During the pandemic, one thing has become clear: the need for play is great and can’t be denied. The nerds of yesteryear who played Dungeons & Dragons, grokked Spock, and looked for ways to express their geekiness, have found themselves in this time, reaching out and finding their people online to resort to playing a game they all knew well and loved
“I guess it all started in junior high for me. In the early 80s, I was part of my ‘nerd crew,’” Star Trek: Discovery actor Anthony Rapp, who plays science officer and chief engineer Paul Stamets in the science fiction franchise, tells Den of Geek when we virtually sit down to discuss our mutual love for Dungeons & Dragons. “We were reading Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and had our own little weird literary magazine. We were playing computer games and I don’t know who it was in our group who introduced it to us, but then Dungeons & Dragons became our thing. I was reading The Hobbit and watching all the Trek films and was a total comic nerd. All of it! We immediately fell in love with the Advanced D&D books like The Monster Manual, The Dungeon Master’s Guide – and spent hours just reading through them.”
Like many of us, Rapp has found the time and space during the pandemic to return to nerdy passions of his youth.
“One of my fiancé Ken’s friends talked a couple of years ago about playing a game, but he lives in L.A. and I live in New York, so you know, we weren’t doing virtual then,” says Rapp. “But in the middle of the pandemic, he decided that he would run a campaign via Zoom and invited me to join. So, I created a character that I would have done, back in the day, a Halfling Rogue … but that was one of the first characters I created, that I always wanted to play. In the meantime, they’ve come out with the Arcane Trickster! You know, Halfling Rogue who loves a little bit of magic.”
It’s the creation that’s part of the fun with this game, but it rests on two foundations: a love of storytelling, but also on one that’s based on play.
“I love playing games.” Anthony tells me. “I love board games, video games, card games, Poker – but while I anticipated enjoying the game aspect, I did not anticipate how much I would love the role-playing. Because, I’m an actor; I thought, I get the satisfaction of that from my work. You know, playing games for different reasons! But it has been at least, if not more satisfactory playing these creations. I’m in two official campaigns right now but I’ve played a couple of one-shots, played on some podcasts and played for charity.”
Play, for simply the fun of it, is a concept that a lot of gamers overlook sometimes. To be lost in the joy of one’s own creative expression is pure play and is an aspect that gets lost in the strategizing, the social dynamics or simply due to competitiveness. I asked Anthony about this dimension.
“To just dream up scenarios is a joy,” he says. “In a few months, I’m biting the bullet and going to come up with my own campaign. I’m going to DM an ongoing campaign with friends back in New York when I return from shooting Season 4 [of Star Trek: Discovery]. I’ll be creating my own world, governmental-societal stuff. What I’m finding, is that I’m loving the collaborative story-telling aspect of it. I’ve done writing on my own, and I do enjoy it, but it’s solitary.”
“What I love most in creative projects is collaboration,” continues Rapp. “As an actor, I am a collaborator. I’m working with the writer, the director, my fellow cast members. But as a DM, I get the best of both worlds and then working off what my players bring. Their backstories spark wonderfully exciting new ideas and I weave them in. It’s long-form storytelling that also fits into the themes.”
Of course, work and play often intersect.
“One of the games I’m playing is with my castmates and friends from Star Trek: Discovery,” shares Rapp. “Noah [Ryn, married to Mary Wiseman] is our DM. He’s been home-brewing stuff and using some published stuff as a springboard. [Adira actor] Blu del Barrio, my fiancée, Ken, [Gray actor] Ian Alexander, and [Keyla Detmer actor] Emily Coutts are all in it. We work together and we play together. We’ve always been a very close cast and get together often to play games but this has been a great new addition to how we connect with each other.”
Has Rapp ever channeled aspects of previous characters from his own career into his role-playing in exploring more of how Star Trek intersected with his D&D experiences?
