A few days ago, I drove up to Ohio to hang out with strangers at something called Festival in the Forest. It was a 12-hour drive.
As soon as I got there, I pitched a tent so I could sleep on the ground for the next two nights. Then, I sat around tables for hours on end, playing make-believe with other grown-ups for the rest of the weekend.
Whether this sort of excursion is your cup of tea, D&D‘s core component of “playing a role” is well worth exploring. I’d even say that learning to role-play is essential to our thriving as a human species in general. Shakespeare would back me up.
My character for the Fest—Ribble T. Biscuitshanks—was a whimsical little gnome storyteller who obsessed with the heroic myths of the past. He didn’t really fit into anyone’s societal system, and he struggled with the notion of becoming something substantial himself. (Such a stretch from reality, I know!)
Playing a role different from your own–even slightly–provides exceptional perspective. This truth isn’t limited to the gaming community. All mainstream religions & philosophies tout this conscious altering of perspective as a worthy pursuit & beneficial practice. Like many of those philosophies, D&D has parameters to keep your character aligned with her values at the start of the journey. Your lawful-good character can’t just go slaying villagers willy-nilly without having some sort of consequence. Characters are rewarded throughout the game for acting on the moral code already established at the start.
This aspect of D&D is a great reminder for writers. If you want compelling, believable characters, know their internal motivations like the back of your hand. If a character acts in a way not in keeping with those motivations, your overarching story will suffer.
However, having set character motivations doesn’t mean you’ll have a predictable story. On the contrary, it makes the game all the more dynamic. When character worldviews collide, new sources of conflict arise without the Dungeon Master (or D.M.) ever anticipating it.
During the Fest, for instance, my party found a child’s grave that had been repaired by a previous group. Though the grave was just something the D.M. threw out to set the tone, it gradually took on greater meaning as each adventure unfolded. In the end, our party pooled together seemingly-unrelated objects from previous sessions with other D.M.s. We improvised dialogue to match the somber tone of bringing resolve to a tragically-short life. Though we had been known as “the loud group” before, we concluded this scene with uncharacteristic somberness & sincerity. This arbitrary subplot managed to bring a tear to the gruffest of dwarves & alter several of our characters’ story arcs for the better.
Those moments of unexpected conflict are vital to not only maintaining authenticity, but to telling a great story as well. Great storytelling blends authenticity & surprise without one negating the other.
Role-playing can also help you understand human interaction. TedX alum, author & all-around nice guy Daniel Wendler credits D&D with giving him the perfect foundation for navigating the social hindrances of Asperger’s. He says that taking high-school improv classes also helped a great deal. When you’re playing believable characters interacting with other believable characters, you pick up on their resonant choices and how they affect society. This tends to alter your thinking, making rash & destructive choices less common for you both in-game and out.
By now, I imagine some of you are still saying, “I’m not pretending to be anything with silly swords or sandals.” And that’s okay. I can find it in my heart to forgive you. Sure, I’ll weep bitterly over how you’re missing out, but some of the people I love the most just aren’t that into fantasy. That doesn’t mean you get out of this vital lessons of role-playing, though.
Whether you try your hand on the improv stage, channel Rod Stewart on karaoke night or play a jazz piece outside of your usual trumpeting repertoire, you have countless opportunities to role-play wherever you find yourself.
My challenge for you this week is this: Role-play in some way within the next seven days.
Remember that the best role-playing involves getting out of your comfort zone. Try to push your limits of what feels “normal” as much as possible. Directly tackle those fears you didn’t even know existed. Perhaps that means writing truthfully about a protagonist who’s the complete opposite of you in every way. It could mean painting in a style totally different from your own preference, or approaching a subject matter you hadn’t even considered before now. For some, role-playing might include visiting the local game shop to play with total strangers. It could include so much—anything, really—that forces you out of comfort and into a different perspective. Do it!
Once you’ve had your experience, be sure to COMMENT below. That way, we can share in the lessons you’ve learned from any perspective shift that might’ve occurred.
Stories–whether real, written down or performed on the spot–are all about shifts in perspective. They’re about the interplay between characters that must have differing perspectives if they’re to interest an audience. The more we allow these shifts & interactions to occur in our own lives, the more equipped we’ll be for whatever adventures await us next.