Why Dungeons & Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life) | Ethan Gilsdorf | TEDxPiscataquaRiver

August 17, 2019

Translator: Noel Diaz
Reviewer: Queenie Lee Who do you want to be? A brave dwarfish warrior, a wizard who can cast spells, an elf who is skilled
in the art of archery or a stealthy hobbit thief? You are a member
of a team of adventurers! And your quest is to rescue a prince who is last seen near the ruins
of an abandoned castle. As you approach the castle,
you see up ahead of you a creature, nine feet tall,
green and grumbling and holding in its hands a massive axe! It’s a troll. And it’s chained
to the entrance gate to the castle. What do you do? Do you rush and attack? Do you shoot it from afar with arrows or blast it with a magic fireball? Perhaps you sneak around and try
to find another way into the castle. Or something else. What do you do? Hi, my name is Ethan, and I’ll be your dungeon master
for the next 15 minutes. (Laughter) If I could just ask you to put that scenario
with the troll aside for a moment, we’ll return to that later. I want to tell you a different story. I want to tell you a story about why our journey into the world of fantasy can help you navigate the real world. So, I grew up around here
in the seacoast area of New Hampshire in the 1970s, and like a lot of kids during those times,
I played a lot of board games. Let’s see, there was Risk,
Stratego, Battleship, Clue, Sorry, Monopoly, and they were good. But then in 1974,
along came a new game, a game called Dungeons & Dragons, also known as D&D. It was a game that changed everything. D&D introduced to the planet,
rules for fantasy role-playing. And I want to remind you, this is a time long, long ago (Laughter) before video games like Minecraft
or World of Warcraft. Before cell phones, before the internet, before Star Wars, before twerking. (Laughter) And when I was 12 in 1979, when I was first introduced to this game, it blew my mind, and me and my buddies,
we played it a lot. These are some stills
from an actual home movie that I shot in 1981 of me
and my buddies playing D&D, and the stills you’ll see here
will give you some idea of how the game is played. You will see on the table
in front of the players assembled some rules books with names
like The Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. There are maps and pieces of paper and pencils. There are lots of dice,
strange polyhedral dice. And when you roll them, what you roll determines the outcome
of your success or failure in the game. There’s also Mountain Dew and Doritos. (Laughter) Important provisions for you
on your quest. (Laughter) Now, you’ll notice
that while there is a table there and this is technically a board game there is no board, okay. This game is played in the imagination. And the way you play it is each person around the table
assumes the role of a character. And each character
has skills and attributes, which are represented by numbers. So you might have
16 strength, pretty good; 3 charisma, hmm, not so good. And one player, known as
the Dungeon Master or the DM, is kind of the referee, the God, the creator, the world builder, and sets the scenario into motion. And when you play,
you describe to your fellow players what you’re going to do. So you might say something like “I asked the bartender when was the last time
she saw the prince,” or “I rush at the troll with my Warhammer and try to smash its skull.” So, as a group,
you tell the story together. And best of all, no one knows
what happens next. Now … (Laughter) I know what you’re thinking. (Laughter) D&D and other role-playing games,
also known as RPGs, are make-believe. It’s pretend. Fantasy games are for nerds and dweebs and geeks and dorks and guys – let’s face it, mostly guys – who can’t get a date and live in their parents’ basements and have to escape the real world. Am I right? Well, maybe not. What do all these people have in common? What a bunch of losers! (Laughter) It turns out that all these cool,
weird, smart people all cut their creative teeth
on role-playing games and Dungeons and Dragons. Fantasy games impacted their lives
in incredible ways. So maybe these games
aren’t a waste of time. Maybe they don’t warp your social skills. Maybe they can be good for you. Now, as a kid at the time, I was dealing with my own monsters. The same year that I learned
to play Dungeons and Dragons, in 1979, this woman, my mother, was stricken down
by a crippling brain aneurysm, which left her physically and mentally
and emotionally disabled. She was unpredictable,
she did strange things, and as a kid, I was scared. I was already a hopeless introvert, and this situation made me feel
even more powerless: as if my world
had been turned upside down; as if I was trapped in the maze
of my own adolescence. And so these games
allowed me to escape my fears, and to enter into a fantasy world
where I could be someone else. Someone with power, someone with control, someone with agency. And I played these games obsessively through my childhood, and then I stopped. And then 25 years later,
I began to play again as a 40-something,
more or less grown up, adult male, and I realized something. These games were important. These games shaped me, these games gave me incredible tools,
a coping mechanism to deal with my situation at the time. These games are powerful. But fantasy role-playing games
can benefit anyone. So let me share with you five ways that D&D and the power fantasy can help you combat
the perils and challenges of reality, and help you become a better person in the real world. Lesson one: collaboration and teamwork. So, unlike some games, in these fantasy role-playing games, you’re not some ruthless real estate mogul trying to bankrupt your fellow players (Laughter) and erect hotels all across Middle Earth,
