I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons again for the first time in over ten years. It’s been a lot of fun, and challenging as well. When I started playing again, I elected to start by being the DM for my group, which is quite a bit of work, but very rewarding. As we have played, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time thinking about what D&D means to me, and how important it was for me growing up. Now, as an adult, I find myself thinking more about what it means to me as a storyteller, and how my perspective on the game has changed over the years.1
The Shadowy Past
Dungeons and Dragons is the first game that I remember truly loving. I discovered it when I was very young, and while I had played numerous board games before it, I had never been so excited about a game as when I read the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. It was a game that could expand to fit the scope of my imagination, with no practical limits, and for a boy who found most games too stifling, it seemed like the best thing in the world.
My abortive attempt to get my family to play with me resulted in more confusion than fun, so it was a few years before I found a group of people to play with on any kind of regular basis. With a few exceptions, I mostly just played the game, leaving my more experienced friend handle most of the DM work. It was middle school now, and my original AD&D handbook was a relic. So, we played AD&D 2nd edition and later on expanded into trying other roleplaying games such as Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, and even on one awkward occasion, Wraith2.
In retrospect, I don’t think we truly played all that often. We didn’t have a set schedule for our games, instead playing whenever our DM indicated that he had a story ready to go. Often, we rolled entirely new characters, as we never really settled into any long-term campaigns. However, what time we did play is seared into my memory as some of the happiest times of my middle school and high school experiences. I don’t even necessarily remember all the details of the individual games, but I remember how much fun we had adventuring through a fantasy world, and teasing our DM about his narrative ticks.
Many of our adventures began like this: “An old man (or the prince of the city) sits down next to you in the bar and says, ‘Ah, my friends, I am weary.” It became the running joke for all our gameplay, but our DM took it good naturedly and always ensured we had a enjoyable time. I even forgave him for the time when he totally killed one of my characters by testing me with a moral challenge straight out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. My greed overwhelmed me, and my attempt to reach the magic dragon slaying axe resulted in my falling to my doom like Elsa Schneider.3 It was harsh, but fair. I would have done the same in his shoes.
It was some of the most fun I had ever had with a game, and one of my favorite activities that we all did together.
Journey Into the Wild
Things changed when I left for college. I was in the foreign language house in the dormatories4, and starting to date in earnest for the first time. Another first was being confronted with classes that required me to do more work than I had previously done as a student. I had thrived in high school academics simply by relying on being clever. Having to study was a whole new discipline, and after a dismal first semester, I began to find my groove. As I adapted to my environment, I was finding myself integrated with a wonderful new community, but an RPG group was not among them.
My junior year, I made a decision to simplify my life and I got rid of a lot of the things that I had put in storage when I moved out. That included my RPG rulebooks: every single one. I hadn’t played in years at this point, and I didn’t think I’d ever get around to using them again. I regretted the decision almost immediately.
When I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment, I compensated for the hole in my gaming life by playing video games. It will be no surprise to any reader that my favorite genre was RPGs. I would start a game, and play late into the night, sometimes through the next morning. I loved games with strong stories, where I got sucked into the relationships between the characters and the narrative arc. For the longest time, this meant I was only playing PC games. It wasn’t until Knights of the Old Republic was released for XBox that I found a similar experience on a console.5 I bought my first XBox, just to play that game, and I found myself so wrapped up in the branching paths of the story that I played through it three times.
I continued to play games, absorbing every new title from Bioware as they were released, because I could count on a good story from their titles. Inbetween releases, I played what I considered were filler games on the side. Some shooters, and some RPGs from other developers. Some of it was frustrating, particularly the disconnect between the hype around a game and the reality of the storytelling within it. I remember hearing folks touting the story behind, I kid you not, Gears of War. That earned them an immediate eyeroll. It didn’t speak well of gaming at the time that a paragraph in the manual and a few stray bits of dialogue in what was essentially a shooter on rails passed as storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun game, but let’s be honest with ourselves about this. Sometimes people attribute a “good story” to a game solely so they feel less shallow for enjoying something where the whole premise is shooting down hordes of nameless monsters.
That’s not to say that you can’t have a good story in a shooter, far from it. The market isn’t geared that way though, and so the most reliable place to find that kind of experience is still in an RPG. However, even in the most sophisticated of RPGs of that time, I found myself wanting. I missed the freedom of the tabletop and my imagination, particularly when it came to interactions with NPCs, and the choices I could make. More than just that, I missed the table talk with fellow players.
The Call Home
The road back to D&D was a long one.
I was working in a bookstore on the weekends, and I would occasionally pick up a copy of the D&D 3.5 edition rules to leaf through the pages. At the time, my memories of the game were filled with things like THAC0, which was part of why my friends and I had originally moved on to games with simpler mechanics such as the World of Darkness books.6 Looking at the current rulebooks of the time, while they had elminated THAC0, it didn’t look like things had become any more streamlined. The books always ended up back on the shelf.
