Table Top Role Playing Games: A Form of Communal Storytelling?

I put on my robe and wizard’s hat.

Who doesn’t like a little monster hunt?

What’s the world’s second oldest profession? Lazy research aside, I contend it’s storytelling. In fact, I’ll go a step farther and say it’s in contention for being the oldest profession. The idea of communal storytelling isn’t new. Every culture, its history, its values and morals and beliefs, has been built on communal storytelling: word-of-mouth, sea shanties and ballads and whatnot, shared experiences then retold through fable or music, the religious practices of attending services to recite parables written down in The Bible. A powerful way to keep stories alive. My focus is on a re-emergence of communal storytelling through TTRPGs.

Because we people love to connect socially. (Unfortunately I’m not referring to any non-person, alien, intelligent treasure chest, or genius loci)

I come at this from a writer’s perspective, where everything is Story. This is part one in a three-part series about Communal Storytelling.

May I Seduce This Dragon? Roll Charisma

As social creatures, every culture is drawn to social gatherings. It’s how we evolved. And in the constant pursuit of of social interaction, we turn to gamified storytelling. Table Top Role Playing Games (TTRPGs) have been around for a long time. D&D’s been Beholding since 1974. It came out of an imagination-heavy want to be adventurers, travel through fantasy settings, and fight evil. This was also at the height of the Cold War, and directly after US’s retreat from the Vietnam War. I contend some of the greatest successes in human history came directly after, or during, major conflicts due to a need to connect and push out the fear of violence. D&D is no different. The game depended heavily on fighting gameplay and the Dungeon Master to spin the tale while players created their own stories. The symbiotism of this style of storytelling leans heavily on the DM, so it’s more of a cause-and-effect kind of communication. Through the past (almost) five decades, D&D has grown into something far more complex and durable and accessible than initially intended, with Roleplay taking a far more central role for those interested in playing that direction. D&D’s impact on fantasy storytelling has led to some of the most successful novels in writing history, with fantasy heavy-hitters like R.A. Salvatore, Jim Butcher, and Patrick Rothfuss consistently playing in D&D campaigns. The incredibly successful Critical Role campaign, shown on Twitch and incorporating voice actor friends, amasses 60 thousand live viewers every week. While the DM Matt Mercer is a creative powerhouse, his strength lies in allowing the characters to grow and interact in their own spaces, their own time. Critical Role highlights the more active roles a player can take in telling their own stories.

As we grow into increasingly digital spaces, as a society, we tirelessly hunt for other ways to interact. D&D’s complexity is a little overwhelming for many would-be casual gamers, and so other TTRPGs have filled the vacuum beneath D&D’s lofty research and expectation. Much like going to a bar to hear the band, these spaces are increasingly filling with people looking to interact, hang out, play a casual game with minimal research or work. Yet unlike Monopoly and The Game of Life and Euchre and other board and card games, where the focus is in spending time with others, compete with others, and share in a gaming experience, TTRPGs’ goal, ultimately, is to tell a shared story while also sharing experiences. Role Playing is the important identifier. Gamers play a role. In what? A story. This focus is steadily growing in the United States. Finding sales data is almost impossible, though Mobile RPG gaming, a different medium but no less important, has reported a rise of .5 billion in the year 2020. The pandemic boosted sales, for certain.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up another, if unconventional, communal storytelling powerhouse, Magic The Gathering (MtG). The medium is different, with a lack of character sheets and Game Master to lead the storytelling, but many contend as far more complicated than either D&D and other TTRPGs. While technically MtG is a card game, with no roleplay involved, I contend this falls under the TTRPG category due to the amount of specialization required for building a deck: there are over 20,000 unique individual cards to be found within the Magic multiverse. Every three months or so, a new expansion is released, telling an ongoing story that began in 1993, and therefore a campaign. Similar games showed up, such as Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh! and others, but the game with the most staying power has consistently been MtG. If you play Standard, you only have access to the most recent three expansions, which minimizes the insanity of choosing from so many other cards.

I’ll be honest. I fell in love with fantasy storytelling not through D&D, but through MtG. I was that odd duck, that strange bird, that played because I loved the lush environments, the larger-than-life characters, and the symbiotic complexity of creating a themed deck. These decks work heavily off compatible mechanics, so they tend to have thematic connectivity. Not to mention the lush novelizations that come along with each expansion. There are so many cards, you can tell your own story through gaming. No, I’m not a part of the majority, and I certainly don’t think any roleplay is involved, but with the introduction of Planeswalkers in the early 2000’s, I often hear, “Wait until you play against Jace” and “My Emrakul deck can beat anything.” I played this before I wrote a single word of a novel, and it far and away created a powerful pool of ideas I still draw from.

For me, the end result of playing a few balanced MtG games has the same effect as playing in any other TTRPG. Albeit it’s shorter, easier to transport, and by degrees more expensive to keep up.

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