Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Dungeons and Dragons?

There is a revival of role-playing games happening right now. In particular, the progenitor of most role-playing games is seeing a surge in popularity and publicity. Dungeons and Dragons is becoming a media license unlike it has ever been. And I love it!

Dungeons and Dragons is a game that is played among of group of people. In past incarnations, it involved little more than some notes in a notebook, some dice, and maybe a hand drawn map on graph paper. And pizza. Today it can involve hand painted miniature figurines on a digitally projected map that was drawn by a professional artist. It can be played without the other players in the room, but virtually present on a computer/tablet screen or even in a virtual reality setting (in limited ways). D&D, as it is affectionately known, is in its 5th edition since being originally released in 1974. This newest edition has probably sparked the greatest public interest in the game, and the larger genre, than at any point in history.

That includes the period of hysteria surrounding D&D in the mid 1980's. There was a cultural backlash mounted against the game. It was accused of teaching players how to do magic or practice satanic rites. It was blamed for mental and emotional and spiritual woes that players experienced. There were even some largely circulated stories of players who got "too involved" in the game that they couldn't tell fiction and reality apart. That hysteria was in some part the responsibility of conservative Christian groups.

Cooler heads have prevailed in the recent surge of popularity. We aren't seeing the outcry against D&D (yet?) that we saw in the past. We are seeing the opposite, in fact. Dungeons and Dragons is becoming the center of attention in media. Thanks to online streaming outlets such as Twitch and media producer Geek and Sundry, Dungeons and Dragons is being consumed by 10s of thousands each week as a spectator "sport". Viewer tune in to watch a group of people playing a session of Dungeons and Dragons, and other role-playing games, that can last up to 5 hours. And they are tuning in regularly.

Some may ask why? Why is it so popular? Why does it have such an attraction?

I don't know that there is an easy answer. I wonder the same thing about football. But that is because I am not a fan. I don't understand sitting in the cold watching people run up and down a field for hours. I don't understand watching vicariously as two teams push, shove, manhandle, and smash into each other. I don't understand the need to critique every choice that a coach, player, or referee makes. I don't understand being so impolite as the yell rudely at the person who it was felt made a poor choice. I don't understand any of this. But I do understand that the same NEED to experience these things is what brings people like me to the D&D table.

When I sit down at the table, dice and character sheet at the ready, I am jazzed. I feel my blood racing just a little more. I am just a little more on edge, waiting to see what the next turn will reveal. I am leave those sessions with a refreshed energy and tiny adrenaline rush that I don't get from any other source. It is not a game to be won or lost. It is a time to be experienced.

Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games are about cooperative story telling. As a player, you are not passively watching the story unfold. You get to interact with it. As a Dungeon or Game Master, you craft elements of the story based upon setting and circumstances which the players guide. The story becomes unique and individual to the table of people there in that moment. It is an act of creation or crafting. The story that emerges has never been told that way and never will be told that way again. And everyone at the table has some part to play in that. It may be the dynamic speaker who is grandiose in their role-playing who commands the narrative through word or deed. It may be the quiet individual whose attack on their turn demolishes the signature villain. It may be the interaction of a player or two that create tension. Everyone at the table in that moment brings something to the story and creates a tale to be told.

That may be why D&D and RPG's are seeing the resurgence - people want to see heroic people doing heroic deeds. Even if they are fictional characters in a fictional world doing impossible things, when someone plays a D&D character, they get to the be the hero. And the world hungers for heroes. Somewhere in our subconscious, we need heroes to be our champions. We want someone to beat the bad guy. We want someone to rescue the endangered. We are looking for those who can overcome the odds and rise triumphantly.

Playing offers the same thing. Rolling up a character (the act of creating the character through the process rolling dice for statistics) is usually partnered with the creation of a backstory of how this person is above the average. You don't roll up a farmer or merchant who sits in a shop all day. You create a champion, a defender, a power-fueled warrior, who will go into the dark and scary places to eradicate the evil that is swarming the land.

My history with RPG's goes back to my early teens. Dungeons and Dragons wasn't played where I lived. Or if it was, I never heard about it. The earliest exposure I had to getting into gaming was when I purchased the Marvel Super Heroes starter box. As a huge comic book fan, and someone very interested in the whole Dungeons and Dragon thing happening in the early '80's, when I found that in a store on a trip to Buffalo, New York, I had to have it. Sadly, I never got to play it. I was the only one of my kind I was aware of at home. I was also too sheltered within myself to ever seek out people who might want to try it. So it sat in my collection of comics until it disappeared in one of the tragic purges of items.

The next encounter was during a summer college preparation experience. I had graduated from high school and was living in the dorms at the college over the summer. A group of folks on our hall said that someone was going to lead a game of AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - the second edition of the game) and I was invited to participate. Finally, I had a chance to see what it was like to play a game I had only dreamed of participating in for years. And it was only a so-so experience. It was difficult to understand. I didn't know some of the people playing. I didn't get the mechanics down very well. But I finally got to play.

Fast forward a couple of years. I am halfway through college and a couple of the guys from that game of AD&D invited me to play in a group that was doing their own thing. It wasn't D&D. It was based on another game system: Generic Universal Role Play System (GURPS). They invited me to meet up with the group and play. I accepted. And that formed my love and passion for RPGs to this day. We played for hours. We hopped from one kind of world to another. We played sci-fi, fantasy, cyberpunk, superheroes, Vietnam combat teams. We played it all. And every chance I got to play was one more reason to love that experience.

Today, I am playing with a group of people I didn't know 8 years ago. I met one person through working at EMS and he invited me to meet a group of folks wanting to play 4th edition. Through that meeting, I met another person. That initial group didn't work. But it gave way to what we have now. A table full of people. Around that table, we take on personas and names that don't exist anywhere else. We have adventures that would be ridiculous to people who don't understand. We laugh and joke and build a tiny community around this one thing we all enjoy.

It really is a great time to be a Dungeons and Dragons fan.