Tabletop roleplaying has always been a passion of mine, ever since I first played back in college, huddled around a library desk with my friends. It’s a unique experience, combining a focus on lucky dice rolls with enthralling storytelling. The first of these games to grace the world was ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ back in 1974, almost two decades before my time, but it has since shaped the genre for generations.
So, what is it about tabletop roleplaying games that makes them so different to playing an online fantasy game? Why would somebody bother to play a tabletop game, when video gaming has advanced so much over the past few years? It’s a difficult feeling to capture, but there is something about being gathered in person, questing through a fictional avatar, that appeals to the storytellers in us all. The three major elements that define the story are the campaign, the dungeon master (DM), and the players. Each of these elements brings a unique building block to the storytelling that creates a new experience every time, no two stories are ever the same.
The campaign is the backbone of the experience, providing the setting and encounters the players will engage with. As aforementioned, ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ was the first game of its kind and introduced the fantasy element of magic and mystery, seen as the classic and traditional setting of tabletop roleplay. Many other games have since emerged to encompass a wider variety of campaign settings, from the urban cyberpunk world of Shadowrun to the military Sci-Fi universe of Warhammer 40K. It’s up to you and your peers as to what kind of story you feel like playing. There is a vast variety available to you, even if you just wish to take the core material of the universe and write up your own story from it. Each game offers an exclusive backstory for the world, a series of unique tropes and themes that help build the fundamentals of the narrative, allowing for a sense of familiarity to help anchor the campaign.
A good campaign is nothing without a good Dungeon Master. Your DM (or you, if you assume the role) manages many responsibilities. The most important is providing a narrative for the campaign and giving life to the encounters you’ll find along the way. A DM is adaptable, taking on multiple personas and improvising different details to add a fun flair to the story. The atmosphere and antagonists are especially important narrative points that help create the scene. Some of them allude to certain plot devices that give the players purpose, and allow for insight into the bigger picture of the campaign.
There is a personal element that the DM adds to the progressing story, so the experience doesn’t follow the storybook style of narrative. Rather than simply being read to, the DM allows connection with the crowd on a more interpersonal level. The DM is also tasked with deciding the outcome of events, so when your character gets a high or low roll of the dice, the narrative that follows is one tailored to the scene as it unfolds. This means that catastrophic failure, or amazing achievement, are given a dramatic touch that leaves a lasting memory of the moment.
The heart of the story lies with the players. After all, without a handful of players, there are no protagonists for the story. The players drive the narrative, between them they provide a colourful assortment of main characters that give the campaign life. The personas of your players can be vastly different to their real selves, and each of their characters has a different story that drives them towards a common goal. A player might create a character that lives to serve a holy order, and thus thier deeds will reflect their noble and religious nature. Other characters might include a money-driven mercenary, always looking to exploit people’s problems for their own gain, or perhaps a wandering warrior looking to expel a curse cast on them by the antagonist. There is a huge variety of character concepts that interact with the world and each other, in interesting ways.
The players, and by extension their characters, offer their own minor narratives alongside the DM. Players communicate with the various people of the world, overcome obstacles like traps and terrain, and engage in combat with the various monsters and menaces that threaten them. While these encounters might be set up by the DM it’s the players that interact with them, and create a narrative in doing so. The series of labours and ordeals the players go through, write the story as they progress and by the end of the campaign, these events will have shaped the characters and storyline in a captivating and non-replicable way.
To me, a good tabletop campaign is more exciting and enthralling than any movie, book or video game I’ve experienced. There’s something unique in the storytelling, something more engaging than any other medium. It’s a difficult feeling to pin down, perhaps it’s comradery, or maybe the involvement of creative thinking, but it’s something that speaks directly to my tastes in fiction and fantasy.