What D&D can tell us about Transmedia (Part 1)

I've played Dungeons & Dragons for 14 years. And I've realized lately that this has, in many ways, done a lot to prepare me for writing for transmedia. There's so much crossover between the best practices in D&D and in transmedia writing. The next few posts will look at this relationship and what we can learn from it. I'll start by exploring how D&D is, in many ways, itself transmedia, then in the next articles discuss what we can learn from it, and what we can't.

D&D As a Transmedia Property

If transmedia describes a storyworld property in which different stories are told across multiple media, then D&D -- or at least, the different D&D campaign worlds -- certainly fall into the definition. Take Forgotten Realms, for instance. The D&D rulebooks describe this world, the places and characters within it, its rich history and the stories that have come before. Dozens of novels tell some of these stories. There are video games like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights with their own stories. Comic books. Websites. And the game itself -- whenever a group plays a session of D&D in the Forgotten Realms, they're expanding that story. Each of these is within the same storyworld, enriching it.

The same can be said for Dragonlance, Eberron, Greyhawk, and all the other worlds created through Dungeons & Dragons. Furthermore, some D&D settings (Planescape, Spelljammer) describe ways in which all these worlds are connected, making the D&D universe as a whole a single, hugely expansive transmedia property, watched over by the editors at Wizards of the Coast.

D&D as Early Transmedia

In fact, I would go so far as to say that D&D is one of the very first modern transmedia properties.

Star Wars is often cited as the first or most significant modern transmedia universe. The original movie was released in 1977, and the first Expanded Universe story -- a story that takes place in the same story universe, but not the same story as the movies, and using a different medium -- was released in 1978. (The Expanded Universe didn't really get going as we know it today until the late 80's with the roleplaying game, and the early 90's with the Thrawn trilogy.)

By contrast, the original D&D game was released in 1974, and the first ever Greyhawk novel released in 1979. Just like Star Wars, it's grown dramatically since then.

The creators of D&D recognized that they had incredibly rich storyworlds at their disposal, and expanded these worlds to contain dozens of great stories, a deep history, and also incorporate the interactions and unique stories created by the players. These are precise the main principles (or some of them, at least) of transmedia.

Each D&D Session as Transmedia

If D&D as a wider property can be considered transmedia in the same way a cross-media franchise like Star Wars can, then I would further argue that each session of individual campaign of D&D played by its players is also transmedia, more in the way an ARG is.

If I'm DMing (running) a game in the Forgotten Realms, then the FR rulebooks give me a world backdrop to play in, which informs everything in the game. The D&D rulebooks imply story elements of their own and inform the players. I create maps and handouts that players use in play. There's the game elements themselves, rules for combat and interaction. Perhaps mood music. And the play is accomplished through a form of theatre, an interaction between and full immersion of the players with the game world that I, as Dungeon Master, spin around them.

In addition, it's the participation of the players that affects the storyline -- I've often described D&D as collective storytelling (albeit arbitrated by one, the DM (or Transmedia Producer?)).

Is this stretching the definition of transmedia? A bit, perhaps. One could argue that a game of D&D is just one medium -- a game.

But all the principles of transmedia are there, using each additional medium to enrich the storyworld and the immersive experience.

Creating Content

As a side note on that participation of players, I return to a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Andrea Phillips, who said that getting people to create content for a transmedia property is extremely difficult. But I submit that that's exactly what thousands of roleplaying gamers do every week when they sit down for a gaming session. No, they're not writing articles or fully-realized stories within the world (though some do, in the form of articles, summaries, or just character backstory), but they're each developing and role playing unique characters.

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There are many ways D&D falls under the heading of transmedia. With that in mind, we can explore where the borders cross and what we can learn from that meeting. Next time, I'll talk about what we can take from this.

For now, though, I have to go prepare for tonight's gaming session.

(The whole series: Part 1 - D&D = Transmedia; Part 2 - Storyworld; Part 3 - Engagement; Part 4 - Interaction; Part 5 - Differences; Part 6 - Resources)