NitWitty’s Inside Man: Dungeons and Dragons

We’re off this week, so we’re using this as an excuse to run some of our favorite articles. This one was written as part of Issue 4 : Better with Friends, our look at multiplayer shenanigans. Enjoy.

I feel betrayed. Last week, for the first time in my entire life, I played Dungeons & Dragons, and it was an absolute blast. I had no real expectations going in but I had heard stories. Pop culture has never been kind to nerdom but Dungeons & Dragons holds the award for most hated-on activity. Every single nerd related stereotype has been associated with this decades old game. From the classic cellar troll to the always relevant smelly nerd, Dungeons & Dragons has a reputation for being trash talked. Imagine then my surprise when a good friend and coworker, Eric Carr, invited me for a round of D&D. I was apprehensive to say the least. I didn’t know what to expect but I trust my friends. The media has never been a very credible source of information, so I immediately threw caution to the wind and said yes. I honestly expected to hate it. I was supposed to hate it, but I didn’t. Instead I fell in love.

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The night began with a short drive and a stomach full of butterflies. Not the good kind of butterflies either, they were of the “why did I eat Taco Bell for lunch” variety and my stomach was roiling. I really wanted to like what was going to happen. I mean, all my life I have self-identified as a nerd but still, I had never played D&D. I didn’t know what to expect and Carr was keeping tight lipped about his homemade adventure. What I did know was popular myth and legend. I knew the things people said about D&D and the game’s reputation most certainly preceded it. I had heard that the game was too long, that the character creation was boring and tedious, and the players often too serious for fun. I knew that acting might be expected of me and I suffer stage fright, and I knew that most people referred to the activity as a “hardcore” nerdy thing. Only the hardest of the hard core play D&D, and I was scared I might be soft.

All of these thoughts raged in my head, poison to my stomach. As I walked to his front door, six pack clutched like a baby in my arms, I asked my girlfriend if she was ready. To which she smiled nicely and nodded beaming with excitement, she’s the strong one in the relationship. Seconds later Carr welcomed us with open arms and guided us to a table. In the middle there was a large plastic mat covered with small hexagons and on top of it were character sheets printed out just for us. His first question was, “So you want to be a barbarian?”

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It was the moment of truth. Character creation was first in a long list of undesirables. It was rumored to be tedious and boring and math heavy. Yet the second Carr opened his mouth all the tension ran out of me. My mind immediately found focus and I was already having fun. Character creation did indeed take a long time. Roughly a half hour to an hour depending on how fast and experienced you are, but it was awesome. There is something indescribably rewarding about building your own person from scratch. The process involved throwing dice to determine stats, writing down and memorizing skills, picking gods to worship, and laying out a backstory. I am a silly person so my character was less than serious. I made myself a fully nude, Orc barbarian named Tusk. He was orphaned at a young age and brought up as a devout supporter of the warrior god Grommash. His strength was off the chart bonkers but he was as dumb as the dirt he walked on. That said, his charisma more than made up for his wits. Under character traits I described him as a “sexy MF,” and I stand by the statement today. I still giggle even thinking about my nude warrior Orc. Character creation might have been my favorite part of the night.

Besides my barbarian, my girlfriend made a half-elf rogue, our new comics column writer Luke fashioned a dwarven cleric, and fellow staff writer Seal a human ranger. We were quite the mismatched group of sell swords but we were ready for battle. Carr didn’t have a character, instead he occupied the role of Gamemaster or GM for short. His job was to both create and guide our adventure. Now I know Carr personally so I really should not have been surprised, but the adventure was hilarious. Just listening to his introduction I could feel the deep rumble of my nervous bowels subside as my fears slipped into the background.

The game was not overly serious, just the opposite. I was expecting a narrative with rigid unmovable structure and what I got was a almost free-form story about an adventurer named Barellio who slept with a wizard’s daughter and got caught and cursed. Without anywhere else to turn Barellio came limping into our adventurer’s guild for help. His goal was to hire us to either slay the evil overprotective dad wizard or at the very least convince him to cleanse his junk of the curse. How we adventurers went about doing that was up to us, results were all he cared about.

