Shiny Math Rocks and Communal Storytelling

Here I am amidst a pile of polite rejection letters, redesigning my portfolio and resume for the fourth time as my beloved institution winds down to a sad silence. I’m in desperate need of distraction. There’s a topic that’s been on my heart almost since the beginning of this blog, but I’ve struggled to find purchase to even scratch the surface of it. I’ve been telling communal stories since college, but the history of it is too caught up with who I am to explain fully or clearly. It’s a book, not a blog post, and a book with precious few readers. I have multiple posts sitting in drafts until now, when current events finally gave me a foothold. A lens.

Like every other Elder Millennial who grew up reading fantasy novels, I’ve gotten into tabletop roleplay games (ttrpgs, as the youths call it).

I’ve wanted to play ttrpgs for about ten years, since I made friends with old campaigners and heard stories about their misadventures. Last winter, I attended C2E2 in Chicago, and joined in a beginner mini campaign with a handful of kiddos and their guardians at the D&D Dojo. We had a dozen pre-built characters to pick from, and an amazing professional GM to run the campaign. That first taste was magical. We survived the encounter more or less none the worse for wear. When I left the table, I was probably floating a few inches off the ground.

Last spring, a friend was willing to try running an online campaign. So, with her coaching, six of us set off in a homebrewed world. We vary wildly in skill levels – a few of us have years of experience and play in other weekly games. A few of us haven’t played in years, accustomed to different rules and a lot more math. And for me, this is new terrain.

New, but familiar in many ways.

I’ve been participating in communal storytelling for years online. Along with the discovery of fan-forums came the discovery of text-based roleplay. It was 2002, and I came from a culture where the most complex board game in my house was Monopoly. Like a metaphorical 56k dialup Prometheus, my first online friends shared fire: I could invent a character, name her whatever I liked, and send her off into the world of my favorite books to meet other people and discover new places. ‘Roleplay’ means different things to different people, but for me, it was imagining the life of a unicorn, a healer, making friends and overcoming her past. She was the support crew for her people, but (like me) she was unsure of herself, awkward, a novice. Like me, she wanted her mentors’ approval. Like me, she had doubts about where she was going in life.

Unlike me, she wasn’t shy. Welcoming and cheerful, she made friends easily. The work she did lit a fire within her. She was at her best when she was helping people. As time went on, her confidence grew, and so did mine. I wasn’t just writing her story – I lived through her. She negotiated spiky relationships. She fell in love, got married, and started a family. She’s a mother of two young adults now, twenty years since she first arrived, and she might even have grandchildren.

She was the first of many characters. After her came soldiers, healers, Heralds, bards, mercenaries, figure skaters, and bartenders. Every one of them was someone I wanted to be, or born to voice the thoughts and feelings I was afraid to speak. I was feeling out my personality a little at a time, telling stories with friends in long campaigns, or with strangers in short scenes. I researched my characters’ crafts so I could write them with more vivid detail. I reached for their courage when I was shy, their charm when I felt awkward.

I revisit those dusty old memories now, as my new troupe of six suit up in armor to fight dragons and oppressive regimes in a war-wracked country. I’m playing another healer in this campaign, settling into the support role like settling into the arms of an old dance partner.

There are differences, though – big ones. For one thing, there are rules. I can skin my spells to look however I like, but they all come with limitations, and I know roughly how effective they’ll be. For another, I don’t get to dictate the outcome of every decision – not even most decisions. Like many other ttrpgs, this one involves dice. Some of my roleplay partners of auld lang syne might have been rolling dice on the sly, but I certainly wasn’t. In fact, that was why I hated magic in text-based roleplay – with no rules and no random failures, combat got out of hand quickly. Matches were only as fun as your opponent’s intentions. I played chronically underpowered, magic-lite elves for that reason – magic users were cheaters and most interactions with them left a bad aftertaste.

Playing a cleric in my first long-term ttrpg campaign, I’ve discovered that magic users are not only not cheaters, they’ve rather got the shit end of the stick. I’m free to describe the awe-inspiring holy fire raining down on our opponents’ heads, but if those undead assholes roll better than a 12, nothing happens. On top of that, I can only do a set (read: small) amount of spells per day. After that, I have two choices: get into melee and pray to the gods that my cleric’s breastplate can keep him from buying the farm, or skitter off to a safe distance where I can doink the bad guys with cantrips (the magical equivalent of throwing pebbles).

I’ve experienced the classic cleric maneuver – made a target of myself to use Turn Undead, only to have most of the ghosties roll high enough to ignore my powerful once-daily spell and roll up on me like a herd of translucent, pissed-off bison.

Thanks, dice.

One twenty-sided die determines if I see the angry air elemental coming down on my head. They have sway over if I spot the trapped tile on the floor, or if I can tell the princess is lying. I can’t always get my teeth into the scenery, because the dice say no. And I realized that’s what all of the text-based roleplay was missing. The chaos element, the spoiler to a perfect day, or the blown jump that sends you tumbling tail over teakettle off a roof. It’s rarely perfect when you’re leaving success up to chance and a few modifiers, and failure is so fundamentally what being a person is about. These aren’t the carefully crafted melodramatic failures of my old online haunts. These are usually irritating, embarrassing failures, peppered in with terrifying lethal ones. My cleric knows what it’s like to be near death in a way none of my previous roleplay characters ever knew. In text-based roleplay, the guardrails were always up.

Now, as I add to my character, get to know him better and flesh out his story, I have the added edge of possibly losing him next session. He’s only level 5. He can do cool shit, but he’s a cleric at the end of the day: somewhere between a glass-cannon mage and a ‘my hit points suck so I’mma borrow them from a bear instead’ druid. I really like him, which is going to make losing him suck even more, but at some point I’ll probably have to say goodbye.

It sounds nervewracking, but it’s not. It’s the good stuff. This is why I game. He’s made bonds with his party, and I’ve made bonds with my players. If he dies it’s going to hurt, not only me but all of them. I’ve discovered that for me, the key part of communal storytelling is mattering to other people. We’re not locked into our own private struggles – our characters need one another for unique skills and companionship. My party will try to save him, just like he’d try to save them. And when they fail, his life and death will become a part of their story. He’ll always be with them, because he mattered to them. It’ll be a story the characters and the players tell, the way we talk about close calls and miraculous saves. In a world where it’s so easy to default into loneliness and isolation, feeling connected matters.

If I’d known that storytelling together could be like this, I’d have incorporated dice into my online roleplay much sooner. I don’t have regrets, though – time and life experience has deepened my ability to enjoy telling stories in a way that no amount of rolling d20s or Wikipedia research could. I honor my past experiences for everything they’ve taught me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend this time around the table – figurative or not – with friends.

One response to “Shiny Math Rocks and Communal Storytelling”

  1. It’s been my honor to watch you play and flourish. I’ve always delighted in your stories and now we get to build something together.

    I’m so glad to read this and so glad I chose to play, with you and the rest of the crew.

    Liked by 1 person

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