Dungeons & Dragons is community theatre.
Like your Dungeons & Dragons game, if you bring up your community theatre production of Romeo and Juliet at Thanksgiving, the best you can expect is a condescending “oh that’s nice” and a thin smile from your homophobic aunt. And stripped down to its essentials, any roleplaying game is about embodying characters—you know, playing roles—and using the game’s structure to tell stories about those characters. It’s theatre made for the gratification of the performers, rather than the approval of an audience, which is pure and good as hell.
Are You a Bad Enough Dude to Examine Your Own Behavior?
And just like in theatre, sometimes you end up playing someone who’s less than perfect. Maybe your D&D warlock is cooperating with an extraplanar creature that wants to eat reality, or the smuggler in your Star Wars game is happy to transport space-meth in exchange for cold, hard space-cash. While this can be fun in the same way that blasting your faithful horse off a cliff in Skyrim is fun, playing scumbags can be instructive, too. I’ve learned a lot about my own selfish behaviors and impulses by seeing them reflected in characters I play.
My discomfort with how easily I slipped into the roles of shitty people even led me to make positive changes in my everyday life. When I started playing D&D, the first few characters I created were sanctimonious, self-sacrificing heroes who insisted on taking all of the most dangerous tasks and shielding their friends from harm at all costs. To me this was beautiful, but to my friends it was insufferable. Regardless of my intent, I was hogging all of the spotlight and heroism and casting myself as the protagonist of every game. Learning to self-examine and change that behavior in roleplaying games helped me nip a budding martyr complex, and taught me to listen and collaborate better outside of the game.
And it’s possible to play an asshole in-game without being an asshole to the people you’re playing with, too—roleplaying games are games, and games should be fun for everyone who’s playing them. Anyone who’s played more than a few games of D&D has horror stories about That Guy who ruins the game for everyone else while smugly explaining that they’re not at fault, “that’s just what my character would do.”
If this excuse looks familiar to you, it’s likely because it mirrors the rationale of pissboy actors who abuse and harass their coworkers because it’s “part of their process”. Most actors manage to play despicable people without mistreating anyone, and that distinction between character and performer is just as important in roleplaying games. Remember when Jared Leto sent used condoms to his Suicide Squad co-stars? Imagine him being able to write all of his own lines, and you approach the potential That Guy has to make his whole playgroup feel terrible.
The Good Kind of Tool
It’s easy to get drunk on the power you have to write whatever kind of character you like and become That Guy. But game designers and players have created plenty of tools to help you play games that are fun and safe for your whole group, like acting exercises and theatre games. My favorite of these has to be establishing Lines and Veils. Introduced by Ron Edwards in his game Sex & Sorcery, Lines and Veils are safety tools designed to make sure that your playgroup is on the same page and the story you tell doesn’t hurt anyone telling it.
Before playing your roleplaying game of choice, collaborate on a list of things you’re not comfortable playing with in your games—torture is a big one of these for me. These are your lines, and they will not happen or be touched on in your game at all. Next, make a list of things that you’d like to exist in your story, but are not comfortable playing out—these commonly include sexual content and drug use. Think of Veils like a “fade to black” scene in a movie. Feel free to update and add to this list at any point during play—no game is worth feeling miserable about later. Establish what’s not okay with your fellow players, and then go nuts in the big, weird space outside of those things.
Playing in the Space
While mustache-twirling charlatans and anti-authority power fantasies are fun to embody and explore, sometimes the exploration we do in performance can be more personal, more revelatory. I grew up transgender in suburban Georgia, with no concept of what trans people were and no idea that I had any say in my gender. To a kid like me, getting to play female D&D characters was an opportunity to explore parts of myself and my dreams that I didn’t know I was allowed to have.
Not only could I try on a badass woman as a persona, my pink-faced churchgoing friends would call me “she” and “her”. As long as we were playing D&D, that separation between character and player made the idea of pretending to be a girl less radical. If she kept destroying our enemies and sharing their loot with the adventuring party, my gay-ass barbarian lumberjack was a trusted ally worthy of respect. That kind of acceptance was not something I could find in any of my other hobbies, not even theatre.
Stagedoors and Shakespeares
At the same time that I was buying my first polyhedral dice and telling awful fantasy stories in my friend’s basement, I was starting to immerse myself in the only queer-friendly community I had access to—I was becoming a Theatre Kid. I loved theatre, and I was good enough at it that I decided to keep doing it in college. The same exploration of identities outside myself that I cherished in D&D was something that I was encouraged to do as an actor. There was a catch, though, and it was big enough that I eventually chose dice and basements over chasing the stage—theatre exists primarily to create an experience for its audience.
Actors are taught that they should enjoy their work, but no matter how important or resonant it is to you personally, every facet of a performance should be crafted with the audience in mind. The curious kinds of character development that make roleplaying games so much fun are generally contained very early in the rehearsal process of a play. The discoveries and joy found by the performers need to be trimmed down and polished for the audience before they are finished.
This is not to say that theatre is bad—it’s just work. Performance as work can be incredibly rewarding to do, and you can make some phenomenally cool things. There is something pure and special, however, in performance as play. As an actor, there was no space for me to play a woman for anything but laughs. The personal examination of gender that I did playing D&D just couldn’t happen in front of an audience.
Performance for the sake of the performers alone is something I’ve only ever seen in roleplaying games. It can be self-indulgent, intimate, and creatively fulfilling. Stories about D&D games always have a “you had to be there” feel to them, because all of the important parts of a roleplaying game happen in the moment that game is played. And like the best theatre, its happening leaves a mark on everyone who experiences it.