Feb 19, 2014

D&D - A Breakdown for Non-Nerds

So... I played D&D for the first time a couple years ago.  It destroyed all my preconceptions.  I expected it to be mostly miniature battles with monsters whose outcome was decided by a dice roll.  And that is a key element.  But the biggest piece is the story telling.  When people scoff at "role playing" or RPGs, I don't think they realize that it's not terribly different from writing or acting.  It's better, because you get to do both.  And while you're writing your character's story, other people are writing their character's stories, and all the story lines get all tangled together in a big game tapestry.

Key Components

1. The Players!

Well, of course we need the people actually playing the game!  The DM (or Dungeon Master) is the brains behind each individual game and the most essential.  In addition to coming up with all the background, histories, and rules of the world, the DM will build the story line as you continue along, and will play the part of all non-party characters.  The party is everyone else who wants to play.  There's no strict rules, but a typical party is about 4 people, each with his/her own character to interact with each other and the world (aka the DM).

2. Character Sheets & Backgrounds

Building your own character is what makes this game so addicting.  Certain things are fairly structured, like choosing a race and class.  The class will determine your fighting style, and the race will affect your character's features, personality, aptitudes, and give you a direction to start when figuring out a background.  That said, there's usually some flexibility with customizing class, and definitely with race.  Your character can be a cliche elf hunter in the forest, or he/she can be a traveling diplomat elf with secret spear fighting abilities who has overcome the aversion to outsiders that is customary of his/her race.  It's all up to you!  But you do need to do the research to figure out why your character is the way he/she is, and how he/she came to be doing whatever you're doing.  Which involves a fair amount of learning about the world the DM has invented.  It can a little overwhelming but also absorbing and fascinating.

3. Dice

There's all kinds of dice with a different number of sides.  The one you'll use all the time is the D20 (20 sided die).  And it's not just for combat.  You character will be traveling along and will eventually want to do something that requires a certain skill, say picking a lock, or hunting, and the number you roll on the die will determine your success rate.  Battle is a bit more complicated.  The D20 usually tells you whether or not you hit your opponent, and then depending on your abilities and weaponry, you'll roll another die to determine damage (usually more like a D6 or D8 - 6 or 8 sides).

4. Grid

This is fairly flexible and you don't necessarily need one.  We like having the grid to layout battles, so you can see where obstacles (and enemies!) are, and follow tighter rules when it comes to how fast you can charge someone, how far you can move in a turn, and so on.  It's really just a plastic mat with lines on it and the DM will draw out the scene (if we need it) with erasable marker.

5. Miniatures

Like the grid, these are optional.  In our game, we each have one that acts as a placeholder for our character during the battle scenes.  Other than that, we really don't use them.  And we don't bother to match up the right monsters or enemies with the right pieces.  They really are just placeholders, like chess pieces.
My super fancy dice!

How it Works

1. Building Your Character

This only takes a day or so.  You read about the world, think about what you'd like to be doing when you play, and then build a character who will realistically be focused on those things.  Ideally, when you build your character, you'll consider all the details together (race, class, background), so that your character is someone who could possibly exist (within the boundaries of the game).  That way, when you play, it's not just "Eh, whatever" but "Well, what would my character do/how would my character respond to this?"  Just like writing a book.  If the characters don't have any integrity, then it's usually not worth reading.  You have to be able to sink yourself into the world just a little bit, and having a character that you like, enjoy playing, and who is fairly consistent, will help with that.  Also, you'll have to get plenty of input from your DM about background stuff and what does or does not make sense for your character to have done.  What is a game without rules, after all?

2. Actual Game Play

This can go on as long as your party enjoys playing.  Our current game has been going for about 6 months and we meet every other week to play.  The characters within the game don't need to get along or be compatible, but it definitely helps if the actual group playing them is.  And you can't get annoyed by things that happen in the game.  One of the things I struggle with is wanting to keep a running commentary about the game, while also making comments as my character.  Our DM likes to stay in character, so a lot of things that I say, my character also says, even though it's really unlike her personality.  It can be hard to get into character at first - I know I felt kind of dumb the first few times, but it's gotten a lot easier, and I don't feel that I have to spend as much time analyzing what my character would actually do (vs what is the easiest thing or what I want to do).  And that's where it really becomes like writing a story.  You have to answer the hard questions, like, "How do I prevent my character from dying, without breaking character, or having an unrealistic magical solution?"

To Conclude

D&D is really awesome and really fun, no matter what anyone says!  And you don't have to be a socially inept, mathematically gifted, stereotypical nerd to enjoy it (I'm not big on perpetuating stereotypes anyway.  Men can bake and do housework without being gay.  Women can bring home the bacon and do handiwork without being cold and domineering.  And fantasy enthusiasts are quite capable of being engaging and interesting conversationalists.  Seriously, people!).

If you're considering playing at all, I would say go for it!  Of the people I've played D&D with, they've been some of the most accepting and amusing people I've ever met.  And it's nice that it's hands on and personal.  No one laughs at you for not knowing how things work, which is a completely different story from online gaming.  And even if you decide it's not for you, at least you've tried something new!

Want More?

If you have some insane desire to read more, I have a simplified Race & Class Summary that I wrote up for some even newer noobs than myself.  We play the 4th edition of D&D, so while these are specific to that, you can still get a pretty good idea of how things work.  You can also see the full details and more technical descriptions at the D&D4 Wiki.