Literature Through Participation: Confessions of a Table-top RPG Player

74672_10151453820128413_712331389_nI am 5’ 6.” I am 120 pounds. I have a scar on my left arm. I have silver hair. I am an Amazonian warrior with a halberd. My name is Trish-la.

Obviously this is not actually what I look like or who I am. My name is Deanna Stover. I have never held a halberd, let alone been any sort of warrior (although my hair is beginning to turn silver. Thank you graduate school applications). No, I play Dungeons and Dragons. What I’ve just described are the basic stats of the first character I ever developed and played. It was 2000, I was 10 years old, and I stumbled into the game because a friend’s mom ran a game for the neighborhood kids.

First of all, let me make this clear: I am no expert about D&D. I can, however, give everyone a brief background of what the game is: D&D is a table-top role playing game (RPG). It is also a game that inspired a lot of controversy and negative reactions in the 1980s. People claimed that it promoted witchcraft (how 15th- and 16th-century!) and devil-worship. Role playing games still have a negative connotation associated with them; you should see the reactions people have when they find out I play Dungeons and Dragons. There’s also very little understanding about what D&D actually is. Typically people believe it is a video game (and there are those around), but a table-top RPG is different.

A Dungeon Master (DM) develops a basic story line and the “party” (typically around four to six players in my experience) influences the way that story will work out through their own decisions, interactions with other characters, and the luck of the dice. The dice involved are not just your average 6-sided dice; the die we use most is 20-sided. D&D is very hard to understand without playing. However, as I will explain, these games may spark a particular interest in those of us who love literature.

Flash forward to 2012. I didn’t remember playing my first campaign, let alone the dusty binder where I kept my character sheet (this helps you keep track of your stats, your skills, your weapons, and any other information you may need during the game) and my accumulation of die. I didn’t remember any of this until a few friends once again introduced me to D&D. However, I fell in love all over again. In the past year, I’ve participated in three campaigns, and I am a walk-in character in a fourth. I have literally laughed and cried my way through these adventures.

photoSo, what does this have to do with literature? Well, not only is Dungeons and Dragons inspired by literature and mythology, it involves the creation of new narratives every session. In that dusty binder from my first foray into D&D, I have these instructions: “The players are like characters in a book that you, the players, are writing with the [DM].” Playing as an adult, I am ever more aware of the truth behind this statement.

Admittedly, the literature that inspired D&D is typically associated with the 1960s and 1970s, something that may be foreign to those of us who are interested in the 19th-century, but the connection between D&D and all literature students is still a vibrant one. I am not a creative writer, I am definitely not an actress, and I never even played video games as a child, but the attraction to this game is still strong. The communal storytelling is what makes it so appealing and, honestly, there are some elements of each campaign that reference Romantic and Victorian literature; the campaign I’m currently in has some Swiss Family Robinson-esque elements tied in. But for me the most entertaining part of D&D is feeling like I am a part of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel every time I step into the room.

Perhaps you can see this post as a recruitment for D&D or even RPGs in general, and on some level I suppose it is, but what I am really trying to point out is that, even while I spend most of my life now nose-deep in 19th-century literature and papers I have to grade, D&D is what keeps reminding me what is so magical about words. I have watched the DM create a world all his own (albeit influenced by D&D lore, Roman and Greek mythology, and even modern video games), and I have participated in its creation. In the end, D&D is just five people sitting in a room for six hours every week speaking to each other, spinning a story and interacting through words alone, but only there can I become a warrior woman or even a half-dragon. Through our simple words and a few rolls of a die, a whole new world is born—it is literature through participation.