Dungeons & Dragons... and Improvisational Theater
Updated: Mar 14
Did Michelangelo paint the Sistine chapel alone, or did he direct a crew of artists to do the work for him?
From my cursory research, it seems the former. If he did the latter, I’m not so sure it would have been as famous as it is.
Creativity is a tricky attribute to share. Well, perhaps it’s easy for some people. For me, my most creative is often when I’m most alone. That’s what you get as a writer. Me and the keyboard.
This is probably the exception, of course. A dancing troupe, a band, a choir, actors on a stage – all of these are collaborative efforts, people working together. Just like a sports team, they’ll achieve something greater than the sum of their parts through combination. One person hogging the spotlight can bring down any of these group efforts.
I had a touch of these when I wrote stageplays. Actors especially. Especially when the one who convinced you to write the play also wants the leading spot. Though I wish they would just hire me to write them a monologue then, because nothing wrecks a play more when its all for the appetite of one actor or actress.
What the heck does this have to do with Dungeons and Dragons? I mean, yeah, maybe I’ll be hawking my books soon enough, but this is a blog about the D&D party. Is D&D a team sport?
Why yes. Yes, it is.
I can think of few other activities more like role playing games than improvisational theater. You have a role, you act it to the hilt, and you have some abilities and limitations. Just like if you were about to go on stage before an audience to make up your own lines and plots. And the director says: “You’re Baron Welknor, you’re a rich aristocrat with a drinking problem and you’re disappointed by your son. On stage! Go!”
But like a theater company that has the actor who thinks he’s better than everyone else, that they’re just tools for him to reach that red carpet in his fantasies, so do D&D groups have that player who hogs the spotlight.
But you know what? A lot of that is due to weak GMing. I saw the same thing happen again and again in my early gaming. A group of adventurers are stuck together by the happenstance of what everyone was in the mood to play. No rhyme or reason, and no need to accommodate the rest of the players.
Slapped down into whatever the GM has planned, good or bad.
Now maybe I’m an anomaly. The part of role playing games I enjoy is seeing the players enraptured in the story. Afraid for their characters. Trying to guess what the DM is thinking, what the puzzle is, what are the consequences for failure.
While running a crew through the Tomb of Horrors, there was a sweet moment where the party stood outside the Demi-Lich’s crypt. And they hesitated. They knew they were about to meet destiny. That had hints from journals and veterans of the danger of the jewel-encrusted skull in the next room. (I was running the “Return to the Tomb” campaign from 1998). They were guessing, casting communion spells to speak with the gods, reviewing every item in their equipment list, every spell they could access, hoping to find something they could use to survive the encounter. This lasted about an hour before they finally ventured forward. And as the vault door sunk into the earth and they entered Acererak’s resting place, the entire living room was just as quiet as the tomb itself. I could feel the fear, the trepidation of the players, with dozens of game sessions leading to this moment.
To me, that’s the sweet spot of gaming. It’s a moment where the players are caught in the story, and not dismissing it with the hundred thousandth gag from Monty Python or yet another tired Star Wars quip. It certainly beats a map of figurines and the dialogue of “roll a d20. No, AC 5, not good enough. Who’s next on initiative?”
I mean, if you like war games, or you want to roll dice in a battle against the baddies, I get that. I have a cabinet of board games. I’m playing through Gloomhaven now. It’s a nice game. I look forward to our play sessions.
But it’s not the same as D&D. That’s the one where I like to see some kind of immersion.
And it’s not as simple as having a good GM. A good GM is very important, perhaps essential. But the party has to be there too. Disinterested players are not going to get there. Players who want to maximize their characters with experience, loot, and magic are not going to get there. I have a few tricks I used to get closer and get the ball into play. But a quarterback doesn’t win the game on his own.
In the future, I’m going to talk about some of the worst violations – the players that can take a wrecking ball to the game. And worse, the game systems that empower this. And I’ll also get to a few tricks of my own to counterbalance that.
Until then, speaking from the belly of the whale – Jonah