Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ten years of Dungeons and Dragons, Mach II

This May will mark the 10th anniversary of my return to Dungeons and Dragons, all with the same group. I’m not sure how we’ll celebrate the occasion, though we were joking at our last session that we might do something crazy and … play a game of Dungeons and Dragons or something. Maybe we’ll show up in hooded cloaks or armor.

I haven’t posted about RPGs in a long time here on The Silver Key, mainly because I haven’t had a whole lot to say. I never got embroiled in the 4E controversy because our group never made the shift. These days I’m a player, not a DM, and I generally just go with the flow. But this recent article on and our impending 10 year anniversary has prompted a few thoughts on why I continue to play and enjoy this uncommon pastime.

This is my second go-round with D&D and the longest unbroken stretch I’ve ever played. Like most folks of my age (37) I started with the Tom Moldvay Basic boxed set, which in 1982 I begged as a gift from my parents. I would have been nine or 10 years old at the time. While the cardboard box is long-gone I still have the tattered red rulebook and my original copy of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, from which I will not be parted even unto death.

Back in those grade school days I played a heavy rotation of games, peaking in middle school. I played mostly D&D with a group of friends but we also occasionally branched out into games like Car Wars, Runequest, Middle Earth Role Playing, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret. Our gaming wasn’t limited to after school sessions and late nights on the weekend, either. My middle school offered Dungeons and Dragons as a Friday afternoon seventh-period elective, for which I eagerly signed up. Yes, we got to play D&D in school! I was typically the DM, refereeing up to 10 rambunctious players at a time. We ran through modules like Pharaoh and In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords and White Plume Mountain with gusto. I remember another group next to us in which everyone was an assassin and they spent the whole game rolling on the assassination tables and killing each other off. It was glorious.

I continued playing into high school but my gaming soon tailed off. Sports, drinking beer, heavy metal concerts, etc. took priority, and I shelved my books. I can recall another aborted 2E session later in high school that didn’t last long.

I dabbled in D&D a little bit in college, playing a few sessions with a gaming club and attending my first con, Total Confusion in Worcester, MA. That would have been 1993 or so. But when I graduated college and got married I shelved my books, possibly for good.

But around 2000 or so my interest in the game was rekindled by the issuance of 3.0, which promised a “back to the dungeon” approach. Around that time I also discovered EnWorld and its “Gamers Seeking Gamers” webpage. Via messageboard and e-mail I arranged to meet with my future DM and another eventual co-player on neutral turf, an interview over beer to ensure we had compatible interests and were not complete lunatic freaks (aside from the fact that we played D&D, of course). When I told my wife I was going off to a smoky local bar to meet up with a strange man to talk D&D she thrust her cell phone into my coat pocket (at the time I didn’t own one) in the event I got abducted. I wasn’t.

With our mutual fears allayed we arranged and played our first game in May of 2001. We’ve been gaming ever since. We’re happily plugging away with 3.5 edition, three book core with a few house rules thrown in, in a long-term home-brew campaign in which our characters recently reached eighth level. We also have another 3.5 game going in the Forgotten Realms, though it’s been a couple years since our last session in the FR. In between we’ve had few one-shots of D20 modern, a couple boardgaming sessions, and even a romp through a 3.5 version of The Tomb of Horrors (which I had to miss, sadly). In general I prefer the older versions of the game because they have far more flavor and are better reads, as I spend more time reading rule books than actually playing. But 3.5 works fine.

I’ve had a lot of fun these past 10 years. Our original plan was to game every other Saturday, but commitments and life in general got in the way. Now we’re good for maybe one Sunday a month.

Like most other role players I’ve given a lot of consideration to the question: why play? If you can get the same experience reading, watching movies, or playing computer games, why play D&D and other tabletop RPGs? What’s the appeal? Why am I still interested in the hobby after all these years?

Here’s my take: What makes RPGs unique is the aspect of collaborative storytelling, entering into a shared space of the unscripted unknown. You’re not reading a novel, you’re creating a story as you play. The tale you spin can run the gamut from brilliant to low brow, from serious to the comically ridiculous. The vagaries of the DM, player decision, and random die-rolls make every game unpredictable.

D&D is rarely boring. I don’t take it too seriously—some prefer earnest, immersive characterization and shrewd tactical play. Me, I like laughing and poking a little fun at fantasy tropes. I enjoy rolling critical hits and also failing saving throws at the worst possible time.

Some of my favorite times are those in which we had to extricate ourselves from our own messes. Carelessly walking into ambushes. Getting swallowed by a purple worm and having to cut myself free. Getting shoved off a bridge by a hill giant and falling onto a rock outcropping surrounded by lava. And so on. At other times we’ve smashed the DM’s big bad evil guy in a round or two and laid waste to his plans, too. Again, you never know what will happen, only that it’s rare to have anything go according to plan.

The other appeal of playing D&D is the out of game camaraderie. Getting together for a session gets me out of the house and among the company of like-minded individuals. We drink a few cold ones, eat good food, talk about books or films, and laugh a lot.

So yeah, once a month I play an Elf. But it’s been a lot of fun.

Happy anniversary guys (and gals).


Barad the Gnome said...

Happy Anniversary. You must have an awesome DM!

Brian Murphy said...

Aye, a very good DM, though rather... gnome-like, come to think of it.

Falze said...

I've been spinning through the TV series and had forgotten how many 'real' D&D monsters they used - brought back a lot of memories. Just saw one with Warduke, boy I'd certainly forgotten him.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Collaborative storytelling. You hit the nail on the head, Brian.

It's been too long since I played D&D. Much too long.

Andy said...

I haven't played D&D since...middle school, I think. I like the idea of role-playing games but I strongly suspect that the reason I never held on is because my friends and I didn't fully grasp how to play it, as our sessions generally didn't go much beyond "run into a dungeon, kill the monsters, take the loot," which was fun but at the same time, if that's all you get out of it, video games will eventually do just as well, and they did. In retrospect I wish we had gotten that collaborative storytelling aspect down because I think it would have been much more rewarding for us and we wouldn't have abandoned the games so quickly.

Brian Murphy said...

Falze: I haven't: Still have a Warduke action figure, in fact! I haven't seen the cartoon since I was a kid, though.

Eric: Collaborative storytelling is great, but finishes second to the beer.

Andy: We still do the killing and the looting, too! But it's not the be-all end-all of our games.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I absolutely recommend it Brian, the whole set can routinely be had on Amazon for less than a Tenner.

Beyond that, let me say, how jealous I am of your 10 years of D&D with one DM. I've never managed more than 3 months with the same group. No one seems to have the patience for it.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Ahaha...see, when I was playing D&D, I was 'too young' for the beer. I can see how it would add a fresh new layer of wonder to the game.

Barad the Gnome said...

There is no under estimating the power of beer. Just saying....

Kiwin said...

Well spoken Elf, and looking forward to seeing everyone this Sunday.

Sounds like Eric might want to roll up a character and sit in one of these days....we can always squeeze one more chair into the living room!

Shannon said...

Nice post!