Three souls cross paths in a tavern. First the half-orc, strong and quiet, driven by power. Then the dragonborn, whose travels entertain an ever-growing curiosity. Lastly, the Aasimar, a celestial being seeking to stop destiny. An older man, a storyteller of sorts, informs them that what they are looking for is an abandoned house near the coast, not too far from this swampy city. Ever since, these three adventurers, with the help of three more, have dismantled a local smuggling operation, gotten wrapped up in the city’s relentless political climate, and traveled far fighting shark-riding sea creatures to recover a stolen home.
In Dungeons & Dragons, you play a character that walks through literal fire for coin, glory, fame, or simply because it is what your character would do. No matter the purpose, you aren’t alone. One of D&D’s most powerful attributes is how good it is at telling you that, however steep the challenge, you aren’t the only one facing it. The half-orc, the dragonborn and the Aasimar were later joined by three more of my friends, a human and two half-elves. Each of these characters have stories, ones that develop over time in motivation, affiliation and more. But where am I, you ask? Everywhere. I’m the smuggling operation. The political climate. I even manage to be those sea creatures with sharks for mounts. I am that older man; a storyteller. But even though I, as the Dungeon Master, create the scenarios for my players, one thing should be made abundantly clear: this is not my story. It is ours. And that’s Dungeons & Dragons.
D&D is a TTRPG, a tabletop roleplaying game. It’s about magic, about battle, about making characters that are either you but cooler, or quite literally anything you could imagine. It can be fast, it can be slow. It can be once or forever (but nothing in between). The truth is that D&D is many things at the same time. Ever since its introduction in the ‘70s, D&D has changed and evolved in ways that make everyone’s experience unique. But at the core of it lies narrative. Stories. Your stories. Your friends’ stories. Stories only you can tell. Based on this, I’d say D&D is a collaboration in storytelling. It can change your life. After it consumes it first, of course.
I’m not here to tell you how D&D works. In my experience, the how comes after the why, and the former is widely available. The latter, the reason why D&D can turn a mere game into a collective narrative experience, is rooted in what draws you to it. When I found D&D, it was through a group of friends, of which many I recognized as the voices behind some of my favorite video game characters. This group has been streaming their D&D sessions in an online show called “Critical Role” every Thursday for the past 5 years. This show, and the characters that resulted from it, have played a significant role in my perception of the game. It was my introduction to tabletop roleplaying in general, and what it truly means to roleplay. It introduced me to a new form of entertainment defined by social play, one that aligned with me more than any regular board game had up until that point. All of that created a sense of collective storytelling, but most importantly, it showed me how much of an intensely emotional journey D&D can become. I say can, because that’s exactly it; my why doesn’t have to be yours.
Much of that is also due to my perspective as a Dungeon Master. Creating a world for your players to get lost in is one of the most satisfying creative outlets I’ve ever had. But I can’t stress enough how fun being that player is. While I started this journey by throwing myself into the deep end, I do regularly partake in getting lost in those worlds myself. It scratches a different itch altogether. The need to express themes, concepts and feelings that you feel drawn to is shared across both experiences, but manifests differently when playing. Where my bird’s eye view allows me to control how those nuances are presented to the player while DM’ing, playing allows me to give my character an opportunity to be affected by them in real-time. Yes, I start out building a character who feels, acts and thinks a certain way, but a couple months of playing my most recent character Favina have taught me that, just like real life, those patterns are subject to change. Playing truly feels different, precisely because the wonder of D&D manifests itself through character development that, no matter how you play, is genuine. You may take that opportunity to grow that fictional person you’ve decided to play, or you may decide to ignore those impulses in favor of a simple night of slashing, hacking or spellcasting. But no matter what, those impulses are there. They will always pull, slightly. But D&D, and tabletop roleplaying in general, never pushes.
This means that D&D doesn’t have to be any of this. While the game always allows one to tell a story, that story need not be deep, fleshed out or emotional. It can, if you so wish, merely be a story of entertainment, of leading yourself and your buddies into battle and simply enjoying the game mechanics that surround it. If D&D excites you most because you get to conjure balls of fire that can take out four zombies in one major explosion, or because you get to live out your monk fantasy of catching arrows and flinging them back at that orc, it works! D&D is a game after all, one that is incredibly fun to play, and one that relies on imagination so much that those zombies need not be zombies, and that orc could be anything but. While it can be deeper and become a vessel for epic narratives, it never needs to be. Sometimes the epic narrative is just you and yours, traversing eerie dungeons and chewing through waves of monsters. Again, it’s all about what draws you to the game. But there’s no doubt that whatever you do, D&D makes a storyteller out of everyone, even when you don’t care to be. It is the essence of the game, the cog in the wheel that pulls the most weight. Why? Because it is about friendships. About community. It’s about reflecting life in a nutshell, representing what I believe is the most complete truth there is to find: we are nothing without our stories.
At the same time, I could be wrong. Maybe Dungeons & Dragons is something entirely different for you. Maybe that means you will get something out of it that’s better or worse than the power of storytelling. After all, my bias towards narrative isn’t a secret, if my past articles are any indication. The point is, though, that D&D truly is a game for everyone. Yes, there is a learning curve. Yes, it can have finicky rules that interrupt in-game moments to figure out how to proceed. In the end, it is a game, one that may or may not resonate with you. But that doesn’t matter. Dungeons & Dragons is more than a game, as corny as that sounds. It can be whatever you and your nerdy ass friends want it to be. But there is a constant: there will be stories, one way or another. You’d be hard-pressed to stop it.
Yet, D&D is not all that there is. While this particular game introduced me to the realm of tabletop roleplaying games, there is a plethora of alternatives that either play similarly, completely differently or borrow a few elements here and there. I am addressing this part of the conversation because it should not be ignored that the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast, has been less than a respectable organization. More recently, the company has been held accountable for doing next to nothing to promote and maintain diversity in the workplace, leading to an employee leaving the company and the industry altogether. The game itself also contains some tasteless racial stereotypes that impact character stats and world lore, all signs of a company that has failed at making a game for everyone, let alone “the world’s greatest roleplaying game”. What this means for you, as a veteran or newcomer, is complicated. There are many indie creators working on TTRPGs that arguably need the money more than WotC does, and supporting them would go a long way in shaping an industry where diversity and inclusivity are a given as opposed to something we need to fight for. I am relatively new to Dungeons & Dragons, which means that I am still learning about the TTRPG space and the alternatives that exist within. I do know, however, that no matter the recent developments, this is my history with the game. It introduced me to something I cherish very much, something that undoubtedly made me a better storyteller. But listening to and learning from important voices from the community also makes me a better person, so I will do my best to explore the work of independent and marginalized creators within this industry. Stories, after all, are not exclusive to any one thing. Stories are yours to bring anywhere in any world.