“The three of you have found yourselves at the front gates of a great library-fortress.”
A mother, Z, and her two children sat with their eyes glued to me. Snacks surrounded us like fallen domino pieces: buttery popcorn, Samoa cookies, chunky brownies and salty chips. This wasn’t a movie night, storytime, nor a sleepover. This was four Muslims playing the world’s greatest roleplaying game: Dungeons & Dragons.
You may have heard of D&D from Stranger Things on Netflix or The Legend of Vox Machina on Amazon Prime, the ‘80s cartoon, or the ads for its upcoming movie, Honor Among Thieves. Perhaps you’ve even played, as the National Library of Medicine reported many newcomers after the emotional strains of the COVID pandemic.
My journey to the game was a lot simpler, albeit just as dramatic: after a failed marriage potential and a successful surgery, I found myself prone (a term used within the game to convey being unable to move) and with an almost unbearable amount of psychic (known in D&D as “emotional” damage).
I spent my recovery in many places: a physical therapist’s office, a surgeon’s waiting room, my couch, and Discord.
Multiple times a day, we would write back and forth in different campaigns (D&D’s word for storylines). Campaigns played a critical role throughout my time attending both weddings and doctors appointments. While holding back tears from the memories of conversations I had with my would-be-fiancé, I would have my character converse with my friend’s. My wait in the lobby turned into my character’s quest, where she telepathically summoned a spider to scout the area for monsters. The banquet hall turned into an arena, where I was tasked with saving the crowd from a combatant gone rogue. Gone were the morning walks and evening talks, but I could comfortably escape—and save—a fictional world. And myself, too.
It was one fateful reception where I ran into (no, not my future spouse) an old friend, Z, and her family. The two of us had met at a retreat and kept in touch infrequently as the years passed. She was an anchor as I floated through the crowd, trying to distract myself from the fact that I was at a wedding so soon after having been so close to having my own.
The fateful question came: “What are you up to?”
“Oh, y’know…” I said shyly. “What every almost-thirty-year-old is doing. Dungeons & Dragons.”
Z’s eyes widened, and she pulled at her daughter’s arm. Her daughter had the same elation; beginning to tell me all about the recent time she had gone with her dad to play. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about our characters and making jokes about the game as a whole. For example, you can roll dice for certain outcomes, and the number you get measures your success or failure.
“I’m trying to get more vegetables in my diet, too,” I wryly confessed to her daughter, a baker. “I baked donuts with spinach and blueberries.”
“Roll for defense!” she blurted, her face struck with horror.
D&D wasn’t just thrilling, we agreed over dessert, it was therapeutic—much like the cake she assembled for the happy couple. Our table came to another mutual conclusion: that we wanted to play with her mom. Cue the roll for persuasion.
After a few months, the night finally arrived where all of our schedules were free. I packed copious notes I had made to prepare the session, along with official D&D guides, and my laptop to look up something in case I needed it. Despite all this work ahead of time, I knew that there would be some surprises here and there, but never imagined that I would learn about parenting. I was still rehearsing my speech when I knocked on Z’s door and entered her living room.
“The three of you have found yourselves at the front gates of a great library-fortress. Elegant elves, hardy gnomes, great giants, and stout dwarves surround you, clutching pieces of paper in eager hands. Written on the sheets are songs, poems, recipes, stories, maps, all manner of written works passed down from generation to generation, in the hopes that they might be used to be granted entry into Candlekeep.”
I continued to narrate, securing my role as the “Dungeon Master,” or the “DM,” the person in charge of setting the stage for the adventure that the party (the group of characters) would set out on. The DM is like the director behind an improv show, with the players as actors.
Players enter the game after creating sheets for their characters. They select a class, a role that enables them to have proficiencies in certain abilities, like Intimidation and Persuasion, that they can use when interacting with other characters. We also reviewed species that were available in the game, as they weren’t beholden to being human. Players keep track of this information on character sheets, also filled with fun backstory notes, like being a folk hero.
Z played a human paladin, a warrior bent on saving the destitute. Her eldest daughter had chosen a Changeling bard, “Wuckus Buckus,”also known as “WB,” with quick wit and ability to shapeshift. M was a tabaxi rogue, “Clepta M. Ania,” because she likes cats and wanted something sneaky. All three had heard about Candlekeep, the magical library-fortress, but what they didn’t know was that they would stumble upon enchanted books, and the encounters within them. They were to fight monsters, pursue clues, and enjoy the twists within.
The first “dungeon” was a great mansion. It would be a reference to Beauty and the Beast, but with a twist: the lesser-known folk tale character Diarmuid Ua Duibhne would be a non-playable character (NPC), reprising the role of the beauty. I wanted to use commonly-known fairy tales that they had watched as a family, such that they found aspects of each story familiar.
