I’m sitting in the pub with my demon-pal Bollox, deciding whether to use acid blast against the dimension-shifting spider in the basement. It’s already a busy Wednesday, what with the resurrected skeletons and having technically died for 12 seconds, last thing I need is to damage our stockpile of wine.
Like over 40 million people, I am using the role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) to escape from the horrors of lockdown. I’ve been drawn into this geeky “gym for storytelling muscles” (as writer/Goliath Barbarian Derek Bond describes it) and its possible theatrical overlap. Over the last week I’ve spoken with fifteen theatremakers-slash-players-slash-adventuring Orcs who are already seasoned adventurers. Rumour has it even Judi Dench is a fan.
D&D at its simplest is collective storytelling with rules, pencil, paper, dice, a nerdy writer’s room and snacks. One player takes on the mantle of Dungeon Master (DM), leading the others through a series of adventures laid out in a ‘module’ – a guidebook to the world and monsters. At its most complex, this can entail maps, online simulations and a whole new lexicon from NPCs, TTRPGS to LARP. The characters (elves, orcs, humans etc) and their skills draw on a Tolkien-esque fantasy universe, but players can create personas as wild as writer Nemo Martin’s ‘part-time alligator cryptid part-time gay dad’. The many-sided dice introduce an element of randomness to actions and their results: will you persuade the druid to let you go? Will your Eldritch blast be enough to defeat the necromancer?
“You really can’t plan things or rely on someone else to help guide a scene”, explains Chloe Mashiter (game/theatremaker/centaur sorcerer). “It forces you to genuinely focus on the moment”. Those moments can be roughly delineated into exploration, combat, socialising, collecting and competing. But unlike my other favourite makey-up game, theatre, they’re never passive.
Still, the parallels in terms of improvisation and character construction are obvious. In D&D, you build characters’ motivation up. For a game to function you need to work as a team, communicate, share, take chances and be open (even if your character isn’t). “It’s speedy problem solving”, says Gabrielle MacPherson (actor/Yuan ti Pureblood). “It’s like, holy shit, we have found ourselves surrounded by Hobgoblins! What attack would get us out the way quickest? That’s what we do as artists and freelancers everyday”. MacPherson diplomatically neglects to name the theatrical hobgoblins.
This methodology extends beyond characterisation and narrative into world building. When DMing, Simeon Miller (LX designer/Hexblade Warlock) links key events to visual memories. “Even if it’s not necessarily obvious to the audience, understanding your thought processes gives your decisions structure, and that’s something I’ve taken directly from D&D”. You’re more likely to recall a conversation by a river, with the night sky vividly described, just as the right visual metaphor on stage can underscore a key event.
D&D also allows you to flex your dramaturgical muscles. As Nemo Martin explains, being a DM who’s creating an open world means that you have to understand “what your macro- and micro-plots are, what will you let your players fuck around with and potentially break”. Hailey Bachrach (Dramaturg/ half-elf bard) adds that players need to maintain a “sense of each other’s motivations”, and take responsibility for everyone’s shared enjoyment. “The story can be brilliant but if it’s not fun, what’s the point?” asks games writer and playwright Gemma Langford. “Games writing is all about controlling the experience the person is having – we might know that in this moment they need to feel dread or excitement, and the writing has to make that happen.” Whilst we employ similar tricks in theatre, such as DryWrite’s strategy of making an audience fall in love with a character in five minutes, a show’s experience is rarely constructed from the inside out. Whereas as Chloe Mashiter puts it, a good D&D strives to be “an exercise in empathy”.
Despite the success of shows and live streams such as Questing Time and The MMPORG show, D&D is not designed for an audience. If one is introduced, the objective must shift to performative: to putting on a show. Otherwise, your campaign risks descending into the circle jerk that is bad improv. However, D&D also offers a toolbox for building theatrical worlds that can go beyond watching others play. Some of this is direct, such as William Drew’s The First Time as Tragedy, which uses gamiefied improvisation to allow the audience to make a real impact on what’s happening on stage. Or Carrie Marx’s work with Hermetic Arts, which involves the audience in horror-inspired roleplaying, inviting them to enter a space where they’re ready to play, just as though they’re stepping up to a D&D table. Others, like Jenifer Toksvig’s imaginary restaurant Toksvig’s, take a genre blending approach, drawing on D&D’s strategy of guided imagining to create experiences where everyone involved has agency.
