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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Phillips

My Collaborative Experience with D&D

In a time when we’ve been fractured, cloistered and unconnected, some of us choose to come together in community to create and converse while worlds of fantasy unfurl, like the fronds of a fern opening to embrace the efforts we afford ourselves. Generally referred to as a game, D&D even at its most basic, defies that notion and evolves into a shared storytelling experience with genre-adaptability to tell any style story the participants desire. As Dungeon Masters, we have the honor of being at the nexus of these shared connections, often with several creative people at once.

Over the past few weeks I was fortunate to explore aspects of the collaborative experience at the heart of Dungeons and Dragons. The Dungeon Mastodon image that accompanies this post was the result of conversing with my friend Ian, an illustrator, who I had the pleasure of playing together with in my first fifth edition campaign. Now, we’re both Dungeon Masters with campaigns that are both widely different and strikingly similar, showcasing the pliant nature of the gaming system. I’m definitely borrowing some of his ideas for my game, since sharing stories and shrewd strategies between D&D creatives is a long-running tradition. Making compelling story arcs for the players requires being flexible. Part of that is playing with existing content, reshaping it to fit the game and taking all the credit! Just kidding, always give credit whenever possible.

I had the rewarding experience of collaborating with Anne, who plays in my game, on a special-themed one-shot for a birthday party. The essence of it was a cliffside hotel of mystery complete with untold horrors lurking in the briny depths and a party of fifth-level middle-aged characters thrust into an imaginative narrative filled with love, longing and sorrow. I got the chance to make these characters with the challenges of why, at middle age, they are only fifth level. Most D&D characters hit fifth level pretty early, so I gave plausible reasons as well as fit in some personality and backstory that could be quickly interpreted by players to be able to jump in right away. I came away with some interesting characters, who have aspects that would make them fun to play with at later times, perhaps in the very campaign that Anne is part of now. Since these characters were consciously made with my homebrew world in mind, where magic is mysteriously minimal - these lower-level older characters would make sense in a time when hard work slowly delivers experience. For example, this was the story of the Dwarven Fighter:

At 250 years old, he didn't feel ready to hang it up. Forced retirement to make way for the new recruits. Let 'em have it! Just a working man, no judge of men - only those of royal means had the luxury of being a respected, venerated elder dwarf. The rest get shipped off to the iceberg. Sometimes the mind wanders, words forgotten, this dwarf needs a vacation. His severance basket had a gift token for the Mountain Rejuvenation Spa and a one-year free Railway Pass. He'd really like a chance to smash things. He'd like that a lot. But first, a long soak.

Thankfully, D&D extends the collective storytelling experience to the players through the decisions they make for the characters, who are the stars of the show. My current campaign, focused on The Heroes of Bounty, are a well-balanced party who recently discovered they were assembled through the progression of little deceptions which has led them to question everything that has happened thus far. Watching them piece together several months of interactions and information collected as they put it all together was one of the highlights of my time as a DM. This synergy of character personalities and the character skills they utilized as they made these discoveries (while I got to be mostly hands off) was collaborative storytelling at its best. I eagerly anticipate the growth of this band of adventurers and the prospect of playing together... actually together... and not over Zoom is something I am looking forward to indeed.

The experience of playing a character in D&D with other players and a Dungeon Master, is working together not only to tell a story but bringing unique skills and perspectives to the table to overcome challenges. Whether trying to assemble a well-balanced party or doing the best with an incompatible group of characters, all can rise to the challenge when faced with the unknown. We understand each other better as we get to know the characters we play, with player styles influencing how sessions flow. Protecting and healing, discovering hidden dangers or charging in first, are common actions that characters will take to benefit the party. The more time played together, the better each get to know how to collaborate as characters and cooperate as players. For some, it’s that connection in real life that immersing in fantasy role playing can keep us coming back again and again.

Playing in one notable game, I had the distinct pleasure of being the party’s cleric. Nobody ever wants to be cleric, but I joined the campaign late and decided to create a cleric who could heal and fight. The brilliant Dungeon Master, Neal, was receptive to all of the backstory ideas I had and creatively dealt me into the game. I was able to fully explore this character’s backstory, motivations and personality before joining the story. I learned a lot from Neal in that campaign, wielding the tools that D&D has offered as the foundation to highly-creative descriptions of conflict and adventure. Utilizing the D&D mechanics to guide the story but allowing the narrative to come through with all the flavor and juice that could be squeezed from the game. Thank you, Neal, for inspiring my fearless and often embarrassing style of storytelling (I’m not the most talented voice actor.) As for that cleric, she went on many glorious adventures and shaped the world with her faith and strength. Her miniature holds a position of honor on the shelf above my desk.

Those of us who play the game, are all part of an epic collective story, a multiverse of adventures and adventurers, telling stories that span generations, filled with tragedy, glory and comedy. All it takes is some players, some dice and a DM who’s fool enough to get it all started. “On a dark and stormy night, you all meet in a tavern…”

Dungeon Mastodon Note: I’ve mentioned Neal, the DM, AKA Cordwinder Blerd, in my posts, check out his contributions to the B.E.G.I.N. Podcast on your favorite podcast catcher.

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