from Hobbiton to Mordor. (Laughter) No, you work together, collaboratively. And collaboration or the understanding of what collaboration is, is all about understanding
the power of teamwork and diversity. So, you can’t go alone in this world and nor can your culture. And even in these fantasy games,
you don’t wander around thinking that people and other creatures think like you and talk like you and act like you. So, D&D’s lesson is about
diversity and collaboration. Let’s go back to that situation
with the troll. Remember the troll? Let’s say you decide to fight it. You and your party have a range of skills
and talents to draw from. There’s the fighter,
who’s good at fighting, the spellcaster,
who can blast it with spells, the healer, who can heal up people
when they fall down in battle. There is a group of people,
and each of them plays their part. And this lesson can
be applied to your life, with your office’s mates, with your circle of friends,
with your family, everybody plays a part. And it’s okay to rely on each other. I’ve got your back,
you’ve got my back. Never split the party. Now, as you can probably guess, I was too much of a spaz
to play team sports in high school. So instead of feeling
that sense of victory and mutual accomplishment
on the playing field, I got that through these games. And besides – let’s face it – who really needs football
when you can cast lightning bolts and fireballs
from your fingertips? Am I right? Lesson two: preparedness, innovation
and problem-solving. So one thing these games are great at beyond providing you
with this sort of sense of mutual accomplishment and victory is that they help you solve problems. So, let’s go back to that troll. Let’s say you attack the troll,
you kill it, bravo! You ransack the body,
as you’re supposed to do, you look on the pockets of the troll, and in the troll’s right pocket
you find a scrap of paper. Okay? And written on that scrap of paper
is this message: LLCRCO. What could that mean? Well, you venture into the dungeon
underneath the castle. It’s dark, it’s scary; lucky for you,
you’re prepared, you’ve got your torches,
your grappling hook, your backpack. You’ve brought your magic wand
that shoots giant spider repellent. (Laughter) So, point being: life is like a dungeon. So please, please
don’t wander through life without the tools you need
to MacGiver yourself out of these sticky situations. Now you run around
the corner in the dungeon, and you come across this. It’s a corridor. And running down the middle
of the corridor is what appears to be
a strange patterns of tiles. Your beloved but somewhat
blundering dwarf accidentally steps on that first tile. And you hear this “click”
and then “swish,” dozens of arrows shoot out of the darkness and at you. And then, the screen goes blank. (Laughter) Luckily you have torches! Is there something I can do
up here to fix that? So, it’s dark in this dungeon. (Laughter) It’s really dark. (Laughter) So, it’s probably a good time
to camp for the night. That’s my guess. In any case, you go back to that piece of paper. You think about and you go “Oh, maybe this is a clue.” L L C R C O Maybe left … there it is. Just to give you the effect here. Bing! (Laughter) Ahh! Just to give you that effect. All right, so maybe L means left, and C means center,
and R means right. So you step on the tiles in that order and you, voila! You pass through the corridor unscathed. But here’s the thing
about these role-playing games, is that there’s more than
one solution to every problem. So maybe instead of doing that,
you decided to disarm the trap, or maybe you take a big rock
or a boulder that you find in the dungeon, and you roll it down the corridor,
setting off the trap. Or you find some lonely orc
or hobgoblin, and you tied it up and push it in front of you
down the corridor. And that triggers the arrows, okay? So, the point is that these
role-playing games teach innovation, they train the mind to think of, you know, more than one way
to solve a problem and to make unexpected connections. And to help you find your alternative
paths through the darkness. Now let’s go back to that troll. Let’s say that instead of fighting it, you talk to it. You release it
from the chains that bind it; you befriend it. So rushing into combat
isn’t always the answer. D&D says that there’s no shame
in a well bargained escape. Don’t fight, negotiate, with the troll, with the bully, with that uncooperative pain in the ass
family member at Thanksgiving. I can think of more than one time during my years wandering the dungeons
of Oyster River High School that I was able to talk my way
out of an encounter with a troll (Laughter) due to the negotiation skills
I learned in D&D. Lesson three: character
building builds character. So, like in life, in role-playing games
you begin at level one, at the bottom of the ladder,
you’re a wuss. You’ve got four hit points, you have a rusty sword, and you can cast one spell
that makes pancakes. (Laughter) But have patience, my friends! And you will gain in experience, and you will gain in experience points, and you will grow in skill and strength. And you do this how? You do this by taking risks. Why? Because risks lead to reward. So let’s go back to the troll. You’re this newbie player,
just fresh out the farm, and you’re fighting the troll,
you decided this cookie thing. You climb up the wall of the castle,
and during the battle, you leap off the wall
onto the back of the castle, and you’ve got your rock
and try to bang it on the head. Why not, right?
