Stop it, D&D: You’re Far Too Much Fun And You’re Killing My Goddamn Blog Time
I think it’s fair to say that Dungeons and Dragons is experiencing a kind of renaissance right now. Though D&D fans are maybe a little too eager to jump to the defence of their hobby in the eyes of potential detractors, it seems that tabletop is becoming more accepted than ever. Countless celebrities have dipped their toes (or, in the case of Vin Diesel, jumped in head-first) into the peculiar hobby, and it was incredibly refreshing to see an accurate portrayal of the game in Stranger Things- and for it to even be a crucial element in understanding the show.
Now, I know that I’m partial to love letters on this blog. Amongst all the political whining that I’ll very occasionally do, it’s often me waxing lyrical about some amazing thing that I love and that I want you to love too. And there’s nothing wrong with that, right? I truly believe that Dungeons & Dragons is one of those games that everybody, given time and understanding, can come to love, simply because there’s nothing like it. For me, it scratches several itches in a way that nothing else can. So, yeah, maybe this is going to be a love letter. Sorry in advance.
The Skinny on D&D
Okay, so I can’t just run on like this without maybe giving you the skinny on the game itself. Most people have a kind of rudimentary understanding of D&D from potentially skewed interpretations in the media or what they’ve heard, so I’ll try and keep it as simple as possible. (This is an explanation I’ve had to hone over dozens of conversations with my darling mother, who after about 10 years approximately of me playing and saying I’m “off to D&D”, still has no real idea what that actually means.)
D&D is a tabletop roleplaying game- so, immediately, when we say ‘tabletop’, forget all the things where you’ve seen people running around in the woods pretending to be elves. That’s a wholly different kettle of fish that I might try to tackle at some point. Everybody creates a character wholly unique to them to play in the game and assumes that role, like an actor would play a character on a TV show. Unlike a character on a TV show, however, the people who play them can decide what they want to do, within the reason that their character is physically or mentally capable to do it.
The role that I assume in our group is that of the GM, or Gamesmaster. (The term ‘Dungeon Master’ is still the official term for D&D, but I always worry that people are going to assume that I run my own BDSM dungeon or something).
Now, being a Gamesmaster is both the most fun thing ever and a lot of hard work. Why? Because while the players in my group control one character and one set of actions within the space, I control everything else. The world, the other characters, the antagonists, the places they visit and inhabit, the things they find… yeah, everything. It’s a tough job, but the reason it’s so fulfilling- and, for me, far more fulfilling than writing a novel- is the social participation.
Let’s Just Pretend I’m Homer For A Second
So picture me in the late evening writing my novel. It’s solitary. I don’t want any disturbances, but at the same time, my anxious part of my mind is nagging at me for every single word. “Are people going to like this? Does this sound right? Does it make sense that this happens?” This is constantly running through my head, like the world’s most disappointing merry-go-round music. My eyes are sore from looking at the screen in the dark, I lose all sense of momentum with my writing, and I shut down.
Now let me put this in the context of D&D. I’m with my friends, sat at a table, and I can set the scene in a world that they’re becoming more familiar with every day. They know the characters and places about as well as I do. I don’t have to worry about what they’re going to say, because they do that for me; and I don’t have to worry about ‘writing convincing dialogue’, because I simply reply in the way that makes the most sense to what they’re saying. Situations and decisions don’t feel contrived because they’re all based off of a real conversation. Negotiations, bargaining, threats- they’re all done at the table. Plus, I’m getting feedback from my group right there and then. It happens, but if I can tell that my group is getting bored, I can see it in front of my face and I can do something to change that. While I’m sat in front of my computer screen, there’s only my own thoughts rolling around in my head.
Participatory storytelling is something that just doesn’t exist anymore. Most of our entertaining mediums are entirely passive. You can’t change the outcome of a movie, or a book. This isn’t to say that these ways of entertaining yourself are by any means bad- heck, most of my best ideas for D&D are entirely based off things I’ve seen and read. With D&D, there’s this constant movement and exchange of cool and interesting ideas. Having immediate creative feedback is an absolute joy.
The Gift and the Curse
One of the greatest things about D&D is how personal to you and your group the whole experience is. Although there’s now a growing trend of groups streaming their D&D adventures online- with shows like Critical Role amassing devoted fanbases- when played in the normal fashion, it’s like having your own private cult TV show. These characters, places, events and things are something that would be incredibly hard to parse to anybody else mean something to you and the group. You’ll all remember things that happened in those specific games, long after they’ve actually happened, and even when I can’t remember what the hell else was going on in my life eight years ago, I still remember the heroic chases, close battles, and sheer lunacy that me or my players would get up to. I could recount all of these in a lot of detail.
The problem that comes with that is how hard it is to share the experience and selling point of D&D. It’s hard to illustrate how cool the moment is, and that’s why these shows like Critical Role are so important, because they’re extrapolating that feeling of joy that comes with D&D and showcasing it through YouTube. When I’m writing about the game like this, I feel like it’s so hard to convince somebody of the empowering feeling that the game can provide, because of the drawbacks of stereotypes: oh, but it’s just Elves and Goblins and running around and throwing dice, it can’t mean that much. With a good GM, and a good group of friends, you’ll immediately blast past those stereotypes and realise how god-damn special this weird little game is.
It was worth a shot trying to convince you, right?
Agree? Disagree? Think D&D is a game for babies and that I should go run around in the woods and pretend to be an Elf elsewhere (or ELFwhere)? Tweet me @TheRealZeppy or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your praise/abuse and I’ll try and get back to you/begrudgingly get back to you.