Sunshine with an average of 26°C, the Ionian Sea just three minu­tes away by foot, and almost every evening a fire­work dis­play on the beach. How could one make bet­ter use of the­se sce­ne­ries than by play­ing role-play­ing games with 28 other nerds from all over Europe? 

Pen-and-paper role-play­ing games and nerd cul­tu­re are no lon­ger a frin­ge phe­no­me­non, and so the­re are com­mu­nities ever­y­whe­re dedi­ca­ted to this hob­by and the sen­se of com­mu­ni­ty that comes with it. One such com­mu­ni­ty is Dragon Legion, a non-pro­fit orga­niz­a­ti­on foun­ded in Germany. “It all began as a group of friends who thought it was cool to orga­ni­ze role-play­ing games tog­e­ther,” says Rasmus “Ras” Pechuel, co-foun­der and pre­si­dent of Dragon Legion. They now have mem­bers and events in 18 European coun­tries, most recent­ly on the Greek island of Zakynthos. 

Creating one´s own cha­rac­ter, often the first step in role play­ing games.

Role-play­ing for Exchange 

Receiving a mes­sa­ge that you can app­ly for one of two spots for a Europe-wide event whe­re almost all cos­ts are cove­r­ed can under­stand­a­b­ly make one scep­ti­cal. However, in this case, it was­n’t an alle­ged prince from the other side of the world, but rather the afo­re­men­tio­ned Dragon Legion. They regu­lar­ly orga­ni­ze events to bring tog­e­ther young peop­le from various European coun­tries and to moti­va­te them to exchan­ge through a sys­tem that requi­res coope­ra­ti­on, com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, crea­ti­vi­ty, and more: through role-play­ing games. They recei­ve finan­cial sup­port through an Erasmus grant. This allows them to relie­ve the par­ti­ci­pants of the finan­cial bur­den and enab­le inter-European travel. 

“Of cour­se, we con­nect peop­le across bor­ders, but bene­ath the sur­face of such an event, the­re is much more,” say Ras and Ogge. The lat­ter vol­un­te­e­red at Dragon Legion for a year, tra­ve­ling from Sweden to Germany. In order not to make the play­ers focus on being as com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ve and crea­ti­ve as pos­si­ble, but to let them feel free and rela­xed, the­se hid­den effects are rare­ly addres­sed. The events are con­duc­ted ent­i­re­ly in English; ine­vi­ta­b­ly, lan­guage skills are trai­ned. During the game, play­ers must sol­ve pro­blems tog­e­ther and may also face dilem­mas. Without naming it, inter­cul­tu­ral values are com­pa­red, and com­pro­mi­ses are found to make joint decisi­ons that also have con­se­quen­ces for the rest of the game. 

With the cha­rac­ters they have crea­ted, play­ers go on adven­tures, each gui­ded by a Game Director.

For the Player Event: Ancient Greece, par­ti­ci­pants tra­vel­led to the Greek island of Zakynthos by pla­ne, car, or fer­ry. After che­cking into the hotel rooms, they first had to get used to the new situa­ti­on — new room­ma­tes, unfa­mi­li­ar lan­guages, and a cli­ma­te that par­ti­cu­lar­ly affec­ted the mucous mem­bra­nes of the Northern Europeans. The orga­ni­zers made sure to mix natio­na­li­ties as well as pos­si­ble in the room assign­ments, so that cli­ques which only speak in their nati­ve lan­guage and unin­ten­tio­nal­ly exclu­de others would not form. 

“During a typi­cal youth event, the­re is a work­shop, and you talk about a spe­ci­fic topic, right? And it’s always about repre­sen­ting your coun­try,” Ras remarks, “but that only pro­mo­tes ste­reo­ty­pes again.” As he sta­tes, as a per­son, you can­not repre­sent a coun­try, only your own expe­ri­en­ces. This works much bet­ter and more sus­tainab­ly when you’­re not fixa­ted on having to repre­sent a spe­ci­fic theme. 

