Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Dungeon Crawlin' Days

As a card-carrying IT geek, I did of course play a good deal of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in my younger days (and some of my older ones too, come to that).

D&D. You know, the game that

- encourages Satan-worship
- makes kids commit suicide when one their characters dies
- stops kids playing healthy sports outside
- enourages a retreat from reality

that game.

For the record,
- I do not now nor ever have worshipped Satan
- yes, I have seen people get quite upset when their character has "died" in the game,
- we have the internet for that now
- see the comment above

I'd heard about D&D from a friend who had gone to the local Wargamer's club. She (yes, she) had gone there to see if anyone was playing a game called Traveller which is a Role-Playing Game (RPG) set in a science-fiction future. She and I were hard-core Sci-Fi readers back then and had no truck with this sword-and-sorcery nonsense. Dragons indeed! (Sorry Fandango, if you're reading this, I know better now.)

As it turned out, no-one there was running a Traveller game and, rather than turn around and go back home, she joined a group playing D&D. Well, after that, she just kept going on about how much fun it all was and kept recounting the hilarious sequence of adventures she had "had". Then she got herself a boyfriend from amongst the Wargamers. This was my cue to go and take a looksee. Admittedly, my curiosity had already been aroused somewhat by the game anyway, it sounded fun, but now I had an excuse: to meet the boyfriend.

So I toddled along with her the next club night and entered the Wargamers' strange world...

As the only two females in the place, we did attract a certain amount of attention but my friend had already been going there for a few weeks, so most of the boys weren't even scared anymore.

I can't remember what happened on that first adventure, if I'm honest. There was something about exploding cats, I think, but can't be certain. Anyway, the long and short of it was: I was hooked.

So I became a regular down there and got to "DM" (i.e. referee) a game of my own that ran every Friday for 18 months solid and had a player population of anything from 5-12 people on any given night. This was in addition to several games I was involved in purely as a player.

So what was so addictive?

Well, for me, the whole RPG thing is about story-making. In RPG players, you have a group of very articulate, imaginative people. They get together and build themselves a world, create backgrounds for the characters they play in that world, then they plan, strategise and explore it together. There is usually loads of humour, moments of high drama, spine-tingling suspense, triumph and tragedy. All of this is accomplished with nothing more than a pencil and paper, some funny-shaped dice, some reference materials, the odd prop and, of course, the human imagination.

As a Dungeon Master (DM), it is your job to create the world in which your game is to take place (you can buy ready-made ones, but I never did). I used to specialise in city-based adventures – not all of the action in D&D needs to be in an actual dungeon (underground maze of passages stocked with monsters, traps, magic and treasure).

My favourite types of adventure were mysteries and puzzles that needed solving, from your basic whodunnit to strange sightings on the city streets in the dead of night or the unexplained disappearance of the Mayor's son, etc.

I used to like having layers of plot for the characters to work their way through, like the skin of an onion. They might find, for instance that a trusted ally was actually an enemy or vice versa. They might find that the pretty girl that one of them was courting last night was actually a shape-shifter and wasn't even human (blecchh!) They might discover that the Mayor himself was responsible for his son's disappearance and is likely to silence anyone who finds out about it (cue panicky flight from city in the dead of night).

The marvellous thing is that my players would jump into this world I had made and add ideas of their own to it so that it became more rich, more rounded and more detailed than I could even have managed on my own.

Just as in real life, you'd get recurring characters and in-jokes running though the life of the game. In the first adventure I ever created, I had street urchins offer to carry characters' messages from time to time as a sort of informal postal system. As the game went on, I had the urchins gradually appear in better clothes. Then they had their own horses, then a carriage and so on, until they were sort of fat-cat businessmen, having got rich off the characters' payments. This kind of thing had no real bearing on any of the main story being played out, but this little bit of comedy continuity added so much to the fun of the thing as a whole – and I didn't plan it at the start, it just grew naturally as part of the game.

The urchin thing could happen because the DM and the players were human beings, as opposed to computers. Although, as a DM, you'd map out a sort of sequence of events (encounters with people/monsters, journeys to other places, fights, etc) for the characters to follow, it had to be quite loose because, as we always, used to say: there are two ways to do an adventure: the right way and the players' way.

You could never be sure what was coming next. It did not matter how carefully you set up the game scenario, someone could derail the whole thing by (say) slaying the Dragon that was meant to impart a vital clue before it could so much as open its mouth. As a DM, you need a certain amount of mental agility to get round showstoppers like this – and do it on-the-fly, preferably without making it too obvious that you are basically having to re-work the whole story!