“One of the great things I’ve enjoyed about my roleplaying is that I’m creating for myself,” answers Rapp. “I’m glad that, when I act, I get to interpret a writer’s words about a character, but there’s something extra-special about finding that person within myself, discovering in the moment who they are when I play them. I had an acting teacher years ago who used a metaphor that I love to use in describing acting. It’s almost like you have a mixing board, like when you’re in a sound studio, and you are turning up the frequency on that part of yourself you use to play one character. So, it’s kind of like always using yourself as the raw material, but to transform, you have to amp up your aggression or your sweetness.”
I had to know what characters Anthony’s Star Trek: Discovery castmates play…
“They play characters that are totally right for them,” says Rapp. Apparently, Blu del Barrio is a wizard, Mary Wiseman a Barbarian/Ranger multi-class, Emily Coutts is playing a Cleric, Rapp himself is a Druid. “Even Sonequa [Martin-Green] and her husband guested in one of our games and she played an Aasimar Barbarian – like an Angelic being,” says Rapp. “How she embodied that character was exactly right. It was so Sonequa.”
Rapp loves the process of seeing his fellow players develop their charactrs.
“Far be it for me to say what character somebody should be,” says Rapp. “If I’m a DM, I want that person to play a character that they really want to play—not because they think it’s the right decision but because it’s a character that really speaks to them. In creating this character, they need to lean into playing it and bring it to life in a way that’s exciting and meaningful. I am so not interested in my players optimizing the shit out of everything. I want them to make these choices because they resonate. You can make any combination of skills or abilities, powerful. It’s not about winning. It’s a game.”
Rapp’s world building for his first campaign is reflective of the ideals in Star Trek. His first setting is a lone city in a desert.
“I started out thinking about this idea for the campaign I’m going to run for my friends in New York,” explains Rapp. “It’s a literal and figurative oasis. It was founded in the desert as a defiant symbol that it can be made beautiful anywhere with magic. I want to make it a haven for all people and it is difficult to get there, so you have to really want to be there. But it’s an attempt at a utopia in a harsh environment. I don’t know where this idea came from, but I’ve started to branch it out and seeing what else is in this world, in this northern part of the continent. I’m thinking about power structures and want to address power, inequity and racism … so those are the themes that I’m working with.”
It is the joy of playing. But, this type of creativity also can be channeled into positive influences in the world. Anthony shared with me about his involvement in the upcoming “Jasper’s Game Day” event happening this week.
A reaction to the loss of two friends to suicide within the span of ten months, Fenway and her dad, Aaron, initiated this event to bring attention and awareness to mental health. A week-long celebration of game play and fundraising, Rapp is lending his presence to this event to indulge in play for the love of it but for also a worthy cause.
“Jasper’s Game Day was started by Fenway Jones,” says Rapp. “She started this ongoing series of game events to create fundraising opportunities and a greater sense of awareness around suicide and suicide prevention. I learned about it in the D&D Community that exists on Twitter … I’m new to the Twitter-sphere/D&D Community but I everyone that I’ve interacted with has been phenomenal. There’s a spirit of generosity and camaraderie and collaboration that’s really special.”
For Rapp, many of those experiences have come during his D&D campaign with the DISCO crew. He describes a really intense battle during a session in which his character, who Rapp describes as “justice-driven,” started a fight that escalated into an entire session during which three characters almost died.
“It was a real-high stakes game that was really enjoyable, with total surprise and totally improv,” recounts Rapp. “But then there was the follow-up session in which there was a clean-up of it between our characters. Because my character had behaved in this way, and he almost caused our deaths, people were upset with him. But we really played it all out. Like fully, and [DM] Noah gave us the time and space to process the trauma and messiness of how people navigate things like this. I mean, I had to say to Mary, ‘Are we all good? Because that was just my character!’ And she was like, ‘Of course!’ But it was really good and meaningful to have a safe place like that to do that. That was probably the most rewarding and enjoyable experience I’ve had to date.”
Nerds find a way. They tell stories and invite others to join them. They live to make sense of the world they live in, and in their chaotic and creative ways, change it for the better. Rapp’s work and play come together through his celebration of nerdy ways. We’ve all experienced it and we know it makes the world a better place.