An Ode to the D20

D&D is a game that predates me by about 20 years so I’m unlikely to offer any serious revelations that haven’t already been meditated on, but I’m a new inductee to the world, as of about a year and a half ago now, and I’ve found it to be (not too shockingly) a great new way to look at games and stories. It’s not a mistake, after all, that the game has been around for 45 years and remains the best known tabletop roleplaying game.

The fulcrum of the storytelling and the gameplay is, obviously, the D20 die (as per Sam’s suggestion, a short description: a D20 die is a dice you roll to determine the outcome of many actions you want to take in Dungeons and Dragons, from if an attack hits to if you successfully scale a cliff to if you are able to charm (magically or through sheer charisma) the bartender). Most importantly, for both D&D gameplay and storytelling, is the 1 on the D20. Basically, the most important part of D&D, and of stories in general, and of games in general, is the ability to fail. Failure is great. It’s what gives things stakes. To keep with my rather basic analysis success is only gratifying if the opportunity of failure is offered to us (or to characters we are living vicariously through, be they characters we are playing or characters we are observing in someone else’s work). Success cannot exist without the possibility of failure.

I’m sure I’ve told the story before, though I can’t remember when: once upon a time, a cousin derided a recent Avengers movie (or Star Wars… some large action tentpole) because the characters in the movie “messed up”, and didn’t get more powerful instead. It’s not a ridiculous critique – messing up is great storytelling, but it’s not something we’re conditioned to view as such. Think of the outrage over Poe Dameron’s mistakes in The Last Jedi. Or the myriad of mistakes that heroes make in Infinity War. I wrote a first draft of this article before the whole Scorsese versus tentpole kerfuffle, but it’s pretty similar to what he’s saying there – tentpole movies rarely have emotional stakes (this comes from when we are less than what we want to be). We’ve been trained to expect a lack of stakes that when they do pop up, they seems a mistake.

Games are the same. In most games, the progression comes in the former of leveling up, or powercreep. The characters get progressively better, so that if you were to return to an area from the beginning of the game, it will prove a cake walk, regardless of how much attention and effort you put into it. It’s why games that are structured as a series of gatekept areas don’t particularly appeal to me. Obviously you want your characters to get better, or more skilled, but at the same time removing the fear of failure entirely removes all stakes.

We don’t like it when circumstances cause failure, or when a character is weak… but, most of the time, that’s the truth of the matter. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you sleep funny. Sometimes your arm twinges weirdly and you can’t climb the way you normally can. You can practice swimming every day of your life, and you’ll become a great swimmer. It’ll be harder for you to fail. But it still looms.

That’s why I love the 1 side of the D20.

I don’t want to diminish how much fun it is to roll a 20, to unexpectedly succeed at something you ought to fail. In a recent session my weakass warlock Tiefling was stuck in a pit with our muscular but slightly dim Paladin, and a rope was thrown down to them. Shockingly rolling a 20, my Tiefling climbed it perfectly, and the Paladin could only look on in admiration, as he usually needs to ferry my lil’ guy everywhere that requires any feats of strength. And that’s fun. It was a fun moment, and it gave us something to play off of, (the Paladin muttered “he amazes me every day” under his breath, which was sweet and fun and fitting to the character). But it was just a brief moment. It’s rare that someone is forced live with the consequence of surprise successes.

Another moment to highlight rolling a 20. My party had been battling our way through a decrepit castle long ago taken over by an immortal necromancer. The necromancer harvested souls and stored them in gems to prolong his life, and his most important gem had replaced one of his eyes. He began to villain monologue, offering us to join him, and my character wandered up and tried to remove his gem-eye. I rolled a perfect 20. The DM was genuinely stumped as to how to proceed. But even in that moment, it was more fun that the DM had gotten a “bad roll” than that I had gotten a good one.

But the best moments are when we fail, spectacularly. Our party recently experienced its first character death, and it was brutal. Partially because the character, who is frequently agile and can easily avoid danger simply kept failing, over and over again, but also because the rest of the party assured them, over and over again, that it would be okay. That we had them. That we had the abilities, tools, and experience to keep them alive, and then when the time came, we couldn’t. It’s something people have to sit with, and it gives the characters somewhere to go. To tie back to Marvel, however briefly (and I dunno why – D&D does not as a rule make me think of Marvel) – the best movies are, hands down, the ones where the heroes fail, because it gives them somewhere to go. GotG, Civil War, Infinity War, are all fun because unmitigated success isn’t exciting, and Marvel villains aren’t exciting. Heroes are, and when heroes fail, they have to live with it. There are at least hints… hints, of emotional stakes in those movies.

It’s why when you roll a 1 you (both as a character and a player) search for answers. What did I do wrong? How do I get better? How do I stop myself from making the same mistake twice? It’s what makes characters compelling (both heroes and villains). It’s what makes games compelling. It’s what makes people compelling. It’s why the ability to fail, always, is an important thing to bake into a stories’ and game’s most core elements. It’s why the D20 is such a success. Because of the fear of rolling that 1.

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