Storytelling has long been a means of survival. The cliffhangers in One Thousand and One Nights serve as a stay of execution for the condemned narrator. Proust wrote in the hope that destiny would continue to grant him another day of reprieve. And when the plague struck Florence in 1348, Boccaccio’s impulse to tell stories was so strong he came up with a hundred of them, told by a group of young people in a countryside retreat.
Now, nearly 700 years on, a new team of raconteurs hopes to pick up where Boccaccio left off; dubbed the Lieta Brigata (literally the “merry band”) after the original group of ten, their aim is to bring the Decameron’s tales to a new, quarantine-compatible medium: Dungeons and Dragons.
The tabletop roleplaying game is experiencing its own Renaissance: after an internet-era slump in the early 2000s, the launch of a new edition in 2014 and appearances in television shows including Community, Stranger Things and The IT Crowd have attracted millions of new players: sales in 2018 were up 52% on the previous year, according to the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast.
Under the auspices of a “Dungeon Master”, who acts as storyteller and arbiter of the rules, players invent characters and follow quests, guided by little more than their imaginations and the occasional roll of a dice. Although books and equipment exist to supplement gameplay, almost all the necessary materials can be invented or found online.
As a result, while entertainment industries around the world suffer under lockdown, D&D is thriving, as players in search of social interaction and distraction but unable to meet in person have increasingly turned to online platforms to facilitate games. Roll20, a virtual tabletop with over 5 million users, has seen a 170% increase in Google search traffic since January.
The new incarnation of Boccaccio’s Lieta Brigata is timely, then. Giovanni Giamboni and Valentina Rovere are the pair behind this new project to use Italian literature as the source material for D&D content — and with the Coronavirus outbreak set to shape society for years to come, where better to start than the reinterpretation of one of the most famous pieces of plague literature?
Composed of 100 short novellas told across ten days, spanning subjects from courtly intrigue to monastic misbehaviour, the Decameron is fertile ground for the kind of escapist storytelling that drives D&D campaigns, as Gamboni, 21, explains: “Humans tell stories. They are our primary tool for sense making and social cohesion. The beauty of D&D is how it takes the archetypal power of storytelling and conveys it in a synergic and cooperative form. In a sense, D&D is exactly what we need right now.”
Coronavirus has caught humanity off guard and left us feeling curiously vulnerable — a shock to our safe 21st century sensibilities. So a set of medieval stories told through a modern medium feels like an appropriate remedy for what Rovere, a philologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, sees as the first “global emergency”.
“Telling and hearing stories is simply part of the human DNA,” she says. “It probably sounds very naïve, but I truly think that we couldn’t exist without it.” Starved of news and activity from the outside world as we are, dreams and imagination become all the more vivid and essential.
At the time of writing, the Lieta Brigata is preparing to release their first installment. If the time and expertise the group is devoting to the project is anything to go by, it will be a worthy tribute to Boccaccio’s work and a fitting extension of the storytelling tradition. And with no end to the lockdown in sight, it couldn’t come at a better time.
After all, the Decameron was born of a culture of self-isolation. Boccaccio’s description of 14th century Florentines dealing with the plague is all too familiar to a quarantined reader: “They banded together, and, dissociating themselves from all others, formed communities in houses where there were no sick, and lived a separate and secluded life . . . lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them.”
In the digital age, avoiding news entirely is a tall order. Unlike the young people of the Decameron, however, we don’t need a second home in the Tuscan countryside to swap stories — merely an imagination and an internet connection.
Keep up with the project on Twitter and Instagram: @lieta_brigata
Words by Chris Allnutt
This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which raised money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.