This year is the 40th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons. So, in celebration of that, and in light of the fact that D&D is releasing a new edition this summer, I’m posting some stories I have of playing Dungeons and Dragons and other roll-playing games.
Last time, I talked about the creation of my first character, Calvin Dugray (a human swashbuckler). Roleplaying as him was a blast right off the bat, but if I’m honest, I was crap at the game. I spent months, if not years, confused about which dice I was meant to be rolling at any given time. I certainly didn’t design or play my characters to take full advantage of everything the rules were capable of (though I’ve watched players completely break the game bending the rules of character design to make themselves all but invincible, so there was certainly no shortage of people who could offer guidance). But what I loved was slipping into the skin of a character once a week and going on an adventure.
In one of our first sessions, we were in the tower of a necromancer, fending off an army of goblins. A few of us were in the basement (yes, we split the party), making bombs out of lamp oil and magic. I was guarding the back door (our first mistake) when I saw a gang of hobgoblins charging up the stairs at me.
Now, at this point, the logical response is to draw my sword - you know, that thing that the book gives you stats for, and tells you how to roll dice to hit and do damage. But I was a newbie, and I had a flair for the dramatic. So, instead, I asked the DM if there was a torch on the wall - he confirmed there was - and then I smashed the goblin lieutenant in the face with a vial of oil, ran up the wall, grabbed the torch, and brought it down on her oil-covered head, setting her ablaze.
It was incredibly satisfying, even when one of her soldiers smacked me with his sword and knocked me out. (Calvin spent a lot of time getting knocked unconscious.)
"But Mike," you might be saying from your side of the screen, "you got defeated!" And yes, if you get technical, that’s very much true - there were 3 soldiers, and I managed to outlast only one of them, which is not a great score at the end of the day. But it was incredibly rewarding to come up with an outside-the-box idea, and turn to my friends and say, "Guys, my guy is a swashbuckler. He’s going to try something." And I still remember the look on my DM’s face as I asked about the torch, as it started on a combination of confusion and sympathy for his poor friend who just couldn’t grasp the rules, then transitioned to a look of dawning comprehension and excitement as he realized what I was trying to achieve.
(Based on New Avengers #27 by Leinil Yu.)
And that’s what the game is about. That’s what separates a game like Dungeons and Dragons from the video games it has inspired. Make no mistake, any video game where you climb levels and punch out monsters as you play a character who gets progressively more badass - so, you know, all of them - owes a bit of its origins to Dungeons and Dragons. This was the first game that gave you control over a solo character, rather than an army in the fashion of wargames of the time. And as great as some video games might be, they’ll never really match the level of improvisation and unpredictability that comes with a tabletop game.
You can program an NPC in Assassin’s Creed or Mass Effect to simulate realistic reactions to the PC’s actions, but at the end of the day there will always be limits. But when every NPC, villain, and environment is narrated by your friend, and exists only in your collective imagination, then the sky truly is the limit. No matter how badly you want Mario to pick up bricks and start flinging them at Yoshi, that’s not something you’re capable of doing in most video games. But in D&D, the only limit is your imagination… well, that and all those numbers on your character sheet, and, of course, the roll of the dice.