You’ve got nothing to lose. So, this game is sort of
providing you this environment to take risks and to fail
in a safe way, in a safe place. And take it from me, a 17th-level nerd, that you will heal from your defeats and setbacks and embarrassments and other mortifying situations. And if you’re shy and fearful and stupid, as I have been in my life, I get to play in a game, something that is wise and courageous
and maybe a little bit smarter. And over time, as I model
that behavior in the game, I soon get to feel like I’m ready
to be wise and courageous and brave and smarter in real life. And soon I can level up in real life. And I can confront
that archnemesis at work. Or I can confront that mother at home. Or I can give a TEDTalk. And I will live, and I will level up
to fight another day. But how will I fight? Will I fight honorably,
or as a backstabber? Am I going to behave according to
some universally accepted sense of what is the common good
and the right thing to do, or by some private moral code? So role-playing games are constantly putting players
into these murky ethical situations. So let’s go back to that troll. Let’s say that you decide that you’re not
going to fight but capture it. Once you’ve got it captured, you’re going to try
to get information from it. Are you going to torture it? Does that make you still
a good character if you torture it? Maybe it’s evil and so it deserves to die. Is the troll evil,
or was it just raised that way? (Laughter) The point being,
as you build your character, these games pose character building
thought experiments that are testing human or orcish
or dwarfish behavior and allow you to model
and to experiment, to think about what might
be the right thing to do, how you could behave,
how you should behave in the real world. Lesson four: empathy and tolerance. So the next step in your journey
to building your character is thinking about connection:
empathy and tolerance. The problem is that I am me, and you are you. There is the self, there is the other. Dwarfs are from Mars,
elves are from Venus. (Laughter) How do you bridge that gap? You bridge that gap through the intersection of role-playing. So, the fantasy games’ role-playing space that gets created while you play creates this opportunity
to inhabit someone else’s skin. You can play someone who’s like yourself, or you can play someone
who’s not like yourself. And because of the immersive
narrative of the game, you and your fellow players
are constantly put into situations where you’re interacting
with other people and other creatures – dragons, bartenders, dwarfs ,
you get the picture – and you can imagine
what their predicament is, what their situation is, what their point of view is. So this is why these
fantasy role-playing games are the perfect empathy training machine for the real world. And so because of the game and my experiences with the game, I can look at my archnemesis at work, I can think about that guy on I-95
on the drive up here who cut me off, I can think about that bully
that I encountered in high school, I can think about my broken – sorry – my broken and sick mother
with a little more empathy and little more compassion and a little more love. My final lesson. The power of narrative
and the imagination. So, none of these games
work without a story, without the imagination. Take a look at these maps and drawings I made back in the Reagan administration. (Laughter) I want you to focus on this for a second – aside from admiring
their amazing artistic skills. What goes on in your mind
when you think about those, when you see those
and imagine them in your minds? What I argue is that what’s getting activated
in your minds is the wondering mind. You begin to wonder: What goes on here? Who lives here? What’s the story? What happens next? Now, for sure, we have movies, and we have television shows
and video-games that offer these immersive,
richly textured narratives and worlds. But they don’t engage
our imagination in the same way. And I think it’s precisely because of
role-playing games’ crude tools, dice and pieces of paper and maps and those silly little figurines, you are required to bring
your imagination to the gaming table to complete the picture. Okay? We used to sit around the fire
telling each other stories, and it seems to me
that today we’ve settled for being passive consumers
of prepackaged narratives, stories, movies which are created by millions of Hollywood dollars
and thousands of digital animators. It seems as if the power of storytelling
has been taken from us, and role-playing games
return that power to us, and they also spark the imagination. I can think of so many areas and interests
that were sparked or kindled through my experience
of playing these games. Everything from history to poetry,
to geography, to languages, to the natural history and biology
of elvish maidens. (Laughter) All because of this game. It made me want to be a storyteller
and a creator and a world builder and to take that imaginative leap
to imagine a better world. So, thanks to fantasy role-playing games, I use my imagination. And I’m prepared, and I can think of out-of-the-box
solutions to problems. And I know that I don’t have
to go it alone. I found my team, I know I can rely on friends
who have multiple talents and skills, who can get me out of scrapes. And I know there’s more than one way
to defeat the monsters and solve the riddles and escape the darkness of my own life. And this leads me to role-playing games’
most powerful magic. The key to confidence
and the key to self-reliance is in controlling your own narrative. It’s telling your own story. And stories connect us. And stories provide hope. In all of these role-playing games, there’s a rule: If you want to do something,
no matter what it is, however slim the odds, you take this 20 sided dice
and you roll it. And if you get a 20,
you do it, it happens. You slay the dragon with a single blow. You kiss the girl. You love your mother. Deep inside all of us, inside our metaphorical
dungeons, is a dragon. But we don’t know
if we can slay it or befriend it unless we try. So, to you I say, get out the Doritos and Mountain Dew, (Laughter) arm yourself with pencil and graph paper and gather around the fire
of each other’s imaginations and go on an adventure. Thank you. (Applause) (Cheers)

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