From the dark shadows of a forest to the tops of mountains and all the way across land of foreign design, can five travelers answer the call of a desperate village under the siege of a dragon? Will they survive to tell the tale? Stay tuned for next week to find out if the dragon mutilates the warriors or if the warriors win the day!
Every good story starts with a hook and a question. Dungeons & Dragons, the roleplaying table-top (also online) game, works the same way, except you — the player — choose how the results of events either become consequences or nothing. The story can be customizable, but there are major plot points. Imagine SparkNotes of a book or novel — that’s how the stories, called campaigns, are designed for D&D. The players get to decide what happens after a plot point occurs. The author of the campaign is called a dungeon master; their job is to give the players direction, so they aren’t going absolutely wild.
Mark Blance, a dungeon master of 35 years, tells his history with Dungeons & Dragons.
“D&D is a choose your own adventure between storyteller and player,” Mark says. “The players get to react to the story being told”.
Telling the story can be difficult if you are starting from scratch, but due to the large community, there are ample resources to get already written campaigns to play.
Mark briefly explains, “There are a lot of modules and campaign books that include all of the plot, setting, and, importantly, the monster encounters. All of the major plot points would be included in these books, so are maps and drawings.”
Creating a story and following a completely new arc is a lot of fun, but having to dream up a whole world and adventure is a lot of work that can take away from more prevalent parts of the job of a dungeon master, which is focusing on the players themselves — what they’re doing and how they’re proceeding in the world. Being a dungeon master is paying attention to all of the little things about the people you are leading in this adventure.
Mark notes, “There are definitely skills and traits that make a good dungeon master, and one of my friends once said I do well because I ‘give a shit.’ I pay attention to everything that is happening. I pay attention to the choice made by the player if it works with the character and the campaign.”
Mark tells how he did that even when he was a player, following along everyone’s story while he played. Most of being a dungeon master is teaching or helping someone play, which means taking the time on the specifics of each character that a player may be using. All of the knowledge that comes with the character is something that might need to be interpreted along with any strategies or tactics. Simple but important things can really make or break an experience for someone.
Lastly, Mark gives the advice of “being the one willing to take charge to either be the bad guy or the target. Even though I know you’re all friends, you still have to be willing to send your friends into the metaphorical danger and put up with the humorous harassment.”
Mark has been conquering dragons and fighting off wild wolves since he was in middle school. He still plays D&D with the same group of friends every once and a while. Mark had designed a character to be more outgoing in order to conquer an awkwardness that he says “most people have at 15.” Mark was a bit self-conscious about his ability to talk, but playing D&D changed his perspective.
He says, “I was good at talking, and just hadn’t noticed it.”
There really isn’t a type of person that does super well in this reactive game but it helps to be creatively compatible and decisive, which is something that Mark admires about the game and uses to get others to find D&D entertaining.
Mark explains, “People who are good at working together and being compatible with each other while all their goals coincide make for the best teams. A group that plays together but wants different things isn’t going to have the most fulfilling experience. A campaign can be based around politics or combat, but if the group is divided and doesn’t come to terms, it’s going to be very difficult to make decisions.”
Half of the D&D experience is making choices for yourself, that either blow up in your face or your opponent’s.
“It is a ‘choose your own,’ so if you can’t choose, it can make it a very difficult and frustrating experience,” Mark says.
Within the world of fantasy, there isn’t a you or version of you, so the player is existing in the D&D world through a totally new person. Characters are a big part of gameplay and most people build up their characters from the ground up and learn them to a point where it is second nature. It is also a form of acting, where the player is portraying the skills, emotions, and decision-making of a totally different person.
Mark says,“Some players like a character based on the success they gain from the character during the campaign, whether that’s kills of monsters or abilities measured in achievement inside of the game.”
Personally, Mark enjoyed the characters that gave him the most ability to learn and experience this fantasy world through their eyes and skills.
On an extreme analytical side, Dungeons & Dragons is a game of strategy and tactics. That being said, a character’s success is based on how well a player can roll dice. Sometimes it’s fate.
Dungeons & Dragons has a specific point system that is part of the strategy of the game. A certain character might be more educated or physically inclined than another, giving them a bonus or a disadvantage, which can be measured in points on a character sheet. For example, a halfling might be stealthy and light on their feet but probably not as strong as an orc. On the other hand, the orc may be loud and uncouth in general but can pack a good punch. So the dice will be affected by the number of points a character may have in one category while you roll for it. Say the halfling has thrown a punch and rolls pretty high, but it won’t do the same damage as an orc.
Mark says, “Heavy-combat characters can hit more often, so when playing a combatant-heavy campaign having a character that has bonuses to hit more often can be useful. Similarly, instead if a political campaign is being played, there are rules and skills to that version. Skills like deception and perception on if someone’s lying to you in turn”
A person who is a strategist at heart has a lot of numbers they can work with and manipulate to their own benefit, but that also means that their character has to be malleable. There are infinite possibilities for tactical play in a world where dice rolls influence whether a character may survive due to their ability to use an advanced skill.
There are players out there that do enjoy the skill level it takes to understand the numbers behind D&D.
Mark says: “There is also players out there that just want to watch the world burn. It might be funny to them.”
Instead of working with skills and strategies, they just do things on a whim and choose wild ways to solve problems. In this not-so-rare situation, everything is subject to destruction, whether it’s friendly fire in a purposeful or accidental sense. Hence “choose your own adventure.” A group can still work together on small encounters to success that are less political or more so, depending on what kind of decision is made by a player.
Dungeons & Dragons is a lot of things, but to Mark, it is a way to connect with others by “getting together at a friend’s house, sitting around a table on the floor and chairs, depending on how old we are.”
Mark says: “Older, it is a way to laugh and enjoy time with friends. It was a regular event for 30 years, right up until the pandemic. To also have tools online allowed me an even greater chance to spend time researching looking at all the fun modules and campaigns because there’s a lot of printed things that I can buy. I’m able to spend time with this tool to make it fun for more people. Also making sure that everything’s working, that all the tokens and online dice are rolling correctly.”
It’s not just a game, it’s an escape to be a part of something with a group of people is the human experience at its finest, and Dungeons & Dragons is a humorous way to do that and let out some pretend frustration.