At its core, Dungeons and Dragons is a game of oral storytelling. While the rules of the game as written do not strictly require its participants to perform, the players’ agency over their characters and focus on narrative decision-making strongly encourages it.
Most players will choose to perform their character’s reactions to events and engage in in-character conversations with their fellow players. Many will adopt accents and voices befitting their character and temporarily shift their physicality to embody their character’s emotions and deportment — some will even create costumes and dress as their characters would. Just as actors in a play take on a role, D&D players do likewise (hence why it is called a roleplaying game). These instances of performance are not individualistic. D&D and other games like it
produce unrehearsed and unrepeatable narratives through collaborative, improvisational, oral storytelling – narratives that are distinguished by their participatory quality, not only in the imaginative buy-in of an audience or in an auxiliary fan-fictional apparatus, but in their very existence, being generated primarily for the benefit of those who are taking part. (Hollander 317)
Thus, D&D facilitates the creation of performance scenarios between groups of friends or strangers.
Recent popularity and commodification of the game have enhanced its potential performance qualities. Books marketed towards D&D players will teach techniques in improvisation, accent-work, even basic communication skills through the lens of how they might be employed in gameplay. To simulate sequences of action in the game where a character’s relational position might be important (such as combat or chases), many players will use miniature figurines of their characters and enemies as a visual aid. Sale of officially-licensed pre-painted miniatures, as well as unpainted miniatures, paints, brushes, and related ephemera, has boomed into a billion-dollar industry (Griepp). A large number of players who use these figurines will also create elaborate, miniature set pieces to stage these action sequences (through purchased or handcrafted means), not unlike a theatrical set. The concern with scenography may reach even further — when players will pay attention to the lighting design of both their miniature scenes and larger playing spaces, some also using video projection or led screens. Music streaming services are abundant with D&D themed playlists, curating songs to fit various environments (taverns, caverns, forests), themes (pirates, vampires, samurais) or atmospheric moods (triumphant, creepy, lavish), and there are even software programs designed to allow dungeon masters to create detailed soundscapes on the fly. Companies like Beadle & Grimm’s market luxury versions of official D&D releases that include physical props such as maps, hand-written letters, and jewelry. More than mere performance, with all the resources available to the modern D&D player, the game allows them to create theatre.
One need look no further for examples of how D&D groups can create theatre/performance for themselves than the numerous examples of how people are using D&D to create performance for others. The podcast community is dominated by D&D-centred shows (often called “actual-play” podcasts) like The Adventure Zone and Dungeon and Daddies, and the streaming site Twitch is filled with D&D broadcasts. In these performances, groups will record themselves playing D&D and listeners/viewers will follow along as their story unfolds from episode to episode. The most popular of these shows is Critical Role — which features a group of voice actors playing the game — whose “total per-episode audience has ranged from 1.2 million to 1.5 million” (Spangler) of late. In 2019, the show raised $11,385,449 USD on Kickstarter to develop an animated show based on their gameplay sessions and was later picked up by Amazon Studios for a two seasons commitment (Spangler).
Theatre is a unique medium with the power to engage with psychologies through performance (Shaughnessy 203) and the immense popularity of D&D as a performance vehicle likely stems from its similar potential:
At the heart of narrative gameplay is safe experimentation with moral, political, and metaphysical decision-making, by way of alternative identities (the design and implementation of which constitute another layer of players’ experimentation). Such experimentation … results in a fortification of personal and political subjectivities …
The alternative selves that are constructed and inhabited in the course of play are real selves that can engage in authentic self- and world-examination – no less so for being imaginative vehicles into and out of which players freely step. (Hollander 318-324)
D&D creates an easily accessible framework for individuals to engage in performative edification without the need for theatrical training or infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, for this reason, D&D has been widely used as a therapy device. This is true in professional environments (Blackmon), not dissimilar to dramatherapy, but it also has private applications. For example, D&D has a following among prison inmates.
Many of the players behind bars cite the game’s ability to mentally transport them from the prison to far-off lands and for them to be able to be the hero of their own story as the main reason for the enjoyment of the game. Prisoners have said they deal with a plethora of terrible things but that playing D&D has helped them work through it and mentally escape. (Williams 131)
Though access to D&D materials may be difficult in a prison setting, most people in the world can easily grab a physical or digital copy of the Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide, gather a group of friends, and create their own performances as a means for personal transformation and edification. This is exactly the kind of scenario playwright Qui Nguyen conjures in She Kills Monsters, where the protagonist uses a game of Dungeons and Dragons to grieve the loss of her sister.
Blackmon, W. D. “Dungeons and Dragons: The Use of a Fantasy Game in the Psychotherapeutic Treatment of a Young Adult.” American Journal of Psychotherapy, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 624–632.
Griepp, Milton. “Hobby Game Sales Over $2 Billion in 2020.” ICv2, 16 July 2021, icv2.com/articles/markets/view/48827/hobby-game-sales-over-2-billion-2020. Accessed 16 January 2022.
Hollander, Aaron T. “Blessed Are the Legend-Makers: Experimentation as Edification in Dungeons & Dragons.” Political Theology, vol. 22, no. 4, 2021, pp. 316–331.
Shaughnessy, Nicola. “Epilogue.” Performing Psychologies: Imagination, Creativtity and Dramas of the Mind. Edited by Nicola Shaughnessy and Philip Barnard. Methuen, 2019, pp. 203-206.
Spangler, Todd. “Inside Critical Role’s Growing D&D Fantasy Empire and the Making of ‘The Legend of Vox Machina’ for Amazon.” Variety, variety.com/2021/digital/features/critical-role-amazon-legend-of-vox-machina-1235088274/. Accessed 14 January 2022.
Williams, Laura Lea. "Lawful Neutral: The Justice System and Dungeons and Dragons." Cardozo Journal of Equal Rights and Social Justice, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, p. 129-150.