Before the written language was developed, we shared tales, information, and history through oral storytelling. It is a tradition as old as humanity itself and continues to thrive today.
As cultures intermingled and grew, so did our storytelling traditions. Today, stories are communicated in as many ways as we have art: writing, music, visual art…the list goes on and each form has a style all its own. Oral presentation, however, still remains as strong and resonant as ever, and Dungeons and Dragons is just one of the examples of how this timeless tradition has evolved for modern audiences.
Over the years, D&D has emphasized its origins in oral storytelling while absorbing inspiration from each of the art forms listed above– the result is a new form of storytelling that dynamic, familiar, and brilliantly unique!
We will begin with the grandmother of stories…
Eliciting images of people gathered close around a crackling fire, or a performer embodying a favourite character on a stage, Oral Storytelling creates a supremely intimate connection between the storyteller and their audience. In this ancient art, the storyteller pulls the listeners in with the manipulation of their own voice and posture as they assume the roles of narrator and chorus, hero and villain…all while exposing their own essence through their interpretation of the tale. Each tale is made unique by the one who tells it, and it is never told the same way twice.
This tradition is the heart of today’s D&D experience. The DM is the Storyteller, interpreting each character and event with their own unique spin, whether they are using a pre-written adventure or one of their own imaginings. Even the physical nature is the same: just as the traditional form often is performed in a physically close setting, with the audience in a cosy circle around the storyteller, the DM and their players are also in an intimate stance, gathered around a table together for hours as the tale unfolds.
A Written Story:
If the oral tradition is the heart of a story, its written form is the mind. As written language was developed, humanity had a way to record their tales for future generations. I don’t think I need to convince you of the influence of the written word…just look at how many libraries, book stores, magazines, and blogs exist today. You will be hard-pressed to find a home that does not own at least one book, whether educational, fantastical, or spiritual.
There are numerous adventures written specifically for D&D, and even more exist within the excitedly scribbled notes of each “homebrew” DM (experienced or otherwise). Introductions, descriptions, narratives, and plot hooks are the critical tools of the trade that enable you to adapt to your players’ decisions and immerse them in whichever forest, cave, or tavern they wish to explore.
While I acknowledge the DMs out there who enjoy the thrill of improvising with minimal structure, even they have a few notes and thoughts tucked away for reference 😉
…but what about Visual Art? Or Music?
Have you ever seen a painting that seems to perfectly capture your emotions or thoughts that day? Have you ever heard a song that transports you into your own memories, that makes you relive a moment of joy or sorrow? I certainly have.
Every art form tells a story. Each painting, sketch, lyric, and orchestrated composition captures the emotion, dreams, and desires of the artist, portraying them in such a way that moves the audience just as effectively as performers around their fires.
These mediums have been a voice for people of all ages, cultures, and walks of life… more and more, they are finding new homes within D&D. There are limitless artists who create visual representations of characters, fantastic creatures, and magical scenes that enhance the DM’s craft. The use of mood-setting music is also quickly becoming commonplace, from the gentle atmospherics of a village square to the heart-racing crescendo of battle music.
Today’s DMs and players are integrating every art form at their disposal, and the interconnectivity of the internet ensures that these tools are just a few clicks away from making it into Saturday night’s game. With so many resources available, there really is very little to stand in the way of bringing your stories to life in dynamic and immersive ways.
Does that mean a game is lesser for not having coordinated music and corresponding art pieces, absolutely not! The magic of oral storytelling transcends the ages and will continue to do so for generations to come…but the fact that D&D storytelling provides a home for all art forms to supplement the older tradition still makes it a rather unique art in its own right.
A Final Thought:
Perhaps the greatest difference between D&D Storytelling and the more traditional forms is the fact that it is collaborative. When writing or presenting a tale orally, the storyteller is in full control: You alone portray the events and scenes within your tale and your audience is transported into the world as an observer. D&D Storytelling invites the audience in and transforms them as part of the story itself. They not only find themselves immersed in tale, but they have the ability to shape events themselves!
As the Dungeon Master, Game Master, or Storyteller, you have created the environment in which your players operate. Through your world-building, you have developed the history, laws, and cultures. You know the dangers and wonders to be discovered…and once you begin to play, it is up to your players to determine the course of their tale. You relinquish your role of omnipotent creator for that of an omniscient guide. Your job now is to introduce the challenges and set pieces to the party, but not limit their agency in interacting with your world as you see fit.
Whatever your style, D&D Storytelling is a wonderful blend of the traditions that keep humanity’s imagination alive, and the modern adaptations of a world that is continually seeking new ways to share and connect with others.