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Playing Dungeons and Dragons with Porn Stars

We went to California to investigate the real lives of people we watch way too much online. It was stranger than expected, a world where sex freaks are fantasy geeks and where, for the very first time, Dungeons & Dragons is hot.

On a haunted schooner, bound for the distant Isle of Oth, we’re set upon by a band of marauding jellyfish-men with arms of stinging tentacles and fangs sharp as daggers. They haul me off the deck into the dark, frothy sea, but just before I sink under the waves, my friend Zsa Zsa the snakewoman races to the edge of the ship and hurls a long rope in my direction. Desperately, I struggle to grab hold.

Of course, I’m not really being attacked by jellyfish-men. I’m perched on the sofa in the quaint Hollywood home of porn star Mandy Morbid, a plate of chicken tikka masala on my lap, surrounded by Mandy’s fellow Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts—her porn colleagues Satine Phoenix and Kimberly Kane, a stripper named Connie, and a nude model known as Vivid Vivka. It’s been a night of firsts for us: my first time playing D&D, Vivka’s first time trying Indian food, and the group’s first time letting a guy they’ve never met before join their weekly game. Our host, Mandy—a tiny, beautiful, busty blonde, like a Japanese anime figure come to life—is playing the snakewoman character Zsa Zsa, trying to save me from our attackers.

“What’s your dexterity?” asks Zak Smith, our Dungeon Master, an intense, friendly, and animated tatted-up dude who performs in porn films under the name Zak Sabbath.

I check the stats on my character sheet—I’m a half-elf druid called Chauncey. “Thirteen.”

“OK,” says Zak. “Roll a 20-sided die. You need a 13 or lower.”

I roll a six.

“Nice,” he says, up on his feet, acting out the story as he tells it: “You grab hold of Zsa Zsa’s rope and break free of the jellyfish tentacles, and she pulls you back onto the ship. What’s your next move?”

Everyone shouts suggestions my way. Mandy and Satine pull rank—they’re longtime D&D aficionados who’ve played since high school, while Kimberly, Connie, and Vivka are more recent converts. On Satine’s advice, I tell Zak I want to cast an Obscuring Mist spell to help us escape the jellyfish-men, and after another successful roll our ship sails away free into the night.

Hours earlier I watched a few X-rated clips of Zak and Mandy, so it’s a bit odd to be in their living room now, moving miniature D&D figurines around and passing the curry. Somehow I can’t quite reconcile everyone’s absolute chillness with how lusty—even possessed—they appear on-camera.

The truth is, most porn stars’ lives are not so different from our own. They do laundry, study for midterms, and agonize over how to compose the right text message to the guy or girl they’re into. Really, the fact that they have hobbies, too, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Porn star Gia Jordan has taken up photography. Stoya and Bella­donna are avid video gamers. Sasha Grey, who received seven AVN Awards before her recent retirement from adult film, is also a devoted musician; she performs regularly with the industrial band aTelecine. “Porn never defined me,” she says. “It was always just one thing I was doing, along with all my other interests.”

If the porn universe was high school, Mandy, Satine, and their crew would be the hot, brainy punks and fantasy nerds in the back of the classroom reading Game of Thrones and carving swords onto their desks. They defy just about every notion I’ve had about porn stars—they’re not vapid or drug-crazed; rather, they discuss articles from Harper’s magazine while sipping mango juice. More than anything, they remind me of the kids in high school who’d spend a Friday night playing Risk and watching Dune while others were out in the woods doing keg-stands. Except these girls fuck on-camera for money.

Of course, not all D&D fiends end up in porn. In fact, the game carries a reputation for attracting virgins and nerds. But while the jocks from junior high are now manning gas pumps or hanging drywall, many of those outcasts who sought refuge in D&D have ascended to the top of their various fields—technology, law, medicine, even entertainment. Passionate D&D alums include Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, and Vin Diesel. Dan Harmon, creator of the hit TV comedy Community, centered an entire episode around a single game of D&D. As Harmon explains it, D&D was his introduction to creating new worlds. “Role-playing games train our brains to realize that, unlike our computers, we’re able to defy our programming,” he says. “We’re allowed to play make-believe past childhood. We can be what we want. And that realization takes you straight to the realization that you can be who you want in real life.”

There’s a pivotal scene in the final episode of Judd Apatow’s beloved cult TV series Freaks & Geeks where the school’s rebel, played by James Franco, reluctantly joins the geek gang for a game of D&D. What’s remarkable is that the scene’s key moment is not the one where Franco, the coolest kid in school, sought after by every girl, gives the game and the nerds playing it his seal of approval, but instead the one a bit later, when they take notice of his sincere appreciation for the game, catch each other’s gaze, smile, and accept him as one of them.

