By Jim Walsh, Bloomington Center
Dungeons & Dragons can best be described as an unfolding story where you and other players are the main characters. It is part board game, part choose-your-own-adventure novel, and playing requires a small amount of narrative improv, or role-playing. The action takes place through narration, as if someone were telling you a story, only you decide all the main character’s background, choices, actions, and speak for him or her.
Jameson and Valerie, two CIP Bloomington students, play D&D with me as a part of the social mentoring program. Each student at CIP is provided with a social mentor who gives students the opportunity to receive immediate social feedback as well as practicing everyday skills such as: meeting new people, responding appropriately to new social situations, being a good listener, improving upon response inhibition (i.e. that space between one‚s brain and mouth that we all wish was a little wider), etc. Our social mentoring time requires all of these skills, the only difference is, we‚ve taken it upon ourselves to save the world from evil. Well? an imaginary world, that is.
Between players, Jameson and Valerie have to work together with the other players to achieve a task. We might be searching for missing children that have mysteriously vanished from a local orphanage or trying to figure out how to save the city from a disastrous flood; whatever the task, cooperation is always key. Our characters have special skills and talents, and we must find a synergy between us to complete the game’s objective and carry the story into completion.
Within the game, social situations are hypothetical. A CIP student may have a difficult time initiating conversation in a coffee shop (or might find such interaction completely pointless to engage in), but in a fictional marketplace where you are a spy trying to find information from a shop-keeper who may or may not be on your side, implementing the necessary social skills comes easier. Plus, there are more dramatic, theatrical possibilities for success (or failure)–either way, it‚s a lot of fun. Even if your character does everything “correct”, there’s no telling where the story may twist and turn with a failed dice roll.
“I tend to think of everything as having a clear cut solution”, Jameson explains, “but in D&D, eventually you run out of solutions, and then you have to either go with something unconventional or you’re, uh, doomed. The conventional works sometimes, but other times it doesn’t”.
In role-playing, there‚s also a sense of being outside yourself. You can be like your movie favorite character, or just try on a different persona for a while. Jameson describes it as, “a vacation from yourself”. A video game is somewhat of a “vacation”, but here you are in a room of people, all trying to achieve a similar objective. Differences in personality and motivation in the characters, as in a book or movie, are what makes the game enjoyable. And, at the end, you and a group of people have experienced a story completely unique, a product of collective imagination and collaborative problem solving. Try getting that from a video game!
Valerie plots her next move against a dragon; Jameson tries to talk us (and all our loot) past an unexpected city checkpoint.