A Natural 20 Performance: When a Dungeons & Dragons Session Becomes Sheer Brilliance

Wednesday, 20 February 2019 5-minute read

What started as a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word ‘rescheduled’ led to the regular Dungeons & Dragons group that I dungeon master for meeting at very short notice: I was getting out of the shower half an hour before the start of the session when I saw the messages, and only three of the seven-member party could make it. So with no preparation only half a party and the tail end of a cold, I turned up to improvise a session. The party is a travelling theatre company, or posing as one anyway, as they go around with equal measure of heroics and shenanigans. The players and I decided it would be best for us to flashback to the time when these three players first met and we cover the backstory of what inspired them to pursue theatre, that way the absent players would not miss too much of direct significance to the campaign. What followed was one of the best table-top role-playing sessions I have ever run[1].

What inspired the characters to pursue theatre was the magic of going to theatre as a child. They say a play and knew immediately they wanted to tell stories like this. The play itself, we decided, was Constellation Battles Part 4: a Fledgling Aspiration (or, as it was called back then, just Constellation Battles). This was a session where we didn’t just break the fourth wall as we turned the entire imaginary into a non-Euclidian space: the travelling theatre company of Lukas the Bard was performing a new play which was all the rave. The player-characters, who were children back then, were excited to go to the theatre and see Lukas the Bard walk up on stage, acknowledge the sudden hush in the auditorium, announce boldly ‘Once upon a time, in a distant realm…’ and snap his fingers, revealing an orchestra in the pit blaring a bold fanfare, while two wizards used magic to make ropes and banners levitate, unfurling an opening title crawl. They were terrified to see the main villain enter, wielding a ruby-encrusted magical great sword, and terrify his soldiers with a booming voice. One of the characters was amazed by the voice, while the other realised that the actor just had a squeaky voice and funny accent, and really there was someone else using the spell Minor Illusion from backstage to dub over this. This shenanigans continued for a while.

What I loved about this was not that we were just parodying Star Wars: the focus of the action was never what happened on stage. We were re-creating the magic of what it meant to watch Star Wars for the first time and be utterly amazed by the storytelling: being thrown in the midst of a battle, given only 75 words of a title crawl naming the main characters and giving some brief backstory, and inhabiting a fantasy world with special effects unlike anything we had seen before. One of the other NPCs who was at the play, Egbert, said afterwards, ‘this play was like a religious experience’. We were also parodying what it meant to be a fan, as the player-characters then re-enacted their favourite scenes from the play, tried to get an autograph from Lukas, or went on a heist to retrieve one of the books that was an inspiration to creating the play (another play titled The Seven Warriors).

Even more remarkably, we brought to our version of Constellation Battles a witty, subversive edge: we pushed against the problematic issues of gender and race in the narrative and production of the original films. We questioned what the actions of many of the prominent cast and crew members meant, bringing to bear upon it the critique of power within Hollywood that the #MeToo movement brought. We talked about what a difference it would make if the stories had more diverse lead characters. The group, as players and DM, was full of Star Wars nerds who loved the franchise so much that they were telling a story about this kind of love and investment through our characters, and how it makes fans want to re-tell these stories in the true spirit of transformative fandom.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was at the same time two emotional stories going on about the characters’ relationship to each other and to their families. There was deep mirroring of what happened in the main campaign, and subtle political commentary on our society, and just a maddeningly relentless volley of intertextual references and metafictional commentary. Never before has a session I’ve run gone so completely off the rails into mayhem and silliness and still for every beat of it been intricate, profound and moving. When you get a group of nerds around a table, give them the freedom to muck around, and then it all clicks, this is what happens. I would analyse this in terms of flow and performative sympoesis, but to jargonise and abstract it at this rate would diminish the untrammelled joy of what we made. So for now, I just want that to record this. (And offer some vague summary for the benefit of players who missed the session.)

Acknowledgements: My sincerest thanks to my players, and to the GMs who taught me everything I know about role-playing.

[1]1 Granted, that’s not saying much as I’ve only been DMing for less than a year and this is my fifth full campaign.