by Enzo Lam and Gabriel Ong (SA 21 C)
Since 1974, Dungeons and Dragons has given millions of people the opportunity to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds, explore wondrous landscapes and engage in various situations – the possibilities are endless, limited only by one’s imagination. It is the first and undoubtedly the most popular tabletop role-playing game, wherein – as the name implies – players must assume the role of a character and make decisions, thus, players are responsible for the story and eventual outcome of the game. The explosive popularity of the game when it was released prompted the creation of the role-playing game (RPG) genre all by itself, which led to thousands of other role-playing games, perhaps most evident in the massive market for video games today. It is to be noted that with the advent of rapidly advancing technology, allowing us humans to render visuals mirroring reality – leaving little to nothing for the imagination – video games have seemingly eclipsed tabletop role-playing games in popularity to the point where games like Dungeons & Dragons seem like an artifact from a bygone age; a mere prototype or precursor for the creation of video games.
However, in the past five years, tabletop role-playing games – with Dungeons & Dragons at the forefront – have been making a silent resurgence as a popular hobby among enthusiasts. We were fortunate enough to participate in one such session of Dungeons & Dragons with Earl Dy and his friends . Our goal is to engage ourselves thoroughly in the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons, finding the appeal of the game and adequately provide possible valid reasons for its success and popularity.
Earl and his friends began playing Dungeons & Dragons late into their high school lives. A friend within the group had been by aninspired online video of celebrities playing Dungeons & Dragons to learn and play the game and invited Earl and his friends to start their own “campaign” – a term for the long-term or continuing story behind every session which could take up to multiple sessions or even years to finish. Whereas in high school, they could meet each other everyday, now that their group of friends have different colleges, the group has settled to meet at least once a month to devote their time to a session of Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately, we were not able to participate in their monthly session but instead in a hastily-organized session which took place in the dormitory of one of Earl’s friends. Normally, their “party” or group would consist of about 7 of them but only two of Earl’s friends were in the vicinity and had the time to join. When asked if we could participate in the game, he accepted enthusiastically.
According to Earl, while the story revolved around the main seven in his friend group, it was a common and welcome sight when other people join in on the fun, even if they have no prior knowledge regarding the intricacies of Dungeons & Dragons. Before the session started, Earl asked us to create our own characters, which was a process that would usually entail careful deliberation, but since we were only going to be part of one session, we would create “guest characters” – characters that were not fully fleshed out and lacked “ability scores”. These six “ability scores” measure the physical and mental qualities of a character consisting of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. These scores are usually determined by the player (being given a set amount of points that they could distribute among the scores) and increase as the character gains “experience points” and “level up” by exploring the world and fighting creatures. However, Earl said we had to at least decide on two aspects of our characters, “race” and “class”. These “races” dictated our characters’ appearance and physiology were limited to the setting we were in, in this case, the fantasy world and universe of Dungeons & Dragons, thus, the choices given to us include “human”, “elf”, “dwarf”, “half-orc” and “halfling” while “classes” determine your specialty and capabilities in fighting creatures and enemies, these include but are not limited to “bards”, “clerics”, “barbarians”, “rangers”, etc.
With our characters ready, Earl explained to us the context of this particular session. According to him, the narrative was that their original party was resting in a nearby city when James and Ethan’s characters, named “Chubs” and “The Power” respectively, decided to wander to a nearby crypt due to some rumors that there treasure inside. The role-playing aspect of the game began after this explanation by Earl. Suddenly, Ethan and James started talking in their characters’ voices and interacting with each other. We noticed that Ethan also changed his accent and the pitch of his voice when talking as his character, explaining later that “The Power” was a character inspired by “a mix of Prince, David Bowie and Captain Jack Sparrow.”. Throughout the game, he would speak in a distinct flamboyant tone and have unique mannerisms while in contrast, we noticed that James would speak in his normal voice while role-playing. Earl said this was not a requirement for playing the game but rather encouraged so when I joined in, I tried speaking like my character, to everyone’s humor.
We conversed with our alternate selves and eventually we descended into the crypt or this session’s “dungeon”. Eventually when we encountered a monster, the game suddenly showed it’s more mechanical and technical aspects. At this point, Earl started role-playing not as a player-character, but as the creature we were fighting. He explained his pivotal role in the session: being the Dungeon Master (DM) of the game. The Dungeon Master was in charge of organizing the game’s events, describing the environment and role-playing as the non-playable characters (townsfolk, monsters, etc) in the campaign among other roles. To say that the DM is important in a campaign would be an understatement; they essentially served as referee, storyteller and author of the game. They have to mete out compelling consequences for the players’ actions, creating challenging yet fair obstacles for the players – all requiring intimate knowledge of the rules of the game as well as tireless preparation of materials to be used in the session (maps, props). Indeed, the quality of the game is arguably most heavily dependent on the creativity, wit and skill of the DM.
