COVID-19 brought grief to the world, but it also gave us a gift in the form of new Dungeons & Dragons players. D&D Pandemic Players is a series that features players who picked up (or came back to) D&D during the pandemic. D&D brings great joy no matter who you are — and that's what these players found, in the midst of a pandemic.
D&D player Jo Tan is the newest member of the Dim Sum Dollies, alongside Selena Tan and Pam Oei.
The freelance writer and performer is no stranger to the big screen either, having appeared in 2020's Tiong Bahru Social Club as the character of Geok.
But performing isn't just part of her work. In her free time, Tan also plays different characters and roles — as a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) player.
Just as she's played characters of different characters, she's also taken on different roles as a D&D player — kind of like multiclassing in real life.
"Dungeons & Dragons is improv," said Tan. Improv is short for improvisational theatre, which is an unplanned, unscripted performance that is created spontaneously. Given that a typical D&D game entails a Dungeon Master (DM) facilitating scenarios where players are (mostly) free to do whatever they want, it's an apt description of D&D.
Tan picked up D&D in 2020, when the pandemic first started.
"It was immediately after DORSCON Orange, and a whole bunch of my work was cancelled," she recounted. Singapore raised the DORSCON alert to orange in February 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My husband was like, 'You know what, I've been wanting to put together a game for a long time, why don't we try doing this?' For a while I had been going, [D&D] is interesting, but I don't know if it's for me, I have to figure out all these pieces of papers and numbers. But then I was okay, let's try it!"
And that is how Tan took the plunge into playing D&D. Her husband, Edward Choy, is also an actor.
Besides being a long-time D&D player, he also used to do live action role-playing (LARP), where players physically portray their characters through props and costumes, and play in physical environments.
You must gather your party before venturing forth
Choy put together an adventuring party of six (including Tan herself) and DM-ed The Lost Mine of Phandelver, the introductory adventure included in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set for 5th Edition. It eventually evolved into a homebrew campaign.
"I created a bard I really liked - I love bards," chuckled Tan. "Then it took off from there."
Her first character was a gnome bard named Tree Hee Hee. Tree Hee Hee wielded a ukululute — a really small instrument that was a ukelele and lute.
"We weren't a very well-built party — we did not have a cleric, so yes, I did heal," Tan spoke of Three Hee Hee's role. Healing duties were split between her and the resident paladin of the party.
Tan's character hit level 9 (one level short of using a d10 for Bardic Inspiration, but thankfully having acquired the Song of Rest ability as a healer) by the campaign's conclusion — but not before the group embarked on a theft involving a spelljammer ship, and a brief run-ins with the mind flayers
Tan eventually went on to play in more games, and has had other diverse experiences, like DMing her own games and even appearing on a D&D livestream The 4th Culture, similar to that of Critical Role.
The 4th Culture was born when one of the players from her first campaign, Ramji, thought of livestreaming a gaming session. The Twitch stream ran from December 2020 to November 2021. While the channel is still active, the game is currently on hiatus.
In that game, Tan played a blonde human himbo bard called Barra the Boy Bard. "He's got a six pack but he's not very bright."
"I was inspired by one of our party members who played a gorgeous sparkling air genasi who spoke in a sexy Lothario voice. So I wanted to do that!" she laughed.
She also played an aarakocra (birdfolk) wizard named Wu Wu. "I styled him to look like a koel bird. He was a Chinese character, so he was called Wu Wu — like the koel bird sound."
So after playing myriad characters (just like in real life), what is it about D&D that spoke to Tan?
"During the pandemic, when I couldn't even do what was my job, the most basic thing everybody can wake up to every day — I couldn't even do that. I couldn't go anywhere, especially during the height of the lockdown. I couldn't even visit my family.
And D&D was this space, where you could go anywhere and be anything and do anything and anything was possible. It was the idea of the escape. And the idea of being in charge of your own destiny — to an extent — that was so missing during the pandemic."
D&D skills, translated to real life
And through D&D, Tan learnt valuable skills that helped her in her work in theatre. "To some extent, it's about learning to work with different personalities. It's about learning how to work with other people who don't necessarily have the same style as you."
She gave an example of how she had to rein in her instinct to entertain. "Thanks to my work background, I tend to want to make sure everything is entertaining all the time. So sometimes, when someone is taking a long time to do something, I will jump in with something entertaining. But then I realised that might actually be disruptive for people who want to strategise or play the game in a certain way."
Being a D&D pandemic player and appearing on a livestream meant that Tan had plenty of online games.
"When the camera is on your face, your expressions are very obvious. It's something I constantly remember, especially since online work is so ubiquitous these days. And preparing to run those one shots, they're like online presentations — so I have to have this window here, and this window here, where do I position my windows so it looks like I'm looking at the camera?"
She explained how when reading the read aloud text for dungeons, "placing it right below the camera would make it look like you're delivering the story straight to the camera, making it more immersive for the players."
In fact, D&D inspired Tan so much that immediately after learning about the game, she wanted to write a play about.
That was the genesis of Session Zero, which ran in December 2021. Written by Tan, the play depicted a husband and wife attempting to mend their marriage through a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Directed by Huzir Sulaiman, the play featured both Tan and Brendon Fernandez as the fictional couple.
Since then, Tan has had enquiries from all over the world about Session Zero and theatre company Checkpoint Theatre is planning for another run of it next year.
Tan's current campaign is the Witchlight Carnival, where she plays Betty the dragonborn (draconic creatures) rogue. "So far, they've not been terribly useful in the carnival," she laughed. But since most of the players prefer strategising to combat, which lends itself to the nature of The Witchlight Carnival."
From that first D&D game in 2020, Tan has levelled up continuously — having gone on to DM her own games, play on a Twitch livestream, and write and perform a play about it. She's the very epitome of a multiclass D&D player.
Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for "Lion Mums", "Crimewatch", "Police & Thief", and "Incredible Tales". He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site.