The evening was serendipitous, and along with the boundless imagination of children, I learned three things about parenting that one could only see in practice: patience, pivoting, and play.
In his study, “Defeating dragons and demons: consumers’ perspectives on mental health recovery in role-playing games,” Francesco Causo found that table-top roleplaying games (TTRPG) “assisted with building relationships with other players, experiencing emotions through their character, developing adaptive skills, engaging with difficult mental health topics and experiencing a safe space from mental health difficulties.”
Michael Sargent of Smith College correlated similar findings in his “Exploring mental dungeons and slaying psychic dragons: an exploratory study,” that participants reported numerous psychological benefits from meeting to play TTRPGs.
Patience is one such virtue we can learn from the game. Many times in our session, WB and Clepta’s players would often interject and give suggestions as to where the rest of the party should go. Even though Z and her paladin were older and wiser, I could see her practicing prophetic patience as her children fumbled with what were clear traps and allowed them to figure out the hooks without hints.
It reminded me of one of my favorite narrations of the Prophet ﷺ when he prayed while his granddaughter was dangling from his neck and being held in his blessed arms. For a parent to exhibit patience in something as important as salah teaches us that even the smaller things, like games, are worthy of patience, too.
Several times in our game, I saw Z adapt readily to her teammates—her own children! Even though her paladin was equipped to lead the adventure, she accepted when they had failed in certain quests and also asked them for advice on what to do next. It wasn’t just about passing the sword, but rather, passing the mic, too.
Ibrahim’s (may peace be upon him) du’a suddenly made more and more sense to me:
Our Lord! Make us both ˹fully˺ submit to You and from our descendants a nation that will submit to you. Show us our rituals, and turn to us in grace. You are truly the Accepter of Repentance, Most Merciful. (Qur’an 2:128)
This du’a is so powerful because it’s not just Ibrahim (may peace be upon him) making du’a for a good son. He’s making du’a for himself to be a good parent, too.
Everything changes after you become a parent. You might have to quit a day’s work in order to bring a sick child to the doctor, rearrange plans because your little one was injured, or even cancel meetups entirely to make time for them.
The days leading up to the game, I found myself getting increasingly nervous. Even though I was several years older than these children, and not related to them by blood, I knew they would look to me as a role model. I put myself in their shoes, at that age.
I desperately wanted to make a game that allowed them to have fun in a halal manner, but without being so restrictive that some of the fun elements of D&D would be completely glossed over. I eliminated all talk of “deities” in the game. For example, I referred to Eldath and Eilistraee, two “deities” in the game, as “beings,” who are just supercharged immortals that give out abilities as a treat. Also, taverns, a common meeting-place for parties to take rest and eat, are just restaurants that serve mocktails.
I filtered through other content as I imagined a Muslim parent would, constantly thinking of what lessons I could impart and what could be modified. The first adventure could feature the Beauty and the Beast, a romance, but what about other stories that highlighted friendship? Kindness? Selflessness? Could I also make more NPCs who are female, to bring more representation to these girls? Doubtless, they were inundated with male protagonists in movies, books, and video games.
Play therapy is nothing new for children or adults, and so too, can games like Dungeons & Dragons be used to heal. As for the D&D brand itself? They’ve acknowledged that the game helps mental health, and one of their most recent endeavors is to offer free resources to those in education to help children learn more about emotional literacy.
The main quest behind the mansion was to find letters on the bindings of certain books. Naturally, WB and Clepta became distracted with the rooms, and Z’s paladin didn’t seem to mind. In fact, her example even encouraged them to ask questions about the environment, the characters they met, and the objects they saw. Her exploring ended up triggering an encounter between an animated pile of books, but it told her children that curiosity wasn’t necessarily a thing to be punished.
When bedtime approached, I helped pack up our table (a humble whiteboard, our starter kit, sheets, and dice). My throat was sore from the range of accents I’d put on, as well as the giggles I made when Z’s paladin failed a wisdom throw, and Clepta had rolled a 1. This is known as a critical failure, which resulted in her arrow falling clean from her bow.
I was already trying to come up with the tale of the next book, where the party would meet a rendition of Peter Pan. They could try to save Wendy after being beseeched by her brothers.
“That is a great question,” Z said as I was taking dishes back into the kitchen. I hadn’t heard her previous statement because I was so lost in my thoughts. She turned to me and asked, “When can we do this again?”
We’re meeting next Friday. Insha’Allah.
Hannah Alkadi is a Lawful Good Social Media Master, starving writer, cat mom, and total nerd. She is 29 years old and lives in Dallas, TX. Her current project is the revival of her blog, “Social Media Free Sabil Allah,” helping nonprofit and for-profit owners navigate the wild, wild web.