D&D - Part II - Chess with a Cat
If you read Part I of this series, you'll know that I described D&D as a "cooperative storytelling experience." But what does that look like? You're probably thinking: the metaphor of my ol' grandpappy reading Red Riding Hood is fine and all, but I want to know what D&D is really like!
(Okay. So, in this article I'm going to open up lots of concepts while only covering the surface level of each. Subsequent articles will go into more details, but please leave a comment if you're particularly confused about anything herein!)
When you play a game of D&D, there are three entities at work. Sometimes these entities exist in tandem, dancing along together, weaving a beautiful tango for all the stars to see. Sometimes these entities clash like titans, sending torrential waves down on unexpecting villages. These entities are:
The Players (Little Red Riding Hood)
The Dungeon Master (Grandpappy)
The Dice (Chaos)
For the sake of this article we're going to imagine a scenario. We're going to visualize a hypothetical group of friends who are sitting around a table one evening. Four of these friends are "players," and only one of these friends is the "Dungeon Master." In traditional storytelling, the Dungeon Master is the storyteller and the "players" are the audience. In D&D storytelling, all five friends at the table help tell the story, just in slightly different ways.
In the aforementioned analogy, Grandpappy is the Dungeon Master, aka, the DM. The DM's job is to guide the story along. The DM has a responsibility to "know more about the imagined world than the players do." Often times the DM is referred to as "God" but this is a somewhat misleading title, especially given that we all have different pre-conceived notions of what "god" may or may not be. The DM must know more about the imagined world than the players do, but this doesn't mean that it is exclusively their story. The players are an integral part of how the story unfolds.
The players -referred to as Player Characters (PC's)- in response to the world that the DM paints for them, must listen, explore, and engage.
Think about your favorite book for a moment. The joy in reading a good book isn't in knowing everything there is to know at the beginning. The joy comes in learning about the world and exploring it within your own imagination, as you read. D&D works in the same way; the DM has to play the role of an author who knows not only one way that the book might end, but actually has to imagine many ways the book might end, depending on the players' actions.
So the DM says something like:
"Okay, Little Red Riding Hood, you're lost in the woods and you don't remember the way to granny's. What do you do?"
And the PC playing Little Red says,
"I'd like to pick some mushrooms and trip balllzzzz."
So what about aosifjjnvj ena;alkd k; fae a fn klfhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
Oh! That's so embarrassing, I'm so sorry, my cat just walked over my keyboard! Ha. Silly kitty. Oh hey, speaking of cats, why don't we talk about the third entity: the dice.
When Little Red says she wants to pick some mushrooms, the DM could just shrug and say, "okay." But maybe it's not such a simple thing to do? Maybe it's a more interesting story if she has to try and identify the correct mushroom species. As a general rule in storytelling, heroes who struggle are far more compelling than heroes who automatically succeed all the time. Characters who struggle are also more realistic. After all, do you know how to walk into a forest and identify five different types of mushrooms; which ones are edible, which are poisonous, and which will make you trip ballz? I'm willing to bet most of you don't. (Yes, you, you that one person, I know you know how; relax, I'm not coming for you.)
So when Little Red attempts something difficult, a level of "chaos" is introduced. Every time you try and do something in D&D you must roll a die (a 20 sided die, specifically) to see how successful you might be. Now, I'm not going to go into all the mechanics in this article, but for now, it's simply important for you to understand that the number you roll represents your likelihood of success. The higher the better.
So why? Why this element at all?
Well, if you've ever played chess -or any board game for that matter- with a cat in the house, you know that cats don't give a flying f**k about whose turn it is. There gonna jump up on that table and start swiping at those pawns and queens. Sometimes their antics are adorable, sometimes their destruction is devastating. In either case, chaos is inevitable. This is true in our world, and in imaginary worlds as well. And also, while I described D&D as "cooperative storytelling," it is also a "game," and in order for games to work they have to have certain rules. But more on rules later.
So let's say Little Red rolls high:
The fates are with her, she remembers peering through her grannie's National Geographic Forest Plant Guide and correctly identifies the right mushroom. Ballz tripping, commence!
What if she rolls poorly?
In her excitement Little Red grabs the first mushroom she sees, but it doesn't give her a transcendental experience. Unless you consider explosive diarrhea transcendental!
The DM, the Player Characters, and the Dice waltz together, weaving a story that is fun, engaging, scary, heartbreaking, and whatever else you want it to be. This is the joy of a role playing game built on collective imagination. The limits are only set at what you and your friends agree on.
Okay, I think that's enough for today. Thanks for reading. If you're confused, don't worry, I'll break down all sorts of things. Feel free to shoot me a comment and let me know what you thought and if there are any future topics you want me to explore!
(Get it? Cuz I'm Dungeon Master T? Heh. Okay. Bye.)
Tariq Aamir Malik is an actor, voice actor, writer, and professional Dungeon Master. Welcome. Let's hang. www.tariqaamirmalik.com