Dungeons & Dragons or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love RPGs
For a game that has featured in pop culture touchstones like E.T., and even the recent Stranger Things, Dungeons and Dragons remains oddly divisive. When I happen to mention Dungeons and Dragons in polite company, I tend to get one of three reactions: a blank stare, an excited grin, or a look of panic. The blanks are people who have never heard of the game, and would have no interest. That is fine, the game is not for everyone, and I have made peace with the fact that a few sad individuals will never experience the thrill of rolling a Natural 20. This article is not for these people. An excited reaction is usually followed by an intense discussion about editions, character classes and favorite storylines. These are My People. The ones who have made D&D the premier tabletop RPG for the last 40 plus years. I love you guys, but this is not for you either. (Although you may want to read on, there is bound to be some juicy tips for you few that have lapsed over the years).
Today’s topic is for the panic stricken, those who either have misconceptions about the game, the people who have a fear of the math and complexity or who can’t possibly fathom how to get involved in what is ultimately a very social activity. This article, the first in a series, will give you the broad details of the game.
Let’s start with the biggest misconception about the game. During the late Eighties and early Nineties, I was prohibited from going near the game by my very religious mother. “It leads to Devil worship!” she used to chide, and she was but one in a sea of voices shouting about the game. The cause of all this (a particularly nasty little man called Jack Chick) is a topic for another article, but needless to say, he got the parents of the world to stigmatize the game unfairly. D&D is, at its heart, a role playing game that involves playing an active role during a story telling session. One person (the DM or Dungeon Master) narrates a thrilling tale of derring-do, while the players use the characters they created to overcome his devious traps, hideous monsters, or political intrigue to find treasure/rescue the princess/save the kingdom. The players themselves add to the narrative, decide the best course of action to take during their journey, and shape the story collaboratively. The rules of the game are only there to facilitate storytelling. Any elements of darkness or evil are there only to be overcome, if you play as written. Any other baggage that may bring “the devil” into the game is purely up to the individuals playing. My mother made her peace with D&D after I made her sit down and play a session, and if she can overcome her inherent mistrust of the game, anyone can.
Whew, that escalated quickly, to borrow a phrase. The second big misconception is that D&D is extremely complex. Unfortunately, the answer is yes and no. Sure, there are a lot of rules and numbers to crunch, but the DM usually does the heavy lifting for you. He or she is ultimately responsible for most of the numbers pertaining to the weather, the monsters and the world at large. The player only needs to focus on their character, and telling the story they want to get involved in. If your character believes that they should spend the session chatting to a bartender, it is entirely within the spirit of the game. The DM would speak as the bartender, and give you clues and information that leads you on an adventure. Or you could pick a fight with the local thieves’ guild, and see if you can best them in combat, if that takes your fancy. Anything and everything is possible, and the only goal is to tell a cool story with friends. The rules facilitate the storytelling, not the other way around, and thanks to the new(ish) 5th Edition of the rules, this is easier than ever. The publishers took a good, hard look at the complexity of the game, and bravely threw out most of the old systems that bogged it down. In its place is an elegant, easy to use set of rules that anyone can pick up and enjoy. As you gain XP (experience points, the main currency in the game to turn your adventurer into a superhero) and level up as a player, you will want to delve deeper into the rules and lore, but to start and for the first few months, the learning curve is surprisingly gentle.
The best part of all this is that the cost to get involved will suit any budget. The publishers of Dungeons and Dragons, a company called Wizards of the Coast, have generously decided to release a completely free version of the ruleset on their website that will enable you to play for months, if not years (You can find those here). The beauty of the system is that the add-ons are optional. In fact, everything you need to play comes at almost no cost whatsoever, as all you need are a few sheets of paper, a pencil, some dice and a couple of friends with a few hours to kill.
That leads me to my final points: players and time. The game is supported by game stores all over the country (and world) hosting public games where you can dip in with no experience whatsoever, play a short adventure on a Wednesday night, and see if the game is for you. This is exactly how I met my group, and after a couple of sessions we decided to play our own game. We became fast friends, and share many non-D&D adventures away from the table. Finding a group should be no problem if you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone, although playing online for free on sites like Roll20.net is also an option. There are tons of games looking for players to jump in, if you know where to look. In a future article I will explore these options in more detail.
Now let’s focus on time. This game will eat it like popcorn. One session will take between 2 and 4 hours, and you will need many, many sessions to complete even a basic adventure. My little group of adventurers took 9 months of playing almost 6 hours per week to complete our previous adventure, and it felt a little rushed at times. Be prepared to put aside weekends or slip away on weeknights to play, as it is not for the terminally busy.
In closing, if you have ever felt an itch to try this game that has had an incredible resurgence as of late, now is the time. The popularity of the hobby is at an all-time high (The rules were No.1 bestsellers on Amazon for months), so finding players to learn with you should not be too difficult, and with the low cost of entry, your imagination is the only limit on how many hours of fun this hobby can provide.