For many people, playing Dungeons & Dragons, (also known as D&D) and by extension playing any role-playing game, has long been something for the “nerds”. Inaccessible, confusing, tedious. As a kid, I started playing with the 2nd Edition after my stepfather showed us all one of his lovingly preserved character sheets. He explained to us that his character had several skills, and possessed a fair amount of treasure he’d acquired through playing the game. I was immediately intrigued and wanted a character of my own, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I sought out some D&D books at my local library to learn what exactly D&D was and how to play it.
Within no time, my friends and I were playing it for entire weeks and months during the summer, even setting aside video games and television to play. D&D is the most interactive and fun storytelling game out there, in my opinion. For those of you who haven’t played it, D&D is a game in which you create a character and then assign them attributes including Strength, Intelligence, Charisma, Wisdom, and Dexterity – and then you narrate what you want your character to do in any given situation. A referee, known as a Dungeon Master, narrates the main story for the characters and also runs the game – knowing the rules, and placing obstacles in the path of the players. Based on what you say you want your character to accomplish, and also based on your assigned attributes, the Dungeon Master will tell you what dice to roll and if your character succeeds or not.
There have been many different editions of D&D over the years. I began with 2nd Edition back in the early 1990’s, but soon after I began playing, 3rd Edition came out. And then later on there was 3.5, and then 4th Edition. 5th Edition is the current iteration and is, in my opinion, the best edition that’s come out in a long time. I stopped playing after how disappointed I was with 4th Edition (and also because real life got in the way at the time) but recently was inspired to begin again due to author David M. Ewalt’s touching love letter to the Dungeons & Dragons game Of Dice And Men in the form of a book exploring the history of the game and how great 5th Edition currently is. If you don’t believe me, the proof is in the numbers – Hasbro says that Dungeons & Dragons is having its best year ever.
The tricky thing sometimes is finding people to play with as an adult because of everyone’s schedules. As a kid, you could just invite your best friends over to your house after school almost every day if you wanted. Still, I bought the new 5th Edition boxed set, which was only $20 at the time, and hoped I would eventually get to play with someone when the opportunity presented itself. My hopes soon came to fruition.
Every July since I graduated from the Stonecoast MFA Program, my grad school friends all get together and rent a house somewhere on the coast of Maine for a week or two. We call it the Farmhouse Writing Retreat. It’s a time for bonding, for writing, and for really just helping each other with the writing craft in general. One of those summers a year or so ago, I brought up the idea of playing Dungeons & Dragons to my friends. None of them aside from one had ever played, and so I thought it would be extra neat to get to introduce them to the game that I loved and explore the new 5th Edition with them as a group learning to play. We were not disappointed. Over the past year, I’ve run a campaign with them – based on the boxed set adventure The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It has really rekindled my love for the game, and also my interest in other role-playing game worlds.
Since we’ve been playing, I’ve seen their characters grow, change, and even move on only for them to create new ones in their place. We’ve spent hours laughing, talking, and anxiously rolling dice. Eating snacks. Being creative. And we’ve largely done it from the comfort of our own homes, spread out across the country, via the Facebook Messenger app. With the success of the first leg of the campaign (we’ve since moved on from the Boxed Set to another adventure I’ve joined together with the first) I decided it would be a good time to interview my friends and let them share their thoughts on their experiences so far.
First, allow me to introduce my friends.
ME: Okay, so let’s start with how long you’ve all been playing D&D for. Did you start playing with me, or did you start somewhere else, like maybe with another roleplaying game?
BECKY: I played one game before we started. It was probably around 1991. I only knew one person in the group, and I was shy, but I had a blast. That night of sitting around and being totally absorbed in another world has stuck with me.
ME: Was the game actually D&D or was it another game?
BECKY: Yes, I was an Elf. I don’t remember my name, though.
CHLOE: Playing with you guys was my first exposure to D&D.
GARY: My first time playing it was when I was younger with you in New Hampshire. We were kids. Then, I got a D&D board game at some point. Then, I played it on the Super Nintendo. And I just played it with you in present day.
FRANK: I’d never played a tabletop RPG before our first time at the Farmhouse. I jumped in because it seemed like a great opportunity to hang out with my friends, and I had no idea how absorbing the game experience would be. My only knowledge of D&D came from pop culture. I used to play online MMORPGs when I was a teenager, so I was familiar with the classes and races from games like Everquest. Also, I’ve read my fair share of fantasy over the years, so the setting was familiar in that way. But, gameplay was a mystery.
SHANE: I’d never played a tabletop RPG before D&D but I have played tons of RPG video games. Some of my favorite games – Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Dragon Age – all feel heavily rooted in D&D. Also, I’ve been playing for about a year now. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’ve gotten into being a DM as well and created a D&D 5e spin-off for modern world zombies.
ANA: So, playing with you last summer was my first tabletop role playing game, but I used to play this text based MMORPG online back in high school where you were typing out all your actions and stuff like a story and chatting with other users online. It was similar in that it was a fully fleshed out world, except that you were reading it instead of speaking. In that game I was an elf healer and used a name generator for my name and that’s where Linarien came from. In Sindarin, one of the Lord of the Rings elven languages, Linarien means “song of sunlight”, which I don’t think I ever told you guys. (Joe’s Note: Linarian was a character Ana played before her current character, Vedi…long story.)
