The crackle of dice as they roll across a table-top…
It is a sound like no other, familiar to all who engage in pen-and-paper role-playing games, which combine the turn-based strategy format of mainstream board games with the dramatic elements of improvisational, round robin style, storytelling.
The dice crackle as they roll … and yes, often seem to cackle … as each player describes the action their character is going to attempt, and based on a set of predefined numeric rules, success or failure is then decided by this tossing of stones. Just as the player plays the role of their character, so too the dice serve their purpose, their role, as they roll…
They roll … and this crackling sound evokes another, one elemental, primal, ancestral.
A group of friends, party-members, a microcosmic community, sitting around a table … or is it a fire? The crackle of the dice, or the crackle of splintering wood out in the ancient wilderness? The tossing of stones, or the casting of bones? The storyteller, or the shaman?
Ah, but aren’t these latter two one and the same? The role of weaving a tale, one often cautionary, educational as much as entertaining, is often reserved for a person who can dance between the worlds, a mortal guide who facilitates the enactment of a communal ritual, as one’s companions, or audience, participates upon cue according to the rules set forth by this conduit into the spirit world, the collective imagination of those gathered to bear witness.
In modern times, we may have advanced beyond many of the ancient rites necessitated by living within the limits of a culture required to orally pass down its traditions and fables, but there is still something which piques our interest, intrigues us, ensnares us when we are being told a good tale.
This experience relates to all genres and all types of media: Films, plays, books, music, etc. For example, many of us seem to go to the movies in order to have some kind of religious experience, as if we expect the gods to bestow divine ecstasy upon us as we tread the sticky floors and devour the sugary snacks and sit upon the squeaky chairs in the theater.
Many critics are born from this high expectation—and the resulting disappointment—for ecstasy, but there is a reason for this, I believe, and it is this same primal necessity to be told an excellent, life-affirming and even life-changing, story.
Yes indeed, even across a mundane table-top, the storyteller serves a shamanic role as the bearer of traditions, the guide through fantastic realms and a conduit for a pantheon of adversaries, monsters, or allies. Through role-playing games, the players are also given the opportunity to serve their own powerful roles not only as audience members, but as participants in this collaborative ritual. The audience in this context is not simply being informed or entertained. They are also allowed the freedom of choice, the power to, at the very least, steer the ship while the storyteller acts the wave, wind, and storm.
This is a significant social interaction, building companionship among associates, exercising the development of strategies within a group dynamic. Very often, this is done in situations where individuals—or the character whose role is being played by these individuals—do not agree with the general consensus on what the course of action should be.
Whatever the outcome from such squabbles, experience points can be rewarded not only to the characters serving as an individual’s avatar in-game, but to the players themselves who, whether they realize it or not, have just engaged in an exercise of conflict resolution, a skill easily transferrable to other situations, such as an office, political arena, or war-room.
Through playing the role, making the decisions, interacting with the story rather than being only passively informed of the events which affect them, a player’s own psychology shifts, if even in the subtlest of ways.
The role-playing game offers the opportunity, if not the necessity, to adopt roles and perspectives different from one’s own. The dice crackles, and as it echoes the primal fire, it forges identity anew, burns away the complacency of inaction, purifies the putrid stasis of a mind left to wallow only within its own isolated kingdom, warded against any potential enchantments which might lure one away from a perhaps too comfortable sanctuary, protected from any transformation which might alter one’s alignment for the better, or yes, maybe also for the worse.
In this modern time of troubles, as the Information Age transitions into some new era, we’d do well to engage the formation and assertion of the roles we might play in whatever scenarios fate has in store for us, in what could very well be a Deformation Age. Who’s to say what adversaries, monsters, or allies might arise when the ultimate Dungeon Master, Primal Nature, sits across the table from us as we choose our actions, and roll our dice? Cast our bones upon the Earth? When we meager mortals must act the avatars for our beliefs, values, and purpose?
When we must decide what stories should be passed on, what traditions must be preserved, what wisdom must remain when we are wounded beyond the point of any healing spell, or wish?
The dice crackles, ignites the burn of an ancient tradition, opens the mind to alternatives, immolates the paralysis of a self-induced prison, clears the blindness caused by globes of ignorant darkness.
As the dice crackle, and the bones cackle, we cast our lots, reveal our plots, and seal whatever fate experience grants us. We play our roles, and the rolls play us.