The structured improv of Dungeons & Dragons

Somehow I spent the first thirty years of my nerdy life without playing Dungeons and Dragons. After listening to the first season of The Adventure Zone I decided I’d been missing out and convinced a small group of friends (with even less experience than I with pen-and-paper RPGs) to spend an evening imagining themselves in a world I’d made up.

For those unfamiliar, Dungeons and Dragons is probably the nerdiest thing they can think of, but I suggest to look past the high-fantasy setting (that doesn’t end up mattering too much), ignore the rule books (we ignore most of the rules anyway) and don’t worry about the complex looking character sheets (there are plenty of tools to generate one online to print off), and you’ll find one of the most creative experiences you can share with your friends.

One person takes the part of the storyteller (technically a “dungeon master”) while the others play parts in the story (technically “player characters”). There is some basic structure to the world, such as talents for players, races and culture, a turn-based system to manage when players enter combat, and a set of abilities that open up as players gain experience, plus some rules that definehow these systems interact, but the great thing about such a free-form game is that you can totally pick and choose which you will use.

The storyteller will usually describe a scene, perhaps with a prompt to action for the players, and ask them what they want to do. The party, role playing as their characters, will respond however they want, and the storyteller tells them how their actions play out. The result is something closer to a structured improv session than what most folks think of as a game, and can end up with a narrative that builds over many sessions of play with drama and excitement that is built together by actions of the players and the world imagined by the storyteller.

“A shared narrative experience” is how I described it when convincing my friends to try it out, but perhaps a better description is just imagining things for grown-ups. Kids spend a lot of time in their imaginations, with imaginary friends, playing cops and robbers, etc., but aside from imagination used towards a specific physical output (writing a book, for example) or stage improv (which is more performative) there is little room for adults to play in an imaginary space. That’s what games like Dungeons and Dragons can provide.