Of all the kinds of games I am aware of, there is one type that stands way out front in terms of potential to be used for social good and to understand ourselves. That is the dice-based tabletop RPG. Or, for those who aren’t already well-versed in the lingo, Dungeons and Dragons should ring a bell. I am talking about that, as well as the widely varied alternatives that are directly or indirectly derived from D&D. As recently illustrated by Josh Kramer in the Washington Post, it is now firmly established as a bona fide cultural phenomenon. I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining this to you, as David M. Ewalt does this quite well in his book Of Dice and Men (I would recommend it especially if you are one of those people who only subscribe to one or two geek fandoms and find yourself curious but unfamiliar with this thing your other friends are raving about).
Instead, I’m going to tell you the story of how I got into it and why I think it has such great potential and also why I think it could also be monumentally disappointing. My first experience with D&D didn’t involve a basement room full of teenage boys with dice and character sheets. Although my social circle certainly qualified as “nerd” or “geek” or whatever label you might apply to a boy in grade 7 who skips school not during classes but during the school dance to go play Starcraft, nobody I knew owned a rulebook or had the idea to put something together. And then in 1998, my parents bought me a game called Baldur’s Gate. Never before did I get to play a game with such an intricate character options. It was loosely based on the third edition of D&D (with a few elements of 3.5 folded into the sequels and expansions), but Baldur’s Gate wasn’t quite the same as D&D. It was good, but then Baldur’s Gate 2 was amazing. It was largely more of the same in terms of game mechanics, but the quality of the writing, the visuals, the dialog, everything was given a huge upgrade. I had sunk 200+ hours into that game by the end of high school. Yet for all of its splendor, it was very limited: there were several distinct plot branches, but there were only so many areas to explore and specific conditions for winning or losing. After playing through every possible path, I briefly visited the modding community. I downloaded and played through a few, and enjoyed them, and toyed with the modding tools in the hope I could create my own adventure. I lacked the skills and commitment at the time that would have been required to create something that works, but it was certain that I wanted more. I wanted to be able to keep going to other places and seek other stories limited only by the imagination of creators (myself or otherwise). I had boundaries, and wished for horizons. During the time I spent on the modding forums, the regulars spoke of “PnP” (pen and paper) as an ideal rather than an alternative. I learned on an intellectual level why a lot of people found the video games to be neat but no substitute for the real thing. Almost two decades after Baldur’s Gate, I eventually came to understand this concept for myself.
By the time I finally got to play true D&D, I had completed an academic degree and wasn’t living with my parents anymore. 4th edition had just come out, so that is what our DM (dungeon master, person who organizes and runs the game) wanted to run. Arguing about editions is a very strange blood sport that only makes sense to a few particular subsets of D&D enthusiasts, so I am not taking a position here. The only reason why I mention it is because I don’t come at this from the perspective of someone who has been playing since the 1980’s or 1990’s. I’m not part of the newest cohort, but I’m newer to it than people might assume. It wasn’t until the late 2000’s that I had, in a game, played a character who could try and break, jump over, or seduce anything that wasn’t intended originally to be interacted with in such a way. No door was sealed shut, no waist-high bush could contain me. I don’t love BG2 any less, but getting to play in a potentially infinite fictional universe was freedom rather than a newer, nicer, bigger cage.
And I loved it. I got to try different things, and run a few campaigns. Games started and ended based entirely on the group’s desire to play, not on any externally defined plots and stages of gameplay. We could go anywhere the DM was able to come up with a narrative space for. Characters had objectives and end goals, but the only thing that ever ended a campaign was a satisfying end to a story arc combined with the desire of the players to do something else with their time or move on to the next campaign. And move on we did, despite several comings and goings, the core group is into its ninth campaign (of which I have been involved in seven). We also played games in World of Darkness and other rule sets geared more towards modern and horror settings rather than swords and sorcery. The appeal of the game wasn’t just in one setting or iteration of the rules, it was in the fact that the game could go anywhere we wanted it to go.
So, when does D&D become a terrible disappointment? Aside from malicious dungeon mastering, it also becomes rather anemic when people try to win the game. There are many ways this can occur, but the thing they all have in common is that they limit the game right down to one individual’s desire to be seen as a winner. Whether it is a DM forcing characters through a story without giving them any agency, a rules lawyer determined to mathematically prove how much better his character is than anyone else’s, or a player character seeking adoration by proxy of a character, everything that imports unnecessary limitations takes away from what makes the tabletop RPG special.
That’s simply not how D&D became the phenomenon it is today. It is because it has more characteristics of a game than sitting around a campfire taking turns doing collaborative storytelling, but is so much more than finite dice games. It is a dice game, but one that runs on its own time and establishes its own boundaries during play. It can, at the discretion of the participants, keep on being played with the rules changing in order to allow the continuation of play. Every boundary is mutable (according to rule zero of every tabletop RPG). That’s why I characterize it as almost infinite. It isn’t quite, but the tabletop RPG is much closer than anything else I know, and that’s why I continue to play and continue to dream up the next campaign.