I think its just human nature to assume we are the protagonist in our story, if you can even call it that. In a way we must be; we are responsible for everything that happens in it after all. Stories are powerful, though, and if we lose our own personal, narrative thread, our ego can take us to some really unsavory places. Soon, we become the biggest antagonist in our own story. Our demons build the set dressing, and we lose touch with reality.
For this reason, I have fallen in love with the story telling tool that is Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, this whole post will be centered around the table top role playing game D&D.
Today, I am meeting up with some strangers for the first time at a comic book shop to discuss forming a party to play pretty regularly. I understand that many of you may have no idea what the game even is, and even if you have heard of it, it still may seem like a bit of an enigma. So I’ll break down the gameplay really simply just so we can all be on the same page.
D&D is, at its heart, a cooperative story telling game where most of the action happens in the theater of the mind. In this game, there are two roles: the Dungeon Master (DM) and the Player Characters (PCs). The DM’s primary role is as a story facilitator. They build a story, develop secondary characters (NPCs) to interact with the PCs, and flesh out the world. The PCs play the role of the protagonists. They adventure through the world slaying monsters, fighting bad guys (and sometimes good guys), and generally making a mess.
Gameplay is simple. The DM describes what is happening around the PCs like, “You walk into a dusty, old shack. There are crates that litter the room, and a bear skin rug decorates the floor. In the far left-hand corner is a corpse that appears to be frozen solid, and though the shack appears to have been abandoned for a long while, a hearth burns in the middle of the room.”
The players can then ask questions and explore. They may say that they want to examine the corpse, look in some of the crates, or sit by the fire. They can virtually do whatever they want. Hell, they could just burn down the entire building if they wanted, and for some DMs, that outcome is all too familiar. I feel for you guys… players are monsters.
There are dice and numbers involved, but that is the basic idea without getting to rulesy. The DM serves up ideas and the players respond. Sometimes that will mean the DM simply giving them a puzzle to pick apart; other times that will mean dishing out a fight with a hobgoblin. However, what really draws people in about D&D is the story development.
Players are different than the characters that they play. Some players go the extra mile and give their characters unique voices and what not, just to add another level of separation. Its fun, and it provides a window into ourselves to see what it means to be a hero. Whether they realize it or not, players build characters that are fantasy versions of their ideals. Sometimes those ideals are just comedy, but other times, things get deep. I have seen players work out real life issues at the table without even realizing it.
So, for shits and giggles, I wanted to detail one of the most powerful stories that has ever come up at my table.
I had a campaign (what we call the major story of the game) last for two years once. The world I had created, Adrigal, had been cursed with an undead plague by the God of the Dead as a sort of loophole to grow more powerful than his deity brethren. The curse didn’t hold though, and the PCs saw human kind return to normal, except for them. They remained undead, and since they existed in a state of neither living nor dead, they soon realized that they were the only ones who could stop this from ever happening again.
We had friends come and go, dear NPCs died, the PCs grew stronger and closer. We had funny moments and sad moments. Moments of dire frustration and confusion. We had invested hours of our lives getting to know these characters. Then the day came. Having slain Death itself, they had one loose end to tie up: a dragon threatening to assimilate the material plane with the ethereal plane. It was quite literally a battle of gods, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
The battle was hard fought and most of the level 16 party was down to single digit HP once the beast was dead. Having dispatched the universe’s greatest foe in his own domain, all that was left was to go back home. But there is a catch. The portal back to the material plane can only be held open from the ethereal side… one of them had to stay back. At this point I’m getting choked up, even though I had planned this for more than two years. The only female in our party starts to cry; then all the guys lose it. Our withered oracle (Cedar) speaks up and says he will do it, having seen a prophecy of sacrifice early in the campaign. He thought it was destiny.
The room falls silent.
Then our rogue speaks up, “I don’t know about everyone else, but if Cedar isn’t coming, then back there [the material plane] isn’t much of a home at all.”
I am bawling at this point. In the end, the saviors of the universe chose rather to be banished from their home world, forever to be trapped in the ethereal plane, than to abandon one of their friends. As the portal closed and they watched their dimension slowly sink out of view, our bard flicked a coin through the crack in reality. (It was like a thing for him to flick a coin at anyone he had saved/helped).
We are playing another campaign now, set in the same world. And as long as I live, as long as Adrigal exists, if you look up to the northern sky on a clear night, you just might be able to make out the faint glimmer of a golden star. Sailors and navigators often use it for traveling purposes, and it goes by many names. Most call it the Token of Heroes though.
The party split up after that, and we never wound up all playing together again. We had schedules that just didn’t facilitate a weekly game anymore, and I think about them often. For as cheesy as it sounds, I think about their characters just about as much as I think about the people who played them. They were extensions of their makers, just as the story was an extension of me.
I was just about to exit high school. I was worried about falling away from the people I cared about, and that whole campaign was a rumination on trying to keep something alive even though everything is destined to change and end. Once the story concluded, I had found a strange degree of closure on the matter. It felt like I had permission to move on, to cry when I needed to, and to miss the adventures both in game and out that made life exciting.
I think it only fitting to start a new game with brand new players as I venture into this new chapter of my life, and this is the take away that I see in all of this. No one player, no one occurrence, no one tragedy really defines a story. It may provide a convenient motif for a while, but the power of stories is the power of evolution and transcendence. I sat in awe as my players completely subverted my expectations for the ending of my two year tale. Never would I have ever expected for them all to stay a behind, just for the sake of principle.
Yes, it is just a game, but there is value in understanding that your story is also the story of every other person you meet. It is all of our stories, and we all have a role to play.
Let yourself be surprised. You may feel like your life is nothing more than a coin flicked through space, but that little story may just wind up being the brightest star in the sky.