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For LGTBQ+ players in Utah, D&D offers a community where ‘gender doesn’t matter’

 LGBTQ+ D&D characters Lytling, Cazi and Helvig, May 30, 2023
Rakel Davis
Lytling (left), Cazi and Helvig, Dungeons & Dragons characters created by players Nova Rose, Elle Smith and Emory Ogaard respectively. Artist interpretations based off of each player’s description of their character.

A half-human, half-spider creature named Helvig walks into a tavern. This is not the beginning of a confusing joke, it’s one of the scenes in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign taking place in the basement of The Legendarium, a queer- and trans-owned science-fiction/fantasy bookstore in Salt Lake City.

The dungeon master describes the feathered barkeep inside and Helvig orders a drink. Another character, a stuffed animal named Cazi, asks whether there’s a candle on their table in the tavern. When the dungeon master confirms that there is, Cazi asks for it to be moved.

“I’m flammable,” Elle Smith, the player behind Cazi, said.

Four players sit around a table in creaky wooden chairs. In the center is a wooden box with ornate bronze handles. Inside is a computer monitor displaying the world the characters inhabit. Mystical-looking maps and a sword decorate the walls of the room.

This group created the world they’re playing in as well as custom races, or species, for their characters. Instead of just things like elves and dwarves, one character is a stuffed animal cat that’s also a wizard. Another character is described as having a mixture of owl features and rabbit features with metal bones.

Emory Ogaard, whose pronouns are they/she, said Helvig is like a centaur but the horse half has been replaced with a spider. When Ogaard speaks as Helvig during the game, she slips into a faux-Southern accent.

“Very regal, very charismatic,” Ogaard said. “Very androgynous features.”

Clockwise from the far left, Nova Rose, Emory Ogaard, Spencer Richardson, Jan Beniquez and Elle Smith sit around a table for a session of Dungeons & Dragons in the basement of The Legendarium, a bookstore in Salt Lake City, May 19, 2023.
Martha Harris
Clockwise from the far left, Nova Rose, Emory Ogaard, Spencer Richardson, Jan Beniquez and Elle Smith sit around a table for a session of Dungeons & Dragons in the basement of The Legendarium, a bookstore in Salt Lake City, May 19, 2023.

Besides Ogaard’s Helvig and Smith’s Cazi, the fantasy adventure party is rounded out with a character named Lytling, the character with rabbit and owl features carrying an oud which she occasionally strums, and Willow, a wooden forgeling. At one head of the table is Jan Beniquez, the group’s dungeon master, who is like the referee or narrator for the game. For his part, Beniquez describes it as “event planning.”

The players wait in the tavern for a mysterious “woman in blue” who has some information for them.

“Beware the woman in blue,” a fortune teller tells Lytling.

Why they play

“Everyone at our table is queer in one way or another,” Ogaard pointed out.

It is not a surprising coincidence. When Legendarium holds these weekly game nights, players estimate most, if not all, of the attendees are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Ogaard started playing Dungeons & Dragons after watching “Stranger Things.” Some friends in a trans support group recommended she give The Legendarium a try.

For Ogaard, part of the appeal of the game is getting to explore different spaces and mindsets as a character.

“When I first started playing, it really helped me navigate my own queerness in a lot of ways. I got to play a bisexual before I came out as bisexual. I got to play as a woman before I came out as trans,” Ogaard said.

When they didn’t have the inhibitions of real life, it felt natural to choose characters that were women and bisexual. Ogaard thought if anyone had the choice, they would choose to be a bisexual woman.

“It just felt comfortable in this way that I hadn’t really realized for myself that, ‘well, this just makes sense,’” Ogaard said.

Others in the group have had similar experiences.

The player behind Lytling, Nova Rose, also realized she liked playing female and feminine characters. She likes doing voices for her characters and for one, she practiced using a higher-pitched, softer register.

“That gave me a chance to practice something in an environment where I didn’t and wouldn’t feel embarrassed if I did something wrong because it’s a character, it’s not me,” Rose said.

What she was doing for D&D, Rose said, was similar to transgender voice therapy or training.

“It [D&D] gives you so many opportunities to express things that you might not be comfortable trying out in real life,” Rose said.

