“I love creating characters with important life lessons to learn.”

I'm from Fall Creek, Wisconsin, which is a very small town. Growing up, I was surrounded by a family of storytellers.

The game Dungeons and Dragons taught Aiden Sanfelippo to become a better storyteller, learn about the world, set and achieve goals, and build community.
Photos by Andi Stempniak

Aidan Sanfelippo |Eau Claire, WI

My dad’s a public speaker, and my grandparents love to tell stories. My paternal grandmother has been writing poetry for longer than I’ve been alive, and my mom’s mother used to tell us stories that she created for bedtime whenever we stayed at her house. I grew up hearing stories about grasshoppers that were aliens, or the ‘Halloween Cat,’ who used to steal away with children. 

I have always loved stories. As a young kid, I was very involved in the theater. I was six years old when I was in my first play. Being able to play different characters and tell stories for a bunch of people fueled my desire for storytelling. I just loved it. 

Then, when I was in high school, my uncle introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. It was a big passion of his in college. Since he and I shared similar interests, he thought I might like it. To play Dungeons and Dragons, or D & D, each player creates a character. They then tell a collective story where the player’s characters work to overcome challenges set in the world of the Dungeon Master or ‘DM.’ This world is usually fantasy but it can be any genre. I have been a player in science fiction worlds where we traveled through space, horror stories where people tried to find dangerous monsters, and even a western story. In the game, you work with your fellow players to solve tasks, explore the world, and follow your character’s goals.

Each player roleplays as a character with specific traits, backgrounds, and abilities. In order to interact with the Dungeon Master’s world, they roll dice. Those rolls determine the outcomes of specific situations or decisions the characters make. The Dungeon Master, who creates the world and plays all the other characters within it, has the final say in any aspect of the game. D&D is a way to exercise your creativity, build connections with other players, and just have a fun time with friends. 

At the time my uncle introduced me to the game, I was already a fan of fantasy, but being able to create a story with a bunch of different people was appealing to me. I wanted to play, and I had a very close-knit friend group, but they weren’t into that kind of thing. I didn’t want to try to force them into something they wouldn’t enjoy, so I ended up looking for others who might be interested.

Even though I was from a small town, I was lucky enough to find plenty of people who wanted to play with me. A lot of kids I knew had a love of games like Magic the Gathering, which has some similar elements to D&D. I remember going around and thinking, this kid seems like he would like to play D&D, why don’t I bring him in? A couple of my friends had parents who had played it before, but we hadn’t really played D&D before we became a group. I still feel lucky to have found the courage to go around and ask, “Hey, y’all. I Want to DM a D&D game and I heard that you might want to play.” 

Personally, I love creating characters who have important life lessons to learn. One of my favorite character’s names was Fiend. They were a Tiefling cleric (a demon whose role in the game is healing). Throughout the campaign, they had to learn to face a darker side of themselves. In that campaign, the goal was to create a character that had to learn to live with all parts of themselves. Another character I played was a doctor dealing with the loss of his brother. He was an Alchemist whose ultimate goal was to bring people back from the dead, but he was faced with having to learn humility in order to let go of his grief.

I think with D&D, there’s always a part of ourselves in our characters. I happen to be someone who loves learning about the world and know I still have a lot to learn, which is something I try to put into all of my characters.

D&D changed my life. In some ways, it gave me a purpose. Even though I had that experience of being in a family of storytellers, I always thought I wanted to be something else. I used to think I wanted to be a journalist, or a photographer, or something akin to that. Sometimes I thought I just wanted to act in other peoples’ stories. It wasn’t until I got into D&D that I realized I wanted to tell stories, too. The game gave me an outlet to talk, to write, and to help people along the way. It really brought out in me the idea that I could write my own stories.

Going into college, I was looking for a group of people to get to know, so I joined this university group called the Gamers Guild, which was fantastic. They mostly play board games. When I first arrived, I walked right up to the person who seemed to be leading things and asked, ‘Does anyone play Dungeons and Dragons here?’

They looked at me and said, ‘We’ve had a couple of people come up and ask that. We’re going to build a signup sheet.’ And that’s how I met my group. That was a pivotal moment for me. Some of my closest friends, including my current roommates, were there that day. 

Later, I was invited to be a part of this new group that they were thinking of starting called the Table Toppers. They wanted to create a welcome space for anyone who wanted to play tabletop role-playing games. I said, ‘Let me know when it is.’ I was 100% in. I even made a couple jokes about how I didn’t have to be the one building the group this time. To be honest, I was a little bit intimidated by the new group at first. It was a lot of new people to try and get to know, but as we sat down together, told stories, and planned our group, we all really clicked and became friends. Being asked to help build the group was a dream come true, honestly. 

There was a lot of interest in D&D at the time. The game plays a critical role in the very popular shows Stranger Things and Critical Role, which generated a lot of that interest. I remember when the show first came out, I had a bunch of people coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, this is the thing from Stranger Things.’ That was fantastic. 

As it turned out, we started at a very inopportune time because that was the year that we were out with COVID. We had one in-person session, and then we were all online for the next year. At the time, I was staying with my family, so at least I had some company, but I heard a lot of stories of people just being alone through all of that. I was taking classes online and was playing games with my friends still, but we were doing everything online. I’m a very social person, so that wasn’t ideal. Still, having this online game community helped. It was enough. 

Even though we were a bit removed, I was able to build a bunch of connections with people online. I met a lot of people who I was able to look for in person once we were back on campus, and we got back into the swing of things. We were able to recognize each other through the games we played even though since we were online, we didn’t actually know who we were playing with outside of a voice and a name.  Having those connections, having literal stories from the games we played together to connect us back on campus was wonderful. 

Table Toppers wasn’t only the basis of my social group, it helped me grow as a leader. Most of the members of the Table Toppers had never even played D&D before joining. Because of that, I really had to develop my leadership skills. I had to learn how to utilize everyone’s strengths, how to make sure that everyone is being included, and how to know who needs to have the last shot at the dragon to finally defeat it. D&D is a great equalizer in that way. As a group, we put a lot of energy into making sure that our players are comfortable and free to contribute to the story when they want to. We are ready to help bring people out of their shells as well. It’s a beautiful moment when you’re a dungeon master and you see your players really engaged and reacting to something that you built for them. In those moments I just think, ‘They’re into the story,’ and that’s the best I can hope for.

One thing that I’ve learned through playing Dungeons & Dragons is that it’s all about the community. It’s all about the party. At this point, I have been the dungeon master for quite some time, but as a player, I tended to hog the stage. Now, however, I know that it’s so much more fun when everyone gets the chance to do something. We have to work together to accomplish any task, which is an incredible bonding experience. 

Stories are connections to people, and during the COVID era, we were all without a lot of connections. The stories that we built through our games were such a big part of how I got through COVID, and I know they helped a lot of other people get through as well. This is one of the main reasons why building this community from the ground up with my friends has been one of my greatest achievements of my life to this point.

Aiden’s story was produced by Alexandria Delcourt.

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