Thursday, February 27, 2014

Game On

This is the infamous Red Box. I debuted in the early 80’s and it has been changing lives ever since. Inside there are no action figures, video games, boards, toys, costumes or satanic rituals. Instead there is just a handful of books, a few dice, a map, and some sheets of paper that if you start playing, will matter more to you than you could possibly realize. This is the starter box for the game Dungeons & Dragons and I’m going to explain why getting this box (or one like it) could be the best decision you make all year.

Most people have no idea what D&D even is. Even mentioning the game around the suspicious raises eyebrows and brings all sorts of stereotypes to mind. I promise playingt this game does not require wearing cloaks or talking in affected British accents. You do not have to live with your parents and they do not need to have a basement. Forget all the garbage you have heard about this being lame because starting a campaign it is the most fun a group of creative people can have.

You begin by creating a character. This is incredibly fun. You get to choose the sex, age, race, class and other details explained in the Player's Handbook and it is an exercise in secret desires and self esteem boosting. Most people pick the character they always wanted to be. My first character was a short and strong warrior named Piper Crowe, a dwarf fighter (think Tolkien, not Sleeping Beauty). Piper was one tough chick but had a softer side as well. She loved animals and archery and rode a pony named Blackthorn. She had a complicated family backstory and motives for being on the road. She was searching out her own name in the business of traveling mercenaries. Piper was loner now, but had hope for love and fortune, trying to earn enough money to start her family farm and bowyer shop in the forest.

But in D&D you don’t get perfect characters. Just like in real life they have flaws you can't always control but need to accept. And when you create a character there is the random chance of the dice. You roll to figure out how smart, strong, clever, kind, and rich you are. This adds a really fun element of storytelling. For example, Piper turned out to be plenty strong and smart but not very likable. She had zero charisma and little cash. This meant she couldn’t buy stuff she needed and was useless talking herself out of a tight spot. So unless a problem could be solved with violence, she was confused and intimidated. But in D&D you're not alone. Her faults that matter because another person's character might be a sweettalker who can’t even pick up an axe and is terrified of spiders. The game is genius in creating these well-developed people who need together. And that's how a new game starts!

Creating your character is a blast and if you are even mildly creative it only gets better when the dice start talking and choosing your abilities for you. And if this sounds confusing that Red Box takes you through the character-building phase step by step. It’s all laid out in a book that says READ THIS FIRST and I can honestly say sitting down with my first character sheet and that booklet was a quiet thrill. I set out all the stuff on my living room table, played thematic music on the computer, and let my imagination flow. I started leading her through the sample story (a solo adventure) to figure out how she made decisions and who she was. Eventually I figured out her alignment (her philosophy and conscience). She was what the book called Chaotic Good (pretty much the Han Solo attitude of D&D). And within twenty minutes I had this person (well, Dwarf) I knew like I knew Harry Por Katniss or Tyrion Lannister But she was mine, and her future was totally unknown and waiting for me to discover.

To start playing you just need a table to sit around, excited friends with their own dice and character sheets, and a good storyteller. That’s the heart of this game; storytelling. And that story starts when the person running the game sets the scene. The storyteller is called the Dungeon Master(DM) and if you have a good one startinga new game is like watching the opening scene of an epic movie. Then something happens you need to react to and start using your wits and abilities on your character sheet. This is a roleplaying game so you are speaking for the character you created. At first this is soemthing that feels weird if you are new to the game or a timid person but that quickly fades away as the story unfolds.

dice, dice, baby
For example: You might be walking down dark forest path with these people you just got with to arrest some local thugs. While walking along the road, getting to know each other and chatting, you happen upon a recently ransacked tavern. It startles you with its desperation. The windows are busted open, the door is swinging on one broken hinge, and a dead horse lies outside without any sign of human life around, anywhere. But wait? What's that? In the distant hills there’s a small light in the dark green of the overcast summer night. It looks like a campfire but you can't tell for sure.

Piper doesn't mess around, also: sweet abs
So what do you do? At this point the DM might announce a Perception Check and all the characters roll dice to see how high their numbers are. The DM knows that anything over 12 might be a clue, anything over 14 might be a VERY good clue, and anything over 18 might be an answer. He knows this because DM has this story in front of him in the form of a mystery book only he knows. He read it in advance and planned out exactly what would happen over the next hour or so, but he can’t control your dice rolls or choices. So maybe Piper rolls and gets a 15 and everyone else rolls under 10. The DM tells me that Piper can see figures around the campfire and hear drunken laughter. I tell him my character sheet says I have great night vision (racial trait of dwarves, score!) and I want to look closer. He nods, happy I read my sheet and knew my race well enough to start getting into the story he crafted. Piper squints and the DM explained how she notices sacks of stolen goods, weapons leaning against trees, and some horses tied to posts. Loot! And just as me and the other players are deciding whether to ambush the theives or steal their stuff while they sleep an old man comes lumbering down the road with a limp and an eye patch. Piper might be strong but she’s awful at talking to strangers so I let someone who rolled a higher charisma ability when they created their character sheet talk to him. An elf sorcerer named Auran can't hit the broadside of a barn with a crossbow, but he can sweetalk his way into anything. Auran rolls high and it turns out he gets this first-hand account of the tavern's demise by this sole survivor who ran and hid in the nearbye forest before fleeing the scene. And now all of us are leaning on the DM's every word. We're taking notes and writing down clues. The story gets better and the choices get harder. As the adventure continues you collect items, clues, money and are able to buy and sell gear. You get points for winning fights and solving problems and when you get enough you level up. Levels mean you learn new skills (now Piper can read weather pattterns and unlock doors) and more gols to buy things like weapons, horses, and armor. In a few nights of playing you and your fiends have a plot line and characters better than anything on television. And you’re doing it without smart phones, or computers, or even anything you have to plug into the wall. It’s just your imagination, and it's more than enough.