Even out­side of the game, tho­se pre­sent deve­lop an inte­rest in each other. Conversations ari­se about life situa­tions, public trans­por­ta­ti­on, and poli­tics in the other person’s home coun­try. Who would have thought that an Icelandic is also wai­t­ing for the end of the aging par­ties in the government, even if they can only laugh about the German inter­net connection. 

Welcome to the Bronze Age  

After get­ting to know each other, the games were ope­ned. After all, this is a so-cal­led Player Event – the play­ers are sup­po­sed to play the role-play­ing sys­tem “Runestones” deve­lo­ped by Dragon Legion in a pre­vious­ly laid out sce­n­a­rio. As Ogge exp­lains, it’s desi­gned so that you can crea­te your cha­rac­ter and start play­ing wit­hin ten minu­tes. Additionally, unli­ke many other role-play­ing sys­tems, it does­n’t invol­ve dice that you would have to roll across a table; you can play it on the go. “Especially [at events] in Iceland, when we take peop­le to gla­ciers or lava rivers, it can give them a com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent impres­si­on of the sce­n­a­rio they’­re play­ing in,” descri­bes Ras. 

For a bet­ter immer­si­on in anci­ent Greece, the event takes place in modern-day Zakynthos.

The sto­ries told during the events are always tailo­red to the loca­ti­on. In this case, the play­ers found them­sel­ves in Bronze Age Greece. As cham­pions cho­sen by the gods, their task was to collect the most arti­facts imbued with the power of the Titans. Four groups, each under the wing of a dif­fe­rent god or god­dess, play­ed in par­al­lel. Each game mas­ter, refer­red to by Dragon Legion as a Game Director, repres­ents dif­fe­rent loca­ti­ons in Greece whe­re arti­facts can be hid­den. Thus, the actions of one group can have con­se­quen­ces for the next. For examp­le, Poseidon’s cham­pions retrie­ved an arti­fact from Charybdis’ maw and hid a decoy. Unfortunately, Artemis’ pro­té­gés fell for it. Players who­se cha­rac­ters died during the adven­ture were not eli­mi­na­ted from the game. Hades brought them from the under­world into his own team. 

During a boat trip around the island, rela­ti­ons­hips across Europe are for­ged that will be main­tai­ned for mon­ths after.

Everyone is just play­ing their role  

Role-play­ing and fan­ta­sy are often cri­ti­ci­zed by out­si­ders as mere esca­pism, a way to avoid real-world pro­blems. Is this accu­sa­ti­on jus­ti­fied? Ras is con­vin­ced of the oppo­si­te: “We are all very con­di­tio­ned by our socie­ty. […] Your opi­ni­on is so stron­gly shaped by the press, the peop­le around you, and in many cases, it would do us good to get away from the poli­ti­cal bur­den [of the real world] and to con­si­der pro­blems and dif­fi­cul­ties as a human being. In role-play­ing, you are someo­ne else. You are a cha­rac­ter who has just been con­cei­ved. […] In pro­blems whe­re the­re is no right or wrong, you can think much more free­ly.” He often obser­ves how peop­le can app­ly the skills deve­lo­ped in this way back in rea­li­ty. Detaching from the “real world” is not a pro­blem of role-play­ing, but rather its grea­test strength. 

According to Ogge, being able to act out cha­rac­ter traits that one’s envi­ron­ment may pre­vent them in ever­y­day life is ano­t­her important point. He belie­ves that’s why Dragon Legion often attracts mem­bers from the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty — trans* indi­vi­du­als often feel that role-play­ing gives them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to bet­ter dis­co­ver who they want to be. According to Ogge, the play­er com­mu­ni­ty is also very open in this regard; no one ques­ti­ons why you would play a fema­le cha­rac­ter if you were per­cei­ved as male. 

Since anci­ent times, stone stacks have ser­ved as trail markers.

Play, Study, Social Dynamics 

Elnaz Shadras also sees this inclu­si­vi­ty. She is a social sci­en­tist with the non-pro­fit orga­niz­a­ti­on Voices of the World and collects data as a silent obser­ver on the men­tal and social effects that pro­jects like this have on the par­ti­ci­pants. Through her rese­arch, Dragon Legion hopes to be reco­gni­zed as a European net­work and recei­ve a cor­re­spon­ding fun­ding. This would allow for more events to be finan­ced and con­duc­ted, and ins­tead of rely­ing on vol­un­te­ers, they could be orga­ni­zed by per­ma­nent staff who can then be com­pen­sa­ted for their work. 

