You leave the cavern full of Kobolds behind, none the wiser to your presence. Creeping into the inner lair of the beast a treasure of information awaits you. The cave walls are covered in the glistening shapes of letters, snippets of the Draconic Prophecy. Arranged in a seemingly random pattern in the centre of the room are a series of tables. Upon each is something resembling chess boards, though formed of hexagonal shapes. Each board has wildly different pieces though. Most are foreign to you but with some investigationg a few grab your eyes, what you recognise as miniature figurines of yourselves. Suddenly an arrogant voice reverberates around the chamber.
"It would appear you've seen too much" drawls Dormenghast, the enormous green dragon that calls this place home.
For 3 years now I've been enjoying the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons (dnd).
This has reignited my love for this hobby and what it can do. What started as running a fortnightly game for colleagues at a previous job has evolved to the point where I now play or run multiple games a week. And that was before the world got turned upside down in early 2020. The importance of having a social and creative outlet such as dnd has become even more apparent for myself and countless others who are taking this opportunity to investigate what this is all about.
But what is it all about? I hope this blog post gives a brief outline for the curious and discusses why I find it so valuable in my personal and professional life.
A game of 3 parts
Games like dnd are generally designed in a way to facilitate 3 main areas of play: Adventure, Combat and Roleplay.
Describe how your characters can interact with the environment to solve challenges, puzzles and traverse the world around thenm.
What happens when you meet people or creatures that only swords and spells can defeat?
Interacting with other characters
People gathered around a table, one of them narrating a scene to the others, dice, A4 sheets full of numbers, maybe a map with miniature avatars of characters. It certainly looks intimidating but it can all be boiled down to 2 core factors. Having fun and resolving conflict through dice rolls and your characters abilities. There are many similar games to dnd and though you cannot deny dnd is the most popular I believe they still revolve around those 2 factors.
In real life we don't have magic, most of us don't risk our lives for magical trinkets, fight brutal humanoid cults in the wilderness or uncover ancient secrets in forgotten tombs. Well, some might.
But the characters you control CAN accomplish those things and more and you need a way to adjudicate their success. That's where the dice and numbers come in.
The most important is the d20 - a twenty sided dice, or icosahedron is you know your 3D shapes. The single most important concept of dnd as a game system is that you roll that d20 (lets hope for a good roll 🤞) and add or suctract some number. Is the total higher or lower than a predetermined number? That defines how successful your intended action was.
And what you add or subtract from that roll can be impacted by so many things. Players create a character, an avatar they control, and pick their character’s class, race, appearance, their background, personality traits they think would work for this concept and these details help refine what their character would be good at.
So for example Jess creates Lamarch, a burly half-orc just as likely to resolve conflict with a negotiators patience and conversation as they are with the cracking of skulls. In combat and when trying to get information from the locals in a tavern Lamarch will probably be adding a lot to that D20! But sneaking through the defenses of an ancient ruin and solving the puzzles within like our whip wielding hero above? Probably out of Lamarch's wheel house and Jess wouldn't be able to positively alter that random dice roll as much.
I only provide both sides of the story because it better represents a real person. We all have our skills and weaknesses.
But Matt! This game is imaginary, it provides escapism! Why would I want to bad at something!?
I hear you, random internet stranger. Bear with me. Wait, this is fun?
We've already discussed the dice and the maths, but what about that more important factor? What about Fun? Trust me, being good at everything isn't nearly as fun as it sounds. If you always succeed, always win, then where is the joy in stealing victory from the jaws of defeat? If everything goes your way then where is the drama. And more importantly this game is generally played in a group. If each character in that group has specialities they get time in the spotlight to shine and help out their companions.
The fun comes from the struggle and overcoming obstacles together. Usually those obstacles are presented by the Game Master (remember I'll discuss that separately) but sometimes they come from the intra-personal relationships of characters that each player controls. I describe dnd and games like it as a tool for collaborative storytelling. Every player has a part to play in the story that unfolds and everyone gathered around the table, virtual or physical. Away from the table
Practicing coolaborative storytelling and teamwork around the table can help us away from it. It strenthens out ability to cooperate with others and empathise. At work we realise that the best ideas occur when the whole group is represented. When the whole team wins.
Roleplaying trains the mind to make unexected connections and discovere alternative ways of tackling issues. The time you spend controlling a character who may act differently from yourself helps provide you with different perspectives.
In my experience dnd and similar games help me in other areas of life. The challenges in this game are imaginery with no real life consequences - you can feel limitless in a way. With some lucky rolls on that D20 and a well executed plan with your team can overcome what seems like insurmountable odds. And if you fail you're tested to recover and find a different way to overcome the problem. Maybe that failure means the villain's plan proceeds and creates whole new avenues of adventure.
Roleplaying helps us manage our manage our problems in reality. Yes, the confrontation atop a moving train with an antagonist hell bent on collapsing a city was imaginary. But at the time it felt real, it was high pressure, it pushed you to adapt and overcome changing circumstances. Maybe that time you convinced the town mayor to throw in an extra 2000 gold when helping with their dragon problem allows you to pitch your new and creative ideas to your team or total strangers.
Games like this make me want to create stories and the worlds they take place in. It helps me combat the perils of reality and my own mental health. Roleplaying as people with views different from myself helps me develop perspective. But most importantly it's a fun way to spend an evening with friends!
This post doesn't really cover the role of the Game Master (GM), I have a whole post planned for that which I'll release soon. I also have some thoughts about how to bring your group from the traditional in person setting to a virtual online one, the lessons learned by rapidly moving the 3 different groups I played with physically to a purely online game due to COVID-19. That will also have to wait.