Friday, April 22, 2011

I Hit It With My Axe - Part II - How Exactly DO I Hit It? With My Axe, I Mean?

Hail, Spell Slingers! 

Well, after learning about this mysterious game Dungeons & Dragons in an article in Starlog magazine, I knew I had to investigate further.  Unfortunately no store in my small hometown of Stephenville, Newfoundland sold the game.  I had to wait several weeks for my parents to take a drive into Corner Brook, where I knew that the Coles Bookstore in the Valley Mall had D&D box sets on display right up front.

Thinking about this amuses the hell out of me.  To consider that Dungeons & Dragons was such a huge cultural phenomenon that it was once prominently displayed in the same place now reserved for the latest Dan Brown, James Patterson or J.K. Rowling book is pretty high testimony.

Unfortunately that self-same article in Starlog inadvertently resulted in some "point of sale" confusion and subsequently caused me to buy the wrong thing.  I'd completely misinterpreted the following part of Lenny Kaye's article:

"Those with more serious bent, or who know they want to make a full hobby of these games...would do better to begin with the 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' set.  Along with the expected enlargement, it also relies on a different combat system, though the possible rewards awaiting your character are much greater.  The basic set only takes your character up three skill levels (a continuum which makes the game more of a serial then a one-shot); in 'Advanced D&D', you not only progress further in riches and power, but the number of possibilities open to you at any one level of skill are more varied"
Hmmmmm..."Greater Possibilities"?  "Further Riches and Power?"  Hells, sounds good to me!

Given what you've just read, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I'd purchased one of the more complex hardbound  Advanced D&D books by mistake.  Nooooo, that oversight would have been somewhat forgivable.

Standing by that sidewalk display in front of Coles Bookstore I was confronted with the following two colorful box covers:

I guess my undercooked brain must have interpreted "Expert Set" to mean Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  I went to the cashier with the "Set 2: Expert Rules" box in my fevered little mitts and just as soon as I was strapped into the backseat of my parent's car, I had the cellophane ripped off that sucker quicker then Tila Tequila's prom dress.

Half way home a sinking feeling came over me.  As I flipped through the already-daunting 64-page rulebook, I finally noticed a chilling disclaimer on the back of the box: "THIS IS SET #2.  DO NOT BUY THIS SET UNTIL YOU HAVE SET #1".

In the intervening week I began a merciless campaign to pester my parents into taking me back to Corner Brook as soon as possible.  In the meantime, I studied the Expert Rules as best I could.  From what I could glean, the preliminary findings were tremendously exciting.  If the game delivered as promised, I'd soon be able to create a fantasy alter ego of sorts: either a brave fighter, a wise and holy cleric, a spell-weaving magic-user, a wily thief, stout dwarf, a nimble elf or a diminutive and sneaky halfling.  Once "birthed" in the game world, my plucky little avatar would then be able to explore a world rife with travel, adventure, battle, traps, riddles, exploration and tremendous in-game wealth.  

Sorry, but for a socially awkward 13 year old kid weaned on Star Wars and The Hobbit, this held a lot of promise.

Equally evocative was the incredibly convincing art contained inside these rulebooks.  I mean, c'mon, just looking at this map, who wouldn't want to create a heroic fantasy avatar, hire a ship and sail across the sea to the ominous-sounding Isle of Dread?

As if the last two weeks weren't torturous enough, the following six days were chronological agony.  My dad made up some half-assed excuse to take me out of school Friday afternoon and we were soon en route to the Promised Land.  When we arrived in the parking lot of the Valley Mall I jumped out of the car while it was still moving, rushed to Coles Bookstore and snatched up a copy of that precious red box.  

"Okay, we can go now," I said when I'd reunited with my ever-patient parents.  They just shook their heads and promptly ignored my persistent requests to set course for home post haste.  

On the drive back I greedily studied the contents of the box.  It included a set of weird-looking, barely legible dice.  In addition to the standard-issue six sider, it also had a pyramidal four-sided die, an eight-sided die (which looked like two four-siders stuck together), a ten-faced pentagonal trapezohedron (try saying that five times real fast), a 12-sided dodecahedron and...the mother of all die, the exotic-looking twenty-sider.  This alone was intriguing enough.