Players would surprise you by either working their way through your beautifully prepared adventure in twenty minutes (oh, great, now what do we do for the rest of the evening?) or by getting hung up on a tiny detail. I once described the scene that my players came across thus: you are standing at the top of a flight of stone steps. One of you notices that the third step down has a 1-inch hole drilled into the middle of it. Now this hole was just that – a hole. But, because I had taken the time to point it out, my players assumed it must be significant. They imagined it was probably part of a booby-trap (dungeons are just full of these things, the Health and Safety mob would have a field day). So they spent most of an evening's play session trying to work out what kind of trap it could be and how to circumvent it. Priceless!

You also need to multi-task as a DM. When you've got 12 people, all excitedly shouting out at once the actions their characters are taking, you need to keep track of it, all the while planning and organising what your non-player-characters (NPCs) or monsters are doing.

Aah, NPCs. This is where the DM gets to have his/her cake and eat it, as it were. You get to play in your own game, because as a DM, you have to represent all the people and monsters that your players' characters are going to run into. Dramatic improvisation? Pah! Been there, done that. I have played everything from humble shopkeepers, to Kings, to Dragons, to super-intelligent pools of silver metal (one of which was called ... Argent!).

I haven't played D&D for years now, mainly because you need a group of at least 4 people to have a really good game (you can do it with fewer, but you don't get the chemistry) and most of my old gaming friends have moved away or moved on and become grown-ups with no time for such childishness any more.

I do miss it though.


  1. I used to split my time between a horror game called "Chill" which mostly involved switching off the light and listening to the CM do a throaty-demon voice and getting annoyed that it was mostly run for the benefit of one player, and a D&D game where the DM was insane and hell-bent on just killing your character in the shortest time possible.

    To be honest i found the plots to both quite hard to follow and ended up losing interest. Maybe they were badly run?

  2. Wow! I've never played any computer game, (other than solitaire) or things like war-gaming. And after reading your take on it Argent I guess I would not have the imagination necessary to be any good at it.

    Sounds too much like hard work; I'm a lazy sort of bloke in many ways so I'd never make it to the DM rank.


  3. @Pixies - Yes, I suspect your games were horribly badly run. It's as easy as pie to kill off all the players' characters in a game. The tricky thing is to keep them alive (sometimes in spite of the fact that they seem to have a death-wish!). We never had any truck with such murderous DMs. I'm proud to say that in my 18-month campaign, most of the characters at the end were the ones that started out.

    @PhilipH - It is sort of hard work, but mostly so enjoyable it didn't seem like any effort.

  4. I was more of a Trivial Pursuit kind of girl - I don't have the imagination for it - or I THOUGHT I didn't, which is the same thing.

  5. I used to play D&D...very briefly. I had two friend who liked to play, but they didn't get along with eachother...so we never really had a group to do it.

    I'd love to find one, though. It would be a blast, I'm sure.

    My last novel I wrote had a D&D group in it...

  6. I recall my brother being heavily involved in the whole d and d thingy.. and the one where you collected little lead figures and the books where you choose your own ending... I also remember sitting in the shed with him while he painted those eighties fantasy posters on the spare wheel covers of his mate's mo-peds.. and when he tried to make a rocket out of a hoover... and when he pretended I'd ripped his arm open when I slammed a door shut on him by going to the kitchen and doing his own special fx make-up.... I concluded that he was a member of a special breed of human.... :-D

  7. Now I'm sorry I never played. It sounds like my kind of game.

  8. @Bug – I love Triv as well and I think your imagination is just fine.

    @Viewtiful_Justin – It’s a shame your friends didn’t get on: a game like D&D really comes alive when everyone gets along and is determined to have fun. I’d love to read your novel some time.

    @Watercats – Your bro sounds pretty creative (and gloriously mad). I tried to do the figure-painting thing but I was just rubbish, so gave up after one attempt. I have done some fantasy art myself but, to be honest it’s pants. I’m better off painting word-pictures I think.

    @DrJohn – with your imagination, I bet you’d really enjoy D&D and be darn good at it too!

  9. My little brother loves these games! He doesn't have any D&D stuff, but he's into Yugi-Oh and all that...

    Hey, thanks for coming by my blog and reading! I really appreciate it!

    I left you an award @ my blog! Come by and get it!


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