As well as being pioneers of interactive storytelling, D&D and other RPGS are also miles ahead of theatre technologically, from play-by-post forums (where participants create a written story together over paragraphs and months) to Twine, that allows to build interactive storytelling threads without knowing a single line of code. “Can you imagine if Beckett had had this tech?” enthuses Langford, “yet theatre is still stuck on YouTube”.
During lockdown, many D&D games have moved online, onto Discord and the seemingly omnipresent Zoom. Games that would have lasted a whole day are now condensed to four to six hours, and for those with neurodiversity such as ADHD & autism, the focus required can make online gaming pretty inaccessible. But streaming games can also make room for other forms of play and socialisation, in particular through Twitch, a video platform that allows for interaction with the presenter and other audience members via a chat-box. Comedian John Robertson, self-styled dictator of the world’s only live action video game The Dark Room, describes Twitch as like hosting a party. “There could be thousands of people typing to you all at once, so you don’t have to respond to everything. It’s not like being in a theatre where one shout from the crowd is heard by everyone there.” The chat manages itself as “the audience roll with ideas, add to them, and get excited for new, silly things … you’re always improvising together.”
Constant improvisation and creativity is intrinsic to the chaotic-good mechanics of D&D. Getting things wrong and failing is where “everything interesting comes from”, says Hailey Bachrach – including in ‘meta-gaming’, the RPG equivalent of dramatic irony where you as a player know something that your character wouldn’t. Players can step out of character and ‘table talk’ to find a solution. Liz Barker (theatremaker and my very patient DM) sees this kind of “relaxed conflict” as useful practice, explaining that it helps you learn to take your ego out of a work disagreement. So all that time I spent arguing with her that my character Sempervirens might be able to fly was practically Open Space Technology.
The game embraces departure from the ‘script’ (module) and group consensus in a manner that many autocratic rehearsal rooms could learn from. Derek Bond illustrates this with an incident where as DM, he set a puzzle with only one solution: “I was being such a director, frustrated that they weren’t doing it ‘right’ instead of listening”. For Alexandra Coke (director/weak-willed bard), “it’s 100% about teamwork and navigating consent”. This includes culture setting by a DM, who can set out terms of conduct that forbid intolerance at the table (I hate being called ‘darling’ in real life, let alone when I’m an 8ft soul eater) and providing ‘table tools’, which set boundaries for game topics.
Let’s not, however, allow ourselves the fantasy that D&D is a utopia of inclusion and collaboration. William Drew notes that “These systems were originally created by white men who drew heavily on fantasy novels written by white men”. It’s hard enough joining a campaign when you don’t know the gaming rules, let alone a coda seemingly controlled by white, cis, heterosexual male gatekeepers. Certain ‘races’ of characters draw on exoticized stereotypes of marginalised cultures and people of colour and have been traditionally given lower stats in intelligence and/or coded as inherently evil. Nemo Martin points out the ridiculousness of it: “You’ve made a whole new world exist! Why do we need to see fantasy people of colour subjugated under fantasy white people? It reinforces the idea that we can’t exist without pain”.
Unlike theatre, however, there is a willingness from wizards at the top to readdress the canon and correct mistakes of the past. Still, questions remain as to representation and appropriation. It’s easy when you are a blue demon, as there are no real-life blue demons walking around. But what if it’s a cis person playing a non-binary character? “D&D is wonderful in that it allows you be anyone but, if you are going to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, you should probably ask them first if they would like to keep hold of their shoes”, Bond acknowledges. Like with theatre, the only way forward is self-interrogation and more visibility. “I serve as my own little oddball example to people who are really ignorant to the idea that a Muslim woman of colour can absolutely LOVE video games”, says actor Safiyya Ingar. “Even if you are pretending to be someone else, we need communities to diversify so we see Black people represented”, adds Eli Kingsley (Actor/Paladin). He is still yet to see a Black streamer. Perhaps that’s why so many women, Queer and people of colour dive right into D&D as DMs. There is something brilliant and brave about looking at the gatekeepers and saying ‘nah thanks, we’ll make our own’.
