I’m not shy about the fact that I play D&D. I even have a D&D-inspired tattoo. That still doesn’t mean other people will understand what’s meant when I say “I play D&D” in any meaningful way.
Most of us that play are quite grounded, have a firm sense of reality and won’t dress up like elves, wear suits of armor or attack each other with swords. While there’s nothing wrong with those things in the proper context, they are in no way a requirement for playing.
Let’s try to address some of the more common questions.
So what exactly is D&D?
At it’s heart, D&D is a combat-focused role-playing game (often referred to as “RPG”). One person, called the DM, describes a story and scenario that the players react to. The players are called player characters (or simply PCs). Every person that the PCs interact with (who are played by the DM) are called non-player characters (or NPCs). The game itself can be thought of as a book written by the DM. The DM will create a basic plot line that they wish the PCs to follow, but leave most of the nitty-gritty details unwritten. As the PCs interact with the world that the DM describes, those details get filled in as they go. While the DM has clear intentions of where the story is going to go, the PCs have just as much influence over the course of events.
A good analogy is that you’re involved in a cooperative novel – outlined by the DM and written by the players. It is an exercise in imagination, creativity and problem solving. The majority of games tend to have a very strong medieval flavor (think King Arthur & Merlin) and often have that same or similar level of technology.
At the end of the day, if you really want to know what D&D is all about, you might want to think about playing or at least watching a game in person. Most players don’t mind showing new people the ropes. The only requirement is an open mind.
Sounds like a lot of work. How is it even fun?
Barring the fact that many people enjoy many different things, D&D (at least for me and many of the people I’ve spoken with) ends up being a very social event. While the focus is clearly on the game, it’s rarely ever the only thing that we discuss or do. While I’m sure some people end up playing with people they don’t like a whole lot, I play with friends – and sharing mutual interests with the people I like is always a good time.
As for playing itself, it certainly can be a lot of work. And like most difficult tasks that you accept, accomplishing them can be very rewarding. Sometimes you need to solve difficult riddles or puzzles (a common theme for the fantasy genre) or dissect a very complicated situation and address each part in turn (such as laying siege to a large castle or planning the defenses of a small keep with limited resources). I enjoy using my brain and feel good when I come up with good and creative ideas.
Aren’t you too old to be playing D&D? My friend/brother/cousin/etc. used to play that when they were 12.
I’m a firm believer that if you’re having fun, it doesn’t matter how old you are.
But as we age, our perspectives change. We see things differently and we’re able to deal with more mature situations better. Younger players tend to focus more on beating the hell out of whatever’s in front of them – which certainly has a lasting appeal. As players age, they learn that the world around them is considerably more nuanced and this concept tends to work itself into the games they play. The world is no longer black and white, there’s not always a clear “bad guy” and questions of morality and obligation can become major themes to explore.
In other words, the games we play model real life and through them, we learn more about ourselves, about the world and how other people think and behave – something not enough people do, I fear. Since the game is able to grow with us mentally, there’s no reason we should ever be “too old” to play.
You said D&D is combat-focused – what do you mean by that?
To progress though the game you ultimately encounter more powerful obstacles and need to gain power to face them. The main way to do this is to gain levels (just like many video games). To gain levels, you need to acquire Experience Points (or XP). The most common way of doing this is by defeating opponents in combat. Combat, in and of itself, is going to be very different between any two games. However, at the heart of it, you’re either killing or capturing someone that’s probably doing stuff to you that you don’t like (like trying to kill you). Historically, this is how we used to solve all of our problems, so it’s not like there’s no precedent for this particular brand of problem solving.
There are certainly countless things to do that do not involve fighting in D&D, but it’d be disingenuous to say that fighting’s not an integral part of the game. Keeping this in mind and recalling what I said about moral conflict earlier, some people choose to play a pacifist-like character who’s constantly faced with difficult decisions about violence and self-defense.
Ok, it sounds interesting, but you’re still a bunch of nerds and I only hang out with the cool kids.
D&D certainly isn’t something that everyone would enjoy – same as any other hobby. However, there’s a lot of people that enjoy it. The typical “high school” reaction is to lump people into a certain clique that are associated with D&D. While this description may apply to some, it’s far from accurate for all. We’re quite a diverse group of men and women and most of us are better for our experiences.
At the end of the day, “being cool” isn’t as important as being happy, and I’m going to keep on doing the things that I do – even if they’re not what the popular kids are doing.