One of the co-owners of The Legendarium, Orion Enceladus, said he’s also discovered parts of his gender identity through D&D, and has seen his friends and family members use the game to explore gender and sexuality.

Martha Harris

Ogaard thinks queerness has always had a space in fantasy and sci-fi. Like Legendarium, LGBTQ+-centered organizations in Utah like the Utah Pride Center and Encircle Utah also hold regular D&D nights.

“I mean, in a world where there are aliens, gender doesn't matter. In a world where there are elves and dwarves,” the sex and gender of your partner don’t really matter either, Ogaard pointed out. “It loses its dimensions.”

In this world, it's normal for the players to ask each other what their pronouns are. Players will even ask the dungeon master, Beniquez, about the pronouns of non-player characters, otherwise known as the denizens that inhabit this fantasy world the players come in contact with.

Beniquez also asks players what topics they don’t feel comfortable including in the game, which are called “lines” and “veils.”

“We're building this fantasy world, why do we have to bring ugly things from reality?” Beniquez said. “I'd much rather have things that are fun for players and things that kind of make them forget about the horrors of the world sometimes.”

Ogaard said sometimes D&D sessions feel like group therapy, and at other times it’s a way to take a break from what’s happening in real life. That escapism helped her during a turbulent period in her own life, when she was teaching in Davis County and had recently come out.

“As a queer woman, it was not a great time,” Ogaard said.

But when playing with friends as their characters within their D&D world, time slid by. They thought that maybe five or 10 minutes had passed, but it had actually been an hour. Ogaard said she’s never felt more peaceful.

“I left everything that was going on in my life at the time,” Ogaard said. “In that one hour, none of that mattered. I had completely forgotten all of it, and I just got to be River [Ogaard’s character] and it was wonderful.”

During a fight scene, the players place miniature figurines of their characters on the table.
Martha Harris
During a fight scene, the players place miniature figurines of their characters on the table.

It’s about building community

“We didn't meet up in some queer support group or something like that. We met because we're all a bunch of nerds and we like playing a game. And so we get it,” Ogaard said. “We get to affirm each other's queerness without it being about our queerness.”

During this particular D&D night, there’s also a group playing upstairs, and others are just hanging around and watching. Beniquez, the dungeon master for the basement game, appreciates having a space where he can hang out and meet queer people — especially one that doesn’t include drinking alcohol. Beniquez said a lot of queer spaces tend to gravitate toward drinking.

Instead, this is a relaxing space that feels homey and safe, Beniquez said. The owners of Legendarium know a lot of the players by name and let them hang around for a little bit after the store closes at 10 p.m. while they clean up.

Leah Sanford, who is playing with the group upstairs, has been around role-playing games for decades. Now that they’re retired, they’ve decided to make a retirement hobby out of being a dungeon master.

“It's way better than shuffleboard or bridge,” Sanford quipped.

They have their own theories on why queer and trans people are drawn to games like D&D.

“Something about living a, sort of, countercultural lifestyle tends to foster, I think, in people a need for community. And role-playing games are a great community builder. They are essentially cooperative storytelling,” Sanford said.

You get to express your creativity without having to worry about being judged. It’s an intense game, Sanford said, with everything from epic fight scenes to stories that leave the table in tears.

“It's just pretty much whatever you want it to be. It can be riotously funny. You know, it's just a blast,” Sanford said.

During Emory Ogaard’s turn, she moves her character during a fight scene while the other players watch.
Martha Harris
During Emory Ogaard’s turn, she moves her character during a fight scene while the other players watch.

This brings us back to the tavern where our journey began.

The basement players were told by a woman with blue skin that they are in grave danger. They have to leave town tonight. It’s up to the players to try to decipher if this is the “woman in blue” the fortune teller warned of.

In the last scene of their session, the players encounter zombies and a fire-breathing dragon. Each takes a roll of their dice to try to defeat the enemies. The players and Beniquez put miniature figurines on top of the wooden box and move their characters around to act out the fight scene.

The group is running against the clock to finish before closing time. Just past 10 p.m. and after four hours of playing together, they make it through the battle and survey the destruction in their wake.

Since The Legendarium has technically closed, the players can’t savor the moment too much and quickly pack up their things. Some of them linger around the shop hanging out with the owners before trickling out, but they’ll be back again next week.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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