Magic and Monsters in a Manchester Apartment: An ethnography of Dungeons and Dragons
The storytellers gather in the living area as the evening light draws in; they’ve come together to weave tales of magic and monsters. Taking it in turns they narrate different threads of an epic story set in a fantasy realm populated by wizards, gnomes, and dragons. There are villains and heroes; a quest and treasure; subtle lessons in morality. There are rituals, taboos, sacred artefacts. The tone shifts from jovial to solemn as the tale unfolds and the hour grows late. The story is not finished, but the storytellers are spent; they will re-assemble in seven days’ time, picking up where they have left off. It will probably take them weeks, maybe months, to complete the story, but they will reach the end eventually – and then take up the threads of a new story.
Reading this account, it’s easy to assume a historic, rural setting for these storytellers. These are the ‘folk’ of folklore: the purveyors of legend and fable. We can imagine them gathering cosily around the hearth of a farmhouse after a day toiling in the fields. We probably do not imagine what is actually the case here: five young professionals assembling in an open-plan apartment in modern-day Manchester for their weekly session of Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons (often abbreviated to D&D) is a tabletop fantasy role-playing game that dates back to the 1970s. Although there are myriad different versions, the general format involves one leader – the Dungeon Master – and several players who adopt a fictional character each, forming a “party of adventurers”. The Dungeon Master acts as narrator, placing the characters in particular settings and situations, guiding the story, but it’s up to the players to decide how their characters will respond. To resolve how random events play out, the player uses a set of polyhedral dice, each one abbreviated to ‘d’ followed by its number of sides: d4, d6, d8, d12 and d20. So if a character wants to attack a monster or pick a lock, for example, they’ll roll a dice. If they roll high enough, they’ll succeed. Rolling the highest possible score is known as a critical success; rolling the lowest, a critical fail.
I decided to record a session of D&D in response to the long-standing lamentations that we have lost our folklore. According to folklorist George Foster, writing in the 1950s, industrial environments ‘are not conducive to the continuation of folk culture. Hence, it can be assumed that folk cultures will disappear in those places where a high degree of industrialization develops’ (1952: 171). For anthropologist William Bascom, it was technological developments that led to this supposed decline: ‘folklore has decreased as…mechanical devices such as phonographs, radios, moving pictures, and television have developed’ (1965: 296). But is this the case? An ethnography of D&D would suggest not.
Granted, it’s a pretty incongruous place for folklore. A chemist, a lecturer, a programme administrator, and an Apple “genius”, all sitting in a modern apartment, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the skyline of post-industrial Manchester. But as the session begins and the story unfolds, it’s impossible not to view this as folklore in action. They’re orally narrating stories of magic and monsters, often drawing on themes and terms from pre-industrial folklore. The chemist is a wizard trained in arcana; the programme administrator is Obsidian of the dragon-born race; the lecturer is a human ranger; and the Apple genius is a gnome rogue.
The folklore within the narrative is rich and overt, but what I’m particularly interested are the rituals and customs involved in playing the game. The reverence shown to the dice is a prime example. Within my first few minutes of observation, I realised there is a taboo surrounding touching someone else’s dice. In The Dungeon Master’s Guide, it actually states under ‘Table Rules’ to ‘Foster respect…Don’t touch others’ dice if they’re sensitive about it’ (235). And the players certainly do seem sensitive about it! When one of them drops his dice under a chair, another player retrieves it with a pencil, refusing to touch it. What will happen if they touch it? The dice seem to be wrapped up in notions of good luck and bad luck, purity and pollution.
“Sorry,” the Dungeon Master says, when he accidentally touches a player’s dice.
“Which one was it?” asks the Apple genius.
“Just the d12.”
“That’s okay, I never use that one. It won’t pollute the whole set.”
When the dice are producing low rolls, it’s because they’re “cursed”. Players often have more than one set of dice for such situations; for example, when the Dungeon Master rolls successive low scores, he swaps his dice for another set. This curse of bad luck can be contagious. When a player rolls a critical fail, another player pushes the dice away with a pencil: “I don’t want that bad luck near me.” And when he’s forced to touch another’s dice, he quickly wipes his hands: “If I start rolling bad now I’m blaming you.”
On the other hand, when the dice are producing high rolls, this good luck is seen as fragile and easily negated. When one player briefly leaves the room he requests, “Please no one touch my dice while I’m gone. I’m rolling well for once.”
The sanctity of the dice is just one example of the folk culture of D&D. There are many more, from the reverence shown to the Dungeon Master to the etiquette of “metagaming”. Clearly folklore has survived modernity – even if we are finding it in the most incongruous post-industrial settings.
Bascom, W. R. 1965. Four Functions of Folklore. In Dundes, A. (ed.) 1965. The Study of Folklore. Berkeley, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, Inc.: 279-298
Dungeons and Dragons. 2015. The Dungeon Master’s Guide. Wizards of the Coast.
Foster, G. M. 1952. What Is Folk Culture? American Anthropologist 55 (2), 159-173.