As complicated the mechanics of battling enemies were (requiring copious amounts of math), the fundamentals of battle were simple in that the players were free to do anything to try and defeat the creatures, furthermore, the same freedom is given to the player when exploring and interacting with the world. That being stated, the game started to flow smoothly from that point on as we immersed ourselves into that fantasy world we were all simultaneously imagining. We fought a few monsters afterwards, culminating in an epic showdown with what Earl described as the “final boss” of this particular session. After a grueling half-hour showdown, we eventually defeated the final creature, our party went back to the city and our characters parted ways. Thus, one chapter of their long-term campaign was concluded and the session was soon over.
From our time with Earl and his friends, we made several observations. Our first major observation was that Dungeons and Dragons was a way to reconnect. Because of their busy schedules and distance from each others’ homes, Earl and his friends no longer meet as often as when they were all classmates in high school. Despite that, every month – without fail or exception – they arrange a Dungeons & Dragons session at one of his friend’s house to continue their campaign. There, despite the time they have spent apart, and the different lives they now lead, they are able to bond with each other over this game. We noticed during the game that there were small comments made, questions thrown around, and conversations being held, so while they did take time every month to play this game, at its core, the game was a way for them to reunite and reconnect. This calls back to how humans are social beings. According to Sreenivasan and Weinberger (2016), in the olden times where the environment was harsh and unforgiving, humans were required to group together and cooperate to increase their chances of survival, and that while the world we live in may not be as perilous and dangerous, that nature of forming groups is still deeply ingrained in us. In addition to this it is representative of how Filipinos connect. As the late Anthony Bourdain says, “Filipinos are, for reasons I have yet to figure out, probably the most giving of all the people of the planet”. While this is not something that can’t be quantified or made concrete, it is something that is silently acknowledged. This was evident when we first asked Earl if he was willing to arrange a game of Dungeons and Dragons for our research’s sake and he did so without hesitation. Furthermore, Ethan welcomed us into his home and even fed us dinner. During the game, despite neither of us understanding any mechanics or having any experience whatsoever, they welcomed us into their campaign and took the time to guide us along the way and made sure we not only learned about the game, but enjoyed it as well.
Secondly, it calls to how prevalent storytelling is in Filipino culture. Among the Agta, a group of indigenous hunter-gatherers native to the Philippines, storytelling holds a special place. According to Andrea Migliano, she found that storytelling was a skill valued even higher than hunting or gathering. When she asked 300 Agtas for their ideal partners, good storytellers were twice as likely to be named. Similar to this, Filipino culture is teeming with many fables and legends. Originally recited orally, these stories were passed down from generation to generation, until it has been cemented in our very culture. This, again is another manifestation of how we as people interact with one another. What differentiates the skill of a storyteller apart is in how he tells a story, not what story he tells; when one tells a story, while it comes from the mind, it is told from the heart. We remember these because of their impact in our lives and the different emotions and memories they hold, and when we share these stories, we imbue them with our wonder and all our emotion and heart, sharing not only the story, but a part of ourselves as well. One of our major insights is that Dungeons & Dragons is essentially a continuation of the tradition of oral storytelling that it most often attributed to indigenous cultures like the Indian (Hodge, Pasqua, Marquez, & Geishirt-Cantrell, 2002) and the aforementioned Filipino culture. This kind of communal storytelling eschews the common notion of storyteller and listener, allowing both parties (in this case the Dungeon Master and the players) to both contribute a story and to play a role in it, allowing players to influence and change how a story flows, leaving our impression upon it, and also giving a part of ourselves – once again returning to the idea of using these activities as a means of connecting and being a part of someone’s life.
