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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Phillips

What’s in the Box?!?

Old diamond-shaped photo of the author, Chris, as a young boy looking off into the distance while standing on the branch of a tree. It appears to be late fall with no leaves on the tree.
The author in the Reading Tree

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the Mystery Box approach to storytelling, where revealing bits of information in a non-linear fashion keeps the story fresh and exciting. Many of my favorite shows, films and books are Mystery Boxes and my approach to Dungeons and Dragons follows that style of writing. JJ Abrams in a TED Talk about Mystery Boxes states about his approach to basically everything he does, “I find myself drawn to infinite possibility and that sense of potential...there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge” and I feel that sums up what this game represents for me. Ever since I was young, reading classics like Encyclopedia Brown and the Hobbit, these tales represented depth beyond reading, thoughtful explorations into the realms and mysteries contained within the pages. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, so having books that nurtured my imagination gave me worlds to explore even when nestled in the snug nook of my favorite reading tree.

I’m mostly drawn to series that take the time to slowly unpack these boxes, Lovecraft Country, LOST and the Leftovers immediately come to mind. These shows keep me coming back, theorizing about what’s happening and finding delight in the excitement these shows bring. Whether it’s wondering about the smoke monster, blood magic or where 2% of the population disappeared to, these shows captivate my imagination. As a kid, fantasy novels kept me turning pages as fast as I could, to see what new mystery was going to be revealed and tie all the pieces together, often leading to more questions. Engaging the reader/viewer in this way allows for them to delve into the story and engage in theories and speculation, being drawn in this way allows for an immersive experience. There were times when watching WandaVision I thought I was correct about the unpredictable outcomes, with each new episode proving me wrong. But that’s part of the fun of it all, as long as it remains engaging throughout the show.

The potential of Dungeons and Dragons to not only allow for Mystery Box campaign styles but the players able to actively direct the course of the game, as if my deciding that Monica Rambeau’s aerospace engineer would be a Krasinsky Reed Richards and that would actually happen. Granted, opening time/space portals and lifting Jim from the Office and sticking him into a blue superhero costume made of unstable molecules would probably also bring Dwight K. Schrute into the realm as an extra-annoying Victor von Doom.

Many other board games, while completely enjoyable, take a more linear path, moving from start to finish, whoever has the most points wins. Whether competitive or cooperative, played with cards, dice or other randomizers, tabletop board and card games allow for some flexibility and autonomy of decision-making but there almost always will be a clear beginning, end and metric to determine victory. Time is also a factor, most of these games are playable in a couple hours, or shorter games lending themselves to repeat playing. Some games, like Betrayal at House on the Hill and it’s subsequent variations have less linear gameplay and endgame variation to allow for more flexibility but still remains predictable in it’s sudden but inevitable betrayal at the end of the game.

Dungeons and Dragons has flavors, ranging from short, linear games to sprawling, epic quests. The one-shot dungeon crawl or tavern brawl has a more structured approach since it’s meant to be played in one session. “You’re sitting in a bustling tavern, enjoying your ale as the bard sings a harvest celebration song and suddenly an angry, drunken gnome draws her cutlass and the whole place erupts into a free-for all brawl. Roll initiative” These short sessions can be quite fun, with ample room for role playing and bad decisions with fully unpredictable outcomes. The do have a beginning and an ending so far less time is needed to develop characters or the world they inhabit.

Taking it a step further from the one-shot, pre-generated adventurers are a great way to give players a setting to see what their characters can do in a balanced, finely-crafted tale. These adventurers can be accomplished in a number of sessions, either on their own or as part of a larger campaign, usually with clear goals that either are known at the beginning or develop as the characters make their way through the game. This format lends itself to a Mystery Box style quite nicely. Often characters enter the escapade without knowing what’s relay amiss, following breadcrumbs to an eventual conclusion and the surviving characters can call it a day or continue onto more grand quests.

The ultimate D&D Mystery Box experience is the full campaign. I prefer the homebrew style, where it’s all fabricated by the DM, although the hybrid model of stringing together one or more pre-generated modules and wrapping them into a full campaign is also deep inside the Box. These epic storytelling games are bonding, immersive experiences with players and the DM in it for the long haul. The current homebrew campaign the Heroes of Bounty are in, as of this writing, have logged over 50 hours of gameplay and the Mystery Box is still just opening. There have been sprinklings of the big picture throughout the game but mostly, it’s theories and speculation as to what’s going on thus far but so much more to uncover as the story progresses. This is the spirit of the epic nature of a shared storytelling campaign. Characters begin by knowing next-to-nothing, get stronger and wiser, discover the hidden secrets over time and ultimately become potential world changers, altering the course of events throughout the multiverse like an extravagant fantasy series or six seasons and a movie of a captivating Mystery Box show. As a Dungeon Master, I really appreciate the commitment and enjoyment the players bring to the game, going along with the enigma that is this epic journey that Dungeons and Dragons has provided the framework for.

Addendum: I’d like to express my appreciation for my sister, eighteen years my senior, who was off on her own life two states away before I was old enough to pee straight. When I did see her, she would always have one or more current reads. A voracious consumer of the printed word, she inspired me to not only read some of the most memorable, influential books of my youth, but also led me to the reading tree, passing on the wisdom from one generation of readers to another.

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