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The RPS Verdict: Dungeons & Dragons

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The RPS gang have been playing with dice. Our Dungeons & Dragons campaign (DM’d by Jim) has been slaying goblins and exploring sinister caves for a few months now, so we thought we’d have a chat about it, and consider how it reflected on our many years of playing videogames.

Jim: Right so we’re going to have a chat about Dungeons & Dragons, which we’ve been playing for, what, six months now?

John: We have seen many dungeons, but ZERO dragons.

Jim: John, how much D&D had you played before this? Or tabletop RPGs generally, I mean

John: Absolutely none. I once did one evening of pen and paper when I was a teenager. In a youth hostel in Scotland.

Jim: What about you Graham?

Graham: The same. My friends and I were much too cool for D&D. I’ve played boardgames as an adult, but D&D was my first pen-and-paper.

Jim: I’ve been playing RPGs like this on and off since I was 12, and I obsessively ran campaigns for friends from 12 to 18. I have always been much cooler than either of you. Pleased to meet you. I have Dragon magazines in the attic.

John: People keep asking me about “editions” on Twitter, and I pretend that I know what they are.

Jim: Ah well, there’s a thing.

Graham: 4th edition is *definitely* the best edition. Editions 1, 3, 8 and B-12 can hardly compete.

Jim: We’re playing 4th Edition, which is my return to the D&Dings after about a decade out. I first played first edition, when it was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (as opposed to the simplified boxed editions) and then ran 2nd Edition campaigns as a teen. In truth, they were too complicated for me aged 12, and it took me years to actually run them properly or appreciate the rules, and I actually played a lot more of the Palladium games, which had the most awful rulesets imaginable. Anyway, it’s been much easier to comprehend 4th edition now that I am a grown up Dad man, and it’s been fun to learn it, and to see why people do/don’t like this edition – it’s a very “gamey” edition. Stupidly, of course, we’re having this conversation at the same time 5th edition is launching, and so we won’t have anything to say about that.

John: I think the 5th edition is RUBBISH. And everyone who likes it is the enemy.

Graham: I bet 5th edition is rubbish. We liked it before it was cool.

Jim: We’re great at this.

Jim: Anyway: what do you gents make of your experiences with D&D so far? Is sitting down and playing a game at a table everything you imagined?

Graham: It is almost exactly as I imagined it would be. Dungeons, number-y combat, and awkward talking-to-Jim but-no-not-Jim-but-a-monster stuff. I am not yet ready for roleplay. But I’m also enjoying it far more than I expected. I like it more as time goes on and we get the rhythms of it down. There’s a lovely sense of adventure to it which isn’t quite like adventure or exploration in videogames. The sense of having travelled. I come home feeling I’ve accomplished something and been somewhere. Which is weird, because I never really accomplish anything.

Jim: The slow-slow-quick-slow of dice combat is something I always relish, it’s nothing like the same processes rendered in videogames.

John: I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’m not sure I’d imagined anything, other than a deep awareness that the version presented on shows like Big Bang Theory was likely to be utter garbage. Jim doesn’t sit behind a three-fold stand of card even one bit.

Jim: That’s only because the 4th edition ones of those have been out of print since I got it.

John: But like Graham, I find I can’t quite bring myself to “act”. I feel intensely awkward, feeling the need to frame everything in multiple sets of quotation marks. “My character says to the person Jim’s pretending to be, “Hello,” and offers to shake hands.”

Jim: The role-playing part of it is the hardest part: James has been the most aggressive about pursuing that with his meat-headed warrior and thank goodness, you’re all such cautious men.

John: Yes – but then I find it counter-intuitive to roleplay someone who would be worse at the experience that I would be.

Jim: I’m surprised you find that awkward, actually, you are not someone I’d expect to be embarassed by that sort of thing (I don’t know why I think that precisely, but maybe your youth work and general relaxed demeanour with people).

John: Because it’s YOU GUYS.

Graham: I am terrified if that sort of thing, so my awkwardness is inevitable.

Jim: I don’t think you necessarily have to play a character in a “worse than I am” way, but rather to play up to some trope, like greed or vindictiveness. Spice of character.

Graham: I find the closest I get to roleplay is doing the thing I think will be most interesting in a videogame-y context. “What happens if I–“.

John: I’m somewhat limited by the recent discovery that you wrote motivations and back stories for EVERYONE ELSE BUT ME.

Jim: You do have a back story, written when we kicked off, but I’ve not dropped an event to embellish that yet, as I have with the others. Although not Martin actually, his stuff came out through pure improv. (Go back and read the background doc we started the campaign with, that thing is still set to appear, although I realise it’s less clearly motivational than the other characters!)

Graham: Should we talk through who our characters are a bit?

John: Go for it, Graham.

