ADVENTURES WITH D&D

ADVENTURES WITH D&D

by Selwyn Ward

 

My history with Dungeons & Dragons is long but discontinuous. I was first introduced to the game in the 1970s when TSR’s A5 white booklets started to appear in the UK. I was a student living in London and moonlighting as a member of Games & Puzzles magazine’s Games Testing Panel. I joined a couple of early D&D campaigns but quickly discovered that the quality of players’ experience was almost entirely predicated on the care and effort that the Dungeon Master (DM) put into their design.

Too often, DMs made things too easy on their adventurers, rewarding them at every turn with powerful magical items and heaps of experience points (XP) so that players came to expect to ‘level up’ on every outing. You value things far more when rewards are eked out; when it’s no longer routine, levelling up becomes a genuine cause for celebration. I discovered this first hand in my forays into the dungeons created by the late Albie Fiore, who became the editor of Games & Puzzles and who later went on to compile cryptic crosswords for The Guardian and Financial Times. Albie’s dungeons were tough. The puzzles were logical but complex, and the dungeon’s intricate design kept players so engrossed that we sometimes found we’d played all through the night. The rewards often seemed relatively meagre, but that meant adventurers felt a real sense of achievement when they eventually earned enough XP to move up to the next level.

I began collecting metal fantasy figures with the firm aim of painting them; a job I never quite got around to. Plans to create my own dungeon also faltered; perhaps I was intimidated by the high standards Albie had set. I dabbled with other role-playing games, and I even had a small hand in developing the Tunnels & Trolls system published by Flying Buffalo. Tho’ obviously inspired by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s D&D, Ken St Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls offered a less-complicated alternative that used conventional six-sided dice rather than the then-rare polyhedrons demanded by D&D. I edited the rules for the UK edition and for the early ground-breaking T&T solo adventures. Those are largely forgotten now but they inspired the highly successful Fighting Fantasy ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books created years later by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

As the decades passed, I maintained only a passing acquaintance with developments in the RPG world. I was aware that D&D had gone through several iterations and had become a minor industry. Now published by Wizards of the Coast, the player and DM handbooks had made the transition from cheap and cheerful stapled booklets to rather lavish colourful hardback books. Polyhedral dice are no longer exotic accessories.

I never did complete my dungeon design so I didn’t play D&D with my own children as they grew up, tho’ I did incorporate several of RPG memes into the modified version of HeroQuest that became a family favourite, giving the children the option of taking on non-player character (NPC) hirelings to assist them on their quests but at the cost of some, and maybe most, of the treasure…

In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to discover an increasingly wide group of board game enthusiasts living nearby. I found a group that met each week in a pub in a neighbouring town. Most weeks, we’d attract a half dozen or so members and we’d take over a couple of tables to play, much to the bemusement of other patrons. Folk would wander over to glance at whatever we were playing and would invariably ask, ‘Is it like Monopoly?’ None of the games were ever remotely like Monopoly but we always patiently explained the core mechanics and, just occasionally, someone would ask if they could join in. Our group grew, to the point where we were regularly attracting 20 or more players, forcing us to look for new premises. As we’ve grown tho’, so has the range of games played. Several people expressed interest in playing role-playing games, to the extent that we ended up creating a parallel RPG group. A local café was persuaded to open late into the evening and so a separate RPG games night was spawned.

Then Covid hit.

Britain entered the long months of lockdown, discouraging and then forbidding social gatherings. Games nights – board games and RPGs alike – were no longer an option.

                                                                        Selwyn (in character)

Some of my board game group regulars migrated successfully to Tabletop Simulator to play board games online. I dabbled but I’m not enthusiastic about online board game play. Even tho’ some online recreations of games are very solid, I find the process of switching between views of the board and my hand of cards tediously clunky – especially when I have to magnify cards individually to read their text. RPGs, on the other hand, seemed to lend themselves rather well to online play.

And so I found myself returning big time to D&D: playing at least twice and sometimes three times a week across several distinct campaigns. We’ve played using Discord for our live chat and messages, with either Roll20 or Owlbear used to display maps. We all use DnD Beyond to generate and manage our characters. Some use DnD Beyond for dice rolls; others prefer to roll physical dice and report the results.

More so than when we played face-to-face, playing D&D over Discord appears to have liberated players to throw themselves wholeheartedly into role. Nobody goes the whole hog and dresses for the part – tho’ I’ve perhaps come closest, adopting relevant hats for my various characters – but we’ve had a lot of fun really living our characters, if occasionally to the annoyance of other players and our DMs.

One of my first characters was an elven prince, Zithradel. In face-to-face play he was merely aloof, but Discord freed me to play him with an arrogant sense of noble entitlement and an utter disdain for the petty concerns of others. For Prince Zithradel, noblesse oblige is a strictly one-way street!

I’ve had a lot of fun with Tom, my simple fighter. He is strong and dextrous but his intelligence is low. Tom doesn’t know the meaning of fear. Indeed, there are quite a lot of words that appear to be outside his vocabulary! It especially annoys the DM when Tom asks stupid questions or when he follows instructions more literally than intended, but I and the other players have fun from my playing him wholly in role.

In a short campaign, I thought it might be interesting to experiment so, as a cleric, I created Shebson – an orthodox rabbi. The few Hebrew blessings I recalled from my youth served well as incantations whenever Shebson sought to cast a clerical spell or before eating bread or drinking wine, and I also enjoyed slipping in the odd Yiddish expression. Shebson was strict about keeping Kosher dietary rules and became quite animated when other players referred to their ‘gods’, angrily insisting on reciting the First Commandment. I confess, I couldn’t resist dressing the part for this character: wearing a koppl (yarmulke), prayer shawl and fake beard. I’m Jewish so it’s not cultural appropriation. It made for a fun short series of games.

My current favourite is Papageno, who is a halfling bard and bird catcher. He’s very broadly based on the character from Mozart’s Magic Flute, but for the purposes of entertaining role-play, I have largely modelled him on the Looney Tunes character Daffy Duck (and, coincidentally, the character that Bob Hope played in most of his movies, which I’ve always considered to be essentially the same as Daffy Duck). Daffy is both cowardly and greedy: as animator Chuck Jones said of him, ‘He both rushes in and fears to tread.’ Papageno is far and away the smallest, weakest and most vulnerable member of his party but that doesn’t restrain him from coming up with schemes and cunning plans. He has high charisma and the combination of this and his ‘silver tongue’ trait means that it’s physically impossible for him to roll less than 19 for Deception! When you have a character like that, and who is a story-telling bard, you surely have to play him as a compulsive liar. At least that’s the way I see it!

With the vaccine rollout, Covid restrictions have been relaxed and our weekly face-to-face board game nights have returned, but our forays into online D&D have proved so successful that they’ve persisted. It looks like, for us at least, online role play is here to stay. – – – – – Selwyn Ward


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