The Case for Dungeons and Dragons

The nearly fifty year old game Dungeons and Dragons is going through somewhat of a resurgence over the past few years. Possibly due to a greater acceptance of “nerd culture” that’s been growing alongside pop culture hits like Game of Thrones and the Marvel movies—but more likely because of that one scene in Stranger Things. Whatever the reason, D&D is easier to start playing now than it ever has been.

Before any sort of pitch, you’ll need a brief overview of the game. Though it has a 300 page player’s handbook, the basics of D&D are quite simple. A group of players pretend to be adventurers from another world and travel through that world together. Every game needs a  Dungeon Master (or DM) that creates that world, describes it, and decides how it reacts to the players’ actions. The DM and players work together to tell a story in this fictional world, and use a set of silly-looking dice to add randomness to that story. While of course there is a lot more to the game, this short description highlights three main draws of Dungeons and Dragons.

First, the role-playing. While you’re playing D&D, you are someone else. That could be a magical elf who casts spells, a swashbuckling pirate, or—in some of the wilder versions of the game—a space cowboy with the quickest trigger finger this side of the Milky Way. As a player, you have to embody this character, making decisions that they would make and experiencing their emotions. You have a set of bonds, ideals, and flaws that your character negotiates through the world with, and you become deeply connected to the people you travel and fight alongside—your party.

Second, versatility. This, I think, is an aspect of D&D that gets overlooked. Universally, the image of Dungeons and Dragons is just as the name describes: fighting through dungeons to get to a dragon. The common conception of the game is mostly focused on combat and high fantasy (the kind of stuff in Lord of the Rings and Camelot), and is usually entirely white and male. But one of the wonders of D&D is how incredibly changeable it is. Sure, players can delve dungeons, but they could also be taking down a mob boss in New York, saving a coral reef, or trying to get to Mars. D&D is really nothing more than a set of rules, like the laws of physics. You can create any story you want, and then use the framework of the game to establish limits, consequences, risks—all the things a good story needs. 

The third draw is the chance. The appeal of games of chance is obvious: no one knows what’s going to happen. The way Dungeons and Dragons incorporates risk is by rolling dice, most often a twenty sided die called a d20. Rolling a d20 determines whether you successfully avoid a trap, jump across a chasm, or do a sick skateboard trick to impress a group of Dwarven skaters. Actions in the game can go well or poorly, and the rolls of your dice change the course of the story. 

Dungeons and Dragons has never been easier to play. In 1974, when the first edition was released, it was assumed that you already owned and knew how to play two other games (Chainmail and Outdoor Survival). The barrier to entry was pretty high, with complicated math and convoluted rules that focused on strategic combat over role playing and exploration. After four subsequent editions, all of that has changed. The rules (while still complicated) are extremely simplified, and easily navigable—especially with an experienced Dungeon Master. While technically it’s best to buy the Player’s Handbook and a set of dice, it’s easy (and free) to use online dice rollers and *cough cough* borrow a PDF of any necessary books. 

For socially distanced D&D games, the site Roll20 and other equivalents offer pretty much every tool necessary, from built-in video meeting to dice rollers to fillable character sheets, along with a virtual tabletop that visualizes combat. And if you want to play in person, there are a lot of ways to do it. Some games use gridded battle maps and minifigures (like the Fantasy High series), others just have a group of people with dice and character sheets (like the fantastic D&D episodes of Community). How a game looks depends on the focus—combat centered campaigns usually need maps and grids, whereas puzzle- and dialogue-based games need much less equipment. 

Dungeons and Dragons, above all, is a way to spend time with friends. Learning a bunch of rules and filling out a multi-page character takes time and work, which won’t make sense for every friend group. But taking that time can be worth it to enter another world, become someone else, and make a story together.

Characters from my personal game of Dungeons and Dragons. Ghesh of the Plains (left) is a smooth-talking barbarian whose life is fully devoted to a coin. Scottie Gerrick (right) left his life as a pirate to become, well, I guess a pirate again. Illustration by Bijou Allard.

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