ME: What do you like about D&D so much? Why have you played it with me over the past year, and if you’ve played it or played games like it before, what made you come back and try 5th Edition with me all these years later?
BECKY: The first time, I was visiting a friend and he wanted to play his usual game, so I went with him. It was to be part of something, to meet new people, to enjoy company. I didn’t really know what to expect. This time, I knew the people. I knew roughly what to expect, but I also knew it would be different because of the different people involved. I still wanted to be part of something…and the thought of spending more time with friends was certainly a driver. But I also wanted the adventure part. I wanted to see what would happen next. And I wanted to explore and develop a character this time.
GARY: It has an interesting story behind it. I like moving the characters around and fighting creatures and orcs, goblins, Etc. It’s always good to have more players to make the game more intense. No one can just play by themselves because they are always more vulnerable to defeat.
CHLOE: I think it’s the endless possibilities. It took me a while to really get comfortable with the fact that my character can really do anything I want (obviously with some guidelines) but there is just so much freedom in the D&D world and I really like how much room for creativity and personality that leaves. Also I like how it’s a way to hang out with friends who I don’t get to see all the time. It’s a social bonding experience.
FRANK: I’m still invested in the aspect of spending time with friends. That’s definitely the underlying driver for me, but I’m also drawn to the characterization aspect of the game, the way my character and those in our adventuring party are developing like in a protracted novel. As far as expectations, I’m not really sure what I thought the game would be like before I started. I guess it took some time to get used to the incremental nature of the game and how long it can take to get from place to place and to conduct battle. It isn’t as fast-paced as I thought it would be, which I’m actually thankful for. I like having time to breathe between engagements and having the time to delve into our characters’ psychologies.
SHANE: D&D just has so many more opportunities for creative problem solving and creativity in general. Even with my favorite RPG games, the ways you can alter the story are finite whereas in D&D literally anything can happen. I like being both a player and a DM. I love having creative authority as a DM but I also love directing a story through my character’s decisions and seeing how my character’s actions shape a story. I don’t think I could choose which I like more since they fulfill different desires. I created Hilmark the way I did for a few reasons. I am usually a pretty calm person so I thought it would be fun to role play a character that is kind of a hothead. I also got a promotion at work right before we started playing so I also thought it would be fun to try different leadership strategies in the game which is why Hilmark has kind of taken charge in the group.
ANA: I didn’t really understand the mechanics of play when we first began, so I mostly picked spells and characteristics I thought were interesting conceptually, but I didn’t choose the easiest character to actually play. I didn’t really get what a bard’s role can be in a party yet, so I didn’t fall in love with Linarien in our game, which is why I decided to change her. I started playing other RPG games with some of my friends here at home shortly after starting with you guys and they have been regular players and have been playing with each other for many years, so I learned a ton from them. They really get the nuances of the game and I get to watch how they create situations and the creative ways they understand how to deal with problems, so now I think I have a much better understanding of what goes into a well made and playable character. Because of that, I’m much more excited to start playing Vedi. We didn’t get to see her much before we stopped, so I think I will be able to be better with her than I was with Linarien. However, I do feel some guilt like I created this character then just gave up on her because she wasn’t interesting enough. It makes me feel like a bad friend.
ME: Aw, you are not a bad friend. What made you all choose the characters you went with? Ana just kind of already answered that one.
CHLOE: Well she is a little bit like me; she is a wood elf and I’m an animal loving hippy so she gets to be a bit of an extension of certain parts of myself. But I also like the freedom to have her make decisions that I wouldn’t make. Also let’s be honest; being able to shape shift into a bear is just endless fun.
BECKY: I’ve always been attracted to elves and elven things. I’ve also always wanted to be tall. So there’s that. Intelligence is the most (lasting) attractive thing about a person (in my opinion … I’m not saying it’s ultimately the best quality, but it’s definitely the most attractive for me), so being a high elf was a good fit. With Starla’s backstory, I was able to fill her out a little more. She’s kind of a loner…shy…she loves her home and is strongly rooted in places. She also fiercely loves her friends, and those two things sometimes conflict. I enjoyed making a character who has inner struggles (just like a real person).
ALEX: I have always thought magic is really unique. There are so many different spells you could use to deal damage and for healing. I just feel like once your character gets to a high enough level they are pretty much unstoppable.
GARY: What made me choose a fighter is that it’s better than being a barbarian.
FRANK: I have a thing for underestimated characters who grow to be heroes. I liked the idea of being a short little gnome weirdo that nobody felt was very useful and who wasn’t the kind of guy you’d put your confidence in. I had the hope of taking a character like that, someone that other characters might sort of disregard, and playing him as a reckless annoyance who always comes through when the going gets tough.
ME: Okay, so now that we understand your background with the characters and your gaming experience, what would you say are your favorite moments with the characters you’re playing? Give us an idea of some of the things that can happen in the game.
GARY: When I struck my first blow against a goblin with Mathis. He is a force to be reckoned with!
