Everybody should play Dungeons and Dragons
It’s Saturday, July 3, 2021, it’s 1:55 p.m. in Montreal, 7:55 p.m. in Toulouse. I have not counted the hours over the past few months that I have spent preparing for this moment. The stress level is high, as well as the excitement. In five minutes, three people in Montreal and two more in Toulouse will join on the same Discord server. They have already created an account on Roll20, the character sheets are ready, we are just about to officially start our Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
Despite its title, which suggests that this article is primarily intended for people who do not play Dungeons and Dragons, it will actually speak more to those of you who are familiar with the game, and with tabletop role-playing games in general. And yet, if I will get into some specifics of the game, I believe that the subtext has a range that goes outside its sole scope. So here is my almost desperate attempt to keep with us a majority of potential future members of this beautiful community: quoting Wikipedia, here is a broad enough definition of what a tabletop role-playing game is.
A tabletop role-playing game (typically abbreviated as TRPG or TTRPG), also known as a pen-and-paper role-playing game, is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters’ actions through speech. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a set formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game. The terms pen-and-paper and tabletop are generally only used to distinguish this format of RPG from other formats, since neither pen and paper nor a table are strictly necessary.
For my first campaign as a game master (or dungeon master, or DM) (also one of my first tabletop role-playing experiences), I read everywhere on the internet from people willing to share their experience, that the Tomb of Annihilation adventure module was perhaps the most difficult module for a DM to run, and therefore strongly not recommended to inexperienced DMs. It is therefore only natural that my spirit of contradiction insisted on starting with this one. Here we are now eighteen months later, approximately 120 hours of play spread over about thirty sessions have passed and … fun fact: we still haven’t set foot in the so-called tomb of annihilation. It doesn’t matter, so much the better, dare I say, what matters is not the destination, it’s the journey. Looking back, I don’t know if it was a good idea to start with this module. What I do know is that I won’t stop at this one. Note that while I still rely heavily on the elements of the book, I took the liberty of changing many of them, and adding others for my greatest creative pleasure, which may have contributed to slow the originally intended pace of the author.
A year and a half is a modest experience as a DM, but it was enough to already experiment quite a bit. I feel like my recipe for a good session of Dungeons & Dragons has evolved a lot. I kept a lot of one-night-ingredients, and dropped others in during our main campaign episodes, as well as one-shot adventures I prepared. It may be a hobby, but I take D&D seriously, and I know I’m not the only one. I have lost count of the hours I have spent reading official modules, browsing forums, mastering Roll20, debriefing games with my players, following Youtube channels like the Dungeons Dudes, WASD20, Ginny Di, XP to Level 3, and of course analyzing sometimes more than watching some live games, like Matthew Mercer’s Critical Role. Getting started with D&D today is easier than ever considering all the content available to help anyone understands how the rules work, but mostly to get an idea of what a typical game looks like (because in this respect, an episode of The Big Bang Theory or Stranger Things, although I like these two shows, just to name a few, does not inform us much). I feel much more autonomous and legitimate today to prepare games, so that I have less need to systematically return to these sources, but I do occasionally revisit them for fun, and seek out new ones, to add new perspectives to the way I see the game.
The more I build my experience, the more I am sure that one aspect of the game in particular as it is practiced today absolutely transcends all the others. I am not talking about role-playing, exploration or combat which are traditionally presented as the three pillars on which the game stands. I speak of a more fundamental aspect, even more constitutive of the experience, the only one which has such importance that the game cannot exist without it. It is so true that everyone is both aware of it, and tends to forget how important it is to take best care of it. The very reason I take it so seriously, and I believe everyone should play Dungeons & Dragons.
Above all, a social experience
Perhaps more than any other game, D&D is a deeply social experience.
This implies that the motivation of players to come and play is conditioned by the quality of the relationships and the communication in the group. Trust is at the heart of the experience, players must be able to rely on each other to maintain a climate of safety in which they can fully grow.
As players, we have the ability to tolerate some bugs in different aspects of the game. An inconsistency in the flow of the story, a misreading of a rule, a glitch in Roll20, these are examples of bugs that you have to be able to deal with, with a certain lightness. In a way, they are part of the game, they are generally easy to deal with, and they rarely ruin the game in the long term. But there is another type of bug that a party of D&D players is exposed to: bugs in the party itself. If we can make little of many aspects of the game, in no case this social dimension is one of them.
