The other day I came across a post on Reddit, that supposedly explained Dungeons and Dragons to someone as if they knew as little as a five year old. The top voted answer was similar to many I had seen before, the first sentence contained the words “multiplayer tabletop RPG”. While being technically correct, it is not a good answer because it does not convey the feeling of playing D&D, and contained very little that someone completely alien to that world could relate to. A dungeon master that I played with in high school could explain what D&D was in a way that really evoked the experience, and not only that, but it was also brief, clear, and memorable.
A good explanation needs to immediately pull you in, rather than make your head spin. Typical explanations like the one on Reddit start off with jargon, such as “role playing”, “tabletop”, and “rpg”. Soon afterward they launch into races, classes, bonuses, and rolling dice. While all these terms are great for us in the hobby, they serve as barriers to people that don’t have our inside knowledge. You don’t have to tell people the rules right away, the first step is to get them to see the joy in the experience. I would even argue that launching into a discussion of collaborative storytelling is going too far too fast.
We need to be welcoming and inclusive when we tell other folks about D&D and tabletop role playing in general. This hobby is on the fringe enough as it is, without us turning others away from it. If you’re anything like me, you probably know someone who would enjoy pen and paper rpgs if they gave them a chance, but they don’t even consider playing. For many there is a huge chasm between their own self image, or what they view as fun, and the idea of participating in a game of Dungeons and Dragons around a table. The best example of this is probably all of those wives, husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends out there that have never experienced the game that takes up so much of the lives of their significant other. This is the greatest loss, the loss of an opportunity to share part of your life with the person you care most about.
An explanation that can resonate with just about anyone, the one I first heard from a friend back in high school, went something like this: “Have you ever seen a movie where one of the main characters does something stupid, and whether out loud or in your head, you wonder how they could get it so wrong, knowing that you would do so much better in the same scenario? Dungeons and Dragons is like being in the movie, where you find yourself in that situation and you can make the smart choice, rather than doing something dumb to advance a contrived plot that doesn’t make any sense.” That explains it all, nothing else it necessary. It conveys the fun and excitement of a Hollywood movie with the limitless potential of actions being defined only by your imagination. The kicker, and the real twist to the story, is the secret that you and I know – that campaigns are often a litany of disasters, wrong turns, and errors of judgment perpetuated by the PCs. Of course this is all still great fun, the only drawback being aging your dungeon master beyond her years with all the stress.
The more the merrier, we could all do with the greater opportunities provided by a larger number of people being involved in tabletop rpgs. For all those that play fantasy football and enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies, but shy away from D&D, there lies in front of them a world of fun and adventure, if only we could help them make the step into that foreign world. They may not like it as much as you or I, but by explaining it to them in a way that resonates with them and their prior experiences, you are at least giving them the option. Appeal to their emotions and they may just end up laughing themselves silly while cautiously investigating the ruins underneath an ancient city.