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The Outpost

One Hyper-Specific Way D&D is Like Jazz
By Tom Mattson
Published July 27, 2022

This is not an article that says the super most obvious thing: that Dungeons and Dragons is like jazz because of all the collaborative improvisation. Well, OK, it totally does say that, but with a very specific nuance. So it’s, like, the third most obvious thing. Look, the point is: I had a thought while driving to work today and the internet must know!

Like many in this time of geekly renaissance, I am more D&D aspirational than D&D active. I spend more time thinking about how satisfying it would be to play D&D than actually playing it, and, like a good modern boy, much of the joy in my life is derived from various proxy experiences, like listening to D&D podcasts and YouTube offerings of people who somehow have free time for hobbies while I’m commuting or doing dishes or working or filling out one of the many various forms that life seems to be constantly full of for some reason. And so I muse. I muse so hard.

Today I was musing so specifically hard on the experience of running a pre-fabbed D&D campaign. If your D&D aspirationalism is still in the early-curious stages, I’m referring to the pre-written campaigns available for dungeon masters who want to run a game but don’t have the time or desire to do a bunch of world and story building. Wizards of the Coast puts out a few of these each year in big beautiful hardcovers that give the DM a ridiculous amount of building blocks for a campaign: where the events take place, the basic trajectory to guide your players through the story, maps to refer to and plan around, ideas for monsters and npcs for the players to encounter, and thoughts and suggestions for how to handle the various random things your players might try to do. Basically, these products say: “Don’t have 1000 hours to spend planning a campaign? Spend 100 instead by memorizing this 90 page encyclopedia!”

So, anyway, today’s musings were on using these as a DM, and about the creativity and nimble artistry of being able to hold all this information in your mind so you can present it to the group while actually looking at them in their faces (where their eyes are) and inviting them into an active experience (instead of looking down into a reference book and reading to them).

Further, I thought about the art of adapting and evolving the story to fit the unexpected things your players decide to do — no DM plan survives contact with the party — and how these pre-written campaigns typically serve as a foundation or jumping off point to what ends up being some weird unique thing.

Even furtherer, I thought about how this adaptation is (ideally) invisible to the players, only the DM knows how clever they’ve been in absorbing and rebuilding around their players’ choices.

And furthererest, I thought about how that wouldn’t be invisible to any players who are familiar with the pre-written campaign, say, for example, if you’re playing a campaign you’ve DM’d for a different group in the past. Or if you’re a world-class professional hobbyist who reads D&D campaign manuals for fun.

This is when I got on this whole jazz thing.

The Jazz Thing

Like D&D, there’s an aspect of collaborative improvisation that often happens with jazz. If you want to yell at me about the semantics of jazz, because you’re that type of nerd, I promise to find that charming. Anyway, when jazz starts really opening up into something you can deep-dive appreciate (aside from just knowing music theory like a music person) is when you develop a familiarity with a lot of known jazzy-type pieces. Its at that point that you, as a listener, are able to sort of go-along with the players as they work their way through a piece you know. The exciting, joyful, interesting part is following how they are deconstructing, reinterpreting, and rearranging the piece. When you know what the song originally sounded like, you can perceive the creative genius at play as they take it apart and put it back together and adapt to each other’s random side takes and misdirections and unexpected morphings of the original thing.

See the parallel!? Pretty cool huh? I will now needlessly explain the correlation though, in accordance with the bylaws for these types of “I had a thought” posts.

That “I see what you did there” jazz experience is available to the D&D player who knows what a campaign is supposed to do and can follow how a DM has adapted to the unexpected improvisation of their players. When the party goes off in some strange direction instead of where they story wants them to be and the DM introduces an NPC early to draw the players in the direction they need to go, or a piece of narrative and encounter that was supposed to take place in one place is seamlessly integrated into another — you can appreciate what the DM has done.

And so you look at them knowingly, give a loaded smile, or slip them a barely perceptible nod that says: “RESPECT.” And they know they are known, that their efforts are worth it, and that life is good.

So, that’s the thing. It is cool and interesting. You’re cool and interesting for reading about it. If you want to enjoy D&D peripherally by buying and reading all the sourcebooks and campaign books, but you’re worried you’d be spoiling your future experience should you ever get to play — feel free to use this as justification for just yolo-ing those books right onto your nightstand. Knowing vaguely what happens in a campaign means potential play experiences would be different, sure, but perhaps no less interesting. You’re just going along, knowing the song, watching the artist on stage bend those scales in their own unique way.

🙂 Smiley face outro.

Thanks for reading.


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