For the sci­en­ti­fic per­spec­ti­ve, the first con­gress on role­play­ing games in edu­ca­ti­on and the­ra­py was held in October 2023 at the Franckesche Stiftungen. Among dif­fe­rent key­notes and pre­sen­ta­ti­ons by edu­ca­tio­na­lists, the­ra­pists, and other sci­en­tists working on that topic, it was pos­si­ble to take part in various work­shops to even­tual­ly deve­lop new approa­ches to investigate. 

In prac­ti­ce, Dragon Legion is working on their own role-play­ing sys­tem to be dis­tri­bu­t­ed to German schools and to be inte­gra­ted into extra­cur­ri­cu­lar pro­grams. The pre­vious­ly men­tio­ned bene­fits in terms of crea­ti­vi­ty, team buil­ding, and pro­blem-sol­ving app­ly in this sce­n­a­rio just as well. To Ras’ reg­ret, howe­ver, the con­ta­c­ted minis­tries of edu­ca­ti­on were not con­vin­ced. The decisi­ve argu­ment to be able to imple­ment the pro­ject was that the stu­dents were going to speak English. 

The ques­ti­on remains as to why the ongo­ing pro­jects are fun­ded through Erasmus — known more for scho­l­ar­s­hips for stu­dy­ing and doing internships abroad. The pro­jects of Dragon Legion fall under the umbrel­la of Erasmus+ Youth, the sec­tion dedi­ca­ted to “non-for­mal and infor­mal edu­ca­ti­on,” as descri­bed on the web­site. In gene­ral, “Erasmus” is a collec­tion of various pro­ject funds. According to Elnaz, the fun­ding for stu­dy­ing abroad is the oldest and the­re­fo­re the best-known. 

Sunshine with an average of 26°C, the Ionian Sea just three minutes away by foot, and almost every evening a firework display on the beach. How could one make better use of these sceneries than by playing role-playing games with 28 other nerds from all over Europe? 

Pen-and-paper role-playing games and nerd culture are no longer a fringe phenomenon, and so there are communities everywhere dedicated to this hobby and the sense of community that comes with it. One such community is Dragon Legion, a non-profit organization founded in Germany. "It all began as a group of friends who thought it was cool to organize role-playing games together," says Rasmus "Ras" Pechuel, co-founder and president of Dragon Legion. They now have members and events in 18 European countries, most recently on the Greek island of Zakynthos.
Nearly 30 par­ti­ci­ants from a dozen EU sta­tes, gathe­red in front of one of the smal­lest church­es in Europe.


Finally, the com­pe­ti­ti­on of the gods and god­des­ses comes to an end; the cham­pions have ear­ned their place in Elysium. Ras and the game mas­ters are plea­sed with the sto­ries the play­ers have shaped. The play­ers share with each other the adven­tures they experienced. 

Friendships have for­med bet­ween the rounds of play. Many par­ti­ci­pants have alrea­dy made plans to wri­te let­ters or post­cards to each other, to visit or meet again at ano­t­her Dragon Legion event. The grand fare­well took place at Vienna Airport, the trans­fer point for almost all par­ti­ci­pants, whe­re they went their sepa­ra­te ways back to their home coun­tries. While at the begin­ning one might have been very con­scious of their own accent and spea­king English might have felt uncom­for­ta­ble, now it was almost dif­fi­cult to return to their nati­ve language. 

Dragon Legion has achie­ved its goals: con­nec­ting peop­le across bor­ders, encou­ra­ging exchan­ge, and pro­mo­ting lan­guages — all wrap­ped up in play and tra­vel. On their web­site, you can alrea­dy app­ly for the next events, whe­re pri­or expe­ri­ence in role-play­ing is not always necessary. 

Text, trans­la­ti­on and images: Stefan Kranz

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