What didn't make sense was why a simple white crayon was included in the box.  I studied it quizzically for a moment and then moved on to the books contained therein.  Now that I was actively looking for such things, I heeded the screaming instructions on the cover to "READ THIS BOOK FIRST"  and set aside the "Dungeon Master's Rulebook" in lieu of poring over the "Player's Manual". 

The Preface on the inside front cover contained the very first Dungeons & Dragons related words I would ever read:    

"This is a game that is fun.  It helps you imagine.

'As you whirl around, your sword ready, the huge, red, fire-breathing dragon swoops towards you with a ROAR!'

See?  You imagination woke up already.  Now imagine: this game may be more fun then any game you have ever played!"

This infantile but arresting little hook instantly cast a spell on me.  Just as soon as I got home I began to delve deeper into the precious tome.  First off, the mystery of the crayon was finally revealed:

"During your first adventure you will only need one of the dice in the box.  The others will be used later, for now all you need is the roundish one with the numbers 1 to 20 on it.  Use the crayon to fill in the numbers and rub off extra wax with a tissue so only the numbers are colored in."

After I'd made my enigmatic dice imminently more readable I continued to dive into the section entitled "What is role playing?":

"This is a role-playing game.  That means that you will be like an actor, imagining that you are someone else, and pretending to be that character.  You won't need a stage, though, and you won't need costumes or scripts.  You only need to imagine." 

Intrigued, I plowed onwards to discover what my debut role would be:

"Imagine: it is another place, another time.  The world is much like ours was, long ago, with knights and castles and no science or technology - no electricity, no modern comforts of any kind.  

Imagine: dragons are real.  Werewolves are real.  Monsters of all kinds live in caves and ancient ruins.  And magic really works!  

Imagine: you are a strong hero, a famous but poor fighter.  Day by day you explore the unknown, looking for monsters and treasure.  The more you find the more powerful and famous you become."

As if that wasn't enough, the section earmarked as "Your first adventure" really stirred up my yen for the noble quest:

"Your home town is just a small place with dirt roads.  You set off one morning and hike to the nearby hills.  There are several caves in the hills, caves where treasures can be found, guarded by monsters.  You have heard that a man named Bargle may also be found in these caves.  Bargle is a sort of bandit, who has been stealing money, killing people and terrorizing your town.  If you can catch him, you can become a hero!"  

Let me assure you, Kind Reader, in the simple days before Blu-Rays and Streaming Video, this was pretty heady stuff.  As an already imaginative kid, I could picture my fighter character striding confidently away from the relative safety of his small town, hoofing uphill with an equipment-laden backpack slung over one shoulder and a long sword's scabbard clattering against his armored leg with every stride.

The brief quest that followed saw my hero venture into a dimly lit cavern.  Inside the cave I had a brief dust-up with an evil goblin and then a deadly rattlesnake.  As I ventured deeper into the labyrinth, the simple yet brilliant mechanics of this completely original game began to reveal itself.

If I intend to accomplish anything at all with this blog series, at the very least I want to debunk the stigma and mystery around how this game works.  Let's face facts: to the casual onlooker an average game of  D&D can easily inspire some serious head-sctatchery.  With it's odd cardboard screens, out-of-context ad-libbing, seemingly complex record keeping and hopeful throws of gemstone-shaped dice,  it's no wonder people just glance at it and conclude that its just something weird, cultish, ritualistic or exclusionary.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  

When Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented D&D their goal was to was to give players the ability to exist within a realm that was considerably more romantic, daring, adventurous and scarier then our own.  They did this entirely within the frame work of a game.  And if I can communicate anything at all, it's that.  D&D is just a game.  

And as such it has rules.  Although there's plenty of over-the-top drama, danger, escapes, heroics, battles and close calls it's still kept fairly "realistic" by the framework of it's rules.  Like real people, each D&D character is born with it's own unique strengths and weaknesses.  Before they play, prospective adventurers roll dice to generate their characters ability scores in six key areas.  They are:

Strength: Which determines how easily you can smite someone, how much damage you cause and how successful you are at performing feats of strength like lifting a beam off a fallen team-mate or opening a particularly stubborn jar of mayonnaise. 
Intelligence: Which represents how much your character knows, how well they learn and how many languages they can speak.  It's also a clutch ability if your character uses magic; since it often giving you bonus spells.
Wisdom:  Whereas Intelligence is a measure of booksmarts, Wisdom is your character's common sense and willpower.  This one's critically important if you're trying to avoid being bespelled, for example.
Dexterity:  This illustrates how nimble your alter ego is and how proficient they might be with a missile weapon like crossbows and such.  
Constitution:  This one determines how hearty your l'il avatar is.  It influences how much damage they can soak up before they croak and how resistant they are to disease or trauma.  
Charisma:  Will your character be a Poindexter or Suave Motherf#@$%^?  High Charisma gives your characters a chance to talk your way out of sticky situations as well as easily gain friends and influence people.

