I’ll come clean straight away: I’m a nerd. A big one. So much so that I often introduce myself to people as a nerd first, actor second. By now, you’ve probably heard about this niche thing that the cool kids are doing called Dungeons & Dragons. If you haven’t played it yet, you should—because I know that you know deep down, you’re secretly a nerd like me. (Most actors are.) If that isn’t convincing enough, playing Dungeons & Dragons can make you into a better performer. Let’s talk about how.
Dungeons & Dragons is a table top role-playing game that incorporates character creation, role embodiment and improvisation skills. For actors, these skills are vital to learn and to keep honed. Therefore, Dungeons & Dragons provides the perfect means of exploring and improving on these skills in a fun, social manner.
All you need to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons—which I will now start referring to as DnD because it’s quicker to type–is a set of funky looking dice, some pencils and paper and a table to sit at with your pals. Usually, the group will consist of 3 – 5 players and a Dungeon Master, who writes the story, controls the world (kind of like a director) and plays all of the characters you will meet on your journey. Players create characters and interact with each other, solve puzzles, fight monsters save and/or destroy the world … or die trying.
It might sound ridiculous, but it’s a helluva lot of fun and an incredible way to tell a story. Let me explain why it’s so good for actors.
Creating your Character
When you land an acting role, your job is to make the character you’re playing believable. They don’t have to be realistic, but audiences need to believe that they exist and adhere to some set of logic, or rules. When you are building a character in DnD, you’re doing the same kind of work you would do to create a believable character for an acting job. You come up with a name, a background, morals, beliefs, what they wear—everything you need for a good session of make-believe.
Once you’ve made your character, you take them into an imaginary world and send them out on an adventure alongside a cast of characters. You will determine your objective, try different actions in your pursuit of this goal. Alongside your fellow players, you will experience failures and successes that will weave together to create a story. Believe me: the stories that arise from a group of people rolling a dice and describing what happens are unbelievable. I’ve been at tables where something tragic happens to one of the characters and everyone bursts into tears. The longer you play, the more invested you get in the characters and their stories.
We need this kind of investment in the characters we play on stage and on screen, too.
Next time you’re working on a role and it’s feeling like a chore, pretend you’re working on a DnD character who is about to go on an epic journey. It’ll take you back to that feeling when you were a kid, playing make-believe in the backyard. Character in DnD is all about play: character on stage or on screen should feel the same.
The Imaginary Muscle
One of my acting tutors used to describe the imagination as a muscle. It gets stronger with use, but atrophies with neglect. When we were kids, our imaginations were Herculean in strength because we spent so much time using them–most of our spare time was spent pretending we were the heroes or villains of our own imaginary worlds. Every single person on the planet was an actor at some early stage of their lives.
At some point though, the saddest thing in the world occurs: we grow up.
It’s very hard for adults to get together and save the world from an undead sorcerer. We feel like we need rules if we’re going to do something as childish as that. Thankfully, DnD has rules: as soon as you give a bunch of adults some structure for play, it becomes far more acceptable to save the world from that undead sorcerer because we feel like we’re doing it for a reason. It gives us permission to play and to use our imaginations like we did as kids.
Strong imagination is vital to our work as actors. Even if method acting is your cup of tea, you’re still playing pretend—and you need a vivid imagination to do that effectively. In DnD, your imagination is getting the workout of a lifetime as it conjures up the characters and the environment and the powerful undead sorcerer and the sounds of spells exploding overhead and the ringing of swords–all from a bunch of funky dice. When we’re playing DnD, we’re using our imagination in a very similar way to how we could use it on stage or screen. The more we use it, the more vivid it becomes. The more vivid it becomes, the better performances we can give.
Every DnD experience is unified by the effort to tell a great story. Beyond that, everybody experiences the game differently, and I think that’s one of its main appeals. This comes from the chance of dice rolls and the collaborative story-telling the game encourages. You can’t anticipate what the Dungeon Master will throw at you next, or how your fellow players will react to it. You often can’t (and shouldn’t) plan for how things will go. And there’s a lesson for actors in this.
But first, let me tell you about a game I ran recently:
Players had arrived by ship in a town overrun by nasty pirates. As Dungeon Master, I’d planned for the pirates to approach them and demand gold to be let into town. The players would then enter the town to help the townsfolk reclaim their streets.
That’s what I thought was going to happen.
Instead, the players refused to hand over their gold and attacked the pirates. They set their own ship on fire and rammed it into the pirates’ ship. They swam to the town, caused two explosions in the local mine, snuck aboard the pirates’ ship docked for repairs and freed a monstrous bear in a cage below deck. And none of it planned, despite my best efforts as the God of this world. DnD keeps you on your toes, whether you’re a Player or a Dungeon Master; it encourages you to improvise at every turn of the adventure.
As actors, we know our lines in a script, but we don’t know how we’re going to say them. We don’t know how the other actors will say their lines, or our character will be affected by them. If we do, it means we’re not listening to our scene partners, because we’ve already planned everything out. It doesn’t feel authentic for us and it doesn’t feel authentic for our audience.
You need to think on your feet when you’re acting—especially if you’re on stage doing the same thing night after night. How do you keep it fresh? You don’t plan ahead. Playing DnD can teach us to let go and enjoy the ride. The longer you play, the better you’ll get at rolling with randomness and responding to stimuli in the moment.
Role-play (Also Known as Acting)
Let’s put all of this together. You’ve created a character, you’re pretending to be that character, you’re imagining a fantastical world full of monsters and magic and you’re thinking on your feet and allowing yourself to be surprised by the events of the game and how your character is affected by them. This is role-play, which is what DnD and acting is all about. The more you play DnD, the more you’ll see just how similar the two are.
I came out of drama school thinking that acting was the most serious thing in the world. DnD reminded me that it’s not. It’s tempting to put acting on a pedestal as some sacred art form that cannot be touched by those who have not studied its complexities long enough to respect how difficult it is. But, holy moly: it really is just playing dress ups, no matter how you look at it.
Role-playing games encourage you to imagine you’re someone else in a completely different time and place, which is exactly the same as what we do when we perform. Acting can feel more high stakes because we’re taught to take our careers seriously (and I suppose you should) but you should never forget that what we do is just one big game.
Famous People Who Play Dungeons & Dragons
Might not have expected to see this as a sub-heading, hey? But the list of Hollywood celebrities who play DnD is long and storied—and contains a few surprising names as well! Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Vince Vaughn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Felicia Day and Martin Starr have all expressed their love for DnD. Diesel is a particular advocate, attributing his ability to act and tell stories to an early love for the role-playing game.
On the other side of the camera, you have Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon and cult director Kevin Smith. Finally, we can’t fail to mention the legendary Robin Williams, whose love for DnD and all things gaming is a celebrated part of the man’s legacy.
Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who I play DnD with about an acting role that I was working on. It was giving me a lot of trouble, I explained, and he said to me: “Why don’t you just imagine you’re playing DnD?” So I did. And it helped. I think it was because all the best acting is done when we have fun doing it. Never forget that what we do is wicked fun.
So: get your friends together on a Friday night and play some DnD. Make a character, make up a world and take them out on an adventure and see what kind of stories you can tell together. Then take everything you learn from those joyous hours spent sitting around a table onto the stage or in front of the camera and see what happens.
See you around the traps, you nerd!