What Even Is Dungeons & Dragons?

or, “Everything I wanted to say about Dungeons & Dragons (but didn’t have time to say on TV)”

A few weeks ago, I talked about Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) on television. Specifically, on 7.30 on ABC1, for a story titled “Game of Thrones with dice — Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing game gets new life”.

It was a good story, and it showed a bunch of people having fun playing D&D, but it was only short and there wasn’t a lot of detail. I know some people had questions. So here’s my introduction to D&D for people who’ve never played.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game in which you play an adventurer in a medieval fantasy world, fighting monsters and villains, going on quests to win treasure and glory. It was originally created in 1974 by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, neither of whom had anything to do with the fucking terrible movie which, by some miracle, did not end Jeremy Irons’ career or the popularity of the game. (Don’t watch it. The sequel isn’t too bad.)

What’s a role-playing game?

A role-playing game (or RPG) is a game in which a bunch of friends pretend to be imaginary characters and create a shared story together. It’s like cops and robbers but with more structure, more collaboration, and with the chance that things might not go exactly the way you want. That chance is usually provided by dice.

Oh yeah — what’s with those weird dice?

Dice photo used under Creative Commons by Attribution license. Source: http://flickr.com/photos/11371367@N08/1260802219

They might have more (or less) than six sides, if that’s what you mean, but other than that they’re just dice. Which ones you use depends on the game. Dungeons & Dragons uses dice with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and — most famously — 20 sides.

That’s a lot of sides. But when do you roll the dice?

That’s decided by the rules, but it ought to be whenever the possibility of failure makes the story more interesting. In those games of make-believe, you can just say “I kill all the orcs!” and skip to the next part of the story. (Orcs are one of many things Dungeons & Dragons nicked from Lord of the Rings.) That’s cool if you’re not interested in fighting — gives you more time to concentrate on other stuff. But even a fight has plenty of opportunities to be interesting, and anyway, maybe your friends want a chance to do something cool too. How about this:

“I swing my sword at the orc!” (rolls dice) “…but I only do 5 points of damage.”
“You managed to scratch the orc, and it looks pissed.”

Now that could get interesting.

Why would one of my friends say the orcs looked pissed?

That’s the Dungeon Master, or DM for short (also Game Master (GM) if you’re not playing D&D). They’re a player who doesn’t have their own character, but instead plays all the bad guys, allies, incidental characters and monsters, interprets the rules, and comes up with the basic story you all build on through play.

That sounds like a tough gig!

There’s some work involved, for sure, but it’s a tonne of fun! Have you ever wanted to run your own TV show? Being the Dungeon Master is like that! And you don’t have to do all the work — you set things up and the players knock them down. Plus you get to play a whole bunch of different characters, and you can do different silly voices, surprise your friends and generally do lots of cool stuff that the players don’t get to do.

You can probably tell that I love being a Game Master. You might love it too! But if no-one in your group wants to be the DM, there are some games that don’t have one.

So there are lots of role-playing games?

Oh yeah; it’s been 40 years since the hobby started. There are thousands of RPGs! Dungeons & Dragons is the oldest and most famous, and hugely influential — not just on other role-playing games, but videogames and popular culture, too. But if medieval fantasy isn’t your thing, there are other games about solving murders, saving the galaxy, hunting vampires in LA…

Are they all the same?

No. I mean, plenty of the basics are the same, but the kinds of stories they’re good at telling are quite different. You don’t have to tell an adventure story — there are RPGs for horror, romance, even comedy. Now, it’s always your story, so there’s nothing to stop you putting those things in D&D! It’s just those other games have different rules, rules designed to help you with the things you need in different kinds of stories.

Are the rules complicated?

That depends.

That’s a terrible answer.

You’re right, sorry. The rules can be complex, but you don’t have to use all of them. When it comes right down to it, most game’s rules boil down to this:

When the story gets tense or dangerous, roll some dice to see if you get what you want right now.

How likely you are to get what you want is based on a bunch of things, like who your character is, what you’re willing to sacrifice as a player, and whether it seems more interesting if your character doesn’t get it right now.

When you say “who your character is”…

That’s up to you! You create your own character, making choices guided by the rules, and writing down their important characteristics on a “character sheet”, a specially designed form, usually with a pencil because the information on the sheet can change. That information includes statistics — numbers which rate how good they are at various things —as well as the equipment they’re carrying, how much treasure you have, and other useful stuff. You might also scribble notes about the people you meet and the things you learn.

This is all well and good, but what the hell happens when I’m playing?

Okay, we can do this.

By Diacritica (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine some friends are playing Dungeons & Dragons. They sit around a table together, with snacks and beer. They have pencils (I love pencils), some dice (in all the sizes), and a bunch of characters, one each, with all the rules stuff you need to know about them written on a character sheet.

That’s all you need?

Well, that and a copy of the rules. You can get a starter kit really cheap — $25 Australian in most places — and you can even download the basic rules for free. The full rules traditionally involve three books, and are a little expensive, but they give you a lot more options. Oh, and you need a Dungeon Master.

Oh yeah! What does a Dungeon Master need?

The player who is the Dungeon Master will need some notes about the story, including rules information about any monsters or other characters you might meet. (They might also make all that up as they go along; being able to improvise is an important skill for a DM.) Sometimes they have a screen, a little cardboard wall, to hide their stuff behind so the players don’t get any spoilers.

Okay, but what actually happens?

