From the savviest of fantasy adventurers to those who have never even seen a D20 die, directly or otherwise, it's almost certain that Dungeons and Dragons has somehow influenced the entertainment they consume. Getting its start in geek subculture in the '70s and '80s, the tabletop role-playing game has swiftly risen to the fore of mainstream media; D&D has impacted creators like "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin and "She-Ra and the Princesses of Power" illustrator Noelle Stevenson. And the game has even made direct appearances on hit shows like Netflix's "Stranger Things." Perhaps the success of D&D stems from its customizability. As long as players use the rulebook, they are free to create their own world, adventure and characters, or they can choose from preexisting ones.
Today, it's not uncommon for fans of the game to follow D&D campaigns episodically via YouTube and podcasting platforms. Aram Vartian is the creator of one of those adventures: "Rise of the Demigods" — a story designed with LGBTQ-inclusivity in mind. Openly gay himself, Vartian started another D&D podcast called "Godsfall" roughly three years ago. He said that once that campaign introduced LGBTQ themes, along with "blowback" from unhappy players, there was a surge of positive reinforcement.
"I was getting letters from people like, 'I'm 16 years old, I'm living in the middle of Florida, I barely have any friends, I know no gay people, and your show makes me happy and gives me hope and drive.' And we were getting them pretty regularly," Vartian said. "I just thought, 'Well, if this smaller amount of representation means that amount to these kids, imagine a whole world where it's about them — because they don't get that, and I don't see that.' So, I just wanted to make a fantasy world that was accepting and welcoming as possible."
It wasn't long before Vartian began to work on pushing "Rise of the Demigods" from an idea to reality. Vartian used the world of "Godsfall" as his basis, and then he painstakingly and "obsessively" developed a unique backstory that occurs 105 years before his original podcast. The action in the show follows four demigods created by an all-LGBTQ cast as they experience various "trials and tribulations" in the magical world of Khalgun. Vartian serves as the dungeon master — or game leader — narrating the story. Eventually, fans and listeners of the show will be able to purchase their own game books and play this story for themselves.
"For the last game I literally wrote and produced the whole book, and there's an entire Kickstarter that I did [for 'Demigods'] that was like 250 pages long with maps and detailed things — like what crops grow in certain lands. So, I put all of the pieces there," he said. "But then when we did the characters, each [cast member] did a one-on-one intro where they talked, [described] the makeup of their towns and the people in it, and their parents and what their [character's] motivations are."
Now in its third season, Vartian said that the interactions of the participating cast members to his created world has — in true D&D form — given the show a "flavor" all its own. And it's kept audiences coming back.
"I'm just giving them mountains and rivers and geopolitical history, and they're giving all the heart," he said. "And I think the amazing thing about Dungeons & Dragons is, when you do it right, it's really a creative and collaborative story process and we end up making the world together."
Vartian emphasized that part of the success of this D&D universe stems from the fact that it's not only LGBTQ-affirming but it shies away from tired and uninspired tropes about the community.
"And that's one of the key things about our world: … No one gets to live our trauma as entertainment," he said. "These worlds are just accepting and open, and the gods have always been genderfluid and queer, and that's just how the world is. So we wanted to give [players and viewers] a place where they truly could just feel safe and express themselves and know that there was not going to be on blowback for that."
"Hooked day one."
For Vartian, his love of D&D began as early as 7 years old when an exasperated babysitter brought him a copy of the game to occupy his time.
"I was hooked day one," Vartian said with a laugh. "By the time he came back, I had a whole party I had made with four separate characters; I was ready to go."
And in part because of his love of D&D, Vartian began to realize he had a knack for storytelling. He said that it took a few failed campaigns before he landed on his first success — "Godsfall" — but that those setbacks only paved the way for "Demigods."
Looking back on the podcast's start today, Vartian said he learned to vital lessons from the process.
"One, this is about storytelling, the old adage is true: write what you know. Write something that means something to you, that's personal, that you're connected with, that's how you make great stories," he said. "The other thing is that there's a lot of aware people now, and, frankly, if we don't write our own stories, someone is going to write them for us. So, I think we have to. I think we have to step up. We have to claim the stories that are ours and make sure that when these stories are heard that they're heard from people — or at least involving people who have actually lived these lives."