There have been a lot of new players in the D&D world over the past 10 years or so. On the surface, that fills me with joy that so many people are playing the game that got me through a pivotal time in my formative years. The more I think about it, the more I ponder what it is that makes it good in my eyes. As much as I love the game of D&D specifically, it’s not really the game itself, but the group at the table that is most important. Noteworthy in the discussion is where the game came from, who played, and why. How does that all translate into the game we play today? The game has changed over the years, but has “The Table” (I use the term “table” to mean the group of players)?
My perspective may be one of many, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.
I was introduced to D&D in 1989 by a fellow 6th grade classmate who was doing a class presentation on it. Up to that point I was very interested in medieval history, and disappointed that our history books only included one page on it. Here was this game that nurtured my romanticized mental image of knights in shining armor. On top of that, the people who played were other kids like me that were outside the popular cliques.
So it was that I was introduced to my first TTRPG. We played periodically at recess with what few minutes we had. I would flip back through my history book before each break, then head out to roll dice in an effort to do heroic deeds. Not surprisingly, my first character was a human fighter. It was later that I realized that my first character was really a personification of who I wanted to be. Big, strong, valiant, and good natured. It was important for my character to do right even if it meant going against laws of the land (yes, chaotic good). This was it, I found my thing, and I found my people. It was as if I had found myself, really.
Unbeknownst to me there was an old D&D box set buried in the top of our game closet, it had been given to my parents years earlier but they never played because it wasn’t the typical board game of the time. The box was given to me not long after telling them about my experience at school. It was the old blue beginners box from 1978 with the B1 module in it (Into the Unknown), with the original Holmes dice. It had a list of pre-made character stats, which I used to make a new version of my original human fighter, and I studied those books whenever I had time. I even played solo now and again (which may or may not have been legit, seeing as how it was difficult for 12-year-old me to not fudge rolls).
Going from elementary school to middle school made it a bit difficult to play at first. Some of the original group didn’t end up at the same school. It didn’t take long however, to find a solid bunch of unpopular kids to form a new adventuring group. Really, it was too big of a group for one table, so we played with various people and random times. Getting in dice rolling when we could. None of us were popular, all of us were trying to figure out hormones, and who we were, but none of that was really that important because we had each other, and we had D&D.
Then came high school, this is where we get to the critical part (for me anyway).
For four years people came and went. The friends circle, and the table was a mix of all the classes freshman to senior. We were drama geeks, band nerds, chess players, bone heads, advanced placement overachievers, book nerds, hicks, and yes, even football players. There was such a mix of backgrounds it was amazing. While I missed the era of basement playing outcasts that was seen in Stranger Things (though that stereo type still persists today) it grew into something greater for us in the 90s. Everyone was welcome at “The Table.”
Regardless of what was going on in life at the time, it was usually fairly easy to meet up with a few people and play. Not everyone was available all the time, but there were always enough. Because of this play style there weren’t many long-standing campaigns, or regular meeting times, just random one shots and short story-lines, revolving DMs and stacks of new character ideas. It was a relief from the stresses of teenage life, an escape from problems, a way to have fun and connect without being required to compete on some popularity field. No judgement, just imagination and excitement. These days I see a lot of this still exists. Tons of tables filled with nerds (I use nerd as a term of endearment, also a word I use to describe who I am).
This is not to say that everyone at the table will always get along all the time. Sometimes personalities just conflict and don’t work well at the table. That’s ok. There are enough people playing, especially these days, for everyone to find a group that they vibe with. Out of all the people I played with over the years, there are three of us that stayed in contact consistently for 25+ years. The real point here is that no one should be forced to play, or pushed away from a table because of a sensitive plot line or subject matter. Part of why session zero exists now is to address these things. Steer the game away from subjects people don’t want to face for various reasons (be it general awkwardness, personal trauma, or anything). The DM (or GM) may write the game, but the whole table is responsible for how the story plays out.
“The Table” is there for a reason. In many cases it is the very foundation for mental stability, social acceptance, friendship, tribe, personal expression, self-discovery, love, laughter, memories… and the list goes on. There is no story line that is worth sacrificing any one of these. None. Period. Full stop.
There is no game mechanic rule.
There is no genre.
There is no specific game.
There is nothing, nothing, worth sacrificing on that inexhaustible list.
Of all of the things that make up who a person is (background, skin pigmentation, medical conditions, sexual orientation, gender identity, career, family, another inexhaustible list) none of it is worth overlooking or trivializing for story-line or game-play. “The Table” should vibe and play like it is its own living entity.
Today I feel like we need to be reminded of where TTRPGs came from. It frustrates me to no end when I hear about people (new players, and old) who join a table where these things are not taken into consideration. Tables where some players don’t feel welcome, or where the story line is seen as more important than the players and who they are. With so many people playing now, more and more of these tables exist. Fortunately, that means there are more tables out there to jump to, until you find “The Table” and the vibe that goes with it.
With that in mind, I want to say this loud and clear:
It’s ok to leave a table you aren’t comfortable with.
Don’t stay at that table because they need your tank, or heals, or damage.
Don’t stay at that table because you have a friend there you don’t want to disappoint.
Don’t stay at that table.
There are other tables. This community is huge now. I know it may be hard, I am an introvert too, I have anxiety problems too. It may be hard, but it will be worth it.
To emphasize, as previously stated, mental stability, social acceptance, friendship, tribe, personal expression, self-discovery, love, laughter, memories, background, skin pigmentation, medical conditions, sexual orientation, gender identity, career, family, and the continued inexhaustible list, none of it is worth overlooking or trivializing for story-line or game-play.
On the other side of all this, if you are at a table that people keep leaving for various reasons, maybe ask yourself why. Maybe ask the other players why. Then take a long hard read again, and consider why you are still at that table. What is it about that table that pushes people away? I’m not one to tell people how they should run their tables, or what tables they should be at, but there should at least be a little personal reflection here. What is important to you about the table you are at?
The DM (or GM) may write the game, but the whole table is responsible for how the story plays out.