Adventures with Storytelling

by anbrewk

Recently, I had the good idea of tricking my partner’s twin sister, Cassie, into playing Dungeons and Dragons with Maia and I. It wasn’t particularly hard. I just told her we were playing a storytelling game. I said, “We’re all going to tell a story together. I have an idea for the story arc and I want you and Maia to help me populate that arc with ideas and events – starting with the two main characters.”

From there, it got a little awkward. I found myself having a really hard time avoiding terms and phrasing particular to D&D: referring to her as a player and talking about her character (her player character is what I wanted to say). In themselves, those two particular phrases aren’t strange but in the context of just telling a story I thought they came off as very roleplay-ee. Despite my efforts, though, I found them to be unavoidable. The language of role playing games is ingrained in my conception of that type of storytelling. Those sorts of ingrown assumptions (that inform how one explains roleplaying by what roleplaying is) are exactly what I was trying to get away from. I didn’t actually want to trick Cassie into playing D&D. I wanted to expose her to an experience she may otherwise have been closed to – that of collaborative storytelling.

My conception of what good D&D is stems from a desire to tell good stories. I like telling stories with people. I like when someone tells a story I am familiar with and I add in the parts I’m good at telling and I like it when people do that to my stories. In my own limited life I have my own iliads that get shared amongst friends and, on occasion, the fortunate few who get to be included in our ritual stories. For me, D&D is a mechanical framework that allows for that kind of story-sharing by collaboratively weaving the story from scratch. Each player, including the Dungeon Master (who to me is just a player of a different sort), get together to tell a story that each of them are invested in and each of them contribute to.

I know some people derive satisfaction from D&D as an accounting game: keeping track of numbers, statistics, levels, points, etc., leading them to greater satisfaction the better their hero performs. They may be disappointed if they roll a succession of zeros on a d20 and thus fail at whatever it was they wanted to do. What I have been trying to do with my games is popularize the already popular idea that losing is fun. This is not to say that, as a Dungeon Master, I go about owning my players with 1st level fireball traps and “everything is poison” games where…everything is poison…. Rather, I encourage my players to delve into their characters’ shortcomings.

In my most recent game with Maia and Cassie, Maia’s character had 18 Strength, 5 Intelligence, and 12 Charisma. Charisma is not a “dump stat” in my games. Having a low or high charisma indicates what kind of person your character is. Her character, Atla, was kind-hearted, charmingly simple, and had the blood of the Freyr flowing through her veins (A northern race of pale skinned, white haired, half-giants who sail huge raiding ships and control the northern seas). Long ago her village was founded by Freyr who left their homeland to travel further south and become sustainable farmers with their own livelyhood that did not depend on yearly tributes and raids. Atla’s attributes reflected her genetic and cultural heritage. She’s kind-hearted yet has the blood of warriors in her veins. Technically, she was playing a barbarian but the reason she was illiterate wasn’t because her tribe is illiterate or because the rulebooks say barbarians are illiterate but because Atla, as a person, could never figure out the symbols. She is who she is and not an archetype. Her attributes and skills are important indications of who she is and thus indicate not merely what she could do but what she would do.

So, when Atla failed to hit the huge spider it was not simply because she missed after failing to roll the requisite number on a d20, it was because Maia imagined Atla to have simply been too slow on the uptake – Maia described Atla to have held up her warhammer and looked first at the spider and then at her friend and then back at the spider just in time to not do anything before the round was up. She was unsure if the spider was hostile because who can know of these things. But the next round, after the spider successfully lunged and bit her, she happened to roll an 18 which, along with her power attack, laid out a total of 16 damage. Her success on the second roll was for the same reason her first roll failed: it was because she was concentrating – something she finds hard to do but when she does it, oh boy! There was a consistency in her actions that made her involvement satisfying whether she succeeded or failed. If Atla failed every one of her rolls, a huge womyn with great strength and the blood of a warrior, it wouldn’t be because she wasn’t strong enough or skilled enough but maybe because she was scared or unsure or confused or didn’t want to do harm. She has reasons for failing that make failing fun.

The actual rolling of the dice was not what was happening. The rolling of the dice simply added a bit of chaos to the story we were telling. The dice helped us determine whether Atla succeeded or failed but did not define her character’s ability or meaning. She was always Atla whether she fails or not because she always does Atla things. Her stats don’t define her. They just give parameters to her character so that she’s fun to play; they provide creativity through constraint. The constraint is the die and the creativity is in the figuring out who she is and what she wants – why she does what she does and where she is going – not just what she is doing. Numbers constrain us but we do everything we want in between those die rolls. If you want a character who can jump off walls and do flips in the air at level one, that’s awesome but they’re going to have to be nervous doing it infront of crowds or when their life is on the line or have some other vice that makes their possibility of failure as interesting as their success. Then, when they level up and their possibility of failure decreases, we get this interesting character who has slowly overcome their fear and thus (as well as in a game mechanics sense) decreases their chance of failure as they gained experience.

There was clearly a point when it was revealed to Cassie that yes, we were going to play D&D but this point came only after she and Maia had drawn pictures of their characters and described where they were from and how they got where they were, how they knew each other and why they were friends, and generally who they were as people. So, when we got to the stats and points and statistics, they weren’t the focus. Cassie’s reluctance to play D&D was the same, but now she also wanted to tell a story and so D&D with all its numbers and stats was made into a means to an end that she cared enough about to make learning the system worth it. The story was mostly written before we rolled a single die. By the time we got to playing D&D and not just talking, we had already told an epic story with seeds for a hundred other stories. And when we got to actually rolling dice, it was like we were just figuring out the only part we hadn’t figured out yet – the one part none of us could say for certain without adding a bit of chance, and that part was how it was all going to end.