Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Why Dungeons and Dragons?

One of the classic covers from the 80s.
So you might be wondering why I decided to delve back into tabletop roleplaying. There are three big elements that appealed to me.

The first was the surprise and vitality of creating a story in a group environment. One of the biggest issues I have writing fiction is the lack of interest with the story after I finish writing the first draft. I find it very difficult to go back and edit and reedit the story. Part of the reason for this is that there are no further surprises in telling the story. With a tabletop roleplaying game you never know what can happen. You’ve got other players at the table playing a variety of characters that may do something you’d never expect. And a good DM will be crafting the story as it plays out around the character’s actions. So even if you think you know where the story is going, you are usually in for a surprise – not just as a player, but also as a DM. Because even though a DM is creating the adventure, the players always change everything.

Never argue with a well
armed rogue.
The second also goes back to editing. As a DM you tell the story a single time with the group of players (unless time travel is involved). There is no need to go back over the whole tale again to perfect dialogue or make sure a plot twist is foreshadowed well enough. This also means you need to be doing some of this on the fly while the game is happening. But that can be a thrilling experience. As a DM you don’t need to get every detail perfect for the game. But the game does encourage fleshing out aspects for the world for the players to discover. You focus on molding the tale to make it more engaging to all the players. It becomes a living thing, evolving over time and the need for editing is much much less.

The third reason to get back into the hobby is that the adventure results in immediate feedback as the story is told. The DM gets to see and hear immediately how the story evolution impacts the other players. You can tell when they engaged and having a good time, and you can tell when they are feeling like the tale is slogging a bit. This lets you adjust things on the fly, crank up the challenge or change up the way things are going if the players aren’t engaged. Best case scenario you everything trucking along because everyone is having a good time.

Don't even think about
tossing him.
As a player there is a lot of enjoyment when you are exploring the story, impacting it in surprising ways and engaging with other players to flesh out the story. As I mentioned before, it helps if you can easily imagine and put yourself into the character’s mind, but there are plenty of players content to just absorb the story and battle monsters when needed.

Each of these ended up enticing me to return to tabletop gaming. I ended up picking Dungeons and Dragons because it has the largest player base, the rules had been streamline in real attractive ways and I love a good fantasy adventure. So the time seemed to be right to try it again.

Monday, January 29, 2018

What is Dungeons and Dragons?

(blows the dust from this blog)

Been a while since I posted something here. Time for a little gear shift for this blog, and hopefully something you'll find interesting. As I mentioned in my Looking Back at 2017 post on my movie blog, I recently got back into Dungeons and Dragons as a hobby. Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe this is my mid-life crisis manifesting (perhaps both), but I really missed some of the exciting storytelling that occurs around a table with friends and dice and soda.

In this blog I'm going to be charting my adventure returning to the world of group storytelling and discussing what I like about it, what I don't like about it and some of the specific elements of the game as we go along. I'll do my best to keep it more focused on storytelling and less on dice mechanics.

But I figured that before I even really start, I should cover what Dungeons and Dragons is and the basics of how it is played.

Essentially Dungeons and Dragons is a game in which two to ten people sit at a table and tell a story set in a fantasy world together. One player is the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM is like the narrator, telling the other players about the setting, other characters they meet, playing the antagonists, telling them about treasures or secrets they find. If you think of it in video game terms, the DM is the game itself.

The rest of the players take on the role of player characters (PCs). They control one (sometimes two) character's actions in the game. This covers everything from dialogue to actions. The DM does not tell the PCs what to do, but will tell them how they are effected by events around them.

So the DM could say, "A hail of arrows rains down on your character." The PC says, "I dodge the arrows." Some dice are rolled. The DM says, "Alright you managed to dodge most of them, but a few hit your armor. Only one sinks in." The player replies, "I growl in pain and let out a sharp curse in Dwarfish." The DM smiles, "What does that translate to?" as she rolls some more dice.

About those dice... They are used to add some randomness to the game. In the example above the DM rolls for the skill of the archers. The PC has a set ability score to dodge, so the rolls have to be higher to miss. Only one archer was able to succeed, so now the DM rolls some dice to determine how much damage the heroic dwarf takes.

The random nature of the dice keeps things exciting. You never know how the dice may treat you that night. But even failure can lead to more storytelling.

In a recent game my character tried to swim across a river, but he wasn't very strong. A bad dice roll and the currents swept him away. Suddenly the other PCs were trying to figure out a way to save my character before he was carried away downriver to the monstrous waterfall roaring several yards away. I kept rolling to see if he could break free of the currents, and they were coming up with a plan to get a rope thrown out to me. But even that was going to be based on how well they rolled. In the end, I rolled well enough to get closer to them. They rolled well enough to throw the rope far enough to my character and haul his butt up the bank like a sad sack of potatoes. It created a memorable and tense moment for a simple river crossing.

The current edition of Dungeons and Dragons (the fifth edition or 5E) focuses much more on storytelling over pure action. This was one of the main reasons I was drawn back into the hobby. The Players Hand Book (PHB) is full of character generating ideas to give your character background and backstory elements to really give you an idea of who they are. It is up to the player to fill in those blanks and come up with someone who they know well enough to be able to play at the table.

That is another part of the fun, playing a character who may react to events very differently than you would. Maybe they are more heroic. Maybe they are more duplicitous. Maybe they are more dedicated. But you get to guide them on their path through the story. And if your DM is good he will weave elements of your backstory into the adventure. This not only makes the players feel like they are part of the world being created by the group, but it usually raises the stakes for the players. What do you do when that little sister you left back in your village is kidnapped by the evil sorcerer you've been hunting down?

So that is the basics of Dungeons and Dragons. You have a group of people telling a story together. To get the most out of the current game, you have to be someone with an imagination and be a bit of ham to act out the character. Luckily I'm a bit of both.

Have you ever played D&D before (or any other roleplaying game)? Every try a group storytelling exercise before? Is there any D&D related topics you'd like me to explore on this blog?

If you are curious about the rules, Wizards of the Coast has the basic rules available for free in PDF form. Check it out here: Basic Rules for Dungeons and Dragons.