Maybe theatre can take ideas from D&D by deconstructing traditional hierarchies to find what Simeon Miller calls “purposeful gaps for creativity” in the rehearsal room – something that many devised theatremakers are already expert in. A successful game requires everyone to be invested in having a good time, to turn up prepared, bring a pencil and be up for keeping the game flowing. It’s a constant act of collaboration, of understanding that you are building a world together and taking responsibility for your actions as they have consequences. Everyone has agency and everyone is invested in the process. Sounds like a good recipe for theatre.
Unlike a director or an untouchable script, a DM’s role is not authoritative but guiding, reflecting back the inner workings of the game and pointing out that this actually might not be a great time to use thunder wave (thanks Liz!). The mechanics strip away the pressure to over produce and force you to constantly recalibrate your intentions; to sacrifice plot in favour of a positive collective experience. D&D allows for both performance and play for the joy of play alone. As Langford reflects, “Imagine if we brought together the “is it fun?” philosophy of gaming with shared synching heartbeats in a theatre?” And that feels like an exciting prospect. Imagine if we stopped thinking of each other as “good or bad at theatre”, as Liz Barker says, and instead thought about what sort of adventures we want to have, redistributing our resources and recognising that we all deserve to be here, telling stories together. I’ll roll initiative on that.
Ready to roll?
The basic rules are available for free online with character sheets easily downloadable from D&D Beyond. Don’t be intimidated. If you can’t find a group to join, do a little reading up and start your own!
It’s perfectly possible to play with a dice app and some basic online rules if you are making a ‘homebrew’ (making up your own game) or you can invest in either a Starter Kit or Essentials Kit from around £16 each. If you prefer to join a game or set up one online to play, check out Roll 20 that allows you to create a free account, link up and play.
The Scratticus Academy (@Scratticus_) is an excellent resource as a safe virtual space to learn TTRPGs (Table Top RPGS) whilst the very brilliant No More Damsels organises online and real life meet ups to encourage people into gaming, along with Table Tools and codes of conduct to ensure a fun, supportive experience for first time players.
The Dark Room – You can play John Robertson’s regular sell out live action video game every Friday on Twitch. It’s not D&D but excellent, interactive nerd fun. Be warned, You will DIE.
Critical Role – A bunch of voice actors play D&D and its as silly and fun as it sounds. Definitely in the ‘this is a show’ camp of streamed games.
Rivals of Waterdeep – A D&D actual play stream from the official D&D twitch channel with a fantastic, diverse cast.
Questing Time – Pro Dungeon master Paul Foxcroft runs real comedians through an actual game of D&D. Excellent balance of laughs and nerdery – plus who doesn’t want to see Sue Perkins be an elf?
Sirens of the Realms – Streamed game with an adventure as an all-female bard band.
Critical Bard/ #BLACKAFRoundtable – Actor Omega Jones plays as part of Critical Role and uses this hashtag to bring together Black RPG players and share their stories. He’s also great on Twitter @CriticalBard
The Adventure Zone – Biweekly comedy and adventure actual play podcast based loosely on D&D.
Dimension 20 – Roleplaying anthology currently set in a fantasy high school.
Dragontalk – The D&D team sits down each week with celebrities and personalities from across gaming and pop culture.
Dungeons and Daddies – Four Dads play D&D. It’s not BDSM.
Other Interactive Fiction & RPGs you might like to try (as recommended by the nerds/excellent people interviewed for this piece) CW: Some of these games include reference to illness and death
The Quiet Year
Thanks also to the following adventurers who contributed to this piece but who I didn’t quote directly: Chloe Smith (Bruntwood Coordinator/ Barri the Unprepossessing Druid), Ed Croft (Comedy Song Pirate/ Changeling Swashbuckler Bastard), Justina Aina (Assistant Producer/Carlatan High Elf), Laurence Young (Actor/ Undead Priest), Rae Leaver (Programmer/102 year old Aasimar).