It’s a tense moment. Two characters are already tied up and being dragged away. If the last character falls, they’ll all be taken prisoner by the Faerie Queen. The last character is shot with an electrified arrow, and everyone holds their breath. She has to roll a 10 or better on a 20-sided die to keep from being paralyzed. She rolls—and succeeds. The call erupts into cheers: “MVP! MVP!”
Welcome to the world of tabletop role-playing games.
My story begins not with rulebooks or battle maps but with childhood games of “let’s pretend.” As a child, I had an impressive stuffed animal collection, and I would use them to tell myself stories, making up worlds and adventures for them. As I grew older, I dispensed with the props, imagining daring escapes, vanquished evil overlords and clever detectives.
Like many creative kids, I tried my hand at writing fiction, but it never worked well for me. I was fascinated with creating worlds, their histories and how they came to be the way they are, but I always found myself stumped when it came to writing the actual story.
Recently, I was looking through the digital files of a novel series I tried to write when I was fourteen. Given that of the 300 files in the project folder, only a dozen contained actual material, “write” might be generous. The rest contained background research, notes about the history of the setting and diagrams painfully constructed in Microsoft Word.
In many ways, all of this prepared me well for running a game—but I wouldn’t find that out until later.
Although one of my college roommates played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), I didn’t really learn much about it until 2020. As we were all looking for ways to stay busy and entertain ourselves, I discovered Critical Role. Critical Role is an extremely popular show where self-proclaimed “nerdy . . . voice actors” play D&D for a video stream.
Up until that point, I mostly understood D&D to be very similar to a first-person shooter. You go through a dungeon, killing monsters indiscriminately, and collect your loot at the end. That certainly can be true. But watching Critical Role, I realized that it could also be something else—a collaborative game of make-believe where friends could tell complex and fascinating stories together.
In 2021, I gathered my players—my wife, one of my sisters and the roommate from college who played D&D. Only one of us had ever actually played the game, so we’d mostly be learning together. I would be the Dungeon Master (DM), and our world would be set around the adventures of a magical, flying circus.
Being a DM is fun and rewarding, if also much harder than it looks. What I love about D&D is creating my own world and filling it with fascinating cultures with their own traditions, histories and conflicts. At the same time, the players are free to explore within that world, to make decisions that affect how the story and world develop. In some ways, it’s the best of both worlds—I create the setting, but my players tell the story.
If you remember your childhood games of imagination fondly, I would encourage you to look into tabletop role-playing. With the advent of the internet, it’s far more accessible than ever before, and online play is only getting more widespread.
D&D recreates the joy of playing “let’s pretend” for adults—and couldn’t we all use a little more imagination in our lives?