In a world of clickbait, instant downloads, binge watching, the constant flood of information ,digital media, and video games, why are we so attracted to getting back to the table with pen, paper, and a set of dice? For me, it all stems from the lure of a good story. That’s why we click that ridiculous title that turns out to be nonsense in our newsfeed. The story is the reason we stay glued to our television or phone screen for hours, left to the mercy of the story we cannot pry ourselves away from. And story, I would argue, is what makes us human.
From an early age, I can remember sitting around a campfire, literally, and hearing my father tell spooky stories or morality tales to my absolute delight. It didn’t matter if it were monsters and heroes like we create in the Dungeons & Dragons games we play or just a man presented with an interesting question left to ponder what the outcome would be. It was all about the story.
Humanity has long debated issues of right and wrong, life and death, good and evil, and at the end of it all what will be left of those we have lost? Their stories. That is what keeps me toiling over pages and pages of rulebooks and monster lists. I find myself spending hours at the table preparing for sessions with friends. As the dungeon master, it is my job to create the world in which my players will spend their time. Every random person they stop to ask a silly question is me. Every monster that lurks in the shadows of the creepy basement is me. Even a random squirrel that is sitting and chomping on an acorn it just found is me. And that is where I find myself thriving.
So why do we want to tell stories? Because it can make you immortal, of course. Well, sort of.
From the dawn of humanity, we have been telling stories. Even before speech, I would argue, humans have been telling each other stories. A Neanderthal may have encountered a dangerous bear he narrowly escaped only to return to his family and recount the tale warning others of this harrowing beast. And as simple as that sounds it was a story. Can you picture the other ancient people staring in amazement as he captured their imaginations? And it continues today.
How does this translate to the tabletop community? We are all suckers for a good story. That is why Dungeons & Dragons or any other tabletop role playing game can hook your curious little mind and keep you coming back each session. The freedom to escape into the shoes of the perfect version of yourself, a completely different person, or a mythical creature can allow you to imagine fantastical scenarios and magical wonders we only wish was part of our everyday lives. I have also often found those stories are better with other people involved.
But what good is a story without characters? The characters in those stories must also be compelling. It doesn’t matter if the characters are heroic vigilantes or villainous monsters. Living vicariously through our tabletop characters exercises the decision-making process, the joy of success, or the heartbreak of defeat. Have you ever been gripped by the wave of emotions that can come over you when your favorite character makes an unbelievable breakthrough or suffers a tragic loss? Does it ever make you stop and think this character may only exist in our hearts and minds?
Gathering a group of friends to work together in telling the best story you are able can be one of an extremely rewarding experience. Learning to work as a team in a game can create a lifetime of memories. Even if they only exist when it is you and your friends hunched over a dining room table. Those stories can still live on in you for the rest of your life. And so can their characters.
The link between the character you create and yourself can be fairly direct. It could also be as far as possible from how you see yourself. Whatever the choices you make as that character can influence the other people around you or even the very world your game master has you exploring. The collaborative storytelling of tabletop gaming is a beautiful piece of art whatever it ends up becoming. There have been few things in my real-world adventures that live up to the glory of joining minds with friends and creating something wholly our own. Some might think it’s a waste of energy to spend so much time pretending your way through a Sunday afternoon, but others would argue that our pull towards story is what makes us uniquely human. The very real desire to witness victory, defeat, and everything in between binds us as a species.
It is an odd position to be in when you find yourself creating a world for make believe characters to play in. As a dungeon master, there is the sense of creative freedom with the construction of the world you’re building and at the same time the restrictions you set upon characters created in that world. Playing god and their creations at the same time is a puzzling endeavor to undertake, but rewarding, nonetheless. If you have ever been curious about what kind of storyteller you might be, I suggest you find a group of like minded folks and start creating a story for yourself. You never know where the adventure might take you or what you could learn about yourself along the way.
Ok, so I didn’t really answer the question of why we feel drawn to stories, but do you really want to know? Or is it better to believe that stories are the true magic we so often seek when playing video games or sitting around that RPG tabletop with those same friends? I think it is. Isn’t life more fun when we treat some of the things we don’t understand as magic? Do you really want to know how they make the hotdogs? Or is it enough to just enjoy the experience and let our imaginations take us back to those incredible moments that will live forever in those that were there to tell the story?