Thursday, April 10, 2014

Still on a D&D Kick; Still Talking About It

A few weeks back, I wrote about how D&D had been distracting me a lot lately and that I'd therefore been neglecting comics, my other hobby. Since then, I've been slowly dialing back on the one and getting into the other in a serious way again, but D&D is still very much on my mind these days. A few really good sessions in the game I play live via Skype with friends from Austin, plus finally nailing down a group of players new and experienced for a whole new campaign up here in Massachusetts, AND me finally getting all the way caught up on the backlog of episodes of an excellent D&D podcast called Dungeons and Randomness all happened right on top of each other, so the game has been occupying my time and brainpower a fair amount. Rather than let it continue to keep me from posting on the blog, though, and instead of merely throwing up another piece reiterating what I just finished reiterating and calling it a day, I wanted to delve a little more into why, exactly, I so love D&D, and what that love has in common with my love for comics.
     The main connection between D&D and comicbooks is episodic, longform storytelling. In both, it's actually quite common to have stories that advance and evolve in perpetuity, where every ending is also another beginning and the characters and their worlds continue from one adventure to the next. Sometimes there are deaths or departures or arrivals to shake up the cast, but it's all the same sprawling story. The rewards one can get from following that sort of narrative, whether as a spectator or participant, is satisfying in a way more contained tales often fail to deliver. For me, anyway, the payoff of a well-done slow burn, watching characters grow slowly but steadily into newer, better versions of themselves as the numerous story threads break or split or thicken around's the tastiest flavor of entertainment around.
     There is also a commonality between D&D and superhero comics specifically—which are, despite their many flaws, still what got me into the medium and make up most of what I read—and that's the incredible powers and abilities everybody gets to have. It's not inherently better than something more human, but there's a lot of fun to be had when superpowers or magic enter the equation. Especially when it comes to villains. I love a nice unfathomable threat, an evil so immense and capable that the solution seems impossible to find. This doesn't always lead to the greatest narratives (see Avengers vs. X-Men) but when handled right, it raises the stakes, drama, and urgency fantastically, and heightens impact of the heroes' ultimate victory or failure. When I run a D&D game, building the primary villain is always the best part, and the part that takes the longest and to which I give the most care. Finding all the right moves, motivations, and equipment for a big bad is half the reason to be a dungeon master. And in the same respect, great supervillains make for the best superhero stories. Hell, great villains make for the best stories, period, it's just that with superheroes or D&D, they get to wield crazy amounts of power. That's just gravy.
     D&D is collaborative, and so are comics, though my personal experiences with them aren't the same in that regard. With comics, I'm the reader, and though, yes, I bring my interpretation of the story, the raw bits and pieces of it have already been worked out by the creators, which is where the truest, purest collaborations take place. Still, the benefit from my end is getting to enjoy the various aspects of every issue I read individually and as a whole. The words can impress on their own, and so can the images, but they should always be most effective together. D&D is similar in that I can enjoy parts of the game alone: character creation, rule research, the aforementioned podcast, etc. But the most significant experiences all come from actually playing the game, and that requires other people, and those other people are the whole point. Everyone represents an unknown element to the narrative for everyone else, because we all get to make our own choices throughout the game, but their consequences can affect everybody. Nobody, not even the DM who is theoretically in charge, ever has total control, because each player controls a character, and every character is a fully realized individual with agency to do whatever he or she wants to do. Or try, anyway, and then, just like life, circumstances—and dice, which is less like life—dictate whether they succeed or fail. It's not up to anyone in particular what happens, because it's up to everyone all the time, and that's what makes it so damn fun when things come together and a cohesive, significant story gets told. Both comics and D&D are at their best and have the most to offer when everyone involved is working together and producing a shared vision.
     D&D and comics are both things I got into a long time ago, when I was still a kid and figuring out what kind of person I was and wanted to be. They were reliable pastimes, there for me in regular intervals, telling awesome stories of incredible people living insane lives. That's never stopped, except when I've stopped it for one reason or another, and anytime I wanted to pick either activity back up, they were ready and waiting. They also both have strong communities around them, not flawless or void of jerks (because what community is?) but full of a lot of love, intelligence, creativity, energy, and fun jargon. They have long histories with mythological figures, the Gary Gygaxes and Siegel & Shuster's of the world. Anyone who's ever been a member of either community always has an in, because as much as things change, there is a consistency there, too. Superman will always be Superman; a fighter will always be a fighter.
     There's probably other, deeper, subconscious stuff that draws me to comics and D&D both. And there are things they don't share that I like about them each, too. D&D is limited only by the imaginations of the people playing, it's the classic roleplaying game and an influence on SO MANY popular video games today, and there are a bunch of different editions of it that are fun to compare and contrast and play with until you find the rule set that works best for you. None of that has anything to do with comics, and I could come up with the opposite list of comics appeal that has no relation to D&D. All the same, there is a lot of overlap in my affection for them both, and they really are the only two hobbies I've ever stuck with for any length of time in my life, so the commonalities must be a big part of that. If you're a fan of one, I suggest giving the other a try. And if you're unfamiliar with either, I can't imagine why you'd still be reading this.

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