Professors Beyond the Classroom: Dr. Emily McGowin

From staging rescue missions for good goblins to starting skirmishes with orcs, Dr. McGowin and her family are master storytellers, venturing into the imaginative world of Dungeons and Dragons.

Words: Cassidy Keenan ’21
Photos: Josh and Alexa Adams

Wheaton College IL Emily McGowin Dungeons and Dragons

“You’re making up the story together. There’s something beautiful about that synergy.”

When the pandemic began in earnest, many people developed new hobbies to get by, such as journaling, baking sourdough bread, knitting their brows over crossword puzzles, or simply binge-watching TV shows. Dr. Emily McGowin and her family were no exception on this quest to fill their time, and they landed on befriending orcs, goblins, druids, fighters, battles, magic, and much more.

Dr. McGowin and her husband first got invested in “Dungeons and Dragons” (D&D), a fantasy tabletop game, as a way to connect with their oldest son, when a game manual piqued his interest. Between her child and a friend of theirs from church who knew how to play, Dr. McGowin overcame the initial intimidation and set up a campaign with her family. In a campaign like theirs, one player has the role of Dungeon Master, or DM. The DM creates a backstory for a fantasy world, and each player creates their own character within the world, everyone embarking on an improvisational adventure and making up the story as they go along. This game has now lasted around two years.

“Every Saturday, we played the campaign, me and my husband, our good friend Brandon, and our two oldest kiddos,” said Dr. McGowin. “Our youngest has kind of done cameos, she’s been in and out. She’s only nine, so she has trouble sitting still. But we played D&D on Saturday mornings and we did church on Sunday mornings. It became part of our survival routine.”

The game originated with a group of people playing complex tabletop war reenactment games. Eventually, the creators fused the concept with fantastical elements, drawing inspiration from Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings. The result was a multifaceted, collaborative, and immersive storytelling game that friend groups, coworkers, and families like Dr. McGowin’s can now enjoy all around the world.

According to Dr. McGowin, some of the unsung benefits of D&D include teaching players confidence and empathy, in addition to introducing her children to complex ideas like the brokenness of human nature and the cycle of life and death. Some of their family’s in-game storytelling efforts are amusing, such as the time they accidentally added an entire side character by rescuing a goblin from a group of orcs. Other moments are deeply poignant and unexpectedly devastating, like when the character McGowin’s daughter had been playing as for two years died suddenly. The imaginary funeral lasted two hours, resulted in many very real tears, and impacted the family so deeply that it inspired a piece of Dr. McGowin’s writing, which was later published in an online magazine.

“My favorite part is that it’s cooperative storytelling,” said Dr. McGowin. “Often, when you’re doing storytelling, it’s one person or one voice. But in Dungeons and Dragons, it’s however many people you have at the table, plus whatever additional characters I might throw in. You’re making up the story together. There’s something beautiful about that synergy, that we’re all bringing our creativity, our interests, our flaws, and our strengths, and kind of figuring things out together.”