What I learned by NOT playing D&D
I really loved playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, but I really haven’t played much since becoming an adult. And I haven’t run a game in this century. Every now and then, I’d talk with Yvette about it, and she’d say, “We should write up an adventure, and run it for our friends!”. It always sounded good, but I had doubts – doubts that I could run a game effectively, doubts that I could write an adventure that would hold people’s interest, doubts that people would actually show up regularly…
Then, something pretty amazing happened. One of Yvette’s friends asked her, “do you know anybody who’s into D&D? My daughter watched a game being played at the library, and she wants to play”. Which was hilarious, since Yvette met this friend through her brother, who was someone she played D&D with, back when they were all kids.
Yvette asked me if I’d be willing to run a game for the girl, M, and her friend, K. And for whatever reason, I said yes. So since late July, I’ve been running a regular weekly D&D game for my wife, two teenage girls, and a couple of sometimes players, including another teenager (a boy), and one of OUR friends (about my age), who’s someone we’ve played games with at gaming conventions.
And it’s gone really well. I was very stressed before the first few sessions, but it’s gotten a lot easier, and I think I might actually be pretty good at this. I’m definitely much better at it than I ever was as a teenager.
But I haven’t run a game, or even played much, in the last few decades. How is it possible that I’ve gotten better, without actually practicing the craft? It turns out I have been learning how to do this, while not actually doing it.
Downtime and “Leveling Up”
D&D has this idea of “character levels”, which represent how good your character is at being whatever kind of adventurer they are. They go out, kill some monsters, intimidate some guards, steal some ancient artifacts, and they get better at what they do. Except they don’t normally get better at adventuring while they’re adventuring. They go out, have an adventure, and then go back to town, where they study and train, and then they go up a level. They call this “downtime”, and it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of getting better at something. I think this works in the real world sometimes, too.
How I leveled up during my 40 years in the desert
While I haven’t actually tried to run a game in many years, I have been learning a lot of new skills in the intervening years which just so happen to make me better at the things that were hard for me when I tried to do this before.
I always dreaded coming up with characters, locations, and plot lines, for each game. It seemed like an impossible task to create a whole world from scratch, populate it with people, and write a story that takes place there, especially when the players might easily take off and do something I hadn’t planned for in advance.
A little bit of research
I’ve always been interested in how games “work”, and I’ve bought a lot of rulebooks for games that I’ve never played. And I’ve learned a lot. Looking at how a game like D&D evolved from the versions that I played, to the pinnacle of complexity that they eventually became, and two subsequent ground-up redesigns, has really taught me a lot about how they work under the surface.
And then there was Fate. The Fate RPG is sort of the benchmark for a modern, “rules light” RPG design. It’s very very different from D&D in terms of designs, and comes in a cute little booklet that lays out the rules quickly, and then goes into great depth into how to run a collaborative storytelling experience. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that it opened up my eyes to a completely different way of playing these sorts of games. But before I could hear what Fate had to teach me, I needed to be in the right headspace to be receptive. Me from 20 years ago would have been totally baffled by all of the things “missing” from the Fate rules.
Letting everyone contribute to the story
“Aspects are always true” – Fate rulebook
Fate has this idea of “aspects”, which are statements about a character, a location, or an object. Players define aspects for their characters, and anybody involved in a scene can create an aspect on either the location, or any of the characters or objects in the scene. If you’re in a fight in a warehouse, and one of the players throws a molotov cocktail, that might add “the building is ON FIRE” as an aspect of the scene. If a player says that their character has an aspect of “my family is my world”, then that naturally brings up the question of what sorts of complications might arise if someone threatens their family.
This turns out to be a fantastically useful tool in D&D, too. When a player tells me something about themselves, I can take it as true, and start working parts of it into the story. We might run into that older brother of theirs, or perhaps the group they’re on the run from will send an assassin after them. Who knows?
Improv, and the power of Yes, and…
One of the guiding principles of Improv, is “Yes, and…”. When you’re in a scene, you accept whatever your partner says as true, and you work from there. You don’t negate what they say, and you don’t try to steer them back onto what your original idea of the scene was. If someone addresses you as “mother”, then you’re their mother, and you go from there.
It’s pretty obvious, at the lowest level, that Roleplaying Games would involve…playing a role. But because of the interactive nature of playing a cooperative storytelling game with a group of other people, you can’t actually practice your lines ahead of time. You have to react, and you have to take what the other players say, and build on top of that.
I have taken a couple of classes in improvisational acting from the local Santa Barbara Improv Workshop, and that’s been super-helpful in teaching me to naturally react to the other players. If I’m playing a religious fanatic Lizard-person, and one of the player characters asks me a question I haven’t prepared an answer for, I can just jump into the headspace of that character, and answer as the character I’m playing would answer.
Don’t be afraid to steal from your collaborators
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso
The other interesting thing about collaborative storytelling is that it works, even when some of the people involved don’t know that they’re collaborating. When the players are speculating about the Big Bad Guy’s evil plan, or what they think the motivations of a minor character might be, I can listen in, and just “borrow” those ideas, and weave them into the story.
And they loved it!
After all that, you may be wondering how the game went. Everybody had a great time, they loved the story, and they really want to play again, after we take a short time off. A bunch of seeds have been planted to connect the characters’ backstories to places and people in the world, I’ve introduced a bunch of hopefully recurring characters, and at least one player is starting to see conspiracies everywhere, which is always fun.
What have you leveled up in?
Maybe now is a good time to think about something you “used to do”, and evaluate whether now you’re in a position to apply some of the things you’ve learned in the meantime? See if some of your previous creative blocks are no longer relevant. You never know, maybe you “leveled up” when you weren’t watching!