Feature written for Advanced Feature Writing module:
Could this old, cult classic be the antidote to our modern problems?
Role playing games have been around for decades,but now is the time we need them more than ever.
In a land far away, between a towering volcano and the wall of an ancient fortress, a misfit group of mythical creatures face an evil warlock in a brave attempt to save the innocent villagers from certain demise. Okay not really. In a small board game shop hidden just off a bustling highstreet, a group of teenagers start their fourth hour of rolling dice and calculating their next moves in a tense game of Dungeon and Dragons.
Teenagers and young adults get a lot of grief for having their eyes glued to screens. For the last ten years they have been accused of gorging on violence, sensationalised reality TV and vulgar comedy, but if you look a little closer, across the country pencils are being sharpened and imaginations let loose in the name of the fantasy tabletop role playing game (RPG).
The game involves a dungeon master who curates the details of the game and poses challenges to characters, created by anyone who wants to play. Jamie, 17, is a dungeon master in Bristol who has been playing for more than 7 years. He explained the basic premise of the game: “The way you play is pretty simple. Everyone has a number that shows how good you are at certain things, like spells, fighting or tricking people. Then you roll dice to simulate luck and other things that your character cannot control and add whatever number you have to the roll which gives you the outcome. From there you describe each of your actions and go through a story laid out by the Dungeon Master.”
If you have heard of the cult classic, chances are you have a certain picture in your head about what it’s like and the type of people who play it. Assumptions tend to be that it’s for ‘nerds’ and outcasts that love fantasy’s like Star Trek and struggle in social situations (think the Big Bang Theory). You couldn’t be more wrong. Famous fans include Vin Diesel, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson Aubrey Plaza, and even Ben Affleck and Matt Damon who grew up playing together.
Contrary to outdated beliefs, the game is highly creative and social. Jamie loves that side of it. “It combines the things I love the most; expressing creativity and spending time with others. I personally prefer to play as a dungeon master because I enjoy making others happy, taking in what they enjoy into consideration, and mixing it up to bring a fun experience.”
It combines creative storytelling with reacting to the group, in the same way a DJ might change up the tempo depending on the vibe of the crowd. Keeping it interesting, and everyone engaged is part of the dungeon masters task, but it’s also led by the players. “The fact that it can be whatever I want it to be makes it interesting. It’s a collective idea that everyone at the table comes up with. The way I run things, I don’t come up with a lot of the actual story, just the vague idea of what I want to happen, then improvise the actual playing of it in a way that is fun for everyone.”
In a world where standardised tests are taking the place of arts and music in schools, and social media is replacing long phone calls, maybe it’s time Dungeon and Dragons stepped out of the shadows and had its time in the limelight. With fantasy shows like Stranger Things (in which they play Dungeon and Dragons by the way), Game of Thrones and the Witcher becoming more and more popular, now is the perfect time to shed any preconceptions and embrace the positives this RPG can offer the emerging generations.
Besides allowing creative expression and encouraging social interaction, the game can encourage players to explore their own identities through creating characters. Players can choose what their characters excel in, and create a whole new personality to play as, which can help them realise their values and principals in a deeper sense. By role playing as a strong warrior ork, they could find strength in themselves they didn’t know existed. They might find themselves returning to play the part of a goofy gnome and explore their sense of humour in a new way. Perhaps they’re the healer of the group, always making sure that their team is looked after and healthy.
Freud believed that the process of forming a personality begins through the identification with others. We essentially learn who we are through copying others and working out what parts of them fit in ourselves. Later researchers, like Jonathan Cohen, have studied how popular media characters, like those on TV and in movies, affect our identity. He found that relating so strongly to these characters involves an ‘increasing loss of self-awareness and its temporary replacement with heightened emotional and cognitive connections to the character’. This means that as we play as a character in a game, we really do merge our sense of self with them in those moments. There’s also evidence that as individuals we tend to gravitate towards groups that we relate to, such as elves or vampires, which can give us a sense of belonging we often spend our formative years desperately searching for.
So, where do you get started? Jamie has a few tips: “I would recommend someone just dip in any way possible. You could watch one of the many series of people playing – I’d recommend Critical Role, Dice Camera Action or High Rollers. But you can, try to find a group and ask to have a trial session, where you turn up and see if you like it. People love sharing their passions and I’m sure you’ll find that wherever you go, they are very passionate about D’n’D.”