When I was eleven, I enrolled in a five-week kids program at the University of Louisville. One class featured a new role-playing game that was sweeping America: Dungeons and Dragons. I was both fascinated and overwhelmed by the scope of gameplay, but just as I was finally getting my bearings, word spread that D&D was demonic and led to violence. So, my light blue plastic dice disappeared for the rest of my childhood, and I returned to Parcheesi.
I’m not one to splash haphazardly in supernatural puddles. I don’t like horror movies or spooky books, and I think unseen forces are more active than we sometimes realize. However, depending on how it is approached, D&D can highlight the struggles and victories of goodness instead of spreading enchantment with darkness. Like many other creative activities, gameplay can benefit or harm the soul.
In the early 1980’s we were given simple guidelines about what was good and what was evil. Sometimes I miss that simplicity–feeling certain that I shared a team with humanity’s noble heroes and that we knew exactly who all the bad guys were. But reflecting now on that season of my life, I have to admit that the grave sins of certain political parties and denominations were often excused as rare outliers while stories of a few misguided role-playing teenagers flamed through evangelicalism like wildfire. In those days, we defended and censured others largely on the basis of team loyalty. The world was divided clearly into “we” and “they,” and our leaders constantly let us know how to draw those lines.
I realized that avoiding evil involved more than obeying a handy-dandy team list of do-nots. Rebecca Reynolds
But as the next decade or two unfolded, I watched families who lambasted Narnia because it contained a witch help facilitate injustice in religious communities. I watched stately religious leaders make excuses for men who used women and children badly. I saw people who advocated for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control rally behind politicians who defied every single one of those traits—cheering for their venomous lies and lauding them as God’s help in times of need. I saw the demonic churning in real time, and those forces were not limited to the places I had been warned about. They were far more deceptive, far more invasive, and far more embedded in everyday life than I had been taught. I realized that avoiding evil involved more than obeying a handy-dandy team list of “do-nots.”
For most of my adult life, I was too busy to revisit D&D; however, a few years ago, one of my older kids began talking about Critical Role, and my youngest started to play with a group online. My son’s character profile on D&D Beyond fascinated me—this new cyber tool made all the complexities we used to manage with paper and books so much easier! The beauty of the game hit me anew. A few folks from the Rabbit Room put together a campaign, and I joined up. Any lingering fears about gameplay taking a dark turn vanished in one session. You know how the Rabbit folk are—our general vibe is jovial magic. We sally forth in the spirit of Tolkien, Lewis, Lloyd Alexander. Good is good. Evil is evil. A measure of mischief is fun.
Context matters, of course. Sex, photography, writing, dance, and mechanical design can be used in evil or good ways. So might this game. Discretion suits the making of sausage-and-egg casseroles as well as communal storymaking. I wouldn’t want to attempt creation of any sort with people enamored with darkness. But with the right people sitting at the right table, wonderful things can happen.
My favorite character is Ophibwyn, an Owlin. She’s a bard with the power to inflict maniacal laughter upon her enemies. She can also terrify the wicked and encourage the noble—what more could a writer ever want in life? After about an hour of play, the constant clench of adulthood releases. I’m lost in belly laughs, the thrill of imagined danger, and the rush of cooperative creation. My teammates shock and delight me with their choices. We are reckless, astute, selfless, greedy, each flexing unique strengths and struggling with unique weaknesses. I’m having to relearn a great deal about gameplay, but my friends are patient, and they guide me along. They’ve helped me catch a solid vision for what a campaign can become, and I don’t want to turn back.
I’m a bit in awe of the vulnerability a DM’s role requires. Rebecca Reynolds
All of this joyful escape is hosted by the generosity of a Dungeon Master. Our beloved Rabbit Room has explored many different art forms, but in this post, I want to suggest that the creative labors of a talented DM deserve to sit among them. The DM orchestrates the campaign from its onset, establishing the general framework for each evening’s play. He (or she) develops a setting, envisions challenges, designs quests—and then as each session passes, he collects information about choices the players make, funneling the past and the present into the next branch of the team’s future adventure. As he guides, he responds minute-by-minute with a light-handed assistance. He remains responsive to the narrative physics of the entire machine, working to build a world, then opening his hands with his creation and letting it go, entrusting his story to others.
As the evening progresses, the DM’s preconceived ideas of where a campaign might go must flex and shift as communal innovation occurs. For instance, we have a wild-eyed Harengon (a sort of rabbit creature) in our group. He’s absolutely nuts, good but chaotic. As long as that wild hare is around, anything might happen. Yet the DM remains unfazed, chuckling as we try to corral this crazy creature so he doesn’t get us all killed.
In many ways, the DM is just as vulnerable as the players. In fact, I’m a bit in awe of the vulnerability a DM’s role requires. When it comes to artistic creation, I’m sort of a control freak. I don’t like working in groups. I want to pull all the levers and push all the buttons in private and on my schedule. Sure, I loved working with Kyra and Bailey on the Hutchmoot Pass the Piece art, but our collaboration didn’t happen instantaneously. We each had boundaries, separate roles completed in separate places. Yet, in the co-creation of a D&D campaign, a DM is always present, watching his original story spin into new dimensions without becoming a dictator over it. He has to stay supple, fluid, flexible, alert to help move the growing story forward. There’s a trust exchange at play. After establishing the loose rules of his universe, he allows players to develop or destroy themselves as well as the realm he has offered them.
While there are some famous, public campaigns and well-known Dungeon Masters, I especially love the work DM’s do in small groups of friends. So much of artistic culture focuses on building a personal platform, getting signed with a publisher or a label, and attracting fans. But the grand creative work done by most DM’s is offered to only six or seven people. It will never bring fame or fortune, just escape, joy, adventure, and camaraderie.
Playing D&D, I’m reminded of tales of the old days when groups of friends and family would gather around a fire to tell stories. Who knows how many thousands of brilliant grandmotherly raconteurs capable of captivating millions delighted six grandchildren instead? No platform. No publication. Their gifts spread out, tended human souls, and then faded, remaining only now in phrases, “They say your great-grandmother was a brilliant storyteller.”
What the old grandfolk created is gone. But the closeness of the room, the sensation of journey, the delicious intimacy of the sound of a human voice offering another world strengthened and inspired. The care of a Dungeon Master falls into a similar category of generosity. He listens. He watches. He gives. He lifts a few hearts for a few hours, and all return home invigorated. He says, “Here you are. Here I am. The night is dark. The days are long. Let’s make something remarkable.”