Building a group of people willing to invest over the long term to share a common story, willing to regularly devote a significant part of their time to this hobby, is no easy task. It requires energy, engagement from everyone, it is therefore precious, and we need to take extra care of it. An important part of the fun of playing comes from what others are willing to share with us. No sharing, no D&D.
It will always be possible to explore in Pokémon Go, to stimulate our imagination by reading an adventure novel, to build a world by writing our own, to role-play by joining a theater club, to get sucked into the World of Warcraft, or to chain turn-based combats in Fire Emblem. The potential of D&D may be greater than all these experiences combined, but the group must work together for that potential to be fully exploited.
D&D is a school of social skills, maybe the best team building in the world and everyone at any age can find support to become a better version of themselves. This is what in my opinion justifies taking it seriously, and therefore investing specific time dedicated to improving the experience of each and everyone at the table. By making this investment, by implementing rules and tools specifically designed to foster a climate of trust and benevolence, not only do we give ourselves the means to become better role-players, but better human beings.
The social pact
I took advantage of a summer break in our campaign to reflect on this question, at a time when some interactions made it clear to me that we were slowly losing sight of this primordial factor, and even worse, that we did not measure the potential consequences in the long run.
From this reflection emerged the idea of a social pact that I presented to the group just before the beginning of what I eventually named season 2 of our campaign (or its second year of existence). Although difficult to measure, even more so with the lack of history, I have the feeling that this new edition of our session zero had a really positive impact. So that I am more and more convinced of an obviousness so obvious to state that it seems stupid: the first thing you want to make sure before preparing for a game is that the players actually want to play.
Like I said, it’s obvious. So obvious that I always knew it, even before the first experienced D&D player told me the obvious. What is less is how to guarantee that it lasts. Many people want to try D&D, some are even very motivated, but how do you get those who kinda liked it to come back for another game, and another one after that? I always spend more time on this matter, and I have come to consider that as a DM, my first responsibility, before designing a good dungeon, before being a referent of the rules, is to maintain a framework that allows everyone to become a guardian of a pact of benevolence, which is supposed to be the only non-negotiable condition to which the participants will agree to come back.
I’m not fooling myself about the effectiveness over time of such a pact if it is not regularly strengthened, if it does not show through every interaction between the participants. It is a process, which is why not only is this pact subject to change, but it must also be constantly demonstrated and named, even if it seems superfluous, until the laws become culture. It’s a small price to pay for the story we are building together, session after session, to continue as long as possible.
In the spirit of the SRE principles which allow tech giants to innovate on systems used on a global scale, while guaranteeing their stability, we add new chapters to our story carefully, by making sure everyone continues to be inspired by it and get something positive out of it. Because in the end, it is really not about the story, the rules or the characters. What remains is the memory of having built something ourselves, just for us, and the pride of having made it last as long as possible.
Here are the rules of the table that this pact I’m talking about consists of, as I presented them to the group. I deliver them for multiple interests, including in particular the harvesting of opinions if there were to be any expressed in the comments section, but also to satisfy my future curiosity to discover to what extent they will have evolved if they were to evolve, which I suspect, which I hope. Moreover, I leave it up to everyone to find applications in their personal and professional experiences, which exist outside our D&D sessions.
The rules of the table
Your aircraft, my aircraft
It can happen to spontaneously have the feeling of capturing too much of the spotlight, at the expense of the visibility of the other members of the party. When the situation occurs, our sense of good citizenship can naturally make us occupy less space. But good intentions are only useful when they are caught by others. This is why it is important to verbalize this intention and not leave the responsibility to others to understand it on their own.
Take the case of Bernadette who knows she has a tendency to let her strong personality take up a lot of space, most often at the expense of Leonard who struggles to seize opportunities to have an impact on the course of the adventure. After an hour of play, Bernadette, who hasn’t heard much from Leonard, decides to take a step back to give him the opportunity to take the floor. However, Leonard, who at that time has accumulated a dozen unsuccessful attempts to make his ideas heard, accepted his role as an extra for good. So much so that the window opened by Bernadette goes unnoticed by him. Soon enough, Bernadette’s nature returns at great pace, and silently blaming Leonard for his lack of initiative, she returns to the place she had cleared up for him, for only a few long minutes of time out.
