(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)
Darths & Droids is a webcomic where the authors retell the story of the Star Wars films as a tabletop RPG. While there’s no specific system that the players are running, anyone who’s played a popular system like Dungeons & Dragons is sure to recognize what’s going on at the table. Rather than the impassioned, noble heroes you’d expect in a sci-fi/fantasy epic, the main characters are buffoonish, violent, make questionable decisions, and are generally more interested in XP and loot than in furthering or investing in the story of their exasperated DM. While their bizarre antics contrast sharply with an otherwise sincere setting played straight, they bear a certain familiarity to players of popular roleplaying systems, and they have a way of making the story of the Star Wars prequels seem like an amateur D&D campaign gone off the rails.
Each strip also features an author commentary at the bottom of the page. They often give a knowing nod to the reader, an elbow in the ribs, at the shared cultural in-joke. It’s assumed that this kind of misbehavior is just inherent in roleplaying games and that everyone may as well get used to it. The author is quick to point out how weird the players’ behavior is if you were to imagine them portraying a “real” story. But we can all just chalk it up as part of playing RPGs, right? At least until they grow out of it and become real roleplayers.
It’s a sentiment I see echoed in the larger tabletop RPG community. Many people have no problems asserting that roleplaying and storytelling are things that the players have to learn to do on their own. Good roleplay is what happens when players finally grow up and learn that they need to act against their self-interest for the sake of being in character. There’s no magic switch that suddenly makes people better roleplayers, no external influence other than good role models. Good roleplaying for players, and good storytelling for DMs, has to come from within, and it’s not something a system can influence or fix.
Huh? You mean there are games that turn you into a good roleplayer just by playing them?
Yes, that’s right. And the fact of the matter is that’s only a surprise to people who are playing games that don’t. Did you ever wonder why the behavior seen in Darths & Droids, or Thieves Can’t, or any other D&D comic you can name is so universally recognizable to players of the game? Is it just coincidence that they all default to a cavalier attitude toward violence and looting? How does it happen that all these disparate people who come from different places in their lives, who don’t even know each other, all arrive in the same place?
The common thread is the game itself. RPG rulebooks are characterized by their systemic incentives, and like all games, they push players into patterns of behavior. The things that are important to the game often become important to its players automatically. But if a truly great story isn’t one of them, you might have some difficulty coming up with a good story even when you try. Worse than being unhelpful, such a system frequently and quietly teaches bad habits to players that hamper the story and its characters, and lead the players astray. The rules of an RPG have a huge impact on the kind of story that the players tell and on the way they tell it. Could it be that there are no bad roleplayers, only bad roleplaying games?
That’s what we’re going to explore here. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be posting a six-part series on Dungeons & Dragons, analyzing the game in terms of roleplaying and storytelling. Why six articles? There’s a lot of ground to cover, and there’s a lot of angles of attack. I’ll be talking about the rules of the game and how they inform character design, influence plot, delineate narrative power, and what this all means to the stories you’re likely to tell using D&D.
As I go, I’ll contrast the way D&D does things with how other games do them. It’s an important bit of context for people who are only familiar with D&D and games like it. There’s a whole world of alternative RPGs that are so different from the D&D method that many people can’t even imagine them. I’ll compare them side-by-side with D&D to highlight why they’re made the way they are, and what they bring to the storytelling process.
It’s an important topic for RPG players to grapple with, perhaps now more than ever. In the age of Acquisitions Inc, Critical Role, and other live-play super-hits, many players of D&D are chasing a dragon. They watch professional entertainers plying their storytelling craft, and they believe they could do the same if only they play the same game. Then when they’re at their own gaming table, they find that they don’t know what to do or how to make that happen. Things go awry, and players end up foiling each other on purpose or by accident. There are good reasons for that. It’s time to talk about them.
Maybe you’re also chasing that dragon. Maybe you value truly great stories, but consistently struggle to make them happen. Maybe you just wonder if there could be anything more to roleplaying games than what you’ve seen and where you’ve been. If so, come along for ride. You might just find your dragon in a place you never knew existed.