A world of magic, dragons, heroes, and untold possibilities. Originally published in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons has captured the imaginations of countless people across its nearly half century of life, and is going through what is largely considered its most unprecedented cycle of popularity. Different from all other forms of storytelling, Dungeons and Dragons has become one of the most creatively stretching, immersive, and significant experiences of the last several years for me, as it has for so many others before. It’s something different where you are not just a passive observer in someone else’s story, but each player is an active participant in a greater narrative. It’s interactive and participatory storytelling in a group setting, satisfying some of the most innate needs that we as humans seek, and oftentimes find ourselves without in our current world.
HOW IT BEGAN
My own introduction to D&D came nearly four years ago in the midst of the current swell of popularity, catching the attention of my friends, and through them, me. They found their way into the game first and had been playing for several months before I finally agreed to join for a session. I had already turned down several invitations to play, and had been dealing with the initial hesitation that came with my own presuppositions about D&D and roleplaying. It started with a single session where they welcomed my fumbling first attempts, encouraged me, and made sure I felt comfortable as I joined in their ongoing home campaign that they had been crafting together.
That first session was the hook. After that, things only grew from that initial spark of interest. The fantasy genre and storytelling have always been significant, though recently neglected, parts of my life. So while my hesitation was healthy, a high magic, medieval fantasy adventure campaign was exactly what was needed to draw me in. That interest was only supplemented by the accessibility of additional content surrounding the medium. Online streams and videos of D&D games like Heroes and Halfwits from Rooster Teeth and shortly thereafter Critical Role, previously through Geek & Sundry, served to display the creativity offered by the game as well as give me a better understanding of how the game was played. Both of those aspects gave me more confidence as a new player when I returned for subsequent sessions with my friends.
It was the welcoming safety and encouragement provided by my friends that got me into my first game. It was so much more that kept me playing after that introductory session. As I look back, I can highlight three key themes that continued to draw me back to this tabletop roleplaying game that my friends were playing. Primarily, it was storytelling. My own personal part in a larger story, particularly where my character is not the central figure nor the object which the plot revolves around. As unusual and surprising as it seems, sometimes being a piece and not a primary figure within a larger narrative is refreshing. There was also a beautiful aspect of recognizing my part in light of being invited into a story that other people had already been crafting and building for several months on their own, yet still wanted to share with me. The other themes were internal rather than external, and they complement the theme of storytelling well. The exercise in empathy that this game offered me was unlike any I have ever experienced. It was an unexpected challenge and welcomed joy to learn to relate to other characters and my own, to learn about their stories in a broader scope, and to learn who they are, not just what they are. The creativity within roleplaying was certainly expected, though it was so much more challenging and rewarding than I could have expected, and it drew me back to the game again and again. The challenges grew from understanding the basic mechanics of the game, to the abilities and skills my character had, and then to understanding how they might use them, not how I would use them. Trying to understand my own character in the game, who they are, and not who I want them to be. Looking at a character, which I created, as a distinct and unique individual with depth and nuance. Seeing a character past what is just on the surface, and through that, walking with them through their growth and individuality. Through both subtle and overt methods of initiation, Dungeons and Dragons drew me in and kept me coming back for more every time.
3 YEARS LATER, WHY I STILL PLAY
When I played my second session of D&D, I probably had a measured response of what my involvement in the game might look like going forward. A couple games here and there. Maybe for a couple months. Perhaps longer. I never would have imagined that from that first introduction, my journey would quickly spread to half a dozen different campaigns, numerous one-shot sessions, and multiple different groups of people. I never imagined I would be the one facilitating introductions for others, as my friends did for me. I definitely could not have foreseen joining the cooperative effort for our main home game, and certainly didn’t expect to be running an ambitious campaign set amidst the lore of the Forgotten Realms as the sole Dungeon Master. Yet, here we are more than three years later. And I don’t see it stopping any time soon.
My start with D&D was as a player and began as a narrow, simple, and attainable foray into a new experience. It stretched me with regards to both creativity and roleplaying. Shortly after that began to settle and click for me, I started to look deeper into what else could be done. As I let myself look beyond what I expected, I saw the horizons. As I looked to those horizons, I saw they were so much further back than I could have imagined. Beyond the creativity offered than simple imagination, I saw more opportunities with storytelling and worldbuilding. Dungeons and Dragons truly does open up a great wide world in which to occupy, and the more experienced and comfortable you become with it, the more you can accomplish within it.
The opportunities afforded with expanded horizons first clicked for me as I built new characters. My first character was predictably simple in design, narrow in creative scope, and attainable in terms of what I had to learn. In short, it was the perfect starting point. As I made these more ambitious characters, it offered me the opportunity to learn. I could learn about other people and cultures, about motivations and personalities. If I was to be true to the intent of these characters, then I needed to learn to empathize with them. It’s the beauty of D&D. It’s what makes the stories and characters feel real, because within the confines of the players’ minds and the game, they are real. The creation of characters pushes me to try to understand how someone unlike me might think and act and feel, and why they are that way. It forces me to look at the world beyond my own scope and lens.
