First, A Quick Dip into Contemporary Literature
“Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind and in the mind’s mirror, the world.”David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Outside of the D&D-verse, I teach literature at a university. Over the past couple weeks, my students and I have been discussing a gorgeous and heartbreaking novel by Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil. In the text, the author weaves together seemingly disconnected storylines that span from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to the nation under Taliban control and then the American occupation in the years following the September 11th terrorist attacks. The novel closes around 2006.
As you might imagine, much of the text is dark. However, Aslam pushes back against the violent, aggressive, possessive narratives of humanity to fight, at times sentence by sentence, for the presence of beauty in our daily lives.
This is something I passionately believe in, and something I have been thinking about a lot recently. D&D creates this opportunity as well, to dig deeply into human nature, into history, and examine the light and dark we find there. It also provides the chance to imagine how the world might be, could be.
Mohsin Hamid, in interviews about his 2017 novel Exit West professes that we cannot change the current state of affairs without first imagining an alternative and working through it in our minds, likely in a fictional space. He’s writing about human migration and reimagining how, globally, we might reconceptualize belonging.
I would add that our games at least offer a similar possibility, that we can create a new world, or change aspects about our current world, and that those alternate visions could be the stepping stones to creating real change in our daily lives.
Imagining New Possibilities
This possibility, to create a new and different reality, is one of the things I find so compelling about RPGs—the opportunity they provide to work through some of the difficult questions of our day-to-day lives. In our narratives, powerful characters face even more powerful forces, confront imbalances and injustice and sometimes fail, but ultimately persevere in the face of uncertainty.
This time spent in a position of empowerment, with not only a sense of responsibility but also agency, is often part of the “escape” we find during play. We get to work around feeling overwhelmed by the scale and scope of problems we’re facing, that our societies are facing. We don’t have to do the same mental work during play to navigate the larger systems and entities that make us feel small and insignificant.
Fantasy and Reality
RPGs also create space to explore how we would like for the world to be, what it might look like for certain issues to have changed, or to not be a point of concern.
Examples from Our Duet
For an example of how we have addressed one real-life injustice and imagined and explored a better world with our game, in our homebrew world, we decided that there wouldn’t be any stigma around homosexuality, and nearly everyone holds a sex-positive attitude in general, meaning that there’s no judgment around consensual sexual activity.
On the flip side, we’ve had several conversations about the existence and role of sexual violence in our game-world. Assault features so prominently in our real-life society that the same optimistic rewriting for how the world might be didn’t seem like it would apply or serve creatively like universal acceptance of a multiplicity of sexualities and sexual practices.
However, we set really clear boundaries that none of our characters, my PC especially, would have to undergo sexual violence. It is a part of her and another member of our central party’s backstories, more of a threat for her and traumatic experience for him, but it’s not something we were willing to allow into actual gameplay.
We’ve been a bit less clear about physical torture, though I don’t believe we would RP that either. There’s been one situation where that might have happened if everything had gone terribly wrong, but thankfully there was a unicorn there to save everyone.
These meditations don’t have to be so dark either. My PC is also working with her nation of birth to redistribute wealth within a monarchy. The king means well, but many of the people live in desperate circumstances. The neighboring town, on the other hand, is capitalist, and run by one of her dearest friends and advisers. It has less inequality but is not without issues either.
Individual Duet Preferences
I recognize that these aren’t the lightest-hearted things to be asking you to think about. And I also realize that this won’t fit into all duets, especially for those of you who are playing with your children (which is awesome!).
Some of you may want to stick with a high-fantasy setting that genuinely is removed from the harder questions of reality. But I at least wanted to propose these ideas as something that playing D&D can help us to think, see, and imagine our way through.
If you do use, or might be interested in using, D&D or other RPG as an outlet to work through systems of oppression, political situations, social trends, or anything else that requires serious study, I want to encourage you to continue pursuing your quest.
I hope you’ll invite your duet partner along for the ride. Make sure you’re having conversations with one another about what you’d like to try to work though. Also, set clear boundaries for one another for what you’d prefer to hand-wave away and what you’re interested in trying to explore.
Have these or similar issues come up in your game? How do they fit into your collaborative worldbuilding and planning?
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