Throughout this adventure you need to fight and that means getting hurt. Characters can be wounded and also die. So there’s risks involved in a way you never experienced reading a book or watching a movie. This adventure is in YOUR hands, your choices matter. I could mess up and kill Piper and then she’s dead. Really dead. This isn't a video game with endless lives and restarts. I mean, if watching characters on Game of Thrones or Walking Dead die is hard on you imagine if it was YOUR character you’ve been playing every other Sunday night for three years. In that time your friends know Piper as well as you do. There are inside jokes, stories, mistakes and victories you tell like college party stories. A good D&D game becomes more than just agame and that is why there are the stories of people showing up in costumes or taking with fake accents. They do that because they get excited and invested, as much as any actor on stage playing a role or any author writing the next best seller. For some reason we respect and admire Andrew Lincoln for pretending to be fighting monsters with a fake accent but if we do it in our own living rooms with our own stories it's considered lame? Perhaps because we're told we're not allowed to imagine, or tell stories, or be creative as adults unless we are getting paid to do it. I think that is a dangerous thing to believe, and even more dangerous thing to live. I've had the time of my life pretending to a dwarf with a bow riding a black horse. It gave me the courage to actually do those things in real life (minus, you know, being a dwarf). Nobodies perfect. I'll keep being Jenna in real life and Piper on the gaming table. I’ll do my best to steer her in the right direction and not mess up, but as I explained so much of this is up to chance. Which is part of the fun. And, just like in real life, it’s anyone’s game.

So thinking about starting a game? You can begin with the Red Box, but they are harder and harder to find. Some show up on eBay and Amazon and others might be in your friendly neighborhood Game Shop. Another option is the Pathfinder Beginner Box, which is more affordable and common. Pathfinder is the nerd-improved and beloved 3.5 version rules of D&D (which is now in the 4th version). Both beginner boxes come with everything you and your friends need to get started even with no experience. And if you (or one of your friends) don’t want to create characters they even come with pre-built character sheets inside. Easy!

There are also RPGs that take place in space, in the wild west, in 1940’s jungles running from Nazis or in nightclubs in the 1970s. They can last one hour or several years. They are growing in popularity like never before in the gaming renaissance going on right now under your noses.

Have I peaked your interest but you know your spouse, kids, and friends don’t want to take up a new bag of dice? Check out The Game’s Website, which has a beginner tutorial, character sheets, free downloads, name generators, and a Find a Game feature that lists local game shops and meet up groups of heroes in your neighborhood. Here in Veryork (the middle of nowhere) I know of at least 4 gams going on now in Game Shops and homes alike.

Here are some helpful videos:

PBS did this piece on why D&D makes you a better person

Here is a sample of a similar game, called Dragon Age


Blogger Sarah Head said...

We're very familiar with D&D in this household. My ex-brother in law imported one of the first sets into the UK in 1975 as a student at Birmingham University. My husband became a dungeon master and I spent many nights waiting for him to come to bed while they and other friends played until the early hours of the morning. I did have a couple of characters - a paladin and an elf if my memory serves me. We still have a set of the original books which sit on the highest shelf over my desk. I don't play many games, preferring to knit or write my own stories but the rest of the family always play cards or boardgames when they're together. My husband and our two boys often play multiplayer games on the computer in the evening - an ideal setup when all three are in different parts of the country. It keeps up together.

February 27, 2014 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Stephanie Lindsley said...

Brava for posting about the red box! In our house we have four teens, and we often play with one of them creating a dungeon and the rest of us playing through it. We have gotten distracted a little by Ticket to Ride and some other shorter games like the Cataan series and teails to rails which appeal to our autistic youngest, but the red So many lates nights with candle light and thick, dark beer, and our imaginations. Thanks for sharing!

February 27, 2014 at 9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband started playing the red box when it first came out and has graduated to indie games, such as Prime Time Adventures, Monster Hearts, and Witch. We've played Dragon Age with our two sons and had a great time! I like to play narrative rpg's that aren't controlled by the roll of the dice, it feeds my imagination and I'm often amazed at the creativity that's revealed.

I can't wait to read your blog! I found you through a From Scratch article. :)

February 27, 2014 at 11:35 PM  
Blogger Sim said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 1, 2014 at 9:47 AM  
Blogger James Stytle said...

I played D&D (maybe it was AD&D) back in the mid-80s. I was always the DM, which was my choice. I enjoyed planning the game more than playing it.

A few years ago I heard that fantasy football was D&D for guys who spent high school beating up the D&D players.

March 1, 2014 at 10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds fun. Never played it, but had I caught the "fantasy bug" back in the day instead of much later, probably would have found it.

March 2, 2014 at 9:48 PM  
Blogger WoodsForestHome said...

Love it and haven't played it enough in recent years. It has me wanting to start up again.... I kind of have a headache after watching the video link though!


March 5, 2014 at 6:13 PM  
Blogger Wildjo said...

Have you heard about the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar? Many old time D&D fans supporting this grassroots effort!

March 6, 2014 at 9:43 AM  

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