Recently, I’ve been taking a short break from fiction and working on revamping (read: re-writing) my homebrew roleplay game (ask nicely and I might share it with the world when it’s done). It’s been such a fun experience, returning to working on the mechanics of a game system, balancing, introducing new mechanics, streamlining others, making sure everything works like a smooth oiled machine. While working on this, I got round to reflecting on why Dungeons & Dragons, roleplay games in general for that matter, feel so intimately tied up with my writing and storytelling.
As many of you know, I’m an avid gamer, and that includes pen & paper role play games. More often than not, I play the Dungeon Master, guiding players through a lair full of traps, ridiculously-voiced characters and, of course, horrifying monsters birthed from my imagination. Over the weekend, however, I got the chance to be the player and experience what it was like on the other side of the table. It was an awesome experience – I felt strangely empowered as a player where I expected to feel less control. I was making decisions, governing my own destiny, creating a backstory and world relating to my character, who I increasingly came to internalise. The DM, a lot of the time, has to improvise and respond to what players are doing, facilitating the story they want to tell, rather than telling their own. The experience highlighted one all-important thing for me. The real power of Dungeons & Dragons (or any pen & paper RPG whether it be a home-brew, board-based or anything in between) is the communal aspect to the storytelling.
The thing is, one voice has power. And we are used to stories that issue from one voice. However many different character perspectives there may be in A Song of Ice and Fire, it is one willpower driving it, manipulating it, bringing it together, controlling everything. This gives the story unity and focus despite the varied voices we apparently hear. This concept of ‘one voice’ can be even more powerful when a writer uses first person narration to embody a character and really suck us into their world in a more intimate way, giving us access directly to consciousness and thoughts, minutiae of feeling and sense. Novels like The Egyptian and even The Great Gatsby are masterstrokes at this singular, driving voice that pulls you in.
But of course stories don’t have to be told with one voice. They haven’t always been. Way back in the day, stories were told around fires, outdoors under the stars, in the warmth of a drinking hall, in the hushed darkness of a secret place. In these stories, people chipped in when they could, adding their own inflection, or else developing strands the previous storyteller didn’t dwell on. Even in Shakespeare’s day, plays were a more communal experience, with audience members heckling the actors, and whole speeches and scenes being improvised in response to these comments.
These kinds of collaborative stories still exist in the low-key social sphere of course. You and your friends probably have a few stories you share from your childhood or teenage years or even university days – and when someone asks about it when the entire group is together – you’ll all share a glance and begin this jigsawed narration that is shared. But, increasingly, we don’t see this collaborative, communal storytelling outside of a conversation with friends and family.
Or do we?
In Dungeons & Dragons, everyone tells their own story, and everyone becomes a storyteller. It’s a magical transformation. I’ve seen the shyest, most introverted people become fearsome warriors, who bellow, drink, and throw banter at their comrades – and I mean in real life, because there is a point in all games of Dungeons & Dragons where people say: fuck it, let’s actually go for it. And then people act it out. You start to hear people talk in voices they never used, use body language you never thought they had in them, to make incredible, difficult decisions. You also see them collapse under imagined panic, or else fall prey to apparently genuine greed. When two players square off the rivalry is real. The richness of the world that’s created is never down to a DM’s forward planning, although that helps, and, as I said, facilitates the storytelling that follows. No, the richness of the world, the depth of the characters which can, at times, almost become like Freudian alter-egos, submerged parts of ourselves, multiverse strands of personality realised only in other dimensions but dimly stored away in our subconscious, is down to the players. Together, as a group, communally, they share in a story, the seeds of which are sown by the DM. And from this seed grows an incredible, beautiful tree.
The heart of Dungeons & Dragons is never the dice, or the ‘to hit’ modifiers, or the complex rules (again, merely facilitation) the heart of it is storytelling, and it shows that we all have this immense, immense power within us to tell stories given the chance. The beauty of the communal storytelling is the burden doesn’t fall on one person. Not everyone can be a novelist or a scriptwriter, that much is clear, but everyone can participate the oral tradition. And that’s what Dungeons & Dragons is. Perhaps that’s why many Dungeons & Dragons ‘nerds’ (as we are termed) wear their beards with pride, drink from tankards, attend battle-recreation and love old-sounding words like ‘quiver’ and ‘folly’. The oral tradition was said to have died with Anglo Saxon society, a form of literature rendered redundant with advances in manuscript production, printing, and in most recent times, the eternality of electronic content. I would argue it is still alive and well.
The difference is we now call it a ‘hobby’.