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WTF – Dungeons & Dragons

Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot or WTF is our new weekly column diving into the semi weird and confusing terrain of life as we know it currently. Is it news? We aren’t entirely sure, but we know it’s all important. Once a week our very own Thomas McKenzie will dive into a new and semi-ridiculous topic. Have an idea you would like explored? Please send him an email and maybe he will pick up your weird pitch.

This week, I want to talk about Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the fantasy tabletop role-playing game where the players have total freedom of action, but the dice have the final word. I’ve always leaned more toward science fiction than fantasy, favoring spaceships to dragons and away-team missions to quests, but there’s nothing like a good session of Dungeons & Dragons with friends. I’ve been a fan of the game since I was a scratchy-voiced little nerd devouring library books on rockets, spazzing out to Iron Maiden, and carving the boxy “S” into wooden desktops.

The genius of the game lies in its simplicity. You really only need a copy of the rules, pencils and paper, and one each of the following dice: 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, and 20-sided. You can purchase dice in a basic kit, or chase your own face down a never-ending staircase of expensive and colorful accessories. You do you.

Ideally, 5-7 people meet in a set location on a regular schedule; their phones off, their distractions aside, and the Dungeon Master (DM) seated at the head of the table. The DM has either written their own campaign, or they’ve done the research on the one you’re playing, but they’re the ones who tell the story. You’re relying on them as your eyes and ears, and they’re expecting you to ask questions and interact with the world they’ve labored to create for you.

As players take turns responding to the DM’s story in character, their actions add to the plot and drive the narrative as they work together to achieve a long-term goal. Maybe the group was hired to drive a dark threat from the land, or paid handsomely in advance to conduct a search-and-destroy to find a mysterious artifact robbing the life and light of magic users across the ancient jungle land. Some days the goal is just staying alive long enough to recover your damaged hit points and refill empty spell slots, living to adventure another day. The game is driven by the three pillars of adventuring: combat, exploration, and social interaction — but in no specific order. Sure, sometimes you have to fight, but combat doesn’t always have to be your first impulse. There are plenty of ways to solve your problems without fighting. My favorite sessions were the ones where we leveraged brazen cunning, split-second timing, crude insults, and a pickpocket’s knack for misdirection to achieve our desired outcome. Those were the nights we laughed the loudest, trading happy whoops and relieved high-fives over half-empty pizza boxes and cans of fancy beer at having talked our way out of another tense situation, all the while a great and terrible battle loomed on the horizon…

The timeframe of a D&D campaign is truly infinite. One game or campaign can last for one, ten, twenty, or a hundred years. Ideally the characters improve with every session, growing in power and knowledge as they amass magical items and powerful spells as time wears on. As with any game, leveling up a character represents days and weeks of alternating joy and frustration.

It takes time, effort (and luck) to find the right group who can afford to play often, but it’s been my experience that D&D players are willing to share what they’ve learned and to help guide newcomers through the initial process. It’s an inclusive environment; ultimately, you want different kinds of people to play with — and you especially want people who will make things happen in-game. The group benefits from the experience, gaining new tactics and ideas, and in turn learning to become better players.

Pre-made characters are available for beginners, but most prefer to breathe life into a character from scratch and invent their own backstory. Commit to your character: Maybe you’re an exiled soldier from a neighboring dimension, or an orphaned barbarian who’s spent her whole life alone in the jungle, or a shape-shifting druid with a thing for tigers, or an insult-hurling bard, or a firebolt flinging bird-being. Get crazy with it, and have fun! Just remember that characters aren’t all-powerful until they start leveling into double digits, and the dice reserve the right to ruin your night at any time. Witness as your obsessively designed character, loaded up with powerful spells and hit points, armed to the teeth and sharp as a ship of knives, sneaks toward an evil creature standing on a cliff. You reach out to shove him forcefully off from the edge…

DM: “You need to roll at least a 10,” (you roll a 1) “…so instead, you nudge him. Lovingly. He’s turning to face you, and he appears to be armed and angry.”

The fun began in 1967 when Gary Gygax and others formed The International Federation of Wargaming to provide a venue for wargame fans to trade ideas for amateur game designs. At the end of “Chainmail”, one such wargame written by Gygax and Jeff Perren to simulate the intricacies of medieval combat, was a 14-page supplement which described the application of the medieval combat rules into fantasy; the how-to for magic swords and monsters, and simple spells for throwing lightning bolts or casting fire. Dave Arneson read the “Chainmail” rules and adapted them to “Blackmoor”, a fantasy world of his own inspired by Lord of the Rings. This new version included a key component: Players would portray a single character as they explored underground dungeons where they’d face perils and puzzles. Under these new rules, the characters and the story would carry over from session to session, with the characters working together and improving their skill over time.

In 1972, Arneson traveled from Minneapolis to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to run “Blackmoor” for Gygax, who was floored by the design. Arneson mailed him 18 hand-written pages of rules, which Gygax expanded to fifty and began test-playing the game with his own children. Soon, Gygax and Arneson codified their combined ideas and experiences into a single ruleset they titled Dungeons & Dragons. Unable to find a publisher, Gygax formed Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR). Dungeons & Dragons sold three copies the first month, which consisted of three booklets in a faux woodgrain cardboard box: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. Over the next eleven months, the entire hand-assembled print run of 1,000 games sold out.

In just ten years, Gygax went from being an out-of-work game designer cobbling shoes in his basement for extra money and running his game business on his dining room table, to living in a Beverly Hills mansion with a TV show based on the game he’d created, and a corporation valued in the millions with offices in Great Britain and Los Angeles.

For years, D&D was outlaw nerd territory, the game whose players dared not speak its name; as blatant a Bat-signal of nerdiness as pocket protectors and taped eyeglasses. The game drew negative notoriety in the 1980s for its alleged support of Satanism, suicide, witchcraft, pornography, and murder. Religious groups of the time were insisting the game encouraged sorcery, venerated demons, and presumed the existence of large, organized cults. (Black spray paint and crude vandalism have been dating on and off ever since.) Some religious figures believed that a person would suffer a psychotic break while playing. One man, claiming to be a reformed Wiccan priest (as well as a reformed Satanic priest), penned a series of articles criticizing D&D from a Christian perspective. The article was titled “Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons” and it was published by Chick Publications. (If you’ve never read a Chick Tract, let me show you what a runaway imagination really looks like.)

If you take anything away from this blatant promotion for (and my obvious love of) D&D, I hope it’s that everyone is invited to the table. Strength through diversity is just as important on game night as it is anywhere else; different people from different backgrounds with different strengths and abilities coming together to solve problems and have fun is what D&D is all about.

Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of overly paranoid “murder hobos” stomping around the forest looting bodies, stealing magic weapons, burninating the villages, and letting terrible things happen to them. But there are still far worse ways to spend a Thursday night.

P.S. NEVER split the party

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