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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chris is enchanted by his first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game ever!

After being gone for almost a year I ended up back in North Carolina this past weekend.  Guess I’m still in "journey mode" since leaving Reidsville in June of 2016.  It was a few days to take care of some business, hook up with longtime friends, make new friends, do a lot of writing... and playing Dungeons & Dragons?!?

It happened, all two of this blog's faithful readers!  Saturday night in Burlington.  At the HyperMind game store on Church Street: the one owned by my friend Denise and her family and that I've written about a number of times.  The day before on HyperMind's Facebook page there was a notice about "Dungeons & Dragons for Beginners" on Saturday evening.

Those who know this blog and its strange curator are well aware: journalist that I be, I'll report on anything within reason.  Like the Facebook Live I did from a marijuana store just over the Colorado side of the border with New Mexico   And now here was a golden opportunity that had fallen into my lap to not just observe the return of a cultural phenomenon but to also participate firsthand.  The Muse was beckoning.

I had never played Dungeons & Dragons (often abbreviated D&D).  Not once.  Although when I was a wee lad somehow I had in my possession "the red box” now spoken of in whispers and hushed reverence at tables of geekdom laden with soda cans and Doritos bags.  Suffice to say, I was beyond out of touch with whatever had become of Gary Gygax's legendary RPG (that's "role-playing game", not "rocket propelled grenade"!).  I knew that it was now being published by Wizards Of The Coast (having acquired the original TSR company many moons ago) and that it was in its fifth edition.  And also that somehow lately Dungeons & Dragons has become crazy popular again.  It's more a widespread success today than it was during its celebrated heyday of the Eighties.  Celebrated... or condemned.  Yeah I well remember the bad rap that D&D got about how it supposedly encouraged witchcraft and Satanic rituals and child sacrifice.  Witness the thoroughly authoritative investigative work of one Jack Chick in his treatise "Dark Dungeons":

That's the only one of Chick's tract's to be adapted into a motion picture.  Behold the trailer:

And some people still think of Dungeons & Dragons as that.  When it's really just this:

A bunch of guys, ages 11 on up to late fifties, sitting around a table with various books, papers, pencils, and laptops and tablets.  Yeah mobile devices 'cuz this ain't your daddy's D&D.

"Dungeons & Dragons for Beginners" kicked off at 5 on Saturday afternoon at HyperMind.  And as always, we were hosted by the ever lovely and effervescent co-owner Denise.  And she and her family would no doubt love for y'all to come and see their wonderful shop and ogle their wares, which includes everything from Candyland and Monopoly to Settlers of Catan to Magic: the Gathering to X-Wing Miniatures and Warhammer 40,000.  They've also a sweet game room that's somehow mysteriously expanded since I was last in the area a year ago.

There were six newbies who showed up to an introductory game with a dude named Mike serving as "Dungeon Master".  The Dungeon Master... or DM as he or she is often called (would a female Dungeon Master be a "Dungeon Mistress", or is that too dominatrixish?)... is the one who "runs the game".  That means drawing up the outline of the adventure, populating it with various monsters and vagabonds, and trying to keep things on track as the traipse through the Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft or wherever draws toward it's intended conclusion (or not).  Think of the Dungeon Master as being the conductor of a symphony orchestra the members of which can't decide if they want to play Mozart or Rush or "Weird Al" Yankovic.

Here is Mike.  And he definitely knows what he's doing!  He's been involved with fantasy role-playing since the original D&D back in 1974:

First thing on the agenda, the most crucial part of the experience because everything else blooms from it, is to create our characters.  And you've a WAY humongous latitude here.  Not just what "class" aka career you have like Fighter or Druid or Thief etc. but also what race to be.  If you wanna take a break from being a baseline human for awhile you can be a dwarf or a half-elf or one of a jillion other species (I seem to vaguely recollect the Dark Sun campaign setting having giant grasshoppers you could choose as your race).

