The other day i rambled on about D&D and i’d like to keep the die rolling with that so let’s dive back into it, shall we?
i touched on a common stumbling block for new and/or hopeful players, and that’s simply getting started. Before concerns about playstyles, published vs. homebrew or any of the like enters the equation, the big hurdle for both those who have never rolled up a character and folks who used to play long ago is: where to begin?
i’m here to tell you that it’s not as challenging as you suspect. Perhaps a bit more esoteric than tabletop board games contained in a box with codified rules that fit on a single sheet of paper, a board, a few tokens and some six-sided dice that can be played at the drop of a hat by a handful of people, sure. But D&D can just as easily be a one-shot session with very little work involved.
Even longtime, experienced players sometimes set their sprawling, years-long campaigns aside and play a single session game with no strings attached. Anything from a small dungeon with a few rooms to a gladiatorial arena battle pitting players against fantastic beasts – or even each other – can be put together in a few minutes, with characters of any level, for a night’s worth of gaming.
The elegance of D&D lies in its adaptability to whatever the group wishes to make of it. At the very minimum, all that is needed to play is the basic rules, a set of polyhedral dice, paper, pencils, a few people and their imaginations. Wizards of the Coast, who publishes D&D, even offers the basic rules completely free! It’s entirely possible to play anything from a single night’s game session to a campaign lasting years that follows a group of adventurers from first to 20th level using just this free ruleset.
One person takes on the role of the Dungeon Master, or DM. (Other roleplaying games refer to this role as the Game Master, or GM.) Everyone else creates a Player Character, or PC, to interact with the world that the DM presents. The important thing to note is that the relationship between DM and players is not an adversarial one; the DM’s goal is not to kill the players.
However, there is a distinction between this and the relationship between the DM’s world and the PCs, because there ARE monsters, villains and traps whose goal most certainly is the defeat of the characters. It’s up to the players, using wits, skill, ingenuity and imagination, to devise plans and tactics to overcome these dangers – and that can sometimes include running away to fight another day. A good DM presents challenges to the players that are not inescapable.
At the same time, a DM is spinning multiple plates that need to react realistically to player actions. There’s a social contract between the DM and players that adventures are going to be tough, and that taking on risk will garner reward. But biting off more than they can chew or pressing on when resources are low holds the very real possibility of character deaths.
Back to the basic question at hand though: how to actually start? The onus of the work to get a game going lies primarily with the DM, whose job it is to come up with a scenario and set the stage – sort of like a writer and director for a film or play. The players create characters like fighters, wizards, rogues and clerics. From there, the players (and in many ways the DM as well) simply improvise what happens next in a shared storytelling experience.
This doesn’t need to be very complicated. The most classic adventure set-up is that all the PCs are in a tavern, and the adventure comes to them. The DM describes the surroundings, like the warm glow of the hearth fire in the modest tavern, where a mutton-chopped bartender wipes down the worn oak bar while a few locals mutter to themselves at a nearby table, perhaps casting sidelong glances at the out-of-town troublemaker sorts (the PCs). A blacksmith bursts in, desperate to find someone to help save a child kidnapped by goblins; a merchant seeks caravan guards on a trip through dangerous territory; a captain of the village guard needs able-bodied folk to defend against a bandit raid; the local priest is in over their head when the dead in the town cemetery begin to rise from their graves.
From there, players make choices on what their characters do. They tell the DM what they want to do, and the DM responds. When they talk with the blacksmith/merchant/guard/priest, the DM takes on the role of the non-player characters (NPCs). The same goes for when players confront the antagonists, whether those are goblins, bandits, zombies or the eponymous dragons. When players take action, the DM has them roll dice, modified by their characters’ skills and abilities, and determines what happens based on success or failure.
All while this mechanical stuff is taking place, everyone at the table is collectively developing a story. The adventurers set off to rescue the blacksmith’s child, and along the way, they get lost in the woods. Fortunately one of them has a background as a hunter, and manages to pick up the goblins’ trail, leading them to a ruins that the goblins have made their lair. Boldly striding inside, a goblin-laid trap catches the party unaware and a couple of them fall into a concealed pit (always remember to check for traps!). With a bit of ingenuity, and a trusty rope, they’re able to climb out and continue on their way, with a touch of healing magic to recover from falling injuries.
Getting the drop on some of the goblins, the party subdues them and learns they kidnapped the kid on orders from their boss, who from their description commands powerful magic that they fear. Forging ahead, the party finds a chamber where the goblin boss – an orc shaman – is in the midst of an arcane ritual, with the blacksmith’s child looking to be some sort of focus for the dark procedure. The party’s wizard uses their arcane knowledge to disrupt the ritual, and a battle with the shaman unfolds. Things look grim when the shaman summons two giant wolves, but the adventurers work together and take their enemies down. They rescue the child and return to the village as heroes.
That’s about as simple as D&D can be. There’s no grandiose epic story or political intrigue, and it hits on all three pillars of play: exploration (through the woods, through the goblin lair, encountering the trap), combat (fighting the orc shaman) and social interaction (blacksmith, subdued goblins).
Just as the players improvise their actions based on what the DM presents to them, in my opinion a lot of DM work can be improvised as well. The interplay between players and DMs is where the actual storytelling aspect of D&D takes place. Even the most intricate plot a DM might devise will invariably change (usually almost immediately once play begins) based on the party’s actions. But that’s a discussion for another day.
For now, whether you’ve never played before, or used to but haven’t in a while, or if you get together with a group of friends for gaming on the regular, there’s never been a better time to give D&D a shot. The basic rules are totally free, and the current 5th edition of the game is easy to learn and very streamlined compared to older editions.
The only rule i insist adhering to is this: if everyone at the table has fun, everything else in the rules is optional.