All about the great geek cult game.
You’ve probably heard of Dungeons and Dragons or D&D at least once in your life, as it is likely the most famous geek thing on the planet and also one of my favourite games. For those of you who haven’t though, D&D is a fantasy tabletop role-play game (RPG), where each player creates their own character and joins an epic adventure led by the narrator and storyteller called a dungeon or game master (DM or GM).
As far as I am concerned, D&D is the ultimate triumph of human imagination, as the characters only exist in the minds of the player and the entire game plays out through talking. The GM narrates the story, which is usually a quest that needs to be resolved somehow, describes the world and sets the atmosphere, with the players verbally impersonating their characters, describing their behaviour and decisions. Although the GM leads the game, prepares the plot, makes up the events, and acts as a referee, the players co-create the story with their actions, so everyone is constantly forced to improvise and the game takes on a life of its own. In order to provide some structure, a set of dice is used by both the players and the GM to determine the outcome of all actions and simulate the randomness of life. To make it more interesting, sound effects, fancy maps and mysterious quest notes, figures and elaborate landscape miniatures can be used, but ultimately the events take place inside the mind of the players and are fueled by their imagination.
Every character in the game is defined by a set of values or stats on paper, which determine how fast they can run, how smart or strong they are, what kind of magic they can or can’t cast, whether they are likeable, observant, conceited, devious, oblivious, good or evil and everything else needed to accurately describe a fictional person that a player can relate to and role-play. The characters always have their own personality, specific objectives and wishes and usually also quite imaginative backstories (if you want to read about some of my previous characters for example, check out D&D part 2). All of this is done according to a huge set of rules, which is the main drawback of D&D and one of the reasons it is not more popular, but with a proper GM who creates an interesting world, knows the core rules and doesn’t overburden their players with them, the possibilities are endless.
The beginnings of D&D date back to the 70s, when the game evolved from miniature wargames, which originated from military strategy in the 19th century, as figures were used to keep track of the armies’ movements on the battlefields. D&D was traditionally played in a fantasy medieval setting and was long relegated to the stuffy basements of hardcore, antisocial geeks, as the games followed an unimaginative, pre-determined scenario of entering a dungeon, defeating the monsters, taking the treasure and gaining experience points (XP) to advance the characters to a new level, where they became more powerful and gained new battle abilities. As you can probably tell, D&D is essentially the grandparent of the entire computer gaming industry, with today’s RPGs like World of Warcraft, Assassin’s creed, the Elder Scrolls, Fallout etc. racking in millions every year.
The big boom of D&D popularity occured in the 90s, with the introduction of new editions and more complex systems, which were no longer focused on combat alone, but also on the social, role-playing aspects. That’s when the sky truly became the limit, as the game now offered enough structure to support lengthy campaigns with elaborate stories and the GMs could make up entire worlds and plots without worrying over the system. The game became quite popular within the whole geek community, but never gained a strong foothold among the “normal” population, because it still required the GM and the players to learn and know that pesky, book-length set of rules. With the arrival of computers that became much simpler, as the technical part of D&D can be automatized to a degree (there is even an online version of D&D called roll20) and the burden of preparing for the game sessions falls mostly on the GM.
”The campaign took 2 weeks to plan! How was I supposed to know it was going to take 10 hours?”Mike (Stranger Things)
Nowdays, D&D requires relatively little effort from the players, if the GM is willing to do all the work beforehand, which is good news for those of you who have always wanted to try, but felt like it would be too complicated. Sci-fi and fantasy have gone from weird and stupid to socially acceptable, which is why the game is again gaining popularity, particularly through one shot try-it-out sessions for beginners. It will probably never be as popular as computer games, which have the advantage of being visually stimulating and more hands-on interactive, but it remains a timeless classic, because it is essentially a sandbox and everyone can create their own story with their own characters. Although the traditional and the most popular D&D setting is still the medieval fantasy world with an overly developed lore, the game is no longer just about dungeons and dragons, as there are now also D&D spin-offs set in the Harry Potter world, Lovecraftian universe, post-apocalyptic worlds, World of Darkness (vampires, werewolves etc.) and so on. Do you want to play a cuddly talking bear-vampire hybrid wielding a machine gun, who is best friends with a deranged water elemental half-elf who pukes fireballs? No problem! You won’t find this in any of the core rulebooks, but with a bit of effort, the game system can be adapted to suit any setting and accommodate the wishes of any player, which is why it is so great.
However, D&D at its core is still a social activity, which requires a good group dynamic. Like in any social acitivity, the people playing together need to get along and must have reasonably similar interests and level of imagination or the game will derail and at the very least become boring and tedious. I’ve played many games with different people, both strangers and friends, in very different settings, and I’ve even GMed a few, so there have been good and bad games. I’ve found that the skill or experience of the players and the GM doesn’t really matter, as long as everyone agrees on the same level of difficulty and noone is a total stickler for the rules, as everyone will usually help each other out with the technicalities of the game. So, those of you who would like to try D&D and feel intimidated by “experienced” players, don’t! The bad games always came down to two factors: either the players or the GM felt their contributions to the game were unappreciated and unvalued, which resulted in pigheadedness on both sides, with the players ultimately feeling like the GM was being unfair in their decisions, or the group just wasn’t quite right together. Sometimes people just don’t get along and that is perfectly fine, because it is after all just a game and it is supposed to be fun.
For me it has been one of the few constant hobbies in my life since high school and I’ve made friends by joining D&D groups both in Sweden and England when I lived abroad, so I encourage everyone who is at least a little bit geek-blooded to give it a try! Where else will you be able to steal the princess, burn down an entire village for looking at your shoes the wrong way, seduce a troll in a bikini, fight mutant zombie spiders and gelatinous blobs, or scam the living daylights out of a cleric? Because yes, these are events from the actual games I’ve played and I promise you, with the right group you will laugh your heart out and wish for more when the game is over.
Share your thoughts with me