Looking at the leaderboard: two losers who silently blame each other for their own flaws.
Let’s now see how the scene could have unfolded if Bernadette had expressed her intention to Leonard out loud.
Looking at the leaderboard: two winners.
For this rule, which I named Your aircraft, my aircraft in reference to a scene from the excellent movie Sully in which the two pilots give each other the controls of the plane by expressing it with this short and elegant sentence, as for the other rules that I will introduce later, fair sharing of the spotlight is a central concern. But a D&D game isn’t like a political debate on TV, it’s not all about the clock, and equality doesn’t always mean equity. In a different situation, Leonard could very well have assured Bernadette that everything is for the best, and that he finds pleasure in seeing her unfold her game plan as much as if he had been at the center of the action himself. It is not always necessary to back off right away.
By extending this thought, I came to reflect on the notion of consent and on the various circumstantial biases that can be exploited voluntarily or involuntarily so that the effect of such a rule is no longer beneficial, but on the contrary, comes to give some legitimacy to the person who takes up the most space. Suppose that in the middle of a climax, Bernadette interrupts the sequence in which her character is a central piece to put this rule into practice, and that the rest of the party, strongly eager to discover how the events unfold, assures her that it’s okay for her to continue in this direction. This should only be consent for that sequence, not for the rest of the session.
Meta is good for me
The fun can come from role-playing, or plot revelations, but it can also come from the perfect unfolding of a finely crafted multistep team plan to defeat an enemy. However, because of how D&D works, it is not always easy to reconcile these different sources of excitement in the resolution of one situation.
Okay, there is “role” in “role-play”, but if role-playing is to be enforced at the expense of the fun of “playing”, then it is not worth taking it too seriously. The idea behind this rule is to remind - if we had to - that the players of the same party can have very different expectations from a game. Without stating this rule, it is easy to let the person most invested in role-playing impose their way of playing on the rest of the party. This can intimidate those who are uncomfortable with this aspect of the game, to the point of ruining their entire experience. We find a similar idea in the first rule that I stated above. The point here is to explicitly legitimize meta-gaming. Let it be said: meta-gaming is ok. A session of D&D is just as likely to feel like an improv theater show, as it is to look like a game of Risk, and everything that exists in between. Some in the community may find this opinion completely incompatible with the way they like to play the game. As far as I’m concerned, I do enjoy role-playing, but I’m willing to renounce as much of it as it takes to avoid a situation like this.
If this sounds legitimate and harmless to you, imagine that it happens at the end of a four-hour game during which Bernadette has not yet had the opportunity to show much initiative, and has failed most of her important dice rolls. Let’s add to this drama that she has had this scroll in her bag for real life months and that she was particularly proud to have thought of using it. One can imagine Bernadette’s frustration after Leonard’s response, who probably did not suspect what was at stake for her and who even thought he was serving the party’s best interest, by preserving the fourth wall. The gods of role-play are content, but there’s a good chance Bernadette won’t show up next week. Let’s rewind and apply the rule this time.
It should be noted that if interpreted too literally and systematically, this rule could encourage a player fond of tactical combat to break the momentum of the party by insisting on consulting on the best strategy before each and every single round. It is easy to imagine how this could greatly slow down the pace of the game, until it becomes boring for most of the players. It may be that a little risk and improvisation serve the game better than a perfectly balanced strategy, especially when there does not seem to be that big of a danger ahead. As always when it comes to rules for D&D, the important thing is to understand the intention behind the text, which in this case, aims to avoid the automatic veto on a player, who would come up with a brilliant and fun idea, that we would forbid ourselves to execute in the name of the holy role-play.
Moreover, in order not to spoil the fun of the players, the DM must engage not to adapt the behavior of the monsters in the light of the information openly exchanged between the players. A strategy is often based on a prediction made about the behavior of an enemy or a group of enemies. If all of them are omniscient, there is no point in elaborating strategies.
Not everyone is an actor
With a good level of trust, players can feel safe enough to bring role-play to a level of engagement that goes beyond this well known question: “what would my character do in this situation?”.
