By J.W. Schnarr
“You enter a long, narrow hall lined with torches. The air is rich with the stink of old blood and mold, and water drips from cracks in the hewn stone ceiling to disappear in other cracks in the floor. At the other end of the hall, a shadow fumbles in the torchlight and then dissipates, revealing a hulking green orc with a large barbed sword. The orc hisses a challenge, raises his blade, and falls into a loping sprint toward you …”
“What do you do?”
When I was a kid, I knew exactly what I’d do. I’d grab my pencil and a lucky 20-sided die and roll initiative, and then jump once more into the greatest game ever made, Dungeons and Dragons.
D&D turned 40 this year, and I’ve been thinking of tracking down some dragon-shaped cake to celebrate. I started playing in my early teens, 20-odd years ago, drawn to the storytelling and social aspects of the game; drawn to the number-crunching and record-keeping aspects of character development; drawn to the incredible amount of fun a group of kids can have with just some paper, pencils, some dice, and about $8,000 worth of supplemental books (that’s only sort-of a joke).
For those who don’t know the game, Dungeons and Dragons is a kind of immersive group storytelling exercise where players are in control of a single character in a fantasy world. One player controls the mechanics of the world and describes situations so the players can make decisions on how their characters will behave, and he’s known as the ‘Dungeon Master’.
There is almost no limit to the decisions players can make in the game, and success or failure is resolved using die rolls, target numbers, and rules for administering them.
In essence, the tougher the action, the higher the target number needed to be rolled, and the greater the chance of failure. Solving puzzles, defeating monsters (through guile and combat), and playing a character true to their imagined personality gains experience, and their characters level up to become more powerful over time.
Players in long-running games can sometimes play their characters for years, and the adventures string along to form campaigns. Given enough time, then, the characters can form long and storied histories as they grow to be powerful demigods.
Or they take a sword in the throat from an angry green orc and die a horrible, sputtering death in a hallway.
D&D, with its cobbled-together fantasy settings and cliché character archetypes, is the grandfather of just about every cool video game ever made. It’s inspired countless writers and artists of all shapes and colours, and celebrities who come out of the D&D closet are embraced and championed by geek culture communities.
D&D has survived the witch hunts of the 1980s when hysterical, religious crazies tried to pin the game to Satan’s very flesh, and it survived the probably more dangerous threat of players being shunned by the cool and beautiful people of the world.
Of course, now D&D is awesome, and everyone and their mother admits to playing it when they were kids (true story: my mother actually DID play). And that’s probably true. After all, every awesome thing about the world today was once something you were ridiculed for liking back in the day.
I took a break from D&D for a long time, but in a way I didn’t really, because I still enjoy a good sword and sorcery movie or book, and I’m up for any video game that allows me to build up or customize a character.
And now that my daughter and two nephews are in their teenage years, I’ve actually come back to the table to inspire some young minds of my own.
I have to admit, playing D&D as an adult is awesome. I could never afford all that source material, and those cool dice and miniatures as a kid, but now … well.
I own a credit card.
If you’ve never played D&D, I’d highly encourage you to give it a shot. There really is nothing better for getting young minds racing at the possibilities imagination can hold.
Not to mention how it can get your own blood pumping, when you’re standing in that hall with a trusty broadsword in your hand and your friends at your side.
You’re staring down that loping orc and his wicked blade. Your muscles taught like ropes, knees bent, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. You breathe deep, and calm. You are not afraid. It is the orc that is doomed on this night.
You step aside at the last possible moment, your blade singing the battle hymn of steel as it arcs through the air, and you send that orc to whatever dark hell he was spawned from by rolling a natural 20 for extra damage.
Now, let’s see what he’s got for treasure.