homebrew, and I just wanted to get angry, kill zombies with axes, and not make “thinking about the consequences” part of my performance.

Then, in our first session, I just so happened to touch the artifact that just so happened to make me the Chosen One, who just so happens to be the only person who can undo the zombie plague, somehow. If I recall, the climax of the campaign was something like… me negotiating for vital information with a centuries-old dracolich who knew the secret of how the world ended. With an 8 Charisma. I wanted to be dumb! But I didn’t want to doom the world.

The next time I was invited to a new game, I admitted defeat. We would play mercenaries in the world of BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise, and since the Gods of Tabletop were determined that I would always wind up the de facto boss, I volunteered to be so, as literally as possible. I built an utterly charming and superlatively street-smart rogue whose sole life aspiration was to build a well-regarded and financially successful mercenary group of like-minded souls.

Fuck it, I thought. Let’s lean in. It’s a brand-new group; it’ll probably last three sessions anyway. And the monkey’s paw curled closed.

The campaign turned out to be the greatest, most emotionally devastating and fulfilling tabletop experience I have ever had. It has lasted nine years and counting. Nine years and counting of being the party boss.

It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me

Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, and Justice Smith sit and eat turkey legs in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Image: Paramount Pictures

I know why this happens! Don’t think it’s a surprise! The secret of Dungeons & Dragons is that you can never actually make a “character choice” because you are never not you.

I’m drawn to puzzles of the exploratory variety, whether they’re in the Myst franchise or the carefully crafted homebrew world of a college D&D group. Put one in front of me, and I’m going to engage with it automatically. I am also the person who, given a lack of planning from others and consent to do so, will just stand up and go, “We’re meeting up HERE for the bookstore crawl, at THIS TIME, I have a MAP, we will get ICE CREAM between THESE stops, and visit THIS and THIS stationery store between these others to browse for CUTE SHIT.”

I have even been an actual boss before — I used to run a whole website! But here’s the thing: Tabletop games are supposed to be a fantasy.

All my TTRPG friends are on notice: In the next campaign we play, someone else has to be in charge, because I will be busy.

Busy playing The Gods’ Biggest Idiot. Head empty, no thoughts. Only “giant fuck-off sword.”

If they make me their fantasy boss again, I will make them fantasy fired.

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