When I first floated the idea of running a D&D session to my home group probably six months of consistently playing, I received nothing but encouragement and support from my friends. I was excited to both join in the crafting of a narrative and to share my own stories that I had just waiting to be told. I received so much help in my learning the craft, and even more grace as my first attempts showed my inexperience. Yet it was infectious. And thus my journey into the worldbuilding and story writing aspects of being a Dungeon Master began.
It began with the most ambitious form of campaign building, in which the story and setting are original and built from the ground up. I love this aspect, which D&D makes remarkably accessible to do so. Original stories and worlds require a lot more work, but the sense of fulfillment that comes from researching and learning about history, cultures, religion, mythology, and every other aspect that goes into creating a world is extraordinary. Worldbuilding, the process of crafting and creating all aspects of a setting, is the greatest expression of subcreation.
It wasn’t my first experience as a Dungeon Master, which was likely a good thing, but writing a campaign set within the existing world and lore of the Forgotten Realms was a big step into stretching my skills in storytelling and worldbuilding. I found it daunting and still extremely beneficial to begin building a story around a framework that was already established within a world that was well defined. That allowed me the freedom to focus on the feel of the setting for my story, the proper emphasis placed upon my players, and honing my skill at running games without having to worry about the massive amounts of creativity it takes to create a campaign setting. There are certainly complexities and challenges in trying to fit a narrative within an established world with lore and history and events. In a mix of agony and ecstasy, finding ways to weave storylines within the confines of a world that has its own boundaries has been a brilliant experience in my journey into running a Campaign within the Forgotten Realms of D&D.
As much as I love my home group, it’s a pretty special experience to get to facilitate someone’s introduction to Dungeons and Dragons. In the same way that I got to benefit from my friends introducing me, I’ve come to love “paying it forward” and bringing others into this game that I love so much. In the last two years, I’ve been able to run introductory One-Shot sessions for both a group of my cousins and their friends, and a close group of friends from university. Before that, I had a client from my day job hear that I had become involved in D&D, and he mentioned that he wanted to learn how to play. After a few initial conversations, I told him if he could find between three and five other prospective players, I would run them an introductory game. Fast forward a year, and that same group is still playing, and that initial interest sparked an enduring campaign and the friendships that accompany it. Each player and group experience are different, but watching new players start to really get it, become invested, and dive into a story is one of the most rewarding aspects of running a game session for new or prospective players. It’s a great responsibility to bring other people into the game. The role as the DM is to introduce, facilitate and make fun the first steps into what might become a significant part of their story. It did for me and I’ll forever be thankful to my first DM for that.
When you play D&D, you join an entire world and step into a community that is far larger than I ever imagined. From celebrities like Joe Manganiello, the Russo brothers, and Deborah Ann Woll, to everyday people like you and me, Dungeons and Dragons is a game that fits into lives as an entertainment medium, as a creative mechanism, or even for a few it can be their professional pursuit. It can be played casually, professionally or competitively. It is used as a team-building exercise within a professional setting, or even utilized as a treatment therapy within a controlled and professional setting. Within the D&D community, there are creators, such as artists, cosplayers, cartographers, musicians, animators, and so many more who are busy making content and resources.
As my own journey into D&D and its broad community is still relatively new, I’m hoping to better pursue a deeper dive into this world. I want to not only find others who are creating and producing brilliant content, but to also give back what I’ve learned and created, to be an active part and not just a consumer. My hope, beyond my own creation, is to find ways to collaborate with other creators and highlight the wonderful work so many of them are doing and give them the recognition they deserve. D&D has grown from just a tabletop roleplaying game to a greater community and broader means of storytelling.
I believe playing Dungeons and Dragons makes you a better person. In order to keep playing, you have to be better. And I don’t mean better at just exploring dungeons and slaying monsters. Playing D&D makes you better at relating to people. It allows you to explore understanding another person or group’s intentions and motivations. It forces players into a group to cooperate and problem solve without the real-world consequences and fallout that might accompany “failure.” In that, it also makes you better at relating to and understanding yourself. It allows you to take social and relational risks without consequences, almost like being able to “test drive” certain aspects or roles that you might be hesitant to try in real world situations. I’ve had players talk with me about exploring the confidence and assertive natures of their characters into their own lives, and seen it blossom beautifully. Having a safe environment to better learn how to empathize with yourself and others is a wonderful sandbox for personal growth and development, especially when you feel like you have the control over how and when it happens.
In it’s signature red-spined books and polyhedral dice, Dungeons and Dragons brings together the two most important aspects of human nature that we seem to be lacking in this day and age. It brings us storytelling, in the forms of its creation and our active participation within one, and the face to face interactions of community, even if it might be found through a screen these days. It binds it all together with the creativity to make whatever fantastical worlds and heroic characters you could dream up. It is creativity at its most cooperative, it’s storytelling at its most involved, and it’s healthy escapism at the time when we might need it the most. So go be a part of a story, embark on your own adventure. And when you return, I’ll be waiting to hear all about it.
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