Players can gradually switch from third person to first person, and even end up making actresses and actors out of themselves, whether to emotionally invest in a dramatic moment, or to lighten a particularly intense sequence with humor. You can’t force these moments, but when they happen, they are precious, and it is important to encourage them.
However, it is important to remember that unless you are on the set of Critical Role, chances are that people around you are not actors. The boundary between what is in-game and out-of-game can blur very quickly, and even when it remains clear, a player could possibly be affected by seeing their character being too often the target of our humor or our emotional surges, even when it seems harmless to us.
The idea of this rule is not to define a line not to be crossed, but to make us more aware of the fact that others may not always easily read our intentions, even when they are good. It is useful to take a step back and read the room from time to time.
After an emotionally intense scene, or if you feel like you too often make fun of the barbarian who has the intelligence of a rock, take the time to remind others that you are only doing this in the context of the game. Reset the boundary between you and your character, possibly ask if anyone needs a short break.
Verbalizing these things is often more helpful than you think, whether it is already clear to the barbarian or not.
The same rule applies to you. Take care of yourself and don’t rely only on others who, in a moment of excitement of the game, can temporarily forget themselves and involuntarily hurt your feelings.
If you start to feel affected by the behavior of one or more members of the party, address the situation right away, and don’t take it lightly. You may think you are capable of repressing a lot of negative emotions. But even if that’s true, life gives us plenty without needing to come looking for more in D&D.
Take the time to bring it up, ask to take a break if you need it, and if doing it in front of everyone in the middle of the game is too intimidating, then DM the DM and ask for a talk afterward.
Fun is a dish best served with friends
As we said, players find pleasure in different aspects of the game. This rule aims to name one that I don’t often see plainly featured as one of those aspects, and yet is at the heart of the D&D experience. This is the unknown, the unexpected, or the discovery, these are the same idea. The monsters you will face, the areas you will explore, the NPCs you will meet, but mostly: the surprise reserved to you by the imagination and range of skills of the other members of the party. Take that last one out, and D&D is no more than a Choose your own adventure book, or maybe a less immersive version of Skyrim.
Habits die hard and situations eventually look alike. This is so true that to a given situation, the party might end up always responding the same way. If we don’t watch it, soon all D&D sessions look the same, and the theater of the mind where anything memorable and wacky can happen, turns more and more into a lesser Skyrim. Those of you who have played D&D, take a moment to remember some highlights of your past games, the strong moments that brought you the most joy. I’m willing to bet that for a majority of you, we will most often find sequences not resulting from an action of your own character, but rather situations to which decisions of other characters have led, or at least to which they have contributed. Who more than anyone but you can surprise you? The best campaign memories come from when the unexpected happened (regardless of the outcome which either ended in failure or success), not from when the perfectly anticipated happened. It’s easy to forget that, and to focus only on the solutions that we’ve already seen working.
In this situation, Bernadette’s solution will probably be deemed the most effective by all, and if we leave aside the fun of experimenting with an innovative solution, then the group will logically go with it, since they already have seen it working many times in the past. Characters leveling up and unlocking new abilities help mitigate the feeling of repetitiveness. This is the native tool built into RPGs to alleviate the risk of player fatigue. But let’s remember we’re playing D&D, not Skyrim. Players’ creativity and their ability to reinvent is our best lever.
Whatever the outcome, I bet that will be cooler and more memorable. A solution that works is a good solution, but it doesn’t mean it is the only good solution.
In order to bring some perspective, let us add that it is natural to want to balance the risk and not always seek the most unnecessarily crazy solution, and eventually make a huge joke out of our campaign. As with other rules, avoid overly literal interpretations and rather seek to understand the intention. When the danger is obvious, the group won’t suffer from turning to a solution that reduces the risk as much as possible. This rule warns of the undesirable effect this reflex can have on long-term enjoyment of the game if it is triggered too often in situations where danger is overrated. Memorable successes and failures don’t happen without any risk taken, even if it means leaving a few HP behind.
