I’m often asked to explain Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), and not without reason. I’ve been running one TTRPG or another for 17 years now. From my first stumbling attempts where every session was a bar fight to campaigns that have spanned years where everyone at the table has been brought to tears thanks to their investment in the story being told. It’s a hobby that I put more thought and passion into than any job I’ve ever had that actually paid my bills.
Friends and family have watched this descent. From my parents wondering what exactly is happening down in the basement, to those closest to me who, almost universally, have been included in one game or another.
My collection of colorful polygonal plastic is vast.
I never want to know the total cost of hardcover rulebooks on my TTRPG shelves (yes, I have whole pieces of furniture devoted to this).
Have I bought graph paper in bulk for drawing out maps?
Look, you get the idea…
This is all to say that, when asked to explain DnD, I feel somewhat qualified to answer. Somewhat.
I’ll usually start with the basics. Most folk use DnD as a catchall term. DnD is a Tabletop Roleplaying Game (of which Dungeons & Dragons is just one of a myriad); which in turn is a group (usually) storytelling (usually) game where certain decisions are left to chance (usually) via dice or cards.
All of those parentheticals in that last paragraph are why I leaned on the ‘somewhat’ earlier. There are so many exceptions to what you just read and so many people who associate their own emotions and memories with those exceptions, that it would feel disingenuous for me to make definitive statements about any of it. I know what I consider to be DnD.
DnD is dice in basements. It’s inside jokes with friends about things that sound absurd out of context. It’s worlds and stories built together not just in the game-space but around the table as well.
My first game of DnD wasn’t even Dungeons & Dragons as you might initially imagine it. No, instead I had heard that there was a game out there that let you be space cowboys in a ‘verse of a show that got cancelled too soon. I didn’t know who Margaret Weis was or how important her Dragonlance books were to the history of the hobby I was about to dive into. I had no clue that what I was about to start playing was a diversion from what most folk in the hobby would have called “normal”. You didn’t even roll d20s for Pete’s sake! All I knew was that someone named Jaimie Chambers at her production company had written a book full of rules that would let my friends and I pretend to be space cowboys in a setting that only got one short season and a movie.
There were no dragons or dungeons in that game. At first there was barely even a story. I wasn’t even the regular game master. My friends and I would switch off at irregular intervals so that everyone got a chance to play a character while somebody else put events in motion in the game. But it kept drifting back to me.
Eventually I started to tell a story.
It involved killer robots and a thief with a monkey for a pet. Nothing that was ever in that show that drew me to this book, these rules, this hobby. I killed my first player character in that game. He was hurled down an elevator shaft by a blue-handed corporate assassin. That was something from the show.
Later there would be goblin slaying, the destruction of evil cults and magic weapons that were so heavy with plot relevant power that they unbalanced the game (a few too many of those, actually). I’d get around to dragons a’plenty and stretch the concept of what a “dungeon” was to it’s breaking point. I’m still not sure how all those snake-people got into Powell’s City of Books in Portland. I’ve run games of high fantasy, eldritch horror and urban noir with singing orcs, nightmare Ikea furniture and wizard lawyers respectively included.
But DnD is big and messy and means so many things to so many people.
It’s maxing out the damage against a final boss. It’s having a conversation with a sentient plant that you’ve suddenly forced your game master to invent a personality for. It’s the simple act of “yes, and” that all those improv performers talk about.
It’s trust. It’s friendship. It’s the stories we make together.
So when I’m asked to explain DnD, I don’t say that it’s space cowboys and bar fights and hurling your friends down elevator shafts, because that’s part of what it is to me. I just smile and ask the asker how much time they have. Because DnD is a lot. But I love talking about every piece of it.