WP1: Beyond the Dice and Battlemaps

Dungeons & Dragons- or “that game from Stranger Things” as many people know it- is a tabletop role playing game in which a group of people create fantasy characters who must overcome challenges and defeat monsters through dice rolling mechanics. While I started playing D&D over four years ago and love it dearly, I find myself drawn to a different aspect of the game: creating my own campaigns as the Dungeon Master. I get to build my own fantasy world, design interactive mechanics, and lead my friends through custom epic adventures. This role even pushed me to pursue game design academically and as a career.

Beyond uncovering “what I want to be when I grow up”, DMing has taught me the value of empathy in interactive storytelling.

It is a Dungeon Master’s role to flesh out dynamic settings, characters, and plots for their players. Beneath the demon slaying, treasure hunting, and dungeon crawling escapades is a living, breathing environment which I have to control. In order to manage a fantasy world to such extent, one has to understand how the current one they are living works. As a result, my reality quite heavily bleeds into the fantasy I create.

When real life blends into the imaginary one, the magic circle is broken. The magic circle is a concept used by game designers referring to the space of play where standard rules of the reality don’t apply, and are rather suspended and replaced by those of the artificial game world. In the process of writing and running D&D campaigns, I draw from the real world in order to create an experience for real people. I’m never just making a game.

Even though the events of D&D play out in a fictitious space, it’s still being received by a handful of actual people. Almost every player walks away from their sessions with more than 50 gold pieces, an enchanted sword, and some Boots of Haste. From my own accounts and friends’ testimonials, there is a special quality about escaping to a fantasy adventure land. When you’re able to be someone else for a brief period of time, you start to let down your guard, so collaboration and creative problem solving skills flourish. Ethan Gilsdorf gave a fantastic TED Talk in 2016 about how Dungeons & Dragons helps develop these core traits. Essentially, roleplay allows you to take greater risks since any failure has lower stakes.

Players believing that the magic circle exists allows them to be vulnerable. As a result, they feel genuine emotions and accomplishment based on what happens to their fictional characters. There is weight to the narrative I’ve fabricated. While I’ve been handed this freedom as a DM to conjure whatever I want, I have to remember it’s not truly a completely imaginary, isolated space. My stories are still projected onto these players who are real people with legitimate takeaways.

From the D&D Player’s Handbook. Half orcs (and orcs in general) have a predisposed evil nature. They’ve also been known to represent cultural minorities in various fantasy media.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a good DM will design dynamic, fun campaigns without falling back on harmful tropes and content which permeate through the magic circle. Digging deeper into the lore and mechanics of D&D, controversial themes of this game and the high fantasy genre as a whole became apparent. Integrated within the colorful characters and quirky monsters is a legacy of racism, sexism, and eurocentrism. Ability modifiers based on your character’s race mixed with a far-too-integral moral alignment system is a recipe for bigoted disaster. Even as the TTRPG community pressured publisher Wizards of the Coast to address these problematic mechanics, the company’s “solution” of suggesting DMs and players disregard racial or alignment rules left people unsatisfied.

In the recently published sourcebook, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Wizards of the Coast made this rule change to help with its problematic past. Needless to say, it wasn’t well received.

If anything, their attempt at putting a band aid on such a large cultural wound serves as a greater signal for DMs like myself to make conscious design choices. With this call to action, it became clear that the features of my games greatly reflect my own internal beliefs. Even before I started actively examining my games for underlying prejudices, I would always create and modify material to what felt right to me. Wonderful for all the times I included strong female characters; not so great when I’d have groups of “uncivilized” people with traits of historically oppressed groups.

The need for self reflection in storytelling plays into another primary element of Dungeons & Dragons: heroes and villains. For a couple hours, you get to be a dashing, daring, super powered protagonist fighting against some force of evil threatening this fantasy world. The players — who they are and what they represent — are good, and the person or thing they’re fighting against is bad. Nudging players towards certain people and objectives in the game signifies that their attributes are valuable. On the other side of that, the figures I have players work against are thus given a negative connotation. Even the best role players who portray purposefully evil characters with morally grey beliefs are still placed in this frame of good versus evil.

It is incredibly easy to glorify or vilify classic fantasy tropes. The holy paladin striking down the horde of monstrous, barbaric orcs. Dark elves and Duergar (“gray dwarves”) being inherently evil. Greedy goblins with large noses stealing gold from human villagers. However, If antagonizing certain aspects of the game reflects the DM’s harmful biases, then there is also the ability to feature other elements in a positive light.

I can use the weight of my fictional world as a tool for good. Because my players are vulnerable and immersed in the game, there is a prime opportunity to share meaningful messages which they will hold on to after leaving the table. Instead of promoting outdated stereotypes, I have the opportunity to embed themes of empathy, respect, and justice within thrilling, kick ass adventures.

Over the past four years, it’s been a gradual transition from kill swamp witch get money to unite the kingdoms of men with the pagan deities of the forest to bring upon a new era of magic and peace. The more games I ran, the more I could see how various players internalize my stories. Some understand that the morals of reality seep into our fictional nerd game, but others simply expect to show up and hit bad guys with big weapons. Unlike other forms of storytelling, I don’t just have to hope that the latter eventually become compassionate. I am an active element of the game, strengthening my understanding by playing with a broad range of backgrounds.

D&D is still entertainment, and my primary goal is to have fun. I enjoy telling stories and designing game mechanics, and my friends like to pretend they’re badass adventurers. Thankfully this is an interactive, immersive medium where the act of being someone else and stepping into the magic circle initiates empathy. I don’t always try to impose deep messages because I’m still partial to my own beliefs. Rather, my job as the all mighty god of an imaginary multiverse is to naturally develop a sense of responsibility in my players. By making conscious choices about how I represent features of the game while utilizing players’ investment and vulnerability, I don’t have to sacrifice fun to tell a meaningful story.

Works Cited

Gilsdorf, Ethan. “How Playing Dungeons & Dragons Made Me More Creative and Compassionate.” Ideas.ted.com, 9 Jan. 2018, ideas.ted.com/how-playing-dungeons-dragons-has-helped-me-be-more-connected-creative-and-compassionate/.

Player’s Handbook, by Jeremy Crawford et al., Wizards of the Coast LLC, 2014.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Wizards of the Coast LLC, 2020.

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