Community Storytelling and the “World’s Greatest Role-playing Game”
The year is 2014, and four men ranging in age from 18 to 28 are gathered around a dilapidated old table (it was our only furniture, free is free) in a rather un-spacious Seattle apartment. We gathered here every week, with few exceptions, for two years, and played the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (mostly, we also dabbled in Serenity RPG, Cyberpunk, homebrew systems, and more) for about three to four hours. Sometimes we laughed, a lot. Sometimes we cried, a little.
Those two years created characters and stories I will always hold close to my heart. But it’s just a game, right?
More and more people are being drawn to the “world’s greatest roleplaying game” recently. Nerds (like me) can rejoice that their lifetime hobby is suddenly not social suicide to admit to enjoying. Thanks to the general popularity of nerd culture these days, alongside the success of Stranger Things (which heavily features the game) and the rise of shows such as The Adventure Zone and Critical Role, times have never been better for tabletop gamers like me. I’ve had many friends approach me now asking how to get started, and I’ll be writing a series soon to guide new players to the game. Why should you play Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), though?
What Can You Get Out of DnD?
I’ve talked before on this blog about how I feel that we are, as a culture, very much lacking and hungry for better forms of art that engage more with the people and what they’re going through. Well, the best way to get something you want if nobody else is making it is to make it yourself, and many people are doing just that in the most unlikely of ways.
First, though, I’m going to talk about a form of improvised theatre called Playback Theatre. In this format, a small audience gathers in an intimate space with a troupe of actors/improvisers. One of the troupe acts as a host, facilitating the stories that will be told throughout the night. But it isn’t the troupe telling stories – it’s the audience. Playback encourages audience members to come forward and share stories from their lives, any sort of stories ranging the gamut from sad or touching to funny or silly. As they tell the story, the host is there beside them to guide them through the steps and will pause to ask them to cast important characters in their story from among the improvisers. Once the story is told, the improvisers attempt to act out the story as the teller explained it. At the conclusion of the scene, the actors turn back to the audience member that told the story for their approval, giving the final moment back to them as the true star of the scene and allowing them to give feedback.
The connection may not seem obvious at first. What does this have to do with DnD? I’m getting there.
The goal of Playback was to encourage community storytelling and foster understanding between people. The idea was that if you went to these shows, and heard these personal stories told by people that live in the same community as you, you would see the common threads that link you as human beings. It’s a beautiful idea, and having had the pleasure of exploring Playback in college I can tell you that the moments you create are genuine and impactful.
Finding Your Story in DnD
Just like Playback, DnD can be a medium to explore your personal fears and struggles in a safe environment (perhaps safer, removing the element of the audience). Looking back on characters I’ve played at different points in my life, I realize that in my own subconscious way I was exploring pieces of myself through my role-playing. I played the suave and confident rogue that talked his way through situations while personally coping with social anxiety, for instance. In a way, it allowed me to practice that confidence in myself, and it carried over into my day to day life over time.
I’ve heard it said that role-playing games like DnD attracted people that tended to be social outcasts for this very reason to begin with. By providing a place to take on these social roles in a safe environment, they can improve those skills for the real world.
Much like Playback, DnD can provide an environment to foster better understanding between people. You don’t have to just explore sides of yourself either. In fact, trying to create and play characters who go against your typical personality can help nurture your empathy – something I think we could all do with a bit more of in the world. It forces you out of your own mindset, into the mind of another. It makes you think about and attempt to understand why they think and feel that way. This kind of experience is invaluable for both personal growth and, really, for the overall health of a society.
People need to process the world around them as a community. We are a social species. DnD provides a way for people to continue to come together and work through their personal stories, whatever they may be. In the impersonal age of the internet, that is more important than ever; it’s no wonder DnD is on the rise in popular culture.
Also, it’s extremely fun. That helps.