“The dreamer’s art, the ability to cut loose from the restraints of reality and touch new shores and lives, is the essence and lure of D&D. It is the challenge of pitting one’s skills and common sense against a strange and sometimes hostile universe where death awaits with open arms.” – a player’s perspective from Dragon magazine
This quote from Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, by Nick Montfort (p. 195), sums up the overwhelmingly imaginative and immersive world of Dungeons and Dragons, the best-known and best-selling role playing game of all time. I was first introduced to Dungeons and Dragons when I was 17 years old. My friend Matthew and I were at a book store talking about fantasy books when he mentioned he loved role playing. My immediate thought was of playing “make believe” as a child, but this was not the role playing he was referring to. He led me over to a massive book shelf filled with Dungeons and Dragons manuals – and I was shocked. Somehow, despite my love of all things related to fantasy and science fiction, I had completely missed out on the widely popular role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. I was also curious about how a collaborative world of make believe, typically a stomping ground for children, is successfully created for adults.
My curiosity for D&D continued to grow over the years primarily because of the collective consciousness I’ve observed many D&D gamers share with one another. Gamers speak of D&D with deep love, nostalgia, and some embarrassment. In my opinion, their embarrassment is part of the joy. Playing D&D is like being a member of an elite “nerd” club. D&D gamers are infamously depicted in pop culture as socially inept, detached losers. Although there are certainly good reasons for this stereotype, I also find that many gamers share many characteristics like high intelligence and creativity. Dungeons and Dragons is not a simple game -- it is a complex balance of performance, math, storytelling, and collaborative communication. Players memorize dense books filled with rules and sub-rules so they are able to collaborate in telling a story – a shared emergent narrative. This experience can be compared to performing in a jazz band: music is created through the improvisation of a skillful, shared language. A D&D game, like performing music, is only as good as the dynamics between the players playing it.
I never actually played D&D until this past month, at the age of 28. Five of my friends organized a campaign (game) under the tutelage of an experienced “Dungeon Master” (leading storyteller of the game). We started by spending several long hours one afternoon designing individual characters using a complex formula of numbers (determined by the random roll of dice), character manuals, and our imagination. Our character’s attributes of strengths, weaknesses, and abilities were logged on a “Character Record Sheet” for reference throughout our games. After the characters were developed, the DM started the game by introducing our characters to each other, much like the beginning of a story. We met at an inn and began our journey, rolling dice and talking along the way from one adventure, obstacle, or puzzle to the next.
Most of the narrative of a D&D game is determined by the imagination of the DM and the choices the characters make (does my character want to fight this monster or spy on it?). The rest of the narrative is determined randomly by dice, the core mechanic of the game. Characters accomplish tasks by making skill checks, ability checks, or attack rolls using dice. For example, if a character wishes to attempt an action which he or she might fail at, that character must roll the famous d20 (20 sided dice) and after a quick series of calculations, the number rolled determines their success or failure. This basic rule system keeps the narrative moving with relative suspense and uncertainty as to what the outcome of decisions will be. When rolling the dice, not even the DM can know what fate will bring.
I had a lot of fun playing D&D, but what I enjoyed most was creating a story with friends. Our group was endlessly entertained by the ridiculousness of our narratives, and in many ways, our characters and stories continue to develop as we joke about our “adventures” outside of the actual game playing. Much of D&D’s appeal is embedded in its socially collaborative environment. Navigating the settings established by the DM, decisions made by characters, and random dice rolls, groups of friends are able to share individual imaginations through play. Says my high school friend Matthew via email, “The magic of D&D is that it you have just enough structure to frame your experience, so you are free to create any scenario because the rules are flexible enough to govern it. Basically, there are only rules for combat. The rest is completely open. I guess my favorite part was not the actual playing part when things were often reduced to math (OK guys, roll for initiative. OK guys, roll for your attack. OK, roll for hit points of damage, etc.). The best part was the creative enterprise of building the world.”
The ambition of “building the world” is a powerful, immersive concept behind the game. As players become engaged in developing an alternate reality world, characters may die, plot lines may change, and goals may be achieved, but the game as a story can go on forever. D&D does not have a set of winning conditions. In this respect, it could be debated whether it is really a game or rather more of an elaborative form of storytelling. I would argue that D&D, by its inherent nature of make believe, is the oldest and most fundamental style of game. Our earliest games in childhood were those of make believe. Children intuitively impose rules on their make believe games to structure the characters and stories of their imagination, whereas D&D captures these natural game playing actions using a formalized rule system of numbers. D&D may not be about a set of winning or losing conditions, but it is about the experience – it is a game condition dependent on the subtle balance of player interaction within this system.
One gamer told me that dice in D&D represent the randomness of life. Quickly after saying this, he asked me not to quote him. He felt like he was making D&D sound too special. However, I think he is absolutely right. Looking at games as metaphors for life, as systems of rules governing our play within a cultural context, D&D is a game of life. Sure, the characters are running around a Middle Earth environment fighting Bugbears and searching for magic swords, but they may as well be fighting their spouse and buying a new car. Characters in D&D, like people in real life, have to make decisions based on the imposed randomness. They have strengths and weaknesses. They interact with other characters to problem solve, build, and move forward. They gain experience. They make future decisions based on past experiences. And they laugh, they live, they play.