Anyhoo, I decided that befitting my surname I would be a Paladin.  Which is kind of a crusader knight but he can also use magic effects like healing people who need it.

Here’s where things took a WILD deviation from anything I'd expected.  A few years ago Wizards Of The Coast introduced an online tracking system that lets you record and manage how often you play, or something.  Since this was an Adventurer's League that means you could theoretically roll up a character in Burlington and bring it to play with others in Emporia, Kansas.  But you need something called a "DCI number".  Which most people in the group already had because they played Magic: The Gathering also.  And it can be used with Dungeons & Dragons.  It wasn't necessary per se for this evening's event but still kinda made it official.

I whipped out the iPhone and went to the Wizards Of The Coast website and created an account and got my very own DCI number.  Using a smartphone to play an old-school pen and paper RPG.  Huh.  Never saw THAT one coming.  I suppose that now that I'm "logged into the system" with a DCI tracking number it means that I have consigned myself to an eternity of torment.  Because the Wizards Of The Coast website is tied into a massive Cray cluster-booted mainframe known as "the Beast" controlled by George Soros somewhere in the bowels of the European Community bunker in Brussels and my name is now registered on it.  That's how some of the lingering hysteria over Dungeons & Dragons would make it out to be...

Or maybe not.

So, got my race (human) class (Paladin) Alignment (Lawful Good) who is part of some faction called "Order of the Gauntlet" and now a DCI number.  It was at this point that Mike whomped everyone upside the head with the announcement that we would be playing a pre-designed adventurer called "Tomb Of Annihilation".

WHAT?!?  PLEASE tell me this isn’t related at all to "Tomb Of Horrors".  Even if you've only a cursory knowledge of D&D and never actually played you've heard of "Tomb Of Horrors".  The infamous adventure module from 1975 and created by Gary Gygax himself in order to humble all the "hacker and slasher" players who thought they could simply murderize their way through a quest.  And... how shall I put this?  Let's just say that fewer players have survived "Tomb Of Horrors" than there are Star Wars fans who have survived watching the entire The Star Wars Holiday Special:

Yeah.  It's THAT perilous.

If "Tomb of Annihilation" was inspired by or derived from "Tomb Of Horrors", I didn't get to find out.  Most of the fun with a role-playing game is to just ride along and see what happens and act in character.  So it is that I didn't inquire about anything potentially spoiling the experience.

Dungeons & Dragons isn't set on any one particular "world" per se.  It’s actually a vast cosmos of settings, from the prime material physical universe on through various dimensions of being (and our own Earth is in there somewhere).  I think my personal favorite campaign setting world is Ravenloft because of the Lovecraftian horror atmosphere of the place though obviously I've never played a game in it.  So after Mike announced we were seeking the Tomb of Annihilation he also noted that this was the classic Forgotten Realms country of Faerûn.  Oh yeah, and because of something called the "death curse" associated with this particular officially published adventure there was NO resurrecting dead characters.  Which normally would cost a bunch of in-game gold pieces.  Not here though.  Your character dies, there's no coming back.  High stakes indeed!

Here is a map of the part of Faerûn we'd be romping across.  It's on the players-facing side of the Dungeon Master's screen.  That's the gimmick which the DM uses to hide all his notes and plots and ambushes from the players.

Okay well, we were all creating our characters, using the core material like Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (which shot up to #1 selling item on Amazon when it came out... and I mean #1 selling item of EVERY category of merchandise!) and some official apps on iPad and whatever.

Being a Paladin, I got to have two "spells" which in the D&D realm are really like different prayers that the character's spiritual order has.  Starting out with a first level Paladin you get "Divine Sense", which "senses evil to sixty feet" four times per day.  And also "Lay On Hands" for healing.

"Lay On Hands"?!  Far from Dungeons & Dragons transforming me into a Satan worshipper... it had converted me to a Pentecostal!  At least Paladins are by default "Lawful Good" in alignment.  Had it been "Chaotic Neutral" my character would be running around the wilderness like a medieval Benny Hinn.  But at least he would have made his money the old fashioned way: by earrrrrning it.

