Thoughts, rants, experiences, reviews and other things from the mind of Jason O’Conal

A Beginner’s Experience with Dungeons & Dragons

28 Mar 2014

If you’ve read many of the posts on my blog, you’ll already know that I am a massive geek. I love the way Wil Wheaton put it in a recent talk:

… when I was growing up, being a nerd meant that I liked things that were a little weird. That took a lot of effort to appreciate and understand. It meant that I loved science, and that I loved playing board games, and reading books, and really understanding what went on in the world instead of just riding the planet through space.

When I was a little boy, people really teased us about that, and made us feel like there was something wrong with us for loving those things. Now that I’m an adult, I’m kind of a professional nerd, and the world has changed a lot. I think a lot of us have realized that being a nerd … it’s not about what you love. It’s about how you love it.

Wil Wheaton
transcribed: why it’s awesome to be a nerd

I don’t necessarily love the same things that the ‘mainstream’ geek loves (I’ve never played an MMORPG or online FPS, for example1), but the things I love I tend to love wholeheartedly and I get along really well with others who enjoy the same things in the way. In fact, as I’m writing this article, I’m on my way to Adelaide to go to a pop culture expo where there’ll be characters from great fantasy television programs like Game of Thrones, voice actors from anime cartoons, people playing Magic: The Gathering, cosplay – a geek’s mecca. The only disappointing thing about going to conventions like this is that I am going to miss out on my usual weekend activities: board games and role playing. It’s a nice problem to have – too many awesome things to do!

I have recently started playing Dungeons and Dragons (4th edition) and am loving every minute of it. Of course, it’s not without its difficulties (like how much I love arguing about rules) that I’ll get to a bit later.

I moved to Sydney about 18 months ago and found it really difficult to make friends, to find people who enjoyed doing the same things that I did. I didn’t realise how lucky I was in Adelaide having built up a group of friends who loved the same geeky things that I did and how difficult it would be to rebuild a group like this.

With some notable exceptions, I have found that most geeks are rather socially awkward, that they have a difficult time building relationships and accepting friendship when it is offered.

After almost a year in Sydney, I finally decided that I wasn’t prepared to wait for friendships to develop organically from the people I met through work and church. So I started a board games meetup. It started of relatively slowly, but now, after about 5 months, is a solid group of really great people. The group has just shy of one hundred members with about 10 or 15 core people who come each week2. We play a variety of board games (you name it, we’ll play it) and I have made a couple of strong friendships.

One Wednesday evening, one of the group members approached me asking if I would like to play Dungeons and Dragons with her and a couple of her friends. I responded with a resounding ‘Yes!’ and the rest, as they say, is history.

Which edition?

D&D next (aka 5th edition) was in its final beta phase and soon to be released and 3.5 (or the very similar Pathfinder) was the most popular edition. Nevertheless, we decided to play 4th edition. I would have preferred either 3.5 (we could stick with it for as long as we wanted as there were so many other players) or 5 (because it was the latest and would receive the most attention from the publisher, Wizards of the Coast). 4th edition, on the other hand, had as much official content as it was ever going to have and had a dwindling number of players (the ones who had moved to 4 from 3.5 were ready and willing to move to 5).

Rules, rules, rules

I have played a lot of games in my time (board, card, video) and one of the most rewarding parts of playing a new game is learning the rules and trying to work out the best strategy. Once that’s done, the game can still be fun, but it’ll be time to move on to the next challenge. This has made me somewhat of a ’rules nazi‘, not always the most desirable attribute in a gaming companion.

What people get out of a game of D&D and how they play it varies hugely from group to group, but there are a few things most gamers enjoy: 1) the role playing (immersion in the game’s universe), 2) the creation (and, depending on the player’s bent, optimisation) of their characters, and 3) the thrill of defeating the challenges put up by the DM. There are varying play styles, styles that emphasise some of these aspects more strongly than others, but very few people want to argue about rules for hours on end (something I really enjoyed doing). The rules are there to help the game master and the players to create and play in a realistic universe, to spur on our imagination, and to help players avoid common pitfalls. Not to be something that creates seemingly endless discussions about whether or not a particular NPC would provoke an opportunity attack if it failed to shift that one square.

Focusing less on the rules and more on the universe we were creating made for far more enjoyable play.

Roleplaying

When I started working on my character for our first campaign (Kedomas Konar, Half-elf Paladin, child of Pelor, younger son of a minor noble), I came up with his backstory easily and thought live roleplaying would be just as easy. I’ve done a bit of improv in my time and never really had much difficulty with it. Improv while roleplaying turned out to be much more difficult – not only do you have to come up with something interesting (and probably funny) in the heat of the moment, you’ve got to make sure that it makes sense in the game’s universe (and that the DM allows it). I just hadn’t played enough computer games, read enough fantasy novels, seen enough of the right movies to really naturally be able to craft an interesting, believable story at the drop of a hat.

Once I realised that I wasn’t naturally good at this, I started to have a lot more fun.

We’re now on to our second campaign (I’m playing a Gnome Bard with an owlbear pet), and I’m having the time of my life.

Footnotes

1. I have written this article over several weeks and since then, have played a few hours of World of Warcraft and participated in the beta for The Elder Scrolls Online (I’m really looking forward to the official launch this Sunday night). I’ve still never played an FPS, nor have I played Diablo III, so my non-mainstream-geek cred is still somewhat intact.

2. In the time since I wrote this, the meetup has grown to more than 200 people.

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