The elven ranger kneels down at the temple entrance. The orc tracks look like they lead into the jungle temple. She gestures the rest of the party to be quiet, as they enter the building. Not long after, the adventurers hear noise ahead. As they close in on the sounds, the dwarven paladin takes one wrong step, and the sound of his chain armour echoes through the doorways. You can practically hear the silence in the corridor. Not much later a group of orcs comes running towards the party. The human wizard is the first to respond and a massive fireball explodes in the middle of the group of orcs, decimating their ranks. As the orcs struggle to maintain rank, a gnome appears out of nowhere, stabbing orcs left and right. Not much later, only a pile of dead orcs remain. The adventurers don’t have much time to catch their breath, because a massive roar draws their attention to the orc war-chief ahead of them in the corridor…
The scene above describes one of the infinitely many scenarios that a group of players could dream up as part of a role-playing game. While RPGs are a well established video game genre nowadays, their history dates back to before the rise of computer entertainment. The secret of role-playing games is that you are never too old to play make belief. Today I will try to explain to you the powers of the most powerful graphics engine in the world: your own imagination.
So what are role-playing games exactly? The clue is in the name: a group of players comes together and they each assume the role of a fictional character in a game world. To make sure everybody agrees on what is and isn’t possible in this game world, there are often established rules. The game is usually led by a Game Master, or GM in short, who prepares the game world, and who narrates the story as the players let their characters interact with the game world.
Tabletop role-playing games exist in many shapes, but the most well-known by far is Dungeons & Dragons, which has itself become pretty much synonymous to tabletop RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons – D&D for short – is set in a fantasy game world not unlike that of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Playable races include humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings, and each player chooses to play one of many classes such as cleric, fighter, rogue, or wizard. Many worlds with their own lore have been created in the D&D multiverse, such as Fearûn in the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and others.
Like other RPGs, in D&D the group is led by a GM, which is called a Dungeon Master or DM. Each player (usually between three and six players) controls one character with their own abilities. They interact with NPCs (controlled by the DM) to find out more about the world and their quest. This may come with many challenges. At times, instead of the DM deciding what happens, you may have to roll a 20-sided die (the famous d20) that determines how successful you are in using a certain ability, such as bluffing or intimidation. Your character’s stats can provide bonuses or penalties. These die rolls give the game a level of unpredictability. They not only make the game more interesting, but they also create for some memorable moments: a bard might lose all its musical abilities by rolling a 1, or a paladin might convert an entire village to their religion by rolling a 20.
The point of these interactions with NPCs is that you make your character act in a way that is consistent with their background story and their abilities. A barbarian with low wisdom will not always make smart decisions, and a warlock with little strength will not go about lifting heavy rocks. If you play your characters really well, the DM might even give you additional in-game advantages.
Once you have figured out your quest, you will most likely head to the game’s namesake: dungeons. Dungeons are generally mapped out areas filled with monsters, puzzles, and deadly traps. Combat is another big part of most role-playing games, and one of D&D’s core pillars.
Combat in Dungeons & Dragons is turn-based. On each turn, you can move, perform an action (attack, cast a spell, hide), and a bonus action (varies wildly by class). The same holds for the monsters you are fighting, except that they are controlled by the DM. Again, the dice come in. Dice determine whether your attack hits, your spell takes effect, or even whether you succeed in avoiding the fiery breath of a dragon. Dice are also used to determine the amount of damage you do. In that sense, the dice are similar to the randomized damage in video games.
While role-play and combat are the most important parts of Dungeons & Dragons, this is only scratching the surface of the game. Your character will level up, and gain cool new abilities, with lots of choices along the way. You will accumulate magic items that can aid you in your adventures, or have adverse effects if you are unlucky. Over time, you and your fellow players will together tell the story of a merry band of adventurers, and build lore together.
When talking about D&D, many people will immediately connect it to the stereotype geek. Truth be told, you need to have at least some level of affinity with dealing with character statistics on paper (or in a mobile app these days…), but role-playing have come a long way and are only gaining in popularity. While Dungeons & Dragons used to involve quite a bit of math, the latest edition (Fifth Edition) goes back to the roots and has relatively simple rules. The term “easy to learn, hard to master” definitely applies.
This is one of the things that has made Dungeons & Dragons so popular: it is really easy to get started. The authors of the Dungeons & Dragons rules have made a basic version of the rules freely available online. You won’t get all the customization options, but there is enough to get a game going. Check the Player’s Basic Rules on the official website here. The bottom of the page shows some next steps, but I will summarise them here as well: to get started, you need 3 things: a campaign, a DM, and players. It is recommended to play as a player before thinking about becoming a Dungeon Master, but the D&D Starter Set will get you started either way.
For me, it didn’t take much to fall in love with the possibilities of tabletop RPGs. Being a bit of a maths and game mechanics nerd sucked me into the character building straight away, but the true power comes from the fact that with games like D&D, you are not limited to what a game engine allows you to do. Want to go full Jackie Chan style and use a nearby ladder as weapon? Nothing is stopping you! (Except for maybe the DM.) The unpredictability and almost infinite number of possibilities together are a catalyzer for creativity and memorable moments. I have seen people become truly emotional over the fate of their characters, and become truly inspired by the role-playing of one player. Video games these days do great things, but they don’t even get close to the amazing things that happen when you sit around the table with some other people.
If you are still not convinced: D&D does not only exist to play, but is also highly popular to be consumed as a podcast or web series. For example, take a look at the highly famous Critical Role, played by voice actors, or Acquisitions Incorporated (which has some live sessions featuring Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton). If you want to know more, or need any D&D tips, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I’m happy to get you going!
Oh and that orc war-chief? I think he’s gonna have a very bad day…