“What Is Dungeons & Dragons?”

Sometimes you ask someone if they would like to play D&D with you and their response goes along the lines of, “That sounds really cool, I’ve always wanted to play D&D, it seems neat. I just have one question:

What is D&D?”

And honestly, that’s a good question.

This blog post is my attempt to answer it, for anyone else who has been wondering but felt that asking would make them look silly.

Let me start with a little background on why I don’t find this kind of question foolish at all.

See, for as long as I knew it existed, I thought Dungeons & Dragons was the coolest thing in the world.

It would be years after that before I learned what Dungeons & Dragons actually was, though, because in addition to everything else it is…

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Multimedia Empire´╗┐

You see, I was born in the 80s, which was the first heyday of D&D in pop culture. The first time you could get D&D merchandise in big box stores. The first time you could see it advertised on TV. It popped up in movies like ET. It was a Saturday morning cartoon.

The cartoon was my first real exposure. Most cartoons were based on something, and in the days when narrative arcs in children’s programming were rare and all the money was assumed to be in syndication, most cartoons had an en media res approach where you’d just sort of come in halfway through the picture and no one would explain what was going on.

So when the first episode of the cartoon aired with an opening sequence that starts with a bunch of kids at a fair noticing a roller coaster and going, “Hey, a Dungeons & Dragons world!” and winding up in something called “the world of Dungeons & Dragons”, I just kind of went with it. This was how cartoons were. 

I was a little confused with how few of the toys on the store shelves seemed to have much to do with the cartoon beyond a basic theme, but, eh. Childhood is a confusing time. 

As I got older, I discovered tie-in novels and comic books which, again, had very little to do with the cartoon and often not much to do with each other. Elves and orcs and dwarves and, yes, dragons showed up again and again. But they all featured different characters and were even in some cases clearly set in different worlds.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Dungeons & Dragons is really about: unique characters, unique worlds, unique adventurers.

But I didn’t know that. I just knew that there was cartoon that was both like all the other ones but also like nothing else I’d ever seen, and it was connected somehow to all these other things. 

When I started reading the novels and comics, I would see adds in the comics for gaming supplements that tied into the novels, that talked about going on adventures and fighting alongside the heroes from the novels.

What were they, board games? Video games? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to know, and so I went and I found out that…

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Roleplaying Game

The best way I can describe a roleplaying game is a game of make-believe that does not immediately end in an argument the first time there’s a question of who shot first or who hit whom or who missed or if the target had their forcefield dog or if the shooter brought their attack dinosaur who eats forcefield dogs.

A roleplaying game is a game of make-believe with rules and structure to it. It’s a game of shared storytelling where everybody agrees on a basic framework for what is possible and what is likely, and one person is given responsibility for figuring out the gray areas and deciding what happens next.

When you play a game like Dungeons & Dragons, you create a character through a process that will likely be at least vaguely familiar to anyone who has played enough computer games over the years – because the computer games cribbed their concept of character creation (along with a lot of other things) from Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants.

In D&D, you define your character by choosing a race in the sense of being Human or Elf or Dwarf or some other fantastical folk, and a character class that broadly describes your special abilities and role as an adventurer: Fighter, Wizard, Ranger, and so on. 

You define your character’s basic abilities in six areas: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. Your class and background help you determine what special adventuring skills you’re trained in, such as Stealth or Acrobatics. 

Your class gives you special abilities that defy these kinds of broad categorization. Anyone might know Stealth or Sleight of Hand, but a Rogue has special features that lets you use these skills in ways that other characters can’t.

So you create a character according to a set of step-by-step instructions in the Player’s Handbook (the rulebook for D&D) and then you have a character sheet, a paper or electronic form that records all the vital statistics of your character that impact the game. This is a picture of your character at the start of their career as a heroic adventurer. You might be a High Elf Wizard or a Hill Dwarf Cleric. You might be a Dragonborn Paladin, or a Tiefling Rogue.

Once you’ve created your character — often with guidance from the person running the game, who will usually know the rules at least a little bit — the game properly begins with an adventure.

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Social Experience.

You can play D&D with as few as two people — one person to run the game and one person to have an adventure — and in a pinch there are some variants you can play solo, but it’s intended to be a group experience, with each player creating one character as part of an ensemble for the story and serving a different role in terms of the game. 

Some characters are tougher and stronger and fight on the front lines, putting themselves between danger and their allies. The world of online gaming calls this role the “tank”. Tabletop gaming often goes with the more prosaic “meatshield”.

Some characters are skilled specialists, the kind of role that Thorin Oakenshield described to Bilbo Baggins as “expert treasure hunter”. They deal with tricks and traps that crop up along the way, look for creative solutions to problems, and often have ways of tying opponents up in combat or striking precise and deadly blows while the meatshields keep the attention on themselves.

Then there are support characters, who heal and inspire and help the whole party cohere and be greater than the sum of their parts.

