Milo Applejohn (he/him, they/them) is a Métis graphic medicine and fiction illustrator. He is the author of graphic novel Fox on the Table: Broken Sun and novella Fox on the Table: The Princess and the Plague King, and he was most recently a story contributor to the North American Indigenous storytelling novel Cautionary Fables, now on Kickstarter. You can follow him on Twitter @bonmotmilo.
Milo, how did you get into playing D&D and when did it hook your interest?
I started playing in 2007 when I was invited to join a party. I thought it would be an actual party, but when I arrived, I realized it was a D&D party. I stayed anyway and played; I actually met my husband there! I had always been a nerd, but initially I wasn’t very interested in the game. That first group was very rules based, and I was pretty checked out. When the group fell apart, I didn’t play for a long time.
After I had my first baby, I really needed human interaction. My husband and I were friends with another pair of couples who had kids. We were this great mom/dad/nonbinary parenting group, and we all started playing D&D together at parent-convenient times. Unfortunately, that group dissolved when one of the couples divorced, but I joined other groups because by then, I was much more into the game. Most recently, I’ve been playing for a couple years with Jessy and Haley Boros and others.
It wasn’t until I tried DMing that I was really hooked. That’s when I could see D&D from a narrative experience rather than a mechanical experience. I introduced romance into the games, which was really fun and gave us opportunities to learn consent and boundaries.
I have had such great friends in my D&D groups, and what I love most about it all is giving my DMing to my friends. I’m a creative, academic person, and I can create a story and experience as a gift to the people I really care about.
Have roleplaying games helped you explore or express your queer identity?
I wish they had! Honestly, I’ve been struggling to play characters since coming out. I usually play masculine female characters, and I spent so long building my identity around female characters that I don’t know how to move forward. I will often play elves because they’re androgynous. There’s this idea in D&D that you should be playing an idealized version of yourself, like, “This is the man I ought to be.” But I don’t know who that is, and I always feel like I have to fight to present as masculine. I do want to play a trans character someday, but I feel like they would become a Mary Sue.
Getting deeply involved in a character feels too weird and personal right now, so I prefer to DM. That way I can play a lot of different characters, which feels more comfortable. It also lets me feel like I’m creating for others rather than for myself.
The most important thing D&D has helped me with was giving me a supportive community. When I came out two years ago, I lost the people who raised me to transphobia, which I wasn’t expecting. But my D&D community was right there, so happy for me, celebrating me. A little while before that, I was diagnosed with autism, and again, my group accepted me. That’s why I love creating things for them, whether that’s campaigns, graphic novels, or character drawings.
What kind of stories do you like to tell when you’re DMing?
I like to create stories that are in the grey space. There is so much there to be explored. I think D&D and tarot have a lot in common: I think of tarot as a psychological tool that shows you what you’re looking for. D&D can do the same thing.
I’ve always been a fan of complicating D&D stereotypes – give me a Drow charity worker! My villains aren’t evil, and my good guys aren’t perfect. In my stories, I always want my players to get past the automatic knee-jerk reaction of killing the character who betrays them. I’ve tried to lead them in that direction by dropping backstory about someone that they killed that leaves them thinking, “Oh, they were cool as heck!” Hopefully that makes them stop and think before killing the next NPC.
It’s not always easy telling stories in the grey space. We played a year long campaign where it began with your traditional behind the scenes quest giver, but because of the way this character was read in a setting where we were asking these questions about intent, the party ultimately changed sides! I hadn’t planned it this way, and it was fascinating to see the traditional ‘mysterious quest giver’ archetype processed through this lens where in the end, they found him manipulative.
What makes a D&D table feel safe to you? How do you create safe spaces for people playing with you?
I always do veils and lines with my players to establish boundaries: Something is a “veil” if it’s okay to happen in the story but not to my character, and a “line” is something they don’t want in the story at all. I also make sure they know that these are changeable at any time, and that we can have open communication. A horror campaign is challenging because it should be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t negatively influence a person’s mental health.
Other than those boundaries, I think the most important thing is having safe players. I don’t want any gay jokes, no way. No racist comments. In the world we create, I never want someone’s identity to be a problem (“Everyone in this town hates elves”) unless they specifically write it into their character’s backstory.
However, I don’t think that “safe” means “not dangerous.” Danger can be a part of safety. I am definitely willing to explore messy themes with my players; if they have a dark, twisted backstory and we’re both comfortable working with it, we will. I’m not The Great DM Therapist, but there should be space for the uncomfortable, yucky things in D&D. We need that. A lot of female and queer authors write a lot of really messed up stuff because they’ve been denied expressing it for so long. So many people have traumatic histories that they feel they can’t present to the world. If we bring some of that into D&D, maybe people can see that the trauma can be ugly, but that doesn’t mean that you’re ugly.
You have written a graphic novel called Fox on the Table: Broken Sun that became quite a hit. What did you learn from that experience?
I wanted to make something for the first group that I DMed for. I was in a really low place, and this was something I could latch on and escape to. Drawing it for them… their joy gave me joy. I made it for fun, but it was received voraciously; I went to shows and toured the US with it.
At those shows, I got to meet the community. There was a lot of queer trauma there, and people who were drawing that. The indie community is a really safe space for disability and queer people. It’s becoming weaponized, though. These safe spaces started as an escape, but now we’re being confined to those spaces, like we’re not allowed to ask for more. When you leave indie spaces, you’re shocked by how little safety is out there.
I don’t think the answer is to stay in safe spaces, though. They can be addictive and dangerous in their own right. A lot of the time, expectations in queer spaces are unreasonable. People want things to be unproblematic, but that isn’t possible. It’s like rules lawyering real life. Like we talked about before, we have to be more comfortable in the grey space.
Do you have any recommendations of queer nerdy content that you would like people to know about?
- Cautionary Fables co-edited by Alina Pete.
- DMs of Vancouver by Jessy Boros and Sean Hagen – they are trying really hard to be inclusive and it’s awesome.
- RCR Charity Event – I love that you’re supporting Rainbow Refugee. (RCR note: This feels self-serving to include, but we’re grateful for the shoutout!)