You needed to know the setup first, but okay: let’s say they’re in the middle of things. The Dungeon Master might say:

“You’ve made it past the wolves in the forest just in time — it’s getting dark. In front of you stands the stone house of Belron, druid protector of the woods. It’s quiet — no birdsong or sounds of insects. The front door is open. As you come closer, you realise the door has been broken in — and there’s no sign of Belron. What do you do?”

Then the other players describe what their characters do. They can discuss ideas amongst themselves, and do pretty much anything they want. It’s not competitive; the players collaborate as a team. There’s no wrong way to talk at the table; some people talk about their character in the third person, some people talk about their character in the first person, and some people try to speak their character’s dialogue like they’re acting out the part.

“My character is going to look around the back of the house.”
“Can I examine the door, checking for clues?”
“‘We’ll never get to the bottom of this in the dark!’; my character casts a spell to create some light.”

The Dungeon Master decides when you need to roll dice and also your chances of success, taking into account a character’s skills and abilities, and the difficulty of the situation. In our example, the Dungeon Master decides figuring out what happened with the door is going to have an impact on what happens next, and says to that player:

“You try to find some clue as to what happened here. Give me a roll!”

In Dungeons & Dragons, most of the time you roll a twenty-sided die and then add some numbers to the result. Here, the player gets a high number; the Dungeon Master decides, based on the character’s skills, the good roll and the light cast by the other character’s spell, that the character finds some familiar scratches on the door:

“Looking more closely at the broken door, you recognise the unmistakable claw marks of an Owlbear!”

Wait wait wait — what the fuck is an Owlbear?

It’s a monster which is like a cross between an owl and a bear.

You’re shitting me.

No, for real. It’s like a bear, but with an owl’s face and some feathers.

How…I mean…seriously, what the fuck?

It’s traditional that Dungeons & Dragons has some really fucking weird monsters. It is a game of imagination, after all. There are quite a few which are mash ups of two regular animals, and more often than not these are the results of “magical experiments gone wrong”, which just goes to show that in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, no-one wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau and some valuable lessons went unlearned.

The Owlbear is one of the traditional bits of D&D that most people come to love, because you can play it kind of goofy and ridiculous, or if you want, you can make it kind of terrifying and badass.

…okay, I have to admit that’s kind of cool. But still weird as fuck.

You can say the same thing about the whole game: take it as seriously as you like. Some groups like it silly, others like to buy into the drama, most have a mix of the two. It’s totally up to you and the people you play with, though it’s good to be on the same page about that.

What about my character?

In D&D? Think classic fantasy! Elves, dwarves, wizards, that sort of thing. In most editions you get to pick a race and a class, which sounds kind of offensive, but those terms meant different things in D&D. (It was written in a less aware time, and the terms have become rusted on.)

“Race” really means species: are you a human or some other kind of being like an elf, a halfling (a Hobbit with the copyright infringement filed off) or something weirder, like a magical wooden robot. Races give you a specific cultural background and a small number of special or supernatural abilities, like an elf’s keen senses or a dragon-person being able to breathe fire. (Just like in space opera science fiction, humans are usually the “versatile and adaptable” ones.)

“Class” is the fantasy archetype you fulfil — sort of your job in the fantasy world. You might be a wizard, a fighter, a cleric (sort of a warrior priest), a thief or lots of other things. Your class determines most of your special skills, and important stuff like whether you know how to use weapons and armour, if you can cast spells (and which ones), and often how tough you are.

What happens to my character?

Well, that’s kind of the point — that’s up to you, the Dungeon Master, and the dice. You don’t know in advance, at least not for sure. The story unfolds, you react and make decisions, and on it goes.

As you keep playing, your character grows and gains experience — the latter quite literally, in the form of experience points. Get enough of them, and you get to go up a level (yes, just like in a videogame — or rather, in a videogame it’s just like D&D) and learn new skills and abilities. But just as importantly, you gain influence and reputation; you start out as a ragtag bunch of would-be heroes for hire, but you might become the saviours of nations, marry princes, or prevent the destruction of the entire world!

So when does the story end?

That depends — okay, I know, shitty answer. The traditional way to play, still popular with a lot of groups, is the “campaign”: a long, ongoing story that lasts as long as the group can keep playing. Devoted groups might meet once every week for years, but as players get older (and have other important stuff to do), that becomes much less common. You might play a story that only lasts an evening (some games other than D&D specialise in this) or only a few sessions. (“Session” is the traditional term for a single meeting where you play; they usually last a few hours or so.)

Wait — this can go on for years? Didn’t you say the Dungeon Master makes up the story?

Well, they can — but they can also buy books with pre-written stories, often called campaigns or “modules” (don’t ask; it’s a holdover from the really early days of the game). One way isn’t better than the other and the pre-written adventures are a great way to get started — the Starter Box I mentioned earlier comes with one. Also, the DM isn’t on their own; a good DM will pick up on what the other players want and let them have a hand in shaping the story, too. Many newer RPGs have stuff built right into the rules to enable this sort of shared storytelling.

Hey, I’m sold, how can I try it out?

The best way is to play a game! While most groups play at home, have a look online (Meetup.com is a good starting point) in case there are any larger groups who play in a local bar. Some of those are happy help out new players! You can also look for podcasts and YouTube videos of “actual play” — recordings of people playing the game, which will give you a pretty good idea of how it all works.

Oh, and if you’re in Melbourne, Australia, keep an eye out for a “D&D For Beginners” event. It’s something I’m very keen to do, you know, if I ever have time.

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