So terribly nerdy is Dungeons and Dragons’s reputation that it has eclipsed all other forms of hardcore geekdom. Even in this age, as nerd culture lifts itself from dregs to the height of aesthetic taste, Dungeons and Dragons remains an aberrant hobby. From its beginning in games like H.G. Wells’s Little Wars to its actual creation by Tactical Studies Rules in 1974, D&D has never penetrated mainstream culture fully enough to explain itself coherently. To the outsider, it is a hobby relating to magic and mythology, obscured by a confounding number of rulebooks, charts, numbers, and accessories. It is played by unsocial, obsessive types who are smelly and eccentric.The game’s endless depictions in The Simpsons and Futurama probably don’t help either.
With this in mind, it was quite startling to sit down at the table for my first game of D&D as a freshman in high school with my friend, his mom and dad, and aunt and uncle. They are all normal people. But instead of the after-dinner movie or game of Scattergories, we sat down to imagine ourselves as wizards and elves.
Briefly, Dungeons and Dragons is played with a pen, paper, and dice with about five or six people. One person takes the role of the Dungeon Master (DM), who describes all of the settings and places and people. The rest of the people are players, who role-play heroes in a world that the DM has imagined for them. Much of the interaction is question and answer (what do I see?), guided by few rules. Some interaction, combat specifically, is amazingly complex, requiring several books to properly direct the action. There is no real goal in D&D, unless the DM gives the players one, or unless the player decides their character exists for a particular purpose.
Given that most of my current friends are nerds themselves (including Editors Kevin and Nick), it astounded me that none of them had ever tried their hand at Dungeons and Dragons. So I planned a dinner and D&D evening, enticing them with quiche and squash soup but ultimately hoping they’d enjoy role playing the most. The following is a transcription of everyone introducing their characters, to their very first fight in a bar.
Jordan as… the Dungeon Master
Nick as… Handley Toshane, a male Halfling Rogue
Kevin as… Twitter McFacebook, a transgendered Human Wizard
Clay as… Emma Fierce, a female (lesbian) Dragon-born Paladin
Aaron as… Bigby O’Toole, a male Half-Elf Cleric
Sean as… Chen Stubsters, a male Dwarf Fighter
This is their story.
Kevin: So I know we get to pick a name, but what about gender? Like, if I’m a women, do I get drunk faster or something?
Jordan: There’s no difference. Why don’t we go around the room. Say your name and talk about who you are.
Kevin: My name is Twitter McFacebook. I’m a Human Wizard. I put my gender as Prince. I’ll just say I’m transgendered.
Sean: Uh, my name is Chen Stubsters. A Dwarf Fighter who is a male. I am strong, hardy, and dependable.
Clay: He’s Asian?
Sean: Well he looks Asian on the picture
Clay: No you imagine your own character. Like, not just that picture.
Sean: Okay, well imagine he’s Asian.
Clay: My name is Emma Fierce. A female lesbian Dragon-born Paladin.
Kevin: What does dragon-born mean?
Nick: You’re born a dragon.
Jordan: I think it means an ancestor got preggo from a dragon once or something.
Clay: So how do we play this? Do we all have to talk in our character?
Nick: Yeah role play, come on. Forsooth.
Jordan: If you want. That might be a little too nerdy to begin with. We’ll work up to that, and eventually we’ll end with LARPing in our parent’s backyard.
Kevin: What’s everyone’s height?
Aaron: I’m 5’11”, my actual height oh my god. I really identify with my character already.
Nick: You’re also a half-elf, so that helps too.
Jordan: Alright. Now that we’re done introducing our characters, let’s figure out where you are in this world.
The DM drops a map on the table. It shows a tavern with various tables and chairs, with a bar near the west side of the room. A rabble of patrons are scattered around.
Jordan: So you find yourselves in a local tavern.
Nick: Can we throw chairs in this tavern?
Aaron: Oh my god. Let’s kill everyone on this tavern. Oh you guys are fucked, I’ve got +5 religion.
Nick: What does that mean? I have zero religion. I’m definitely going to steal from someone.
Kevin: I have more religion.
Aaron: But I’m a cleric, that’s a religious character! I should be more religious than you.
Kevin: Do our characters have a patience level?
Jordan: Everyone pick places where you are in this tavern.
People drop their character on the map to indicate where they are.
Aaron: Oh, it’s like Coyote Ugly, we’re all on top of the bar doing a dance.
Everyone moves their character on top of the bar, a la Coyote Ugly.
Nick: Yeah, I’m totally dropping dollars in your G-string. Or your plated mail, rather.
Clay: Well, I’m a lesbian so I’m alone. I’m not having fun.
Nick: So how am I associated with these people? Do we have a history?
Jordan: Well you’re associated somehow. It’s better for you to make up a history to give your character some flavor, but for ease of play, we’ll say you all know each other already.
Kevin: So we’re all Facebook friends already?
Aaron: Some of us are probably friends. I’m not friends with Clay though.
Jordan: Anyway, as a band of adventurers, you basically go out and do jobs for money or treasure. So you’re all hanging out at this bar, which is basically the center of social life in this small town.
Clay: Is this the Wild Rose? (a lesbian bar in Seattle)
Jordan: Sure, we’ll call it the Wild Rose, but it probably isn’t the kind of crowd you’re thinking of. So you guys are all just hanging out at the bar… or I guess on top of the bar. Your evening is interrupted when all of a sudden the front door of the bar splinters open with a loud yell and four big, scary-looking humanoid forms burst through. These four bust down the door, and one of them takes a big axe and chops down this man sitting in a chair closest the entrance.
The DM places four markers indicating these new creatures on the map.
Sean: That guy was my friend!
Jordan: Roll a Sadness Check.
Jordan: I’m kidding. Your character is sad now. Anyway, in this game I give you the setup to everything — what stuff looks like, who is where, what people are saying — and then you need to tell me what you’d like to do. So, chaos is erupting in the bar as these four scary creatures bust down the door. What do you do?
Kevin: LET’S KILL THEM. EVERYONE.
Nick: Wait, wait. Maybe… maybe we can see what they want?
Nick: Could I use some sort of skill to see what they’re pissed about. Like, just say, “Hey man, what’s goin’ on here?”
Jordan: You can do whatever the hell you want. You could make an Insight Check, which is your character attempting to divine a person’s motives, feelings, etc.
Nick: My character is trained in that. I’ll do that.
Nick rolls a 20 sided die.
Nick: I got an 18.
Jordan: You have a hard time sensing what they want, beyond some general desire to kill and destroy things. You do, however, see a big Red Hand tattooed on all their foreheads, and you recall overhearing a tavern patron talking about some Red Hand folks earlier in the night.
Kevin: Is that like a new band?
Nick: Can I ask them to play, uh, “Shaking Hand”?
Kevin: Okay, let’s fuck these dudes up.
A lengthy battle ensues, which is guided by very specific rules. Some terribly violent things occur, including the bar and bartender exploding in a giant ball of fire, magical spells whizzing around, Nick stealing everything off the bartender’s charred corpse while no one looks, and Clay hiding in the corner until everyone yells at him to do something. In the end, the party emerges victorious, though a little shaken at this seemingly random act of terrible violence.
The party decides to investigate by questioning some townsfolk, eventually discovering that the attack is part of an ongoing problem of raids by a local hobgoblin and his band of ruffians. And with that, the group embarks on their epic venture, much to the consternation of their real life friends and family.