On a writing retreat in the Misty Mountains, I mean the Cloudlands, I mean the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I had an opportunity to play my first game of D&D.
Oh, the EXCITEMENT this incited in my Facebook Flist! I haven’t gotten so many approving like-emoticons since getting married!
Many people asked me, “What took you so long?”
My answers varied from, “My native reluctance,” to “An instinctive wide-eyed wariness of anything new,” to “Because I pretty much SCARPER every time someone MENTIONS RPGs!”
I’m not necessarily proud of any of those answers; I feel a bit cagey about them, but also honest.
Other people asked me, “What did you like best about D&D?”
My answer? “The limitations.”
Several friends invited me to expand on this, so I’ve been thinking about it.
I find it really interesting that people think I’d be a “natural” at D&D because I’m an actor with improv training, and a writer with storytelling training. The reality was that those aspects of D&D were the least interesting to me as a player, partially because D&D, mechanically, seemed to be more about decision-making through dice and combat protocol through dice.
There I was, with a heap of dice in front of me I didn’t understand, and a character sheet (pre-made, as this was a one-off game) that had so much information on it it was hard to absorb it all, and suddenly the game had started. It was a simple storyline, and our characters were fairly stock. Still, I could tell there was a lot of room to explore within those cut-outs–sort of like Commedia dell’arte, eh?
But even though I had the dice, and a heap of information at hand, I did not know how to use them, or what it all meant. It was a learn-as-I-go sort of situation.
A game, to me, is most enjoyable when I understand the limits–or maybe I should say “the structure.” In my brain, there is a kind of pleasurable click, as when I learn a new formal poetry structure. Until I understood about stresses and syllables and rhymes and lines, a sonnet was just sort of a neat little maybe kind of boring and occasionally incomprehensible slag pile of words. A sonnet became much more interesting, however, as I grew older and started studying the ARCHITECTURE of it, word by word, line by line.
(Sort of like, come to think of it, when a building becomes much more than just an antiquated heap of bricks belonging to a political celebrity when you think, “Gosh, to build Monticello, Jefferson first had dozens of enslaved people level a frikkin mountaintop and then make the bricks of his house OUT OF THAT DIRT.” That house becomes more interesting, certainly–and more awful, more endowed, more worthy of study, of a lasting emotional connection–which is as much rage as it is awe. . . Can you tell I was just in Virginia?)
Right, back to games.
So, as a first time player, thrown into a game that was pretty short by D&D standards (2-4 hours?) but long by my standards (games longer than 40 minutes with no visible count-down mechanic–as in Mysterium or Fiasco, where you are watching the game end even as you play it–make me, still kind of n00b to games, a trifle anxious), the most interesting things about D&D for me were not, in fact, the improv or the storytelling.
With the first, I was not familiar enough with the game, or comfortable enough in my character, to improv with ease. Individual turns were short, my understanding of the decision-making process still fairly muddled. With the second, plot-wise, the storytelling was mostly in the hands of the Dungeon Master–and those of the players who really knew how to use their dice. I contributed some, but not enough to be wholly invested in the outcome of the story.
What I did enjoy:
- Watching other people–the expert players–sink their teeth into the game. The way they consulted their dice verged on the oracular, and they seemed to take such a distinctive, unholy glee is rattling the bones and casting them down. Very sensual!
- Learning on my feet: that each individual die has its own distinct function and meaning; that the Dungeon Master has all kinds of secret stats on NPCs that effected game-play in unpredictable ways; that I could use what I found on my character sheet to influence my decisions–that the function of the sheet was to both impose limits on improvisation and to act as prompts for improvisation.
In this way, I actually had fewer decisions to make than I thought, but could make more powerful, specific decisions using the character sheet. But I had to figure all of that out as I went. Because I was learning the game, it was different than really playing it. My enjoyment came more from learning than from playing.
People have asked me if I will play D&D again, and have offered many RPG alternatives to D&D as well.
They are very excited for me–which I find endearing, but I also feel guilty because I can’t quite match that excitement yet. It’s all still too new for me, and new things make me more wary than excited. I will try to be different, and better, and change my attitude, but that’s more of a life-goal, so . . . WE’RE WORKING ON IT.
I think I would be willing to do another D&D campaign–albeit a short one. I’d like to go in a bit more prepared. Now I know, for example, that D&D is a combat-heavy game, and the mechanics are dice and stats. I don’t know that, on the whole, I’m really very interested in episodic combat quest games. I know that I don’t have any desire to meet for a long-running game, but I would at this point be willing to devote an entire afternoon/evening to a single long game, just to say I’ve done it.
And yes, I’d be willing to play other RPGs, but it’s not because I fell instantly in love with the idea of them.
Again–none of my actual enjoyment came from the highly trained (and maybe a bit stuck up) acting and writing parts of me, but from the audience and student parts of me, which are more generous and interested in trying new things as a rule.
Perhaps the other stuff will come in time.
But, actually, what I think I’m finding–and this may not prove ultimately true, as I try to remain flexible and be open to surprises–is that, in the realm of games, my preference is for short, humorous, medium-strategy party games.
I like a 40 minute game that’s fast and elegantly designed. I like card games with interesting art and intricate lay-out. The cards, you see, are the poetic limitation, but within that limitation, a game can be infinite. I like a game that’s easy the first time, but gets more complicated the longer you play it. I like tile games, and decoding games, and I really, really like collaborative games.
Theatrical impov, voice acting, storytelling? Not so much.
See, those are my JOBS. AND I LOVE MY JOBS. But I pretty much give everything I have to them.When I go to games, I’m not really interested in WORKING. I want to play. And that might mean, in the end, that I just like a different kind of game than an RPG.