A Summoning Spell
Then in 2008, Wizards of the Coast began posting a podcast where the guys from Penny Arcade and PvP played a game of D&D together, using the new 4th Edition rules. I had been a big fan of both of those webcomics for a while, and as I listened to them play, I realized how much I missed doing the same. I devoured those episodes, and as they went on I began to pick up the basics of how 4E worked. It seemed rather simple, logical even. D&D had taken lessons learned from the play experience of online MMOs and applied it to the table top, apparently without sacrificing too many of the details that the rules lawyers live to argue about. Which, let’s face it, is part of the tabletop experience, and it’s fun in moderation.
Intrigued, I picked up the box set of the core rules. Reading the rulebooks felt much as it had when I first discovered D&D as a kid, and I created a couple characters, knowing that they weren’t going to be used, just to get a feel for how the classes were structured. I desperately wanted to play a game, but I had just taken a new job and moved to a new town, so I had no local contacts for other players. To add complexity, my job involved flying around the country to work with customers, so my schedule was in flux.
I was going to have to find a way to play that didn’t depend on my being at home during the game.
My old playing group had scattered across the country as we had grown older, and some of us had fallen out of touch. I reached out to two members of my old group and sent them the links to the Penny Arcade podcast, and had them read the rulebooks. I think they were just as excited as I was, and we resolved to set up a game. We reached out to some of our other friends, who had never been in our old RPG group to see if they would be interested.
There was one problem though: D&D 4E required a battle grid. Unlike the old style games were used to playing, where distances and relative locations of creatures and allies were something that lived in the DM’s head, the new rules were heavily dependant on using a map with which to measure the amount of squares between each creature on the board. Even more, tatical positioning had entered the strategy, so it was doubly important to have a clear representation of where everyone was in the game.
We experimented with different methods by which we might play: a secondary webcam feed for the DM, dedicated software using a peer to peer connection, but ultimately we couldn’t find traction. The technical hurdles kept getting in the way, and we weren’t able to overcome them before our enthusiasm as a group fizzled out. We ultimately gave up on the project, and I settled for vicarious enjoyment through subsequent podcasts series published by WotC.
As time went on, we looked for other ways to still play games together, and several years later in the fall of 2012, one of my friends created a gaming guild for that purpose. The idea was to encourage us all to play World of Warcraft together. It wasn’t D&D, but it was still close. We all signed up and started playing, but quickly ran into logistical problems organizing our game time. One member of our group had moved to the U.K., and as a result, most of his available game time was when the rest of us weren’t available. On my side, my wife had just given birth to our daughter, and my time to play with the group was limited to one night every two weeks, which meant I spent most of that time power leveling late into the night instead of seeking out the rest of the group.
We attempted to make a go of it anyway, with mixed results. Still, it was better than not playing together at all. I was still bored though. MMOs aren’t great purveyors of story, and I could already feel the WoW fatigue beginning to settle in on me. I went a month and half without logging in without even realizing that I had forgotten to do so.
An Encounter With Drunken Dragons
One night, sitting in my home office finishing up some work before going to bed, I found myself searching the iTunes catalog for another Penny Arcade podcast. I was hoping that they had converted some of the more recent video versions to audio so that I could listen to them during my commute. It was by chance that I stumbled across a show called Drunks & Dragons. On a whim, I grabbed an episode to listen to on my drive to work the next morning.
It quickly became one of my favorite podcasts. I would listen to episodes multiple times during the week while I waited for the next one, even despite the length often being in excess of one and a half hours. When a new episode came out, it would jump to the front of my queue, even if I hadn’t finished whichever other show I had been listening to in the meantime. More than anything, it made me desperately want to play again. When I realized that all the hosts were playing remotely over a web service, I realized that the technical hurdles that had held us back before were no longer an issue.
I reached out to the head of our gaming guild about how much I was enjoying it and how much I wanted to play D&D. I gushed about the podcast, and he suggested we reach out to the rest of our guild to see if we could organize a game. The technical challenges were gone, and while we were all very busy people, we reasoned that we could easily set aside a few hours once a month to play. After all, how was that any different than some people having a poker night?
In the end, we were all excited to play, but we were all also a little leary of taking on the role of DM. Running a game is a lot of work, and we all had very busy lives. I volunteered in the end. At least in my perception, I had spent the most time poring over the rules, and I knew I’d rather us play sooner rather than later. So, with some inspiration from some existing modules, I set about preparing to run a game for the players. Our guild leader kindly took on the role of organizing the players and getting everyone settled on a date.
Building a World
While the other players made up their characters and took care of the scheduling logistics, I set about creating a world for them to play in. I had very limited experience as a DM, but I’ve been writing stories and world building for most my life. I knew from my own experience that in order to be successful in this regard I would have to make sure I stayed interested in what I was doing first of all, or it would be tricky for me to keep up with the workload for preparing each game. Knowing that, I threw out our original idea of just doing a few quick adventures based on prewritten modules, and decided to plan a long term campaign with a story arc designed to stretch well into the Paragon tier, and possibly all the way to the maximum level of 30.