I’d heard that most women in porn had been abused as kids—sexually, emotionally, or physically. But the story of Mandy Morbid’s route into porn is actually a love story. She grew up in Montréal, her dad a chemist, her mom a housewife. By the age of five she’d discovered that she could use her blonde curls, blue eyes, and potent smile to get what she wanted. “I was cute, people loved me, and I learned that I could manip­ulate them,” Mandy explains. “It was fun!”

At 15 she was 80 pounds with a DD chest and had developed an exhibitionist streak. “I couldn’t wait to turn 18,” she says. “Why would I hide this body?” At 19 she had sex for the first time and at 20 began modeling nude on Suicide Girls. Then she got a message from Zak, who’d just received an M.F.A. in painting from Yale and was living as an artist in New York. He wanted to come to Montréal so she could model for him. He came to town, they fell dizzyingly in love, and a week later she was moving in. That was seven years ago.

It was Zak who got into porn first. A friend invited him to fly out to California to film a few X-rated scenes. He excelled. More work followed. Soon Mandy and Zak were moving to L.A., where the only people they knew were the folks Zak had met doing porn. Mandy wanted to give it a whirl, too. One of the first scenes she filmed was a girl-on-girl bathroom session with Sasha Grey.

“It’s simple,” says Mandy. “I like girls. If a girl’s attractive, I already have a vested interest in getting what I want. I’m not acting as much as just getting it on while the camera’s running.” For girl-on-girl scenes, Mandy gets paid $800 to $1,000; for an anal scene with Zak—her only male partner—she’ll make $1,200 to $1,500.

You might think she’d keep her line of work a secret from her family, as most porn stars do, and that if they found out they’d be devastated. Remarkably, this is not the case. Mandy’s parents and her little brother and sister know exactly what she’s up to, and they support it, though before she filmed her first scene with Zak, she wrote to her dad and said, “You explain this to Mom, because if I tell her over the phone she’ll freak out.” Her parents, as it turned out, loved Zak and trusted Mandy to make her own decisions.

“It’s funny how life goes,” Mandy says. “I was going to apply to art school. But then I met Zak.” She sets down her assortment of odd-looking dice and squeezes his hand. “I’ve learned more from him about art than I’d ever have learned in a classroom. We’ve traveled all over the world together. We have great friends. We have great sex. I consider myself really lucky.”

We’ve been at sea for days, and with no wind, the Isle of Oth remains a distant dream. An all-consuming hunger sets in. In the ship’s galley, we discover two captives, shackled to the wall—a thief and a priestess. Zsa Zsa the snakewoman and Sassafrass, a demon pirate, eye them ravenously.

I’d always imagined that D&D’s chief appeal was as a vehicle for escape, but Community’s Dan Harmon believes that the opposite is true. “A video game is a better example of escape,” he says, “because when you play a video game you recede into yourself and ultimately stop thinking about who you are. A good game of D&D excites and magnifies who you are and bonds you with others, like a night of poker with friends.”
It’s midnight in Hollywood, and a certain raunchiness has seeped into the room and the conversation. Kimberly Kane, a sexy, sultry brunette with pouty lips and a couple of AVN Female Performer of the Year nominations on her résumé, talks about her recent revelation that black guys are the best. “Not because they're bigger,” she says. “Black guys smell better. They move better, too.”

The ladies talk shop for a while, comparing their male costars like golf caddies sorting through a bag of donated clubs. But Zak, our Dungeon Master, who’s 35 and has detailed his experiences in adult film in a book called We Did Porn, keeps us focused on the game. He’s a nimble storyteller, with an impressive ability to paint a vivid scene with words, no matter how absurd or fantastical. He invokes a seemingly limitless array of Middle Earth accents and dialects, switching off between the voices of gnomes and dwarves and elves, a talent he’s cultivated since the days of DM-ing for his childhood friends. The game is more fun than I ever would’ve guessed—there’s something thrilling and titillating about inhabiting a character outside yourself and exploring a separate, alien world. Zak, in his commitment to creating the fullest experience he can, has even put together an iTunes mix, which includes all kinds of rollicking sea chanteys, as well as the T-Pain song “I’m on a Boat.” Sasha Grey, who’s played with the group, says that watching Zak made her envious: “I wanted to be the one in power. I wanted to be the one calling the shots. But I know it’s not as easy as he makes it look.”

For a time Mandy, Zak, and their friends broadcast their D&D games on a Web series called “Hit It With My Axe,” which quickly gained popularity. The clips drew some ire online from D&D purists, who felt that their beloved pastime’s reputation was being sullied. But Harmon defends anyone’s right to bend the game to their wills and brushes aside the notion that the game can be played “wrong.” “No two groups of people playing D&D have the exact same dynamic,” he says. “Some people just want to run out, find a dungeon, and go through room by room, fighting monsters and amassing treasure. We used to call them ‘hack and slash’
types. On the other end of the spectrum, I have played games in which literally not a single die was rolled because we spent three hours strategizing and six hours talking to a demon about the meaning of life. Then there’s every version of the game in between. As with poker, you’ve got to find the people with whom you love playing.”

