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  • Emma Ford

D&D an exercise in collaborative storytelling

I joined the University Dungeons and Dragons Society last year then due to the pandemic, we had to stop meeting to play the game. Since returning to uni this term, we have started playing again in a virtual space. It is weird to play the game like this, but for the most part it works.

Firstly let me explain what Dungeons and Dragons is:

According to Wizards of the Coast - the game creators, "The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more."

Basically D&D is a game played in your imagination with a bunch of other nerds who all pretend to be fantasy characters. One person takes on the role of the Dungeon Master or Games Master who tries to keep players within the rules of the game (of which there are many) much like video games, but they are more open to player discretion and interpretation. There is also a surprising amount of maths involved with rolling dice for every action, interaction and skill test (the dice aren't just simple six sided dice either - yes we use those too but there are soooo many with lots of shapes and sides.

The true essence of D&D is the storytelling. The Dungeon Master designs a campaign and then guides the players through the world they have created. Players work together, or in some cases against each other to solve problems, fight epic battles and explore imaginary worlds.

There are arguments, terrible accents and a lot of laughter. We play for hours at a time, trying to take on the personality of the character we have created. When met with sticky situations we are forced to consider "what would my character do?" not "what would I do about this?"

I think the best way to explain it is by using the character I created for our game.

This is Orianna

She is a Tiefling rogue, with a skill for thieving and lying.

"Tieflings are derived from human bloodlines, and in the broadest possible sense, they still look human. However, their infernal heritage has left a clear imprint on their appearance. Tieflings have large horns that take any of a variety of shapes: some have curling horns like a ram, others have straight and tall horns like a gazelle’s, and some spiral upward like an antelopes’ horns. They have thick tails, four to five feet long, which lash or coil around their legs when they get upset or nervous. Their canine teeth are sharply pointed, and their eyes are solid colors—black, red, white, silver, or gold—with no visible sclera or pupil. Their skin tones cover the full range of human coloration, but also include various shades of red. Their hair, cascading down from behind their horns, is usually dark, from black or brown to dark red, blue, or purple."

Each player creates a character sheet, filled with traits and skills and ideals, flaws and a backstory. The Dungeons Master has full access to this information, but how much I tell the other players is down to my personal choice.

For instance, the other players know that Orianna is a thief, they also know she is looking for someone and they know that she and the person she is looking for were part of a thieves guild that have gone into hiding and are being hunted by city guards. They also know that Orianna is a magic user. But that is about it.

They don't know that Orianna lies about almost everything with no real reason, or that she can't resist swindling those who are more powerful than her. They don't know why Orianna is really looking for her target or what truly led them to being on the terrible island on which our story is set. They may learn these things over time or they may not.

Equally I only know what the other players choose to tell me about their characters. And what I know as Emma, is also different to what Orianna knows.

This is Johan, one of the other characters in our campaign.

Orianna knows that he is a human, magic user and can turn into a cat, a bear and an elk. She also knows he is young and is looking for the people that killed his family. She also knows that he has an affinity with animals and prefers them to people.

But that is all Orianna knows.

This is Night of Dreams aka Dreams a Tabaxi Thief.

Orianna knows she is a thief, because she like to loot bodies on the battlefield and has freely admitted to be looking for items of value to steal and sell. Orianna also knows that Dreams is being hunted by goblins, though she doesn't know why.

I know as Emma, that Dreams has spoken to the person Orianna is looking for, and that he made her promise not to tell Orianna that she found him. I know as Emma that Dreams had an extended conversation with him, because it all happens in real time 'around the table' as it were, but Orianna believes that Dreams chased her target and lost him in the woods. She has no knowledge of their conversation or the promise, because Dreams has chosen not to tell her.

The wonderful part of this interactive storytelling is that we discuss actions both in and out of character and we as players hold more knowledge that our characters.

The other players learn new things about each other and their characters through discussions out of character, but the characters only learn about each other through their actions.

All of this may seem irrelevant to the MA, but I am learning about character development and storytelling by playing this game and becoming someone else for a few hours every week.

It also means I was able to do some artwork based on D&D characters. The Dungeon Master asked me to create small drawings of each player character to place on the virtual maps he uses to show us battlefields. It was like working to a brief. I asked each player to describe their character and designed the artwork accordingly, I sent each artwork to the player and made tweeks to the character based on their feedback. It was a fun exercise in bringing someone else vision to life.

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