A potentially difficult point to deal with is that each member of the party may not be on the same page when it comes to losing their character. This can create situations of conflict when a member who enjoys the thrill of danger faces the resistance coming from other members who are more conservative with their HP. The DM must handle these situations by avoiding making these more conservative members collateral victims of plans that they would not have accepted to vote for without the insistence of those who have a more pronounced taste for danger. To the extent of what is judged reasonable, the DM will adapt the harmful consequences of an action on a player according to that player’s tolerance to their character’s death. I leave everyone to the judgment of what seems reasonable or not. For my part, I expect that spontaneously diving into a dark pit or throwing oneself into the mouth of a tyrannosaur without any rational justification other than to get a taste of the level of danger, could have fatal consequences, including for the character for which it would have been established, that the death would hardly be accepted.
Rules are good, tools are better
The principles behind these rules are full of good intentions, but what’s bred in the bone comes out in the flesh. As I have already mentioned, it is not just about building a framework. We must give ourselves the means to make it resist the trial of time. Making sure to act in accordance with the rules set out above and regularly reminding them are necessary means to achieve this. But I thought it would be easier for the group to adopt them through the use of practical tools presented as extensions of them.
These tools had to be essentially verbal, no application to install on a smartphone or an account to create on a new platform, nothing of the sort. The adoption of these tools had to be done at the lowest possible cost. The ultimate goal being that through the adoption of such tools that we might use in a somewhat mechanical way at first, we would force the integration of the underlying rules, deeply enough so that with time they would become so natural that we would do without the tools.
I’m really not the first to have thought about this. The X card is an example of a tool that was introduced to the community by a certain John Stavropoulos. In this spirit of fostering a culture of safety in the group, here is a tailor-made one that I suggested we used in our campaign.
The rotating presidency
This tool works using a token (it can be a mental one) that will regularly pass from hand to hand following an order established in advance. As long as a member of the group has the token in their hand, they are the current president, which means it becomes their prerogative to arbitrate the next dissensus. Once the situation is solved, the title and the token automatically go to the next person.
Dissensus is a situation in which the group faces a challenge that several members propose to address with different, incompatible solutions, slowing down the pace of the game until it eventually stops. When this happens, any party member (including the DM) can request to appeal to the current president. When everyone has accepted this appeal, the token is then triggered, and it is up to its current owner to arbitrate before it rotates.
When someone asks to use the token, the group must agree unanimously before actually using it. This precaution is taken in order to give a chance to members who feel they need additional time to come up with a solution likely to naturally achieve consensus. This delay must be reasonable, so as not to prevent the game from moving forward for too long. We deliberately do not make a call for a duration and rely on everyone’s common sense in a first version of this rule in order to leave it some flexibility.
The token holder is free to choose the solution that seems to them to be the best according to their criteria. However, it is strongly recommended that they choose a solution that gives the spotlight to their character. In other words: it is a ticket to a memorable moment of glory or failure to your character, and it is supposed to be used as such, even though you don’t have to. Furthermore, the other members of the group are strongly encouraged to build on this solution by suggesting the help of their character, with the idea that this scene should be an opportunity for the token holder to show off their character’s strengths.
One thing to watch when setting up this tool is not to be too hasty when to call on the token, and not to use it at the first shadow of the slightest discussion. One of the problems that this tool aims to address is the typical case of a session that tends to become boring because the party is unable to settle on a solution. However, it would be a shame to be too quick to underestimate the ability of the group to resolve these situations through open debate. Some players enjoy these moments of deliberation just as much as others enjoy pacing the game. Remember that it is important to be respectful of others’ likes. Using the token too quickly could frustrate these players who would feel interrupted in the middle of giving birth to a potentially brilliant and never seen before idea.
A final word
Thank you very much for arriving at the end of this article. As mentioned in the introduction, I am aware that much, if not almost all of its content is really tailored for those who already play D&D, due to many specific points to which people who have not had this opportunity will have trouble connecting. During a conversation with one of my group members, it struck me when that person pointed out that the social skills I wanted to emphasize with these rules found applications in contexts outside of D&D. I would be curious to know if this article has at least a little succeeded in giving non-players a glimpse of the extent to which this game can serve as an accelerator for the development of these skills. I would also like to mention the book Dungeons & Dragons: How to Be More D&D, authored by Kat Kruger, whose reading motivated the publication of this article. If the idea of making D&D a vector for more benevolence appeals to you, do not hesitate to open it, I bet you will find something you enjoy in it!