Dungeons & Dragons has long been considered the ‘Final Boss’ in the realms of nerd culture. For many years, even some of the most die hard geeks have shunned the popular pen and paper RPG. Or perhaps they practiced their hobby in secret, huddled around a table in basements across the world like some clandestine ritual, hiding their passion from the perceived ridicule of others. But in recent years, the game has made its triumphant resurgence into pop culture. Thanks to the creative efforts of Wizard of the Coast, and the many successful D&D online shows such as Acquisitions Incorporated. and Critical Role, D&D is finally getting the attention it so rightfully deserves. First created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, D&D allows players complete freedom in crafting memorable stories in a fantastical world. Players across the world have routinely gathered to experience these epic stories, joining together to create a communal gaming experience that can’t be matched by any other medium.
Dungeons & Dragons is something that I was always interested in growing up. Being a huge Tolkien fan, and a fan of the fantasy genre in general, the idea of crafting my own stories in a world not bound by the laws of space, time, or video game mechanics was very appealing to my imaginative young mind. But as any seasoned player will tell you, Dungeons & Dragons is a group activity. Not having any like-minded friends to share this hobby with, I gave up on my interest, returning to the books and video games that had gotten me this far. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was already a grown man, that I would finally be able to experience the wonder of Dungeons & Dragons for the first time.
I had recently made friends with a group of experienced players, and after months of gentle prodding, we finally organised to sit down and play together. I was apprehensive at first, as many new players are. The thought of truly letting myself go and embodying my player character was an exciting yet nerve-racking experience. I decided to play a Ranger, modelling him on Aragorn, my favourite character from The Lord of the Rings. Despite the woefully generic nature of the white, dark haired, scruffy swordsman, that character will always hold a special place in my heart as my first window into the wonderful world of D&D.
It wasn’t until the end of our first session that I truly saw the brilliance of Dungeons & Dragons. After my character and his companions had made our way through the starter area the Dungeon Master had laid out for us, we encountered our first boss fight. The enemy was a large metallic creature, wielding a mighty war hammer. Through the detailed descriptions of our DM, I could picture the battle in my mind as well as any video game. As our characters battled this ferocious creature, every blow dealt and injury received was as clear as day in my imagination, taking me back to the childlike curiosity of my youth. After a harrowing battle, our party triumphed over our foe, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
It was the high stakes more than anything that drew my attention. In other games, player death was more of an inconvenience than anything. But in Dungeons & Dragons, if your character dies, that’s pretty much it. Growing attached to a character and fearing for their safety created a sense of dread, fear and exhilaration to every battle that I had simply never before experienced before in a game. That campaign lasted for two years, with me and my fellow players encountering many more terrifying foes and unforgettable stories.
But it wasn’t just the game itself that brings me fond memories, it was the experience and the journey my friends and I undertook. I started that campaign only really knowing one of my fellow players well, but over the many sessions we played, friendship developed between us all. People who began as mere acquaintances, guys who I may have spoken to for all of ten minutes in a pub beforehand became good friends. We still reminisce on that campaign whenever we meet up, thinking back on some of the more memorable battles or jokes, discussing our favourite NPC’s and storylines. It may just be a game, but it was some of the most fun and memorable experiences I’ve ever shared with a group of friends.
It was only a few months ago that I finally decided to try my hand at running a campaign myself. I’d had two years of experience as a player, navigating the world that the DM had created for us, but I’d never been in the driver’s seat before. As with my very first time playing D&D, my first experience running a session myself was both exciting and tense. I gathered together my flatmates for our first game. More than anything, I was worried that the players wouldn’t enjoy themselves. Whereas before I relied on another person to craft the story and world around us, I was now responsible for the success or failure of the game. Of the group of friends I had assembled to play, none of them had ever played a pen and paper RPG before. In fact, only one of them was really all that enthusiastic about D&D, being a fellow Tolkien fanatic.
I started off by running a simple starter adventure, caves, goblins and a final boss dragon– standard stuff. As I had once been, the players were reluctant to truly get into character at first. The idea of improvising in front of others can be a nerve-racking experience, and some players struggled with it. But through that first adventure, taking place over two lengthy sessions, I began to slowly see the tides change in my player’s enthusiasm. They began enjoying themselves slowly but surely, picking up the rules as they went.
I did my best as a virgin Dungeon Master, struggling with organisation and some of the more complex rules, as I knew I would. I had to think on my feet and improvise to a degree I’d never had to before, frantically scrolling through online rule books and fudging the rules occasionally. The way I saw it, the rules come second to player enjoyment. I decided to focus more on making sure my players were having a good time than following the rules to the letter. I began to notice how each player responded to the game in different ways. Each person took pleasure in various aspects of the game and I was shocked and thrilled at how much they had taken to it.
One player seemed to enjoy the characterisation more than anything else. She had created a cat folk rogue, developing the character’s backstory in her free time, becoming emotionally invested in her fate. She drew a painstakingly detailed drawing of the character, proudly showcasing her creation to us all. Another player seemed to take to the combat aspects. Every battle was an intricate ballet of blood and broken bones, every attack roll feeling like a life or death situation. When this player scored a killing blow, or pulled off a particularly impressive attack, I could see that same spark of excitement in their eyes as I once had in my first campaign. Yet another player seemed to enjoy the comedy and character interaction more than anything. Using a spell to make an enemy Gargoyle fall in love with him, or killing a deadly sea monster with a one-in-a-million slingshot attack, these were the moments that seemed to resonate the most with this player.
That campaign is still on-going, and hopefully we will share many more unforgettable memories in the future. D&D is a hard game for many to get into. From the start-up cost, to the exhaustive rules, to the availability of like-minded players, it’s no easy feat. But I encourage anyone who is interested in Dungeons & Dragons to make the plunge if possible. It’s by far the most fun I’ve ever had in my gaming career, and something I can conceivably see myself playing for years to come. I still consider myself a novice D&D player. With only a few years of experience under my belt, I know I still have much to learn. But if I’ve had this much fun in just a few years, imagine how much is still yet to come.
(Featured Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast)
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