Some character classes are strongly predisposed towards one role or another. Others are more flexible. The ultimate point, though, is that with a group of 3 to 6 people, you can have more fun because each character can both do their own things and find things to do that complement each other.

And of course, there’s a lot of fun to be had just sitting around a table (or in a chat server) with friends, playing a game and imagining epic adventures. 

Dungeons & Dragons Is A Storytelling Medium

When you play a roleplaying game, you’re helping to tell a story. The game runner — Dungeon Master, in D&D’s trademark parlance — serves as a narrator who sets the scene and describes how the story unfolds, but everybody playing is also advancing the story through their decisions. 

The basic rhythm of the game is back and forth: the Dungeon Master narrates an opening and describes where the characters are, what they notice about the world around them, and asks what they are doing.

The players describe what their characters do in response to the scene, and the Dungeon Master decides (sometimes by consulting rules or dice) how that goes, and what happens as a result.

Whatever the players did probably wrought some change in the situation, so now it’s back to them to respond to that.

And so it goes, back and forth, until the story reaches a stopping point or the players do. There’s a lot of “to be continued” in gaming, especially as groups get older.

After each session, whether your character won the day or retreated or lost and even died, you’ll have a story to tell about it, one that hopefully binds you closer to the people who were there for it and helps you connect to a wider community of players beyond it.

And if you keep playing over a long period of time (which is often called a campaign), your character will grow and change to something far beyond the original concept you had when you rolled a Level 1 Half-Elf Bard. You might conquer lands or free them. You might restore the power of a lost god, or destroy them, or ascend to the heavens yourself. Long-running campaigns can change the face of the worlds they take place in, becoming the same kinds of epic stories that inspired people to start playing in the first place.

You can lose battles and you can win wars, but there’s no winning or losing the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Not even if your character dies. Because in the first place, you aren’t knocked out of the game — you can make another character. In the second place, it’s fantasy. Magic can heal even fatal injuries, if you can amass the right power and resources. And sometimes people’s best stories are how their character went out in a blaze of glory.

Dungeons & Dragons Is Fun

That’s it. Even with rules, the point of the game is to have fun. The rules are there to facilitate the fun by cutting down on the arguments and second-guessing and give you a framework whereby you can, once you’ve got your character’s features down, just confidently announce “I throw a fireball at his face.” instead of having to inquire, “So, can I throw a fireball at his face? Is that a thing I can do?”

Even the official rulemasters at Wizards of the Coast will tell you there is no wrong way to play and that if a group at a table agrees it’s more fun when they don’t sweat the small stuff or change an official rule completely, then go for it. 

Because it’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun.

And while it can be more fun when you have a strong handle on what your character can do, it’s 100% possible to play without any prior knowledge of the actual rules. It’s not a competitive game and it’s not a guessing game – most new groups have some element of learning as they go, and as long as you don’t mind asking.

Back From There Again

Well, I’m back in… dang, even years after I moved to Maryland full-time and after my parents relocated to Florida, my urge is still to write “back in Nebraska” in these blog posts. Some of my plans for my Florida foray didn’t work out so well. I was planning on blogging, but I wound up getting sidetracked on that. I was planning on doing some virtual poetry readings and other video streams, but it turned out that there wasn’t any acoustically suitable spots in the house. The place I had picked out from previous visits as being farthest away from the noisy spots? There’s an AC unit right outside it.

But, it was still a good trip! I made less progress on those particular fronts but wound up getting way further ahead on other things. I’m going to have my proof copy of First Dates, Last Calls sometime this week, which is well ahead of schedule, and means that I might actually be reading from the physical book at my reading at the Flying Camel on Saturday, depending upon exactly how timely is arrival is. 

I’ve also had some good luck in changing my habits lately, and building better ones, which I think is going to help me reach goals for things like writing, blogging, etc., as I apply them more broadly.

My big insight here is that if you think of life as a game, you have to remember that it’s often easier to alter your equipment than it is to upgrade your skills. A habit, a true habit, takes time and repetition (grinding for experience points) to develop. But if you can change something in your environment, you can make it automatic, or nearly so.

I’ve tried to cut down on caffeine and alcohol in the past. I’ve tried to drink more water. None of this attempts really took. Then I started carrying around a reusable water bottle. It got me drinking water all the time (because it’s right there), and any time I’m drinking water, I’m not drinking anything else. And let me tell you, I don’t want to be one of those boring people who tells you that drinking water will cure your depression’s cancer or whatever, but the more water I drink, the less caffeine and alcohol I find that I need.

I’m sipping a Dr. Pepper spiked with Fireball as I write this, but, you know, I woke up at 7:30 and didn’t need caffeine to get going, or booze to keep going. I just like i.

Anyway. Along those lines, what I aim to do in order to get my blogging habit back on track is just opening up a blank blog entry when I go to bed, so it’s there when I open my computer in the morning. We’ll see how that works. It’s not quite the slam dunk of a physical hack, because it requires me to cultivate a habit (open a tab before going to bed) and there will be times when I need to do something else first or I don’t have anything to say when I wake up. But it’s a start.