Playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time this century

What happens when one man returns to playing Dungeons & Dragons, for the first time in a decade or two?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

I think it’s fair to say Dungeons And Dragons has a reputation, perpetuated by lazy comedians, of being a game for sad, lonely virgins with no social skills. In my experience, it’s played by groups of close friends, often as a pre-gaming session before going out. In the small sample of players that I know, and without wishing to be coarse, everyone is fine for that sort of thing, thanks for asking.

They are all guys though. I don’t know how typical that is, but I do know how stereotypical. I also know several D&D other halves who are planning a knitting circle, and to be honest I’m interested in joining that as well. I think with practice I could just about manage a dice bag.

I last tried playing D&D with my brother at some point in the late 20th century, and after a while we just gave up and tried Warhammer instead. Let’s not examine the logic of this decision too closely, as it’s a bit like finding the Territorial Army a hassle then signing up for Tough Mudder instead. At any rate, it’s been around 20 years since I tried playing the game and by the time I was next offered a go, I’d allocated my knowledge to Doctor Who and football squad numbers trivia. I didn’t think I had space left for anything else, until a very particular set of circumstances arose.

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I got asked to contribute to a failure outcome for a Dungeons And Dragons inspired poem, one where the verses chosen would be determined by a member of the audience’s dice rolls. This required no actual knowledge of D&D to complete, merely fulfilling the criteria of ‘write the least romantic romance poem you can’. This was part of an Edinburgh Fringe show by a spoken word group called Loud Poets, two of whom regularly partake of a Glaswegian RPG called SLA (pronounced ‘Slay’) Industries. They had the idea of getting a bunch of poets together to do a D&D podcast. They asked me to play under the assumption that, as a nerd, I was up to scratch.

I said I hadn’t played in a while. They said that was fine. I didn’t have work the next day, I hadn’t got into an argument about what shirt number Colin Hendry wore in his first season at Rangers (it was 35, and anyone who says otherwise is a goddamn liar) for a few years, so part of my brain space was going spare. I said yes, despite being fully aware that the only reason I even vaguely knew how to play D&D was because more nerds are writing sitcoms.

As I said, Dungeons And Dragons is something of a shorthand in comedy for an image of geekdom that feels dated. There are more voices being heard challenging the existing perception. In 2010 an episode of The IT Crowd showed initially sceptical people enjoying playing D&D, and managed to make it look fun and funny. The following year an episode of Community did the same. This unearthed two truths previously only known to devotees:

1. As D&D is largely about storytelling, it’s surprisingly easy to get swept up in it.2. Richard Ayoade and Danny Pudi doing funny voices is never not going to be entertaining.

Also worth noting: if you’ve never played D&D before, which I essentially hadn’t, watching these two episodes is actually a pretty good grounding in how the game works (plus there’s another Community one in a later series). Sure, it’s much faster paced to fit things into a 25 minute episode, but between these and the WikiHow article How To Play Dungeons And Dragons I knew the basics. I knew enough to turn up and not ruin it for everyone, an aspiration that is seldom realised.

I still might have slowed the game down further, being less confident on the nuances of spells and their effects, but I was lucky. I had a sympathetic dungeon master. If you are going to have a dungeon master, you want them to be sympathetic whatever the context. Traditionally, wizards are only so forgetful. Gandalf usually knows what to do pretty quickly. As a cleric, though, I needed to be regularly reminded what my spells actually did. If it weren’t for said sympathetic dungeon master, I might have been picking spells at random to see what they did, like the soldiers in Bill Hicks’ Gulf War routine. Towards the end, having picked up a vague idea of what I was doing, I was eventually able to contribute to a foe-based smiting, and I felt accordingly righteous.

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As I said, one thing that the sitcom depictions of D&D nail is how into it you get. The combination of gaming, character investment and storytelling means that, when presented with a situation that’s obviously going to kick off, there’s a greater feeling of tension than if you were just reading about it, and an immense sense of satisfaction after vanquishing a persistent (and egregiously sassy) opponent.

The internet has done many wonderful things (eg. portmanteau testing areas, the invention of cats), but to my mind, the peak of geekiness is being in a room with lots of other people who all care about the same thing, all get joy out of it and can revel in the shared knowledge and in-jokes. The planned podcast is probably never getting released, because it’s just us talking crap at 3am, but as an experience winging D&D after watching some sitcoms on Netflix was definitely in the ’10/10 would partake again’ category.

Oh, and a shout out to the warm up game we played before hand, Avalon. This is an Arthurian themed version of The Resistance. If you’ve never played either, they’re both essentially the same game where the players are dealt cards that assign them roles in a resistance group, or as spies trying to infiltrate said group. The two sides then try to win three out of five missions and everyone gets really paranoid. It really is a delightful way to spend an evening.

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