Updated: May 23
To be specific, she’s a level 6 mountain dwarf cleric who’s handy with an axe and whose favourite move involves using fireballs to incinerate rats and undead creatures alike. Overkill. She’s also partial to wielding a magically conjured mage hand to manipulate objects at a safe distance - sometimes to trigger traps, other times to tickle guards. At her behest, I enrolled myself in the campaign and began ambling around Sword Coast with my merry band of heroes. Welcome to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), fifth edition. This pop cultural phenomenon has spun off a cartoon, comic books, and even Stranger Things on Netflix.
Like most people, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The usual stereotypes levelled against the game - that it’s juvenile, nefarious, or harmful - have not proven true in my play experience. Quite the opposite: I’ve found it highly immersive, philosophical, and experimental.
Here’s a quick primer. D&D, the mother of all tabletop role-playing games (RPG), is distinct from its older tabletop wargaming cousins. The difference lies in its scale. In tabletop wargaming, players face-off armies of largely nameless and faceless miniature soldiers against one another. Players take a bird’s eye view of the battlefield and manoeuvre their forces in huge formations. I still recall the satisfaction of fielding my Bretonnian army of knights and men-at-arms I had meticulously assembled and painted as a teenager.
With D&D, however, each player designs a personally customised character, replete with deep backstories and detailed traits that mature over time - just like a living person. There are no strangers in D&D: each character has a name and a face and a special place in your heart. These characters journey together as a party, defeating foes, discovering treasures, and building reputations in a fictional world woven together by the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM plays a crucial role. He/she stitches together a campaign storyline and populates it with peoples, places, and problems that your party will encounter. Along the way your characters will converse, coerce, or clash with other non-playable characters (NPCs) controlled by the DM. The campaign literally unfolds as the DM and players channel their moves through their characters in this fictional world.
D&D is relatively cheap to play. You don’t need a costly army of miniatures or lifelike dioramas, although those would certainly enrich the play experience. Instead of a battlefield that might span several tabletops, the play area in D&D is confined to an erasable grid template that constantly gets redrawn as your party moves, to centre on the rooms, corridors, or streets of a small building, village, or underground tunnel system. Equipped with your player’s handbook, character sheet, and seven dice, ranging from a 4-sided die (D4) to a 20-sided die (D20), you’re all set to start adventuring!
It’s been a year since I started my first campaign. I’ve gained a newfound respect for this genre of play. I’d like to share several perspectives on it, which surprised me as a D&D debutant.
D&D is incredibly immersive. As characters navigating a fictional world, players are literally co-creating it with every spoken word. The DM might set the scene and tell you where your party has arrived - say the suspiciously sealed-off entrance of a cave, the outlines of which might be drawn out by marker pen in 2D. You and your fellow players fill in the details by asking the DM questions to clarify what your party sees, smells, touches, or hears in that space. There’s no flashy animation or sound effects here, just your imaginations on overdrive painting in the scene. Once you’ve made enough clarifications to satisfy your need for security, you describe your characters’ next moves as they fiddle their way into the cave. My wife, cautious to a fault now, would feel around the cave entrance for traps with her dwarf’s mage hand while everyone else hides behind cover. She’s learnt her lesson: her past characters have been unceremoniously killed off when she impetuously kicked down booby-trapped doors or comically fell into spiked pits. Not so funny as the party becomes one character short in future fights. Her obsessive checking annoys our DM, who teeters on the edge of his seat, impatient to reveal what’s waiting within.
D&D mirrors life. Sure there are magical and mythical references thrown into the mix, but those elements are merely incidental. What makes D&D so relatable and relevant are the choices that you, as a player, have to make on behalf of your character in response to how the campaign storyline develops. Suppose you catch a band of orcs in the act of ambushing a rich trade caravan. They’re momentarily stunned by the sudden appearance of your party on the wagon path. Do you draw swords and fight to the death, subdue and bind them for the next mounted patrol to pick them up, or join them in the ambush expecting to split the loot? There are financial and ethical implications to how you decide as a party. I recall a time when we entered into lengthy mid-encounter debates on whether it was right or moral for our party to leave an unknown and unconscious NPC behind as we fled from a fog of wraiths. You may think you’re a pragmatist, free to decide as the circumstances dictate. Yet, your choices are not made in a vacuum as you are aligned along the axes of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic, and have to act in character - so to speak. The real world parallel to this are frameworks for personality types that describe how one is predisposed to behave. For example, my wife is lawful-good - both as a woman and as a dwarf - and operates within the rules to fight for truth and justice; I cannot imagine her breaking the island’s laws, or siding with fiends and bloodsuckers to gain unfair advantage, even in the D&D realm of Sword Coast.
D&D is the ultimate sandbox. Within the safe and self-contained limits of your campaign storyline, you get to step into the boots of a new persona that could be as similar or dissimilar to who you are in daily life. If you crave release from always being lawful-good in the office, try playing a chaotic-neutral Gnome and learn to dodge arrows. You get to confront novel situations and explore equally novel solutions from the perspective of your new persona. Time is elastic in D&D. You have time to think/talk through different responses with other players before committing to one action/reaction. The only limit to what you can do in this sandbox is set by the rules of play and your own imagination. There are real world benefits to this. We role play all the time - at school, at work, or at the marketplace. And we play a multitude of different roles - some assigned, others assumed. D&D gives players an opportunity to role play with conviction.
In Sword Coast, I play a lawful-good level 5 half-Elf paladin who doesn’t shy away from enemies, has the ability to sense the presence of evil, and shield-smite it. I sometimes ask myself what my character would do if he had to speak in public or deal with rude customers, as I’ve had to do in the real world. I could go on and wax lyrical about D&D but I’m going to pause now, and let Vin Diesel show you how he rolls.