(Award yourself a thousand XP if you know what that's a reference to and which actor without having to Google it.)

It was about this time, an hour or so into the characters getting created, that it dawned on me.  That this was already a whole heap of fun.  It was creative writing of a sort that hadn't been engaged in for so long that I'd forgotten it was there at all.  All around me other players were doing the same thing.

Role-playing games can exercise the imagination as few things can, right from the getgo.  No wonder Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs are roaring back into popularity.  This kind of imagination on the part of the player is almost a novelty in a time of Xbox consoles and mobile gaming.  And the interaction is with living, breathing people who you are seeing and hearing and not looking at pixels of screennames.  There is a need for authentic gaming in our era.  Board games are returning with wild acclaim and traditional "pen and paper" RPGs with them.  And that primal need for real human interaction is an enormous reason why, no doubt.

Okay well my character has got his stats, his equipment and his spells, now all he needed was a name.  Once again consulting the iPhone (or as I often call it "the Mother Box") Google found a website that generates fantasy character names, for RPG use or hiding from the Internal Revenue Service or whatever.  Several "next screen" clicks in and there was Denvorn-something.  "Brother Denvorn" had a nice ring to it as a warrior monk, so that's what I went with.

And as a Paladin he's equipped with chainmail armor, a sword and shield, and also a holy symbol of his order, which can be worn as an amulet or emblazoned on his shield.  I thought on the shield would have greater psychological value.  I didn't have to design the symbol but there's space on the character sheets for a character description and I wanted to do at least a rough sketch.  So here's Brother Denvorn with his sword, armor and holy symbol-equipped shield:

Lookin' good!  Well enough to go into dungeons to fight dragons.  Or at least into thick hedges to fight unwary orcs.

And now we were all set.  Our merry band consisted of a Wood Elf Druid, a Ranger, a Sage, a Warlock, a "Self-Appointed Inquisitor", and yours truly the Paladin.

Mike's launch of the adventure was most ideal.  A quick synopsis: that we'd been hired to move some cargo for this rich dude on a wagon following a road down from Neverwinter.  However it seems that the guy and his guard had gone missing.  First order of business: decide who is riding on the cart, who is walking beside it and who is walking ahead and at the rear.  Since I was playing a Paladin the noble thing to do it seemed was to go in front of the party and act as a scout.  And we were on our way!

It was some time later that our little caravan came upon two dead horses in the road.  When asked the DM reported that they hadn't been there for more than a day.  We also found some ransacked bags and an empty map case.  Brother Denvorn moved closer to investigate, joined by Jaeger.

Roland and Azrael wanted a better look also, so they arrived and examined the scene also.  Little did we know however that there were four goblins lurking in the bushes!

The volley of arrows they let loose did little damage to us.  Had to make something called an Initiative roll:

We went into full retaliation mode.  And Brother Denvorn went charging at the assailants, shield hefted and sword raised...

BAM!! Two of the goblins went down.  But they bounded back and Leroy Jenk... I mean Brother Denvorn, who had been a hearty 12 points of health, got wounded by 5 points and went down to 7.  Our Mage was likewise hit.  One of the goblins was killed and after the melee I did the "laying on of hands" on the Mage and healed him for 2 and then gave myself a boost of 3.

A fine little battle to start the adventure off!  However, we now had a dilemma.  One of the goblins was greatly wounded but alive.  What to do with him?  An argument began: were we going to waste him now or keep him hostage and potentially extract information from him?  None of our characters spoke any of the languages of goblins.  I suggested that we keep him bound and then when we got to a town we would find someone to translate our interrogation.  Furthermore that we should give him some healing, demonstrate "a quality of mercy" that might loosen his filthy mouth.  And that’s what we HAD decided to do…

...except that TJ, the young lad playing Jaeger, went mad with power and with bloodthirsty relish made it an action to exsanguinate the goblin on his own.  And now we had NOTHING to go on.  Smooth move, kid!  You were ALLEGEDLY a ranger of somewhat marginal good character.  But then you had to go full Dexter Morgan-mode and now we've no leads on what happened to our employer.

