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An irregularly updated blog (mostly) about theatre.

  • Dungeons & Dragons isn't just theatre, it's the best kind of theatre 06 June 2017 | View comments

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    Early last year, I was curious about Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not taken long for it to get under my skin, and taken me from causal fan, to regular viewer of podcasts and livestreams, to player, to Dungeon Master, to co-producer of a show consisting 250 hour-long tabletop roleplaying game inspired by it. That show, Adventurers Wanted, is listed in the ‘theatre’ section of the Edinburgh Fringe programme, which might raise a few eyebrows and questions. However, my experience of D&D absolutely justifies treating the game as theatre - and amazing theatre at that. Here’s why:

     

    • Come for the story, stay for the characters

     

    I do personally adore epic narratives. I’ve played in games where characters have died battling gods only to be resurrected in mechanical bodies; where entire planes of existence have collapsed in on themselves; where someone breaking a cursed item has resulted in them transforming into a giant and raining down meteors. And all of these have been described with such vividness by the Dungeon Masters at the time that it’s been effortless to imagine it all. 

     

    Yet - whilst the outlandish, exhilarating, bizarre and brilliant storylines that only D&D’s fantasy world can offer are what first caught my eye - it’s the characters and their relationships that keep me coming back. As players get better at roleplaying their distinctive characters, and the relationships between characters become deeper and more defined. People’s backstories are gradually exposed, their complexity revealed, moments of contact between characters catch you unawares, or rifts between them become unexpectedly complicated. It’s always struck me how other entertainment media will often sell a project on the basis of compelling characters - but how often have you seen a theatre marketing campaign focus on that over narrative, spectacle, themes or the team involved?

     

    • Making whatever you can imagine with whatever you can find

     

    Remember the character I mentioned that died battling gods and was then resurrected in a mechanical body? Well, that happens to be a character I play - and, ever since her resurrection, whenever I speak ‘as’ that character whilst playing a game, I speak into a mug to alter my voice (yeah, like how some people do Bane). It was an easy option that I knew would always be to hand during a game. I play it sincerely, and everyone playing in that game with me treats it sincerely, and it’s a clear and vivid trigger that helps us imagine the seven-foot-tall ‘robot’ I’m essentially pretending to be. 

     

    This isn’t the only example of a resourceful attitude to props or costume when the game calls for it. When a player in one of the the games I’m in picks anything up, throws, flips and catches it, everyone around the table knows that his character’s just showing off with a sword. Blanket throws wrapped around people have become blood-soaked altar coverings that allow characters to impersonate evils gods. My soft spot for medieval theatre practice is nicely indulged by D&D.

     

    • No one person knows what will happen, because everyone tells the story together

     

    Yes, dice rolls and their inherent randomness are a big mechanic of D&D, and you could say that they alone make for the utterly unpredictable and regularly surprising events that pepper the stories told in D&D games. But there’s another and more brilliant reason for this: whilst the Dungeon Master might write the game, creating a world for a story to happen in (often worlds of stunning detail and depth), they have to respond to what the players do.

     

    To me, D&D consists of friends gathering in each others’ houses, telling each other stories and making each other laugh. Everything about D&D is social - you can’t play it on your own, and everyone has to work together in some way to bring it to life. Because of the flexibility of the game, different players end up bringing different things to the story and the game can play up to what individuals offer. Everyone makes the story together and everyone’s contribution to it (provided they at least follow the rules!) is valid; everyone gets a say in the story that’s told. 

     

    • Everything that happens is exactly what’s necessary to tell the story

     

    D&D games can be so much more than people simply sat around a table, rolling dice and describing what imagined characters do. The moment that maps and minis can’t quite capture exactly how a group of characters have fallen over the lip of a volcano and are holding onto each other to survive, an alternative has to be found (in this case, three of us lying on the floor, grabbing onto each other until our characters get out of it somehow). When ‘I try to convince this enemy to become our ally’ doesn’t really capture enough detail, players can give the most astonishing improvised speeches that leave everyone present stunned. Yet, at times, all that you need is a certain look - a raised eyebrow, a feigned smile, a hint of hesitation - from across the table, to know what’s happening with one character in a story.

     

    People instinctively act out what feels right to act out, creating a mix of described, imagined and performed action that feels entirely natural, giving everyone enough to understand and engage with what’s happening but making sure everyone’s imagination gets a workout. If theatre’s a collective act of suspending disbelief, I can’t think of a better example than this. 

     

    • Chasing what feels good

     

    And do you know what’s the best thing about Dungeons & Dragons? Every time I’ve played it, everyone present has known that what they’re doing could be seen as silly, childish, nerdy, something that grown adults aren’t really meant to do. But we don’t give a damn and throw ourselves into it regardless, because it’s genuinely a joyful way to spend time with friends, and results in stories that are exhilarating to tell and to be told. And it would be amazing if more theatre felt like that.


    If this sounds like your kind of theatre, click here for tickets to see Adventurers Wanted and click here for tickets to play in the game itself!

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