Thursday, December 12, 2013

Roles And Rolls

I've got my geeky side, but I've never felt a full nerd since I've never played Dungeons & Dragons.  I've spent a fair amount of time on chess, Scrabble, bridge, even Risk, but I've never gotten lost in a role-playing game.  Perhaps it's my aversion to fantasy (as opposed to sf).

I've known plenty of friends who did, though, and I can understand the appeal.  Which is why I read David Ewalt's Of Dice And Men, his history of D&D.  It's an enjoyable book, though I'm still not sure if I understand exactly how the game is played. Perhaps that's because there are so many versions, and each round is different, depending on the participants, especially the dungeon master.  As to why people keep coming back, that's a psychological question which I suppose anyone who loves a game can understand.

There have been war games for centuries, many trying to be as realistic as possible--sometimes for training purposes.  Ewalt even tries one for the book. (Ewalt is a D&D nerd and much of his book details his personal excursion into this world). But D&D is fairly modern, having been developed in the 1970s by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.  They partnered on their fantasy game and built a company out of it (as there were no takers for their work).  It expanded into a multi-million dollar business, though along the way Arneson left in acrimony and Gygax was later bought out.  They also kept coming out with newer, more complex versions of the game, and allowed countless people (mostly males) to let their nerd flag fly.

If I understand correctly, everyone in the game has their own character, each based on certain classes, like warrior or wizard or cleric or bard (I'm sure real D&D fans are reading this and saying "no, that's a subclass, not a class"--the rules go into hundreds and hundreds of pages).  Each character has various powers and strengths, and these can change as the game goes along.  Teams of characters go out on campaigns run by the dungeon master, some of which are preset, some fairly open-ended.  They meet various curiosities or dangers as they learn about the world they're in, and deal with them both through role-playing and the roll of many-sided dice.  What happens to the characters and the worlds they're in can be cumulative, spread out over many campaigns.

Ewalt shows how it can be an obsession. I'm not sure if I'd have to patience to get into it--it seems somewhat silly to get so excited about it, at least looking at it from the outside. But then, I waste enough time watching movies and TV--who am I to look down on someone else's enthusiasm?


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Imust be closer to full on nerd. I did play D&D in High School, though not obsesively. I had always enjoyed board games (chess, risk, diplomacy, etc.). About 10th grade I was introduced to a game that had no boundaries - except for the basic structure of creating a character (playing piece) according to certain strictures.

The problem with the game was that it was endless. A dungeon (unless your dungeon master bought a pre-designed one) could go forever. This might have been more realistic (from a fantasy standpoint) but it was too time consuming. I stopped playing in college, but oddly found a strong affinity for Magi: The Gathering, a D&D-like collectible card game, a few years after graduating law school. It had the lack of boundaries that attracted me to D&D, but games were short (played at lunch) and you didn't have to become as invested in your characters, because these were pre-created by the card makers. The key was combinung your characters (whom you bought or won from other players you beat) in combinations that required considerable strategic thought.

For a fun game that spoofs D&D and Magic, try Munchkin, which features crads like "Potion of Idiotic Bravery" and "Curse: Chicken on your Head".

8:08 AM, December 12, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did the odd D&D game in High School- it was an excuse to hang out with girls. Yes actual girls- regular normal 17-18 year old girls. I do not know how we swung that. Wow- I had an ideal youth and blew it. I think this was before we all found out about beer

10:03 AM, December 12, 2013  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I played a lot, especially from 8th to 11th grade. Initially, most of the games I was in allowed each player to have several characters. Characters rapidly increased in level (higher level gives you more power as a fighter, more spells as a magic-user, etc.) to unrealistic levels. There were oodles of monsters to kill and magical gizmos that were just sitting around waiting for you to pick them up.

But then after a couple years I joined a game that met every Friday evening. This game had a plot: there was a long, complicated quest and the world had a rich backstory. Each player had only one character. Battles were rare, finding magic items was rare, and going up levels was very rare. I was afraid it would be boring, but it turned out to be utterly great. After all, how many times did Frodo or even Aragorn engage in actual combat during LotR? Then consider that it took Frodo six months to travel from the Shire to Mount Doom.

I stayed in that game for three years, and lost interest in most other games. Maybe that's the same reason I find first-person shooter video games boring, but I loved Myst and Riven.

1:06 PM, December 12, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

It's a lesson a lot of storytellers could learn--it's not how much action, it's how intriguing the action is. In each Rocky picture there'd be more punches thrown in the climactic fight, but the first one was still the best.

6:20 PM, December 12, 2013  

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