Beyond the games I write, one thing that is near and dear to my heart is the concept of shared storytelling. And there’s no better place for me to do that than at the game table.
A recent article by game designer Will Hindmarch on Medium brought up how the rules of Dungeons & Dragons aren’t the point of the game at all — the creativity and overlapping stories are. And it inspired me to write this post, which started as a Facebook post and developed way beyond that. (Here’s the link to the Medium story.)
What is Shared Storytelling?
Let’s take a step back and look at the concept of shared storytelling. I bet you’ve encountered it in the past. Do you remember those creative writing projects in English class where you’d start a story and then pass it to the kid in front or behind you to keep it going? That’s an example of what I’m talking about.
There’s an element of risk in such an endeavor. The story is no longer in your control. What if someone else ruins it? What if they change something you didn’t want changed? But why not — what if someone makes it better? Change doesn’t necessarily have to be bad!!
Usually storytelling is an individual pursuit. We all tell stories, even if they’re just about the events of the day. We relay the beginning, middle, and end of a particular narrative flow to educate or entertain others, usually, or help ourselves provide some kind of a narrative structure to the events in our own lives.
Our lives are defined by our stories. We all tell them. Memories given structure as a way to divine meaning. Most of us have those key moments in our lives that we use to anchor ourselves. And when we tell those stories to others, we reveal a bit about the way we see ourselves. We may even embellish or soften different aspects to avoid touching on sensitive subjects, carefully modifying our own histories in the process.
We can’t help it. We are all constructed of the stories we live and the stories we tell ourselves and others. It’s human nature.
Guess what? Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons rely on those same creative skills. We’re just telling tales about ourselves in other roles.
What are Tabletop Role-playing Games?
Many games have components and rules. Have a deck of cards? You can play a ton of games with different sets of rules and objectives. Have a board game with pieces? It’s the same story.
Tabletop-roleplaying games like D&D may have started out long ago as combat simulations, but they have changed and morphed over the years to become so much more than that. Even when it was all about the Battle at Waterloo, the Battle of the Bulge, or some other glorious military loss or victory — we were telling stories and re-telling stories. Combatants would move tiny pieces according to philosophies, history, and tactics to tell glorious tales of battle.
Though we may now be dealing with wizards and warriors, the same general principles apply. We set a scenario, put our pieces on the board, and see where things end up. Stories are bound to come out of such a setup, don’t you think?
For tabletop role-playing games (or TTRPGS), the setup relies on characters created by the players and a scenario set by the person running the game. That individual may be called one of many different titles — game master (GM), dungeon master (DM), storyteller, referee — but they all amount to the same thing. These folks may be running scenarios written by other people or companies, but no two game sessions will ever be exactly the same.
I’m always amazed by the people at my game tables. Young or old, they all come at these scenarios from different points of view and though the bones of the story may be the same, how we get there is usually wildly different.
Stories to Tell
The beauty of shared storytelling at the game table is that each player and player character has their own story to tell. If you look at point-of-view, both the monster and the hero have just as valid a perspective even if they’re wildly different. So when you have multiple heroes, villains, monsters, and settings… all those stories collide in a fantastically chaotic and amazing way.
It’s not JUST about the game master (GM) telling the story. This isn’t a novel where characters march along to a preconceived plot. It certainly can be, but that’s not the way we play. Everybody gets a piece of that creative pie. The rules are there to provide the tiniest bit of structure. The true magic is in interpreting the results of the players actions — both deliberate and accidental. The dice provide that little bit of randomness and everybody gets a say.
And this is why my games tend to be crazy as all those various points of view collide in an imaginary place. We have a blast because everybody has the opportunity to adjust the narrative in unexpected ways. I have so much fun trying to figure out how to react to what my players do, that it’s one giant feedback loop. We laugh, shout, groan, swear, and tell fantastic stories together.
Tabletop role-playing, when given this kind of latitude, encourages creativity by all agents and can really be a fantastic place to be. I think people get scared off by the idea “Dungeons & Dragons” more by some preconceived notions than anything else. There may be some dungeons… sure. And there may be some dragons from time to time… but the story as told by all the players and their guide is really quite a different beastie all together.
As children and adults, I really think we need that creative outlet, reinventing ourselves for a time to create our own myths and legends beyond the ones we live day to day. Plus, it aids in development of social skills, problem solving, reading comprehension, math, spacial skills, and so many other areas. And, whether you’re 12 or 112, I think we all need more stories in our lives.
From my own point of view, I can’t imagine who I would be without role-playing games. D&D changed my life when I was 12 and I think my inner child is still alive and well even as I hit 50 this year.
There are a million games to play and an infinite number of stories, just like with life. I would encourage you to try one. Encourage your kids to try one. Maybe even play together!
We all have a few stories to tell, don’t we?