In most circumstances, Dungeons & Dragons requires at least two people: a player and a dungeon master; typically a game will have one dungeon master and up to twelve players, though the average is between three and six. Each player has a character that they bring to life in the game — in most circumstances, they have created these characters themselves. The dungeon master (DM) plays every other character in the game and guides the story through narration. Collectively, both the dungeon master and the players facilitate the gameplay and progress the action through narrative decision-making and the rolling of dice.
An important element of D&D (and most other role-playing games) is that no one “wins.” The point of the game is to progress through the story together. A D&D story is called an adventure and in its written form it is more of a framework than a detailed narrative – essentially, a D&D adventure is written as the blueprint for roleplay. In varying amounts of detail, it includes information on the setting of the adventure, the major non-playable characters (NPCs) that the player’s characters will encounter, the antagonists and monsters who will get in their way, and the characters’ goals. An adventure usually has a clear goal and is complete once the goal is reached or not reached. This usually takes around four to twelve hours of game time, often spread out over a few sessions of play. Play does not necessarily end once an adventure is over, however. The same characters can start a new adventure. A connected series of adventures is called a campaign. A campaign can last for months or even years (a man in London has been running the same campaign for over 38 years [Gopal et al.]).
Players create their characters following the guidelines set out in the Player’s Handbook. There are numerous avenues for customization in the character creation process but the main two components are the character’s race and class. In the second edition of the game (the edition played in She Kills Monsters), the standard character races were Humans, Elves, Half-elves, Dwarves, Halflings (creatures similar to hobbits from the Lord of the Rings), and Gnomes (Cook 26). A character’s class is their predominant adventuring style. In second edition, the classes were grouped into four categories: Warriors, Wizards, Priests, and Rogues (34).
Once the players have created their characters they are ready to play. Essentially, the dungeon master sets the scene and narrates the action and then the players make decisions, interact with other characters and players, and pretend to be their characters (11). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the players have to act and dress up as their characters (though some do). Mainly, whenever their character is called upon to do something or make a decision, the player pretends to be in that situation and chooses an appropriate course of action (11). These choices are then resolved in one of three ways, or usually a combination thereof: 1) the rules account for the resolution, 2) the dungeon master makes a decision on what happens that is appropriate for the story/situation, or 3) dice are rolled to determine an outcome.
Dice rolling in D&D is more than just random chance. A character has a set of numeric scores and statistics based on their race, class, equipment and other related factors. These numbers are usually added to or subtracted from the result of the dice roll to determine the overall outcome. For example, a warrior will usually have a higher strength score, so they would be more likely to succeed on a roll to determine if they can kick open a locked door or beat an opponent in arm wrestling. A wizard, on the other hand, might have a lower strength score and would be at a disadvantage for those same activities.
D&D is played with a set of polyhedral dice. A standard set contains a 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, and 20-sided die. Colloquially, these are referred to as “d” plus the number of sides (eg. a six sided die would be a “d6”). The majority of decision-making rolls in the game are resolved with a d20, so D&D and other similar games are referred to as part of the d20 system of tabletop roleplaying games.
Published D&D rulebooks and other supplementary content are only ever meant as guidelines for play. Dungeon masters and players are free to make their own rules inspired by or in spite of the published content. This is commonly referred to as “homebrewing” in the D&D community. It can range from small house rules to new races and classes to entirely original worlds.
The game that the characters play in She Kills Monsters is heavily homebrewed. This allows for the playwright, Qui Nguyen, to tailor the game to the characters’ inner-conflicts so they may be translated to both the other characters and the audience as they progress through it. Using a heavily homebrewed version of the game also allows Nguyen to make the action more accessible to audiences who might be unfamiliar with the game, simplifying the rules to prioritize the story.
Cook, David. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player's Handbook. TSR, 1989.
Gopal, Trisha, Michael Fequiere and Dave Yim. “This game of Dungeons & Dragons has been going on for 38 years.” CNN, 20 September 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/09/20/us/dungeons-and-dragons-longest-game-great-big-story-trnd/index.html. Accessed 15 January 2022.