Written by Sarah Yoon
Dungeons and Dragons has gained a reputation as the reality defying fantasy that embraces a new level of nerd. When fans describe a D&D session, they talk about adventures, betrayals and narrow escapes—but somehow forget to clarify the game’s basic workings. What exactly happens at these strange evenings of immersive storytelling?
Setting a Minimalist Scene
Eager to learn about this strange game, I dropped in on the StoryForge team as they played the latest Dungeons and Dragons edition. Karyn, Kyle, Matthew, Allison and David leaned over the dining table, engaged in a battle. Dramatic music played in the background and small figurines rested on a board that looked like oversized graph paper. Dice littered the table with varying numbers of sides.
Though a battle scene raged across the table, my inexperienced eyes couldn’t see it. Kyle rolled the dice and Karyn announced that he was wounded. Allison rolled her own dice to move her own character. A wall blocked her, so she rolled again. Everyone laughed even before Karyn narrated, “You tried to climb the wall, but you slide back down.” The wrong number turned up. Attempt failed.
The Importance of Imagination
D&D stories live through team narration, as the Dungeon Master guides the characters through the plot. As another battle broke out, Dungeon Master Karyn filled the gaps of blank white squares. “The crates go flying into the street,” she said. “Everybody in the city hears this.” Everyone groaned—now the whole city knew of their presence. Great. The battle continued despite discovery. As dice continued to inflict damage, dialogue kept energy high:
- “You are dead! You are dead sir!” Kyle exclaimed preemptively.
- “Twelve damage,” Karyn specified.
- “I’m standing. Bloody, but standing!” Matthew said.
- “You are so squishy,” Allison added.
- “How many hit points do you have left?” David asked.
Soon Matthew’s character was stabbed through the gut, Karyn gave a graphic description for the boys’ sake, and he went unconscious. The characters retreated to a nearby bakery. As Karyn and her players described the bakery, atmosphere rose out of nowhere, as vivid as Butterbur’s Prancing Pony in The Fellowship of the Ring. The characters fleshed out and even the gridded board took shape. I entered their world and joined their collaborative storytelling, even though the bakery was just a plain square of oversized graph paper.
Want to Start?
Oddly enough, D&D fills a gap in society. Though it’s possible to be both a responsible adult and a prolific creative, society leans too heavily on the prior. You lose your unbridled source of creativity under the weight of social expectations. Creatives need imaginative freedom and childlike curiosity for quality work. A fading imagination spells artistic death, but D&D gives storytellers the freedom to have fun and create as they please. The focus on collaboration encourages team-building within creativity, which many artists and writers often shy away from in other circumstances.
Even after watching the team play D&D, I still find it difficult to sum up. This complex smorgasbord is a murder mystery party board game, where RPG players play house while narrating a novel. Quite a mouthful, yes, but true.
If you want to try it out for yourself, you can take two routes. One: dive straight in and pick up the newest Dungeons and Dragons handbook, which describes races, classes, backgrounds, equipment, adventures, combat, and spell casting. Beautiful illustrations cover the pages, helping you visualize each element. (Stick around to hear the Critical Hit team review the latest D&D playbook and some hilarous audio from this game!) Or two: ease into things and try Munchkin, which has a similar gameplay and humorously parodies its older brother.
Art provided by Shelley Couvillion.