ME: When you cut his head off? Haha. I also remember when he carried the coffin with the dead Burgomaster still inside it all the way to the graveyard through town and everyone was watching him. What about the rest of you?
ALEX: When I attacked the homeless lady and she turned out to be a Hag. That was not a good idea.
ME: I mean, she was stealing kids, so I think that was warranted.
BECKY: Hahahaha!!! MY favorite moment was when Hilmark said, “Yeah, we probably should have listened to Starla.” That would not have been her favorite moment, though. I personally loved trying to get through that first big battle on the bridge. But my favorite thing so far may have just been the companionship as we started on our journey.
ME: Yeah, that bridge battle was intense. You guys got flushed out of the cave by a trap!
CHLOE: I liked when I became a spider and climbed up the castle walls and snuck in so we could bypass like 3/4 of the dungeon. I also liked all the times I slayed enemies while I was in bear form.
ME: Yeah, those poor goblins.
ANA: I’m in love with the wild magic table. So that time that those mushrooms popped up was super fun. Wait were they even mushrooms? Did something happen with a sheep or something? Full disclosure I have a fever and am not on top of my memory game. I also loved using that spell where Linarien would insult people and emotionally tear them down to deal damage. So maybe that says something about me. Didn’t I try to use magic but accidentally turn into a sheep?
ME: Sounds like something that would happen to Vedi, that’s for sure. What about your character goals? What do you envision for your beloved characters? What does their future look like as you continue playing? Do you plan on developing your characters in a specific way, or do you think they will just develop naturally as the story progresses?
BECKY: I’d like to balance the two. If Starla were a real person, she would have goals and dreams…but those would be affected by things that happened in her life. Being a Paladin, she needs growth and training. She needs to plan for those things, but I think that some amount of organic development will happen, too.
FRANK: That’s hard to say. I love the little guy, and I definitely want him to eventually grow into a powerful warlock. But, at the same time, I don’t know how that could be good for him psychologically. Maybe he’ll come to have some peace about everything that’s happened to him, but probably not. He’s likely going to be a tortured soul for a long time to come.
ME: Do you guys think you would get along with the characters you’ve created if you met them in real life? What would you do together if you did meet?
BECKY: We’d get along. She’s probably more mature than I am. We might be too much alike to be bff’s, though.
GARY: We’d go to the bar and get drunk and I’d teach him about the 21 century. He’d be driving a car instead of a wagon. A Volkswagen haha!
CHLOE: Haha what a funny question. She’d probably love that I’m a vegetarian and that I love animals and take great care of my dogs, cat and chickens. She’s a bit more extreme in her views than I am so she probably wouldn’t love how I’d try to reason with her.
SHANE: Haha, Hilmark has kind of a big personality and can be high strung. I might get stressed out spending too much time with him but we’d have fun going out on the town.
ME: Well, you guys are in control of these characters and their lives. If they did turn out to be real, do you think they would be happy with the decisions you’ve tried to make for them?
BECKY: I think I’m true to her. Sometimes she does stuff I wouldn’t do. She’s definitely more level-headed. Overall, I think she’d be happy with the decisions I make for her. And if she wasn’t, she’d tell me.
GARY: I think he would like my decisions. I haven’t let him down yet and want to pursue more adventures with him.
SHANE: That’s a great question Joe. I think the hardest decision I’ve had to make in the game so far was that time when we returned to Phandalin after Lureene died. Hilmark was at the head of the Militia and was facing off against the Black Spider’s army. Everyone was licking their wounds and I was the only PC present. Hilmark was wounded and exhausted and out of spells. Retreating to fight another day was the tactically correct decision but it was so difficult to do and I don’t know if Hilmark would have really backed down in the moment. Also, he probably would have bitten off more fingers – I’ve kept him on a tighter leash.
ME: How do you think you’d react if your characters died at this point?
CHLOE: BLASPHEMY! A vine will grow when you strike her down and it will strangle the Dungeon Master!
BECKY: I’d hunt down whoever killed her. In my meanest Mama Bear way. And torture them. And tear them apart. And bury parts of them to dig up later, just like a real bear. So yeah, I’m attached to her.
GARY: I only played Mathis a few times. If he died I’d just say to myself he did what he could.
ME: Would you guys recommend D&D to others? What would you say to them to get them to try it out?
BECKY: I would absolutely recommend it to others, but like all games, I don’t think it would be a great fit for everyone. I would probably play other RPGs, but it would depend on the people. I’m not sure exactly how I would sell it to others. It’s certainly something for people who don’t need instant gratification. It’s also not a great game for people who need things to be fast-paced, as Frank pointed out (I also like this aspect). I think, for me anyway, that the selling point is really the opportunity to escape. It’s like reading a good adventure book, but with friends. And where the details need to be filled in by you.
GARY: I would. I’d recommend to people on social media for those who like roleplaying or adventure stuff.
Well, there you have it. Some brief insights into what these players experienced during a few months of playing D&D. Lots of different people from different areas play it in their own ways, and no one way is correct. That’s the beauty of the game. However – one common element is present in each and every game, and that is fun. Feel free to share your D&D experiences in the comments.