Around the end of November 2017, I offered to be the Dungeon Master for a Dungeons & Dragons group comprised of local and homeschooled children. While I had never played D&D before, I had long been interested in D&D culture and gladly accepted, and set forth on reading loads of articles packed with tips, and watching videos, and trying to figure out how to play D&D, and how to be a DM. I had to find out What IS D&D?
I was familiar with its RPG descendants – things like Skyrim, Fire Emblem, and Legend of Zelda. I had grown up playing video games that relied on mechanics created for D&D. I grew up reading, listening and watching Tolkien and other high fantasy works. I was already connected to the world, and so while having never once played D&D, I had long been interested & appreciative of the world and its surrounding culture.
I decided to take this on and set out on my first quest: to figure out what D&D is. I began reading lots and watching videos, and messaging one of the popular Youtubers whose series on the subject was really helpful for me – he advised me about which of the official manuals were worth getting starting out, and in what order; Amber & the kids got them for me as early Christmas gifts & I was able to delve further into understanding the game.
For anyone who may not know explicitly, D&D is a storytelling collaboration by a group, wherein the characters role-play certain characters, while the Dungeon Master or game master mediates events and circumstances outside of the characters control (the setting, enemies, other allies, etc). Dice are used in D&D to allow for some measure of chance to govern the events and outcomes – does the attack hit? Do enemies ambush you in the night? Do you successfully jump over that pit? The skill set of a character impacts those chances through a set of modifiers to relevant situations (+5 stealth, +3 perception, -1 persuasion, etc).
Great! A storytelling collaboration. But. I am autistic & don’t improvise stories well. And I don’t have any experience role-playing characters (outside of Parade of Spirits, I suppose). How to I create a mental picture of a scene? How do I communicate that when I don’t know if they understand all the important details? I found a lot of opinions about these things online, and in the Player Handbook, but ultimately the biggest advice I received was that it will begin to make sense after we have gotten started with the 5e Starter Set module: Lost Mine of Phandelver. I was reminded that I did not need to know every little rule in the books either – to make a decision and look it up later so the game moves forward.
The first session I ended up having to pretend to be a goblin being interrogated, and during the second session I re-enacted the foamy latte scene from Zoolander with a high-ranking bugbear and his goblin servant after they worked out a way to make a steep climb easier for the whole party (a weighted rope, go figure) – YAY.
D&D = Reinforcement to math skills
D&D = Practice solving problems & hilarious spit takes
During the fourth session, I found out that kids don’t know what to say when they enter a business – they actually have to be greeted and asked a question. After a few NPC (non-player characters: anyone they might meet in the world or talk to that isn’t played by a fellow player at the table) encounters I understood that if I initiate with them in role-play — (after describing the setting). Ex: “Welcome to Stonehill Inn. I am Toblen. Can we get you something to eat, or maybe you need a room?”– that the kids can respond in a natural way.
So D&D = Real-world social skills practice, too.
The fifth session was entirely social, and opened the way to multiple quest options being opened up, which creates its own challenges – well do we drop everything immediately, or maybe come back to this? Do we keep talking to people in the town? This mission amounts to five days travel – would I really do that on a whim for a stranger? – I realized that as the DM I needed to help guide them out of this “analysis paralysis” (this term is used in reference to one of my own executive functioning challenges related to autism), giving optional advice about what to do next if they do not figure it out themselves. (As it turns out, leaving town for a 5 day roundtrip is not really the most practical thing do in the middle of your first afternoon back from being on the road for the last 3 days).
D&D = Supported-Decision Making.
The sixth session saw an even bigger jump in role-playing – also in social encounters – but with specific recognition of what individual characters would know, rather than what they knew as players. They had decided immediately that they would follow up on a certain plot point by talking to a character’s aunt & cousin, and C decided that some of the party should make a brief stop to speak with a shop owner that they had heard rumors about. This allowed for those three characters to have a distinct conversation from the other set of characters, and vice versa, and to later exchange information about the encounters (even though the players had been sitting at the same table). In the end, we were regaled with an impromptu a capella performance (in real life) over an in-game meal of bread & lamb chili.
D&D = Agency.
D&D = Empathic Cognition.
D&D = Respect for the relationship between guests and hosts.
Recently we had our 7th session. B was occupied so a subset of the characters did go on a separate journey from what had been planned. Aside from all the improvisation with what characters say, it was an opportunity for me to improvise encounters, including one in which they used a small bit of reconnaissance before deciding to intercede and save a commoner in trouble, thereby gaining this man’s trust and respect. During a nighttime rest, they were visited by a goblin couple who wanted to see if they were safe and ok, and who warned them about the woods – not everyone that looks like something you have fought has to be an enemy. As they handed over a comb to the banshee who owned it while alive – surprising even to me who was role-playing & improvising the character – sometimes an unrequested gift can be painful. The characters may just exist on sheets of paper, but their reactions – the feelings and emotions – can be felt, and not just played.
D&D = Helping strangers without any expectation of tangible gain.
D&D = Not judging people by their race or shooting because they are incidentally in the ‘wrong’ place.
D&D = Finding that the past can be hard for others in ways you would not necessarily expect.
I know other people have written things about the merits of D&D for autists, teens, and anyone really, such as increasing confidence during peer interactions, and how to navigate group dynamics, but my own experience, over just this handful of sessions, is that – even just at the surface – there is a lot to gain by sitting down and pretending to be your level 2 elf rogue or human fighter, or by pretending to be a shopkeeper, the innkeeper, and an aged veteran. The big chested, pushover mayor, and the freed farmer whose only concern is his family’s safety. The concerned citizens who are just two goblins passing through. The recipient of a gift who concedes to question from her guests, in spite of the pain it brings, but not before revealing as much.
“This … This … Why do you bring me this? It is death for the foolish mortals that come to this place. Why have you come?”
“We wished to return this to you – Sister Garaele recovered it for you”
“Surely not just to return it. What did you want of me? What are you here to ask? Just ask your question and go. Ask – and go.”
“We just – “
“Ask – and go.”