Tabletop roleplaying games are absolutely amazing. Not only do they allow us to bond with others on the fundamentally human levels of storytelling and cooperation but they also provide safe spaces to explore problem solving, social situations and identity. In a tabletop roleplaying game you take control of your character, allowing for a degree of agency you simply don’t find in other avenues like video games and that’s part of what makes them absolutely magical! Who doesn’t love thinking of a character to participate in an epic story, where you can choose to be a mighty hero or an imposing villain? Roleplaying games are for everyone.
Storytelling, gaming and the human experience
Historically playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons was considered a fringe thing or something for outsiders, but with the advent of the internet and popularization of streams like Critical Role this once clandestine hobby is now accessible to the masses. And people love it.
This makes a lot of sense when you consider what I just mentioned about tabletop roleplaying games reaching us on levels of fundamental human experience. Cooperation against an oppressive force, teaming together for mutual benefit and pursuing ideals and relationships are all integral to who we are.
We live in unprecedented times, and it seems the more time I spend watching the news or on social media, the more division I see. More than ever the world feels splintered, broken by the very things we once held firmly in the realms of fantasy and fiction. But it’s activities like our favorite hobby that can bring people closer together.
My introduction to the hobby
I’m about to share a bit about my own personal experience. As a bisexual man who grew up in a conservative, unaffirming home, I knew what it was like to be ostracized. I grew up feeling like an outsider every day of my life.
When I was in college I wasn’t part of a popular clique and my goal was usually to just blend in and get by. At the time my primary creative outlet was writing fiction. One day, I heard some people mention they enjoyed writing fiction too.
I prayed my thundering heart would quiet enough to let me speak as I approached these strangers. I mentioned overhearing their conversation and introduced myself as a writer, too. We then proceeded to talk the day away about our characters, the struggles of writing people different from ourselves and how we wove our own experiences into our work. That’s how I met my core group of friends in college.
Eventually one of them brought up the idea of playing a D&D like homebrew RPG. When the concept was explained to me it sounded so cool and I was all in! The years of stories and campaigns that followed were truly epic.
It was through these games I came to meet more people who loved this hobby, and by interacting with their characters and how they portrayed them I gained new insights into the players behind the ability scores. We’d stay up late talking about potential outcomes of sessions, theorizing downtime activities and interactions between characters and eventually wandering the conversations to our favorite fandoms and what inspired us to make certain character choices.
Over the course of these conversations, topics often drifted to deeper subjects of sociology, philosophy, religion, politics — you name it! We built real friendships stemming from fictional alliances. Though few of us were extroverts we bonded over our shared common interests, starting with the game but eventually our interests expanded beyond our characters and into the people behind them.
Though I lost contact with many of my first group, I’ll never forget the fond memories we shared around that tiny kitchen table, rolling funny shaped dice and leafing through tattered character sheets.
Strength in diversity
That first group was the first step to a lot of bigger things in my life. I learned more about myself and my values and I experimented with social situations that mirrored those in my own life. But among the most important lessons I learned at the table was the value of diversity.
When we talk about diversity these days we usually refer to diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on but diversity is so much more than these. By the very nature of the mechanics of the game, a party needs diversity to succeed. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a party of Champion fighters with the soldier background, this doesn’t make for a very exciting story (usually) especially if the characters are also similar in personality. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Hey! But what about the D&D academia project?]
You need your defender to protect the others from the brunt of attacks in combat. Without a rogue, urchin, criminal or similar type your party might be stopped by something as simple as a locked door. Every group needs a face to deal with social interactions, and without a navigator or someone knowledgeable about magic your party’s bound to fall into trouble.
By having a diverse array of backgrounds your characters can navigate more situations, from the city’s seedy underbelly to the forested wild lands. Only with a diversity of classes and subclasses will your party face multiple challenges with ease, and diversity of race (as in fantasy species) allows the players to interact more readily with others beyond their own culture.
These lessons extend to elements of diversity in our own world. Whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, body type, acuity, mental health, socioeconomic status, religion, morality or any number of other factors, these individual experiences come together, forming a whole perspective of a complete, unique person with their own insights and contributions they can make to friends, family, and society on the whole.
Tabletop roleplaying games teach us we need others unlike ourselves to overcome obstacles and to change the world at large for the better. Hopefully along the way we also grow on our own personal journeys and use the contributions of others in our lives to evolve into the best individuals we can be.
As an activity once relegated to the disenfranchised, it always makes perfect sense to me that tabletop roleplaying games are a gateway to acceptance and understanding. Most veterans of the hobby know what it’s like to be excluded, and regardless of how long you’ve played the game all of us have our own struggles and need others to come alongside us to help from time to time. D&D teaches us to accept that help and to seek it out when needed.
Real growth, real friendships
Most of my gaming group are ride-or-die friends, friends who I never would have met without the hobby. I’m personally thankful for this game because it’s opened so many doors for me, doors to friendships and growth and a freaking dream job writing here for Nerdarchy.
I often look back at that night in the dorm commons and wonder what my life would be like if I had given into my fear and just walked by without saying anything on that fateful afternoon. Storytelling… tabletop roleplaying games… they literally changed my life. I’ve grown so much as a person through them.
Since that night I’ve learned to love myself for who I am (in every context), to accept help when I need it and when a monster is just too high CR for my current level. I’ve become a better person. I sincerely believe games like D&D can help us understand one another and can help us change our society, one game, one player, at a time.
What do you think?
What’s your experience with D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games? How did you come into the hobby? Have you forged lasting friendships as a result of our favorite game? Let us know your story in the comments!