by Mike Shea on 30 April 2018
Originally published August 2015
The older we get the harder it is for us to fall back into our imaginations and really go there. As children we're free to let our imaginations run wild. A cardboard box can become the palace from Frozen. We spread our arms out, bellow, and become dragons. We turn our beds into spaceships soaring through the universe.
Then decades of institutionalization and adulthood pushes it away. We're left with mortgages, medical insurance, and PTA meetings. Our imaginations are forced out of us by reality and adulthood. Fantasy was kid stuff.
D&D lets us be kids again. It lets us tap back into the realm of make believe and share in deep stories of high adventure. And, unlike when we were kids, we can use our experiences to make these stories incredibly vivid, detailed, and intricate. As adults, the worlds of our imaginations can be incredible.
Our imaginations can build from the best of both worlds, as imaginative as a child's fantasy filled with the details of our years of experience living in the real world with real people.
We just have to give ourselves permissions to be kids again.
Even when we play D&D we're often still afraid to "go there". We write out our maps and we calculate our attack scores, but do we really put ourselves into the minds and bodies of our characters? Do we see the city of Waterdeep the way our characters would? What does it sound like? What does it smell like? What does it look like when we let a volley of magic missiles soar from our fingers?
It's hard to let go of our inhibitions. We've had years, often decades, of experiences that tell us that we need to grow up. We're afraid of getting made fun of. Even at a D&D game surrounded by our friends we might be too self conscious to really get into our characters and just let go of ourselves to fall into the story. It's scary.
This might be one of the big unspoken barriers of D&D. When people from outside the game hear people inside the game, it sounds strange. It's possible that this was actually cause of the whole satanic panic in the 80s. It wasn't the devils or the pentagrams. It was the fact that people playing D&D really do sound different. We become our characters for a little while and that can be strange. When we're bringing new players into the game, it might behoove us to address this bit of strangeness so, like us, they can become kids again and go there.
Focusing too much on the rules and mechanics of D&D can also make it hard to lose ourselves in the world. D&D has a lot of rules and a lot of character dials that can steer us away from the fiction if we're not careful. This is as true for DMs as it is for players. We hang on too tightly to the rules and let those rules get in the way of falling into the story.
We must be willing to step out and understand our character, not just by which race will give us a +2 bonus to the right stat, but from what our character wants, where they came from, and how they will see and react to the world.
How did that guard get all the scars on the leather straps of her armor? What does the roasted duck taste like at the Yawning Portal? What does the cobblestone street feel like in Daggerford?
When we're playing D&D, we can give ourselves permission to fall away from the real world for a little while and let ourselves experience the worlds in our games. We can close our eyes and visualize what we're hearing from our DM's narrative. As a DM, we can build incredible and rich views of the world for our players as long as we're willing to fall into it ourselves.
We have the best virtual reality equipment in the world right in our heads. We were born with it. It has evolved over half a million years to let us imagine worlds that aren't in front of us. We used to love it as a child before we stuck it in a drawer just about the time we started to worry about our SAT scores. It's time to open that drawer, put it back on, and step through the door.
There are other worlds than these.