Graham: Only because a lot of the fun, if not roleplay, has been finding running jokes. My halfling warlock is called Ulmo, because that sounds like Elmo. Marty’s guy is called Moron. We shout “thank goodness you’re here” as a ruse to try to convince every potential enemy that we’re on their side, because it worked that one time, etc. I’m doing other pen-and-paper games now that aren’t nearly so good at creating running jokes. Because there’s something about the structure and repetition of D&D that lends itself to it.

John: That didn’t even vaguely describe your character.

Graham: Yeah, I decided that was boring.

Jim: But also there’s a wealth of jokes connected to fantasy tropes, even when it’s dark, it’s funny.

Graham: A lot of the spell names do seem specifically designed to be funny. Dreadful word, frigid darkness…

John: I’m a half-elf ranger, and I do an improbable amount of damage. AND IN THE GAME. Our running jokes are the best running jokes. And “Thank goodness you’re here!” has worked at least twice so far.

Jim: Yes, it has worked twice, although the baddies have posted it on social media now, so they know to be aware of it.

John: Also the time we had James tie a rope to Graham and throw him across a hole, which he fell down, and nearly died, and then we realised after two tries that Graham could just teleport across, and we all laughed so much that Laura thought we’d gone mad.

Jim: The individual emergent moments in D&D are funnier than anything that could be scripted. An event in another group I played with that led to spraying naked dwarves across a battlefield as a pocket dimension they were in collapsed, remains the time I have laughed most in my entire life.

Graham: How much of this is created by the rules and provided fiction, and how much is just players filling a big possibility space with naked dwarves?

Jim: It’s the play between the two: in that case it was an esoteric spell (a place to hide the dwarves) being dispelled by a monster’s powers, so it was our idea to hide the dwarves there, but we couldn’t know we’d fight an anti-magic giant on the way out. But those emergent things aside, what do you guys think about the story generally? I’ve deliberately just thrown together trad fantasy “evil in the North” type stuff, with things lifted from various sourcebooks. I am running two campaigns, and I am aware that I’ve worked off some of the rust with the other guys and I am remembering the good tricks for you guys.

John: I’m really enjoying it. I’m liking how many unanswered questions there are, and the fragile alignments we’re forming with some extremely dubious people.

Graham: I like that it all comes from a source of trying to earn a bit of money to fix some windows.

Jim: Posing questions that seem interesting to have answered is the most enjoyable part of constructing the campaign, I think. Do you have any theories about what the larger arc of the story might be, yet?

John: It’s not just a story about repairing some windows? I don’t, no, but then I’ve sort of trained my brain not to think about such things, as it allows for more surprises. I much prefer to go, “Ahhh, so that’s why that was that, and that fit into that!” Rather than, “Ah yes, just as I expected.”

Jim: What about you, G-dog?

Graham: I’ve no idea either. We’ve met so many people that I’m mostly focused on whatever our immediate challenge is. There are themes though, I guess. We meet a lot of old mysterious and laid-back magical people… That’s not really a theme. But we do!

Jim: Yes, they’re always a good mouthpiece for a DM. A confident magic NPC is always worth listening to.

Graham: Lots of people who seem like Old Magic and want to restore things and keep balance. And then the big bad with his magical ocean fortress and inter-dimensional danger. But no idea where that’s going. I’m going to guess… Dragons?

John: Dragons!

Jim: Okay, okay, we’ll get to dragons. But re the big bad, I like him. And that stuff is part of what I like about D&D – sourcebook borrowings. He’s an altered villain from the secondary monster compendium “Threats To Nentir Vale”. What I enjoy most about D&D is reading all that pre-made stuff and working out how it can drop into the world we’re playing with. And yes, there will be dragons. My other group just slew their first. It had a lizard ninja sidekick.

Do you guys feel like you have learned anything about videogames from playing pen & paper stuff for an extended period like this?

John: So much. It’s really strange playing RPGs now, how much more present the dice feel than they ever have before. And indeed the necessary restrictions that are on them, most especially the massive limitations of defining your own character’s motivations.

Graham: Most of what I’ve learned has come from pairing D&D with sessions of another game, Numenera (which is being used as the setting for the new Torment). It’s much less about numbers and stats and combat, and much more about story, and players negotiating what happens with the DM by trading XP. The contrast is really interesting, and makes D&D feel really, really videogame-y to me. Albeit one with fewer restrictions. You mentioned earlier that 4th edition is seen as ‘game-y’. Has it taken from videogames, or is it simply that videogames stole everything from the original AD&D?

