You Need to Play Dungeons and Dragons

After the absolute nightmare that was the last two weeks, I think everyone feels the need to escape for a while. But too often these excursions are solitary ones. Laying down illuminated by the glow of a laptop binge watching Netflix, scrolling through the vastness of the internet, losing yourself in tweets and posts and pictures and videos can feel like catharsis, but really just makes us numb. Sometimes you just need to talk to someone else in the flesh, but who has the time anymore? And what conversation in 2018 doesn’t cycle back to the politics of the day? Or even just the hour. In the face of this conundrum, then, what is there to do? I have a solution for you. Get some friends together, some paper and pens, and a few dice. Turn off your phones, just for a few hours. Don’t talk about the supreme court; talk a goblin into selling out their king. Don’t talk about the president; talk about who’s going to get that sweet, sweet suit of armor that dragon hid in his lair. And do it all in a funny accent. Or don’t, whichever you prefer. But please, for your sake, play Dungeons and Dragons.

The real face of D&D. Credit: Benny Mazur

I know what the name of the game evokes. Or what it used to evoke. The stigma of D&D as being a boys club in cramped, smelly basements is thankfully an old, outdated image. Today, more people than you can imagine either play, or want to play D&D. Every time I mention playing D&D, I’m surprised by how many people are interested. But I always get the same responses. “Oh, I’ve heard of that, it sounds cool, but I don’t know if I’d be into it.” “Oh man, I’d love to play D&D, but it’s hard to get into and I don’t know anyone who would want to play.” “It sounds fun but the rules are super complicated, right?” “Do I like, have to dress up or anything?” And while I respect those reactions, I always cry nonsense. Sure you’d be into it, since you create your own characters and world! Just ask around, I’m sure you have a bunch of friends who are wanting to try it out. It’s not complicated at all, in fact the game is more accessible and easy to pick up than ever. Of course, if you want to dress up, I have a bunch of wizard robes in my closet you can borrow.

In all seriousness, I think everyone owes it to themselves to find the time to try D&D at least once. And it is incredibly easy to get into. The newest version of the game, Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, has a downloadable rule set that is totally free. The game is playable without miniatures representing characters or enemies, a map showing the world or a grid for fighting battles. You don’t even need to write your own story or characters. The person taking the plunge into running a game (referred to as a Dungeon Master) need only look to the pre-published adventures sold by the games creators, Wizards of the Coast, or the trove of self published ones on the internet. The starter set, a perfect introduction is “Ideal for a group of 4 – 6, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set includes a 64-page adventure book with everything the Dungeon Master needs to get started, a 32-page rulebook for playing characters level 1 – 5, 5 pre-generated characters, each with a character sheet and supporting reference material, and 6 dice.” And it’s only $19.99 on Amazon (on sale for $17.59 at the time of writing!).

All you need to get started! Credit: Scott Akerman

While there are tons of avenues to entry, understandably the rulebooks can be pretty daunting. The three core rule books—the Player’s handbook (which details player options like playable classes, races, and backstory options), the Dungeon Master’s guide (detailing some of the extra rules and responsibilities of the DM, some of the more nuanced rules, and inspiration for writing or modifying whatever setting you choose to run the game in), and the Monster Manual (a compendium of all the devils, demons, dragons, and other monsters the players will face during their travels)—can easily seem like textbooks. Luckily, there are tons of resources online to help the burgeoning adventurer simplify this process. Partly due to the simplicity of 5th edition, both recorded and live streamed games are now incredibly popular. Shows like Critical Role, a weekly live streamed D&D game played by professional voice actors from some of the most beloved cartoons, anime, and video games, and Harmon Quest, a D&D game DM’d by Dan Harmon, creator of both Community and Rick and Morty, attract nearly half a million viewers each week and make seeing examples of what a game of D&D could look like are easier than ever. The folks at Critical Role even produce two series of helpful videos, one aimed at tips for dungeon masters, and another for new players.

The cast of Critical Role. From left to right: Matthew Mercer, Laura Bailey, Liam O’brien, Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, Travis Willingham.

D&D provides the ultimate avenue for expression. It’s a shared space inhabited by you and your friends. It’s a space where every decision, every word that you speak has an impact you can feel. It’s truly collaborative storytelling in a way that nothing can emulate. You can truly be whoever or whatever you want to be, and the game world will react and shift because of your actions. No two games and no two characters are the same. Getting together for a few hours a week to play is truly therapeutic. I’m not in front of a screen, I’m writing notes down into a book with my hands. I’m not controlling a character through a controller, I’m rolling dice and doing math in my head. In the time I’m playing, I feel completely unplugged. I’m not thinking about the goings on of the world, I’m thinking about the me that inhabits the game world, the world I helped shape with some of my best friends. We talk about moments that happen in game with the same tactile, tangible feelings real memories have. Playing encourages teamwork, tactical thinking, bold decisions, and more. It passively teaches you to improvise and be malleable to changing circumstances. In its own fantastical way, it makes you think about people of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, and understand how that affects who characters are and who they might become. As a dungeon master I’ve learned to tell stories in brand new ways. In the two years I’ve ran my own game, I’ve filled books with notes and plans that came to fruition. And, even more, I’ve had to scrap because my players turned left when I thought they’d go right, or talked their way out of an encounter that by all rights should have ended in conflict.

This is about the point where most people tell me to quit gushing about D&D, but I’ll leave you with this. In this moment where it’s so easy to feel lost, small, and quiet, getting a chance to step into the shoes of and truly inhabit somebody else is invaluable. Having some time set aside to meet up, in person, with some of my closest friends to create shared memories together has been incredible, week in and week out. Having a creative outlet where all my choices matter and my voice has weight is truly liberating. Traditionally D&D games involve struggles with good and evil, politics and justice, corruption and war. You have the ultimate power, in the game, to effect these things; to make tangible change in the world you’ve helped create. Feeling powerful and important is an inherent part of the experience. And in our moment, where that feeling is so rare, does it really matter if your memories of feeling that way are real or imagined? So however you can and however you want, get some of your friends together and play some D&D. For your sake, and theirs.


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