A New DM Rolls a Skill Check
There were inherent challenges in creating the world. While I was able to quickly settle on the major conflict that would encompass the arc of the campaign, it wasn’t clear the best way for the players to begin their adventure. I needed to draw them in without revealing too much, but this was another challenge. Half of the group were friends that I had never played D&D with before, so it wasn’t clear what parts of the story would catch their interest. So, like so many fledgling DMs, I seriously overprepared.
Before the first session, I had mapped out four potential paths the players could take in the adventure, with unique risks and rewards for each. Some of them could be done in any order, and some were exclusive to each other. Completing one of the exclusive quests negated your ability to do another.7 In addition, I had the major tent pole moments of the adventure mapped out through approximately level 8, and detailed encounters prepared through level 5. It was a fun exercise in creating non-linear storytelling, but once we played our first session, I realized I had made a several major mistakes that I’ve since spent quite a bit of time fixing.
The first mistake was in the design of the quests themselves. Since the players could play through them in any order, they were all scaled to match a starting level adventuring party. Since players at low levels advance so quickly, I found myself scrambling between sessions to maintain the right balance of difficulty in the encounters to ensure the players were challenged without being overwhelmed. Sometimes I erred on the side of being too easy, and other times it was far too difficult.8
The number of quests available were a problem as well. As we played, it became apparent to me that there were too many choices. While I have a group of very canny players, I realized that I was trying to put too many information in front of them at once, which I think made it hard to determine which pieces of information were important. This issue I caught relatively early, and took notes after our first session to adjust details of the campaign accordingly based on the information that they had gleaned, and made a list of useful information to reinforce later in order of priority. I also resolved to make it more clear when one quest was going to be exclusive of another, so that it wouldn’t be an unfair surprise when they eventually encountered the consequences of their decisions.
There was another issue as well. While the choices between questlines were non-linear and somewhat open, once the players began to pursue a particular line, they were very much on rails. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for choices; they either fought the next encounter or went on their way. There were still some opportunities to make decisions, but it often meant switching to a different questline. I’ve since been trying to go back to the future encounters that I had already mapped out and adding a few branching possibilities within each questline.
Leveling Up as a Storyteller
All of these things have helped me push beyond my comfort zone when it comes to storytelling. My experience with writing before this point was always one where I had complete control of the characters and plot. Building a flexible story framework where I honestly have no idea what my protagonists are going to do from one scene to the next has been a huge challenge, and to be fair, it’s too early to say whether I’ve even succeeded in my goal.
All I know is that I’ve been having a lot of fun, and the players seem to be too. While it’s a new role for me, running a D&D game has been deeply fulfilling. While I’d love to have a chance to play as a character again, I’m finding it hard to imagine not maintaining a group as a DM at the same time. It’s hard to describe how rewarding it is to build a world and a story, and then turn your friends loose it in it.
You can never go home again, but sometimes you can build it anew. Playing D&D has brought back some of my happiest memories, and more importantly, has helped reinvigorate my writing on multiple fronts. So many of my writing projects had begun to stagnate, as I reached a point on each one where I became more focused on the technical aspects of the stories, and lost the creative momentum that drove me to start them in the first place. The challenges inherent in building this campaign have loosened the gears of my mind such that the writer engine in my brain has been spinning like wild since we started.
While it may not be for everyone, I don’t doubt for one second that running a tabletop RPG game will benefit any writer, for the challenge if nothing else.
Role playing games were a huge part of my formative years, and I expect they will continue to be an influence in my life going forward. Playing RPGs taught me to use my imagination, and helped bring me together with some of my closest friends through a shared experience. Never doubt for a second the power that is inherent in telling a story; shared stories – real, or imaginary – are what helps to bind a group of people together.
I don’t know how long I will continue to DM, but I certainly don’t plan on stopping anytime soon, so long as I have players. More important than that, I hope that when my daughter is old enough, she might take an interest in RPGs as well. I would love to share with her the games that brought me so much joy, and see her experience them for the first time. On a social level, nothing would make me happier than for her to experience the same kinds of friendships and shared experiences that a good gaming group can provide. Someday, she will tell her own stories, and I can’t wait to hear them.
Playing games like D&D is about more than rolling dice. It’s about stories. It’s about friends. Ultimately, it’s about family.
I’ll raise my glass to that.
When I started writing this piece, I thought it was going to be a simple breakdown of the nuts and bolts of DMing a campaign using modern tools like Roll20, but it’s since become more of a meditation on the game itself and my journey back to it. The nuts and bolts stuff will appear in a separate post. ↩
Wraith was a lovely concept, but ultimately we found it unplayable as a game. There was too much work involved to manage each character’s Shadow, and our group quickly lost interest. ↩
And after I agreed to roll a dwarf especially for his adventure too. I was his only volunteer. That was pretty cold, Quentin. ↩
For the curious, I studied Japanese. ↩
While I was aware of their existence, I didn’t have much experience with any of the JRPG titles until much later. ↩
You only need a d10, you guys! How crazy is that? ↩
I’m not including details of these since my players may read this post and the game is still very much active. ↩
The first session was particularly brutal. It was pure luck of the dice that we didn’t lose at least one of the party in the first battle. ↩