I recently came across a book online entirely dedicated to creating rich, detailed character concepts, intended for tabletop roleplayers, their DM’s, and writers. Over 200 pages of backgrounds, quirks, ticks, motivations, peccadillos, appearance details, modes of dress, speech patterns, accents, mannerisms, ideas on ethics/morality, religious expressions, and so much more. Then I pop open the 5E Player’s handbook, and here are your six stats, pick one of these nine alignments, and choose maybe two of this handful of broad stroke backgrounds. Oh, and you might have a trinket or two, if your DM is nice.

Kindom concept

       It is, then, no wonder that I find so many players have modeled their characters after a min-maxing power gamer video on YouTube, without any real ideas of what makes their character tick.
As a DM of more than two decades, this pains me to the core. For one, it gives me very little to work with as far as creating compelling stories based on the party’s pasts. Second, since victory, acquisition of treasure, and gaining experience to burn through levels as quickly as possible in order to gain the next cool power or skill are placed so far ahead of concept and storytelling, the relationship between DM and players becomes inevitably adversarial, as the players cannot abide the DM besting the formula of their YouTube video. And third, what a hollow shell this makes of the greatest game in the world, and thus a disappointing, superficial, uninspiring adventure. Players deserve more. They should be brought to tears, to raucous laughter, to truly hate the villains, to experience edge-of-their-seats suspense, and the thrill of a hard won victory. And DMs deserve the raw materials to be the gods powerful enough to create a world for all this to happen in.
       That said, I’ll be about fifth in line to say that there is no truly wrong way to play D&D. You just have to find the right mix of people who want the same things from the game. But it has become increasingly difficult in the last decade for me to find players interested in being more than a pack of chucklehead murder hobos. What happened to those of us looking for a game with real substance, a world deep in time and rich with lore, with unexplored regions and untold dangers? A desire for high fantasy the likes of Tolkien or Howard. Flawed characters bearing both strengths and weaknesses, people who need each other (and each other’s skillsets) not only to save the world, but to become their best selves. Players willing to fail, to lose, to grapple with inner daemons, find themselves, and come back with a vengeance, stronger than ever before, to thwart the evil machinations of the BBEG. Essentially, what happened to our craving for The Hero’s Journey (thank you, Joseph Campbell)?

Magician young

     I could cite our move away from stories around campfires, books, and classic fantasy films in favour of the idiot box, zombie screens, and shallow celebrity influencer trivium which we seem wendigo hungry for. Instead, I will encourage.
     Seek ye out, brave adventurer, the deeper meaning to the game before you. Learn of Gary Gygax. Watch “Eye of the Beholder.” Look up the in-depth interview with Joe Manganiello about what D&D means to him. Read Tolkien, Howard, Eddings, Weiss & Hickman, Salvatore, Hobb, Kay, Gaiman, Lackey, Sanderson, Rothfuss, and the list goes on and on. Find books on crafting great stories, great characters, backgrounds, and world building. With any luck, you might better understand why those kids on Stranger Things spent 10 hours rolling dice in the basement, and why Will was so hurt when Mike turned into such a self-absorbed asshat.
       You may come away wanting to play a gaggle of murder hobos who slaughter half the people of a town and elect a goat mayor while the bard seduces a rock. But I doubt it. I have faith that you will discover (or perhaps rediscover) that yearning for brilliant, inspired stories which has existed inside humanity’s soul for thousands of years, and that you’ll come away feeling awakened, enlightened, with an openness to understand that the D&D table is, of course, fun, but also a realm of free therapy, friend bonding, character-building in both senses of the term, and a mirror for you to discover your truer, better self.
Yes. It can really be that cool.

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