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.