I think we can all agree, unless you’re Jeff Bezos, it’s not been a great year. 2020 has had its ups and downs, and further downs and further downs. And whilst there’s been a fair share of heartbreak all round, the vast array of negatives have helped the positives, no matter how small, shine through brighter than ever.
For me personally, one such positive has been Dungeons & Dragons.
Now, before you rush to close the tab, I promise this isn’t another one of those ‘How [Insert relevant pop culture reference here] can help you be a better marketer’ posts. No, instead this is going to explain how, by helping me communicate with friends, showing me the importance of teamwork, and encouraging creative writing, Dungeons & Dragons saved 2020 for me.
Understanding the game
For those of you who haven’t played before or are not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons (DnD from here on out), it’s essentially a choose your own adventure story that’s played with a group of people, and decided with a series of dice rolls.
Originally released by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, DnD is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game, in which players explore and interact with the magical world around them and roll a number of multiple-sided dice to determine how impactful those interactions are.
One person acts as the Dungeon Master (DM), setting the story, guiding players through the adventure, and deciding how their world reacts to the players (along with hundreds of other responsibilities, shout out to my tired DMs).
Before 2020, I’d actually never properly played the game before. I was aware of it, I’d dabbled in different systems and variations with people before, and played plenty of video game RPGs, but had never been involved in a steady game with a dedicated group that followed the DnD rules set out by Gygax and Arneson all those years ago.
There have actually been several revisions to the ruleset since the Game’s release, the fifth of which and the most recent system came out in 2014. But that’s not really important here. The main focus is that DnD involves people getting together and playing out an adventure — as a team.
As comedian Thomas Middleditch so eloquently puts it in this interview, it’s “a very important story that is told only for the six people in our group.”
Keeping up connections
It’s the group part of the description that really helped me throughout this year.
Usually, DnD would be played around a table with a group of anything from 2–8 people. Thanks to Covid of course that’s not been able to happen. Luckily, virtual tabletops and video-chat platforms like Zoom or Discord have helped players across the world stay connected and continue their games.
Websites like Roll20 allow DMs to upload maps of environments in which their games take place. Players can then move their characters across the map, roll for actions, and share updates, all within the same platform. Character sheets (a sheet on which the information and statistics of your character are outlined) can be built out online and accessed via mobile using sites like DnDBeyond. The internet has helped take the tabletop to the laptop.
It’s not seamless, but it’s pretty impressive.
Playing a shared, ongoing story together with a group on a weekly basis has helped me form connections, reignite friendships, and even discover more about who I am (or want be) when it comes to decision making. It’s allowed me to check in on friends, and them to check in on me, all whilst we’re doing something we enjoy.
The game might be fantasy, but the people make it real.
Teamwork makes the dream work
In a year of regular ‘Zoom Office Drinks’ and video catch-ups with estranged relatives, it’s quite refreshing to log on to the computer and open up Zoom to actually have fun.
This is what I imagine people who regularly play sports or enjoy going to the gym feel like. Having a weekly, scheduled hobby, that is genuinely enjoyable, and that I can actively have an impact on, has not only given me something to keep me busy during lockdown — It’s connected me with friends, pushed me out of my comfort zone, and provided me with a support base.
Establishing those connections, and keeping the channels of communication open, has provided a welcome constant throughout what has been a turbulent year.
Clear communication is integral to good teamwork. It’s also a vital part of role-playing. Being able to describe what you see, what you’re doing, and how you react to situations helps keep the game running smoothly, and immerses the players into the story.
Over the past year, I’ve found that DnD sessions have not only improved the way I describe the world around me, but also the way I communicate with people on a one-to-one basis. In a world were a misunderstanding could be fatal, I’ve truly come to realise the value of clear and concise communication.
Crafting the story
Playing DnD is one thing, but running a game, as a DM, who has complete control of everything that goes in the world — that’s a whole other level of responsibility.
Of course, there are tonnes of great sourcebooks and online adventures you can work from, a whole host of which are freely available online.
However, there’s also a way to tell your own stories. Known as homebrewing to the DnD community, this is the method of tweaking existing rules and information, or completely creating brand new stories, that are told using the DnD playstyle.
As someone who used to love creative writing, but due to adulthood and general life admin had never really found the time or energy to sit down and do so, the idea of homebrew DnD games excited me hugely.
And these stories don’t all have to be about dark dungeons and mighty dragons either. After watching a couple of ‘homebrew’ games run by the wonderful Brennan Lee Mulligan for online show Dimension 20, I was inspired to write (read: copy and adapt) and run a John Hughes-like story set in an 80s themed fantasy high school — think Breakfast Club meets Lord of the Rings.
I somehow convinced my housemates, who had never played before, to let me run the game for them, and haven’t stopped writing. Since then I’ve created seasonal one-shots (one-off games to be completed in one session), a wild west themed campaign, and am currently on the second year of our high school campaign.
All stories created solely for the purpose of specific groups, and shared only between those people. I’m writing now more than ever before, and it’s purposeful, and most importantly, enjoyable.
Roll that die
There has been a lot of ups and downs this year, but I can proudly say that DnD has kept me connected with friends, and provided a positive outlet throughout.
Lockdown can be lonely, especially in winter, and with the UK having entered tier 4, a lot of people might feel disconnected this Christmas. So, whether this piece has encouraged you to play DnD or not, I implore you to reach out to those around you, even those you haven’t spoken to in a while. ’Tis the season after all.
Plus, you never know, you might even get an adventure out it.