Pop culture has a tendency to be a little slow on the uptake. When something truly interesting comes along, it’s often small pockets of people who first pick it up, examine it, and say, “There’s something worthwhile to explore here.” This is especially true of tabletop roleplaying games or, as many may know it, “Dungeons and Dragons.” While Netflix’s Stranger Things may have reinvigorated the public’s awareness of “D&D” and even first introduced it to some, this arcane sounding game has been rooted firmly in various subcultures for decades, even before breaking into more casual conversations and media. Both its longevity and the abiding passion found in its fans are notable, and for good reason.
Nuts and Bolts
“Dungeons and Dragons” is a particular brand and version of tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). Generally speaking, RPGs are a way for players to control and narrate the actions of characters of their own invention in a chosen setting. This setting can be taken from published RPG materials or made entirely out of whole cloth by the “Game Master” or “Dungeon Master” (the in-person guide, judge, and storyteller of the game). Settings can be as simple and limited in scope as a small medieval village drawn on a sheet of paper in a single afternoon, or as widespread and ambitious as an entire fictional world with a book’s worth of established history and lore. Participants can represent the setting by maps on a table, a shared online screen, or entirely in the realm of the mind.
After establishing a setting, the Game Master begins to tell his story. Then the players can choose actions for their characters within the story: by talking amongst themselves and to the Game Master, by moving tokens representing their characters on a map (if there is one), and by rolling dice when their characters take specific actions. Because speech and interaction drive RPGs, a player typically gives his character a backstory, a personality, and a goal—which ideally create a believable and compelling role for him to act out during the game.
Players also consult with the Game Master when creating their characters and choose unique combinations of traits and characteristics for each character, recording them on a sheet of paper. These attributes make a character better or worse at different actions in the game. For example, a large and strong character may excel at attacking enemies with heavy weapons, while a small dexterous character has the advantage in moving quietly. Whenever the player states that his character is attempting a particular action, he rolls the dice and adds his corresponding bonus or penalty. The Game Master uses the final result of this roll to determine whether the character succeeds.
So much for the basic mechanics of the RPG—the nuts and bolts of how you play the game. Here and in future installments, I aim to delve into the why of playing these games. The potential richness of this genre speaks to a much deeper aspect of human activity: the desire to participate in a narrative that hints at grander things than the everyday and the mundane.
It is worth pausing to note a frequent critique not only of RPGs but also of other games and media, which we can sum up in a single word: escapism. An RPG session, often only one of many sessions in a “campaign”, can take several hours at a time. It is easy to view RPGs as a way to avoid the real world in favor of sitting in a closed room with friends, whiling away daylight by talking about imaginary worlds, people, and events when you could be accomplishing something more tangible.
Hiding from reality is no virtue. Likewise, indulging in habitual and fleeting (or “escapist”) entertainment is usually a questionable use of one’s time. In reply to this objection, I will quote at length none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, essentially the father of modern fantasy:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all.
In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.“On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien, 1939.
I would propose to approach RPGs with this mindset—namely, that there is a worthy element underlying the desire for fantastic adventure. That element is worth pursuing, even when it takes the form of rolling dice and pretending to be a fictional character in an imaginary world. The structure of an RPG allows for its own unique exploration of the human character, in much the same way that novels, plays, films, and shows each have their own particular strengths in this endeavor.
To that end, this essay series will touch on various aspects of RPGs, what they make possible, and why they offer something of value to those who approach them with curiosity—or even skepticism.
To be continued.