Explain Like I’m Cool: Dungeons & Dragons

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For this entry, we're going to be tackling one of the icons of nerd culture: Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). For a game that's usually portrayed as being played by a bunch of dorky recluses in someone's basement, it's actually pretty fun. Contrary to popular belief, it also doesn't have anything to do with satanism, so it's grandmother-friendly as well!

First and foremost, D&D is a “pen-and-paper” game. Basically, the only requirements to play D&D is somewhere to keep track of your stats, gear, etc. and some dice. While some players might like having visual aids such as maps or tokens to represent players and enemies, they aren't strictly necessary. The action in D&D all takes place within the player's minds — to the visually-inclined this might be a turn-off, but otherwise it means the fun is only limited to the extent of your imagination. 

A D&D game usually consists of around four or five players and an outsider known as the “dungeon master” (DM). The DM is something like a cross between the narrator, the referee, and god, in charge of imposing a sense of order over the happenings of the D&D session while also moving the story along. They have to create the enemies and obstacles that players will face, but whether they're trying to challenge the players or flat-out murder them may depend on the DM's sense of humour.

The rules the players have to follow are dependent both on the DM's house rules as well as whatever edition of D&D you're playing (Yes, there are numerous editions and spinoffs. Bear with me here). Rules can be found in both Dungeon Master and Player's Handbooks, which are available in hobby shops but are also simple to find online if you're more ethically flexible.

With all the technical stuff out of the way, let's get into gameplay. Character creation and customization is one of D&D's strong suits, because there are many different races (human, elf, dwarf, dragonkin, etc.) and classes (wizard, rogue, paladin, the list goes on) to let you make the perfect fantasy character. As time goes on you can choose different skills and spells, making your character even more unique.

When the characters have been created and all the players are ready, a campaign will usually begin. In each session players will use their characters to overcome whatever the DM throws at them, which allows them to level up and become stronger, in turn increasing the difficulties they'll face. 

But what are those challenges? What's the actual story of D&D?

Well, it depends on whatever story you decide to play. The structure of Dungeons & Dragons is loose enough that it lets players choose their own stories and how they want them to unfold. Will your story be a straight-up dungeon crawler where players cut down hordes of zombies, demons, and orcs to prove their mettle? Or will it be less action-oriented, with a bigger emphasis on puzzles and maneuvering around people to get what you want? Maybe a mix of both?

As for the setting, will you stick to the typical medieval fantasy setting, or go with something more obscure? You could have your game set in modern times, in the future — you could even make it an adaptation of some other pop culture series. The reason why people have been playing D&D for over 40 years is that it has so much variability that no two campaigns ever have to be the same. There are all sorts of legendary tales of people who pulled off feats both Herculean and completely ludicrous with a little bit of luck and imagination. My personal favourites include a player who role-played a bear that managed to convince everyone else it was human (despite not being able to speak any language), or the luchadore that wrestled with a dragon and won.

I should warn you that D&D isn't the kind of game that can immediately be dropped into. There's a lot of rules to it, which will require either a lot of reading or a very, very patient teacher. Having previous experience with role-playing video games like Dragon Age or World of Warcraft may help, as there are many overlapping similarities, but it can still be a lot to take in. Also, while it's possible for a group full of rookies to try out D&D together, it does help for the DM to have some previous experience playing. However, if the game does sound like something that you might be interested in, don't be intimidated by the homework necessary. Once the game does begin, it can be an experience unlike any other.

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