A Roll of the (20 Sided) Dice

18 April 2016

Martec Quartzhammer, Dwarven mage, sidles up to the too-high bar of the inn. Across the dingy room a fight has broken out between two patrons. They knock over wooden tables and chairs, splashing mugs of ale across the sawdusted floor. Peasants scramble away from the fight, rescuing their meagre plates of cheese and hard bread, and head for the exit into the wind and rain outside. One of the combatants is a gangly teenage boy, the other a huge bald man, an unarmed knight. Martec sighs. The teenager is part of his team. He looks away from the fight, past the worried publican, at the shelf of spirits behind the bar. There is a crash as the knight picks up the teenager and slams him bodily through a table. Martec winces. He must think quickly. With a subtle twitch of his fingers, he summons the power that courses through his veins and magically ignites a fire among the bottles of alcohol.

Dungeon Master: Are you sure?

Player: Yeah. Nah. Yeah, we need a distraction.

Three buildings burn down. Martec is arrested for arson and murder.

Anything can happen in Dungeons and Dragons, whether you want it to or not. Since it was created in 1974 by American duo Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, countless players have waded haplessly into adventures of the imagination. Even now, with the ubiquitous presence of digital entertainment, millions of people still prefer to sit at a table with their friends (or strangers) and role-play their characters in fantastic situations.

You may already have an image in your mind about the game: a bunch of social outcasts in a basement, dressed in robes, shouting things like “Excelsior!” and “Have at Thee!”, generally nerding out for a few hours. And while this may certainly be the case for some groups, Dungeons and Dragons means many things to many people. For a start, it can use a fantasy setting but people choose to adapt it into other genres, such as sci-fi or horror. For some players, it is a chance to hang out and play a game with their friends. For others, it is an opportunity to use their creativity. For others still, it is a way to inhabit another person in a safe and imaginary setting and to either explore or escape aspects of themselves.

Many people are somewhat familiar with the concept of Dungeons and Dragons because it has been featured on TV shows such as The Simpsons, Community, The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory. However, these depictions hide the planning, structure and player investment that goes into a successful game. But what they do capture well is the many ways that the whole thing can go terribly awry.

Dungeons and Dragons is played by a group of people of any size you want, although god help you if it’s more than eight because I promise it will all go to hell. One of these has the task of being Dungeon Master and it’s their job to create the imaginary world in which the game occurs. They must act as every person and creature that the players meet, describe everywhere they go and create the scenarios into which the players’ characters enter. They work either out of a handbook or make it up as they go along. This is the true challenge of the game: if you have a shitty Dungeon Master, you’ll probably have a shitty time. The players are armed with nothing but a character sheet, which displays all the abilities and skills at their disposal, and a set of gaming dice. The primary dice used in Dungeons and Dragons, as with many tabletop games, is the 20 sided dice, or d20.

The gameplay mechanic at the core of the whole game is simple. The Dungeon Master asks players to describe what they would like to do in the game. In the case of Martec Quartzhammer (a high school friend who now works in medical research) burning down the tavern, the player would say that they wished to start a fire using a spell. The Dungeon Master would ask them to roll their dice for it, setting a score that must be beaten in order to succeed, based on difficulty. With the skill of the character added to a roll of the d20, the player tries to beat the score set by the Dungeon Master and if they do, then the action succeeds, and you get to wonder if anyone at the table knows how fire works.

The more interesting and valuable part of Dungeons and Dragons – the reason it continues to be relevant today – is the role-playing element. Players are encouraged to fully inhabit their characters and to experience the adventure from their perspective (heroic or otherwise). It’s a challenge that’s rewarded with a gameplay experience unlike any other. Unlike books and films, the direction of the story is not dictated by a third party but rather evolves according to the actions of the players; the potential actions, conversations and consequences in the game are not limited to what has been programmed, unlike in open-world video games.

So if you have ever been curious about Dungeons and Dragons, give it a try. Some readers may be hesitant because of the stigma attached but they shouldn’t be. It’s a fun pastime to do with your friends and you get to live another life. Whether you choose to be a good guy, that’s up to you.

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