The concept of symbolism is important in #DnD & #RPG

With the boys game returning to 5E I moved to just using an open table, with some war game terrain and miniatures for combats. This weekend the boys had a hard time with that , because they were expecting the distances to be exact, and I got responses like:

‘How come it takes me a full round to move here, but the monster got there in less?’


‘How come it takes me a whole turn to climb up a cliff that is only twice as tall as my figure?’

So I explained that the figures, terrain and distances were really only symbolic. They are not meant to be exact distances or sizes. Which is not the easiest concept for teenagers to get, but I am trying.

But it is an idea. concept and skill to master. To recognize that something is symbolic. That it is taking the place of the real thing. And that’s a big deal in D&D.

What is the most important stat in the game? Your Hit Points, right? Well Hit points don’t really measure how many sword blows you can take for example. Hit points are symbolic of things like endurance, fatigue, and yes some measure of wounds. But a 10th level fighter is not somehow so much bigger than a 1st level one that he can take being hit by 9 more sword hits. Your hit points are a symbol of your increased ability to endure punishment, ignore pain, ignore fatigue. They are the ultimate symbol for your character. Otherwise at the end of every combat every character would look like the Black Knight in Holy Grail.

That’s a big reason to play role playing games in the first place. Allowing things like the numbers on a piece of paper, and the results of a dice roll, to represent a living person or creature and their luck. And really it is not much different than playing a first person shooter video game.  As a player you are accepting that your ‘character’ is defined by certain arbitrary numbers. And I think that the whole thing is a good exercise.

I realize that not everyone finds this easy. They want to treat everything as tangibly real. And find their entertainment in that fashion. And that is fine. But I do think it is important to give it a shot, to let your imagination go for a while.

I think the boys are getting a good taste of that in the game. It helps expand their mental and emotional horizons. To be forced to think about

‘Why would my character care that her father is disappointed?’

Because thinking in those symbolic terms also helps subconsciously develop a little empathy.

To bring it back to the games. I like using props, miniatures and terrain. But I use them as symbols, not exact representations. Like I wrote about last week, I want to give the game 3 dimensions. Encourage the players to think beyond the board. And so I use the board merely to symbolize what is happening, not give it an exact representation. If they want a more precise sense of representation, I can teach them to play wargames and they can play those. Role playing is about thinking beyond the board. I am not the best at flowery descriptions, although I am working on it. But if I can fill in some of the gaps with the figures and terrain then I can still get the job done of taking them into an alternate world.

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