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Cardboard Children: Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

"It's a nudge – go play"

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Hello youse.

Running a live session of D&D Fifth Edition is far easier than you’d think. First of all, you need an audience of nice people – we have plenty of those in Glasgow. Then you need some good, funny players. I had those too, all of them friends of mine, all of them involved in the TV comedy game in some capacity. Then you need Dungeons & Dragons itself. I had the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual behind my DM screen. Oh, and I also had the new Dungeon Master’s Screen.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS

We had a two hour slot to run this session, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. To my knowledge, it’s the first time a pen-and-paper RPG session has ever featured at a major film festival. That’s something, huh? And man – in a kind of gaming Inception type thing, there’s even a REVIEW of the event over at Bleeding Cool!

So, two hours, an audience of people who may or may not know what D&D is (it turned out that most of the audience had never played before) and the pressures of being LIVE AND IN THE FLESH meant that I had to put considerable thought into how to run this thing.

Actually, I didn’t. Because here’s the deal – D&D 5th edition is a beautifully designed, beautifully written game. It makes the process of playing an RPG incredibly smooth. I had a quick adventure written up and flung together in a couple of hours, I rolled up characters for every player in far less time than that, and I knew how to play the damn thing within fifteen minutes of reading the rules. D&D 5th Edition swings the emphasis back towards storytelling, and that makes for a delight of an experience for newcomers and veterans alike.

Stop. What do you think Dungeons & Dragons is like? Maybe you think it’s a big dry book with lots of tiny text and a million tables of numbers and statistics. Maybe you think it’s some boring big thing that is far too in love with its own lore, and tells you about guys called GUMBERGONG and ILLIMBROSQUAT. Well, you’re dead wrong. This edition of D&D is an arm round your shoulder, a word in your ear, a warm invitation to the world of role-playing. The rules, covered in the Player’s Handbook, are dealt with in a handful of pages. New additions, such as the brilliant brilliant advantage/disadvantage system, are grasped within moments.

(Let me break in to talk about Advantage/Disadvantage for a moment. Most things in D&D are decided by the roll of a 20-sided die. For example, when attacking – you roll that d20, apply any modifiers, and hope to beat an enemy’s armour class. The Advantage/Disadvantage system is a beautiful storytelling/gameplay device for the DM to call upon whenever he feels it necessary. Your enemy was just distracted by a stampede of horses? Then you have advantage. Roll TWO d20s and use your higher roll. You’re trying to attack while underwater and you have a terrible fear of jellyfish? You are at a disadvantage. Roll TWO d20s and use the lower roll. It’s a simple, fast way to kick the narrative here and there in a logical manner without disrupting play.)

The rest of the Player’s Handbook is just cool stuff that you can stack onto what you already know – characters that can play inside the world of D&D, spells that can be cast, gear that can be carried. And everything illustrated beautifully, and explained in detail in plain speak.

The Player’s Handbook is a ball kicked into your hands. It’s a nudge – go play. Within a half hour of reading the thing, skimming the character classes and the rules and spells, I was feeling the urge to roll some dice.

But hey – I had to pull together a quick two-hour session. That’s where the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual came in. That DM Guide is a TREAT. It’s a joy to read – a book full of love for a great game system and a great world of adventures. You could quickly fling together an entire dungeon just by rolling on the tables provided in the book. It’s full of suggestions for backdrops, dressing, motive and monsters. There’s also a strong system for balancing your dungeon, ensuring that you populate your session with monsters that your adventurers will find challenging but not deadly. But my favourite part of the book is the giant section on magical items. Every item is fully illustrated (and beautifully, this too is a gorgeous book) and richly fleshed out. Seriously, when you read this section you will say “Oh, cool. Oh, that is cool” every 30 seconds. These items really capture what’s best about this edition of D&D – every word, every bit of art, is there to inspire you. You could build adventures around these items.

Towards the back of the DM Guide, it drills down into how to run the game. It leads you through the process of creating your own monsters. And then it suggests a huge amount of variants and wrinkles that you can use to make your D&D game truly yours. The DM Guide is a toolset and a sandbox and I think it’s absolutely essential if you want to run a game of D&D. You’ll be blown away by it, I guarantee it.

The Monster Manual continues the streak of great books. Again, every monster has its own unique illustration, and I love the fact that the book really celebrates the dragons of Dungeons & Dragons, featuring all those beautiful types and colours, good and evil. Every monster’s description is a strong seed for an adventure, and every stat block is clean and useable. This is the book that rounds off the feeling that you’ve got a whole world in your hands. It’s saying “Here are the monsters, and some NPCs and some wild animals, and here’s a suggestion as to where you might find them. Now go and fight them, or charm them, or ride them, or pet them, or be them.”

You should buy all three books. They’re absolutely worth the entry fee.

AND SO

And so I fling together a quick, funny little two-hour session.

I roll up some cool characters with that Player’s Handbook.

I roughly sketch a map.

I make some notes about characters and potential puzzles.

I pull some traps and set dressing from the DM Guide.

I fling in some monsters from the Monster Manual.

To ensure that some of the audience get to try D&D, I quickly create a new Monk power. I call it “Shifting Soul”. At certain points in the session, the Monk will Soul Shift to gain Inspiration (these are tokens players can spend to gain advantage or cancel disadvantage). With every Soul Shift, a new member of the audience will take control of the Monk. A new personality, a new approach, with new ideas! (It worked brilliantly.)

And then we play.

This is pen-and-paper RPGing as it should be. Full of story, with enough rules just to serve you, not to enslave you.

Now is the time to play D&D again. The door of the dungeon is open, and it’s warm inside.

There’s really nothing stopping you, is there?

Onwards!

POSTSCRIPT

So impressed was I with this new edition of D&D that I’m making a promise right now to keep you all up to date with this edition as it develops. In a month or two I’ll tell you about the Tyranny of Dragons books The Hoard of The Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat.

Oh, and hey – why not just go and download the basic rules for D&D right now?

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