I’ve been listening to Nerd Poker, a podcast by Brian Pohsehn (who you might recognize from New Girl or The Sarah Silverman Show) and his funny friends, for the past few weeks, and it’s been whisking me away from the humdrum of everyday work life. It’s also rekindled a desire in me to play Dungeons and Dragons again, to the point that I’m looking on Meetup and some local Facebook pages for people to play with. I’ve yet to find a game.
I was a freshman in high school when I first heard about Dungeons and Dragons. Don’t let that lull you into thinking this is the typical story of a nerd in high school who finds something he likes because he can’t play sports or attract girls. I was an athlete, and girls were interested in me (even if I had no idea). I was a nerd, but not a stereotypical nerd. I hid it it well!
I was at my friend Aaron’s house, who I’d recently met, and we were rehearsing a Romeo and Juliet skit for our freshman English class. I won the prestigious role of Romeo himself. That’s irrelevant to the story, but I wanted you to know how good-looking I am.
I’d met my friend’s cousin, Mark, while we were rehearsing. Mark was the head of Aaron’s household, though he was only in his twenties, and he was at a computer typing up what looked like notes for something. He was also rolling dice and drawing a map. Another friend, Tony, also recently befriended and also in the play, had been inquiring about Mark’s activities. I listened in, my interest already past the point of no return. Mark explained that he was creating a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Tony asked if there were room in the game for him. Mark said yes. I was timid. I couldn’t outright ask to get in the game because for some reason my brain doesn’t work in such a way. I need to be courted, and Mark called me out on it. Despite my timidity, he said I could play, and the next weekend I took part in my first D&D game.
It might be a good idea at this point to explain what Dungeons and Dragons is, for those unfamiliar. For a long time it was demonized by some uninformed…well, idiots, but there’s nothing evil about it in the same way that there’s nothing evil about Harry Potter. The premise of D&D is that you and several of your friends embark on an adventure. It’s Lord of the Rings, but you get to be involved (and this was the initial, immediate appeal to me because I’d recently devoured LotR for the first time and wanted nothing so much as to be magically transported to Middle Earth). You create a character to role play, as though you’re an actor in a movie. You and several other people who have also made characters are thrust into an adventure together, which can vary from battling a dragon to traveling through weird alternate realms. There is someone called a Dungeon Master (DM), who controls everything. He or she is the author of the game. They’ve created the story, control all the monsters or other characters met on the adventure, and are both trying to kill the players and help them along on the adventure. It’s choose-your-own story but you can play it with your friends and your options are nearly limitless.
That first game is still memorable. I played as a Paladin, which is your basic knight in shining armor type with a few magic abilities. At this point in my life, and even today, I was in love with knights. I’d done an entire presentation for my British Lit. class on King Arthur and those Round Table dudes, and loved all things medieval. It was unthinkable to play as anything else, particularly when Mark told me how Paladins in this game had high charismas (which appealed to my budding vanity). There were roughly eight or nine people playing this game, which is large for D&D, but Mark knew what he was doing and had no problem integrating so many people into his created adventure. That game took us from a tavern into a dungeon (which is typical D&D exposition), where we all played very poorly, and everyone but me died. I, with my high charisma, had been charmed by a wood nymph and enslaved for all eternity.
That doesn’t sound like a thrilling first experience, but something hooked me and I found myself wanting to play every weekend. It was like a video game, which I’d already been playing since I was a kid, but the structure was so much more open. You could say and do whatever you wanted, as long as it didn’t stray outside the bounds of your character’s capability. Video games had more structure. These were the days of the Super Nintendo, when games were linear, didn’t usually allow you to create your own character, and rarely told good stories (with some clear exceptions, like Final Fantasy 6). D&D was all story, with action taking a backseat.
We continued to play D&D off and on for a few months, but Mark eventually tired of creating elaborate campaigns that we would fail miserably at and excused himself from playing. We tried to play without him, but we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Despite my failure at being creative, my desire to play never abated, even now, almost twenty years later (twenty years? wow…that number just hit me kind of hard, it’s been so long). I find myself still wanting to create a character and embark on a fantastic adventure. Video games have come leaps and bounds in regards to storytelling, and the MMORPG genre allows for some very D&D-like moments, but there’s something to the pure use of imagination and dice that goes beyond what any digital entertainment can do. I say this even as a huge fan of those games that have tried to recreate the D&D experience, like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. They are some of my favorite games of all time because they try to push into that D&D bubble.
But there are things coming in the next decade that could change the way we not only play video games, but how we play D&D, and they could allow for richer and potentially scarier experiences. One such game coming in 2016 is Sword Coast Legends. This game, from appearances, looks like a video game in the style of Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s Gate or Diablo. It’s view is isometric, which means you’re looking top down with an angle, and you control your character with clicks and button presses much like any video game. The different with this game is that there is a Dungeon Master, a player on the other side who is controlling the game world as you play it. This is incredibly ambitious and relatively unheard of at this point in gaming’s history. Whether it will succeed or not is anyone’s guess, but I admire the ambition. The drawback here is that this kind of gameplay still puts action first, and the ability to do anything you want is hampered by the game structure (which does not yet match what the human imagination can procure).
We also have the virtual reality stuff coming, sooner than I’d ever expected. PlayStation VR, Occulus Rift, and Vive are all wearable headsets that will cut off the outside world and put you more inside a video game than ever before. Take something like Sword Coast Legends, add a virtual reality headset to it, and you can have an experience that almost matches the imagination. It will not allow the kind of freedom that D&D does anytime soon, but it’s an amazing step in that direction if it all comes together like it could.
But for now, I think I’ll continue to try and find a group to play old school D&D. I miss having nerdy friends who like rolling dice and performing ridiculous actions, who like creating weird and whacky backstories for their characters and then role-playing those histories, who want to escape into worlds that they could never escape into anywhere else. I think there’s value to that, as long as it doesn’t become consuming, and I miss it, even twenty years later. Am I being nostalgic? Absolutely. And I’m fine with that.