The Narrative of Numbers

Posted by: Ben Norskov

“We should start a fire.”

Shivering under a misty downpour outside a supposedly abandoned castle, a group of adventurers discuss their next steps in the gloaming.

“I’m cold, and all I want to do is sit down next to a warm fire.” says Lumpf, starting to gather up sticks, while the others aren’t so sure.

It’s the annual D&D night at the New School Game Club, and my character is Lumpf Tannerson, a well-meaning son of a leather curer, but unfortunately not quite as sharp as his sword. I’m also easily the most experienced role-player in my group, with the combined total hours of role-playing for the rest of the group being 0. The four other graduate students have been following my lead on and off throughout the night, mostly because I know the difference between a 12 and a 20-sided die. Other than that, they’ve been keeping up with the complicated rules and generally having a good time. What they aren’t prepared for is my 6 intelligence.

Before coming to college, I was a devout min-maxer. I massaged stats, skills, and feats to max my to-hit, my persuasion skill, and my acrobatics roll, depending on which was necessary at the time. I mostly used the story of my character as an excuse for the drastically high and low numbers I created. What I didn’t realize before the D&D night at Parsons, was that the numbers I had so carefully crafted were actually leading to a full-fledged personality. Any of my ambitions for a character concept usually fell through in the heat of the roll. Actual role-playing, the part where you aren’t trying to hit a goblin with a crossbow, usually came second.

For the D&D night, we had all generated our stats in the old-school D&D manner, (3d6 you have to keep all the rolls, no re-rolls) and this simplicity made the actual personality of the characters we created come out a bit more. The first brush with the concept came mired in the complexities of what it meant to have a 12 vs. a 9 strength, when the DM asked us, “Who is your character?”

There was a pause, and quizzical looks.

“Who is your character? What do they look like?” It took a second. These were all experienced board game players, used to the inevitable rules explanation sessions that sometimes lurched into math-induced whirlpools of frustration before finally “getting it” during the gameplay. The idea that they had to remember complicated rules in addition to creating a believable character seemed almost too daunting at first, but then they came through beautifully.

“Illuminiese’s father was a wizard, but she was a bit too clumsy to be trained in his eyes so she took what little magic knowledge she had and set out on my own,” Ashley stated, while glancing at her character sheet. Each other person in our group also created an elaborate backstory for our characters, and started on our merry way. All this from a set of numbers rolled randomly. These were all new players to the game, but could still create a personality based simply on six randomly-generated numbers.

What I hadn’t realized before is that the numbers in Dungeons and Dragons, instead of being the end goal of the game, are there to really connect the player to the narrative arc created by the DM. They are as integral for the generation of the cathartic connection players have to their characters as the table was integral for the holding of our dice and soda. Sure, we all could have made up a character’s story by ourselves, but without the D&D system behind it, we would have been hard-pressed to create a fully fledged personality. It takes both the hard numbers behind the characters, and the ability to play with, or in this case as, those numbers for a meaningful narrative experience.

Back outside the castle, I was playing my character. I was doing something I know would have a bad outcome for the group as a whole, but felt it was what my character would do in that situation. This situation wouldn’t have happened without the input of the number 6 in the intelligence slot, nor my own interpretation of what that meant. Thankfully for the party, the others realized what was happening and stopped me in time. My role-played blundering created a moment in the story that allowed the group to connect to their roles as different from their out-of game personalities.

This is the power that games hold. They can take a set of numbers and allow you to play as them, create a character with as little input as 12, 14, 14, 6, 11, 11 which were my stats for the night. Who would have thought hitting imaginary goblins with imaginary swords could lead to something so profound?

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