Jim Knipp On… Dungeons and Dragons

Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.

Sometime around 1980, the twelve-year old version of me happened upon a book with the very promising title of “Monster Manual.”  I had no idea what it was, but the pages were filled with line-drawn pictures of various monsters of myth and history: unicorns and dragons, dinosaurs and something called “Green Slime.”  The book included descriptions of these beasts, and a series of arcane looking numbers and letters labeled ‘Treasure Type,”  “Armor Class,” and most mysteriously “THAC0.”  I wanted to buy that book badly, but I was broke so I did the next best thing.  I convinced my best friend to buy it, and then I borrowed it (for like six months).

...can you blame me? Look how awesome this is!
Can you blame me? Look how awesome this is!

Little did either of us know the decision we made standing in that Waldenbooks aisle would change both of our lives forever.  Find out how after the break…

Okay… maybe that last sentence was a little bit hyperbolic. The truth is, neither the Harvmeister nor I knew what to do with the book.  It wasn’t until we met our slightly older, much more worldly friend that we discovered First Edition Dungeons & Dragons and understood what we had.  And even then, I only played sporadically through my teens.  It took six more years for me to really appreciate what the game really could do.

 

...drove women away?
…drive women away in droves?

 

It brings people together for one.  I’ve met some of my oldest and dearest friends across a table full of miniatures.  I’ve been to GenCon twice, and the best part each time was playing the game with others, complete strangers bound together by a love of polyhedral dice and graph paper.

...and +5 Vorpal Defenders with Fireburst...
…and +5 Vorpal Defenders with Fireburst…

The game has changed over the years.  First edition gave way to second, and characters grew all-powerful and generic.  In 2000, third edition (soon followed by 3.5)  came along and rescued the game, expanding the possibilities and setting up (in my view) an almost perfect RPG system.  I didn’t even want to look at the ridiculous fourth edition, with its emphasis on cards and pogs; and I have no idea what the fifth edition holds in store because why bother when they got it right fifteen years ago?

...you know, like these guys did...
…you know, like these guys did…

And frankly, it doesn’t really matter what edition you play, because the basics are the same.  You gather your friends at the table.  You set up your characters, and you become the story.  When played right there are no limits to DnD, no clock, not even winners and losers.  For Dungeons and Dragons, in it’s purest form, is really just storytelling.  Sure there are charts and calculations, and I can’t play the last three iterations of the game without a computer, three notepads, and a whiteboard to track the action, but at it’s heart, the game is simply the dungeon master sitting down and sharing a story, much in the way the people gathered around the table to hear a bard tell a tale.

...only instead of coarse-grained bread and mead, the listeners are dining on mountain dew and cheetos...
…only instead of coarse-grained bread and mead, the listeners eat Mountain Dew and Cheetos…

 

There is something primal and good about that, about gathering around that table and telling your tale. The best games are those when you barely roll the dice or open a rulebook, when the players are so tuned in to the plot and the characters that the tale nearly tells itself.  And sometimes even blind chance contributes. Someone will attempt to try something audacious and impossible, a ride down the back of a dragon or a blind leap into the darkness or a last desperate stab at an opponent that all but defeated them.  The DM will say, “sure, give it a try.”  The dice will clatter to the table and after a moment of held breath, the unlikely 20 settles up, facing the world.  And then the table erupts with whoops, like we just won a grand by rolling a twelve on a boxcar bet instead of defeating something that’s just a few scribbled lines on a scrap of paper.

...don't forget the pewter figure...
…and a pewter figure…don’t forget the pewter figure!

The best thing about playing this game?  That moment becomes part of the story.  Not just the one you prepared for the game, but the one you tell about the game itself.  “Remember that time you critted that Lich?” And someone tells the story to the new guy; and if there is no new guy, you tell the story anyway, to the same guys who were there when it happened.  And everyone laughs at the same parts.  Because the story, that shared experience binds you, like the intersections on a piece of graph paper.  When my group gets together (time, distance, and the vagaries of schedule have made this happen way too seldom), we get maybe 40 minutes of actual game play.  The rest is reminiscence.

And that is absolute magic.

...um, not that kind of magic...
…um, not that kind of magic…

 

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3 Replies to “Jim Knipp On… Dungeons and Dragons”

  1. My best childhood memories come from our group!

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