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An irregularly updated blog (mostly) about theatre.

  • Why (and how) Dungeons & Dragons makes better theatre-makers 04 July 2017 | View comments


    [Oh, you thought I would write one D&D-related blog post and leave it at that? Oh no…]


    Beyond the fact I think D&D counts as theatre (and amazing theatre at that), I’ve noticed more and more when playing the different ways in which I think it can make people better at making theatre - the good habits and skills that it encourages to make people better performers, collaborators, editors, and creators in general. So here’s a rundown of why I think, if you make theatre, you should give D&D a go:


    Killing babies and letting go


    When playing D&D, you regularly think of things you’d like to try and do - things that would be cool, or funny, or hopefully emotionally cathartic. (For instance: stealing an unconscious character’s flying shoes so you can pour boiling oil over your enemies from a height and deal out some medieval-style justice. Some of my characters get a bit brutal.) However, as much as you might get focused on that idea, it’s not guaranteed you’ll get to even try it - the character might wake before you can steal the shoes, the shoes might not fit you, they may not work on you for some reason. You soon adjust to the fact that ideas have to be cast aside almost as soon as they’re thought up, and being okay with letting things go and not clinging to them is a very good thing to learn.


    Putting the character first


    Why some ideas have to be abandoned is almost as important as getting used to doing so. D&D trains you to put the character first - maybe you’ve thought of a hilarious comeback to someone’s comment, but your character doesn’t have that sense of humour. A D&D game is only as strong as its characters, since the story is generated out of characters’ choices and the group’s dynamics. You’re forced to be as honest as possible about what the character would do - it’s not about you showing off some skill or talent (as can sometimes happen in performances), it’s about what’s truthful to the character. You might want to keep a magic talisman so you can keep casting cool spells in the game, but if the character is in a situation where they’re compelled to break it: it’s got to be broken.


    Sharing the space


    D&D is about collaboratively telling a story - typically with friends, and the aim is everyone having a good time. It’s not just about one person having a good time. You have to genuinely tell the story with and alongside everyone else, allow space for other people’s ideas and build upon them. You have to be alert to others - if you don’t then the story suffers, as does everyone’s enjoyment of the game. I can think of few other activities that train you to be so aware of how much people are engaging with what’s going on, and the position you’re taking in amongst it all. Part of this is also making sure you’re not trying to control what’s happening, that you’re allowing space for surprises and new things to happen as well - not stifling creativity by dictating everything. Another part of it is trusting those you’re telling the story with.


    Everyone an artist


    D&D literature is written how I wish theatre literature was. It perfectly fits into the ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’ model of thinking. It’s untimidating, clear, friendly, and written in plain English, taking something that’s a highly creative, sometimes mathematically-minded endeavour, and gives straightforward advice and aids. It constantly emphasises the importance of using and focusing on what entertains and interests you. Despite DMing being a mix of writing, performing, directing and showrunning, the handbooks for D&D make it seem accessible and easy. The attitude is one of: you’re totally able to do this, you simply haven’t done it yet. And if we were able to talk about theatre in this way more, I think that would be a brilliant thing.


    Playing the moment, not the end


    One of my favourite theatre quotes is from a very old review about an actress playing Joan of Arc, who ‘came on half-burnt’. in other words, from her first entrance, she was playing the ending. It’s one of the things that frustrates me most in performances, where an actors’ knowledge of what’s coming up influences what the character does (however consciously or subconsciously this might happen). D&D takes away that foreknowledge - you’re forced to play precisely what’s happening in the moment. The flamboyance and confidence with which a character might produce an array of glowing stones and balletically spiral them down an underground cavern isn’t tempered or diminished by any awareness that doing exactly this is going to draw hordes of giant spiders to the group - because it was impossible to pre-empt. With random dice rolls dictating so much of what happens, any potential safety net - anything players might do to try and control events, any chance of predicting what’ll come up - disappears. 


    Empathy to the extreme


    It might sound like an obvious point to make, that D&D is one big exercise in flexing your empathy muscles (something useful for all manner of theatremakers), but it regularly pushes you into scenarios that are far beyond anything you might normally imagine. Someone whose life has been dedicated to helping others and avoiding violence is kidnapped and taken to an underground world inhabited by a ruthless, cruel, sadistic society; someone else is held by another person for the first time in their thirty-three-year-long life. D&D constantly pushes your empathy to strange and unusual places, which is what elevates it beyond other roleplaying or performance contexts.




    Ultimately, Dungeons & Dragons - with its mixture of improv, dice-dictated randomness, character-led storytelling and collaboration (bolstered by its straightforward, welcoming and supportive guides) makes you better at telling stories - whether you’re an actor, director, writer or something else entirely. What I think is at the core of the many good things about D&D is how playing it encourages you not to think about yourself, your wants, desires or focus in the storytelling process - but instead about the character, and about the other players. When something only exists in a collective imagination in the way that D&D does, you have no other option than to be outward-looking.

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