Just like real life, we don't get to choose our high and low points and the same goes in the world of D&D.  To generate random ability scores, players roll three 6-sided die for each characteristic and add 'em up, creating a nice bell-curve result from 3-18 (with most scores falling into the 9-12 or "average" range).  The higher the number, the better the ability.  

Needless to say, just by rolling these die you already get a built-in hook on how your character might behave.  For example, a fighter with a Strength of 17 and a Intelligence of 4 might habitually get through locked doors by headbutting them open.  In the same breath, they're also probably not smart enough to figure out why they're having periodic dizzy spells and persistent ringing in their ears.

So, in that first introductory adventure my pre-made warrior character had the following stats:

Strength           17        Constitution    16      
Dexterity          11        Wisdom           8
Intelligence         9        Charisma        14

So, with these numbers in mind, it isn't difficult for me to describe this dude.  He's likely got little to no discernible neck, isn't likely to slip on a patch of ice when running for the outhouse, reads nothing beyond the odd issue of How To Hit Stuff With Your Axe digest, doesn't usually get the flu, does alright downtown with the ladies and might one day be voted "most likely to have all of his gold grifted by a fake Jamaican with fast hands and a card table."

Also, unless your Peter Griffin, most people can only take a certain amount of abuse before they konk out.  In D&D terms, this is referred to as Hit Points (an affectation that's already been stolen by countless video games).  Often times your character's Hit Points are determined by your class (rough and tumble fighters can take more abuse than, say, your average pencil-necked, pasty wizard) and it's augmented by how good or bad your Constitution is.  

But the whole idea is not to get hit in the first place, right?  In the wacky world of D&D this is simulated by a simple little stat called Armor Class.  Armor Class (or A.C. for those with a fetish for abbreviations) is determined by what kind of cool, medieval-style armor your character is wearing and how good their Dexterity is.  For example an agile knight wearing a suit of chain mail armor is gonna be a helluva lot harder to hit and damage in battle then say, Steve Urkel.

Man, I just wanna smash that little...*Ahem*...sorry 'bout that. 

Ergo, whenever you get in a scrap, your chances to successfully concuss your opponent before they brain you is determined by how armored your opponent is and how strong your l'il paper champion is.  When you want to try and hit something, your success also isn't a foregone conclusion.  You have to roll the big 20-sided die, add any bonuses or penalties based on your Strength and then check the results against your target's armor.  Generally, the higher the roll the better.  

In addition to all of his of her physical properties, you can laden your character down with more equipment  then a Manhattanite going on their first camping trip.  You can buy backpacks to carry all the phat lootz you find, lanterns to light your way in the darkness, holy water to splash on nasty undead things, mirrors to see around dungeon corridors, wooden poles to safely poke around in scary piles of refuse, rations for your character to nosh on, rope for climbing and/or assorted kinky stuff, spikes to keep dungeon doors propped open, tinder boxes to light fires ("Heh, heh, heh.  FIRE!!!  FIRE!!!"), waterskins to keep your whistle wet and wolvesbane to keep the Lon Chaney Jr. types away.

Also in a painful simulation of real life, when your intrepid character starts his or her career, they're often poorer then church mice.  In fact, one of the main motivators for your character to venture out into a monster-filled world is to rake in a few Benjamin and, as such, make enough coin to buy the medieval adventurers equivalent of a 50" plasma T.V.  

1080p LCD Progressive Scan Crystal Ball, mayhaps?      
All of this stuff (character name, gender, profession, Hit Points, Armor Class, Ability Scores, equipment, money, sexual orientation, political affiliation, blood type, favorite color) can all be summarized on a handy-dandy Character Sheet which you'll be asked to refer to periodically during the adventure.  Taken as a whole, that Character Sheet is kinda like your Permanent File, but in this case, it's a good thing since it encapsulates your character at a glance and makes him or her a breeze to play.    