Well, except that some of us had noticed a trail of dragged bootprints going off the path and into the woods.  Should we keep going as planned, or go looking for what might be our employer?  There was a chance he and his guard were still alive, and if we rescued them we might get rewarded with precious gold pieces.  Taking a risk by leaving the wagon unguarded, we followed the trail.

Shortly after that, two of us fell into a shallow pit, and one of us almost triggered a snare.  We decided that we had gone as far as we should for the night, and that it was time to camp and fully heal our wounds.  By this time it was almost 9 PM in the real world and HyperMind was about to close for the night.  Mike proclaimed that we woke up the next day, all healed up and with 75 experience points each to record on our sheets.  Thus ended this first leg of the journey toward... I'm assuming... is the Tomb of Annihilation.

And that was my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons.  And I had a blast!  I can readily understand now why it has come back with a vengeance.  Why it's rapidly gained appeal across a wide array of people, many of whom have never approached any role-playing game before.  This is NOT something confined to the basements of geeks, dweebs, nerds, and unbathed comic book guys.  Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is a REAL thinkin' person's pastime.  One that requires and demands being able to act, to adapt, to bring forth wisdom and foresight toward a situation.  You know, much like skills needed in real life.  After playing even this brief introduction to the game, one can easily envision a role-playing game like D&D being a useful tool in corporate training, psychiatric counseling, teaching civics and ethics to high school students and perhaps younger... there are all kinds of practical applications for what Gary Gygax came up with more than forty years ago.

And since some will no doubt be wondering about it and maybe even leave a comment about it: at no time during the game or afterward did I feel "the pull toward evil".  Neither did I develop any inkling of obsession about it.  I doubt that I ever will either.  It was a few hours spent with a great group of people, and afterward we left feeling that it was a very enjoyable time and then we departed the store and went on with our lives.  Might some people out there get too much into Dungeons & Dragons than is healthy so far as normal interactions with others?  Yes, I would have to agree with that assumption.  But it would be no more so than being obsessed with video games, or sports, or eating, or drinking, or anything else taken to excess.  In that regard, a role-playing game is utterly mild in terms of hazard.

And neither did I have the sense that my spiritual life was impacted.  Was there a religious component to my character?  Yes, certainly.  But however that figures into him as a character, it starts and stops there.  Any further elucidation was not necessary, any more so than I would need to know the religious practices of Frodo Baggins or Princess Leia.  And as with them, Brother Denvorn and his adventure was put down like any other book or movie until next time.  And much of the next day was spent in time devoted to the relationship I have with God in the real world, with no thought whatsoever about how Denvorn might be spending his own quiet time.  Gary Gygax himself was a devout Christian.  Had he known that his creation would be an instrument to tempt people to turn away from God, he would not have published it in the first place.

So if you've been boggled at how a game that needs no board, no LCD screen, no batteries, and no wi-fi has made a raging comeback and has exploded at last into the mainstream, look around for a Dungeons & Dragons gaming group in your area.  Or form one with your friends and dive on in.  It's a LOT more fun than what you might have expected of it.

Oh yeah, one more thing: get yourself a set of dice.  They come in all kinds of sizes and colors and textures.  Like Harry Potter's wand, a good set of dice during an adventure becomes a part of you.  And it's just really neat to roll around that 20-sided die in your hand while weighing your options when suddenly confronted with one of those blasted rust monsters.


Stuart said...

This was the most tummy busting funny blog post I've read in ages. Good job!

Anonymous said...

The anti D&D hysteria was there from nearly the start but it was a stupid TV movie called "Mazes and Monsters" starring Tom Hanks that made it so big a deal. It's on YouTube. Mazes and Monsters


Anonymous said...

I like that your DM integrated the Lost Mines of Phandelver intro into the ToA campaign :)