Thirdly, we noticed how similar it was to the childhood act of dressing up and playing make-believe. As we grow up we are taught about maturity and practicality, yet, we were able to clearly observe Earl and his friends – well beyond the age of childhood – taking valuable time that could be used for work or what society deems more “mature” activities, to play a game based on shared imagination in a fantasy world, requiring them to pretend to be someone else and play roles that may not necessarily reflect their real-life personalities. This shows how that sense of wonder and amazement we have as children, remains a part of us and continues to be a part of our being regardless of age. This is called neoteny, or by definition, a retention of juvenile characteristics. Neoteny is a trait linked to basically all of humankind and as a result we retain these characteristics of immaturity and also curiosity. Dungeons & Dragons, simply put, falls under the premise of “What if you lived in a fantasy world and were someone else, facing this impossibly powerful enemies,undergoing this long eventful journey?”. This even includes the actions you take in this fantasy world like “What if I run away?” or “What if I destroy a mountain?”. Similarly, every discovery made by man was made under questions of similar logic and “what ifs” like “What if we harnessed lightning?”, “What if we built cities?”, “What if we went to the moon?”, “What if we could make this into food?”, etc. The limits of what is and what is not possible continues to be pushed by human curiosity. Even playing out scenarios in our head, guessing what are our parents going to say, what our score in this test is, what we would like to drink or eat – all these fall under the premise of “What if?”. The activity of Dungeons & Dragons shows us that our nature to never stop and to keep asking “What if?” stems from that same childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Part of the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons, we believe, is born from an unconscious desire for make-believe play that, according to the famous psychologist Jean Piaget, humans first exhibit in the preoperational stage of cognitive development that we experience during childhood. Perhaps Dungeons & Dragons is a continuation of that stage in our lives; a nostalgic trip back in time.
The final thing we noticed, is the tendency of people to project themselves onto their characters. The fantasy story and role-playing aspect of the game gave players the freedom to create varying characters, including customizing their characters’ physical and mental capabilities to their liking – via the aforementioned “ability scores” that included qualities like Strength, Intelligence and Charisma – which did not necessarily have to reflect the player’s own qualities. We observed that there was a tendency to imbue characters with improvements on one’s real self or traits that the player himself seemed to desire to have. For example, a player with a scrawny physique, would make his character in the game large and strong almost as if he was compensating. We asked Ethan during the game why he had to change his voice, speech patterns and characteristics, just for a game. He explained that it was a way for him to show or express that other side of him which he never really had a chance to express in real life. In a way, the game allows people to project themselves to their character but also as an escape, to change who they are and to be better than who they are. We likened this for this innate psychological human need to seek control, which we discussed in class. In real life, when we encounter factors or things we have no control over, we seem to unconsciously rationalize this chaos – born from an innate need of order and control. The option for customization of characters in Dungeons & Dragons could perhaps be a sign of appealing to that need of control. This explains why that when an opportunity arises in Dungeons & Dragons to take time and decide on an action and to control who we are, we take it. Dungeons & Dragons does however, try and balance this abundance of freedom and order with its’ own chaos – represented by the need to roll dice for certain actions. In the game, we learned that the Dungeon Master had the option to ask for “ability checks” for certain actions. For example, when we asked if we could persuade a villager for more information, Earl made us roll a “Charisma check” – rolling a 12 or less on the dice would mean the villager won’t give info while rolling a 13 or more would mean the villager (or rather, the Dungeon Master) would give us more information. However, the argument can be made that there is still a sense of order in the dice roll since the value needed for a successful “ability check” is arbitrary and up to the Dungeon Master’s discretion (which is why an objective and fair Dungeon Master is necessary), meaning the Dungeon Master still has control over the chaos. Despite this, compared to other role-playing games like most video games, Dungeons & Dragons still gave the players more power to direct and control the narrative and their characters’ actions and future.
Overall, Dungeons & Dragons is an experience that cannot be covered by a questionnaire or described succinctly. One reason is because of how it relies on social interactions between people that cannot be concretely answered by a questionnaire. The second reason is the nature of Dungeons & Dragons as an immersive experience, unlike most video games, Dungeons & Dragons requires players to be fully invested in order to properly partake and enjoy and understand the game, a simple questionnaire is not enough to cover the large range of human emotions felt when playing this game. The third is that every campaign is different from one another. Because the game changes from Dungeon Master to Dungeon Master and from group to group, it is hard to concretize the story and they events that happened as these change throughout each individual campaign. Therefore, one would fail to understand the concept in a holistic manner until one actually experiences and takes part in the event himself/herself.
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Sreenivasan, S., Ph.D., & Weinberger, L. E., Ph.D. (2016, December 14). Why We Need Each Other. Retrieved July 13, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-nourishment/201612/why-we-need-each-other
Hodge, F. S., Pasqua, A., Marquez, C. A., & Geishirt-Cantrell, B. (2002). Utilizing traditional storytelling to promote wellness in American Indian communities. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 13(1), 6-11. Retrieved July 13, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3098048/
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Yong, E. (2017, December 08). The Desirability of Storytellers. Retrieved July 13, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/12/the-origins-of-storytelling/547502/