Have you heard? Everyone’s doing this D&D thing. Everyone. The olds, the yoof, the nerds, the cool kids, the creatives, your mum, uh, I dunno, dead people, everyone. Especially now that all of us live inside, in front of a computer screen, desperate for any distraction from the grinding maw of 2020 devouring all light and hope, the darkness, the eternity, the voice like two gravestones grinding together, the lockdown, the anti-life,
…okay, this is off to a great start.
So yeah, everyone loves D&D now, everyone listens to D&D podcasts and watches D&D livestreams and goes to D&D-themed drag queen shows and none of this makes any sense to old geeks like me but hey, fine, let’s roll with it, life is strange.
And as an established/certified Nerd Whisperer, I find more and more people – co-workers, relatives, casual acquaintances, authors, artists, editors, academics, arts administrators (much respect), the blokes down the bottle-shop – asking me how to play D&D.
(They never offer to pay me for this guidance, but that’s fine. It’s fine.)
I didn’t ask to have this great responsibility put upon my broad shoulders, but I will carry this weight because I am the hero you need, rather than the hero you deserve (who has much narrower shoulders). That’s right, I’m gonna write a few posts (hopefully not spaced too far apart) about How 2 D&D – and, because this is still theoretically a writer’s blog, how to create and enjoy D&D stories (whatever those are) and/or different forms of fantasy stories though playing games.
(If you’re not clear on what D&D is, a) sorry, this is gonna be a dull series of posts for you, b) my bestest mate Ben McKenzie wrote a Medium article about them a few years back that will sort you right out, go give it a read, it’s fun.)
Let’s start with the most fundamental question.
What’s the deal with Dungeons & Dragons?
D&D – and all the other creations within the role-playing game milieu, of which there are thousands – is a game that involves folks sitting around a table (or a video chat window, these days) and contributing ideas to the real-time creation of a shared story. It gives players different roles and/or characters to shape their involvement in that story, and uses a system of rules to determine the outcomes of actions and decisions in that shared creative space. Oh, and it’s fun.
(If you don’t like that description, you’re experienced enough that you probably have one that you prefer, so just pretend I said that instead.)
D&D comes in the form of three hardcover books – the Players’ Handbook (how to make characters, all the rules, lots and lots of magic spells), Dungeon Master’s Guide (rules and advice on creating and ‘running’ (being in charge of) settings and games) and Monster Manual (a collection of bad things characters are meant to stab, zap and generally thwart). There are also a bunch of other resources you can buy, whether big hardcover resources or small, independent digital products, but I’m not bothering with any of that at the moment.
The game has been around in various forms since the 1970s; the current version is the 5th edition. Don’t buy the wrong edition by accident! I think 4th Edition is the best the game ever was, but all your cool nerd children will be confused/horrified if you bring it home.
The default D&D story
More germane to this blog is that D&D is designed to facilitate certain kinds of fantasy stories. These involve:
- larger-than-life heroes, or at least characters who become larger-than-life over a (short) period of time
- similarly LTL/melodramatic antagonists, usually in the form of monsters and villains
- a focus on solving external problems, such as the machinations of the antagonists
- action and adventure, most often manifested as combat with those antagonists
- a world of both fantastic and mundane elements to explore.
(There are also some common D&D tropes, like a semi-medieval setting, a variety of different sentient peoples and the power/prevalence of magic, but I see those more as expressions of story than types, and it’s my blog so it’s my rules.)
To summarise, D&D primarily creates action-adventure fantasy stories about larger-than-life characters solving problems by going to dangerous locations (e.g. dungeons) and defeating antagonists (e.g. dragons).
I don’t mean this as a criticism – I fuckin’ love those kinds of stories. I’ve been playing games about those kinds of stories for more than 30 years! But they’re not the be- and end-all of fantasy, even if you pull a Borders and stick all the urban fantasy and magical realist novels on the Literature or Romance shelves ‘cos only books with elves go in Fantasy.
If you want to make fantasy stories with a more personal feel, that don’t revolve around conflict and problem-solving, that focus on interiority or exploration of cultural/spiritual meaning… D&D won’t stop you from doing that, but it won’t help you either, and the tools it does provide might distract you from those goals. After all, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; when all you have is a warhammer, two healing potions and a dungeon map, every problem looks like a monster that needs smiting.
(Was my preferred edition any different? No, not at all. This isn’t that kind of long D&D polemic.)
Do I come to praise D&D or to bury it?
Why are those the only two options?
D&D is fine. D&D is good, actually – especially if you want to co-create D&D-style stories, and are happy bringing your own material to bear if/when you want to explore other concepts. That’s what all the folks do in their D&D shows and ‘casts, after all.
But if you want a story that’s more A Wizard of Earthsea than Gord the Rogue, or more encouragement/support for exploring character, or rules about intrigue and romance, or fewer and simpler rules overall, or you simply don’t want to drop 200 frickin’ bucks on a game you’re not that sure you’ll like… well, maybe D&D isn’t the D&D for you.
Come back next time and we’ll look at some alternatives and the kind of stories they produce. That should be in… let’s say two weeks.
I can’t write next week – I’ll be doing some D&D.