I can’t help but notice that at every oppor­tunity, Zsa Zsa and Sassafrass—Vivka’s character—wind up in some dark corner of the ship, humping like rabbits. Eventually, the truth slips out—in real life, apparently, Mandy and Vivka have also been, well, humping like rabbits. Apparently, Vivka, a sweet and funny beauty with dyed green hair, had been living in Detroit, doing some nude modeling on Suicide Girls, when she developed a crush on Mandy and began trading messages with her. She came out to L.A. for a visit and wound up hooking up with both Mandy and Zak. Now she lives with them, and they’ve all been dating each other, one big, happy, and glowing family. It’s kind of like Three’s Company, but with more sex, more tattoos, and less Mr. Furley.

Finally we spot the Isle of Oth. But as our ship nears shore, we see that this is not the tropical paradise we’d imagined. Decrepit castles line the water, and creeping among the ruins are gray-skinned humans. We’re draped with the sense that danger is lurking. Showing no fear, Boom, an alchemist gnome, says, “What are we waiting for? Let’s investigate!”

Boom is Satine Phoenix, 31, a gorgeous long-limbed half-Filipino with 100 XXX notches on her belt, including such titles as Superwhores 12 and My Hot Wife Is Fucking Blackzilla! 7. Her path into porn, she says, was slightly more typical and started at age eight, when she became the victim of a decade-long program of sexual abuse.

If anything kept her together, it was her rich interior life. Satine became an avid reader, drawn to fantasy and science-fiction books. She taught herself how to speak fluently in Drow, a dark elf language, and began to draw pictures of the fantastical worlds she imagined. “I’d draw these intricate battle scenes,” she says, “but there was always a barbarian in the middle of the fray getting his dick chopped off.”

At 18 she fled to a San Francisco art school, where she honed her illustration skills, but also began to break down. After drifting for a few years and exploring the Bay Area’s S&M scene, she found herself acting in her first porn films. Surprisingly, the experience was thrilling and even therapeutic.

“The camera itself offered me a sense of solace,” she says. “It’s like a silent witness, recording the action. If the camera’s on, I know I’m safe.”

Eventually, Satine quit porn a couple of times, but her boyfriends kept pulling her back in. “Everyone I knew, I knew through porn,” she says. She decided she wanted to date someone outside of the porn world and put up an ad on Match.com. The first guy she met she fell in love with. She was honest with him about her line of work even though she was afraid it would scare him off, but he wasn’t deterred, and within a month he’d persuaded her to drop out of porn for good. Now she’s found full-time work as an illustrator for comic books and graphic novels. I ask if she’s still together with the guy, and she smiles and holds up her hand, showing off a diamond ring. “The wedding’s in two weeks!” she says, beaming.

While all her fiancé’s friends and siblings know about her troubled and colorful past, the guy’s parents are oblivious. “They’re strong, sturdy folks,” she says, “and they treat me like I’m their own daughter.”

She laughs and shakes her head. “I just hope they never Google my name.”

A typical porn career lasts about two years. Some girls stay in the game longer, but at some point most start looking for a way out. Kimberly Kane has been transitioning to the other side of the camera, and recently she won her first directing award. Mandy has found that “camming”—talking one-on-one with guys over video chat—has become more profitable than filming porn scenes. “Interactivity is the future of the industry,” Mandy says. “The personal connection trumps all.” She’s built up a roster of regular clients who shower her with gifts from her Amazon Wish List. Soon she’ll enroll in college classes with the goal of a degree in behavioral neuroscience.

My sense is that for these women, and many women in porn, while their body of work will endure for aeons online, their lives will move on, and one day their porn careers will recede from their minds, a strange, wild, sad, and giddy blip on the radar, something that’s always a part of them, even if it no longer represents who they are.

It’s getting late. The Indian food is long gone, and my new friends’ cadre of tiny dogs have all grown restless. I wonder if the time I’ve spent in these women’s company will ruin or enhance my experience of porn. It’s fascinating to be allowed behind the curtain, and there’s something intrinsically hot about their intelligence and warmth and their ability to alternate between normal, friendly, everyday people and howling sex-slut banshees. But at the same time, maybe we don’t want our porn stars to be humanized. Joanna Angel, the founder of BurningAngel.com, says, “Nobody has to think about our hobbies or our passions while they’re jerking off. Personally, my goal is to get people off. And if people want to know what we’re really like, I can tell you—we’re regular people with an unusual occupation leading regular lives.”

The room has grown still, and Zak leans in close to finish tonight’s chapter of the girls’ continuing D&D adventure. “You come ashore on the Isle of Oth,” he says in a hushed voice. “It’s a strange, mystical, mysterious place. At first the gray-skinned slaves come rushing forward from the ruins, seemingly hostile, and you expect to be attacked. But as they come nearer, they fall suddenly to their knees in awe. It’s as though they recognize you for who you might become to them.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “You know who they believe you to be, right? They believe you to be their saviors.”