Mathematically speaking, the best way to evaluate statistical trends is to look around and gauge what you personally have viewed. For example, you could watch Albert Pujols strike out during a clutch inning and decide he’s a terrible baseball player, or watch some smoochy couple order rum raisin at the ice cream shop and decide it’s the most popular flavor in the world. Using this approach, I have determined three absolute, indisputable truths about Dungeons & Dragons:
- There is a vast influx of shiny new players, and not just former D&D-ers who are picking up the habit again. No indeed, this includes males and maybe one or two females who have never played any roleplaying games before.
- A significant portion of these new players are total strangers to each other, brought together through some mildly creepy website like PlayerFinder.com (Note: not a real website as far as I know, and if it is, it probably has nothing to do with D&D).
- The other significant portion of these new players are the children, raised by gaming old-timers droning on endlessly about “walking uphill through the snow both ways to Gen Con” and “buying the first Player’s Handbook for a nickel.”
When I was growing up and developing my unhealthy addiction to D&D, I played with family (my older brother, until he decided it was stupid) and friends (who I liked more than my brother anyway), and this group steadily expanded with the addition of friends of friends. It was a reliable circle built on trust and forgiveness, which meant I could act like a ham with a side of dork, coating myself with several layers of roleplaying.
How do I define roleplaying, you ask? Well, as a cleric, I would demonstrate my faith in prayers so fervent that another player invited me to his church. When my wizard’s familiar was kidnapped (imp-napped?), I confronted the villain with pointing hand and shaking voice, begging him to let Grundy live. Playing a hopeless romantic, I once wooed a young lady over dinner with honest and heartfelt words, who happened to be an NPC run by an increasingly uncomfortable DM.
I remember these moments (and many others) vividly, in the form of the characters interacting inside our collective imagination, and that was because of the non-crazy disconnect from the table and chairs and dice and books. For just a short time, I became the character I was playing, and I didn’t have to think about my actions or have to wonder, “What would my lawful good human monk do here?” I responded instinctively. It’s all part of improvisational acting, where you’re not thinking, you’re just doing, just reacting.
But it is just so difficult, and it’s made all the more so if it’s with internet strangers at the local gaming shop or even with your kids and their friends at your own kitchen table. You don’t want to terrify the strangers with your unabashed acting, and you certainly don’t want to give your kids more evidence that there’s something seriously wrong with Dad.
You know what’s easy? Or at least easier? Rolling dice, using tactics, performing a cleave, shift, action point, knee breaker. That’s thrilling, engaging, epic, and makes for a fun story, especially if you managed to roll above 5 on those attacks. You can tell the rogue, “Delay your action until I get over there,” or command the wizard, “Use with fireball, I can take it.” These sorts of mobile, lively, evocative adventures are pure cinema, just a whole lot of easy fun.
However, this could lead to a game that feels as shallow as a late-80’s action flick, with a distinct lack of motivation in the characters and an absence of characterization in the storytelling. The settings are grimly lush, the obstacles are turgidly lethal, the rewards are blandly wonderful, and the people in this imaginary world are measured in exactly two dimensions, in the form of 8½” x 11″ copy paper.
I feel like it is possible to establish a renaissance of roleplaying, assuming you even want to, but it couldn’t possibly work through just one devoted person, even if that person is the DM. It would just be too excruciating, too mortifying, and gradually, the intensity of peer pressure would grind the method actor back into a more acceptable shape. If this is to work, it would have to be through an explicit contract at the table, where each person agrees: “For the next four to five hours, I am going to be my character. I am going to speak, act, interact, and react as my character would. I will make no out-of-character comments. I probably won’t be as funny as I usually am.”
Having experienced those few moments of real, pretend emotion in my gaming life, when I let go of the paper, the dice, the ability scores, and simple let myself exist in the same space as my character, I can attest to the overwhelming joy of it. No, it’s not easy–actually, it’s pretty terrifying–but I think we owe it to this next generation of gamers to show what our imaginations can do, and the many amazing worlds we can explore.