When I was growing up, the phrase Dungeons and Dragons conjured up images of darkly clad, angsty teenagers with bad skin, huddled around a dank basement and concocting some sort of vague, fantasy-related conspiracies. Though it was never entirely clear who these conspiracies were against, the message seemed to be that the D&D crowd was definitely anti-us, anti-normality, anti-everything, somehow.
Though most of my generation would probably recall the stereotype, mostly promoted in the 80’s -and which Wikipedia refers to as a “moral panic”- I think it’s true that the public perception of D&D has evolved considerably. In a discussion about the game with my parents the other night, my dad did a google search on it and came up with words like “collaborative”, “creative” and even “therapeutic”. I don’t know how many people truly think of those words when they hear the name Dungeons and Dragons- which I still think lends itself to unwitting medieval S&M imagery- there’s no doubt it has become more accepted, even incorporated into some homeschool programs as a storytelling class. And I can say from experience that I have been pleasantly surprised at the benefits it has had for my own kids.
At 11, my twins are just beginning to discover the world of D&D. They came to it as many do, by dabbling in another role-playing game called Magic the Gathering, which is somewhat less complicated and can be played by anyone, whereas D&D requires a highly experienced game “master” (more on that later). Before that, they came to it through a natural passion for magic and fantasy, imagination play, and yes, medieval-style battles. Now that they are old enough to crave a more sophisticated structure for their imaginative play, D&D is the natural progression.
But let me go back a few steps. Many of you are probably like I was about 6 months ago, slightly curious about D&D and what it might mean for your kids, but completely confused as to what people actually do in the game.
Thus, I will try to summarize. D&D is a table-top role-playing game,(RPG) which means that players are “acting” out their characters by verbally describing what the character will do in the game (as opposed to live-action role-playing games- or LARP’s- which involve actual theatrics). The players follow an extensive rule book to create their own characters, and make choices together to decide how they will proceed in the game, also called an adventure.
The setting and general outline of each adventure are created by the game master, called a Dungeon Master (S&M not involved, in my experience). This person is kind of like a god, creating the world the players will act in, as well as the purpose of their adventure/journey, and the creatures and obstacles they will encounter. The DM decides all of this ahead of time, laying down the structure of their adventure at the beginning of the game. At that point, each player has to consider how their character will proceed given the goal and specific challenges, like a cooperative, choose your own adventure story. The players must work together to fight “monsters’ as they appear in the adventure, which can be any manner of creature seeking to inhibit the adventurers, and who are acted out by the DM.
The game has been heralded for the level of creativity and imagination it engenders in its players, and I can confirm this is indeed the case. To begin with, the process of creating a character is the fairly involved-in fact I’d say it can be as involved as the player wants it to be. A player can choose the type of character they want from an extensive list, which includes “race” such as human, elf, dwarf, etc. and “class”- wizard, fighter, monk, etc. There is a huge variety of combinations that can exist, but that is only the beginning. Most players choose to create some level of back story for their characters- where they were born, how they were raised, adversities that have impacted them, etc. This, in turn, leads to a true kind of character development- what is important to this person (if you can call an orc a person), what fears or goals or weaknesses do they have? Trying to come up with motives, personality traits and life stories for mythical creatures in a world fantastically different from ours is quite a feat of imagination.
There is also a lot of creativity, especially in the sense of collaborative problem solving, required of the players during the game itself. After the DM describes the setting and purpose of the journey, the players must decide how to proceed. There can be a variety of options in terms of how to begin, and the players must come to an agreement, using their characters’ personality traits and physical characteristics as guides. Obstacles in the form of monsters are built into the story and crop up at various intervals, and again decisions must be made on how to handle them. Dice are rolled to determine battle results, and a series of numbers representing the character’s abilities are involved in the outcome (one of the more complicated aspects of the game). Though I must confess here that I have very limited experience actually playing D&D (one adventure, it was a good one!), I can see that the process of collaborative decision making requires many levels of creative thinking.
In a time when so much of our children’s entertainment revolves around interacting with a screen- and possibly real people who are somewhere else, interacting with a screen- I have to say it is incredibly refreshing to see kids sitting at a table together, engaged in complex problem solving, discussing how to maximize each other’s strengths, even if the context is a fantasy world where adventurers slay monsters in often gruesome ways. The fact that the players depend on each other to succeed in their mission is one of my favorite aspects of the game. I think competition is healthy, but in our culture competition on the fiercest level is practically shoved down our children’s throats from day one. It is a relief when they can engage a different set of skills- arguably a set that is much more important for a meaningful life in this fast-paced world.
If you are a parent who is worried about the level of violence in D&D, I would offer several perspectives. One is that, as I mentioned, most games do not feature much if any battles between real humans. Every game varies greatly, based on the discretion of the DM, but I think it’s safe to say that the overall focus is battling fantastical creatures for the purpose of protecting the group. And, because it involves imagination rather than graphic images, the impact is significantly less than most action movies or video games. The game is based on the rule book, which provides a good deal of guidelines, but the reality is there a lot of room for interpretation on the part of the DM. Thus I would say if your kids are interested in playing, make it a point to meet their DM and get a sense of the type of game they are creating. In the adventure I played with my kids, the DM- possibly keeping their age in mind- created rather humorous little goblin-like creatures to battle, and we had containers to put them in, rather than killing them.
Another possibility for a creative outlet through D&D play is art. One of my sons recently decided to draw his character as he was creating it. He found a few tutorials about drawing fantasy creatures and set to work. He is not particularly confident about drawing and needed some encouragement to persist, but in the end, he had a decent representation that he could bring with him to games. The next step will be to photocopy his image and attach it to a figurine he can move around during a game. This son is probably more committed to the world of role-playing games than his brother, so its helpful for him to have more options for expressing his creative flair in the game. In fact, I am starting to see that D& D may offer him a fulfilling path should he need to divert from his twin on some levels. Not having the commitment to sports that his brother does, and gifted with an analytical mind which seems to retain a huge quantity of rules and information, I can see him becoming a DM at some point. It would give him experience in leadership and organizing that could do wonders for his confidence. Thus, another aspect of D&D I appreciate is the alternative for social organization it offers to the less athletically confident.
So, I hope my experiences and novice attempts at summarization have helped to clear some of the cobwebs away from this fascinating cultural phenomenon. And I hope that, should your child express an interest in trying out D&D, you will approach it with an open mind. The benefits could be more than you expected for your child- and, you never know, you might even enjoy it too!