At even our most primitive levels, we humans are storytellers. Primitive humans drew on cave walls, preserving the stories of their day-to-day life. Our religions use parables, or simplistic stories, to impart the wisdom of their most holy persons to their followers. Shakespeare, Homer, and even the unknown author of The Epic of Gilgamesh, have told stories that resonate so deeply across cultures and time that they have survived through hundreds or even thousands of years, still being told in various forms to this day.
Which brings us to today’s storytelling phenomenon: Dungeons & Dragons. It’s the game everyone is playing. And if you’re not playing, you know someone who does. From Elon Musk and Stephen King to Vin Diesel and Marilyn Manson, a plethora of celebrities across the genres of entertainment have claimed the tabletop RPG as a personal pastime. In fact, there are even modern celebrities who earned much of their fame by playing D&D. Critical Role is a popular streaming channel that is simply a group of voice actors who have been playing D&D as an entertainment medium for the past three years. They play live shows all over the country for thousands of people at a time, and the YouTube videos of their games have upwards of 2.5 million views per episode.
So the question is…why is it so interesting to sit in a crowd of people – or in front of your laptop/TV screen – and watch a couple of people talk out a story? Or, more importantly, what is it about the game that so enraptures those that play? The video below is an interview with Sam Riegel – an Emmy award-winning actor, director, and writer who plays the goblin “Nott, the Brave” on Critical Role – in which he tries to capture the ethereal feeling of being teleported to new worlds through Dungeons & Dragons.
(Video starts at 1:01:00, and an ideal spot to stop is 1:03:56)
As someone who has played countless sessions of D&D over the past decade, I resonated deeply with Sam Riegel’s words. For those readers that don’t know, the basic game setup is this: one player – the Dungeon Master (DM) – controls everything that happens in the world, while the other players – the Player Characters (PC’s) – each dictate the actions and behaviors of a single character in that world. So, essentially, the DM is the computer processor for everything the PC’s want to do. The biggest reason D&D is so viscerally interesting and engaging? There are virtually no limitations for what your character can do. Sure, there are rules and regulations that inform the DM on how a character succeeds or fails, but ultimately, if a player can think up an action, their character can attempt to do that action. That level of open possibility is something that no video game can come close to imitating.
Furthermore, in this digital age where even teenagers spend almost nine hours using technology in a single day, the opportunity to converse and connect with others for hours at a time is a novelty. For that reason, we at NuMinds have recently started up a program to introduce kids to this storytelling experience: the Masters of the Dungeonverse. Program creator Adam Nees and myself have built a world for the players to experience and, through their successes and their failures, alter the course of its future. Already in the first official month of this program, we have seen the effect this form of enrichment can have for the kids involved. And yes, it is enrichment!
Like any great form of literature draws from the real world, so too does the world that the players experience. From economic woes and ineffective government officials to racial prejudice and high-stakes compromise, the situations their characters find themselves in are always based in reality – with an overlay of elves, swords, and magic to distance the players from the harshest qualities of those realities. It also allows kids to take a step out of their own life into the role of someone else, which lets them act more freely. In fact, acting out a character can feel more authentic in a way, simply because the kids don’t deal with the fear of real-world consequences.
And, most importantly? The lessons are real, valuable, and exist long after the last die is rolled. As Sam Riegel said, “Even when we’re not…playing the game, it’s led to these moments together that…you know…are the best moments of our lives, I guess!”