2017 was reportedly the biggest ever sales year for Dungeons & Dragons. There are a number of reasons for this, including the resurgence of geek culture, the similarly surging popularity of board games, and – of course – the popularity and success of Critical Role.
I first started watching Critical Role in the beginning of 2016. I know this because when my brother was hospitalised that Spring, the only thing I was capable of doing mentally and emotionally was watching Critical Role. All of it. When I started watching they were on episode 40 or so – it took me several weeks of doing nothing but watching to catch up to live.
Critical Role reminded me of several things during those months. One, that I was still capable of laughing at something. Two, that I loved telling and being part of stories more than anything else in the world. And three, that Dungeons and Dragons made the world better.
The internet is a strange beast. It isolates us even as it brings us together. It dehumanises us even as it allows us to share our humanity with one another. Dungeons and Dragons is a bit like that, but without all of the terrible things. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love it – I can’t exist now without the internet. I end up feeling alone and lost.
So how is it good for us? Well first of all it’s fun, but it’s not just free fun. It’s not like sitting down in front of a film and getting a laugh. To get a laugh in D&D, you put effort in – you make a character and bring it to life, and laugh at the process of doing so. Or if you’re the DM, you create a world and a story and bring it to life, and laugh at the unexpected things your players bring.
This teaches us an important lesson: that you get what you give. But it does this in such a kind and generous way. So often that lesson is taught as “well if you only bothered a little…” – D&D doesn’t do that. It presents before you an opportunity to learn, in a fun environment, what good your effort can bring.
And once you do, you get to create that fun – that story – with your friends. Even if the people you’re gaming with aren’t your friends to begin with, chances are they’ll become them along the way. Because there is nothing as connecting as telling a story collaboratively – which is, fundamentally, what D&D is.
It is this not just when you have a very narrative driven game, but also when you have a very combat-heavy, dungeon-crawling game. Your party might not care about doing accents or really chatting that much other than to plan strategy. That’s still storytelling – your group’s style is just to tell the story of the fight.
For those of us who do go for a more narrative game (even those that have a lot of combat), D&D offers a whole new kind of connection – because you get to explore not just being someone else, but being someone else around other people. You get the complexities of interaction with other people. The unexpectedness.
Critical Role is a fantastic example of this, not only because it has a cast of incredible actors but because over the course of their 100+ episodes in Campaign 1, the characters develop their relationships. I don’t just mean romantic ones, though those happen, too – by the end of it, you know exactly how every single character feels about every other one.
You know that Vax sees Pike as a shining example of what everyone should be; that Keyleth and Percy are best friends who couldn’t be more different; that Scanlan is like the (exceedingly) little brother Grog never had; that Vex loves money so much that she’s willing to marry it. Wait, no – that last one’s wrong. Or is it?
As we develop friendships like this between our characters, they cannot help but enrich our own lives. Because everything our characters feel, we feel. Everything they do, we are in part doing. Yes, we’re separate – we’re not them, we’re never going to be. But we are as connected as our characters become to one another and, so, we cannot help but become closer along the way.
This is the power that a game has to change us as individuals. But it can change a lot more than that.
Because the more we make these connections, put this effort in and tell these stories, the more we come to understand the complexities of one another. The more empathetic and driven and courageous we are. And right now, the world needs a little courage. A little drive. A lot of empathy.
In this way, Dungeons and Dragons is changing the world.
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