I have a strong hunch that for the whole of human history, life has felt chaotic and overwhelming. In recent years this has taken the form of a world so interconnected that we can keep up to date on every single tragedy in real-time. All the while most of us are stuck with inescapable debt, just-to-get-by jobs, and a spiraling lack of control over our own lives and the world around us.
So in the face of all this, when presented with a world that allows us immediate and direct power over our surroundings, it’s a breath of fresh air. I don’t think it’s any hidden secret that part of the appeal of D&D, or even just RPGs in general, is their potential as escape into fantasy. What sets D&D apart, though, is its place as a creative outlet as well. It’s a form of communal storytelling, and more than that it’s communal storytelling as play, allowing each person their own influence over the progression of the story.
Communal storytelling isn’t anything unique to D&D. People come together to tell stories all the time. In movies and TV, the combination of music, script, directing, acting choices and innumerable other details all add up to create the story, with each person’s ideas and work contributing to the final product. It’s not uncommon for authors to collaborate when writing, and even when there’s only one acknowledged author, there are often dozens of people behind the scenes of a story: friends and family that they bounced ideas off of, professional editors, and beta readers of second and third (and fourth and fifth and sixth) drafts that gave them feedback and input. The author may be at the helm of the ship, but there’s always a crew behind them.
The point is, stories don’t come from a single ray of inspiration created in a vacuum, they are cumulative and collaborative.
So if most (if not all) storytelling is social, then what makes D&D different? The glimmer of adventure that sets D&D apart is obvious. It’s a game. It’s play. There’s no pressure (nor is there even the ability) to go back and hone a campaign into a perfect version of itself. The world moves forward, no matter what. And through each backstory, character choice, and of course the tireless work of the backbone of any campaign: the DM, the story is written through a lot of improvisation and a lot more fun. With a few notable exceptions, the story of a D&D campaign is for the enjoyment of the players and the DM alone. It is not intended for presentation or consumption. It is storytelling intended solely for the entertainment of its tellers. And I think that’s pretty neat.
Or at least, that’s my experience with D&D. How does yours differ? Do you enjoy the story-telling and role-playing aspect like I do or does the combat hold more appeal for you? Let me know in the comments below!