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The sheer freedom allowed in D&D was shocking. If I had one clear expectation going in it was that the game was going to have a structured, epic fantasy, story arc. We were going to go to place A, then B, then C, and then slay an evil wizard or dragon, and that was going to be the game. How wrong I was! Carr’s story about Barellio showed me that one of the most important parts of D&D is creating your own stories. He, as DM, was not there to lead us on a journey and his story wasn’t there to tell us the rules or force a conclusion. Those were all things for the adventurers to decide. Carr’s job was to help facilitate and support our ideas. To turn our mayhem into a somewhat cohesive story that moved at a decent pace. whether or not we ended up saving Barellio was irrelevant, what mattered was how we decided to do it.

Combat was composed of rolling dice and yelling, laughing, or crying at the outcome. While the game does have a learning curve I found that I was so immersed in the story I didn’t care. To fight you have to first roll for initiative by rolling a d10, a dice with 10 sides, the person with the lowest numbers go first. Afterwards you roll for attack and huck a d20, getting a one means you have failed in spectacular fashion, a number my dice seemed to personally love, while rolling a twenty has you slicing and dicing like a superstar. Our first battle came at the hands of a cruel band of skeletons sent by the evil wizard, Skarkander. Our ragtag band of four fought like our lives depended on it. The fight took about thirty minutes to complete and honestly, I barely noticed. I was having the time of my life rolling dice and swinging with my hammer for the fences. Lucky we were only a few beers in or my orc might not have been the only one naked.

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Carr did a fantastic job keeping the pace of the story moving. None of us merry adventurers were content with an ordinary story. When given the chance, we all chose the most outrageous, and hilarious, options available. Tusk tried his hand at seduction more than once and one of the funniest parts of the story involved us running for our lives, jumping off the thirty-foot ramparts of a castle in a wild attempt to survive. Throughout all of this Carr was like a rock. His story never skipped a beat as it accounted for the wild curve balls we were throwing. I am positive that he never thought I would try to seduce his wizard, but it happened. And his narrative went along with it like it was just another run of the mill in-game event.

In the end, I rolled a one and epically failed when seducing Skarkander and we were forced to fight our way out. He wasn’t into what I was selling and he proceeded to absolutely destroy our group with magic missiles and necromancy. We fought as long as we could and eventually we were forced to cut our loses and negotiate a cease-fire. While Skarkander never fully forgave Barellio, or Tusk, he agreed to lift the curse and we made it through the night relatively unscathed. The overall length of the game was about four hours. Which on paper seems like a really long time, but in reality seemed perfectly reasonable. As the old adage goes ‘time flies when you are having fun,’ or maybe it was because we were a little drunk, either way it was awesome.

D&D TransparentOut of the long list of things that could have gone wrong, things like dictator DM’s, long and boring character creation, strict rigid storytelling, lots of math, nothing did. The night was a perfect blend of swashbuckling and camaraderie. I felt betrayed by myself. I couldn’t believe that I had bought into the popular image of the game. Part of it, I must admit, was due to our superb Gamemaster, Carr. He seriously killed it. The other part though is a little more complicated. Nerd culture never used to be as popular as it is now. When I was growing up, the superhero craze had yet to start. Bullies had radar for all things fantasy and I was a chubby little blip. At the time D&D was the face of nerd culture. It represented all the ideals and tent pole concepts associated with the fandom and because of this I grew up hearing everything bad. I will be brutally honest here. I was never fully comfortable with my hobbies. I loved video games, and comics, and manga, and anime, and because of it I tended to get a lot of flak. My strategy for survival ended up relying on my status as a board hugger. I was a nerd that was also a surfer that was also a skateboarder: a person in between. I watched my shows and read my books but I never got in too deep. I didn’t play Magic: The Gathering or D&D, I didn’t even have friends that were interested.

 

With the arrival of all things Marvel, everything changed. All of a sudden being a nerd was cool and I was out experiencing all of the things I had missed out on as a kid. Dungeons & Dragons was that final stronghold. The thing some small part of me had always wanted to try but had learned to stay away from. Boy what a mistake that was. Dungeons & Dragons was intelligent, it was engaging, it had style, and most importantly it was fun. Please, let this be a lesson to all you border-straddling nerds. Take the dive. You won’t regret it.

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Jordan Feil

A writer, a whiskey drinker, a lover of words and games.

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