Back in Adventureland, my fighter managed to slay the giant snake and claim it's modest treasure of scattered coin.  Marginally wounded he staggered further into the darkness and stumbled across a figure in the dark who appeared to be meditating or praying:

Her name was Aleena, a cleric and member of the local clergy who, through her faith in a higher power, receives spells of healing and protection in addition to her martial combat prowess.  After she healed me by laying on hands ("Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, knowwhatImean,knowwhatImean?") we formed a temporary alliance and forged ahead together in the darkness.

After Aleena used her holy influence to turn back a horde of slavering undead monsters we both finally managed to reach Bargle the evil magic user and his goblin henchman.  In the ensuing melee I managed to slay the goblin piss-boy but sadly, Bargle used his dark arts to kill my new found friend.


In the end, Bargle managed to escape.  As the undead ghouls closed in again I decided on an expeditious retreat and fled from the dungeon carrying Aleena's body with me...

Although Aleena had been laid low, I'd had some pretty hairy adventures and lived to fight another day.  Still using that magical "Players Manual", I soon continued on an even more elaborate quest.  After purchasing some new platemail armor from Armorer Baldwick, I soon ventured back to the same caves via another entrance.  In my subsequent delve the following adventury things happened:
  • A statue revealed a secret note giving clues to the dungeon's other denizens.
  • I managed to scare away one giant rat but was forced to tangle with two more of it's nasty brethren.
  • "O-T-T-F-F-S-S!"  A giant disembodied mouth suckers me into a twisted game of "riddle me this".
  • Goblins!  Goblins!  Goblins!
  • I face a diabolical creature that I wished threatened my own hide instead of my shiny new expensive armor!
  • I ask myself if finding a treasure chest is worth losing my head over.
  • I recreate my own version of the Sinbad vs. Skeleton fight:

After this harrowing delve, I soon created my own fighter character and ran him through a series of randomly generated adventures.  Eventually I grew tired of this and decided that the time was right to come out of my imaginative closet and let a couple of my friends in on my little gaming secret.

Ultimately it was the following tempting words that swayed me to get others involved:

"Most of the fun of a Dungeons & Dragons game comes from playing in a group.  To play in a group, one person must be the Dungeon Master (or DM).  The DM is the person who plays the parts of the monsters and runs the game."

I let this sink in for a bit.  Playing these heroic, swashbuckling characters was undeniably rewarding, but for aspiring Dungeon Masters, who's role it is to craft the stories, design it's evil traps, act as the realm's denizens and be final arbiter of everything that happens in the game the lure was even stronger:

It was the chance to play god.

EPIC  If Tarantino directed my D&D adventure, this would be the poster.  There's a whole generation of geeks out there that have spent the past 28 years wishing that there was some way to save poor, hot, fictional Aleena and kill that f#@% Bargle.

EPIC QUEST  This is, without a doubt one, of the best books you can read to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons.  It's written from the perspective of a real "girly-girl" named Shelly Mazzanoble who began working for the company that currently produces D&D.  Eventually she got suckered into playing the game and, to her suprise, managed to look past all the societal stigma to discover one of most consistently enjoyable and rewarding pastimes.  A hilariously funny and very candid read.

EPIC DOC  A decent little doc about the game although the lines between fantasy and reality seem to be bleeding together for the guy with the giant beer mug...

ARTISTICALLY EPIC  The beautiful sketches that culled from my old D&D Basic Set to use in this blog were drawn by the truly magical Larry Elmore.  Do yourself a favor: check out his site and prepare to be amazed! 
FAIL  It's because of freaks like this that D&D will always be somewhat "stigmatic":


John M said...

A D&D spin-off game called "Adventure" was important in the early history of the Unix computer system, but even weirder was that the text adventure game "Space Travel" was an important part of the OS' motivation in the first place. The fantasy game people and the computer people have been tangled up with each other for a long time.

Alas my own mundane addictions were to chess and bridge, although fortunately I was never very good at either ;-)

David Pretty said...

Good point. Seems like ever since computers started to become more "personal" ambitions geeks have been programing sims inspired by their passions; particularly anything related to "D&D" and "Star Trek".

The two seem to be as inseparable as Hercules and Newt.