Jim: Well games had to sort of rationalise D&D rules, which early on were a lot more esoteric and far less coherent than they are now. Many folks argue that makes for a better game, and they might be right. What 4th edition did was make all classes function within in similar mechanics, which is a very videogame thing to do. So I think there’s evidence of a back and forth dialogue between what videogame designers have done with standard RPG tropes, and what tabletop designers have done with the reworkings of them in videogames.

John: Is it true that the rules for D&D are made by actual wizards?

Jim: Yes, The Wizards Of The Coasts, although they’re American wizards, so they don’t have the accents for spell-casting. That’s why they make RPGs.

John: Jim, what’s been the thing we’ve done that’s most disappointed you?

Jim: In the last session you missed all the clues for what the Hobgoblins had to trade with the thing they were summoning. So there were hillmen left chained up in a cave nearby

John: Stupid hillmen. Who cares about them?

Jim: And I had prepared a little visit to hillman country, where you would have got some interesting rewards.

John: Is that it, though? We’ve not done something that had you go, “Oh ffs, guys, this could have been SO much better.”

Jim: Not that I can think of. Your attempt to fool the mercenaries into thinking they were on your side didn’t go that well, but that was mostly me fluffing it. I do want you to start fleshing out the characters, though, even if you feel anxious about the role-playing parts. I think the improv that comes from that is the best part of D&D. It’s shared story-telling. I might guide it, but you guys ultimately act, and I have to go with that.

Graham: How much do you plan of each session in advance? I keep wondering whether you have multiple paths roughed out, or one heavily-developed path that you keep shunting us back onto. How many levels do you have, Jim? And what button is quicksave?

Jim: I don’t really have paths so much as encounters which I can drop in when I need to. And most of any session is ad lib work between encounters. Occasionally you miss them, as per hillmen, and I can’t really ever use that anywhere else. And then other times I can drop them in your journey elsewhere. An encounter you dodged in one session when you were chasing big bad, I was able to reuse in a later session when you were exploring the woods, etc. Also the ruined city stuff I’d knew we’d do, because of the ghost side quest, but I never remembered to plan it, so we made it up on the spot.

John: What’s the best thing we’ve done, the thing that surprised/pleased you the most?

Jim: I think the way you handled the big bad during the ambush was good, I wasn’t sure how that would go. If you had pressed on with the fight, which I thought you would because you were winning, I’d have had to have revealed how powerful he is, and at least one of you would probably have died realising he was going to get away regardless. But instead you played for a draw and consequently got most of what you wanted, even if his revenge meant you can’t hand in the window fixing quest…

Graham: That’s going to be in our quest log now FOREVER.

John: Man!

Jim: Greyed out, undeletable.

Graham: This is good emotional motivation to chase down that big bad. Much better than if he had just, say, killed James.

Jim: One last question from me, then: What do you want out of it? Anything? Or are you just happy with it being a laugh and a dice roll session?

Graham: I always bring flapjacks when we play. I love flapjacks. 10/10 for D&D flapjacks.

Jim: God, yes. Flapjacks are my nectar.

John: I have eaten only one cube of flapjack over all the months, which is INCREDIBLE self-control.

Jim: Well done.

John: I really enjoy a time hanging out with friends, engaging in something creative. That’s my motivation for it. I also like that the fact we’re rolling dice immediately removes any concept of shame for being imaginative.

Jim: Not sure i understand that last sentence?

John: We’ve removed a Cool Barrier, that often stops men from being relaxed around each other. There’s an expectation of certain behaviour types, but the inherent geekiness of the pursuit means that’s immediately dispelled, and we can do away with bravado and such tedium, and get on with being relaxed and unembarrassed.

Jim: Well I have a few surprises to come. Mostly nicked from old f+sf novels, but there we go.

Jim: Yes, I’ll say one thing about that, as much as I loved D&D with every fibre of my being as a kid, I am finding it no less rewarding now. I thought I’d “grow out of it”, but now I can see I am just more competent as a grown up running this stuff.

Graham: I’m mainly in it to see more of the world. We’ve covered a fair bit of ground so far, but the map has so much more on it that we’ve yet to visit. So laughs and dice rolls mainly, yes, but then that urge to explore and see what the place is like. D&D is trad-fantasy, I guess, which I’m mostly bored of, but it’s a lot better when I’m imagining it rather than clicking around it. I think it’s that, when we’re in a forest, I’m just imagining a forest. And not a forest drawn in traditional fantasy artstyles, with all the times I’ve seen that before.

Jim: That’s sort of the tension between this stuff and actual videogames, isn’t it: people’s decisions about how stuff looks can’t be moved by imagining it to be different, but in text or verbal gaming, it’s up to you to visualise, which is less intense, but far more flexible. Anyway, I think it’s clear that we give D&D 4th edition 7/10. The graphics are quite good.

D&D 4th Edition is out now. So is 5th Edition. It’s probably fine, too.

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